Category Archives: cryptids

Episode 185: Ice Worms, Army Ants, and Other Strange Invertebrates!

Let’s learn about some weird insects this week! Thanks to Llewelly for suggesting army ants!

Further reading:

If you’re interested in the magazine Flying Snake, I recommend it! You can order online or print issues by emailing the editor, Richard Muirhead, at the address on the website, and there’s a collection of the first five issues on Amazon here (in the U.S.) or here (UK)!

The magnificent, tiny ice worm! The dark speckles in the snow (left) are dozens of ice worms, and the ones on the right are shown next to a penny for scale. Teeny!

ARMY ANTS! WATCH OUT. These are soldier ants from various species:

The Appalachian tiger swallowtail (dark version of the female on the right):

Tiger swallowtails compared:

The giant whip scorpion. Not baby:

Jerusalem cricket. Also not baby but more baby than whip scorpion:


Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about a number of strange and interesting invertebrates as part of Invertebrate August. Thanks to Llewelly for a great suggestion, and we also have a mystery invertebrate that I learned about from the awesome magazine Flying Snake. Flying Snake is a small UK magazine about strange animals and weird things that happen around the world. It’s a lot of fun and I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to learn more about it. It’s been published for years and years but I only just learned about it a few months ago, and promptly ordered paper copies of all the issues, but they’re also available online and the first five issues are collected into a book.

So, let’s start with an invertebrate I only just learned about, and which I was so fascinated by I wanted to tell you all about it immediately! It’s called the ice worm, and it’s so weird that it sounds like something totally made up! But not only is it real, there are at least 77 species that live in northern North America, specifically parts of Alaska, Washington state, Oregon, and British Columbia.

The ice worm is related to the earthworm, and in fact it looks like a dark-colored, tiny earthworm if you look closely. It’s usually black or dark brown. It likes the cold—in fact, it requires a temperature of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero Celsius, to survive. You know, freezing. But the ice worm doesn’t freeze. In fact, if it gets much warmer than freezing, it will die. Some species live in snow and among the gravel in streambeds, and some actually live in glaciers. Ice worms can survive and thrive in such cold conditions because their body contains proteins that act as a natural antifreeze. It navigates through densely packed ice crystals with the help of tiny bristles called setae [see-tee] that help it grip the crystals. Earthworms have setae too to help them move through soil.

During the day, the ice worm hides in snow or ice to avoid the sun, and comes to the surface from the late afternoon through morning. It will also come to the surface on cloudy or foggy days. It eats pollen that gets trapped in snow and algae that is specialized to live in snow and ice, as well as bacteria and other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals and plant material. In turn, lots of birds eat ice worms. Birds also occasionally carry ice worms from one glacier or mountaintop to another by accident, which is how ice worms have spread to different areas.

The glacier ice worm can grow to 15 mm long and is only half a mm thick, basically just a little thread of a worm. It only lives in glaciers. You’d think that in such an extreme environment there would only be small pockets of glacier ice worms, but researchers in 2002 estimated that the Suiattle [soo-attle] Glacier in Washington state contained 7 billion ice worms. That’s Billion with a B on one single glacier. Other ice worm species can grow longer than the glacier ice worm, including Harriman’s ice worm that can grow nearly 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, and is 2.5 mm thick.

There are tall tales about ice worms that can grow 50 feet long, or 15 meters, but those are just stories. An ice worm that big wouldn’t be able to find enough to eat.

Next, let’s talk about a type of ant. Llewelly suggested the army ant a long time ago, and recently I got an email from Ivy whose list of favorite animals includes the army ant!

The army ant lives in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, and although there are some 200 species in different subfamilies, recent research suggests that many of them are descended from the same species that lived in the supercontinent Gondwana more than 100 million years ago.

Army ants don’t dig permanent nests like other ants. Instead they make temporary camps, usually in a tree trunk or sometimes in a burrow the ants dig. But these camps aren’t anything like ordinary ant nests. Often they’re formed from the bodies of worker ants, who link their legs together to make a living wall. The walls form tubes that make up chambers and passages of the nest, and inside the nest the queen lays her eggs. There are also chambers where food is stored. But the nest isn’t permanent. At most, the army ant only stays in one place for a few weeks, after the larvae pupate. The colony feeds the food stores to the queen, who lays a new batch of eggs timed to hatch when the new ants emerge from their cocoons. At that point, the colony breaks camp and enters the nomadic phase of behavior until the newly hatched batch of larvae are ready to pupate.

What do they do with the larvae while they wander? Workers carry them around. As in other ant species and the honeybees we talked about recently, an army ant colony is divided into different types of ant. There’s a single queen ant, seasonally hatched males with wings who fly off as soon as they’re grown, and many worker ants. But army ants have another caste, the soldier ant. These are much larger than the worker ants and have big heads and strong, sharp mandibles. Some species of army ant forage primarily on the ground while some hunt through treetops and some underground, but they generally hunt in large, well-organized columns with soldier ants on the outside as guards. In many species, the worker ants are further divided into castes that are specialized for specific tasks.

The queen ant is an egg-laying machine. Queens of some species can lay up to 4 million eggs every month. The queen is wingless, but a new queen doesn’t need to leave the colony the way other ant species do. Instead, when new queens emerge from their cocoons as adults, the colony splits and two new colonies form from the old one, each with one of the new queens. Usually more than two queens hatch, but only two survive.

When males emerge from their cocoons, they immediately fly off and search for another colony. But a male can’t just land and mate with a queen. He has to get through her guards, and they decide whether they like him or not. If they find him adequate, they bite his wings off and bring him to the queen. After he mates, he dies. This sounds like the plot of a weird science fiction novel from the 1960s. If a colony’s queen dies, the worker ants may join another colony.

Let’s talk specifically about the Dorylus genus of army ants for a few minutes, which live in Africa and Asia. Dorylus army ants live in simply enormous colonies. When the colony goes foraging, there may be 15 million ants marching in a dense column, and they can eat half a million animals every single day.

That’s why the army ant is so feared. The column of ants is made up of worker ants in the middle with the much larger soldier ants along the edges. The columns don’t move very quickly, but the ants attack, kill, and eat any living animal they encounter that can’t run away. This includes insects, spiders, scorpions, and lots of worms, but also eggs and baby birds, other baby animals, frogs and toads, and even larger animals. What isn’t eaten on the spot is carried back to the camp to feed larvae and the queen.

Army ants are also beneficial to the ecosystem and to humans specifically in many ways. A column of army ants that marches through a village will eat so many insects that they act like a really high quality exterminating service for homes and gardens. They also scare insects and other animals that flee from the ant columns, and a lot of animals benefit from the general chaos. Birds of many species will follow army ants in flocks, grabbing insects as they flee the ants. Some birds even make special calls to alert others that army ants are on the move, so that everybody gets a chance for easy food. Even more animal species will follow the column to clean up what they leave behind, including partially eaten carcasses, animals that were killed but rejected as food, and even the feces of the birds that follow the ants.

And, of course, a lot of animals just eat the army ants. Chimpanzees make different types of tools to help them safely harvest army ants. Most commonly, a chimp will use a stick it’s modified to the right length and shape, referred to as an ant-dipping probe. It will put one end of the stick down in the column of army ants and wait until ants start climbing up the stick. When there are enough ants on the stick, it will remove the stick and eat the ants off of it. It’s an ant-kebob!

If you’re wondering why the chimps aren’t attacked by the ants, or why the ants don’t figure out they’re climbing a stick to nowhere, Dorylus army ants, like most army ant species, are all blind. They communicate by releasing pheromones, which are chemicals with specific signatures that other ants can sense, something like smells. Some species that mostly live aboveground have re-evolved sight to a limited degree.

The mandibles of Dorylus army ant soldiers are so strong, and the ant is so tenacious about holding on, that people in some East African tribes traditionally use them to stitch up wounds. The soldier ant is held so that it bites with one mandible on each side of a wound, holding the edges of skin together. Then the person severs the ant’s body from its head, killing it—but the jaws are so strong that they will continue to stay in place for several days while the wound heals.

In Central and South America, the army ant genus Eciton [ess-ih-tahn] is very similar to Dorylus. Some species can cross obstacles like streams by building a living bridge out of individuals to allow the rest of the column to cross.

Whew, okay, I should probably have made the army ant its own episode, because there’s so much cool research about it that I could just go on forever. But let’s move on to a much different insect next, a butterfly that lives in the eastern United States, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. This is the Appalachian tiger swallowtail, which has yellow wings with black stripes and a black border, and a black body. Some females have all-black wings with orange spots. When the genetic makeup of the butterfly was examined, it turns out that the species originated as a hybrid of the Eastern tiger swallowtail and the Canadian tiger swallowtail. This kind of hybridization is rare in the wild. The Appalachian tiger swallowtail lives in the mountains, usually in high elevations, and while its range overlaps with both parent species, it almost never hybridizes with either. It has inherited the Canadian butterfly’s tolerance for cold but is twice its size. Researchers estimate that the hybridization occurred around 100,000 years ago.

I learned that interesting fact about the Appalachian tiger swallowtails from the May 2018 Flying Snake issue, and let’s go ahead and learn about a mystery invertebrate I also read about in that issue of Flying Snake.

The mystery is from The Desert Magazine, which was published between 1937 and 1985. It was a monthly magazine that focused on the southwestern United States, with article titles like “Rock Hunter in the Sawange Range” and “Ghost City of the White Hills.” Both those headlines are from the January 1947 issue, which is also where the first mention of the Baby of the Desert shows up in the letters section. Flying Snake excerpts the relevant letters from that issue and a few later issues, but I got curious and found the originals online.

I’ll quote part of the original letter because it’s really weird and interesting:

“Gentlemen: Would like to ask if there is such a thing as a very poisonous desert resident called ‘Baby of the Desert,’ so named because of the resemblance of its face to that of a human baby. Whether this so-called ‘Baby of the Desert’ is supposed to be insect, reptile or rodent, I could not find out. …[I]t was considerably smaller than the Gila monster.”

The letter was signed William M. Weldon from South Pasadena, California.

The editor responded, “The question of the Baby of the Desert, Baby-face, or Niño de la Tierra, as it is variously called, came up for discussion on the Letters page of the magazine two years ago. A reader sent in a description of the fearsome beast as it had been pictured to him and asked for confirmation from someone who had seen it.”

Because of the mention of another letter asking about the Baby of the Desert, two years before, I went through the letters sections of all the 1945 issues to find the original. I couldn’t find it in 1945, but I did find a nice letter from James Mayberry in California, who found a desert tortoise with blue paint on its shell. He thought someone had brought the tortoise back from a visit to the desert. James named the tortoise Mojave but knew it needed to go home, so he sent it to the Desert Magazine. I’m delighted to say that the editor took it out to a lonely desert hill where there were other tortoises and let Mojave go. Tortoises live a long time so Mojave might still be stumping around out there, the blue paint on his shell faded in the sun.

Then I went back through the 1944 issues and found the letter in the July issue. It was from Albert Lloyd of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who wrote, “Perhaps some reader can supply authentic information about a small denizen of the deserts and mesas of the Southwest, which the Mexicans call Niño de la Tierra, or Child of the Earth. During four years of roaming around New Mexico and Arizona I was never fortunate enough to see one. But I have talked with several who claim to have seen it. They describe it as a doll-like animal, about three or four inches in length, walking on all fours, with head and face like that of an infant. They claim it will not attack you unless molested and that its bite is more deadly than a rattlesnake’s.”

The editor of the Desert Magazine suggested that the Baby of the Desert was an insect. “[I]t appears that the Baby-face is actually our old friend the yellow and black striped Jerusalem cricket or Sand-cricket, who is nocturnal and usually found under boards or stones.”

But responses in the letters section in following issues, February and April 1947, don’t agree. S.G. Chamberlin of San Fernando, California wrote, “Some years ago…we uncovered what we first thought to be a Jerusalem Cricket. The coloring was the same and it was a little more than two inches long. Later in the day a ranch hand brought us a Jerusalem Cricket and then we noticed quite a difference in the bodies and heads of the two insects. The round face of the first one did attract our attention although we didn’t think of a baby at the time. The ranch foreman placed them in different bottles to show them to a man in the Farm Bureau office who was versed in such things. He reported back that the first insect was called Vinegarones or Sun Spider and supposed to be harmless.

“At the ranch we were told that on the Mexican border there was a similar insect that is supposed to be poisonous.”

And Coila Harris of South Laguna, California wrote, “I was interested in the recent letters about ‘Baby Face.’ This is not the Jerusalem cricket or potato bug, as many believe, but could be mistaken for one of these insects. Baby-face lives down Mexico way. When we were living in El Paso, one of the weird looking bugs was found under our house. It had a body of a large Tarantula, the head was white as a bleached bone and looked like a bald headed baby, a dreadful thing. I was told at the time that Mexicans consider them so poisonous, that if bitten on the finger by one, they chop off the finger.”

Unfortunately for me, the second I saw the mention of a vinegarone, I had a good idea of what this animal might be. And I really don’t want to look at pictures of vinegaroons.

I do try very hard not to be biased against gross-looking insects, because for one thing, they aren’t hurting me and gross is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “ooh gross” is the other person’s “Oh, that is so neat!” Spiders don’t bother me and as long as I don’t have to look closely at an invertebrate’s mouthparts and things, I’m usually okay. But I get a big case of the nopes when it comes to the vinegaroon.

