Episode 367: The Marozi

Thanks to Pranav for suggesting this mystery big cat this week, the marozi!

Further reading:

From Black Lions to Living Sabre-Tooths: My Top Ten Mystery Cats

Spotted Lions

A young lioness who still has some of her cub spots:

Subadult lions who still have a lot of cub spots:

The skin of an animal supposedly killed in 1931 and said to be a marozi:

Two photos of a “leopon,” a lion-leopard hybrid bred in captivity in a Japanese zoo:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about a mystery animal suggested by Pranav. It’s the marozi, a big cat from the mountains of Kenya.

Kenya is in east Africa, and humans have lived in what is now Kenya since humans existed. Because of this, usually when we talk about Kenya or east Africa, we’re talking about hominins, but today we’re talking about big cats.

Kenya is home to a lot of animals you think of when someone mentions the animals of Africa, like elephants and giraffes, and it’s also home to three big cats: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The lion is generally a tawny brown color although different individuals and populations can be various shades of brown or gray. A lion cub is born with dark spots, and as it grows the spots fade. Sometimes a young adult lion will still have some spots, especially on its legs and belly, but in general an adult lion has no spots at all. In comparison, both the leopard and the cheetah are famous for their spots.

The lion prefers to live in savannas and open woodlands. These days it’s only found in a few parts of India, along with various places in sub-Saharan Africa. This just means south of the Sahara desert. In the past, though, the lion had a much larger range. It lived throughout most of Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and even southern Europe. Overhunting drove it to extinction in many parts of its historic range, which is called extirpation. I’ve used the term before but it specifically means that an animal has been driven to extinction in one area where it once lived, but it isn’t extinct in other areas. Some subspecies of lion have gone extinct, and the lions who remain are vulnerable to habitat loss, poaching, and many other factors. Just because lions are common in zoos doesn’t mean lions in the wild are doing fine.

The same is true of the cheetah, which has an even smaller range than the lion these days but which was once common throughout Africa and the Middle East along with a lot of southern Asia and Europe. We talked about the cheetah in episode 145. It’s actually not closely related to the lion or the leopard, and in fact genetic testing reveals that it’s most closely related to the puma of North America.

The leopard, on the other hand, is a very close relation to the lion. Both belong to the same genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and snow leopards, but the lion and leopard are the closest cousins. While it’s also vulnerable to habitat loss, poaching, and other factors, it’s more widespread than the lion and cheetah. It lives throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia–especially India–and even parts of eastern Russia, and in the past it was even more widespread. It prefers forests where its spots help it blend in with dappled sun and shade.

So, the lion, the leopard, and the cheetah all live in Kenya, but there’s another big cat that’s supposed to live there too. It’s called the marozi, also sometimes called the spotted lion.

Stories of lions that have spots like a leopard go back for centuries among the local people. The spotted lion is supposed to be small and the male either has no mane or only a small one. It’s supposed to live in the mountains and is solitary instead of living in family groups like ordinary lions. In fact, “marozi” supposedly means “solitary lion” in the local language. Instead of living in open grasslands, it lives in thick forest where a spotted coat and smaller body size would be useful, allowing it to maneuver through the trees more easily while not being seen.

It wasn’t until the colonial era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Europeans became aware of the marozi. The first known sighting of a spotted lion by a European occurred in 1903, when a British soldier reported seeing more than one in the mountains of Kenya. He said the lions were darker in color than an ordinary lion, with leopard-like rosette markings. In 1924, a game warden reported killing a spotted lioness and her cubs, with the lioness having just as many spots as the babies.

In 1931 a farmer shot two small spotted lions in the mountains. He said they were fully grown despite their small size, but they had even more spots than lion cubs do. One was a male and he had a sparse, short mane. The farmer kept the male’s skin, which eventually made its way to the Natural History Museum in London, possibly with the lion’s skull too, although it’s not clear if the skull actually belongs to the same animal. As far as I could find out, no one has tried to test the skin and skull genetically.

Other people, including hunters and game wardens, reported seeing spotted lions in high elevations where ordinary lions didn’t live, with stories continuing through at least the 1960s. Similar stories of a spotted lion have been collected from mountains in other parts of east and central Africa, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Cameroon, where it has different local names. But so far we don’t have any photographs or a specimen.

There are a few hypotheses about what the marozi might be. One suggestion is that it’s actually a hybrid of a leopard and a lion. Because leopards and lions are so closely related, they can interbreed and produce offspring, although as far as we know this has only happened in captivity. In the wild, lions are actually aggressive towards leopards. A lion will steal a leopard’s food and will sometimes even kill leopards, and as a result leopards try to avoid lions. Since leopards prefer thick forest and lions prefer open forest or grasslands, they don’t cross paths all that often anyway.

In the late 1950s into the early 1960s, a zoo in Japan kept a male leopard and a female lion in the same enclosure to see if they would mate. They did, and eventually they had two litters together. The cubs were larger and heavier than leopards but not as big as lions, and while they generally looked like lions they had leopard spots. The males had small manes.

This sounds a lot like reports of the marozi, but again, in the wild lions and leopards mostly avoid each other. The only time a lion and a leopard would consider each other potential mates instead of potential trouble is when they’re put together artificially as in the Japanese zoo. Even if an occasional leopard and lion do sometimes breed in the wild, it wouldn’t happen often enough to cause all the sightings documented about the marozi. Besides, the marozi is only reported from the mountains, where lions don’t live.

Another hypothesis is that there’s a population of ordinary lions that have moved into the mountains to escape factors like habitat loss, poaching, and a decline in prey animals, and that people occasionally see a young adult lion that hasn’t completely lost its cub spots. This isn’t too likely either since stories of the marozi go back to long before these modern pressures on lion populations.

There might very well be an unknown, very rare species or subspecies of lion that has always lived in the mountains in parts of east and central Africa, and that it does actually have spots as an adult. If this is the case, hopefully it’s safe in its mountain habitat from the pressures faced by ordinary lions. Let’s hope also that it comes to the attention of scientists soon so it can be studied and protected.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 366: The Muntjac AKA Deer with Fangs

Thanks to Chuck for suggesting this week’s topic, a weird little deer called the muntjac!

Further reading:

Dam Project Reveals Secret Sanctuary of Vanishing Deer

Wildlife camera trap surveys provide new insights into the occurrence of two threatened Annamite endemics in Viet Nam and Laos

Getting ahead (or two?) with Vietnam’s Viking Deer – the Long-Running Saga of a Slow-Running Mystery Beast

A giant muntjac [photo by Mark Kostich, taken from article linked above]:

A Reeve’s muntjac [photo by Don Southerland, taken from this site]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we have a suggestion from Chuck, who wanted to learn about a small hoofed animal that I don’t think we’ve ever covered before, the muntjac. It’s a deer, but it’s a very weird deer.

In fact, it’s not just one deer, it’s at least 12 different species that are native to parts of south and southeast Asia, although it used to have a much broader range. Muntjac fossils have been found throughout Europe in particular. It prefers thick forests with lots of water around. Most species live in tropical or subtropical areas, although it can tolerate colder temperatures. It eats leaves, grass, fruit, seeds, and other plant parts, and it will also sometimes eat bird eggs and small animals when it finds them. It will even sometimes eat carrion.

The typical muntjac is small, barely larger than a fox. The largest species, the giant muntjac, stands a little over two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 80 cm, while there are several species of muntjac that don’t grow taller than 15 inches high, or 40 cm. It’s brown or reddish-brown, sometimes with darker or lighter markings depending on species. The muntjac appears hump-backed in shape like a rabbit, since instead of having a mostly level back, its back slopes upward from the shoulders to the rump. Its tail is very short and males grow short antlers that either have no branches or only one branch. Males also have a single pair of sharp, curved fangs that grow down from the upper jaw, more properly called tusks.

The muntjac is usually a solitary animal, with each individual defending a small territory. Both males and females have a large gland near the eye that secretes an oily substance with a strong smell. It also has another pair of scent glands on the forehead. The muntjac rubs its face on the ground to mark the edges of its territory with scent. It can even flare its scent glands open to communicate with other muntjacs by smell more effectively.

Unlike many deer species, the muntjac doesn’t have a particular mating season. Females, called does, can come into season any time of the year, so males are always ready to fight with other males for a doe’s attention. The male loses and regrows his antlers yearly, but mainly he only uses them to push an opponent over. He does the real fighting with his fangs.

There are other types of hoofed animals with fangs. We talked about the musk deer and the chevrotain in episode 116, but even though the chevrotain in particular looks a lot like the muntjac, it’s not closely related to it at all. Neither is the musk deer. In fact, neither the musk deer nor the chevrotain are actually deer, and they’re not even closely related to each other.

The southern red muntjac is one of the smallest species of muntjac known and is fairly common throughout much of southeast Asia, although we don’t know much about it. One thing we do know is that it has the smallest number of chromosomes of any mammal ever studied. Males have 7 diploid chromosomes and females only have 6. In comparison, the common Reeve’s muntjac has 46 diploid chromosomes. Scientists have no idea why there’s so much difference in chromosome count between species, but it works for the muntjac.

Many species of muntjac are common and are doing just fine, but others are endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and the other usual factors we talk about a lot. But the muntjac is small, solitary, and very shy, so there are also species that are probably still waiting to be discovered.

The giant muntjac, also called the large-antlered muntjac, was only discovered in 1994 from a skull found in Vietnam. Scientists were eager to learn more about the animal, especially whether it was still alive or had gone extinct. They talked to hunters and other local people in Vietnam and Laos, and set up camera traps, and went on expeditions searching for it. The hunters said it was still around but the scientists just couldn’t find any. It wasn’t until 1997 that a camera trap took a few pictures of one near a newly constructed dam, which gave everyone hope that this animal could be saved from possible extinction.

