Category Archives: cryptozoology

Episode 225: Talking Animals



Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 219: The Strange and Mysterious Tarsier



Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the tarsier, this week’s strange and interesting primate!

Further Reading:

Decoding of tarsier genome reveals ties to humans

Long-lost ‘Furby-like’ Primate Discovered in Indonesia

Tarsiers look like weird alien babies:

A tarsier nomming on a lizard:

A tarsier nomming on an insect:

The pygmy tarsier and someone’s thumb:

There’s probably not much going on in that little brain:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at a weird and amazing little primate, but it’s not a monkey or ape. It’s the tarsier, with thanks to Phoebe who suggested it. It’s pronounced tarsiAY or tarsiER and both are correct.

The tarsier is such a little mess that until relatively recently scientists weren’t even completely certain it was a primate. A 2016 genetic study determined for sure that it is indeed a primate even though it differs in many ways from all other primates alive. For instance, it’s a carnivore. Most primates are herbivores and some are omnivores, including humans and chimpanzees, but only the tarsier is an obligate carnivore. That means it has to eat meat and only meat, whether it’s invertebrates, birds, reptiles, or small mammals like rodents.

Scientists divide primates into two groups informally, into wet-noses and dry-noses. Wet-nose doesn’t refer to a nose that’s runny but to a nose that stays moist, like a dog’s nose. This splits along the same lines as simians and prosimians, another way to group primates. Humans and other apes, along with monkeys, are simians, and also dry-noses. If you’re not sure if that’s accurate, just touch the end of your nose. Make sure you’re not standing in the rain or just got out of the bathtub, though. All other primates are wet-noses, and also prosimians, except for the tarsier. The tarsier is sort of in between. It’s grouped with the wet-nose primates, but it turns out to be more closely related to the dry-nose primates than the wet-noses. Also, its nose is actually dry.

One interesting difference between prosimians and simians concerns vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in a lot of foods, but especially in fruit and vegetables. If you don’t have any vitamin C in your diet, you will eventually die of scurvy like an old pirate, so make sure to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. But most animals don’t need to eat foods containing vitamin C because their bodies already produce the vitamin C they need. Humans, apes, and monkeys have to worry about scurvy but prosimians don’t. But the tarsier does need vitamin C even though it’s a prosimian. A lot of researchers think the tarsier should be grouped with the simians, not prosimians.

The tarsier currently lives only in southeast Asia, mostly on forested islands, although tarsier fossils have been found throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. Genetic studies also indicate it probably started evolving separately from other primates around 55 million years ago in what is now China.

As it happens, we have a fossil that appears to be an early ancestor of the tarsier. Archicebus achilles was discovered in 2003 and studied for an entire decade before it was described in 2013, and it lived about 55 million years ago in what is now central China. It looks a lot like a tiny tarsier, but with smaller eyes that suggest it was active during the day. Its feet were shaped like a monkey’s, though, not like a tarsier’s feet. It probably only weighed about an ounce, or 28 grams. That’s about the same weight as a pencil. It had sharp little teeth and probably ate insects. So far the 2003 specimen is the only one found, but it’s remarkably complete so researchers have been able to learn a lot about it. If I’d been one of the scientists studying it, there is no way I could have waited ten whole years to tell people about it. I’d have studied it for like six months and then thought, “Okay, good enough, HEY EVERYONE LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THIS COOL ANIMAL.”

The tarsier is nocturnal and has enormous eyes to help it see better in the dark. Its eyes are so big and round, and frankly the tarsier is not the brainiest animal, that its eyes are actually bigger than its brain. The tarsier also has mouse-like ears, long fingers and toes with sucker-like discs at the end to help it grip branches, and an extremely long tail that’s scaly on the underside. It spends almost its whole life in trees, where it climbs and jumps from branch to branch. When it climbs up a tree, it presses its long tail against the trunk to help it balance.

It’s not a big animal, though. A typical tarsier measures about six inches long, or 15 cm, from the top of its little round head to the bottom of its bottom, not counting its tail. Its tail can be almost a foot long, or 25 cm, though, and its hind legs are also extremely long, about as long as the tail. Its body is rounded with short plush fur, usually brown, gray, or dark gold in color.

With its big eyes and chonky body, if you wrapped up a tarsier in a little robe so you can’t see how small its ears are and how long its legs and tail and fingers are, it would kind of look like a miniature baby Yoda guy from that Mandalorian TV show. Someone please do that. Also, it kind of looks like a cute and furry Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Unlike other primates, the tarsier can turn its head 180 degrees in both directions. Basically it can turn its head like an owl. This is helpful because its eyes are so big it can’t move them. It can only look straight ahead, so it needs to be able to move its head all around instead. This is actually the same for the owl, too.

The tarsier mostly eats insects, but it will eat anything it can catch, including venomous snakes. It doesn’t just eat the meat, though. It eats just about everything, including bones. It has a wide mouth and strong jaws and teeth, and it’s so agile that it’s been observed to jump up and catch a bird as it flies past. Current speculation is that the tarsier gets enough vitamin C from the insects it eats that it doesn’t need to eat fruit, but no one knows for sure yet. Some species of bat can’t synthesize vitamin C in the body and have to get it from their diet, which is made up of insects.

We talked about the tarsier a little in episode 43, about the Chinese ink monkey, and also way back in episode eight, the strange recordings episode, because the tarsier can communicate in ultrasound [not infrasound]—sounds too high for humans to hear. It has incredibly acute hearing and often hunts by sound alone. Researchers speculate that not only can the tarsier avoid predators by making sounds higher than they can hear, it can also hear many insects that also communicate in ultrasound. As an example of how incredibly high-pitched their voices are, the highest sounds humans can hear are measured at 20 kilohertz. The tarsier can make sounds around 70 kh and can hear sounds up to 91 kh.

The tarsier also makes sounds humans can hear. Here’s some audio of a spectral tarsier from Indonesia:

[tarsier sound]

Some species of tarsier are social, some are more solitary. All are shy, though, and they don’t do well in captivity. Unfortunately, because the tarsier is so small and cute and weird-looking, some people want to keep them as pets even though they almost always die quite soon. As a result, not only is the tarsier threatened by habitat loss, it’s also threatened by being captured for the illegal pet trade. Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway to protect the tarsier within large tracts of its natural habitat, which is also beneficial for other animals and plants.

The smallest species is the pygmy tarsier, which is only found in central Sulawesi in Indonesia, in high elevations. It’s four inches long, or 10.5 cm, from head to butt. You measure tarsiers like you measure frogs. It’s basically the size of a mouse but with a really long tail and long legs and big huge round eyes and teeny ears and a taste for the flesh of mortals. Or, rather, insects, since that’s mostly what it eats.

For almost a century people thought the pygmy tarsier was extinct. No one had seen one since 1921. Then in 2000, scientists trapping rats in Indonesia caught a pygmy tarsier. Imagine their surprise! Also, they accidentally killed it so I bet they felt horrible but also elated. It wasn’t until 2008 that some live pygmy tarsiers were spotted by a team of scientists who went looking specifically for them. This wasn’t easy since tarsiers are nocturnal, so they had to hunt for them at night, and because the wet, foggy mountains where the pygmy tarsier lives are really hard for humans to navigate safely. It took the team two months, but they managed to capture three of the tarsiers long enough to put little radio collars on them to track their movements.

One of the things Phoebe wanted to know about tarsiers is if there are any cryptids or mysteries associated with them. You’d think there would be, if only because the tarsier is kind of a creepy-cute animal, but I only managed to find one kinda-sorta tarsier-related cryptid.

According to a 1932 book called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, a little red goblin creature lives in trees in some parts of Australia, especially the wild fig tree. It’s called the yara-ma-yha-who and it looks sort of like a frog but sort of like a monitor lizard. It’s bright red and stands around four feet tall, or 1.2 meters, with skinny arms and legs. The ends of its fingers and toes are cup-shaped suckers. Its head is large with a wide frog mouth and no teeth.

When a person comes along, the yara-ma-yha-who drops down from its tree and grabs them by the arm. It uses the suckers on its fingers and toes to drain blood from their arm, then swallows the person whole. Then later it horks them back up, but they’re smaller than before and their skin is starting to turn red. Eventually the person turns into a yara-ma-yha-who, unless they manage to escape in time.

Some cryptozoologists speculate that the yara-ma-yha-who may be based on the tarsier. The tarsier has never lived in Australia, but it does live in relatively nearby islands. Most tarsier species do have toe pads that help them cling to branches, but frogs also have toe pads and frogs are found in Australia. Likewise, by no stretch of the imagination is the tarsier bright red, four feet tall, toothless, or active in the daytime. It’s more likely the legend of the yara-ma-yha-who is inspired by frogs, snakes, monitor lizards, and other Australian animals, not the tarsier. But just to be on the safe side, if you live in Australia you might want to walk around wild fig trees instead of under them.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 217: Three (Small) Mystery Animals



This week we’re going to look at three small mystery animals! Well, the mysteries are small. The animals are not particularly small.

Further Reading:

Long-Extinct Gibbon Found Inside Tomb of Chinese Emperor’s Grandmother

Ancient Egypt’s Mona Lisa? An elaborately drawn extinct goose, of course

A case of mistaken identity for Australia’s extinct big bird

Bones of a mystery gibbon found in a noblewoman’s tomb:

Gibbons painted about a thousand years ago by artist Yi Yuanji:

A couple of gibbons at MAX FLUFF:

The mystery goose painting (left) compared with a modern version of the painting (middle) and a red-breasted goose (right):

All the geese from the painting:

A red-breasted goose, not historically known from Egypt:

The mystery bird rock art:

An emu (with babies):

Genyornis compared to a human:

Genyornis leg bones compared to emu leg bones (right), but on left is a comparison of a so-called Genyornis (actually not) egg and an emu egg:

A couple of megapodes in their egg field:

Show transcript:

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

We’re long overdue for an episode about a mystery animal, so this week let’s look at not one, not two, but three mysteries! They’re all small scientific mysteries, not big spooky ones, but I think you’ll find them interesting.

We’ll start at an archaeological dig in China. In 2004, archaeologists excavated a noblewoman’s tomb in northwestern China, which they dated to about 2,200 to 2,300 years old. The tomb might have been for a woman called Lady Xia, who was the grandmother of the first emperor of China. So, kind of a big deal.

The archaeologists discovered twelve pits in the tomb, and each pit contained the skeletons of various animals, some of them domesticated animals but some of them wild. Having a private menagerie was a status symbol back then, as it sometimes has been in other cultures around the world. In pit #12, they found remains of a leopard, a black bear, a crane, a lynx, and a type of small ape called a gibbon.