The vinegaroon is an arachnid, related to spiders and scorpions. It sort of looks like a mixture of the two, although there are lots of species and they vary quite a lot. It’s also called the whip scorpion. The name vinegaroon comes from the acidic liquid it squirts from the base of its whip-like tail if it feels threatened, which smells like vinegar. It lives in tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas and Asia, with one species known from Africa. Most species prefer dark, humid areas and live in burrows in rotting wood or under rocks and leaf litter, but the giant whip scorpion lives in more arid areas in the southwestern United States and Mexico.

The giant whip scorpion grows to around 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, not counting the long whip-like tail. Like all vinegaroons, it eats insects, slugs, and other small animals. But no one could look at it and think “baby.” It has big claw-like pedipalps in addition to six walking legs and a pair of front legs that are extremely long and thin, that it uses to feel around with. It has eyes—in fact, like spiders it has eight eyes—but it doesn’t see very well and mostly navigates by touch. It’s dark brown or black with some lighter brown markings on its abdomen.

The Jerusalem cricket looks superficially similar to the vinegaroon although it’s not an arachnid. It’s also not a cricket, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Jerusalem since it’s native to the western United States and Mexico. In fact, it’s related to the weta of New Zealand. It lives in the same sort of places that vinegaroons like, burrowing in moist soil and rotting wood, but it mostly eats decaying plant material although it will sometimes eat small insects. It can bite, although it’s not venomous or poisonous, but it can give off a horrible smell if it’s disturbed. It’s yellowish to dark reddish-brown with a black-striped abdomen and a rounded head. It also does not look anything like a baby.

BUT, while it’s known by a couple of Navajo names that translate to variations on “red skull bug,” in Spanish it’s called cara de niño, which means child’s face, or niño de la tierra.

So I think the Desert Magazine editor was right. The Baby of the Desert is the Jerusalem cricket. But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Jerusalem cricket is sometimes confused with the giant whip scorpion. They’re both large nocturnal creatures with a similar body shape and coloring, that live in the same areas and occupy the same habitat. And they’re both horrifically creepy-looking. You know what? I bet you anything that “Baby of the Desert” and “baby-face” are ironic names. BAD BABY.

The Jerusalem cricket doesn’t have any kind of hearing organs akin to ears but it can sense vibrations. Instead of chirping, it drums its abdomen on the ground to attract a mate. This is what the drumming sounds like.

[Jerusalem cricket drumming]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 182: The Coconut Crab and Friends

Join us this week for some interesting crabs! Thanks to Charles for suggesting the aethra crab!

Aethra crabs look like little rocks, although some people (who must be REALLY hungry) think they look like potato chips:

A hermit crab using a light bulb bottom as an inadequate shell:

The tiniest hermit crab:

Gimme shell pls:

THE BIGGEST HERMIT CRAB, the coconut crab. It really is this big:

Show transcript:

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

We have a bunch of crustaceans this week! I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to get to Charles’s suggestion of aethra crabs, so we’ll start with those.

There are four species of aethra crabs alive today, and they live in warm, shallow coastal waters. They like areas with lots of rocks on the sea floor, because the crabs look like small flattened rocks. They can tuck their legs under their carapace so that they don’t show at all, and often algae and other marine animals like barnacles will attach to the carapace, increasing the crab’s resemblance to a little rock. What eats rocks? Nothing eats rocks! So the aethra crab is safe as long as it stays put with its legs hidden. It lives throughout much of the world’s tropical oceans, especially around islands and reefs in South Asia, but also around Australia, Mexico, and Hawaii.

We don’t know a whole lot about aethra crabs, not even how many species there really are. There are probably undiscovered species that no one has studied yet, but we do know they used to be even more widespread than they are today. Twelve million years ago, for instance, a species of aethra crab lived in what is now Ukraine, with fossil remains only described in 2018.

Most aethra crabs only grow a few inches across, or maybe 6 cm, but the walking rock crab of Mexico can grow to 6.3 inches across, or 16 cm across. It’s light brown with lighter and darker speckles that give it a mottled appearance like a small rock.

Because they’re so flattened with rounded edges, and because some species are pale in color, aethra crabs are sometimes called potato chip crabs. I don’t like that name because it makes them sound tasty and not like little rocks. I think we have established that they really look like little rocks.

That’s just about all I can find out about the aethra crab, so if you’re thinking of going into biology and aren’t sure what subject to study, may I suggest you focus your attention on the aethra crab and bring knowledge about them to the world.

So let’s move on to a different type of crab, the hermit crab. A big part of being a crab is evolving ways to not be eaten. I mean, that’s what every animal wants but crabs have some novel ways of accomplishing it. Some crabs look like tiny rocks, some crabs hide in shells discarded by other animals.

There are hundreds of hermit crab species, which are generally grouped as marine hermit crabs and land hermit crabs. There’s also a single freshwater hermit crab that lives on a single island, Espiritu Santo, in the south Pacific, and in fact only in a single pool on that island. It was only described in 1990 and is small, less than an inch long, or about two and a half cm. It uses the discarded shells of a snail that also lives in its pool.

That’s the big thing about a hermit crab: it uses the shells of other animals as a temporary home. Like all crabs, the hermit crab is an invertebrate with an exoskeleton. But unlike most crabs, its abdomen isn’t armored. Instead it’s soft and vulnerable, but that’s okay because most of the time it’s protected by a shell that the crab wears. In most species the abdomen is actually curved in a spiral shape to better fit into most shells.

When a hermit crab finds an empty shell, it may quickly slip out of its current shell and into the new shell to see if it’s a good fit. Ideally the shell is big enough for the crab to hide in completely, but not so big that it’s awkward for the crab to carry around. If it likes the new shell it will abandon the old shell, but if it doesn’t like the new shell it will just go back to its old one. But the important thing is that it has a shell, so it spends as little time without a shell as possible. In fact, if it can’t find a shell of the right size, a hermit crab will make do with anything it can find, such as a plastic bottle, an old tin can, or other trash. But it’s safest inside a real shell. Sometimes two hermit crabs of about the same size will fight over a shell. You wouldn’t think that the ability of a hermit crab to find a good shell would be something humans can affect, but in some areas, so many shells are collected to sell as souvenirs that hermit crabs really don’t have very many left to choose from and have to use trash or pieces of driftwood instead.

Other than the freshwater hermit crab, marine hermit crabs all live in the ocean. Some species live in shallow water, others in deep water, and often around reefs. There are even a few species that are specialized to live in permanent structures on the sea floor, such as sponges or the abandoned burrows of various worms. Land hermit crabs spend most of their time on land, although they have to keep their gills wet.

People sometimes keep hermit crabs as pets, either in an aquarium for marine species, or a special terrarium for land species. Some species can live for decades if given proper care. Because a pet hermit crab is safe, it doesn’t really matter what kind of shell it wears as long as it’s comfortable, so people will sometimes give their pets imitation shells that are clear so they can see the crab’s interesting-shaped abdomen. You can also get fake shells that are shaped like skulls or tiny houses. There’s a picture that goes around sometimes online of a hermit crab using a real human skull as a shell, but that’s actually fake. Not only is the skull not real, the hermit crab isn’t real. It’s a sculpture.

The biggest species of hermit crab is the coconut crab, also sometimes called the robber crab since when it finds something that might be food, it will carry it away to investigate it. It’s not just the biggest hermit crab, it’s the biggest arthropod that lives on land. An arthropod is any invertebrate with an exoskeleton and segmented body. That includes all insects and crustaceans and arachnids, and so on.

The coconut crab has a legspan over three feet across, or about a meter. It can weigh up to nine pounds, or 4 kg. Researchers think it’s literally as big as an arthropod can grow these days and continue to live on land. It’s a bulky, strong crab that ranges in color from reddish-orange or brown to blue-gray, sometimes with white markings.

The coconut crab uses shells as protection when it’s young, but as it grows larger, it outgrows most shells available. Instead, it develops a tough exoskeleton on its abdomen. It also develops lungs, so an adult coconut crab can actually drown if it gets trapped underwater for long enough—generally about an hour. It still has gills, but they’re tiny and not very efficient.

Its lungs aren’t like those of most other arthropods. In fact it only has one lung, called a branchiostegal lung, that has traits of true lungs but also traits of gills. It doesn’t breathe like vertebrates do; instead, its lung absorbs oxygen from the air passively. To do this properly, though, the lung tissue needs to be moist. A coconut crab uses its hindmost pair of legs to dip water up and wipe it over the lung tissue, which is inside a cavity in the cephalothorax. This is the main part of the body as opposed to the abdomen. This last pair of legs is tiny compared to the other eight legs, and female coconut crabs also use these legs to tend their eggs. Usually the last pair of legs aren’t even visible, since the crab usually keeps them tucked in the lung cavity. The other legs are much larger, and the first pair of legs ends in claws like other crabs.

The coconut crab lives on lots of islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and used to live in Australia and on many more islands. But it’s a big crab and that means it provides a lot of food, so humans have hunted it to extinction in many areas. It’s increasingly rare in many places as a result of hunting and habitat loss. But the coconut crab isn’t helpless. If a coconut crab snaps its pincers on, for instance, a person’s thumb, it will hold on tenaciously, probably while the person flails around in panic and pain. Not only that, but sometimes a population of coconut crabs will feed on plants that contain toxins, such as the sea mango, and will retain the toxins in its body. If a person eats a toxic crab, they may get sick from the poison.

It’s called the coconut crab because it eats coconuts, but it actually doesn’t prefer coconuts. It especially likes bananas. It also eats seeds, nuts, and other plant material, but it’s an omnivore and will eat carrion, other crabs, baby turtles, and even birds. Its antennae have evolved to detect chemicals in the air instead of in the water, which means it has a good sense of smell and can track the smell of rotting fruit or meat from a long distance away.

Even the biggest crabs can climb well and will climb trees, sometimes to get away from potential predators, but sometimes to catch birds. The quickest way to get out of a tree after climbing it is just by falling, and the coconut crab often does this on purpose. Its exoskeleton is so tough that it can fall some 15 feet, or 4.5 meters, without injury. And yes, sometimes a coconut crab will use their claws to break into a coconut to eat it, but it takes a long time—sometimes days. The coconut crab is mostly nocturnal, but it will come out during the day if it’s hungry, especially if it’s raining or foggy out.

A female coconut crab glues her fertilized eggs under her abdomen and carries them around for a few months as they develop. When they’re ready to hatch, she releases them into the ocean. After they hatch, the larvae drift around for several weeks, eating tiny specks of food. As a baby coconut crab grows and develops through its juvenile stages, which generally takes several weeks, it finally settles to the sea floor and finds a shell to hide in, just like other hermit crabs do. If it can’t make it to shore on its own, it will climb onto a floating log or bunch of floating seaweed or a floating coconut, which eventually carries it to shore. It needs to be on shore because only the larvae can swim, and once it reaches its adult stage it has to breathe air.

Like other arthropods, the coconut crab has to molt its exoskeleton periodically as it grows, since the exoskeleton can’t grow. After it molts, it takes up to three weeks for the new exoskeleton to harden. During this time the crab hides in a burrow it digs, because even a gigantic coconut crab is soft and vulnerable without its exoskeleton. It lines its burrow with coconut fibers, which absorb water and helps keep the crab’s lung tissue moist while it rests. The crab will also stop up the entrance to its burrow with one of its claws, to help keep it safe and reduce the loss of moisture from the burrow. The coconut crab continues to grow throughout its life, which can be extremely long—more than sixty years. A big coconut crab’s only predator is people, and frankly I would not want to tangle with one.

Let’s finish the episode with a mystery crab. Wallowa Lake in Oregon, in the United States, is about three and a half miles long, or 5.6 km, and three-quarters of a mile across, or 1.2 km, and is 300 feet at its deepest point, or 91 meters. After gold was found in the area in the late 19th century, the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce was forced out of their ancestral home by the U.S. government, despite the treaties in place to stop that kind of thing happening. Funny how often that happens. Anyway, the gold rushers who moved in spread stories about giant crabs that lived in the lake, which would crawl out at night to grab cattle and pull them into the water to eat.

But the lake was created from melting glaciers near the end of the Pleistocene ice ages, around 11,000 years ago. It’s never been connected to the ocean and is in fact 4,300 feet above sea level, or 1,300 m. It’s also in a part of the world that experiences bitterly cold winters. All freshwater crabs are tropical or subtropical and can’t survive in cold water. Plus, of course, even the biggest coconut crab isn’t big enough to drag a cow into the water.

So the Wallowa Lake crabs are probably just tall tales. But, you know, maybe be careful if you go swimming in the lake at night, just in case.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 181: Updates 3 and a lake monster!

It’s our annual updates and corrections episode, with a fun mystery animal at the end!

Thanks to everyone who contributed, including Bob, Richard J. who is my brother, Richard J. who isn’t my brother, Connor, Simon, Sam, Llewelly, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness Podcast, and probably many others whose names I didn’t write down!

Further reading:

Northern bald ibis (Akh-bird)

Researchers learn more about teen-age T. rex

A squid fossil offers a rare record of pterosaur feeding behavior

The mysterious, legendary giant squid’s genome is revealed

Why giant squid are still mystifying scientists 150 years after they were discovered (excellent photos but you have to turn off your ad-blocker)

We now know the real range of the extinct Carolina parakeet

Platypus on brink of extinction

Discovery at ‘flower burial’ site could unravel mystery of Neanderthal death rites

A Neanderthal woman from Chagyrskyra Cave

The Iraqi Afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Further watching/listening:

Richard J. sent me a link to the Axolotl song and it’s EPIC

Bob sent me some more rat songs after I mentioned the song “Ben” in the rats episode, including The Naked Mole Rap and Rats in My Room (from 1957!)