Scientists had been searching for the giant muntjac for so long, and had only finally gotten a photograph after 13 years of trying, that they figured it would be an even longer time before they learned more about it. But then, suddenly, only four months after the first pictures of the giant muntjac were captured, a team of conservationists working to relocate animals from the flood area of the new dam ended up capturing 38 of the deer.

When a new dam is constructed across a river or other waterway, it doesn’t flood right away. It takes a long time for the water to back up behind the dam and turn into a lake or large pond, sometimes several years depending on the size of the dam and the waterway. There’s time to relocate animals to higher ground so they’ll be safe, and that’s exactly what Ulrike Streicher and her team were doing in 2007. Not only that, they made sure to transport the animals to a protected area where they’d be safer from hunters. Before they released the giant muntjacs, they had the opportunity to study them and fit some of them with radio collars so the scientists could track where they went. It turned out that the muntjacs settled into their new home just fine, so although the giant muntjac is still classified as critically endangered, at least we know that one small population is doing well.

Another muntjac search involves a camera trap in Vietnam and Laos too, but it’s still an ongoing mystery. The story actually starts back in 1929 when a dead muntjac was sent to the Field Museum in Chicago. The scientists at the museum couldn’t identify it as any known species of muntjac, so they described it in 1932 as Muntiacus rooseveltorum, also called Roosevelt’s muntjac. Modern genetic testing of the specimen determined that it’s a subspecies of Fea’s muntjac that lives in a small area of southern Myanmar and Thailand. Fea’s muntjac itself is so rare and so little known that we don’t even know if it’s extinct or not. As for Roosevelt’s muntjac, no one had seen it since the 1929 specimen was killed and it was presumed extinct.

Then, starting in 2014, a team of scientists conducted surveys in parts of the Annamites, a mountain range along the Vietnam/Laos border. Over the next five or six years, camera traps recorded every animal that passed by them in various remote locations. In addition to lots of animals the scientists expected to see, they found three animals that were either extremely rare or thought extinct. One of these was the Annamite striped rabbit we talked about in episode 254, but the other two were muntjacs.

One of the muntjacs captured on camera was identified as Roosevelt’s muntjac while the other was identified as the Annamite muntjac, a species that was only identified in 1997. The problem is that we only have pictures of the animals, and only a single specimen of Roosevelt’s muntjac to compare the pictures to. Scientists disagree as to whether Roosevelt’s muntjac is for sure still alive and well in the Annamite mountains, or whether the pictures are of a totally different species of muntjac. At least the pictures were taken in a nature reserve, so we know the muntjacs should be safe.

Muntjacs are such strange, attractive animals that rich people used to keep them as pets to show off. Sometimes they would escape into the wild, or were even released on purpose, and that’s why Japan, England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland all have invasive populations of Reeve’s muntjac. Reeve’s muntjac is common in southeastern China and Taiwan and only grows a little over a foot high at the shoulder, or maybe half a meter. The male has stubby little antlers and long tusks, so that his tusks are almost as long as his antlers. Cute as the animals are, they’re also bad for the local ecosystems, since they reproduce quickly and eat food that native animals need.

Rumors have circulated for a few decades now of another possible mystery muntjac, usually referred to as the quang khem. Supposedly it’s a large muntjac with unbranched antlers that lives in remote areas of Vietnam. So far it hasn’t been discovered, if it exists at all, but there’s definitely a chance that it’s yet another muntjac that’s just waiting to be spotted by scientists or their camera traps.

The muntjac is sometimes called the barking deer because of its alarm call. This is what a muntjac sounds like:

[muntjac barking sound]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 354: Sheep and Sivatherium

Thanks to Hannah, who suggested sheep as this week’s topic! We’ll also learn about a few other hoofed animals, including the weird giraffe relative, sivatherium.

Further reading:

The American Jacob Sheep Breeders’ Association

What happened with that Sumerian ‘sivathere’ figurine after Colbert’s paper of 1936? Well, a lot.

A Jacob sheep ewe with four horns (pic from JSBA site linked above):

The male four-horned antelope [photo by K. Sharma at this site]:

A modern reconstruction of sivatherium that looks a lot like a giraffe [By Hiuppo – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2872962]:

The rein ring in question (on the left) that might be a siveratherium but might just be a deer:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to look at an animal suggested by Hannah a long time ago. Hannah suggested we talk about sheep, and I can’t even tell you how many times I almost did this episode but decided to push it back just a little longer. Finally, though, we have the sheep episode we’ve all been waiting for! We’re also going to learn about a strange animal called sivatherium and a mystery surrounding when it went extinct.

The sheep has cloven hooves and is a ruminant related to goats and cattle. It mostly eats grass, and it chews its cud to further break down the plants it eats. It’s one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world, with some experts estimating that it was first domesticated over 13,000 years ago. Mammoths still roamed the earth then. Sheep are especially useful to humans because not only can you eat them, they produce wool.

Wool has incredible insulating properties, as you’ll know if you’ve ever worn a wool sweater in the snow. Even if it gets wet, you stay nice and warm. Even better, you don’t have to kill the sheep to get the wool. The sheep just gets a haircut every year to cut its wool short. Wild sheep don’t grow a lot of wool, though. They mostly have hair like goats. Humans didn’t start selecting for domestic sheep that produced wool until around 8,000 years ago.

Like other animals that were domesticated a very long time ago, including dogs and horses, we’re not sure what the direct ancestor of the domestic sheep is. It seems to be most closely related to the mouflon, which is native to parts of the middle east. The mouflon is reddish-brown with darker and lighter markings and it looks a lot like a goat. Other species of wild sheep live in various parts of the world but aren’t as closely related to the domestic sheep. The bighorn and Dall sheep of western North America are closely related to the snow sheep of eastern Asia and Siberia. The ancestors of all three species spread from eastern Asia into North America during the Pleistocene when sea levels were low and Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia.

The male sheep is called a ram and grows horns that curl in a spiral pattern, while the female sheep is called a ewe. Some ewes have small horns, some don’t. This is the case for both wild and domestic sheep. Sheep use their horns as defensive weapons, butting potential predators who get too close, and they also butt each other. Rams in particular fight each other to establish dominance, although ewes do too.

But some breeds of domestic sheep are what is called polycerate, which means multi-horned. That means a sheep may have more than two horns, typically up to six. Many years ago I kept a few Jacob sheep, which are a polycerate breed, and in a Patreon episode from 2018 I went into really too much detail about this particular breed of sheep. I will cut that short here.

The Jacob is a hardy, small sheep with tough hooves, and it’s white with black spots. Ideally, a Jacob sheep will have four or six well-balanced horns. In a six-horned sheep, the upper pair branch upward, the middle pair curl like an ordinary ram’s horns, and the lower pair branch downwards. Sometimes a sheep will have three or five horns, or will start out with four horns but as they grow, two will merge so it looks like they have a single horn on one side. Sometimes a ram’s horns will grow so large that the blood supply is choked off for the lower pair, which will die and stop growing. Breeding a pair of six-horned Jacob sheep doesn’t guarantee that the babies will have more than two horns, though. It’s still a recessive trait.

Sheep, goats, cattle, and some antelopes are all bovids. Polyceratism appears to be a bovid trait. It’s caused by a mutation where the horn core divides during the animal’s development.

Occasionally, a sheep of non-polycerate breed, or a goat, or even a cow, is born with multiple horns. The blue wildebeest is also occasionally born with multiple horns. Sometimes an animal grows a lot of horns, like eight, but usually it’s three, four, five, or six.

Another animal with more than two horns is the four-horned antelope that lives in India and Nepal. Its horns are quite small, just a pair of tiny points on the forehead with a pair of longer points behind them. The antelope itself is also small, not much more than two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm. Its coat is reddish or yellowish-brown with white underparts, and a black stripe down the front of the legs. The longer horns grow up to about five inches long, or 12 cm, but the front horns are no longer than two inches, or five cm.

The four-horned antelope is shy and solitary, and lives in open forests near water. Since it’s so small, it frequently hides in tall grasses. Sometimes a four-horned antelope’s front two horns are just bumps covered with fur, which makes them look like ossicones although they’re still actually horns.

That brings us to the other group of animals with multiple horns, although they’re not actually horns. I mentioned ossicones in the tallest animals episode, about giraffes. They’re made of ossified cartilage instead of bone, and are covered in skin and fur instead of a keratin sheath. Antlers are actually very similar to ossicones in many ways. A deer’s antlers grow from a base that is similar to an ossicone, and as they grow, the antlers are covered with tissue called velvet that later dries and is scraped off by the deer to show off the bony antlers. Unlike horns, which are always unbranched, the ossicones of some extinct animals can look like antlers.

We talked about sivatherium in episode 256, about mammoths. It was an ancestor of modern giraffes that lived in Africa and India around a million years ago. It stood around 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or just over two meters, but had a relatively long neck that made it almost 10 feet tall in total, or about three meters. It had two pairs of ossicones, one pair over its eyes and another between its ears. Like the four-horned antelope, the front pair were smaller than the rear pair, but the rear pair was broad and had a single branch.

Sivatherium was once believed to be closely related to elephants, and reconstructions of it often made it look like a moose with a short trunk. But modern understanding of its anatomy suggests it looked like a heavily built giraffe with shorter legs and neck, sort of like the giraffe’s closest living relative, the okapi.