The gibbon remains were a surprise, because today all species of gibbon in China live only in the very southern areas and are critically endangered by habitat loss and hunting. Either a gibbon had been transported hundreds of miles over difficult terrain 2,300 years ago, or gibbons lived in the area.

Gibbons are small apes and there are 16 species alive today. They all live in southern Asia. We talked about the siamang in episode 76, and the siamang is a type of gibbon. Many gibbons, including the siamang, have inflatable resonant chambers in the throat to amplify their calls, but all gibbons make loud, often musical sounds to communicate with each other. They spend most of the time in treetops and mostly eat fruit, along with other plant material.

Because this part of northwestern China is subtropical, and because it’s been so long since the animals died, the skeletons aren’t complete. The only gibbon bones left were part of a cranium and mandible. Obviously, scientists had to be careful with the bones and couldn’t run any tests that might damage them. They made a 3D scan of the bones and used the scan to compare the gibbon’s skull and jaw with those of living species of gibbon, to determine what species it was.

It turned out that not only was it a species unknown to science, it was different enough from other gibbons that it belonged in its own genus.

According to experts in Chinese history and literature, gibbons were considered noble animals that often appeared in paintings and poetry. Various species of gibbon lived throughout much of China until around the 14th century. After the 14th century, though, habitat loss and hunting drove the gibbons farther south until now there are almost no gibbons left in China. Lady Xia’s pet gibbon is the first species known that definitely went extinct in the modern era, which makes it even more important that the gibbons still alive today are protected along with their habitats.

Speaking of ancient paintings of animals, 4,600 years ago, an artist made a painting of some geese for a tomb in Egypt. The painting is five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and is a fragment of a larger wall decoration that has been lost. It’s called the “Meidum Geese.” It’s a lovely painting and the geese are incredibly lifelike—so lifelike, in fact, that it should be easy to identify them.

But maybe not quite so easy after all.

There are three species of geese in the painting. Two are probably the graylag goose and the greater white-fronted goose. The third looks similar to the red-breasted goose, but there are enough differences that researchers aren’t sure. No red-breasted goose remains have ever been found in Egypt; it only lives in Europe and Asia.

It’s quite likely that the mystery goose is an extinct species. Other animal species depicted in Egyptian art are extinct now, even though they were common when the art was made. Egypt’s climate is much dryer than it was thousands of years ago, so naturally there were different animals back then even if you don’t factor in human activity like hunting.

The painting was discovered in 1871. One Italian archaeologist named Francesco Tiradritti claims it’s a hoax, painted by one of the curators at the Cairo Museum back when it was first found. One of the reasons he thinks it’s a hoax is that the red-breasted goose isn’t known in Egypt. This isn’t a very good argument to me. First of all, the goose doesn’t exactly match the red-breasted goose, while a hoaxer would probably work from a model or a picture to get the details right. Second of all, a hoaxer would probably have been careful to only include goose species that are known to live in Egypt. Tiradritti’s argument basically seems to be that the Meidum geese are too good and therefore could only possibly be painted by someone who had trained in Italy. In reality, though, ancient people of all cultures were perfectly capable of being masterful artists even though they were not European.

Other experts have rebutted Tiradritti’s claim and point out that he’s not an art historian and that many actual art historians have studied the Meidum geese and declared them genuine. Not only that, but scenes carved in other tombs seem to depict the same types of geese that are in the painting.

Speaking of geese and artwork, let’s move on to our final mystery animal. This one’s complicated, because it’s not just one mystery, it’s two.

Ancient artwork sometimes gives scientists useful information about when and where an animal lived and what it looked like. Sometimes, though, the artwork reveals more mysteries than it solves. For instance, some rock art found in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The art depicts two birds with long goose-like necks, drawn with a pigment called red ochre. It’s sort of a rusty color. The birds have legs that are about as long as the neck, and small heads with short, blunt bills.

At first the archaeologists studying the site thought the art depicted emus. Then they took a closer look and realized the details were wrong for emus, but they did match a different bird. Genyornis newtoni was distantly related to modern ducks and geese, but was flightless and really big. It stood seven feet tall, or over two meters. It had strong but relatively short legs, a goose-like neck, tiny wings, and a short, blunt bill. It probably ate fruit and small animals.

The finding excited the palaeontologists, because Genyornis was supposed to have gone extinct around 45,000 years ago. That meant that if the art really did depict the bird, the art had to be that old too.

The reason that researchers dated the extinction of Genyornis to about 45,000 years ago is because that’s when its eggshells stop being found, even though until then they were fairly common in ancient sand dunes.

But something didn’t add up. Genyornis was a little taller but six times heavier than the emu, but its eggs were no larger than an emu’s egg. A 2016 study suggested that the eggshells identified as Genyornis eggs were actually from a completely different bird, specifically a type of megapode.

Megapodes are birds that live in Australia and some nearby islands, including New Guinea. In fact, I think we’ll learn about some megapodes in an upcoming episode about more weird New Guinea birds. One interesting thing about megapodes is the way they incubate their eggs. Instead of keeping the eggs warm by sitting on them, megapodes build nest mounds. Most make a big mound of leaves and other vegetation, because as vegetation decays, it releases heat. The female lays her eggs on the mound and the male guards and tends the eggs, placing more leaves over them as needed or sometimes removing it to keep the eggs from getting too hot. Other megapodes lay their eggs in warm sand or even in volcanic areas where the ground stays warm. In other words, it makes sense that lots of these old eggshells would be found in what were once sand dunes, since the eggs were most likely buried in the sand to start with. Researchers think the sand dune eggs belonged to an extinct species of megapode called the giant malleefowl.

So that’s one mystery solved, but it leaves us with other mysteries. When did the Genyornis actually go extinct? How old is the rock art and does it really depict Genyornis?

Since its discovery around 2010, the so-called Genyornis rock art has been carefully studied. Geologists have determined the age of the rock face where the painting appears, and it’s not nearly as old as 45,000 years. Right about 13,800 years ago, a rock overhang collapsed, exposing a rock surface. Then some people came along and decided that rock surface would be the perfect place to paint two birds. So the painting can’t be any older than that.

A close analysis of the painting shows that there’s more than meets the eye, too. The initial painting was of a person with animal characteristics, called an anthropomorph, and at some point later someone painted the birds over it. The painting also contains the image of a barbed spear piercing one of the birds. So whatever the birds are, they were birds that people hunted.

Meanwhile, other experts were studying Genyornis. The current determination is that it went extinct around 25,000 or 30,000 years ago.

So we have rock art that cannot be older than a tad under 14,000 years old, but it appears to be art of a bird that went extinct at least 25,000 years ago. What’s going on?

It’s probable that Genyornis actually lived a lot more recently than 25,000 years ago. Scientists can only make determinations of when an animal went extinct by the fossils and subfossil remains they find or don’t find. There aren’t a lot of Genyornis fossils to start with, but the ones we do have mostly come from the same area where the rock art was found.

If the rock art really is of Genyornis, and it does seem to be, then people were most likely hunting Genyornis less than 14,000 years ago and possibly much more recently. Hopefully soon researchers will find more recent evidence so we can get a better idea of when it really went extinct and why.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 210: The Mysterious Lightbulb Lizard



Does the Shreve’s lightbulb lizard really emit light? (Hint: sort of.) Let’s find out!

Further reading:

The Lightbulb Lizard of Benjamin Shreve

Shreve’s lightbulb lizard, looking pretty ordinary really:

A web-footed gecko in moonlight:

A Jamaican gray anole showing off his dewlap:

Show Transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about an interesting reptile with a mystery that’s mostly solved, but still really weird. It’s called Shreve’s lightbulb lizard.

The story of this little lizard starts in 1937, when zoologist Ivan Sanderson was collecting freshwater crabs on a mountaintop in Trinidad. They were probably mountain crabs, also called the manicou crab, which is actually a pretty astonishing animal on its own. It’s a freshwater crab that doesn’t need to migrate to the ocean to release its eggs into the water. Instead, the female carries her eggs in a pouch in her abdomen. The eggs hatch into miniature crabs instead of larvae, and they stay in her pouch until they’re old enough to strike out on their own.

The mountains of Trinidad are made of limestone, which means they’re full of caves, and Sanderson was reportedly catching crabs in an underground pool or stream. He noticed a flash of light in the darkness and naturally went to find what had made it. All he found was a little lizard hiding under a ledge. It looked kind of like a brown skink and was pretty boring, but when the lizard turned its head, Sanderson saw a flash of dotted light down both its sides. When he caught the lizard and examined it while it was sitting in his hand, it flashed its lights again.

Sanderson knew he’d found something extraordinary, because lizards don’t bioluminesce. We still don’t know of any terrestrial vertebrate that emits light. Lots and lots of marine animals do, and some terrestrial invertebrates like lightning bugs and glow-worms, but no terrestrial vertebrates.

Sanderson took the lizard back to his camp, where he and his team observed it in different situations to see if it would light up again. They moved it to warmer areas and colder ones, made loud noises nearby, even tickled it, and they did indeed see it light up a few times. The light came from a row of tiny eyespots along its sides, from its neck to its hips. It had one row of these spots on each side, and each spot looked like a tiny white bead. The greenish-yellow flashes of light seemed to shine through the spots, as Sanderson said, like “the portals on a ship.”

Sanderson sent the lizard to The British Museum in London where another zoologist studied it and discovered that it was actually a known species, but apparently very rare. Only two specimens had ever been caught, one a juvenile and one an adult female. The lizard Sanderson caught was male, and it turns out that only adult males have these little eyespots. Sanderson later caught seven more of the lizards.

Let’s jump forward a bit and get a better idea of what these lizards look like. Shreve’s lightbulb lizard grows around 5 inches long at most, or 13 cm, not counting its long tail. It has short legs, a pointy nose, and broad, flat scales on its back and sides. It’s mostly brown in color. It lives in high elevations in the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, which is just off the coast of Venezuela in South America. It prefers cool climates, unlike most reptiles, and while it turns out that it’s not actually very rare, it’s also hard to study because it lives in such remote areas, so we don’t know much about it. It may be nocturnal and it may be semi-aquatic. It certainly lives along mountain streams, where it eats insects and other small animals.

Now, we have mentioned Ivan Sanderson a number of times in past episodes, and you may remember me sounding pretty skeptical about some of his cryptozoological claims. But Sanderson was a zoologist with a good reputation as a field scientist, and more importantly, he wasn’t the only one who saw the lizard light up.

The British Museum zoologist, H.W. Parker, who studied the first lizard Sanderson found, was actually the scientist who had originally discovered the lizard a few years before. He was very interested in the little portholes along the male lizard’s sides and studied them carefully. But he couldn’t find anything about them that indicated how they lit up. Each tiny eyespot consisted of a transparent center spot with a ring of black skin around it. The eyespots did not contain glowing bacteria, specialized nerve endings, ducts, reflecting structures, or anything else that he could think of that might cause a flash of light.