The 2012 video purportedly of the Lagarfljótsormurinn monster

A squid fossil with a pterosaur tooth embedded:

A giant squid (not fossilized):

White-throated magpie-jay:

An updated map of the Carolina parakeet’s range:

A still from the video taken of a supposed Lagarfljót worm in 2012:

An even clearer photo of the Lagarfljót worm:

Show transcript:

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

This is our third annual updates and corrections episode, where I bring us up to date about some topics we’ve covered in the past. We’ll also talk about an interesting mystery animal at the end. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles I used in the episode’s research and to some videos you might find interesting.

While I was putting this episode together, I went through all the emails I received in the last year and discovered a few suggestions that never made it onto the list. I’m getting really backed up on suggestions again, with a bunch that are a year old or more, so the next few months will be all suggestion episodes! If you’re waiting to hear an episode about your suggestion, hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

Anyway, let’s start the updates episode with some corrections. In episode 173 about the forest raven, I mentioned that the northern bald ibis was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians. Simon asked me if that was actually the case or if only the sacred ibis was considered sacred. I mean, it’s right there in the name, sacred ibis.

I did a little digging and it turns out that while the sacred ibis was associated with the god Thoth, along with the baboon, the northern bald ibis was often depicted on temple walls. It was associated with the ankh, which ancient Egyptians considered part of the soul. That’s a really simplistic way to put it, but you’ll have to find an ancient history podcast to really do the subject justice. So the northern bald ibis was important to the ancient Egyptians and sort of considered sacred, but in a different way from the actual sacred ibis.

In episode 146 while I was talking about the archerfish, I said something about how I didn’t fully understand how the archerfish actually spits water so that it forms a bullet-like blob. Bob wrote and kindly explained in a very clear way what goes on: “Basically, the fish spits a stream of water, but squeezes it so that the back end of the stream is moving faster than the front. So it bunches up as it flies and hits the target with one big smack. Beyond that, the water bullet would fall apart as the back part moves through the front part of the stream, but the fish can apparently judge the distance just right.” That is really awesome.

In another correction, Sam told me ages ago that the official pronouns for Sue the T rex are they/them, because that’s what Sue has requested on their Twitter profile. I forgot to mention this last time, sorry.

While we’re talking about Tyrannosaurus rex, researchers have IDed two teenaged T rex specimens found in Montana. Originally paleontologists thought the specimens might be a related species that grew to a much smaller size, Nanotyrannus, but the team studying them have determined that they were juvenile T rexes. To learn how old the specimens were and how fast they grew, they cut extremely thin slices from the leg bones and examined them under high magnification.

The study of fossil bone microstructure is called paleohistology and it’s a new field that’s helped us learn a lot about long-extinct animals like dinosaurs. We know from this study that T rex grew as fast as modern warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, and we know that the specimens were 13 and 15 years old when they died. T rex didn’t reach its adult size until it was about twenty, and there are definite differences in the morphology of the juvenile specimens compared to an adult. The young T rexes were built for speed and had sharper teeth to cut meat instead of crush through heavy bones the way adults could. This suggests that juvenile T rexes needed to outrun both predators and smaller prey.

In other fossil news, Llewelly sent me a link about a pterosaur tooth caught in a squid fossil. We know pterosaurs ate fish because paleontologists have found fossilized fish bones and scales in the stomach area of pterosaur remains, but now we know they also ate squid. The fossil was discovered in Bavaria in 2012 and is remarkably well preserved, especially considering how few squid fossils we have. One of the things preserved in the fossil is a sharp, slender tooth that matches that of a pterosaur. Researchers think the pterosaur misjudged the squid’s size and swooped down to grab it from the water, but the squid was about a foot long, or 30 cm, and would have been too heavy for the pterosaur to pick up. One of its teeth broke off and remained embedded in the squid’s mantle, where it remains to this day 150 million years later.

And speaking of squid, the giant squid’s genome has been sequenced. Researchers want to see if they can pinpoint how the giant squid became so large compared to most other cephalopods, but so far they haven’t figured this out. They’re also looking at ways that the giant squid differs from other cephalopods and from vertebrates, including humans, to better understand how vertebrates evolved. They have discovered a gene that seems to be unique to cephalopods that helps it produce iridescence.

The Richard J. who is my brother sent me an article about giant squid a while back. There’s a link in the show notes. It has some up-to-date photos from the last few years as well as some of the oldest ones known, and lots of interesting information about the discovery of giant squid.

The Richard J. who is not my brother also followed up after the magpies episode and asked about the magpie jay. He said that the white-throated magpie jay is his favorite bird, and now that I’ve looked at pictures of it, I see why.

There are two species of magpie jay, the black-throated and the white-throated, which are so closely related that they sometimes interbreed where their ranges overlap. They live in parts of Mexico and nearby countries. They look a little like blue jays, with blue feathers on the back and tail, white face and belly, and black markings. Both species also have a floofy crest of curved feathers that looks like something a parrot would wear. A stylish parrot. Like other corvids, it’s omnivorous. It’s also a big bird, almost two feet long including the long tail, or 56 cm.

In other bird news, Connor sent me an article about the range of the Carolina parakeet before it was driven to extinction. Researchers have narrowed down and refined the bird’s range by researching diaries, newspaper reports, and other sightings of the bird well back into the 16th century. It turns out that the two subspecies didn’t overlap much at all, and the ranges of both were much smaller than have been assumed. I put a copy of the map in the show notes, along with a link to the article.

One update about an insect comes from Lynnea, who wrote in after episode 160, about a couple of unusual bee species. Lynnea said that some bees do indeed spin cocoons. I’d go into more detail, but I have an entire episode planned about strange and interesting bees. My goal is to release it in August, so it won’t be long!

In mammal news, the platypus is on the brink of extinction now more than ever. Australia’s drought, which caused the horrible wildfires we talked about in January, is also causing problems for the platypus. The platypus is adapted to hunt underwater, and the drought has reduced the amount of water available in streams and rivers. Not only that, damming of waterways, introduced predators like foxes, fish traps that drown platypuses, and farming practices that destroy platypus burrows are making things even worse. If serious conservation efforts aren’t put into place quickly, it could go extinct sooner than estimated. Conservationists are working to get the platypus put on the endangered species list throughout Australia so it can be saved.

A Neandertal skeleton found in a cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan appears to be a deliberate burial in an area where many other burials were found in the 1950s. The new skeleton is probably more than 70,000 years old and is an older adult. It was overlooked during the 1950s excavation due to its location deep inside a fissure in the cave. The research team is studying the remains and the area where they were found to learn more about how Neandertals buried their dead. They also hope to recover DNA from the specimen.

Another Neandertal skeleton, this one from a woman who died between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago in what is now Siberia, has had her DNA sequenced and compared to other Neandertal DNA. From the genetic differences found, researchers think the Neandertals of the area lived in small groups of less than 60 individuals each. She was also more closely related to Neandertal remains found in Croatia than other remains found in Siberia, which suggests that the local population was replaced by populations that migrated into the area at some point.

Also, I have discovered that I’ve been pronouncing Denisovan wrong all this time. I know, shocker that I’d ever mispronounce a word.

Now for a lizard and a couple of corrections and additions to the recent Sirrush episode. Last year, Richard J. and I wrote back and forth about a few things regarding one of my older episodes. Specifically he asked for details about two lizards that I mentioned in episode 21. I promised to get back to him about them and then TOTALLY FORGOT. I found the email exchange while researching this episode and feel really bad now. But then I updated the episode 21 show notes with links to information about both of those lizards so now I feel slightly less guilty.

Richard specifically mentioned that the word sirrush, or rather mush-khush-shu, may mean something like “the splendor serpent.” I totally forgot to mention this in the episode even though it’s awesome and I love it.

One of the lizards Richard asked about was the afa lizard, which I talked about briefly in episode 21. Reportedly the lizard once lived in the marshes near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Richard wanted to know more about that lizard because he wondered if it might be related to the sirrush legend, which is how we got to talking about the sirrush in the first place and which led to the sirrush episode. Well, Richard followed up with some information he had learned from a coworker who speaks Arabic. Afa apparently just means snake in Arabic, although of course there are different words for snake, and the word has different pronunciations in different dialects. He also mentioned that it’s not just the water monitor lizard that’s known to swim; other monitors do too, including the Nile monitor. I chased down the original article I used to research the afa and found it on Karl Shuker’s blog, and Shuker suggests also that the mysterious afa might be a species of monitor lizard, possibly one unknown to science. We can’t know for certain if the afa influenced the sirrush legend, but it’s neat to think about.

Next up, in cryptid news, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness podcast suggested that some sightings of the White River Monster, which we talked about in episode 153, might have been an alligator—especially the discovery of tracks and crushed plants on the bank of a small island. This isn’t something I’d thought about or seen suggested anywhere, but it definitely makes sense. I highly recommend the Forgotten Darkness podcast and put a link in the show notes if you want to check it out.

And that leads us to a lake monster to finish up the episode. The Lagarfljót [LAH-gar-flote] worm is a monster from Iceland, which is said to live in the lake that gives it its name. The lake is a pretty big one, 16 miles long, or 25 km, and about a mile and a half wide at its widest, or 2.5 km. It’s 367 feet deep at its deepest spot, or 112 m. It’s fed by a river with the same name and by other rivers filled with runoff from glaciers, and the water is murky because it’s full of silt.

Sightings of the monster go back centuries, with the first sighting generally thought to be from 1345. Iceland kept a sort of yearbook of important events for centuries, which is pretty neat, so we have a lot of information about events from the 14th century on. An entry in the year 1345 talks about the sighting of a strange thing in the water. The thing looked like small islands or humps, but each hump was separated by hundreds of feet, or uh let’s say at least 60 meters. The same event was recorded in later years too.

There’s an old folktale about how the monster came to be, and I’m going to quote directly from an English translation of the story that was collected in 1862 and published in 1866. “A woman living on the banks of the Lagarfljót [River] once gave her daughter a gold ring; the girl would fain see herself in possession of more gold than this one ring, and asked her mother how she could turn the ornament to the best account. The other answered, ‘Put it under a heath-worm.’ This the damsel forthwith did, placing both worm and ring in her linen-basket, and keeping them there some days. But when she looked at the worm next, she found him so wonderfully grown and swollen out, that her basket was beginning to split to pieces. This frightened her so much that, catching up the basket, worm and ring, she flung them all into the river. After a long time this worm waxed wondrous large, and began to kill men and beasts that forded the river. Sometimes he stretched his head up on to the bank, and spouted forth a filthy and deadly poison from his mouth. No one knew how to put a stop to this calamity, until at last two Finns were induced to try to slay the snake. They flung themselves into the water, but soon came forth again, declaring that they had here a mighty fiend to deal with, and that neither could they kill the snake nor get the gold, for under the latter was a second monster twice as hard to vanquish as the first. But they contrived, however, to bind the snake with two fetters, one behind his breast-fin, the other at his tail; therefore the monster has no further power to do harm to man or beast; but it sometimes happens that he stretches his curved body above the water, which is always a sign of some coming distress, hunger, or hard times.”

The heath worm is a type of black slug, not a worm or snake at all, and it certainly won’t grow into a dragon no matter how much gold you give it. But obviously there’s something going on in the lake because there have been strange sightings right up to the present day. There’s even a video taken of what surely does look like a slow-moving serpentine creature just under the water’s surface. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video.

So let’s talk about the video. It was taken in February of 2012 by a farmer who lives in the area. Unlike a lot of monster videos it really does look like there’s something swimming under the water. It looks like a slow-moving snake with a bulbous head, but it’s not clear how big it is. A researcher in Finland analyzed the video frame by frame and determined that although the serpentine figure under the water looks like it’s moving forward, it’s actually not. The appearance of forward movement is an optical illusion, and the researcher suggested there was a fish net or rope caught under the water and coated with ice, which was being moved by the current.

So in a way I guess a Finn finally slayed the monster after all.

But, of course, the video isn’t the only evidence of something in the lake. If those widely spaced humps in the water aren’t a monstrous lake serpent of some kind, what could they be?

One suggestion is that huge bubbles of methane occasionally rise from the lake’s bottom and get trapped under the surface ice in winter. The methane pushes against the ice until it breaks through, and since methane refracts light differently from ordinary air, it’s possible that it could cause an optical illusion from shore that makes it appear as though humps were rising out of the water. This actually fits with stories about the monster, which is supposed to spew poison and make the ground shake. Iceland is volcanically and geologically highly active, so earthquakes that cause poisonous methane to bubble up from below the lake are not uncommon.

Unfortunately, if something huge did once live in the lake, it would have died by now. In the early 2000s, several rivers in the area were dammed to produce hydroelectricity, and two glacial rivers were diverted to run into the lake. This initially made the lake deeper than it used to be, but has also increased how silty the water is. As a result, not as much light can penetrate deep into the water, which means not as many plants can live in the water, which means not as many small animals can survive by eating the plants, which means larger animals like fish don’t have enough small animals to eat. Therefore the ecosystem in the lake is starting to collapse. Some conservationists warn that the lake will silt up entirely within a century at the rate sand and dirt is being carried into it by the diverted rivers. I think the takeaway from this and episode 179 is that diverting rivers to flow into established lakes is probably not a good idea.

At the moment, though, the lake does look beautiful on the surface, so if you get a chance to visit, definitely go and take lots of pictures. You probably won’t see the Lagarfljót worm, but you never know.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 178: The Koolakamba

Let’s learn about another mystery ape, the koolakamba (also spelled kooloo-kamba or other variations)!