One interesting thing about Sivatherium is how recently it may have been alive. Some researchers think it may have been around only 8,000 years ago. There’s rock art in India and the Sahara that does seem to show a long-necked animal with horns that isn’t a giraffe. The art has been dated to around 15,000 years ago. But the big controversy is a figurine discovered in 1928.

That’s when a copper rein ring was found in Iraq and dated to about 2800 BCE. A rein ring was part of the harness to a four-wheeled chariot, with two holes to thread the reins through to keep them from tangling. Above the rings was a little decorative figure of an animal. This particular rein ring’s figure shows an animal with short horns above the eyes and branching horn-like structures farther back, between the ears. When it was originally discovered, scientists thought the figure represented a type of fallow deer found in the area, with the ends of the antlers broken off. But one researcher, Edwin Colbert, pointed out that no deer known has four antlers and the figure clearly has two little bumps over its eyes that are separate from the branched antler or horn-like structures farther back. In 1936 he published his conclusion that the animal wasn’t a deer at all but sivatherium, and a lot of scientists agreed.

That would mean sivatherium might have been alive less than 5,000 years ago. Part of the issue is that sivatherium’s branched ossicones weren’t very big in comparison to its head, while the fallow deer’s antlers are proportionally quite large. The figurine has structures that match sivatherium’s ossicones more than a deer’s antlers. But in 1977, two little pieces of copper were found in a storage box where they’d been since the original discovery of the rein ring. The pieces fit exactly onto the ends of the figure’s horns, showing that the horns are much bigger than originally thought.

That doesn’t explain everything, though. The figure still has those extra little horns over its eyes, and while the branched horns look like deer antlers, they still don’t look like fallow deer antlers. Some researchers point out that sivatherium had a lot of variation in the size and shape of its ossicones, too.

Ultimately there’s not enough evidence either way of whether the figurine depicts a deer or sivatherium. If sivatherium did live as recently as a few thousand years ago, hopefully remains of it will be found soon. Until we know for sure, you can still be glad that the giraffe is alive, because it’s just as amazing as its extinct relation.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 352: The Not-Deer

Happy Halloween! We have a super spooky episode for you this week, a full five out of five bats on the spookiness scale, all about the not-deer of modern folklore!

Join our Patreon and get bonus episodes and other perks! You can also buy copies of the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book and Kate’s other books!

Further reading:

Not Deer, or a Deer?

Days before Halloween, creepy trail photo reveals deer standing on 2 legs in NC woods

Sharon A Hill’s Spooky Geology (not about the not-deer but a lot of fun even so)

The white-tailed deer uses its bright white tail to warn other deer of danger:

White-tailed deer sometimes stand on their hind legs to reach vegetation or fight:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

Happy Halloween! It’s time for our spookiest episode of the year! It’s rated five out of five bats on our spookiness scale. If you like scary stories on Halloween, make some cocoa and popcorn and sit back to be spooked. If you’re not really a fan of the scarier stuff, you might want to skip this one. Some people also really don’t like hearing about diseases, and that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing. We’re going to talk about a really weird cryptid called the not-deer.

Before we get started, though, we have a little bit of housekeeping, as the big podcasters call it. First, I want to reassure everyone who has sent me suggestions that I’m trying to get to them as soon as possible. I love how many people listen and want to share their enthusiasm about animals, but I do feel bad that some people have been waiting a really long time for their suggestion to make it off of the massive humongous ever-growing ideas list into an episode.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking of ways to make money off the podcast without running ads. I make Strange Animals Podcast because I love helping people learn about animals and science, and I also really value the people who are able to support the podcast through Patreon. But I do put an awful lot of work into each episode, so much that it’s basically a second job. I thought about it, and decided to make a new Patreon tier that’s a little different from the others. It’s called the terror bird tier, and when I drew the art for it I forgot that terror birds didn’t have actual teeth, but we’ll call that artistic liberty. It’s a $25 a month tier, and not only do you get access to the bonus episodes that all patrons can listen to, after three months at that tier you can message me your episode idea AND tell me what week you’d like that episode to run. I’ve limited the new tier to 25 backers, to make it fair for people who don’t have the money for that, and honestly I don’t expect to get very many people at that level at all, because that’s a lot of money, but I thought I’d give it a try.

Finally, the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book is still available, as are my other books, and in 2024 I’m planning to attend some conventions again to sell copies of the book. I’ll let you know where I’ll be as I find out, in case you want to come say hi. I’m also very slowly working on a sequel to the book, tentatively titled Small Mysteries, which is all about mystery animals that are really small, like frogs and insects and teeny fish. It probably won’t be ready to publish for a few years, so I’m working hard to make sure it’s got a whole lot of footnotes with references. That’s one of the things I regret not doing for Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie.

Now, with all that out of the way, on to the spookiness!

The not-deer is a cryptid, or mystery creature, that’s mostly reported from the Appalachian region of the United States. I live in the southern Appalachians near the Smoky Mountains, but I’d never heard of the not-deer until a few months ago. I subscribe to Sharon Hill’s Strange Times newsletter, and also love her Spooky Geology website where you can learn all the science behind weird events like earthquake lights. There’s a link in the show notes, but you can search for https://spookygeology.com/ to find it. Sharon Hill wrote about the not-deer in mid-2023 in her newsletter, where she said the not-deer “looks like a deer until you REALLY look and find that it’s not a deer. It displays unsettling characteristics that scare the heck out of people.”

Reports vary, but in general, the not-deer is supposed to look like an ordinary deer at first glance, but then the witness realizes it’s really weird in some ways. Some people report that the deer appears to have extra joints in its legs, a misshapen or overly large head, an overly long neck or legs that are too long or too short, eyes that are close together on the front of its head instead of on the sides of its head as is normal with hoofed animals, and so on. It might walk on its hind legs like a human, and sometimes people say the creature appears to be unusually intelligent and not afraid of people.

The not-deer became popular online around the summer of 2020, especially on TikTok, with the term not-deer apparently coined in August 2019 on Tumblr, but the idea goes back several decades at least. According to Sharon Hill, Jerry Clark, the editor of Fate Magazine, collected two accounts of not-deer in 1971, although he didn’t call them not-deer because that term wasn’t invented yet.

To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, here are three accounts from a Reddit thread. I’ve reworded the stories to make them shorter and more appropriate for a general audience, but I haven’t changed any details.

First is a 2020 report from a Redditor in northern Georgia:

I live at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains halfway in between Chattanooga and Atlanta and sometimes my family takes trips to the mountains. One day up there me and my cousin drove around to just take in the views. At around 8pm we were headed back and were nearly at our cabin when we saw a deer on the side of the road. We slowed down but as we got close, it walked into the road. I hit the brakes and then it stood up and started walking around on its back legs. My cousin and I have been out in nature with animals our whole lives but we’d never seen anything like it. It just looked so wrong! Its joints didn’t move right and it had arms not front legs, and its upper half was like a human excluding the head.

The next story is from a Redditor in Virginia, who at the time of their encounter was riding a motorcycle slowly along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park at night, although when they encountered the deer they stopped to get a better look.

It was like a deer drawn by someone who had never seen a deer after someone else described it to them. It stood on the left side of the road on the mountainside, and I saw the eyes long before my headlight showed it fully. It was easily the biggest deer I’ve seen, and the lack of any antlers that time in the year suggested that it was a doe. The head was almost bovine in shape, the legs seemed too long in proportion to the body (think maned wolf proportions), and the body was extremely barrel chested.

As soon as I crossed into the other lane, it rose up onto its hind legs. It took two jerky, unnatural steps towards the center of the lane on 2 legs and froze again, staring directly at me. It suddenly shook its head wildly like a dog with a toy, took another short step, then HOPPED on two legs several times until it disappeared into the darkness on the right side of the road.

I turned the light towards the side of the road. On that side, there was a sheer drop off compared to the roadway, and the deer’s head was just peeking over the edge, still looking at me. The drop off was about 40 to 50 feet [that’s about 12 to 15 meters], so there’s no way it was standing at the base of the mountainside.”

Finally, in June of 2023 a Redditor wrote:

I believe I saw a not-deer 3 weeks ago on KY 10 just outside of Lenoxburg. I was driving home to Cincinnati and decided to take the back route. It was dusk and the deer were out and moving. I looked out to my driver’s side and saw a few deer in the field, however there was one closer to the road that was…off. It had small squatty hind legs and long almost ape-like front legs and its neck was too long. The second I laid eyes on it my stomach dropped and I felt a fear I’ve never experienced before. My dogs began to tremble and whine and the feeling didn’t go away until I got back across the river to Ohio.

The most common deer in the Appalachian Mountains is the white-tailed deer. It’s common throughout most of North and Central America down into northern South America. It’s also an invasive species in some parts of the world where people have introduced it as a game animal. Different populations and subspecies vary in size, but the Virginia subspecies found in Appalachia generally grows up to 4 feet tall at the shoulder at most, or about 1.2 meters. Males are larger than females on average. It’s crespuscular, meaning it’s most active at dawn and dusk.

In summer the white-tailed deer is reddish-brown, and in winter its coat is more gray-brown. It gets its name from the underside of its tail, which is bright white. When a deer feels threatened, it raises its tail to warn other deer to be alert, and to warn a potential predator that the deer has spotted it. Baby deer, called fawns, are born in spring and have white spots that help camouflage them in dappled sunlight and shade under trees.