Other zoologists examined the so-called lightbulb lizard over the next few decades and none of them saw it emit light either. By 1960 no one believed it was bioluminescent.

I’m taking most of my information from a blog post by Dr Karl Shuker, a zoologist who writes a lot about cryptozoological mysteries. If you want to read his article, there’s a link in the show notes. Shuker was the one who got some modern scientists interested in the lightbulb lizard again, and there’ve been some recent studies. The lizard has been reclassified several times recently and its current name is Oreosaurus shrevei. Oreosaurus is spelled Oreo-saurus and it may be pronounced that way, and while I would like to think that the name comes from the white-appearing center of the eyespot with black pigment around it like an Oreo cookie, the name Oreosaurus is older than the cookie and as far as I can tell it means mountain lizard.

Some experiments conducted in the early 2000s finally figured out just what is going on with the lightbulb lizard. Sanderson was right: he and his colleagues really did see light coming from the eyespots. But it’s reflected light, not light emitted by the lizard itself. The white dots in the middle of the eyespots are reflective at some angles. Not only that, but when the lizard feels threatened, the skin around the white dots becomes even darker, which makes the reflection seem brighter. It’s partly optical illusion, partly just optics.

The big question now is why the lightbulb lizard has these reflective spots at all. The female doesn’t have them. That suggests that the male uses them in some way to attract a mate, but we don’t know.

While I was researching this episode, I kept coming across mentions of other lizards named lightbulb lizards. They’re all related to Shreve’s lightbulb lizard and I suspect the name got popular after Sanderson’s findings, which he published in a book of his nature travels called Caribbean Treasure. As far as I can find, none of the other lightbulb lizards have these reflective eyespots. Many are burrowing reptiles and they all have short legs and look a lot like skinks.

Meanwhile, in glowing lizard news, scientists discovered in 2018 that chameleons glow fluorescent under ultraviolet light. Even their bones are fluorescent. A lizard called the web-footed gecko, which lives in the desert in Namibia, Africa, has translucent markings on its sides and around its eyes. In daylight the markings don’t show, but in moonlight they glow neon green due to special pigment cells called iridophores. Iridophores are found in cephalopods and other marine animals, but they’ve never been seen before in land animals. Male Jamaican gray anoles have a colorful throat decoration called a dewlap that they extend to attract a mate, and the skin is translucent so that when sunlight passes through it, the colors glow brightly.

All these findings are only a few years old, so obviously we’re only just learning about all the different ways that lizards use light to their advantage. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if a genuinely bioluminescent lizard was discovered eventually. So when you’re outside at night, don’t assume that every little flash of light is a firefly.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 208: The Happiest Animals in Australia



Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the quokka and the wombat, two of the cutest, happiest-looking animals in Australia!

Further Reading:

Viral stories of wombats sheltering other animals from the bushfires aren’t entirely true

Satellites reveal the underground lifestyle of wombats

Giant Wombat-Like Marsupials Roamed Australia 25 Million Years Ago

Further Listening:

Animals and Ultraviolet Light (unlocked Patreon episode)

The adorable quokka with a nummy leaf and a joey in her pouch:

Quokka (left) and my chonky cat Dracula (right)

Some quokka selfies showing quokka smiles. That second picture really shows how small the quokka actually is:

Wombats!

A wombat and its burrow entrance:

A wombat mom with her joey peeking out of the rear-facing pouch:

Golden wombats. All they need is some Doublemint Gum:

Two (dead, stuffed) wombats glowing under ultraviolet light:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two super-cute animals from Australia, both of them suggestions by Phoebe. Thank you, Phoebe!

Let’s start with the quokka. It’s a marsupial, which as you may recall means that it’s a mammal that gives birth to babies that aren’t fully formed yet, and the babies then finish developing in the mother’s pouch. It’s related to kangaroos and wallabies but is quite small, around the size of an ordinary domestic cat. It’s kind of a chonk, though, which means it’s probably closer in size to my big chonk cat Dracula. It’s shaped roughly like a little wallaby or kangaroo but with a smaller tail and with rounded ears, and it’s grey-brown in color.

You may have seen pictures of the quokka online, because the reason it’s considered so incredibly cute is because it looks like it’s smiling all the time. If you take a picture of a quokka’s face, it looks like it has a happy smile and that, of course, makes the people who look at it happy too. Those are real pictures, by the way. Because of the way its muzzle and mouth are shaped, the quokka really does look like it’s smiling.

This has caused some problems, unfortunately. People who want to take selfies with a quokka sometimes forget that they’re wild animals. While quokkas aren’t very aggressive and are curious animals who aren’t usually afraid of people, they can and will bite when frightened. The Nature Conservancy of Australia recommends that people who want to take a selfie with a quokka arrive early in the morning or late in the evening, since quokkas are mostly nocturnal, and that they let the quokkas approach them instead of following one around. Touching a quokka or giving it food or drink is strictly prohibited, since it’s a protected animal.

The quokka lives on a few small islands off the coast of western Australia and a few small forested areas on the mainland. The largest population lives on Rottnest Island, and in fact the island was named by a Dutch explorer who thought the quokkas were rats. It means rat’s nest. The island’s actual name was Wadjemup and it was a ceremonial area for the local Whadjuk Noongar people.

Only an estimated 14,000 quokkas live in the wild today, with most of those on Rottnest Island. It used to be much more widespread, but once white settlers arrived and introduced predators like dogs, cats, and foxes, its numbers started to decline. It’s also threatened by habitat loss. It reproduces slowly, since a female only raises one baby a year.

A baby quokka is born after only a month, but like other marsupial babies, called joeys, it’s just a little pink squidge when it’s born. It climbs into its mother’s pouch where it stays for the next six months. Once it’s old enough to leave her pouch, it still depends on her milk for a few more months. While she’s raising one baby, though, the mother has other babies still in her womb ready to be born but held in suspended animation. This means that if something happens to her joey and it dies, the mother can give birth to another baby very quickly.

The quokka is most active at night. It sleeps during most of the day, usually hidden in a type of prickly plant that helps keep predators from bothering it. It gets most of its water needs from the plants it eats, and while it mostly hops around like a teensy kangaroo, it can also climb trees.

The wombat is another adorable Australian marsupial. For some reason, I’ve talked about the wombat several times in Patreon episodes but have barely mentioned it in the main feed–but that’s about to change. Mostly because I am going to recycle a lot of the information from the Patreon episodes, but I’ve also added a lot of interesting new details.

The wombat mainly lives in southern and eastern Australia, including Tasmania. It looks a little like a cartoon bear, a little like a cartoon badger, and a little like a cartoon giant hamster. Perhaps you notice a theme here. It has short legs, no tail to speak of, and is about the size of a medium-sized dog but stockier, with a broad face and rounded ears. The female has a rear-facing pouch to keep dirt and debris from getting on her baby while digging. There are three species alive today.

The wombat is mostly nocturnal and sleeps in a burrow during the day, although it will come out during the day when it’s overcast. It eats grass and other plants. It can dig really well and some people in Australia consider it a pest because it digs under fences.

The wombat has a big round rump with tough skin reinforced with cartilage. If a dingo or other animal chases a wombat, it dives into a hole and blocks the hole with its rump. The predator can’t get a purchase on the tough hide and there’s no tail to grab. The wombat isn’t helpless, though. It can kick hard, bite hard, and if the dingo gets its head over the wombat’s back to grab for its neck, the wombat will push upward and crush the dingo’s head against the roof of the tunnel. The wombat takes no prisoners and presents its butt to danger. Also, its poop is square, as you may remember if you listened to the animal poop episode.

The wombat has a very slow metabolism and takes a week or even two weeks to fully digest a meal. It can run fast when it needs to, although it can’t keep up a fast pace for long. Wombats have even been known to knock people down by charging them, which I personally find hilarious. It can also bite ferociously if it feels threatened, and while it mostly uses its long claws for digging, they also make fearsome weapons. So it’s best to leave the wombat alone.

The wombat’s fur can be gray, tan, brown, black, or any variation on those colors, but there are rare reports of wombats with golden fur. In a 1965 letter to The Times, an anonymous writer reported spotting a golden wombat but couldn’t get anyone to believe him. “Of course you were mistaken, my family said. They said it with an irritating sureness… The golden wombat became the subject of family jokes.” And then two years later, the letter-writer saw the golden wombat again. I thought that would be a fine cryptozoological mystery to share, but when I did a search for golden wombat sightings, actual golden wombats in zoos turned up. Golden wombats are a real thing, just extremely rare. The sunshine golden fur is due to a mutation in coat color.

The Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide has a pair of golden hairy-nosed wombats that were discovered in 2011 and sent to the park in 2013. Golden wombats don’t survive long in the wild since their coloring makes them stand out to predators. Wombats in general are having trouble in the wild anyway due to habitat loss, introduced predators like domestic dogs, introduced rabbits and other animals that compete with it for food, the mange mite, also introduced to Australia and spread by domestic dogs, and drought.

Last year, during the awful summer bushfires in Australia, there were reports of wombats saving other animals by herding them into their deep burrows when fires approached. It’s a great story, but like many other stories that seem too good to be true, it’s not completely accurate. The wombats didn’t herd other animals into their burrows like little furry firefighters, but lots of animals did take shelter in wombat burrows to escape the fires. A wombat’s burrow isn’t just a little tunnel with a bedroom at the end. It’s way more elaborate than that, with lots of entrances and adjoining tunnels. One wombat’s burrow complex had 28 entrances and almost 295 feet of tunnels, or 90 meters. A wombat usually only sleeps in one particular burrow for a day or two before moving to a different one, and other animals routinely use the other burrows for themselves. As long as the other animal isn’t a threat, the wombat doesn’t seem to mind. So it’s not surprising that lots of animals hide in wombat burrows to escape fire.

In October of 2020 a team of scientists published a paper about ultraviolet fluorescence in the platypus, which glows greenish in ultraviolet light. The discovery was made by accident but prompted scientists throughout the world, and especially Australia, to borrow black lights from other departments to shine on their mammal collections. It turns out that a lot of nocturnal or crepuscular animals have fur that glows various colors under ultraviolet light. This includes the wombat.

There’s more ultraviolet light at dawn and dusk than during full daylight or at night, so some researchers think the glow may be a way for the animals to blend in with the increased ultraviolet light at those times. If this is the case, it’s a new type of camouflage, or rather a very old type since it’s found in animals like the platypus that have been around for a really, really long time.

Ultraviolet light is the wavelength of light beyond purple, which humans can’t see. Most humans, anyway. In April 2019 I released a Patreon episode about animals and ultraviolet light, and I’ve decided to unlock that episode for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can click through and listen. Be aware that I did make a mistake in that episode, where I mentioned that a black light allows humans to see into the ultraviolet spectrum, but actually what people see when they shine a black light around is fluorescence and ordinary violet light.