Further reading:

Between the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee

The Yaounde Zoo mystery ape and the status of the kooloo-kamba

Mystery of the Koolakamba

Antoine the Yaounde Zoo ape, supposedly a koolakamba:

Mafuka (sometimes spelled Mafuca):

A rare photo of the Bili ape:

A handsome western gorilla:

A handsome western chimpanzee:

A western chimpanzee mother and baby:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to round out our bonus mystery animal month with a mystery ape called the koolakamba. Every time I think we’ve covered every mystery ape out there, I find another one.

The koolakamba first appears in print in the mid-19th century, but let’s fast-forward to 1996 first and talk about a photograph of a purported koolakamba. The picture was taken at the Yaounde Zoo in Central Cameroon in Africa, and the ape was a male called Antoine. He has very black skin on his face but bright orange eyes, with a pronounced brow ridge. The picture appeared in the November 1996 issue of the Newsletter of the Internal Primate Protection League and some people suggested the ape was a hybrid of a chimpanzee and a gorilla. That’s what a koolakamba is said to be, a chimp-gorilla hybrid.

But that’s not what the koolakamba was always said to be. So let’s go back again to find out what the first European naturalists reported about this animal.

The first European to write about the koolakamba was a man called Paul DuChaillu. He was also the first European to write about several other animals, including the gorilla, and he was always eager to find more and describe them scientifically. He was the one who gave the koolakamba its name, which was supposed to be a local name for the animal, meaning “one who says ‘kooloo.’” In other words, the ape’s typical call was supposed to sound like it was saying kooloo. I’ve chosen the spelling koolakamba for this episode, as you’ll see in the show notes, but I’ve also seen it as kooloo-kamba with various spellings.

Chimpanzees and gorillas were well known to the local people, of course, but although they weren’t quote-unquote discovered until much later, early travelers to Africa mentioned them occasionally. The first mention of both dates to about 1600. In 1773 a British merchant wrote about three apes he heard about from locals: the chimpanzee, the gorilla, and a third ape called the itsena.

DuChaillu thought the koolakamba was a separate species too, one that looked similar to both the gorilla and the chimpanzee. Other explorers, big game hunters, and zoologists thought it was a chimp-gorilla hybrid, which accounted for its similarity to both apes. A few thought the koolakamba was just a subspecies of chimp, while a few thought it was a subspecies of gorilla.

The argument of what precisely the koolakamba was is still ongoing, but no one ever denied that the koolakamba existed. After all, there were specimens, both dead and alive. In July 1873, a female chimpanzee named Mafuka was shipped to the Dresden Zoo, and she was supposed to be a koolakamba.

We have some beautifully done engravings of her face that are so detailed they might as well be photographs. Mafuka had black skin on her face, pronounced brow ridges, fairly small ears, and a gorilla-like nose. Her hair was black with a reddish tinge. She was also a big ape although she was young, measuring almost four feet high, or 120 cm. She only lived two and a half years in captivity, unfortunately, dying in December of 1875.

Some zoologists classified Mafuka as a young gorilla, while others thought she was a chimpanzee. Others thought she was a hybrid of the two apes. In 1899 an anatomist claimed she was a koolakamba and a different species from either ape.

Other koolakamba apes have been identified after Mafuka, including one called Johanna kept by Barnum & Bailey at the end of the 19th century. But there are more recent examples. A chimpanzee colony kept at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico supposedly had a koolakamba in the 1960s. An ape expert named Osman Hill studied the chimps at Holloman and published his observations in the late 1960s in a comprehensive taxonomy of the chimpanzee. Hill was convinced that the koolakamba was a subspecies of chimp, which he named Pan troglodytes kooloo-kamba.

But Hill’s description of the koolakamba varies from DuChaillu’s description. Basically the only agreements between the two is that the koolakamba has a black face—dark enough that it’s usually referred to as ebony—and pronounced brow ridges.

And that’s the trouble. No one seems able to agree on what the koolakamba actually definitively looks like. Part of the problem is that Europeans who went to Africa to kill animals and claim them as new to science asked the locals what a particular animal was, and assumed that the locals thought about animal relationships the same way Europeans do. That is, we think of animals as distinct species even if they look similar. But many people in Africa, especially hunters, and especially in the 19th century and earlier, approached animals with a different mindset. They needed to know what animals were good to eat, what animals were safe to hunt and which were dangerous and should be avoided, and so forth. Often, they gave different names to the same species of animal based on physical characteristics like size or color. But the Europeans didn’t know this. Many of the local names reported for apes that resemble what we might call the koolakamba translate to things like “gorilla’s brother” and “gorilla-like.”

So there are a lot of things going on here. Let’s see if we can make some sense out of this confusion.

The first big question, of course, is if chimpanzees and gorillas even live in the same parts of Africa. And it turns out they do, at least in a few places in western Africa. Where the territories of chimps and gorillas overlap, they generally avoid each other. It’s rare that they interact at all, and extremely rare that they get in fights. Even if they were feeding in the same small area, they wouldn’t need to fight because they eat different things. Gorillas mostly eat leaves and twigs, while chimps prefer fruit and meat. Also, of course, gorillas stay on the ground while chimps spend most of their time in trees.

So there is enough population overlap that there’s a potential for gorillas and chimpanzees to interact. That doesn’t mean they hybridize, of course. While gorillas and chimpanzees do share a subfamily, they don’t share a genus, which means they’re not very closely related. Chimps are actually more closely related to humans than to gorillas, and we share the same subfamily with both. If you listened to episode 120 about hybrid animals, you may remember that the less closely related two species of animal are, the less likely they are to be interested in mating, the less likely that a pregnancy will result even if they do mate, and the less likely that the baby will survive even if the female does get pregnant. So while it’s extremely unlikely that gorillas and chimps could or would hybridize, it’s not completely out of the question. But even if it does happen, it would be an extremely rare occurrence for a chimp-gorilla hybrid to be born at all, much less live to adulthood.

So we can make a check-mark next to the “hybrid ape” hypothesis, but only a very small check-mark.

Could the koolakamba be a separate species of ape entirely, something new to science? That wouldn’t explain why it’s generally seen in the company of chimpanzees that look like ordinary chimps, not other koolakambas. There are reports that the koolakamba is solitary or only hangs out on the edges of chimp societies, but I can’t find any good sources for these claims and they may not be accurate. If it is a rare species of ape related to the chimpanzee, it shouldn’t be hanging out with chimps. Different species with the same dietary and environmental needs don’t live in the same place. One will always outcompete the other, either driving it to extinction or into another area.

So I’d say no check-mark next to the new species of ape hypothesis.

If you remember episode 102 where we talked about the Bili ape, it turned out that the Bili ape is a population of chimps where the males grow especially large and look gorilla-like. Could the koolakamba actually be the same thing as a Bili ape? The Bili ape is only found in far northern Congo in the Bili Forest, which is close to central Africa, while the koolakamba is only reported from West Africa. So no check-mark for this hypothesis either, although that was a good suggestion.

Chimps can show a lot of variety in facial features, including skin color and ear shape and size, and so on. They also vary in overall body size, just as any animal does. I suspect the main reason that the koolakamba is so often considered a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid is because the koolakamba’s face is always described as ebony or jet black. This is uncommon in chimps, but all gorillas have dark gray or black skin.

Some populations of the subspecies of chimp that lives in West Africa, the western chimpanzee, are so different from other chimps that some researchers suggest it may be a different species. These populations use spears to hunt, cool off by swimming and playing in water, are more social between tribes than other chimps, and even sometimes live in caves. They also typically live in savannas or open woodland instead of thick forest. Until recently, most observational studies of chimps in the wild have focused on the eastern chimpanzee, so researchers were shocked to learn how different the western chimp is. And the western chimpanzee is generally a little larger than eastern chimps.

It may be the case that the koolakamba isn’t a separate type of animal but a western chimpanzee that shows individual differences that seem striking to us. The fact that even ape experts and local hunters can’t agree on what the koolakamba actually looks like suggests that it’s not a separate subspecies or even a hybrid. It’s just a chimp that happens to have some facial features that look slightly more gorilla-like than other chimps. This is where I would put a nice big check-mark, pending new information.

For all we know, chimps think other chimps with koolakamba-type features are absolutely gorgeous. Or other chimps might think they look a little too gorilla-like, so they might be considered kind of ugly.

I like to imagine a mother chimp looking at her newborn baby and thinking, “Oh my gosh, what a beauty! Look at those distinguished brow ridges and attractive nose. My little baby is going to be the star of the whole troop one day!” But then again, all mothers think that about their babies.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 177: The Mush-khush-shu, AKA the Sirrush

This week we’ll look at an ancient mystery from the Middle East, a mythological dragon-like animal called the Mush-khush-shu, popularly known as the sirrush. Thanks to Richard J. for the suggestion!

The Ishtar Gate (left, a partial reconstruction of the gate in a Berlin museum; right, a painting of the gate as it would have looked):

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

This week I have an interesting mystery animal suggested last September by Richard J. Thanks for the suggestion, Richard!

Before we learn about what the sirrush is, though, a quick note, or at least I’ll try to make it quick. I know a lot of people listen to Strange Animals as a fun escape from the everyday world, but right now the everyday world has important stuff going on that I can’t ignore. I want to make it clear to all my listeners that I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I also support LGBTQ rights. Everyone in the whole world deserves respect and equality, but unfortunately right now we’re not there yet. We have to work for equality, all of us together.

If you’re not sure what to do to make the world a better place for everyone, it’s actually really simple. Just treat everyone the same way you want others to treat you and your friends. This sounds easy but when you meet someone who seems different from you it can be hard. If someone has different color skin from you, or speaks with an accent you find hard to understand, or uses an assistive device like a wheelchair, or if you just think someone looks or acts weird, it’s easy to treat that person different and even be rude, although you may not realize that’s what you’re doing at the time. When that happens, it’s always because you’re scared of the person’s differences. You have to consciously remind yourself that you’re being unreasonable and making that person’s day harder when it was probably already pretty hard, especially if everywhere they go, people treat them as someone who doesn’t fit in. Just treat them normally and both you and the other person will feel good at the end of the day.

So that’s that. I hope you think about this later even if right now you’re feeling irritated that I’m taking time out of my silly animal podcast to talk about it. Now, let’s find out what the sirrush is and why it’s such a mystery!

The sirrush is a word from ancient Sumerian, but it’s actually not the right term for this animal. The correct term is mush-khush-shu (mušḫuššu), but sirrush is way easier for me to pronounce. So we’ll go with sirrush, but be aware that that word is due to a mistranslation a hundred years ago and scholars don’t actually use it anymore.

My first introduction to the sirrush was when I was a kid and read the book Exotic Zoology by Willy Ley. Chapter four of that book is titled “The Sirrush of the Ishtar Gate,” and honestly this is about the best title for any chapter I can think of. But while Ley was a brilliant writer and researcher, the book was published in 1959. It’s definitely out of date now.

The sirrush is found throughout ancient Mesopotamian mythology. It usually looks like a snakelike animal with the front legs of a lion and the hind legs of an eagle. It’s sometimes depicted with small wings and a crest of some kind, sometimes horns and sometimes frills or even a little crown. And it goes back a long, long time, appearing in ancient Sumerian art some four thousand years ago.

But let’s back up a little and talk about Mesopotamia and the Ishtar Gate and so forth. If you’re like me, you’ve heard these names but only have a vague idea of what part of the world we’re talking about.

Mesopotamia refers to a region in western Asia and the Middle East, basically between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These days the countries of Iraq and Kuwait, parts of Turkey and Syria, and a little sliver of Iran are all within what was once called Mesopotamia. It’s part of what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The known history of this region goes back five thousand years in written history, but people have lived there much, much longer. Some 50,000 years ago humans migrated from Africa into the area, found it a really nice place to live, and settled there.

Parts of it are marshy but it’s overall a semi-arid climate, with desert to the north. People developed agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, including irrigation, but many cultures specialized in fishing or nomadic grazing of animals they domesticated, including sheep, goats, and camels. As the centuries passed, the cultures of the area became more and more sophisticated, with big cities, elaborate trade routes, and stupendous artwork.

That includes the Ishtar Gate, which was one of the entrances to Babylon, the capital city of the kingdom of Babylonia. The city grew along the banks of the Euphrates River until it was one of the largest cities in the world by about 1770 BCE. Probably a quarter million people lived there in its heyday around the sixth century BCE, but it was a huge and important city for hundreds of years. It’s located in what is now Iraq not far from Baghdad. Babylon is actually the source of the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis. In that story, people decided to build a tower high enough to touch heaven, but God didn’t like that and caused the workers to all speak different languages and scattered them across the world. But that story may have grown from earlier stories from Mesopotamia, such as a Sumerian myth where a king asks the god Enki to restore a single language to all the people building an enormous ziggurat so the workers could communicate more easily.

Babylon means “gate of the gods,” and it did have many splendid gates in the massive walls surrounding the city. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported there were a hundred of these gates. One of these was the Ishtar Gate, built around 575 BCE. This wasn’t like a garden gate but an imposing and important entry point to the city. For one thing, it was the starting point of a half-mile religious procession held at the new year, which was celebrated at the spring equinox. The gate was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was more than 38 feet high, or 12 meters, and faced with glazed bricks. The background bricks were blue, with decorative motifs in orange and white, and there were rows of bas-relief lions, bulls, and sirrushes.

The sirrush was considered a sacred animal of both Babylon and its patron god, Marduk. It’s sometimes called a dragon in English, but from artwork that shows both Marduk and a sirrush, the sirrush was small, maybe the size of a big dog.