The male white-tailed deer, called a buck or stag, starts growing a new set of antlers in the summer. Antlers are made of bone, but they grow faster than any other mammal bones. While they’re growing, they’re covered in a special type of highly vascularized skin called velvet. The velvet supplies nutrients and oxygen to the antler as it grows, and since the antlers grow so fast, they need a whole lot of nutrients. A deer in poor health or who can’t find enough to eat will grow small antlers, while a healthy deer who has lots to eat will grow larger antlers. Older males usually have bigger antlers than younger males too. The female deer, called a doe, is attracted to bucks with bigger antlers because she can be sure he’s healthy.

Once the antler has finished growing, it actually dies. The velvet dries up and the deer will rub his antlers on a branch or other object to help remove it. Because there are so many blood vessels in the velvet, sometimes a deer who is shedding the velvet has his antlers, head, and face splattered in blood, but he’s not hurt, just messy. Bucks use their antlers to fight each other, although they also use them to attack potential predators. Around the end of winter or early spring, the buck sheds his old antlers in preparation for growing a new set.

Many sightings of not-deer are probably due to people seeing diseased or injured deer. Two diseases that are especially hard on deer are Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, and Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD.

EHD is a virus spread by biting flies and midges, and while many species of deer can catch it, white-tailed deer are especially vulnerable to it. Humans can’t catch it, so don’t worry unless you are a deer. Symptoms of EHD include lameness, swelling of the head and neck, a lack of fear of humans, drooling and a runny nose, panting, and fever, which leads to sick deer sometimes lying down in water to cool off. Many deer who catch EHD eventually recover.

CWD is a more serious disease, sometimes called zombie deer disease. It’s related to the so-called mad cow disease found in cattle, and scrapie found in sheep and goats, and it can affect various species of deer. It’s always fatal but it can take a long time to develop, up to two years after exposure until the first symptoms. It’s caused when a protein in the animal’s nervous system is abnormally folded, a condition that spreads and causes neurodegeneration and holes in the brain. CWD is spread from animal to animal, but it can also spread through the environment in water and soil. So far the disease hasn’t been found to spread to humans.

Variations of CWD have been around for a very long time in various animals, but it was first identified in 1967 in a population of captive mule deer in Colorado. By 1981 it had spread to wild elk and it continues to spread in both wild and captive deer, although it’s still very rare. Symptoms include trembling and staggering, repetitive motions like walking in circles, grinding of teeth, drooling, confusion, and loss of fear of humans.

In addition to all this, perfectly healthy deer can have unusual behavior that isn’t witnessed by humans very often. Deer can and do stand and even walk short distances on their back legs, mostly to reach food growing up high. Does in particular will sometimes fight by standing on their hind legs and boxing each other with their front hooves. I own an amazing book called The Deer of North America by Leonard Lee Rue III, and here’s an interesting quote from that book:

“The oddest example of deer locomotion I ever heard of…was witnessed by five people. In July of 1967, the group had been out looking for deer when their trip was cut short by heavy rain. On the way home they saw two deer in a field of high weeds. Suddenly one of the deer raised both of his hind feet in the air, as if it were doing a handstand, balancing and walking on its forefeet. They thought the deer was injured and had to walk that way, but then the second deer did the same thing. Both deer walked on just their front legs for a distance of about 75 feet to where they could no longer be seen. […] We are constantly learning new things about deer.”

Leonard Lee Rue III suggested that the deer were just playing around and having fun.

Most people don’t know a whole lot about deer behavior. Most not-deer reports come from people who witnessed the creature while driving in the dark, so they didn’t get a very good look at it. Plus, as I’ve said over and over, people see what they expect to see. The not-deer has become popular online over the last few years, which means when someone is driving along and sees a deer behaving in what they think is an unusual manner, they remember the not-deer stories. Their brain automatically fills in details they can’t really see, leading to the person remembering things like a deer with human arms or six eyes.

In addition, people like telling spooky stories to scare each other. It’s probable that at least some of the scariest not-deer accounts are fiction. So if you see a deer, you don’t have to be scared. Just observe it and you might just learn something new about deer behavior. (Or something spooky will happen, in which case you have a great opportunity for a TikTok video.) Happy Halloween!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 351: The Bunyip and the Kelpie

Thanks to Will and Henry for their suggestions this week! This episode is two bats out of five on the spookiness scale for monster month, so it’s only a little spooky.

Further reading:

Does the Bunyip Really Haunt the Australian Wetlands?

A map and drawing of the original earth carving of a bunyip, from the mid-19th century:

An elephant seal can really look like a monster:

So can a leopard seal [photo by Greg Barras and taken from this site]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week, as we get closer and closer to Halloween, we’re taking a break from spooky bigfoot monsters. Instead, we’re in the water with some spooky monsters suggested by Henry and Will! This episode is rated two bats out of five on our spookiness scale, so it’s not too scary.

We’ll start with Will’s suggestion, the bunyip. We talked about it a long, long time ago in episode 36, so it’s definitely time to revisit it.

The bunyip is supposed to be a monster that attacks and eats people who come too near the waterholes or lagoons where it lives. It’s sometimes said to be gray and covered with feathers, or is described as a humongous starfish or snake, or is supposed to be yellow with black stripes, but the earliest reports in English, back in 1812, describe it as looking like a huge black seal. It was supposed to warn people away with a terrifying bellow or roar.

By about the 1850s the word bunyip had been adopted into Australian English as a term meaning something like humbug or poser. As early as 1933, at least one non-Aboriginal person suggested that the bunyip was inspired by seals that sometimes come up into rivers. If someone who had never seen or heard of a seal before saw one up close, it would definitely look like a monster.

That’s mainly what we talked about in episode 36. An Aboriginal sacred site near Ararat, Victoria once had the outline of a bunyip carved into the ground and the turf removed from within the figure. Every year the local indigenous people would gather to re-carve the figure so it wouldn’t become overgrown, because it symbolized an important event. At that spot, two brothers had been attacked by a bunyip. It killed one of the men and the other speared the bunyip and killed it. When he brought his family and others back to retrieve his brother’s body, they traced around the bunyip’s body.

The bunyip carving was 26 feet long, or 8 meters. Unfortunately it’s long gone, since eventually the last Aborigine who was part of the ritual died sometime in the 1850s and the site was fenced off for cattle grazing. But we have a drawing of the geoglyph from 1867. A copy of it is in the show notes. It’s generally taken to be a two-legged sea serpent type monster with a small head and a relatively short, thick tail. Some people think it represents a bird like an emu.

But if you turn it around, with the small head being the end of a tail, and the blunt tail being a head, suddenly it makes sense. It’s the shape of a seal.

The Southern elephant seal lives around the Antarctic, but is a rare visitor to Australia. It’s also enormous, twice the size of a walrus, six or seven times heavier than a Polar bear. The males can grow over 20 feet long, or over six meters, while females are typically about half that length. The male also has an inflatable proboscis which allows him to make a roaring or grunting sound, although he usually only does this when he’s about to fight another male. This is what it sounds like:

[southern elephant seal sound]

The leopard seal also lives in the Antarctic Ocean but sometimes it’s found around Australia, especially the western coast. It’s not as big as the elephant seal but it can grow up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters, the size of a walrus although it’s not as heavy. It’s an active, streamlined animal with large jaws. Its teeth that lock together to allow it to filter small animals from the water by pushing the water out of its mouth through its teeth and swallowing any tiny food that remains in its mouth. In addition to filter feeding, the leopard seal can kill and eat fish and even large animals like penguins and even other species of seal, including young southern elephant seals. Its only natural predator is the orca. It’s a fast swimmer with large front flippers to help it maneuver. It’s also quite vocal, especially the males, and even though it mostly makes sounds underwater, they’re often loud enough to hear above the water too. This is what a leopard seal sounds like (admittedly it does not sound scary, unless perhaps you are a small fish):

[leopard seal sound]

Even though the bunyip carving was bigger than the largest known leopard seal or southern elephant seal, it’s possible the carving was enlarged by accident over the years. Then again, maybe there really was a truly enormous seal or other animal that attacked two brothers centuries ago. But the bunyip is much more than this one event.

“Bunyip” isn’t even the word that all Aboriginal Australians use for this monster, it’s just the one that got picked up by English speakers and popularized. It probably came from the word “banib” from the Wemba-Wemba language spoken around what is now Victoria.

The monster known as the bunyip in English is a creature of folklore, religion, history, and storytelling to the people whose ancestors have lived in Australia for probably 50,000 years. That’s an astounding amount of time, and naturally that means that the cultures of Aboriginal Australians are complex. All this is complicated because of how disrupted the Aboriginal cultures were when Europeans showed up and decided that they were just going to take Australia for themselves, leading to the often-deliberate and sometimes accidental destruction of the ancient cultures they encountered.

One aspect of the bunyip story is similar to many of the monster stories we’ve talked about this month. It was often used as a way to keep children away from dangerous places, especially water. A little kid might not understand that a placid-looking pond can be dangerous, but they do understand that monsters are scary.

That’s the case for our other monster this week, the kelpie. That’s Henry’s suggestion, and one that we talked about briefly in episode 317. The kelpie is a Scottish water spirit that’s supposed to appear as a pony wandering by itself, but if someone tries to catch the pony or get on its back to ride it, suddenly it drags the person into the water and either drowns them or eats them.

The story comes from the olden days when it was common to see ponies wandering around loose in Scotland and other parts of the British Isles. Some of the ponies in these areas were semi-feral, meaning they lived a lot of the time like wild animals. Some ponies were kept in stables and farmyards as working animals, but others were allowed to roam around and feed themselves as they liked. The problem is that many places where these ponies lived could be dangerous, especially boggy areas, swift-moving rivers, or lochs with deep water.