A relative of the wombat, Diprotodon, is the largest marsupial ever known. It went extinct around 45,000 years ago, not long after the first humans populated Australia, and is also an ancestor of the koala. It and some other of the Australian megafauna may have influenced Aboriginal myths of dreamtime monsters. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and like the wombat it had a rear-facing pouch and ate plants. Recent analysis of the front teeth, which were large and flat and grew continuously throughout the animal’s life, indicated it might have been migratory. Researchers also think it lived in social groups something like elephants do today. Its feet were flat and toed inward like modern wombat feet, and although it had claws it probably only used them to dig plants up.

A partial fossil found in 1973 in South Australia was finally described in mid-2020 as a wombat relation, although it may not be a direct ancestor to modern wombats. It lived about 25 million years ago and was the size of a bear, and had powerful front legs with claws used for digging up roots. It’s named Mukupirna nambensis and is different enough from other wombat relations that it’s been assigned to a new family of its own.

There have been reports for centuries of giant wombats or wombat-like animals in Australia and even from nearby Papua New Guinea. Some cryptozoologists think the sightings are of a smaller relative of the wombat, Hulitherium tomasetti. Hulitherium lived in the rainforests of New Guinea, and probably went extinct about the same time as Diprotodon, possibly due to hunting from newly arrived humans. It was about three feet high, or one meter, and may have eaten bamboo as a primary part of its diet. Like the panda, it seems to have a number of adaptations to feeding on a bamboo diet, including very mobile front legs, more like an ape’s than a wombat’s. It may have been able to stand on its hind legs like a bear too.

An October 26, 1932 story in The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, is interesting in light of the hulitherium’s size and possible appearance. I’ll quote the story, which appears in the 2016 Fortean Zoology Yearbook:

“One of our strangest visits was reserved for this morning, when Mr. Paul Pedrini, wild animal hunter and trainer, arrived leading a curious beast, brown, furry, about two feet high and four feet long and looking like no animal one could call to mind. It was very fat and adorning its neck was a large pink bow. This latter fact was the chief cause of the uneasiness shown by the oldest sub-editor. Mr. Pedrini explained that he found his little pet in Australia eighteen months ago.

“He calls it the ‘What Is It?’ because nobody can give it a name. Described as being something like a wombat, it is certainly not a wombat neither does it belong to any other known family. The ‘What Is It?’ is very tame and friendly and has kind eyes. Its chief diet is bananas and toast. We said good bye to Mr. Pedrini, patted the strange animal and returned, slightly shaken, to the normal round.”

The story isn’t sensational enough to feel like a hoax, but it doesn’t really give enough of a description of the animal to be sure it wasn’t just a larger than usual wombat. After all, the wombat does have kind eyes.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 195: Black Dogs and Mystery Canids



It’s almost Halloween!! Our Halloween episode this year is all about some of the legends of ghostly black dogs in the UK and some other parts of the world, as well as some canid mysteries we haven’t covered before. Thanks again to Pranav for the suggestion!

This is your last chance to enter the book giveaway! You have until October 31, 2020, and that night at midnight (my time, Eastern daylight savings, or more likely when I wake up on November 1) I will randomly draw a name from all the people who have entered. To enter, just send me a message by email or Twitter or Facebook, or some other way. The contest is open to anyone in the world and if you win I’ll send you a signed copy of my books Skytown and Skyway, along with stickers and other fun stuff! I will mention that I haven’t actually received that many entries so you have a good chance of winning.

The pages I mentioned in this episode: Books I’ve Written, List of Animals, List of Cryptids, My Wishlist Page with Mailing Address

I’ve unlocked a few Patreon episodes for anyone to listen to, no login required:

The Horse-Eel

The Hook Island Sea Monster

The Minnesota Iceman

Further reading:

Shuckland

Trailing the Hounds of Hell – Black Dogs, Wish Hounds, and Other Canine Phantasms

The Lore and Legend of the Black Dog

The Mystery of North America’s Black Wolves

The Beast of Bungay according to the artist employed by Abraham Fleming (left) and the church door that supposedly shows burnt scratch marks from the beast’s claws (right):

A short-eared dog AKA the ghost dog:

A Himalayan wolf:

A dhole, closest relation to the “ghost population” of extinct canids:

A black wolf (photo by Andy Skillen, and I got it from the black wolf article linked to above):

Show Transcript:

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

It’s finally Halloween, and we have an episode that’s as spooky as it gets. It’s also a little unusual, because we’re going to learn about a folklore animal called the black dog, which isn’t a real dog or a real animal. But we’ll also learn about some canid mysteries we haven’t covered before, especially some mysteries associated with wolves. This is a suggestion from Pranav, who wanted to hear about more mystery canids after episode 80.

As always before our Halloween episode, let’s take care of some housekeeping. First, I’ve unlocked some Patreon episodes for anyone to listen to. The links are in the show notes and you can click through and listen on your browser, no login required. This time we have episodes about the horse-eel, the Hook Island Sea Monster, and the Minnesota Iceman.

Next, you still have a few days left to enter the book giveaway! This is for one paperback copy each of my books Skytown and Skyway. Skytown is a fun fantasy adventure book about two young women who steal an airship and decide to become airship pirates. As you do. Skyway is about the same characters but it’s a collection of short stories, mostly set before the events of the book. The short story collection is probably about a PG rating, for parental guidance needed, while the novel is probably more PG-13, where it’s really not for people under 13 years old. To enter the giveaway, just send me a message saying you’d like to enter. At midnight on Halloween night I will draw one winner randomly and send them the books as well as stickers, bookmarks, and some other stuff, but let’s be honest, I’m probably going to forget and fall asleep, so if any entries come in overnight on Halloween I’ll add them to the list before drawing a winner on the morning of November 1. There’s a page on the website with links to the Goodreads profiles of both books if you want to take a closer look and maybe order copies, because small publishers are really hurting right now and they could use your help.

This is also a good time to remind you that there are a few other pages on the website you might want to take a look at. One has a list of animals we’ve covered on the podcast and which episodes they appear in, and another is a list of just the cryptids we’ve covered on the podcast and which episodes they appear in. The cryptids list also includes Patreon episodes, including links to unlocked episodes, so if you’re new to the show and really want more mystery animal content, you might browse through that page. There’s also a contact information page that contains a link to my book wishlist if you’re feeling generous and want to send me a book I’ve been looking for. Used books are fine, and I totally do not want anyone to spend a lot of money on me so don’t feel like you have to do this. Eventually I’ll buy them all for myself. My mailing address is on that page too and I would be delighted if you want to send me an animal drawing or a letter. I’ll write you back and send you a sticker. Oh, and if you just want a sticker, you can always email or message me and ask for one. Don’t forget to give me your mailing address.

Okay, I think that takes care of everything, so on with the spookiness! Let’s kick off this year’s Halloween episode with an account of the Beast of Bungay [pronounced Bun-gee] from Suffolk, England.

[thunder! unless I forget to add it]

On August 4, 1577, around mid-morning, a massive thunderstorm rolled through Suffolk. The Reverend Abraham Fleming wrote an account of a bizarre event that happened during the storm.

It was a Sunday and church services were underway when the storm hit. During the lightning and thunder and torrential rain, Fleming wrote that a huge black dog entered St. Mary’s Church in the small town of Bungay. It was clearly not an ordinary dog. Fleming wrote, in slightly edited modern English:

“This black dog, or the devil in such a likeness running all along down the body of the church with great swiftness, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible form and shape, passed between two persons as they were kneeling in prayer and wrung the necks of them both at one instant clean backward, insomuch that even at a moment where they kneeled, they strangely died.”

The dog also grabbed another man, resulting in the man appearing “drawn together and shrunk up, as it were a piece of leather scorched in a hot fire: or as the mouth of a purse or bag drawn together with a string.” But that man apparently recovered. The first two died.

But that’s not all. Less than ten miles away, or 16 km, the storm advanced through the town of Blythburgh. In the Holy Trinity church the dog appeared again:

“The like thing entered, in the same shape and similitude where placing himself on a main baulk or beam whereon sometime the rood did stand, suddenly he gave a swing down through the church, and there also, as before, slew two men and a lad, and burned the hand of another person that was among the rest of the company, of whom diverse were blasted. This mischief thus wrought, he flew with wonderful force to no little fear of the assembly, out of the church in a hideous and hellish likeness.”

Fleming published his account in a pamphlet only a few weeks after the event took place, but he wasn’t a witness. He also made some mistakes. He said that the two men who died after the dog wrung their necks backwards had been kneeling in prayer, but according to the parish register, both men who died had been in the belfry during the storm. Fleming also said that the dog left burnt claw marks on the door into St. Mary’s church when it was actually the Holy Trinity church that was damaged. The church still has the same door and it’s supposed to still show the claw marks. The marks don’t look much like claw marks to me, but it’s definitely possible that they were caused by lightning.

Fleming’s account was probably heavily fictionalized to sell copies of his pamphlet, but that doesn’t stop it from being a wonderfully creepy story based on an event that did actually happen. There really was a massive storm on that date that damaged both churches and killed several people, but other contemporary accounts of the storm don’t mention a dog.

The rumor of a black dog in the storm might have started because there was an actual pet dog in the church or just outside that was frightened by the thunder and ran around in the church. Back then dogs were allowed in church but they sometimes barked or started fighting other dogs, at which point they had to be put outside. Many churches employed a man called a dog whipper to put dogs out, sometimes by using a big pair of metal tongs called dog tongs to grab a fighting dog and drag it outside. I don’t know why I find this so hilarious. Dog tongs. Like gigantic salad tongs, but for dogs.

Written accounts of ghostly black dogs go back over a thousand years in the British Isles and parts of Europe. The dogs are sometimes described as the size of a calf or even a pony, with glowing red eyes and shaggy fur. The very first black dog report anyone knows of is from France, recorded in the year 856. It occurred in a church too. A black dog with red eyes appeared in the church and ran around the altar several times before disappearing.

One well-known black dog is the Black Shuck of East Anglia, which is in eastern England and includes both Norfolk and Suffolk. The Black Shuck is a big black dog, sometimes described as having eyes as big as saucers, and in a few reports as having a single red eye in the middle of its face. The Beast of Bungay is actually considered to be part of the Black Shuck legend. Sightings of the Black Shuck still occur in Bungay, Blythburgh, and other parts of East Anglia.

For instance, this report: “Mr. John McLaughlin was working in the Autumn of 1973 for a firm that was laying new sewer lines across the marshes behind Blythburgh church. One day when he was alone, as his mate had gone into the village, he heard the sound of a dog panting very close by him, as if right by his ear, but there was no animal visible. It gave him a fright, which caused his hackles to rise, and he felt ‘uncanny.’ He was not a local man, and knew nothing of the local ‘Shuck’ legends until he was told later.”