The question, of course, is whether the sirrush was based on a real animal or if it was an entirely mythical creature.

As I’ve said before in other episodes, every culture has stories that impart useful information—warnings, history lessons, and so forth. Every culture has monsters and mythological creatures of various kinds. That doesn’t mean those animals were ever thought of as real animals, although they might have taken on aspects of real animals. Think of it this way: You know the story of little red riding hood, right? Where the wolf meets the little girl on her way to Grandma’s house, then runs ahead and swallows the grandma whole and then tricks the little girl into coming close enough to swallow too? That story was never intended to be about a real, actual talking wolf but a warning to children to not talk to strangers. (There are plenty of other things going on in that story, but that’s the main takeaway.)

In other words, it’s quite likely that the sirrush was never meant to be anything but a creature of mythology, a glorious pet for a god. Then again, it’s also possible that it was based on a known creature, sort of like the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is based on the real wolf that can’t talk.

And if that’s the case, what might that animal be?

There have been a lot of suggestions over the years. Willy Ley even suggested it was a modern dinosaur, possibly the mokele-mbembe. That was before the mokele-mbembe stories were widely recognized as hoaxes, as you may remember from way back in episode two. Other people have suggested it was an animal called a Silesaurus, which lived some 230 million years ago in what is now Poland.

Silesaurus grew up to around 7 ½ feet long, or 2.3 meters, and does kind of resemble the Ishtar Gate sirrush. It was slender and probably walked on all fours, with a long tail, long neck, and long legs. It had big eyes and probably mostly ate insects and other arthropods.

Silesaurus had traits found in dinosaurs but it wasn’t actually a dinosaur, although it belonged to a group of animals that were ancestral to dinosaurs. But it probably had one trait that puts it right out of the running to be the model for the sirrush, and that is that paleontologists think it had a beak. This wouldn’t have looked like a bird’s beak but more like a turtle’s, but it would have made the shape of the head very different from the snakelike head of the sirrush. Silesaurus probably pecked like a bird to grab insects. It also had stronger rear legs than front legs, as opposed to the sirrush that was depicted with birdlike rear legs but muscular lion-like front legs.

Silesaurus also lived 230 million years ago, so there’s just simply no way that it survived to modern times, no matter how much it superficially resembles the sirrush.

Ley also claims that the sirrush was the same dragon mentioned in the Bible, in a story called “Bel and the Dragon” in the extended Book of Daniel. Daniel slays the dragon by feeding it cakes made from hair and pitch. But there’s actually no connection between the sirrush and the dragon in this story.

One very specific detail of the sirrush is its forked tongue. This is a snakelike trait, of course, but some lizards also have forked tongues. Could the sirrush of mythology be based on a large lizard? For instance, a type of monitor lizard?

The largest monitor lizard species is the Komodo dragon, which can grow some ten feet long, or more than 3 meters. We talked about it in the Dragons episode a couple of years ago. But there are smaller, more common species that live throughout much of Africa, southern and southeastern Asia, and Australia. And that includes the Middle East.

The desert monitor was once fairly common throughout the Middle East, although it’s threatened now from habitat loss. It can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and varies in color from light brown or grey to yellowish. Some have stripes or spots. It eats pretty much anything it can catch, and like many monitor species it’s a good swimmer. It hibernates in a burrow during the winter and also spends the hottest part of the day in its burrow. Like other monitor lizards it has a forked tongue and a flattish head. And it has a long tail, fairly long, strong legs, and a long neck.

If the sirrush was based on a real animal, it’s a good bet that that animal was the desert monitor. That doesn’t mean anyone thought the sirrush was a desert monitor or that we can point to the desert monitor and say, “Ah yes, the fabled sirrush, also called Mušḫuššu.” But people in Mesopotamia would have been familiar with this lizard, so a larger and more exaggerated version of it might have inspired artists and storytellers.

So…Boom! Looks like we solved that mystery. And we learned some history along the way. Definitely check the show notes for pictures of the Ishtar Gate, which has been partially reconstructed from bricks found in archaeological digs. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Also, the desert monitor is totally adorable.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses

We have more mystery animals this week, horrible carcasses that have washed ashore and are hard to identify! It’s a sequel to our popular Globsters episode, episode 87. None of these are actual mysteries but they’re all pretty gross and awesome.

(I don’t know what I did wrong with the audio but it sounds bad, sorry. I just got a new laptop and have been experimenting with improving audio, and this was obviously a failed experiment.)

Further reading:

The Conakry monster:

Brydes whale almost swallows a diver!

The Moore’s Beach monster:

The Tecolutla Monster:

Further watching:

Oregon’s Exploding Whale Note: The video says it’s a Pacific grey whale but other sources say it’s a sperm whale. I called it a sperm whale in the episode but that may be incorrect.

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

A Bryde’s whale hunting (left) and with its throat pleats expanded to hold more water (right):

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

The Sakhalin Island woolly whale and a detail of the “fur” (decomposing connective tissue):

The Tecolutla monster (yeah, kind of hard to make out details but the guy in the background has a nice hat):

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

Remember episode 87 about globsters? Well, let’s revisit some globsters I didn’t mention in that episode, or basically just any weird dead animals that have washed ashore in various parts of the world.

We’ll start with the Conakry monster, which I learned about while I was researching last week’s episode about small mystery animals. In May 2007 a huge, peculiar-looking dead animal washed ashore in Guinea in Africa. It looked like a badly decomposed alligator of enormous size, with black plates on its back that almost looked burnt. It had a long tail and legs, but it also had fur. Its mouth was huge but there were no teeth visible.

If you’ve listened to the globsters episode, you can guess what this was just from the mention of fur. It’s not fur, of course, but collagen fibers, a connective tissue that’s incredibly tough and takes years, if not decades, to fully decompose. But what’s up with the burnt-looking plates on its back? Well, that’s actually not rare in decomposing whales. And it’s not even on its back; the carcass is lying on its back, so the plates are on its belly. You can even see the ventral pleats that allow it to expand its mouth as it engulfs water before sieving it out through its baleen.

So yes, this is a dead baleen whale, and we even know what kind. The legs aren’t legs but flippers, and details of their shape and size immediately let whale experts identify this as a humpback whale.

Another strange sea creature, referred to as the Ataka carcass, washed ashore in Egypt in January 1950 after a colossal storm that didn’t let up for 72 hours. When the storm finally abated, a huge dead animal was on the beach. It was the size of a whale and looked like one except that it had a pair of tusks that jutted out from its mouth. Witnesses said it had no eyes but they did note the presence of baleen.

The baleen identified it as a whale, but what about those tusks? Well, it turns out that those are bones that were exposed by the stormy water. They’re called mandible extensions and the whale itself was identified as a Bryde’s whale. It resembles a sei whale and not a whole lot is known about it.

The longest Bryde’s whale ever measured was just under 51 feet, or 15.5 meters. It’s related to blue whales and humpbacks and mostly eats small fish like anchovies, cephalopods, and other small animals. It’s a swift, slender whale, the only baleen whale that lives year-round in warm water so it doesn’t need blubber to keep it warm.

And you know what? A DIVER WAS ONCE SWALLOWED BY A BRYDE’S WHALE. Okay, it didn’t actually swallow him but it gulped him into its mouth when he was swimming near a school of fish. Fortunately for the diver, after a few minutes the whale spat him out. Another diver had a close call in 2015 when a whale charged past him to gulp down some fish that he was photographing, and he was nearly swallowed and then was nearly hit by the whale’s tail.

Anyway, in baleen whales the lower jaw is made of two separate bones called mandibles, mandible extensions, or just lower jaws. They’re only loosely attached and often separate after death, especially after being tossed around in a storm.

Even longer ago, in 1925, a weird dead animal with a duck-like bill and long neck washed ashore at Moore’s Beach near Santa Cruz, California. It’s now called Natural Bridges State Beach. It was almost twenty feet long, or six meters.

A man named E.L. Wallace said it was a plesiosaur that had been frozen in a glacier, and when the glacier melted the carcass was washed south to California. But when someone took the carcass to the California Academy of Sciences, biologists immediately recognized it as a Baird’s Beaked Whale, also called Baird’s fourtooth whale. The head was nearly severed from the body, only connected by a twist of blubber that looked like a long neck. The school kept the skull, which is still on display.

The Baird’s beaked whale lives in the northern Pacific and can grow 42 feet long, or nearly 13 meters. Its dorsal fin is small and toward the back of its body, and its flippers are short and rounded. It has a bulbous melon, the bump on the forehead that helps in echolocation, and long jaws that do sort of resemble a duck’s bill, a little. Males fight by using their four sharp teeth, which jut out from the lower jaw and are always exposed, so that they eventually get barnacles growing on them, but females have the teeth too.

The Baird’s beaked whale is a deep diver that mostly eats deep-sea fish and cephalopods, but it will also eat crustaceans and other invertebrates. It hunts throughout the day and night, unlike most other whale species, and researchers think it probably doesn’t use its eyes much at all, certainly not to hunt. It has well-developed echolocation that it uses instead.

In 2015, a carcass now dubbed the woolly whale washed ashore on Sakhalin Island, which is part of Russia even though it’s very close to Japan. It was more than 11 feet long, or 3 1/3 meters, with a birdlike bill and fur, but it was later identified as another Baird’s beaked whale. That’s not the first weird carcass washed up on Sakhalin Island, but it’s the most well documented.

On the other side of the world, in the town of Tecolutla in Veracruz, Mexico in 1969, some locals walking along the beach at night saw a monster in the water. It was 72 feet long, or 22 meters, with a beak or fang or bone jutting from its head–reports vary–huge eye sockets, and was covered with hair-like fibers. Some witnesses said it was plated with armor too. It was floating offshore and later the people who found it claimed it was still alive when they first saw it. Since the hairy fibers are a sign of a whale or shark that’s been dead and decomposing in water for considerable time, they probably mistook the motion of the carcass in the waves for a living animal swimming.

But the locals who found the carcass thought its bones were made of ivory and would be valuable. They kept their find a secret for a week and managed to haul it onshore. It took them 14 hours and was probably really smelly work. They tried to cut it apart on the beach but only managed to remove the enormous head. By that time the rest of the body was starting to get buried in sand.

At that point the locals, frustrated, decided they needed heavy machinery to move the thing. They told the mayor of Tecolutla that they’d discovered a crashed plane, probably expecting the city to send out a crane big enough to move a small plane and therefore big enough to move their monster. But, of course, when the volunteer rescue party showed up to the supposed plane crash, all they found was a really stinky 72-foot-long corpse. The mayor decided that a stinky 72-foot-long corpse was exactly what tourists wanted to see, so instead of hauling it out to sea or burying it, he moved it in front of the town’s lighthouse so people could take pictures of it.

He was right, too. A college student who traveled to the town to film the event said there were a hundred times more tourists in the area than usual, all to look at the monster.

What photos we have of the monster aren’t very good and basically just show a big long lump. Biologists finally identified it as the remains of a sei whale, a baleen whale that you may remember from episode 67, about sea monsters. Living Sei whales are probably the source of at least some sea monster sightings. The horns or beak were probably jaw bones, as in the Ataka carcass we talked about earlier.

Let’s finish with something a little different. This isn’t exactly a globster or hard-to-identify monster, but just a plain old obvious sperm whale carcass that washed ashore in Florence, Oregon in the western United States in November 1970. It was 45 feet long, or 14 meters, and was way too big and heavy to move. So instead of towing it out to sea or burying it in the sand, the local authorities decided the best way to get rid of the massive stinky dead animal was of course to blow it up with dynamite.

But no one was sure how much dynamite to use, even though an expert who happened to be in town said twenty sticks of dynamite would be plenty. Instead, they used twenty CASES. That’s half a ton of dynamite.

It was way too much dynamite. I mean, honestly, any dynamite would have been too much, but this was way way too much. The carcass exploded and sent chunks of blubber flying at least a quarter mile. And remember that expert who said “whoa there, twenty sticks of dynamite is enough”? He was there, driving a brand new car. Well, a big chunk of blubber fell right on his new car and destroyed it.

After all that, most of the whale carcass remained where it was. The dynamite had mostly blown a big hole in the sand and only exploded part of the whale. Fortunately no one was hurt.

These days, Oregon buries any dead whales that wash ashore.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 175: Three Small Mystery Animals

This week we’ve got three more mystery animals, but they’re small instead of gigantic! Also, I didn’t say anything about it in the episode, but Black lives matter. Stay safe and fight for justice, everyone.

The water chevrotain:

The real-life face-scratcher monster, Schizodactylus monstrosus, more properly known as a dune cricket:

Flying ants:

It’s flying ants, that’s what it is:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about three mystery animals, but they’re not giants. They’re small mysteries.

We’ll start with a small mystery animal from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa. Guinea borders the ocean on its west and is shaped sort of like a croissant. The middle of the country is mountainous, which is where the tankongh is supposedly found.

The tankongh is supposed to look like a small, shy zebra with tusks and it lives in high mountain forests. If that description makes you think of a chevrotain, you may have listened to episode 116, about various unusual hoofed animals. The chevrotain is a small ruminant that has short tusks or fangs instead of horns or antlers like other ruminants. Many have white stripes and spots, including the water chevrotain.