A typical kelpie story goes like this. Once some children were playing near the local loch when they saw a beautiful gray pony grazing by itself near the water. All the children wanted to ride the pony, so they climbed onto its back. Even though there were eight children, somehow they all fit on its back, all but the youngest boy who wasn’t so sure that this was a good idea. He’d been told never to go near strange ponies near the water for fear of kelpies. The other children jeered at him and dared him to climb up. Against his better judgment, he started to do so but as soon as he brushed the pony’s side with one finger he realized that finger was stuck fast to the animal. He stopped but it was too late. The kelpie, for of course that’s what it was, took off at a gallop toward the water. The children on its back screamed and realized they were also stuck fast and couldn’t jump off the pony even when it plunged into the water. Meanwhile, the youngest boy was dragged into the water too by his stuck finger.

Fortunately for him, the youngest boy had a pen-knife with him. He took it out of his pocket with his free hand and cut his own finger off, freeing him from the kelpie just in time. All the other children were drowned, but the youngest was able to swim to shore and run home to safety, but for the rest of his life he only had nine fingers.

And that’s why this episode is two bats on the spookiness scale instead of just one. Next week is our big Halloween episode, so be prepared for a whole lot of spookiness, and while you’re at it, it’s probably best to stay away from the water and any strange ponies you encounter.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 350: Bigfeet and Littlefeet

It’s another spooky episode (three out of five bats on this year’s spookiness scale), with suggestions from Will and Pranav!

Further reading:

Tracking the Swamp Monsters

Further watching:

The Harlan Ford Footage (Honey Island Swamp Monster)

A crab-eating macaque:

A plaster cast purportedly from the Honey Island Swamp Monster’s footprints [photo from article linked above]:

Alligator tracks in the mud [photo from this site]:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week as monster month continues, we’ll learn about three more strange bipedal monsters suggested by Will and Pranav. This is another episode that I’ll give three out of five bats for spookiness. We’ve definitely got some spooky monsters this year (also you may be sensing a theme).

We’ll start with Will’s suggestion, the yara-ma-yha-who. We talked about it once before back in episode 219, but it’s such a strange monster that it definitely deserves more attention.

According to a 1932 book called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, the yara-ma-yha-who is a little red goblin creature that stands about four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. It’s skinny all over except for its head and belly, and its mouth is especially big, like a frog’s mouth. It doesn’t have any teeth, but it can open its jaws incredibly wide like a snake, which allows it to swallow its food whole. And what is its food? People!

The yara-ma-yha-who was supposed to live in trees, especially the wild fig tree that has thick branches. In the summer when someone would stop under the tree for shade, or in the winter when it was rainy and someone would stop for shelter, the yara-ma-yha-who would drop down and grab the person.

The ends of the yara-ma-yha-who’s fingers were said to be cup-shaped suckers, and when the suckers fastened onto a person’s arm, they were able to suck blood right through the person’s skin. After the person became weak from blood loss and fainted, the yara-ma-yha-who was able to swallow them whole.

After that, the yara-ma-yha-who would drink a lot of water and fall asleep, and when it woke up it would vomit up its meal. If the person was still alive, they were supposed to lie still and pretend to be dead even while the yara-ma-yha-who poked at them to see if they responded. If the person moved, the yara-ma-yha-who would swallow them again and the whole thing would start over. But every time a person was swallowed by the little red goblin, when they were vomited up again they were shorter and redder, until after three or four times if they couldn’t get away, the person was transformed into another yara-ma-yha-who.

Some cryptozoologists speculate that the yara-ma-yha-who may be based on the tarsier, which is the subject of episode 219 and why we talked about this particular monster in that episode. The tarsier has never lived in Australia, although it does live in relatively nearby islands. Most tarsier species have toe pads that help them cling to branches, but so do many frogs that do live in Australia. It’s much more likely that the legend of the yara-ma-yha-who was inspired by frogs, snakes, monitor lizards, and other Australian animals. More importantly, the monster was used as a cautionary tale to warn children not to go off by themselves into the bush.

Unfortunately, the only information about the yara-ma-yha-who comes from this 1932 book. We don’t know which Aboriginal peoples this story was collected from, and we don’t know how much it was changed in translation to English. It’s still a fun story, though.

Next, we’ll talk about Pranav’s suggestions. Last week we talked about the monkey-man of New Delhi, and one of the monsters we’ll cover today is also a monkey-man from Asia, this time from Singapore. It’s the Bukit Timah Monkey-Man, said to mainly live in the Bukit Timah rainforest nature reserve but occasionally seen in the city surrounding the nature reserve.

The Bukit Timah Monkey-Man is supposed to look like a monkey the size of a human. It walks like a human on two legs and otherwise looks like a person, but is covered in gray hair and has a monkey-like face. It’s only ever seen at night and although people are scared when they see it, the monster has never attacked anyone and doesn’t seem to be interested in people at all. The oldest report possibly dates back to 1805, or to the 1940s according to other accounts, but sightings are rare.

One very common monkey that lives in Bukit Timah is the crab-eating macaque, also called the long-tailed macaque and I bet you can guess why. Its tail is longer than its body, although its arms and legs are shorter than in most monkeys. It mostly lives on the ground and eats pretty much anything, although most of its diet is fruit and other plant materials. It does sometimes eat crabs, and is good at swimming and diving to find them, but it also eats bird eggs and nestlings, lizards, frogs, insects, and other small animals. It even has a cheek pouch where it can store extra food to eat later.

Like the rhesus macaque we talked about last week, the crab-eating macaque is pretty small, with a big male weighing about 20 lbs, or 9 kg, at most. That’s about the size of a small dog. The fur on its back and head is a light golden brown, and its face, arms and legs, and underparts are gray with white markings. Its tail is usually darker brown. In other words, in the dark it might look like it’s pale gray all over but its tail is harder to see, and the monkey-man isn’t reported to have a tail.

The crab-eating macaque is common in the city of Bukit Timah, and in fact it’s common in a lot of cities and is even an invasive species in some parts of the world. People in Bukit Timah are used to seeing this particular type of monkey, but it’s so small that no one could mistake it for a human-sized monster. Then again, most of the stories about the monkey-man are friend-of-a-friend stories, often told by children to scare each other. It’s very likely that the Bukit Timah monkey-man is just an urban legend.

Our last monster this week is another suggestion by Pranav, the Honey Island Swamp monster. This one is from the United States, specifically the Honey Island Swamp in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.

In 1974, a couple of hunters claimed they found strange footprints in the swamp, and had seen the monster itself back in 1963. They said it stood seven feet tall, or over 2 meters, and was covered with long gray hair. Its eyes were a brilliant amber in color. The monster was on all fours at first, but when it heard the men talking it stood up to look at them, then ran away. Heavy rain later that day washed its tracks away.

When the men saw the same tracks in 1974, they used plaster to make copies of the footprints. But the footprints don’t look like plaster casts of other bigfoot-type tracks, which resemble giant human footprints. The swamp monster appears to have four toes that are spread widely apart, with one sticking out to the side like a thumb, and show the impression of webbing in between. It’s also not that big of a foot, not quite 10 inches long, or 25 cm.

Both the hunters were air traffic controllers, which is a job that requires people to make decisions carefully and remain calm in stressful situations, in order to keep airplanes from crashing into each other. These were the sort of people you’d trust if they told you they’d seen something really weird in the swamp. The two men were even interviewed for an episode of the TV show “In Search Of” that aired in 1978, which popularized the Honey Island Swamp monster outside of the local area. Both men continued to search for the monster, reporting that they’d caught at least one more glimpse of it and had even shot at it without apparently hitting it.

One of the men, Harlan Ford, died in 1980. He had taken up wildlife photography after his retirement and when his granddaughter was going through his belongings, she found some Super 8 film footage that showed something very peculiar. It was a brief video of the swamp, but if you look closely, a shadowy human-sized figure crosses behind trees from right to left, visible for maybe half a second. I put a link in the show notes if you want to look at the footage yourself. It took me two watches before I noticed the figure and to me it looks like the shadow of a human walking normally, but it’s so grainy it’s hard to tell.

It’s possible that the two men decided to have fun with a harmless prank about a monster in the swamp, but so many people took them seriously that it kind of got out of hand. Then again, maybe they did genuinely see something unusual. That doesn’t mean it was an actual monster, though. Black bears do live in the swamp, and my personal theory is that bears are responsible for a whole lot of bigfoot sightings.

The American alligator is also common in the area. The gator’s front feet have five toes, but the hind feet only have four. The toes are webbed to help the gator swim more easily, and the front foot’s pinkie toe usually sticks out to the side. Sometimes the first two toes of the front foot are held close enough together that they look like one big toe. Usually an alligator drags its tail as it walks, but it also has a gait called the high walk where its tail is completely off the ground. The plaster tracks found by the two hunters in 1974 look suspiciously like a really big alligator print, probably twice the size of an ordinary adult gator.

More importantly, people who have lived in the Honey Island swamp their entire lives, fishing and hunting and running boat tours, don’t report ever seeing an animal they don’t recognize. Maybe there is an incredibly rare monster that lives in the swamps and walks bipedally at least part of the time, but more likely the Honey Island Swamp Monster is a tall tale.

There are a lot of reasons why people tell stories about swamp monsters or monkey-men or murderous red goblins. It’s a good way to stop little kids from wandering around in dangerous places, and it’s fun to scare yourself and others with a story when you know you’re actually safe. There are plenty of dangerous animals in the world, many of which are completely unknown to science. I just don’t think these three are ones you need to worry about.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 349: The Masked Monkey-Man

Thanks to Pranav for suggesting one of the monsters we’re talking about this week! This episode is rated three out of five bats on our spookiness scale.