People always like to know why something is happening, and there are lots of reasons given as to why a black dog appears. An account recorded in 1983 says that a girl was murdered on a road and after that a phantom hound had started to be seen there, while other stories say that the dog is waiting for its master, a fisherman who was lost at sea. A popular variation of this legend says that a dog drowned along with its two masters and all were found washed up on shore. Since no one knew who the people were, they were buried in separate churchyards, and the dog’s spirit travels ceaselessly between the two graves. Another legend says that a dog guarding a house was killed by wolves and that its spirit continues to guard the area. Another says the ghostly black dog guards a treasure, usually gold. But some stories just say it’s a demon or the spirit of a wicked person who died.

Here are a few more accounts, all taken from a fantastic website called Shuckland. I’ve linked to it in the show notes.

This first story is from 1968 in the town of Barnby. “George Beamish…was walking home one night and coming up to the Water Bars when he noticed a dog alongside him… He did not pay any special regard to the animal, then turned to speak to it. He looked and he saw it was no ordinary dog. It was big and black, but it had no head. He put his hand down to [touch] the animal, but it went clean through the dog…there was nothing there. He got the wind up and ran home…”

Many stories are similar, since most black dog accounts take place on a road or path. For instance, this one: “In the early years of World War Two I was stationed on an airfield at Oulton in Norfolk. Sometime in the Winter of ’41-42 I was walking along from Aylsham to Oulton Street. The night was very cold but clear. I had just passed Blickling Hall on my right when to my surprise I suddenly saw a large black dog standing in the middle of the road some few feet from me. As I called to the dog a most peculiar feeling came upon me. The nearest description I can give is that it was a ‘nervous tingling.’ I advanced towards the animal but as I went forward the animal retreated but without moving its feet, almost as though it was a cardboard ‘cut-out’ being pulled away from me with strings. The dog’s mouth was open but it made no sound. … I stopped and the dog also ceased its backward motion. After regarding me for maybe ten seconds the animal just completely disappeared. By ‘disappeared’ I mean that it did not run away but literally ‘disappeared.’ The night was very clear and I had a good view over the paddocks to my left and right. I could see no dog.”

Sometimes a witness reports that the black dog disappears through some obstacle like a wall or a closed gate: for instance, this report from Earsham [pronounced arshun] that probably occurred around 1920 to a Mrs. Wilson’s father when he was young. It was mid-December near midnight, a clear moonlit night but with snow on the ground. “As he approached the last of the first row of cottages known as Temple Bar, he said he became aware of a horrible cold tingling sensation all over, and the feeling that his hair was standing ‘on end.’ At this point, he saw a large dog, probably black, come walking through the fence of the big private house known as ‘The Elms’ on his right, cross the road in front of him, a few feet away, and disappear through the WALL of the Rectory opposite…he found there was no sign whatsoever of any footprints, or other marks on the fresh snow. At this point he panicked and ran fast as he could to my Granny’s house in the main street… At that time my father had no knowledge whatsoever of local ghosts…”

A sighting of a black dog is usually taken as a bad omen, but sometimes a black dog seems to help people. In around 1842 in Catfield in Norfolk, “[s]everal women were out one night gathering rushes, trespassing on the marshes near Catfield Hall, when they heard the keeper coming. Suddenly a large black dog appeared…and started chasing back and forth among them, whimpering. Finally one of the [women] realized it wanted them to follow it, and it led them across the worst part of the marsh to a footpath, then on to a main road and home. When they looked around for the dog, it had disappeared.”

In the early 20th century in Bawburgh [pronounced bawburr], a young man whose name is only reported as Mr. E. Ramsey “was cycling home late on a moonlit night from a darts match in Norwich. As he got near his home village he saw, sitting by the signpost, ‘the biggest hound’ that he’d ever seen, with eyes that ‘shone like coals of fire.’ Although nervous he passed the dog, but it didn’t move. Putting on speed he went on by, but half a mile further on heard him approaching from behind, ‘his paws beating the grit road.’ …[T]he dog…went by him, ‘so close [he] could smell [it].’ When it was well in front the dog stopped suddenly beside a spinney, and stood in the middle of the road facing him, looking aggressive. Mr. Ramsey stopped and dismounted in fear, looking around for someone to help him, keeping the cycle between him and the hedge. But just at that moment an unlit vehicle roared out of the spinney, ‘careering from side to side,’ and seemed to crash straight into the dog. Mr. Ramsey fell into the hedge with the cycle on top [of] him, as the vehicle rushed by so close, and away up the lane out of sight. As the witness picked himself up, he was amazed to see the dog still standing there, as he was sure it had been struck. …[T]o his surprise it just turned, and vanished into thin air. Mr. Ramsey…considered that it had saved his life on that night, since, if HE had been where the dog was, he would now be dead.”

Black dogs have many names besides Black Shuck, most of which are local terms for the local black dog. These include Hairy Jack, Shag, Skriker, Padfoot, the Yeth or Yell Hound, the Barghest, the Churchyard Beast, and Hateful Thing. These are all names from various parts of the UK, but black dogs are encountered in other places too, including parts of Europe, parts of the United States, especially in New England, and in parts of Mexico and South America. In many European mythologies, dogs symbolize death and the underworld, which may have influenced the black dog legends.

It’s certain that at least some reports of ghostly black dogs were actually encounters with ordinary dogs that happened to be black. As we talked about last week in the Dover demon episode, many animals that are active at night exhibit eyeshine as light reflects off the tapetum lucidum. This helps the animal see better in the dark. The color of a dog’s eyeshine depends on what color its eyes are but also depends on how much zinc or riboflavin is present in the pigments of its eyes, how old the dog is, and what breed it is. A dog’s eyes can shine white, green, yellow, blue, purple, orange, or red. Some dogs even have different colored eyes, so that one eye shines yellow but the other shines green, or some other combination. A big dog with a black or dark brown coat, which would look black at night, which also has orange or red eyeshine, might be mistaken for the Black Shuck when encountered on a road at night by someone who’s already familiar with the local legends.

That doesn’t explain the ghostly dogs that vanish into thin air or walk through walls, though. Don’t ask me to explain those. I love a good ghost story and I’m just going to appreciate how spooky those accounts are without worrying too much about what the black dog really is.

Let’s move on from ghostly dogs to some mystery canids. We’ll start with one that we know exists but which is probably the least well known canid in the world.

The short-eared dog lives in the Amazon rainforest and is sometimes called a ghost dog because of how shy and elusive it is. It’s the only member of its own genus. It has short legs, small, rounded ears, and a fox-like muzzle and tail. It varies in color from reddish to almost blue, but is usually brown or gray. It has partially webbed toes since it lives in wet areas. Females are considerably larger than males and instead of living in packs like many canids do, it seems to be a solitary animal. It eats small animals of various kinds, including frogs, fish, birds, crabs, and insects, and it also eats a lot of fruit. And that’s about all we know right now.

Starting in 2015, researchers placed camera traps in the southern Amazon rainforest to take pictures of mammals that lived in the area. To the team’s surprise, they kept getting photos of the short-eared dog. Some of the researchers had spent years working in the area but had never seen one of the dogs before. Many locals have never seen them either. But they kept showing up on camera.

A team of 50 scientists worked together to study the camera trap photos, and photos from other teams working in the Amazon on different projects, to determine the dog’s range and habitat, and as much other information about it as possible. Results of the study were published in May 2020 and it turns out that it’s not as rare as initially thought, although it is threatened by habitat loss, especially deforestation due to logging and development. The more we know about the short-eared dog, the more conservationists can do to protect it.

The gray wolf isn’t a mystery animal either, but there are a couple of mysteries associated with it. It lives throughout Eurasia and North America and is usually gray and white in color. There are a number of subspecies of grey wolf, but recently scientists have started taking a closer look at the genetics of some of those subspecies to determine if they might actually be separate species of wolf entirely.

That’s what has happened with the Himalayan wolf, which had long been considered to be a subspecies of grey wolf that lived in parts of the Himalaya Mountains in India. But not everyone agreed. Genetic studies of the wolf published in 2016 concluded that it isn’t all that closely related to the grey wolf, and in fact has been evolving separately from the grey wolf for 800,000 years. This year, 2020, follow-up studies have verified that the Himalayan wolf is significantly different genetically from the grey wolf. But it also turns out that the Himalayan wolf is the same animal as the Tibetan wolf, which also lives in the Himalayas. The wolves are adapted to live in high elevations, and researchers also suggest that the Tibetan mastiff, a breed of domestic dog, was developed by the ancient people of Tibet when they bred their dogs with the local wolves.

The Tibetan mastiff, by the way, is a big dog with a shaggy coat, especially a massive ruff, and is often black in color. No word on whether its eyes glow fiery red or if it can walk through walls.

The Himalayan wolf is about as closely related to the grey wolf as it is to the African golden wolf. The African golden wolf lives in northern Africa, especially in the Atlas Mountains. It’s quite small for a wolf, standing only 16 inches at the shoulder, or 40 cm. It varies in color from grey to reddish, and in fact it looks so similar to the jackals found in Africa that it used to be considered a subspecies of golden jackal. It wasn’t determined to be a wolf until 2015, when genetic analysis indicated it was more closely related to the coyote and gray wolf than it is to the golden jackal.

This is all complicated by the fact that many canids are so closely related that they can and will hybridize and produce fertile offspring. Genetic studies of the gray wolf have found that most wolves have some genetic markers of coyotes in their ancestry in the same way that many people have genetic markers of Neanderthals in our ancestry. But grey wolves also have genetic markers from another canid, one that can’t be identified.

When this happens, the unidentified ancestor is referred to as a ghost population. Many humans also have the genetics of ghost populations of hominins, by the way. One has recently been identified as the Denisovan people, but the other is still unidentified. As for the wolf’s ghost population, it’s genetically similar to a canid called the dhole. The coyote also contains genetic markers from this ghost population.

Grey wolves in North America are also more likely to exhibit melanism than other populations of wolves, which results in a wolf that is black instead of gray. Melanism isn’t uncommon in some animals. Black panthers are just melanistic leopards, for instance. Melanistic animals can hide better in low light conditions like heavy forests. But recently, a team of geneticists examined the DNA of wolves living in Yellowstone National Park to see if they could find out why so many North American wolves were melanistic compared to other populations of wolves.

They discovered that the wolves contain genetic markers of domestic dogs—but these markers are really old, not recent. The researchers estimate that this particular hybridization of grey wolves and dogs took place over 10,000 years ago in what is now Alaska. We have remains of domestic dogs from the same area, and many of them were melanistic. Researchers think ancient humans bred for the trait, and those dogs mated often enough with local wolves that melanism became much more common in the wolves too.