The water chevrotain is the largest of the known chevrotain species, but that’s not saying much because they’re all pretty small. The female is a little larger than the male, but it’s barely more than a foot tall at the shoulder, or 35 cm. The coat is reddish-brown with horizontal white stripes on the sides and white spots on the back. It has a rounded rump with a short tail that’s white underneath. So, you know, it’s sort of rabbit-like, but with long slender legs and tiny cloven hooves like a little bitty pig’s legs. It lives in tropical lowland forests of Africa, always near water. It’s nocturnal and mostly eats fruit, although it will also eat insects and crabs.

But while that sounds a little like the description given of the tankongh, it’s not a very close match. The water chevrotain only lives in lowlands, while the tankongh is supposed to live in the mountains. But the water chevrotain is the only species of chevrotain that lives in Africa; all the others are native to Asia.

So it’s very possible that there’s another chevrotain species hiding in the mountains of Guinea and nearby countries. One visitor to Guinea reported being shown some tiny gray hooves and pieces of black and cream skin supposedly from a tankongh that had been killed and eaten. Since the water chevrotain is red-brown and white, the skin must be from a different animal. Unfortunately, the witness doesn’t report if the hooves were cloven like the chevrotain’s.

Hopefully, if this is a species of chevrotain that’s new to science, it’s safe in its mountain habitat from the deforestation, mining, and other issues threatening many animals in Guinea.

Our next mystery animal is an invertebrate from India called the muhnochwa, or face scratcher. The story apparently started in 2002 and spread throughout Uttar Pradesh state. Stories of a small but hideous insect with six legs covered with spines caused panic during an especially hot, dry summer. The scratch monster supposedly came out at night and attacked sleepers, scratching them greviously with its legs, sometimes causing burns or even killing people. Some witnesses said it was the size of a football and that it glowed or sparkled with red and blue lights.

Then, in late August, someone trapped a scratch monster and took it to Lucknow University for identification. It was a type of dune cricket, usually only found in sandy ground near river banks in parts of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. It grows around three inches long, or almost 8 cm, and is yellowish-brown with sturdy legs that do indeed have spiny structures at the ends. It’s nocturnal although it doesn’t glow or shine.

During the day, the dune cricket lives in burrows it digs in the sandy soil, often very deep burrows since the cricket prefers damp ground. It comes out at night to hunt insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets, including other dune crickets. Its antennae are longer than its body and the spines on its legs help it burrow and navigate the sandy soil where it lives.

So while the cricket is scary-looking, it’s not dangerous to humans at all. It certainly couldn’t kill anyone, and probably couldn’t do more than make faint scratches that wouldn’t even pierce the skin.

Possibly what happened was that unusually dry weather caused the crickets to search for moist ground, which means they might have been seen in areas where they were usually extremely rare. Because of its ferocious appearance, people assumed it was dangerous, and then stories about people dying from the insect started circulating, which made people even more frightened. Even after the insect was identified, news outlets kept reporting it as a monstrous, possibly extraterrestrial creature, which made things worse, although fortunately it eventually turned into an urban legend sort of joke once people realized it wasn’t really dangerous.

Oh, and the dune cricket is also an insect in Animal Crossing, called the mole cricket. You have to listen for its chirping, then dig it up, and quick switch to your net to scoop it up as it runs away. But you can’t do that now unless you live in the southern hemisphere, because it’s only in the game between November and May in the northern hemisphere.

Our last small mystery animal is an ant, but not one particular species of ant. In many ant species, once a year a special hatch of eggs develop into ants with wings. The female ants are all queens but there are also plenty of much smaller males. The ants swarm into the air and fly off in a group. This generally happens in summer, especially on hot, humid days.

It’s known as a nuptial swarm because all the ants are ready to mate and start new colonies. Well, the queens start new colonies. The males just die. The queen ants that survive the nuptial swarm after mating land, bite off their own wings, and search for a good place to start a new nest. If the queen survives, she begins laying eggs to hatch workers, using the sperm she collected from males during the flight. She’ll use the sperm for the rest of her life, and in some species that’s something like twenty years. She stores it in a special chamber in her body.

Entomologists know a lot about swarming ants. It’s not exactly a rare phenomenon. Nuptial swarms can sometimes contain millions of individual ants as ants from different colonies combine. This helps reduce the risk of any particular ant being eaten by predators and it helps mix up the gene pool by allowing ants from different colonies to find each other and mate. The females release pheromones that attract the males, and the females usually fly quickly and make the male pursue so queens mate with only the strongest males.

Different species of ant will fly at different times and require different temperature and humidity levels to start the nuptial flight. Many species prefer to fly after rain or thunderstorms and some prefer to fly in late evening or at night when there are fewer predators. Sometimes a swarm is so large it shows up on weather radar.

But that’s not the mysterious part. But is it possible that these clouds of winged ants, which often fly so closely together that they seem to be a solid mass, could be the source of some UFO sightings?

At first thought that’s preposterous. Ants don’t give off light any more than dune crickets do. Or do they?

Ants have hard exoskeletons and sometimes this can reflect sunlight so that the ant appears to glow. But I’m talking about actual glowing ants, not just reflected light.

As you may remember from episode 10, about electric animals, we’re only just now starting to learn about how insects and other invertebrates use electric fields. One thing that we know happens is a build-up of static electricity on the body of flying insects. This is well documented in bumblebees and when a bee lands on a flower, the static electricity actually temporarily changes the flower’s own negative charge. Other bees can sense this change and know that a bee has already visited that flower recently. The static charge also helps pollen adhere to the bee.

So it’s completely possible that flying ants also have an electrostatic charge, from both the action of the wings and the movement of air molecules over the body. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be visible, but in late evening or night-time when the air is already charged from the recent passage of a storm, on rare occasions the whole colony might glow. Since it’s hard enough to tell an object’s size, distance, and speed in the air, a zigzagging, fast-moving, densely compacted swarm of a million or so winged ants glowing in the sky might be taken for a much larger but much farther away aircraft of some kind emitting light.

That’s not to say that every UFO is a swarm of glowing winged ants. Obviously, even if it does happen like this, it would be extremely rare. But it might be the case for the occasional UFO sighting. After all, UFOs are unidentified flying objects, whether that object is an alien spaceship buzzing our planet or a bunch of glowing ants. So if you see a UFO on a humid summer night after a thunderstorm, maybe take a closer look just in case you’re observing an incredibly rare natural phenomenon. And if it isn’t glowing ants, it might be aliens, so either way you might see something amazing.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!



It’s a bonus monster month in June, because everything is awful and learning about monsters will take our minds off the awfulness. This week let’s learn about some mysterious stories from around the world that feature huge octopus or squid!

Further watching:

River Monsters episode about the Lusca

A colossal squid, up close to that gigantic eyeball:

Blue holes in the ocean and on land:

A giant Pacific octopus swimming:

The popular image of the kraken since the 1750s:

Show transcript:

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

Last week’s mystery bird got me thinking about how far away Halloween feels and how we haven’t really had a lot of monsters or mystery animals lately. So let’s have an extra monster month in June! We’ll start with a topic I’ve touched on in past episodes but haven’t covered in depth, three stories of GIANT OCTOPUS TYPE MONSTERS from around the world.

If you haven’t listened to episode 142, about octopuses, that ran last October, I recommend you listen to it for information about octopus biology and habits. This week we are all about the mysterious and gigantic octopuses.

Let’s jump right in with a monster from Japan, Akkorokamui. Its origins trace back to the folklore of the Ainu, a group of people who in the past mostly lived on Hokkaido, the second largest island in the country. These days they live throughout Japan. The story goes that a monster lives off the coast of Hokkaido, an octopus-like animal that in some stories is said to be 400 feet long, or over 120 meters. It’s supposed to swallow boats and whales whole. But Akkorokamui isn’t just an octopus. It has human features as well and godlike powers of healing. It’s also red, and because it’s so big, when it rises near the surface of the water, the water and even the sky look red too.

Akkorokamui is supposed to originally be from the land. A humongous red spider lived in the mountains, but one day it came down from the mountains and attacked a town, stomping down buildings as the earth shook. The villagers prayed for help, and the god of the sea heard them. He pulled the giant spider into the water where it turned into a giant octopus.

The problem with folktales, as we talked about way back in episode 17, about the Thunderbird, is that they’re not usually meant to be taken at face value. Stories impart many different kinds of information, especially in societies where writing isn’t known or isn’t known by everyone. Folktales can give warnings, record historical events, and entertain listeners, all at once. It’s possible the story of Akkorokamui is this kind of story, possibly one imparting historic information about an earthquake or tsunami that brought down a mountain and destroyed a town. That’s just a guess, though, since I don’t understand Japanese—and even if I did, the Ainu people were historically treated as inferior by the Japanese since their ancestors came from other parts of Asia, so many of their stories were never recorded properly. The Ainu people today have lost some of their historic cultural memories as they assimilated into Japanese society.

So we don’t know if Akkorokamui was once thought of as a real living animal, a spiritual entity, or just a story. There are a few reported sightings of the monster, but they’re all old and light on details. One account from the 19th century is supposedly from a Japanese fisherman who saw a monster with tentacles as big around as a grown man. It was so big that the fisherman at first thought he was just seeing reflected sunset light on the ocean. Then he came closer and realized what he was looking at—and that it was looking back at him from one enormous eye. He estimated it was something like 260 feet long, or 80 meters. Fortunately, instead of swallowing his boat, the monster sank back into the ocean.

Whether or not the folktale Akkorokamui was ever considered to be a real animal, it’s possible that some people who have seen enormous octopuses or squids have called them Akkorokamui. If you’ve listened to episode 74 about the colossal and giant squids, you may remember that both can grow over 40 feet long, or 12 meters, although the giant squid has longer arms while the colossal squid has a longer mantle in proportion to its arms. The two feeding tentacles that squids have are even longer than its arms when extended, which increases the longest measured length to 55 feet, or almost 17 meters. Both squid species are deep-sea animals that are rarely seen near the surface. But both are usually pink or red in color. A squid that big would terrify anyone, especially if they’re fishing in a small boat.

Another octopus-like sea monster is the lusca, this one from Caribbean folklore. The Caribbean Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Gulf of Mexico. Within the Caribbean Sea are thousands of islands, some tiny, some large, including those known collectively as the West Indies. Many reports of the lusca come from the Bahamas, specifically the so-called blue holes that dot many of the islands.

Blue holes are big round sinkholes that connect to the ocean through underground passages. Usually blue holes contain seawater, but some may have a layer of fresh water on top. Some blue holes are underwater while some are on land. The islands of the Bahamas aren’t the only places where blue holes exist. Australia, China, and Egypt all have famous blue holes, for instance, but they’re not uncommon across the world.

Blue holes form in land that contains a lot of limestone. Limestone weathers more easily than other types of rock, and most caves are formed by water percolating through limestone and slowly wearing passages through it. This is how blue holes formed too. During the Pleistocene, when the oceans were substantially lower since so much water was locked up in glaciers, blue holes formed on land, and many of them were later submerged when the sea levels rose. They can be large at the surface, but divers who try to descend into a blue hole soon discover that it pinches closed and turns into twisty passages that eventually reach the ocean, although no diver has been able to navigate so far. Many, many divers have died exploring blue holes.

Andros Island in the Bahamas has 178 blue holes on land and more than 50 in the ocean surrounding the island. It’s also the source of a lot of lusca reports.

So what does the lusca look like? Reports describe a monster that’s sharklike in the front with long octopus-like legs. It’s supposed to be huge, with an armspan of 75 feet, or 23 meters, or even more. The story goes that the tides that rise and fall in the blue holes aren’t due to tides at all but to the lusca breathing in and out.

But people really do occasionally see what they think is a lusca, and sometimes people swimming in a blue hole are dragged under and never seen again. Since blue holes don’t contain currents, it must be an animal living in the water that occasionally grabs a swimmer.

The problem is, there’s very little oxygen in the water deep within a blue hole. Fish and other animals live near the surface, but only bacteria that can thrive in low-oxygen environments live deeper. So even though the blue holes are connected to the ocean, it’s not a passage that most animals could survive. Larger animals wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the narrow openings in the rock anyway.

But maybe they don’t need to. Most blue holes have side passages carved out by freshwater streams flowing into the marine water, which causes a chemical reaction that speeds the dissolving of limestone. Some blue holes on Andros Island have side passages that extend a couple of miles, or several kilometers. It’s possible that some of these side passages also connect to the ocean, and some of them may connect to other blue holes. Most of the blue holes and side passages aren’t mapped since it’s so hard to get equipment through them.

But as far as we know, there is no monster that looks like a shark with octopus-like legs. That has to be a story to scare people, right? Maybe not. The largest octopus known to science is the giant Pacific octopus, which we talked about in episode 142. The largest ever measured had an armspan of 32 feet, or almost 10 meters. It lives in deep water and like all octopuses, it can squeeze its boneless body through quite small openings. When it swims, its arms trail behind it something like a squid’s, and it moves headfirst through the water. A big octopus has a big mantle with openings on both sides for the gills and an aperture above the siphon. The mantle of the octopus could easily be mistaken for the nose of a shark, with a glimpse of the openings assumed to be its partially open mouth. And a large octopus could easily grab a human swimming in a blue hole and drag it to its side passage lair to eat. Big octopuses eat sharks.

The giant Pacific octopus lives in the Pacific, though, not the Atlantic. If the lusca is a huge octopus, it’s probably a species unknown to science, possibly one whose mantle is more pointy in shape, more like a squid’s. That would make it resemble a shark’s snout even more.

Finally, let’s look at a monster many of us are already familiar with, the kraken. Many people think the legend of the kraken was just an exaggerated description of the giant squid. But that’s actually not the case.