Further reading:

The Return of Spring-Heeled Jack

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

As monster month continues, this week we have a really spooky episode on a topic Pranav suggested a long time ago. I’m rating it three out of five bats, meaning that if you’re one of our younger listeners, you might want to skip this one or make sure to listen to it in the daytime with your favorite grown-ups around you. It’s about the monkey-man of New Delhi, but we’re also going to talk about one of my favorite monsters too as part of it.

In May of 2001, several families made a strange complaint to the police in the city of Ghaziabad in India, near the capital city of New Delhi. A masked man had sneaked into their homes and pushed and scratched people before running away into the darkness. No one was badly injured, but they were definitely scared.

Then other people started reporting something similar in parts of East Delhi. People were left with scratches and bruises caused by a masked man, according to some witnesses. But others said they were attacked by a monkey.

As the reports flooded in over the next few days, the reports got stranger and stranger. The attacker was said to be a man with a monkey-like face, a big monkey wearing skin-tight clothes and a helmet, a creature with black fur and glowing cat eyes, even a robot with metal claws. It could reportedly jump incredibly high and even disappear. No one could agree on what the attacker looked like, but before long everyone was jumpy and ready to run if they even thought the strange creature was nearby. This sadly led to at least two people dying on different occasions when they panicked and tripped down stairs.

The police tried their best to find the culprit, but it was always gone before they arrived. Meanwhile, the news media exaggerated the reports and whipped people into a frenzy of fear. But despite all the sightings, no one ever got even a blurry photo of the so-called monkey-man. When the police questioned people who were supposedly attacked, most of them admitted that they hadn’t really seen anything. Often they only felt the presence of the monkey-man, and later noticed bruises or scratches that might have been caused by ordinary events during the day.

Weird as all this sounds, it isn’t the first time such a strange situation has happened in a big city. In 1837, in London, England, a very similar creature caused a very similar panic. The main difference is that instead of a monkey-man, the London monster was more like a devil, sometimes said to have horns and bat wings. He was called spring-heeled Jack.

Spring-heeled Jack got his nickname because he was supposed to be able to jump incredibly high, as though he had springs in his boots. Some reports said the creature had claws, possibly metal ones, that he could shoot sparks or blue fire from his mouth, that he had glowing red eyes, and that his hands felt cold and clammy like a corpse. Some people even referred to him as a ghost.

The monster was supposed to have attacked young women in particular, scratching them with his claws. In the most famous case, a teenaged girl named Jane Alsop was at home in February 1838 when someone knocked on the door and shouted that he was a police officer who had caught spring-heeled Jack! The officer asked for a light, since it was a dark evening, but when Jane brought a candle outside, instead of meeting a valiant police officer who had caught a monster, she only encountered the monster himself. Spring-heeled Jack grabbed her by the neck!

With the help of her sisters, who heard her screams, Jane was able to tear herself away from the monster with only some scratches on her arms and neck. Spring-heeled Jack bounded away into the night. Another encounter only nine days later happened to eighteen-year-old Lucy Scales, who was returning home with her sister in the evening. As they passed an alley, a man wearing a large black cloak jumped out at Lucy, spat blue flame into her face, and hurried away when she collapsed in shock.

As in India over 150 years later, the newspapers printed sensationalized reports of the attacks that made things even worse. The police arrested various men at different times, but there was no evidence that any of them had attacked the women or had dressed up as spring-heeled Jack. The scratches and bruises reported by victims weren’t actually that bad, and might have been caused by anything. In the end, the reports gradually stopped, although there was a brief revival of reports in the 1870s, over 30 years later.

So what’s going on here? Could spring-heeled Jack and the monkey-man of New Delhi be reports of the same creature or entity, with details differing between the two monsters because of the cultural differences of people reporting those details? Where people in modern India might think they see a monkey-man, because monkeys are common in India, people in old-timey England might have though they saw a demonic man since devils and demons were a common aspect of English culture at the time.

Let’s look at the details that both monsters share. Both are mostly described as being human-like in shape. Both walk on two legs, have two arms and a head with human-like features, or at least primate-like features. This argues that the monsters must be some sort of primate. Spring-heeled Jack in particular was always mistaken for an ordinary man at first, so instead of a monkey, he must have been a great ape, and more likely a hominin, or human or human relation. The reports of the monkey-man of New Delhi are less detailed and more varied, but the initial reports and many later ones called him a man, meaning a human male.

In other words, logically both monsters can’t be extraterrestrial creatures or they wouldn’t look and act so similar to earth creatures. Both also had physical aspects, able to interact with people and things normally, so even though some people called spring-heeled Jack a ghost, he actually seemed to be a living creature. And both seemed to be human, or at least human-like.

Maybe the monsters in both cases were just humans.

Some historians think that both the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack weren’t real monsters at all but urban legends, and most if not all of the reports were caused by mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a real condition, although it’s rare, where a group of people become convinced that they’re in danger in some way despite a lack of real evidence. Sometimes the group of people will think they’ve been exposed to a dangerous chemical or poison, and will actually show physical symptoms of illness. The symptoms go away after a while with no lasting health issues, but for the people who feel sick, it’s completely real and very scary.

Mass hysteria happens when rumors of danger get repeated so much that people start to believe the danger even though there’s no evidence that it exists. Newspaper and social media reports contribute to the feeling that danger is imminent, and before long everyone’s jumpy and ready to believe any ridiculous story they hear.

In the case of spring-heeled Jack, the very first reports may have been real attacks on people by someone who was trying to scare them or even rob them. Once rumors and newspaper reports got started, before long people were convinced that a dangerous monster was bouncing around in London terrorizing people.

As for the monkey-man, there are many species of monkey that live in India, including some that have moved into cities as cities grow larger and the wilderness areas grow smaller. As many as 40,000 monkeys live in New Delhi alone, mostly rhesus macaques that often steal food, phones, and other items from people. It’s a brown or gray monkey with a pink face and a short tail, and in its natural habitat it spends most of its time in treetops. The rhesus macaque can walk on its hind legs pretty well, but it’s not very big, rarely weighing more than a domestic cat. It eats fruit and other plant material, and while it can be aggressive to humans, most of the time it’s not dangerous. Not only that, but people who live in Delhi and other cities are familiar with the macaques and aren’t afraid of them.

In other words, it’s not very likely that the monkey-man of New Delhi was an actual monkey. The initial reports might have been of a man who was trying to rob people’s homes, or it might even have started when someone had a bad dream. After that, rumors and media accounts made people think they were in danger from the monster.

The next time you start to hear rumors that people are in danger, and the rumors get wilder and wilder, remember the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack. Take a moment to look at the situation logically, and decide if it’s more likely that a weird monster with metal claws and the ability to jump as high as a rooftop is really running around scaring people, or if that could be an urban legend. Urban legends are fun, but you don’t have to be afraid of them.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 346: The Rhinoceros!

Thanks to Mia for suggesting the black rhino this week! We’ll also learn about other rhinos and their relations, including a mystery rhino.

Further reading:

Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century

The Blue Rhinoceros – In Quest of the Keitloa

A rhino with a very small third horn:

Some rhinos have really big second horns [photo by David Clode and taken from this site]:

The “blue rhinoceros,” or keitloa, as illustrated in the mid-19th century:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to talk about an animal I can’t believe we haven’t covered before. Thanks to Mia for suggesting the rhinoceros, specifically the black rhino! We’ll also learn about a mystery rhino.

We’ve talked about elephants lots of times, hippos quite a few times, and giraffes a couple of times, but pretty much the only episodes where we discussed a rhinoceros were 5 and 256. Episode 256 was mostly about mammoths, although we talked very briefly about the woolly rhinoceros, while episode 5 was about the unicorn and didn’t actually specifically talk about the rhino. So after almost 350 episodes of this podcast, one of the most amazing animals alive is one we literally haven’t learned about! Let’s fix that now.

Most people are pretty familiar with what a rhinoceros looks like. Basically, it’s a big, heavy animal with relatively short legs, a big head that it carries low to the ground like a bison, and at least one horn that grows on its nose. It’s usually gray or gray-brown in color with very little hair, and its skin is tough. It eats plants.

The rhinoceros isn’t related to the elephant or the hippopotamus. It’s actually most closely related to the horse and the tapir, which are odd-toed ungulates. The rhino has three toes on each foot, with a little hoof-like nail covering the front of each toe, but the bottom of the rhino’s foot is a big pad similar to the bottom of an elephant’s foot.

The rhino’s nose horn isn’t technically a horn because it doesn’t have a bony core. It’s made of long fibers of keratin all stuck together, and keratin is the same protein that forms fingernails and hair. That makes it even weirder that some people think a rhinoceros horn is medicine. It’s literally the same protein as fingernails, and no one thinks of fingernails are medicine. The use of rhinoceros horn as medicine isn’t even all that old. Ancient people didn’t think it was medicine, but some modern people do, and they’ll pay a whole lot of money for part of a rhino horn to grind up and eat. Seriously, they might as well be eating ground-up fingernails. (That’s gross.)

Because rhino horns are so valuable, people will kill rhinos just to saw their horns off to sell. That’s the main reason why most species of rhino are so critically endangered, even though they’re protected animals. Sometimes conservationists will sedate a wild rhino and saw its horn off, so that poachers won’t bother to kill it. A 2022 study determined that the overall size of rhino horns has shrunk over the last century, probably for the same reason that many elephants now have overall smaller tusks. Poachers are more likely to kill animals with big horns, which means animals with smaller horns are more likely to survive long enough to breed.