Why did ancient humans want black dogs? Because black dogs look really cool and spooky. Happy Halloween!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 194: The Dover Demon



It’s almost Halloween, and time for another spooky episode! Thanks to Pranav for the suggestion!

You still have time to enter the book giveaway contest, deadline October 31, 2020 at midnight! Details are here. There are also links on that page to look at the books if you want to order copies. You know, just in case.

I was a guest cohost on the Varmints! podcast again, and this time we talked about ticks! Listen here if you don’t already subscribe (but you should totally subscribe).

Further reading:

The Demon of Dover

Decades later, the Dover Demon still haunts

Bill Bartlett’s drawings and painting:

 

John Baxter’s drawing:

A baby moose (and mama moose):

A sad mangy bear:

An orangutan with cheek pads (a sign of a dominant male):

The sad mangy bear photo side by side with the (flipped) drawing of the Dover demon:

Without much hair on the feet, a bear’s claws might make the digits look elongated:

At night and at certain angles, a bear’s ears may not be very visible (also note eyeshine):

Show transcript:

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

It’s almost Halloween and I’m really excited, because we’re going to talk about a spooky encounter with a mystery creature called the Dover Demon. It’s a suggestion by Pranav that seemed perfect for monster month.

First, though, I was a guest cohost on Varmints! podcast again last week, and we talked about ticks! It’s a really funny episode so you should totally go listen to it. I’ve put a link in the show notes. You really should subscribe to the podcast, though, because all the episodes are fun and informative!

Dover, Massachusetts is a small town in northeastern North America, only about 15 miles from the city of Boston. Currently just over 6,000 people live there, up from about 5,000 people in 1977. It’s an affluent town with good schools, a small museum, and a number of historic homes. But it’s most well known for something weird that happened over forty years ago.

On the night of April 21, 1977, three seventeen-year-old boys were driving along Farm Street on the outskirts of town. Bill Bartlett was driving with his friends Mike and Andy in the car with him. This was long before the internet or video games or even cable TV were invented, so they were just driving around and talking since they had nothing better to do. It was a Thursday night and cooling down after an unusually warm day for late April in that part of North America.

Around 10:30pm, as they passed along a low stone wall on the left side of the road, Bill noticed an animal of some kind climbing on the stones. He thought it was a dog or even a cat at first, but then the car’s headlights lit it up. Bill saw the creature turn its head and stare into the light.

The creature was definitely not a dog. It had big round eyes that shone like orange marbles, as Bill described it later. He estimated it would have been four feet tall if it had been standing upright, or 122 cm. It had peach-colored skin that looked like it might have a rough texture, which Bill later described as looking like wet sandpaper or a shark’s skin. Its body was thin, its arms and legs were very long and thin, and it had a thin neck. But its head was oversized and oddly shaped. Bill described it as shaped like a melon, but to me it always sounds more like Snoopy the dog’s head. You know, Snoopy has a round head and a big oblong nose in comparison to a little body. But this creature wasn’t a cartoon character, it was real. Bill said it had long, thin fingers and toes that it wrapped around the rocks as it climbed over them. But while it did have those big glowing eyes, it didn’t appear to have ears, nose, or mouth.

The other two boys in the car were talking and didn’t notice the creature as the car passed it going somewhere around 45 mph, or 72 km/h. Bill was naturally freaked out and after about three quarters of a mile, or a little over a km, he stopped the car to tell his friends what he’d seen. They talked it over for a good 15 minutes before deciding to turn around and go back to look for the creature. But they didn’t see it again, so Bill dropped his friends off at their homes, then went home himself.

Bill’s father noticed that he seemed upset and Bill admitted that he’d seen something that had spooked him. He made a drawing of the creature and later made another drawing and a watercolor of it. Bill was a good artist and in fact when he grew up he became a professional artist. Photos of his drawings of the creature are in the show notes.

A few hours later that same night, at about 12:30 AM, another boy, fifteen-year-old John Baxter, was walking home from his girlfriend’s house on Miller Hill Road. Miller Hill Road intersects Farm Street, the road where Bill saw the creature, and John was about a quarter mile, or .4 km, away from where the two roads met when he noticed another person on the road ahead. He noticed the figure’s large head and thought it was a friend who lived nearby, a boy who actually had a deformed head due to a childhood illness. John called out to him but didn’t get a response. As John came closer, he noticed how small the other figure’s body was in comparison to its head and realized it wasn’t his friend. He thought it might be a small child.

The figure suddenly ran off the road. John heard it run down a small embankment at the edge of the road and into the trees. He chased it but stopped at the bottom of the embankment, since he hadn’t realized there was a creek at the bottom and almost fell in. The creature must have jumped the creek because John specifically mentioned that he didn’t hear it splashing through the water.

At this point John got a good look at the creature, since it had stopped about 30 feet away, or 9 m, and was looking back at him. It was in silhouette against an open field, with its head about level with John’s because of the way the ground sloped. It had a small, slender body, long, thin arms and legs with long, thin fingers and toes, and an oversized head with the same unusual shape that Bill reported. John said that the creature was standing on a rock and he could see that its long toes were wrapped around the rock, while it had also wrapped its long fingers around the trunk of a small tree.

Naturally, John got spooked at that point and backed off. He hurried to Farm Street and found someone to give him a ride home instead of walking the rest of the way. Later he made a sketch of what he’d seen.

The next night, a fifteen-year-old girl named Abby Brabham reported seeing something weird on Springdale Avenue. Springdale also joins Farm Street and is less than a mile from Miller Hill Rd. Abby was riding in the car with an eighteen-year-old friend, Will Taintor, who was driving her home, when she noticed something crouched next to the road at the edge of a bridge. I looked on street view and don’t see anything that could be called a bridge, but there are a lot of swampy areas near the road so there may have been a low bridge there in 1977. At first Abby thought she was looking at an ape, but it had a tan body without hair, a large watermelon-shaped head, and glowing green eyes. Will saw the creature too, although not as good a look as Abby. Abby estimated that the creature was the size of a goat.

And that’s that. The creature was never seen again.

OH MY GOSH THAT IS SO CREEPY.

In a case like this, where we’re presented with accounts from four people who saw something truly weird and report specific details that tally with each other, we can look at it logically this way. It’s either a hoax, a known animal that wasn’t identified at the time, an unknown animal, or something supernatural.

Let’s start with the assumption that it was a real animal, either known or unknown. (We’ll come to the other parts later.) If that’s the case, what kind of animal might it be?

People have suggested that the animal might have been a moose calf that got separated from its mother and was blundering around scaring teenagers. But a moose as the culprit doesn’t make any sense. Moose have big ears and nostrils, hooves instead of long fingers and toes, and a calf’s head actually appears small in relation to its bulky body and extremely long legs. But most importantly, there weren’t any moose living anywhere in Massachusetts in 1977. Now that there are moose in Massachusetts, you’d think that people would start seeing the Dover Demon again if it was actually a young moose, but that hasn’t happened.

A more likely possibility is a young black bear. Bears do stand and sometimes walk on their hind legs, especially young ones. But bear paws are broad and flat, and their toes are close together, sort of like a person’s toes. Not only that, bears have large ears. And, of course, they have thick black fur. Bears do get a type of mange that can cause them to lose their hair, and a young bear with a case of mange that advanced would probably also be sick and possibly very thin. But hairless bears, in addition to looking very sad, appear to have small heads, and their ears stick out even more than usual since they’re not half hidden with fur.

Could the creature be a primate of some kind? Abby said she thought she was looking at an ape at first, while in his interview John said he thought the creature might be a monkey. Obviously neither monkeys nor apes would ordinarily be found in Massachusetts, but exotic animal laws were more lax in 1977 than they are now. Not only that, there are some primate research facilities in and near Boston.

A monkey would have the long, thin limbs and slender body seen by witnesses, and it could wrap its fingers and toes around rocks. But there are problems with the monkey hypothesis. Monkeys generally have small heads, not oversized ones. Most have tails. Monkeys are also diurnal so wouldn’t be running around at night, and even if it was out at night for some reason, it would likely stay in the trees or climb a tree if someone frightened it.

Apes, of course, have no tails and they have relatively long limbs and fingers and toes. But it’s much less likely that an ape would escape from someone’s home or from a research facility and not be reported missing. For one thing, apes are expensive and can be dangerous. The research facilities I looked up didn’t seem to keep apes, just monkeys of various kinds.

It couldn’t have been a gorilla since a gorilla’s face is always gray or black with pronounced nostrils, and gorillas are much larger than what witnesses reported seeing, with a bulky body. Chimps are closer to the right size, but chimps don’t have big heads compared to their bodies—in fact, they’re proportioned more like humans but with smaller heads.

But what about an orangutan? Leaving aside the issue of where it came from and why it was never reported missing, could an orangutan have been the Dover Demon? Dominant male orangutans develop large cheek pads and throat pouches that can make their heads look quite large, and most orangs have orange fur that might look like tan textured skin in the dark. But orangutans have noticeable mouths and nostrils, plus their eyes are much closer together than the drawings indicate.

And there’s something else that indicates the Dover Demon probably wasn’t a primate. Many animals have a reflective layer in the eye that causes eyeshine at night. It’s called the tapetum lucidum and it helps animals see better at night. But humans, apes, and monkeys are diurnal animals and don’t have that particular night-time adaptation. All the witnesses said that the creature’s eyes glowed, presumably with reflected light.

That brings us to Abby’s sighting. Abby reported that the creature she saw had glowing green eyes, whereas Bill and John both said the creature they saw had orange glowing eyes. Abby refused to change her story, either, and was adamant that the eyes she saw were green.

Different animals have different-colored eyeshine, and individuals of the same type of animal may have different color eyeshine depending on lots of factors. But the color of an individual animal’s eyeshine doesn’t change from one night to the next. Is it possible that Abby didn’t see the same creature that Bill and John did? She didn’t get a good look at it, and Will barely got a glance. But I’ve always wondered why Abby said the creature she saw was the size of a goat. While that is a good description, unless Abby was familiar with goats and saw them frequently, it’s surprising that she didn’t describe it as the size of a big dog. I wonder if Abby actually saw a tan or light brown goat by the side of the road but didn’t recognize it consciously. Goats do have green eyeshine.

Then again, Abby described the creature’s head as very big and very weird, specifically watermelon-shaped, and she specified that it had a tan, hairless body and round eyes. All these things tally with what the others reported.

So if it wasn’t a known animal, could it have been an unknown animal, something new to science? Let’s assume it was, for now, and try to figure out what kind of habitat an animal of the Dover demon’s appearance would belong in.