The kraken is a Scandinavian monster that dates back to at least the 13th century, when a Norwegian historian wrote about it. That historian, whose name we don’t know, said it was so big that sailors took it for land while it was basking at the surface. The sailors would stop to make camp on what they thought was an island, but when they lit a campfire the kraken submerged and drowned the sailors. It could swallow ships and whales whole.

Nothing about the story mentions squid-like arms until the 1750s when a bishop called Erik Pontoppidan wrote about the kraken. Pontoppidan repeated the story of the kraken appearing island-like and then submerging, but said that it wasn’t the submerging that was so dangerous, it was the whirlpool the kraken caused as it submerged. I’d say that’s just a little bit of hair-splitting, because those sailors were in trouble either way. But Pontoppidan also said that the kraken could pull ships down into the ocean with its arms, which immediately made people think of squid and octopuses of enormous size. The idea of a stupendously large squid or octopus with its arms wrapped around a ship made its way into popular culture and remains there today.

The kraken story was probably inspired by whales, which of course were well known to Scandinavian sailors and fishers. It also might have been inspired by remote islands that are so low in the water that they’re sometimes submerged.

All that aside, could a cephalopod of enormous size actually reach out of deep water and grab the railing or masts of a ship or boat? Actually, it can’t do that, no matter how big or small. Remember that cephalopods have no skeleton, and while their arms are remarkably strong, it takes a whole lot of energy to lift a body part out of the water. We don’t notice this when swimming because our bodies are naturally buoyant especially with our lungs filled with air, and we have bones to give our bodies structure. An octopus spends most of its life supported by the water. When it comes out of the water, it stays very flat to the ground. It can only lift an arm out of the water if it can brace itself against something.

So the dramatic movie scenes where massive kraken arms suddenly shoot out of the water to seize a ship are just fantasy. But an octopus could grab onto the side of a ship with its suction cups and even heave itself onboard that way, potentially capsizing it. So that’s something fun to think about the next time you’re in a boat.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven

We have a fun mystery bird this week, the forest raven! Was it a real bird??? (hint: yes, but not a raven)

The “forest raven” illustration from Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, published in 1555:

Scans of the original pages about the forest raven. It’s written in Latin:

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

It’s high time we had a mystery animal episode, so this week we’re going to learn about a mystery bird, one with a satisfying conclusion.

The story starts almost 470 years ago, when a scholar and physician named Conrad Gessner, who lived in Switzerland, published a book called Historia animalium. The book wasn’t like the medieval bestiaries of previous centuries, in which fantastical and real animals were listed together and half the information consisted of local superstitions. Gessner was an early naturalist, a scientist long before the term was in general use. Historia animalium consisted of five volumes with a total of more than 4,500 pages, and in it Gessner attempted to describe every single animal in the world, drawing from classical sources such as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle as well as his own observations and study.

The book contained animals that had only recently been discovered by Europeans at the time, including animals from the Americas and the East Indies. It also included a few entries which no one today believes ever existed, like the fish-like sea monk and sea bishop. Those and similar monsters were probably added by Gessner’s publishers against his will or maybe just without him knowing, since he was seriously ill by the time the volume on fish was published. For the most part, the book was as scholarly as was possible in the mid-16th century and was lavishly illustrated too.

Volume three, about birds, was published in 1555, and it included an entry for a bird Gessner called the waldrapp, or forest raven. But the illustration didn’t look anything like a raven. The bird has a relatively long neck, a crest of feathers on the back of its head, and a really long bill that ends in a little hook. Gessner wrote that the bird was found in Switzerland and was good to eat.

In fact, I spent an entire morning finding the original scanned pages of a copy of the forest raven entry, typing them as well as I could and modernizing the spelling where I knew how, and using Google translate from Latin to English. The results were…not entirely coherent. Then, after I’d done all that, I continued my research, and that included watching a short BBC film about the bird–which included part of the translation! So I transcribed it. Here’s a translation cobbled together from the BBC’s translation and other parts of the passage that me and Google translate could figure out:

“The bird is generally called by our people the Waldrapp, or forest raven, because it lives in uninhabited woods where it nests in high cliffs or old ruined towers in castles. Men sometimes rob the nests by hanging from ropes. It acquires a bald head in its age. It is the size of a hen, quite black from a distance, but if you look at it close, especially in the sun, you will consider it mixed with green. The Swiss forest raven has the body of a crane, long legs, and a thick red bill, slightly curved and six inches long. Its legs and feet are longer than those of a chicken. Its tail is short, it has long feathers at the back of its head, and the bill is red. The bill is suited for poking in the ground to extract worms and beetles which hide themselves in such places. It flies very high and lays two or three eggs. The young ones are also praised as an article of food and are considered a great delicacy, for they have lovely flesh and soft bones. Those who rob the nests of young take care to leave one chick so the parents will return the following year.”

All that sounds like a perfectly ordinary bird, although not a raven. But what was it? That’s the problem. No one knew, and eventually scholars decided that Gessner must have included a bird that didn’t exist.

But it did sound like one particular bird, just not one related in any way to the raven and not one that lived in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. That’s the northern bald ibis, which was once common across the Middle East and northern Africa.

Here’s a description of the Northern bald ibis. Let’s see how it matches up with Gessner’s forest raven.

The Northern bald ibis is a fairly large bird, about a foot long, or 31 cm, with a wingspan of four and a half feet, or 135 cm. That’s about the size of a goose. It has black feathers that shine with iridescent colors in sunlight, including bronze, violet, and green. It has long, dull red legs and a long, curved bill that’s also reddish. Its head is the same shade of dull red and has no feathers, but it does have a crest of long feathers on the back of its head and neck. It nests on cliff ledges and prefers to hunt for food in areas where the grass or other vegetation is short, such as pastures, fallow fields, semi-arid steppes, and golf courses, often ten miles or more from the cliffs where it nests, or 15 km. It eats insects and other small invertebrates, but it especially likes lizards and beetles. It probes into soft, sandy soil with its bill to find most of its food. The birds live in small flocks and often fly in a V formation.

The northern bald ibis mates for life. The male finds a good nesting site and tidies it up, then waits to see if he can attract a female. The female inspects the site and the male to decide if she likes them, and if she does, the pair build a nest of twigs lined with grass, and the female lays two to four eggs.

Oh, and the northern bald ibis is sometimes also called the waldrapp, just as Gessner reported.

All this information certainly sounds like the same bird Gessner described. But the northern bald ibis doesn’t live in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. It’s only known from the Middle East and northern Africa. Right?

That’s what people after Gessner thought, until 1941. That’s when a team of scientists excavating ancient sites in Switzerland found the bones of what turned out to be northern bald ibises—but the bones weren’t fossilized. They were only a few hundred years old. More remains, both fossil and subfossil, have since been found in France, Germany, Austria, and Spain, and the bird probably lived in even more areas.

It turns out that the northern bald ibis was once common in many parts of Europe, especially around the Alps. It was considered a sacred bird in ancient Egypt, and was supposed to be one of the birds released by Noah during the great flood to help him find land, so was venerated by people of different faiths in the Middle East. But in Europe, it was just considered good to eat. The Archibishop Leonard of Salzburg called for its protection in the Swiss Alps as long ago as 1504, but by the early 17th century, only a matter of decades after Gessner’s book was published, the bird was extinct in Europe. It didn’t take long for Europeans to forget it even existed.

Unfortunately, the northern bald ibis is still endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from pesticides. It’s also sometimes electrocuted when it lands on electricity pylons that aren’t insulated for birds, although efforts are underway to make pylons bird-safe in many areas. A successful captive breeding program has been in place since the late 1970s, though, and that’s a good thing, since the last migratory population went extinct in 1989 and the remaining non-migratory colonies declined to only a few hundred individuals.

The breeding program has gone so well that birds started being reintroduced in some areas of their former range in about 2003, including Spain, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Tagging of the remaining wild birds has also revealed that a small population still migrates from the Middle East to Africa to winter in central Ethiopia. In some areas, conservationists have added nesting platforms to the existing cliffs so that more birds can nest safely. Hopefully their numbers will continue to climb.

I’ll finish with a final piece of trivia about the northern bald ibis that I think you’ll like. It’s a member of the pelican family. Have a nice day.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 166: The Domestic Cat

I just adopted two black cats, named Dracula and Poe, so let’s learn about domestic cats! Thanks to RosyWindFox, Nicholas, Richard E., Kim, and an anonymous listener who all made suggestions and contributed to this episode in one way or another!

Further listening:

Weird Dog Breeds – an unlocked Patreon episode

Two beautiful examples of domestic cats (Dracula on left, Poe on right, and it is really hard to photograph a black cat):

The African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat:

The blotched tabby (left) and regular tabby (right):

A cat’s toe pads (Poe’s toes, in fact):

The big friendly Maine Coon cat:

The Norwegian forest cat SO FLUFFY:

The surprised-looking Singapura cat:

The hairless sphynx breed (with sweater):

The Madagascar forest cat:

The European wildcat:

This came across my feed today and it seemed appropriate, or inappropriately funny depending on your point of view:

Show transcript:

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

I had a different episode planned for this week, but then I adopted two cats, so this week’s episode is going to be about the domestic cat! It also happens to be a suggestion from RosyWindFox after we got to talking about podcasts and animals. Rosy also kindly sent me some research she had done about cats for a project of her own, which was a great help!

But Rosy isn’t the only listener who contributed to this episode. Nicholas suggested weird cats a while back, Richard E. suggested unusual cat breeds, and Kim suggested an episode about domestic cats as invasive species. And we have another suggestion by a listener who wants to remain anonymous about keeping exotic animals as pets, which I thought would fit in well after we talk about invasive species. We’ll also learn about some mystery cats while we’re at it. So buckle up for this big episode about little cats, and thanks to everyone who sent suggestions!

We don’t want to leave the dog lovers out so before we start talking about cats, back in June of 2019 patrons got an episode about strange dog breeds, also suggested by Nicholas. I’ve unlocked that episode so that anyone can listen. There’s a link in the show notes and you can just click the link and listen in your browser, no Patreon login required.

So, most people are familiar with the domestic cat, usually just called a cat. It’s different from the similar-sized felid called a wildcat because it’s actually domesticated. Even domestic cats that have never lived with a human are still part of a species shaped by domestication, so instead of wild cats, wild domestic cats are called feral cats.

Researchers estimate that the domestic cat developed from a species of African wildcat about 10,000 years ago, or possibly as long as 12,000 years ago. This was around the time that many cultures in the Middle East were developing farming, and farming means you need to store grain. If you store grain, you attract mice and other rodents. And what animals famously like to catch and eat rodents? Cats! Wildcats started hanging around farms and houses to catch rodents, and since the humans didn’t want the rodents, they were fine with the cats. Farms that didn’t have any cats had more rodents eating their stored grain, so it was just a matter of time before humans made the next logical step and started taming wildcats so they could trade cats to people who needed them. Besides, wildcats are pretty animals with sleek fur, and if you’ve ever stood by the tiger exhibit in a zoo and wished you could pet a tiger, you will understand how your distant ancestors felt about wildcats.

The species of wildcat is Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, which lives in northern Africa and Southwest Asia. It’s still alive today and looks so much like a domestic cat that it can be hard to tell the species apart, although the African wildcat has long legs and specific markings. For a long time people thought some populations of domestic cats developed from the European wildcat, which we talked about in episode 52, but modern genetic and behavioral studies suggest that all domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat. All wildcat species are pretty closely related, though, and domestic cats and wildcats can and do sometimes interbreed and produce fertile kittens.

The main difference between the African wildcat and the domestic cat is the wildcat’s color. It’s usually a yellowish-gray with lighter belly, with darker stripes and spots. It also has small ear tufts at the tips of the ears.

If you remember episode 106, where we talked about domestication, you’ll remember that some of the wolves that hung around human camps probably initiated domestication. They saw that humans had a pretty sweet deal going and if they alerted those humans to danger and acted nice otherwise, they’d get food. Well, wildcats probably did the same thing. Yes, humans were loud and clumsy and scary, but humans also sometimes gave you food and petted you.

Over many, many generations, the wildcats evolved into cats that didn’t just tolerate humans, they liked humans. It was harder for cats than it was for dogs, though, since canids already lived in packs that were structured similarly to human groups. This is why many people think that dogs are friendlier than cats, because dogs and humans have so many similarities. But cats have adapted really well to human culture.

Wildcats are mostly solitary animals, only coming together during mating season. But domestic cats will live together along with their human family. I adopted my two cats because they get along so well even though they’re not related.

In the olden days people brought cats with them when they moved the same way they took their dogs. The cats were useful to hunt and kill mice that tried to get into the family’s food. People on ships brought cats along for the same reason, because if rats and mice ate the ship’s food stores, the sailors might go hungry. This helped spread cats around the world. In medieval times, cats were so important to sailors that some areas passed laws that a cat had to be onboard a ship for it to set sail.

Egyptian cats were especially in demand, probably because they were more friendly than other cats. So many people wanted Egyptian cats that Egypt passed laws to stop the sale or trade of cats to foreigners, with the oldest law dating to 1700 BCE. But for the most part, cats weren’t selectively bred the way dogs were. Cats were allowed to have babies with whatever mate they chose, which were sometimes wildcats.

It probably wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that humans started taking a real interest in what cats looked like. Until then most domestic cats probably looked a lot like their wild ancestors. But medieval cat owners started selectively breeding cats for particular colors and patterns, such as the blotched tabby pattern. This is a recessive form of the ordinary tabby pattern, which is usually just thin stripes. The blotched tabby is big swirls of color against a paler background. People in the olden days apparently liked the blotched tabby pattern and bred for it.