The species of rhinoceros alive today are native to Africa and Asia, but it used to be an animal found throughout Eurasia and North America. It’s one of the biggest animals alive today, but in the past, some rhinos were even bigger. We’ve talked about Elasmotherium before, which lived in parts of Eurasia as recently as 39,000 years ago. It had long legs and could probably gallop like a horse, but it was the size of a mammoth. It also probably had a single horn that grew in the middle of its forehead, which is why it’s sometimes called the Siberian unicorn.

We’ve also talked about Paraceratherium before. It was one of the biggest land mammals that ever lived, and while it didn’t have a horn, it was a type of rhinoceros. It lived in Eurasia between about 34 and 23 million years ago, and it probably stood about 16 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5 meters. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, at the top of its head. Paraceratherium had a long neck, possibly as much as eight feet long, or 2.5 meters, but it would have held its neck more or less horizontal most of the time. It spent its time eating leaves off of trees that most animals couldn’t reach, and when it raised its head to grab a particularly tasty leaf, it was definitely taller than the tallest giraffe, and taller than any other mammal known.

While rhinos are famous for their horns, not every rhinoceros ancestor had a horn. But because rhino horns are made of keratin and not bone, we don’t always know if an extinct species had a horn. Most of the time the horns rotted away without being preserved. We do know that some ancient rhinos had a pair of nose horns that grew side by side, that some had a single nose horn or forehead horn, that some had both a nose horn and a forehead horn, and that some definitely had no horns at all.

The rhinos alive today have either one or two horns. The Indian rhinoceros has one horn on its nose, and the closely related Javan rhino also only has one horn. The Sumatran rhino has two horns, as do the white rhino and the black rhino. Sometimes an individual rhino will develop an extra horn that grows behind the other horn or horns and is usually very small. This is extremely rare and seems to be due to a genetic anomaly. There are even reports of rhinos that have four horns, all in a row, but the extra ones, again, are very small.

Mia specifically wanted to learn about the black rhino. It and the white rhino are native to Africa. You might think that the white rhino is pale gray and the black rhino is dark gray, but that’s actually not the case. They’re both sort of a medium gray in color and they’re very closely related. It’s possible that the word “white” actually comes from the Dutch word for “wide,” referring to the animal’s wide mouth. The black rhino has a more pointed lip that looks a little bit like a beak.

One interesting thing about the black and white rhinos is that neither species has teeth in the front of its mouth. It uses its lips to grab plants instead of its front teeth, and then it uses its big molars to chew the plants. The white rhino mostly eats grass while the black rhino eats leaves and other plant material.

A big male black rhino can stand over 5 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.75 meters, and is up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It can weigh as much as 4,000 lbs, or 1,800 kg. This sounds huge and it is, but it’s actually smaller than the white rhino, which is the biggest rhino alive today. A big male white rhino can stand over 6 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2 meters, can be 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and can weigh up to 5,300 lbs, or 2,400 kg. These are really really big animals. Nothing much messes with the rhino because it’s so big and heavy, its skin is so tough, and it can do a lot of damage with its horn if it wants to. The rhino doesn’t see very well, but it has good hearing and a good sense of smell.

The nose horn is always the bigger one in species that have two horns, and in the black rhino it can grow quite long. One nose horn was measured as being over 4 1/2 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are only about 20 inches long, or 50 cm. The rear horn, which grows roughly over the eyes, is about half the length of the front horn, and is sometimes no more than a little bump. But some black rhinos found in South Africa have a rear horn that’s at least as long as the front horn, and sometimes longer, and that brings us to our mystery rhino.

A rhino with this trait is referred to as a keitloa, a word taken from the Tswana language spoken in the area. In the 19th century, the keitloa was referred to by European colonizers as the blue rhinoceros. The blue rhino wasn’t blue, but it was considered quite rare and different from the ordinary black rhino. It was supposed to be bigger and and even more solitary than the black rhino.

Until 1881, many scientists thought the keitloa was a separate species of rhino from the black rhino, which it otherwise resembled. In 1881, though, a study of black rhinos and blue rhinos determined that they were the same species. A century later, in 1987, scientists found that black rhinos with better access to water grew larger horns than black rhinos living in dryer areas.

There are a number of subspecies of black rhino recognized by scientists, some of them still alive today and some driven recently to extinction. Some people still think that the keitloa may be a separate subspecies of black rhino. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to protect all rhinoceroses and their habitats, so we can learn more about these amazing animals.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 343: Mystery Jellyfish

This week we finish out Invertebrate August with some mysterious jellyfish, including a suggestion by Siya!

Further reading:

Mystery giant jellyfish washes up in Australia

New jellyfish named after curious Australian schoolboy

Mysterious jellyfish found off the coast of Papua New Guinea intrigues researchers

Newly discovered jellyfish is a 24-eyed weirdo related to the world’s most venomous marine creature

Rare jellyfish with three tentacles spotted in Pacific Ocean

The Immortal Jellyfish

A mystery jellyfish washed up on an Australian beach [photo by Josie Lim]:

The tiny box jellyfish found in a pond in Hong Kong:

The very rare Chirodectes:

The mystery jelly that may be Chirodectes or a close relation:

A mystery deep-sea jelly with only three tentacles:

Bathykorus, a possible relation of the three-tentacled mystery jelly:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

It’s hard to believe Invertebrate August is already ending, so let’s finish the month out with some mystery jellyfish, including a recent suggestion from Siya!

When you visit the beach, it’s pretty common to find jellyfish washed ashore. They’re usually pretty small and obviously you don’t want to touch them, because many jellies can sting and the stings can activate even if the jelly is dead. Well, in February 2014, a family visiting the beach in Tasmania found a jelly washed ashore that was a little bit larger than normal. Okay, a lot larger than normal.

The jellyfish they found measured almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It had flattened out under its own weight but it was still impressive. The family was so surprised at how big it was that they sent pictures to the state’s wildlife organization, who sent scientists to look at it. The scientists had heard reports of a big pink and white jellyfish for years, and now they had one to examine. Dr. Lisa-ann Gershwin thought it might even be a new species of lion’s mane jelly.

New species of jellyfish are discovered all the time. Dr. Gershwin has described over 200 new species herself. One example is a jellyfish discovered by a nine-year-old.

In 2013, a nine-year-old boy in Queensland, Australia was fishing in a canal with his dad and a friend, when he noticed a jellyfish and scooped it up with a net. Its bell was only about an inch long, or 2.5 cm, and the boy thought it was really cute and interesting. He wanted to know what kind of jellyfish it was, so after some pestering on his part, his dad helped him send it to the Queensland Museum for identification.

Dr. Gershwin was the jellyfish expert at the museum at the time, and she was as surprised as the boy’s dad to discover that the jellyfish was new to science! The boy’s name was Saxon Thomas, and to thank him for being so persistent about getting his jellyfish looked at by a scientist, the jellyfish was named Chiropsella saxoni. It’s a type of box jellyfish, which can be deadly, but this one is so small that it’s probably not that dangerous to humans. You still wouldn’t want to be stung by one, though, I bet.

In 2022, a diver visiting Papua New Guinea got video of several really pretty jellyfish. He sent the video to Dr. Gershwin, who realized the jelly was either a very rare jelly called Chirodectes, or it was new to science.

Chirodectes was only discovered in 1997 and described in 2005. It’s a type of box jellyfish and only one specimen has ever been collected, caught off the coast of Queensland, Australia near the Great Barrier Reef after a cyclone. Its bell was about 6 inches long, or 15 cm, but if you include the tentacles it was almost 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s pale in color with darker rings and speckles on its bell.

The 2022 video appears to show a jellyfish without speckles or other markings, and it’s also larger than the single known Chirodectes specimen. Its bell appears to be about the size of a soccer ball, or a football if you live in most of the world. However, Dr. Gershwin and other experts who have studied the video say that it’s similar in many ways to Chirodectes and may be a close relation. Since all we have is the video, there’s no way to tell for sure if it’s a species new to science.

Most box jellies live around Australia and New Guinea, but in 2020 scientists in Hong Kong studying organisms living in an intertidal shrimp pond noticed a jellyfish they didn’t recognize. It was tiny, even smaller than Saxon’s little box jelly, with a bell barely half an inch long, or about 15 mm. There were hundreds of the little jellies in the pond, which connects to the ocean with a narrow tidal channel, and they appeared to be eating the tiny shrimp living in the pond. Close study of the jelly determined that it was indeed a new species.

The box jelly gets its name from its bell shape, which is shaped sort of like a cube. Most species are transparent to some degree, with tentacles that hang down from the corners of its cube-shaped bell. Most box jellies are fast swimmers, able to use jet propulsion to move around. Some species, including the newly discovered Tripedalia maipoensis from Hong Kong, even have paddle-like structures at the end of their tentacles to help them swim. Tripedalia probably isn’t dangerous to humans, but the scientists who studied it don’t know for sure because no one wanted to volunteer to be stung by it.

In 2015, the Ocean Exploration Trust was conducting an expedition in the Pacific Ocean, pretty much as far away from land as it’s possible to get, when they saw a mysterious little jellyfish. It was brown in color, but it only had three tentacles—and those tentacles emerge from the top of its bell, not from underneath. Then, in June 2023, another Ocean Exploration Trust expedition spotted the same type of jelly. It’s only the second time it’s been seen, and we know almost nothing about it.

The mystery jelly swims with its tentacles pointing forward, and scientists think that it hunts other jellies and small animals. When its tentacles touch an animal, it grabs it. But that’s pretty much all we know about it so far. Researchers think it might be related to the deep-sea hydrozoan Bathykorus, which was only described in 2010.