However strange it appeared to the witnesses, the creature had four legs and a head. That means it fits the general body scheme of a tetrapod and a vertebrate. Witnesses reported seeing both fingers and toes, so it wasn’t a bird. It appeared to have a tapetum lucidum so it must be nocturnal to at least some degree. It was able to move around on land rapidly, apparently could walk on its hind legs alone if necessary since John Baxter mistook it for a person on the road, but it also seemed more comfortable when its front legs were braced against something, such as a rock or a tree. John didn’t hear it splash in the water when it ran down the embankment, so it could jump as well as run. It also didn’t escape by climbing a tree or hiding in the water when it was frightened, so we can assume it was a terrestrial animal, meaning it was most comfortable on land. It was either a mammal, a reptile, or an amphibian, but I think we can discount the amphibian hypothesis since it avoided the water. It didn’t appear to have fur, and its skin had a textured appearance, which might suggest that it was some kind of reptile instead of a mammal. But all reptiles have tails, and our creature didn’t appear to have one. That means the Dover demon was most likely a mammal.

So we have narrowed it down to a nocturnal, terrestrial mammal that either doesn’t have hair, or that was suffering from an advanced case of mange. Let’s assume that it just doesn’t have hair, or has hair that wasn’t visible at night. The hair might have been short and dense, like seal fur, so that it appeared to be textured skin, or it might have been very finely haired, sort of like a human’s body.

But the witnesses agreed that the creature was pale in color, a sort of tan or peach. That’s where it gets trickier, because that’s an unusual trait in a nocturnal animal. Pale skin or hair reflects light, which makes the animal easier to see in the darkness. That’s great if you’re a skunk and want to call attention to yourself so other animals can avoid your amazing stink powers, not so great if you’re trying to slink around unseen.

There are only a few habitats where it doesn’t matter what color an animal is, and those are habitats where the animal can’t be seen. Maybe the Dover demon ordinarily lives underground or in a cave.

Animals that live underground have to be able to dig, or else they’re not going to get very far. That means they need large claws. They also tend to have smaller eyes, since they can’t see far anyway and more dirt will get into large eyes. They also have short legs. So I think we can safely say that the Dover demon wasn’t an animal that spent much or any time burrowing underground.

But maybe it was a cave-dwelling animal. It had big eyes and a tapetum lucidum to take advantage of low light and it navigated quickly over rocks, wrapping its long fingers and toes around them. That makes sense, because those fingers and toes, as well as the long limbs, suggest an animal that can climb. Maybe it climbed around in caves.

So we seem to have found the most reasonable habitat for what we know about the Dover demon. It may be an animal adapted for climbing around in caves. Perhaps its oversized head acts as a resonant chamber to help it navigate with a type of echolocation when there’s no light, the way many whales have bulbous foreheads called melons.

But it doesn’t fit exactly, so let’s go over the drawbacks of our cave-dwelling mammal hypothesis.

First, there aren’t very many caves in Massachusetts. Only about 14,000 years ago, all of northern North America, including what is now Massachusetts, was covered with glacial ice many miles deep. The glaciers scraped away soil and the softer rock where caves form, and when they finally melted, they left exposed tough bedrock behind. What few natural caves there are in the area are quite small.

But all that side, the Dover demon was a large animal. If you’ve listened to episode 121, about cave dwelling animals, you may remember that large animals don’t live exclusively in caves because there’s just not enough food for them. There are no mammals known that live only in caves. Bats roost in caves but they come outside at night to hunt, and many other animals hibernate or sleep in caves but spend the rest of their time outside.

Now let’s look at our other two choices: either it’s a hoax or it’s something supernatural.

I don’t like to label mystery animals as supernatural. You’re not solving a mystery by labeling it as a different mystery. Some people have suggested that the Dover demon was actually an extraterrestrial that got separated from its space ship, and I considered this hypothesis carefully. But the Dover demon acted like an animal and has the body plan of an animal that is from Earth. If it hadn’t look so spooky—if it had fur—no one would have thought it was especially unusual.

So, was it a hoax? The witnesses all went to the same high school and lived in the same small town, although Abby was actually from another small town adjacent to Dover. Bill and Will were good friends, but Bill and John only knew each other slightly. None of them went to the newspapers or tried to make a big deal of their sightings. There’s some confusion as to when they realized they’d all seen the same thing and compared stories, but it seems to have happened either the next day when Bill and Will gave John a ride, on Saturday when John and Bill both attended the same party, or the following Tuesday at school.

I’ve put a link in the show notes to a really good site where I took a lot of my information, which itself is taken directly from the original interviews and report by a group of cryptozoologists, including Loren Coleman, who was the one who started calling the creature the Dover demon. There’s a long quote from John Baxter, and the way he describes what happened sounds authentic to me. I also read a 2006 interview with Bill Bartlett and he still claims the sighting was authentic.

Could it have been a thin person or a little kid with a big mask on, out at night to scare people? Of course this is possible, but why did the person quit after just three separate sightings on two nights? Reports of the sightings didn’t make it to the newspapers until the following month, so it’s not like there were people out hunting for the creature and the hoaxer was afraid they’d be caught.

There is one detail that concerns me about the sightings. April 18, 1977 was a new moon, which means that April 21 would have been quite dark, with only a thin crescent moon. Yet both Bill and John reported seeing the creature’s long fingers and toes wrapped around rocks. Bill did see the creature in his car’s headlights, but John was looking at it through the trees. I checked Google Maps street view again and Miller Hill Road doesn’t appear to have streetlamps, so I don’t know how John could have seen the creature’s fingers and toes so clearly from 30 feet away on a nearly moonless night.

I wish we had better information about when John made his drawing. His drawing is very, very similar to Bill’s, so much so that I wonder if John saw Bill’s first and used it as a reference. While John did obviously have some artistic ability, his lines aren’t as sure as Bill’s and he may have been uncertain both about the details he’d seen and about his ability to draw the details accurately. He might have filled in the gaps in his memory by looking at Bill’s drawing.

It does seem suspicious that three of the four witnesses were close friends: Bill and Will were buddies, and Abby was Will’s girlfriend. John knew the others but wasn’t friends with them, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have asked him to be part of the joke. Bill and Will were older and John might have looked up to them, and he might have been flattered to be part of the hoax.

I keep coming back to Bill’s drawings of the creature. He made several, apparently illustrating what he’d seen since the poses are all similar. But I’m an artist myself, and sometimes when you draw something really interesting you redo it several times because you like it and you want to improve it. You can get really attached to a character you doodled randomly. I wondered for a while if Bill’s drawings came first, and the story came second as a way to get more people to look at his drawings and appreciate the character he created. Or he might have been illustrating Gollum, the creature from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The books were really popular even then and the drawing does look a lot like the way Gollum is described in the books.

But I finally rejected this. From what we know of Bill’s character, this wasn’t something he would do. His friends all vouched for him being honest and apparently he was genuinely shaken by the sighting. I think he kept drawing and painting the creature because he was trying to figure out what it was.

So if it wasn’t a hoax, and it wasn’t a known or unknown animal, and it probably wasn’t something outside of the realm of science, what’s left? That’s the trouble, we don’t have enough information to know for sure. All we know is that four teenagers saw the creature over the course of about 24 hours, and then it was never seen again.

The more I think about it, the more I come to a single conclusion. If you look in the show notes at the photo I’ve posted of the sad mangy bear, and compare it to Bill’s drawings and painting I also posted, you’ll note some interesting similarities. The body is short, the limbs long in proportion. The legs are shaped the same way in both pictures. There’s no tail. The bear’s head, turned toward the viewer, has the same shape as the Dover demon’s head, it’s just not as large and it has big ears. But Bill didn’t get a good look at the animal, and he saw it briefly in the glare of his headlights on an extremely dark night. He saw the general shape of an animal climbing over rocks, staring into the light with its eyes reflecting the light brightly. Bears do have orange eyeshine and the placement of a bear’s eyes in its face matches what Bill drew.

Here’s what I think happened, maybe. Bill saw a small, thin bear with an advanced case of mange. This meant it had very little hair left and its skin was probably inflamed from scratching. Mange is caused by a mite that burrows under the skin of an animal and causes intense itching. The skin and what was left of the fur would look textured and mottled. The bright eyeshine drew his attention and exaggerated the size of the head in his memory, or it’s possible the poor bear had a swollen face from a bee sting or another malady that made it look much larger than it really was.

John encountered the same bear later that night. It’s not clear from John’s description if the Dover demon was actually walking toward him or just standing in the road. John might not have been able to tell. Bears stand on their hind legs to see better, and the bear was probably alarmed at John’s approach and was trying to decide what to do. When John got too close, the bear ran into the trees, then stopped to look back. That’s when John saw it in silhouette, realized he was seeing something weird, and retreated.

The next evening, the creature was supposedly spotted again by Abby as Will drove her home, and it’s possible that’s what they saw. But by that time Bill had undoubtedly told Will about the bizarre creature he’d seen and shown him his drawing, and Will had undoubtedly told Abby. This could easily have influenced her brief sighting of a goat or other animal, and she thought she had seen the same thing as Bill had. She may even have seen his drawing too. Remember, as I frequently say, people see what they expect to see. We don’t do it on purpose; our brains take what we know of a situation or object or animal and fill in the gaps of what we see so we can make faster decisions about what to do.

I also think John had already seen Bill’s drawing when he made his own drawing, which is why they look so much alike. I just can’t believe that John could have seen the creature’s toes wrapped around rocks at that distance, under the trees, in near-total darkness. I think he was influenced by Bill’s drawing and added the detail without realizing he hadn’t actually seen it. Bill had probably misinterpreted what he saw: namely, the bear’s long claws, which might have looked like part of long fingers, especially if the bear had very little fur on its paws.

My theory certainly doesn’t fit all the facts, primarily the presence of big bear ears which should have been quite noticeable. I did look at a lot of trail cam pictures of bears taken at night, though, and at some angles the bear’s ears don’t show very much or at all. I don’t think my scenario is necessarily what happened, though, just a guess that mostly fits. We would need a lot more information to make a real identification of what creature the teenagers saw that night, and so much time has passed that it’s impossible to get that information now.

So the Dover demon remains a mystery. But even though I’m mostly satisfied that the Dover demon was a sad mangy bear, that has not stopped me from being really jumpy on my usual evening walks. Because I might be totally wrong and I’ll never know.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. Don’t forget to contact me if you want to enter the book giveaway contest, too! Details are on the website, but basically if you want to enter, just contact me any way you like and let me know.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 193: Beebe’s Mystery Deep-Sea Fish



This week we’ll learn about five mystery fish that William Beebe spotted from his bathysphere in the early 1930s…and which have never been seen again. Thanks to Page for suggesting deep-sea fish!