The domestication of canids, as you may remember from episode 106, usually comes along with behavioral and physical changes. Many dog breeds have puppy-like faces, with a rounder head and shorter jaws. The ears may stay floppy, the tail may have a curl, and coat patterns may change from their wild ancestors’. But this hasn’t really happened in cats, and some researchers think it’s because the cat wasn’t fully domesticated until around 1,000 years ago when this selective breeding started taking place. But cats do show one really interesting adaptation to domestication that wildcats never show. They meow.

Wildcats are usually pretty silent. A wildcat is mostly solitary so it doesn’t need to communicate with pack mates, and it needs to stay quiet so it won’t alert its prey or potential predators. But young cats need to communicate with their mother, which they do by crying and chirping and meowing. Domesticated cats retain this impulse and will talk to humans in the same way that kittens talk to mama cats. Yes, our cats are talking baby talk to us.

If you’re not familiar with the sounds cats make, this is a recording of my cat Poe.

[cat meowing]

Cats don’t just meow and chirp, though. They also purr, as do wildcats and some big cats. We still aren’t sure exactly how cats generate the sound calling purring, but researchers think the cat uses its laryngeal muscles to produce the sound as it breathes in and out. Usually purring denotes relaxation, but a cat may also purr if it’s hurt, stressed, or afraid. Some researchers suggest that the specific frequency of purring vibrations actually promotes the growth of bone and tissue, which helps a cat heal faster if it’s hurt. A cat’s purring is good for people too, acting as a stress reliever.

This is what a purring cat sounds like. This is my cat Dracula purring while I petted him:

[cat purring]

The cat has a rough tongue covered with tiny spines that contain keratin. It uses its tongue to clean and arrange its fur. It has keen hearing, good vision, especially at night, and a good sense of smell. While it can see color, it can’t distinguish between red and green, so if you happen to have red-green color blindness, just reassure yourself that you can see like a cat. The cat can hear into the ultrasonic range, which helps it find rodents which communicate in ultrasound. Some of the noises small kittens make are in the ultrasonic range too, which means most predators can’t hear them but the mama cat can.

If you have a pet cat or have looked closely at a friend’s cat, you’ll know that a cat has whiskers on either side of its nose above its mouth, above its eyes, and some short whiskers on the backs of its legs. All these whiskers are extremely sensitive and help the cat navigate its surroundings in darkness, both by touching things and by reacting to small air currents. You’ll also probably know that a cat’s eyes have slit pupils that react to light. In bright light the pupils contract until they’re practically just a narrow black line. In full darkness they enlarge until the pupils are round, which lets in as much light as possible. Like many nocturnal or largely nocturnal animals, the cat also has a reflective lining in the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back through the eye and improves night vision even more. This is why a cat’s eyes seem to shine in the dark.

Cats are climbers, with many adaptations that help it climb. Its claws are retractable, especially its front claws. Most of the time the claws remain inside little sheaths in the toe pads, which keeps them from wearing down and means the cat can walk silently without the claws making tapping noises on hard ground. But when the cat needs to climb, or use its claws as weapons, or if it needs extra traction, it basically flexes its toes to extend the claws. The claws grow directly from the toe bones, not out of skin like our own fingernails do. Another adaptation to climbing is the cat’s keen sense of balance. If a cat falls from a height of at least 3 feet, or about a meter, it’s able to twist its body to land right side up, minimizing its chances of getting injured. Researchers used to think that a cat used its tail to twist around as it fell, but it’s something that even cats without tails can do. A tail helps, but it’s not necessary. The cat’s flexible spine and lack of a collarbone are the real reason it works. Not only that, but a cat’s paw pads act as shock absorbers that also help it land safely.

The cat has four toes on the hind feet and five on the front, with the fifth toe acting as a sort of thumb. A cat has a toe pad for each toe, plus a larger pad in the middle that acts as a sort of palm pad. But if you look closely, the cat also has an extra toe pad on its front feet, farther back from the others. Researchers think this extra pad helps give the paws extra traction if the cat needs it, which helps it control how far it skids or doesn’t skid when it jumps. Basically it’s a brake pad.

Let’s look at a few interesting breeds of cat next. The domestic cat doesn’t have big differences between breeds the way dogs do. I mean, think of how different a Chihuahua is compared to a St. Bernard. But there are differences between cat breeds, of course. The Manx cat and a few other breeds have a genetic mutation that results in a short or missing tail, for instance.

The biggest breed of cat is the Maine Coon, which can grow as big as a bobcat or Eurasian lynx, although without being as heavy as those wild felids. The biggest cat ever measured is a Maine Coon named Barivel, who is 3 feet and 11.2 inches long, or 120 cm, from nose to tail. The Maine Coon has a thick, water-repellent coat that helps it survive in cold weather, and it’s well known for being as friendly as a dog. Genetic studies suggest it developed from the Norwegian forest cat, a breed from northern Europe, which itself may have descended from cats carried on Viking ships around a thousand years ago.

The smallest breed that isn’t due to a form of dwarfism is the Singapura, which is a lightly built cat. I can’t find anything definitive about its height, but it only weighs about eight pounds at most, or 3.6 kg, and usually considerably less. It’s beige with brown ticking that makes it look tan and its eyes are large, which makes it look sort of surprised all the time.

There are a few breeds of cat that are hairless, including the Sphynx. Hairlessness is a mutation that crops up in cats very rarely, and the Sphynx breed was only established in the late 1980s after a few decades of breeding for hairlessness, with the initial attempts resulting in cats with a lot of health issues. The current breed is healthier, but because it doesn’t have any hair it gets cold easily. A lot of owners make sure their cats have warm sweaters to wear in cold weather, which is adorable. Sphynx cats can also get sunburned and need to be bathed to remove dirt and oils from their skin. Some people with cat allergies have found that owning a Sphynx cat actually helped them adapt to cats and reduced their allergic reactions, but others have found that they actually react more strongly to Sphynxes than regular cats. This is because people are allergic not to cat hair but to a protein found in cat saliva and skin glands.

Next, let’s look at a mystery cat from Madagascar. Madagascar is a large island off the coast of Africa, home to lemurs and other animals found nowhere else in the world. It doesn’t have any native felids, although people who live on Madagascar do have pet cats. But a scientist named Michelle Sauther, who researches lemurs, kept seeing cats in the forest. They were all tabbies and the locals called them wildcats, but Dr. Sauther wanted to know more about them.

She and her team set up traps for the forest cats. When they trapped a cat, they took photographs, hair and blood samples, and even dental impressions. Then they released the cats back into the wild. Genetic profiles developed from the samples helped solve the mystery of what these cats are. They’re feral cats descended from ship cats that traveled from areas around the Arabian Sea, hundreds and possibly even a thousand years ago. Enough cats jumped ship on Madagascar to develop into a breeding colony that is still around today.

Dr. Sauther is studying the effects of the feral cats on local animals, because cats can cause a lot of damage as introduced predators. Cats are efficient hunters of small animals, especially rodents like mice, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and basically any animal they can catch.

That brings us to the issues caused by feral and pet cats around the world. When people bring cats to parts of the world where cats have never before been, the cats can cause rapid extinctions of small animals. On islands the situation is even worse because an animal’s population may be low to start with and the animal can’t just move to a different area to get away from the cats.

The problem is that people often don’t take care of their cats the way they should. Many people don’t get their cats neutered, which means they have kittens that the owner doesn’t want. Instead of finding good homes for the kittens, the owner will just let the kittens grow up wild outside. Soon there’s a colony of feral cats in the area that have to hunt to survive, and local animals are under much more than ordinary pressure of predation. If the local population of small animals declines because of cats, local predators that also depend on those small animals will decline too, causing a cascade effect that can ruin a local ecosystem.

But it always irritates me when people start acting like cats are horrible animals and people who let their cats outside are horrible people who don’t care about their pets or about wild animals. First of all, cats are cats, and cats are predators. No one can change that. And some cats just cannot be happy inside. My last cat, named Jekyll, had been a stray before I adopted him and he was never happy inside. I tried to make him an inside cat but every time I opened the door to leave he would streak outside, no matter how careful I was. Sometimes I couldn’t get him to come back in. And yes, sometimes he brought me dead or dying birds or animals, including an injured baby bunny once, which always made me feel awful. And after a few years, he was hit by a car and killed.

The safest place for a cat is inside your home, with food and water and a litter box you keep clean. A cat should never be allowed to roam freely, especially at night. Cats are tough animals but they’re also small. Many larger animals see them as prey, not to mention the dangers of cars and contracting diseases from other cats. If your cat isn’t happy being inside all the time, try to limit its outside time to when you can be outside with it, to protect both it and any animals around. Make sure it wears a collar with a bell, too—that’s not a perfect solution, because some cats will learn to walk so carefully that the bell won’t ring, but it will help.

Because of people who don’t neuter their cats and just let them roam around, cats and cat owners have a bad reputation among conservationists. Try to understand that the people who talk about how many birds are killed by cats every year aren’t blaming you specifically, although sometimes it feels that way, I know. They’re blaming the irresponsible cat owners and taking their frustration out on all cat owners.

It’s a complicated issue and as you can tell, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that cats are horrible for local wild animal populations. On the other hand, the people who are loudest and angriest about cats killing birds and other animals don’t think twice about driving a car. One figure I found estimates that a million animals are killed by cars every single day in the United States alone, but then again, cats kill even more animals every day. But most of those animals are killed by feral cats, not pet cats. All we can do is be responsible cat owners and do our best to protect both our pets and the wild animals that live near us.

My newly adopted cats are both definitely inside cats. If a mouse comes into the house they can do their job, but otherwise they’re just going to be pouncing on toy mice.

So that leads us to our final topic suggestion, about the ethics of keeping exotic animals as pets. If this seems a little out there for an episode about domestic cats, remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that domestic cats were wildcats, and that they’re still so closely related to wildcats that wildcats and domestic cats can interbreed. Wildcats and domestic cats still look a whole lot alike too. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to scoop up a wildcat and take it home as a pet. But that’s what some people do.

There’s a TV show out now called Tiger King that people are talking about. I haven’t seen it because I just don’t watch TV, but it sounds pretty horrible. From what I gather, the tigers and other animals aren’t properly taken care of and the people who own the animals aren’t very nice. Generally, the kind of people who want an exotic pet are not the kind of people who bother to learn how to properly take care of it. They figure a tiger is just a big cat and they know how to take care of a cat, but that’s not the case at all.

Even if you get a wild animal as a baby and raise it the same way you would a kitten or puppy, it’s still wild. That means that no matter how sweet it was as a baby, once it’s grown, it considers its own needs first and yours second, if at all. It doesn’t consider itself part of the family group and can be unpredictable and dangerous, no matter how well you think you know its personality. In 2011 a mountain lion kept as a pet in Texas grabbed a four-year-old boy through the bars of its cage and mauled him. Fortunately the boy was okay, but the mountain lion was killed by animal control officers, who had already cited the owner for not providing a bigger cage with smaller gaps between bars. It also turned out that the mountain lion’s owner didn’t have a permit to keep it.

Even smaller felids can be dangerous. Many people keep servals as exotic pets, because they look and act a lot like domestic cats but are exotically spotted. The serval lives in parts of Africa and is a little larger than the domestic cat, with long legs and a small head. We’ve talked about the serval before in episode 52. In late 2019 a man in Ohio apparently let his pet serval out to wander the neighborhood, and it attacked one of his neighbor’s dogs. Again, the serval was killed and the owner fined. In both those examples, the animal wasn’t properly taken care of and ended up being killed, which is sad. It’s always the exotic pet that is miserable, often unhealthy, and usually killed when it does something wrong.

So no, I don’t think anyone should keep a wild animal as a pet. If you just really really love wild animals and want to work with them directly, there are lots of appropriate ways you can do it. You can become a zookeeper or exotic animal veterinarian, a scientist or conservationist who studies wild animals, or a photographer who specializes in photographing animals in the wild. All those suggestions are better for you and for the animals than trying to keep a wild animal as a pet.

This is already a really long episode, but let’s finish up with another mystery so I don’t finish the episode by lecturing everyone. You may remember from episode 52 that we talked about the European wildcat that still lives in Europe and Scotland. The Scottish wildcat is critically endangered, with probably no more than around four hundred animals living in Scotland. But there have been reports going back centuries of a wildcat living in Ireland.

The European wildcat did once live in Ireland, but it died out around 3,000 years ago. It’s also been extinct in England since the 1860s. But reports dating to at least the early 19th century in various parts of Ireland indicate that many people saw and even killed large wildcats—but they didn’t look like the European wildcat. They looked more like the African wildcat.

The most obvious difference between the European and the African wildcat is the tail. The African wildcat’s tail looks like a domestic cat’s tail, relatively thin at the end with a slightly pointed tip. The European wildcat’s tail fluffs out at the end instead of tapering. At least one expert from the 19th century proclaimed that the wildcat sightings in Ireland were actually of hybrids of domestic cats and European wildcats. But remember, the European wildcat had gone extinct in Ireland some 3,000 years before. Besides, these animals were reportedly larger and heavier than domestic cats, and feral cats are usually relatively small.

These large cats are still occasionally spotted in Ireland, with a flurry of sightings as recently as 2002. It’s possible people are just mistaking unusually large feral cats for wildcats, but there’s always the possibility that European wildcats still survive in Ireland, but have hybridized with domestic cats so much that its descendants resemble the African wildcat more than the European wildcat. So if you are a mouse who lives in Ireland, watch out.

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Thanks for listening!