Bathykorus is sometimes called the Darth Vader jellyfish, because the shape of its bell kind of resembles Darth Vader’s helmet. Unlike Darth Vader, though, Bathykorus is mostly transparent and has eight tentacles. Four grow from the top of its bell, four grow from the bottom, and it holds the top tentacles up while it swims. It’s been found as deep as 8,200 feet below the surface of the Arctic Ocean, or 2,500 meters. And that’s pretty much all we know about this jelly, even though scientists have been able to carefully capture a few specimens and keep them alive for a few days in specially constructed tanks that mimic conditions found in the deep sea.

Let’s finish with a suggestion from Siya, the immortal jellyfish. It’s tiny, barely more than 4 mm across as an adult, and lives throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially where it’s warm. It eats tiny food, including plankton and fish eggs, which it grabs with its tiny tentacles. Small as it is, the immortal jellyfish has stinging cells in its tentacles. It’s mostly transparent, although its stomach is red and an adult jelly has up to 90 white tentacles.

The immortal jellyfish starts life as a larva called a planula, which can swim, but when it finds a place it likes, it sticks itself to a rock or shell, or just the sea floor. There it develops into a polyp colony, and this colony buds new polyps that are clones of the original. These polyps swim away and grow into jellyfish, which spawn and develop eggs, and those eggs hatch into new planulae.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, called medusae, usually only live a few months. But if an adult immortal jellyfish is injured, starving, sick, or otherwise under stress, it can transform back into a polyp. It forms a new polyp colony and buds clones of itself that then grow into adult jellies.

This is all really interesting, and scientists are studying the immortal jellyfish to learn more about how it manages this incredible feat. It’s the only organism known that can revert to an earlier stage of life after reaching sexual maturity. But only an individual at the adult stage, called the medusa stage, can revert to an earlier stage of development, and an individual can only achieve the medusa stage once after it buds from the polyp colony. If it reverts to the polyp stage, it will remain a polyp until it eventually dies. However, it will bud off clones of itself that develop into medusae.

In other words, an immortal jellyfish isn’t technically immortal, but it can certainly prolong its life in an extraordinary way. It’s also really cute.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 339: The Tully Monster!

Is it an invertebrate? Is it a vertebrate? It’s the Tully monster!

Further reading:

3D Tully monster probably not related to vertebrates

Has the “Tully monster” mystery finally been solved after 65 years?

Possibly what the Tully monster looked like while alive:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

This week we’re going to learn about an ancient creature surrounded by mystery. When I was working on last week’s updates episode, I found some new information about it and intended to include it as an update. Then I realized I was referencing a Patreon episode, which I also reworked into a chapter of the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. So instead, I included the new information in this episode all about the Tully monster.

In 1955, an amateur fossil collector named Francis Tully discovered a really weird fossil. This was in one particular area of Illinois in the United States, roughly in the middle of North America. The fossil was about six inches long, or 15 cm, and Tully thought it resembled a tiny torpedo.

He took the fossil to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in hopes that somebody could tell him what his fossil was. The paleontologists he showed it to had no idea what it was or even what it might be related to. It was described in 1966 and given the name Tullimonstrum, which means Mr. Tully’s monster, which is pretty much what everyone was calling it already.

300 million years ago, in what is now the state of Illinois, a strange animal lived in the shallow sea that covered part of the area. The land that bordered this sea was swampy, with many rivers emptying into the ocean. These river waters carried dead plant materials and mud, which settled to the bottom of the ocean. When an animal died, assuming it wasn’t eaten by something else, its body sank into this soft muddy mess. The bacteria in the mud produced carbon dioxide that combined with iron that was also present in the mud, which formed a mineral called siderite that encased the dead animal. This slowed decay long enough that an impression of the body formed in the mud, and as the centuries passed and the mud became stone, the fossilized body impression was surrounded by a protective ironstone nodule. That’s why we know about the soft-bodied animals from this area, even though soft-bodied animals rarely leave fossil evidence.

So what did this weird animal look like?

The Tully monster was shaped sort of like a slug or a leech, and it had a segmented body. Its eyes were on stalks that jutted out sideways, although the stalks were more of a horizontal bar that grew across the top of the head. The tail end had two vertical fins, which argues that the Tully monster was probably a good swimmer. But at the front of its body it had a long, thin, jointed proboscis that ended in claws or pincers lined with eight tiny tooth-like structures.

It’s easy to assume that the pincers acted as jaws and therefore the proboscis was a mouth on a jointed stalk, but we really don’t know. The Tully monster may have used its proboscis to probe for food in the mud at the bottom of the sea, but because the proboscis had a joint, it probably couldn’t act as a sort of straw. The pincers may have grabbed tiny prey and conveyed it to a mouth that hasn’t been preserved on the specimens we have.

The Tully monster resembles nothing else known, and is so bizarre that researchers aren’t sure where to place it taxonomically. And it wasn’t rare. Paleontologists have since found lots of Tully monster fossils in the Illinois fossil beds, known as the Mazon Creek formation. The Mazon Creek formation is also the source of highly detailed fossils of hundreds of other plant and animal species, including some that have never been found anywhere else.

Scientists have suggested any number of animal groups that the Tully monster might belong to. It might be a type of arthropod, a mollusk, a segmented worm…or it might be a vertebrate. The tiny tooth-like structures in the pincers have been analyzed and some researchers think they were more similar to keratin than chitin. Keratin is a vertebrate protein while chitin is an invertebrate protein.

In 2016 a study argued that pigments in the eyes are arranged the same way as they are in vertebrates, which meant the Tully monster might have been a vertebrate. The problem is that some invertebrates also have these same pigment arrangements, notably cephalopods like octopuses. A 2019 study also looked at the chemical makeup of the fossil eyes, this time with even more advanced equipment—specifically, a synchrotron radiation lightsource, which is a type of particle accelerator. It sounds so science-y. This study suggested that the Tully monster’s eyes had a different chemical makeup than the vertebrates found in the same fossil beds, which means the Tully monster probably wasn’t a vertebrate after all. But it also didn’t match up with known invertebrates from the same fossil beds.

Of course, it might be a deuterostome. The animals in this superphylum develop a nerve cord at some stage of life, usually as an embryo, but may not retain it into adulthood. This includes echinoderms such as sea stars and sea urchins, tunicates like sea squirts, and possibly acorn worms although some scientists disagree. All vertebrates are also members of the superphylum too.

One suggestion is that the Tully monster is related to a type of animal called a conodont. Technically the term conodont refers to its teeth, with the animal itself known as conodontophora, but conodont is easier to say. We know very little about the conodont, since almost the only fossils we have of it are the tiny teeth. We also have eleven body impressions, so we know it was long and skinny like an eel and grew up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm. We also know it had large eyes, a notochord (or primitive spine), and fins on the tail end.

Conodont teeth first appear in the fossil record during the Cambrian, some 525 million years ago. They disappear entirely from the fossil record about 200 million years ago during the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event. But during those 300-some million years they were around, they left a whole lot of tiny fossil teeth, so many that they’re considered an index fossil, which helps scientists determine how old a particular strata of rock is.

When I say tiny teeth, I mean tiny—they’re microfossils usually measured in micrometers, although some of the larger ones were as much as 6 mm long. But they weren’t teeth like modern animal teeth, and the mouth wasn’t like anything we know today.

The conodont’s mouth is called a feeding apparatus by scientists, and it’s very different from what most of us think of as a mouth. This was long before jawed animals evolved some 400 million years ago, and the conodont’s teeth are technically known as conodont elements since they’re not really teeth. There were three types of the conodont elements, meaning they had different shapes and probably different functions.

Some species of conodont may have used the elements to crush prey, but they probably weren’t very strong swimmers so may have mostly eaten very small animals. Some researchers even suggest the conodont used the elements to filter plankton from the water, while others think the conodont might have been parasitic on larger animals, like the sea lamprey is. Conodonts were probably related to hagfish and lampreys and may have looked similar, although not everyone agrees with this classification. Some researchers even think conodonts might have been invertebrates.

Another possibility is that the Tully monster was related to Anomalocarids, which you may remember from the Cambrian explosion episode. Anomalocaris and its relations were arthropods that resemble nothing else alive. It had eyes on stalks, clawed appendages that grew from its front near the mouth, and the rear of its body was segmented with tail fins. Another Cambrian arthropod, Opabinia, had a single flexible feeding proboscis with claws at the end, five eyes on stalks, and a segmented body, so the Tully monster may have been related to it. But we don’t have anything definitive yet one way or another as to what it was related to.

The most recent study on whether the Tully monster was an invertebrate or a vertebrate was published in early 2023 in the journal Nature. The study used high-resolution 3D scanning to examine 153 Tully monster specimens. The scientists determined that the tooth-like structures at the end of the proboscis don’t appear to be keratin, and the Tully monster has segmentation in its head, which is not something found in vertebrates. These and other findings mean that as of now, it looks like the Tully monster was an invertebrate.

However, we still have no idea what kind of invertebrate it might have been. The 2023 study suggests it was either a non-vertebrate chordate or a protostome. Non-vertebrate chordates include hagfish and tunicates, while protostomes include a whole lot of invertebrates, including insects, worms, and mollusks.

The reason all this is important is because there’s a whole lot we don’t know yet about how jawed animals evolved from jawless fish. If the Tully monster really was a vertebrate, it would give us new information about jawless animals. But part of the reason it’s hard to determine where the Tully monster should be placed taxonomically is because of how incredibly weird it is, and that’s exciting too.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!