Further reading:

How some superblack fish disappear into the darkness of the deep sea

The Fine Art of Exploration

Further listening:

99% Invisible “Bathysphere”

The Gulper Eel unlocked patreon episode

These two guys crammed themselves into that little bathysphere together. Sometimes they got seasick and puked in there. Also, they didn’t like each other very much:

The Pacific blackdragon is hard to photograph because it’s SUPERBLACK:

A larval blackdragon. Those eyestalks!

A painting (by Else Bostelmann) of Bathysphaera intacta (left) and an illustration from Beebe’s book Half Mile Down:

The pallid sailfish, also painted by Bostelmann:

A (dead) stoplight loosejaw. Tear your surprised eyeballs away from its weird jaws and compare its tail to the pallid sailfish’s:

A model of a loosejaw (taken from this site) to give you a better idea of what it looks like when alive. Close-up of the extraordinary jaws (seen from underneath) is on the right:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to descend metaphorically into the depths of the ocean and learn about some mystery fish spotted once from a bathysphere by famous naturalist William Beebe and never seen again. Deep-sea fish is a suggestion by Page, so thank you, Page, for a fascinating and creepy addition to monster month.

William Beebe was an American naturalist born in 1877 who lived until 1962, which is amazing considering he made repeated dives into the deep sea in the very first bathysphere in the early 1930s. We talked about bathyspheres way back in episode 27–you know, the one where I scream about them imploding and kind of freak out a little. Even today descending into the deep sea is dangerous, and a hundred years ago it was way way way more dangerous.

Beebe was an early conservationist who urged other scientists to stop shooting so many animals. Back then if you wanted to study an animal, you just went out and killed as many of them as you could find. Beebe pointed out the obvious, that this was wasteful and didn’t provide nearly as much information as careful observation of living animals in the wild. He also pioneered the study of ecosystems, how animals fit into their environment and interact with it and each other.

While Beebe mostly studied birds, he was also interested in underwater animals. Really, he seems to have been interested in everything. He studied birds all over the world, was a good taxidermist, and especially liked to study ocean life by dredging small animals up from the bottom and examining them. He survived a plane crash, was nearly killed by an erupting volcano he was observing, and fought in WWI. Once when he broke his leg during an expedition and had to remain immobilized, he had his bed carried outside every day so he could make observations of the local animals as they grew used to his presence.

In the 1920s, during an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, he started studying marine animals more closely. First he just dangled from a rope over the surface of the ocean, which was attached to a ship’s boom, but eventually he tried using a diving helmet. This was so successful that he started thinking about building a vessel that could withstand the pressures of the deep sea.

With the help of engineer Otis Barton, the world’s first bathysphere was invented and Barton and Beebe conducted dozens of descents in Bermuda, especially off the coast of Nonsuch Island. The bathysphere had two little windows and a single light that shone through one of the windows, illuminating the outside just enough to see fish and other animals. The bathysphere couldn’t descend all that deeply, although it set records repeatedly. The deepest they descended was 3,028 feet, or 923 meters, but Beebe made careful notes of all the animals he observed and published many articles and books about them. Many of these articles and books were illustrated by an artist named Else Bostelmann, who worked closely with Beebe and his team of scientists. Bostelmann even painted underwater while wearing a diving helmet, because she needed to know how colors were affected by underwater light. She used oil paints, since oil and water don’t mix so the paints wouldn’t wash away, and she tied strings to her paintbrushes so they wouldn’t float off.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in reading a really interesting article about Bostelmann or learning more about the bathysphere and William Beebe, check the show notes. I’ve included links to the article and to a 99% Invisible episode about the bathysphere.

Many of the animals Beebe saw from the bathysphere have since been identified and described by later scientists. But there are five fish that Beebe observed that have never been seen since.

Before we talk about them, let’s learn about Page’s suggestion, the Pacific blackdragon, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The Pacific blackdragon is a type of fish that lives in the Pacific, which you probably figured out without me telling you. It prefers tropical and temperate water, although since it’s a deep-sea fish the water where it lives is mostly very cold.

If you remember episode 155 about extreme sexual dimorphism, where the males and females of a species look radically different, this fish is a good example. The male never eats. He can’t eat. He doesn’t have a functioning digestive system. He survives on the yolk from the egg he develops from and never grows any larger than his larval form, about three inches long, or 8 cm. He lives long enough to mate and then he dies.

The female, however, grows up to about two feet long, or 61 cm. Her body is long and thin, and her mouth is full of sharp teeth that she uses to grab anything she can catch. She especially likes to eat fish and small crustaceans, but she’s not picky.

Her body is black, and not just regular black. It’s called superblack or ultrablack. In episode 186 we talked about the eyed click beetle and velvet asity who both have superblack markings that absorb most of the light that hits them. Well, the Pacific blackdragon is superblack almost all over to help hide in the darkness of the water, since it’s an ambush predator. Just under the fish’s skin, there’s a layer of closely packed pigment-containing structures called melanosomes, which can absorb up to 99.95% of light. As if that wasn’t enough, because a lot of the animals the blackdragon eats emit bioluminescent light, her stomach is also black to block any light from the prey she’s swallowed. But although she’s basically invisible to other animals, she does have several rows of light-emitting cells called photophores along her sides. Scientists think she uses the lights to attract a mate, but she only flashes the photophores occasionally and only for brief moments. She also has a barbel that hangs from her chin with a luminescent lure at the end, which she uses to attract prey.

While the Pacific blackdragon is a deep-sea fish, at night she migrates upward nearer the surface to catch more prey, although she still stays below about 1,300 feet deep, or 400 m. She has large eyes as a result to take advantage of any moonlight and starlight that shines down that far. During the day she stays deeper, up to 3,200 feet deep, or 1,000 m.

Speaking of the Pacific blackdragon’s eyes, larval blackdragons have eyes on long stalks—really long stalks, nearly half their body length. As the larva matures, it absorbs the stalks until the adult fish has ordinary fish eyes. The larvae are also mostly transparent.

There are two other blackdragon species known, both of them a little smaller than the Pacific blackdragon. But in 1932 William Beebe spotted a fish that he thought might be related to the blackdragons, except that he estimated it was six feet long, or 1.8 m.

Beebe named the fish Bathysphaera intacta, but there’s no type specimen so no one can study it and verify whether it’s a species of blackdragon or something else. Beebe said the fish he saw had large eyes, lots of teeth, and photophores along its sides that glowed blue, and had a barbel with a light under its chin just like the Pacific blackdragon and its cousins. But it also had another, smaller barbel with a light near the tail. Beebe saw two of the fish together. They circled the bathysphere a few times, probably attracted to its light.

Another of Beebe’s mystery fish is one he named the pallid sailfin, Bathyembryx istiophasma. He saw it twice on the same descent in 1934, and described it as about two feet long, or 61 cm, shaped like a cigar with triangular fins and a tiny tail. In fact, in his book Half Mile Down Beebe described the fish this way:

“The strange fish was at least two feet in length, wholly without lights or luminosity, with a small eye and good-sized mouth. Later, when it shifted a little backwards I saw a long, rather wide, but evidently filamentous pectoral fin. The two most unusual things were first, the color, which, in the light, was an unpleasant pale olivedrab, the hue of water-soaked flesh, an unhealthy buff. It was a color worthy of these black depths, like the sickly sprouts of plants in a cellar. Another strange thing was its almost tailless condition, the caudal fin being reduced to a tiny knob or button, while the vertical fins, taking its place, rose high above and stretched far beneath the body, these fins also being colorless.”

Beebe assigned the pallid sailfish into the family Stomiidae, the same family that Bathysphaera intacta is assigned to as well as the other blackdragons. As a group, the fish in this family are called barbeled dragonfish. Some species in this family do show a similar tail arrangement that Beebe noted, with a very small tail fin but enlarged anal and dorsal fins that are set well back on the body. This includes a weird fish with various names, including black hinge-head, black loosejaw, or lightless loosejaw, which maybe gives you an idea of what it looks like. It’s a deep-sea fish like all the barbeled dragonfish, and it’s black in color. It grows about 10 inches long, or almost 26 cm. It’s also sometimes called the stoplight loosejaw because it has two photophores on its head, one of which shines green, the other which shines red. Unlike most deep-sea fish, it can see in the red spectrum, so the green photophore may attract prey and the red photophore allows the loosejaw to see its prey even though the prey can’t see the loosejaw. But mainly, it has remarkable jaws.

The loosejaw’s jaws are hinged and extremely large compared to the body, which is fairly thin. The jaws are so large that they’re not even attached to its body, just to its head. They aren’t even connected to the body with skin. It’s hard to describe, but I have some good pictures of a model of the fish in the show notes. Basically, the jaws are just bones covered with a thin layer of skin, but no skin or muscle in between the bones. If you put your thumb under your chin, you can feel your chin bone, then move your thumb backwards and instead of bone, you feel skin over layers of fat and muscle and other tissues that make up the soft part of your jaw. Well, the loosejaw doesn’t have those soft parts. It just has the chin bone and there’s literally nothing between the jaws. It doesn’t have a throat or cheeks or anything like that. Its jaws aren’t big because it needs to swallow big things, its jaws are big so it has a longer reach to snag the small fish and crustaceans it eats. It has a lot of needlelike teeth that it uses to keep its prey from wriggling away while it maneuvers it into its gullet. It mostly eats very small animals, but it’s not going to let anything get away once it gets within jaw range.

While I was researching this episode, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the episode where I talked about the umbrellafish, thinking it might be related to the loosejaw. It’s not, and I finally realized the umbrellafish episode was for patrons. I’ve unlocked that Patreon episode and linked to it in the show notes if you want to go listen to it. The umbrellafish, also called the gulper eel, looks superficially like the loosejaw, but it has skin over its huge hinged jaws.

After my inability to properly describe the loosejaw’s amazing jaws, let’s move on to Beebe’s other mystery fish. One he named the three-starred anglerfish, Bathyceratias trilychnus, which he estimated was about six inches long, or 15 cm. It had three bioluminescent illicia on its head that it probably used as lures, since that’s something that other deep-sea anglerfish do and Beebe was pretty sure it was actually a species of anglerfish. Since there are over 200 known species of anglerfish, it’s not surprising that there are more that aren’t known.

Another was the five-lined constellation fish, Bathysidus pentagrammus, named for the five rows of photophores on its sides. Beebe thought it looked kind of like a surgeonfish, which is a flat, round fish shaped sort of like a pancake with fins and a tail. But surgeonfish are mostly found in shallow, tropical waters around coral reefs. They’re often brightly colored. Beebe didn’t assign his constellation fish to the surgeonfish’s family, and in fact didn’t assign it to any family since he didn’t know where it belonged.

The last of Beebe’s mystery fish was the rainbow gar, which he didn’t give a scientific name to since he had no idea what kind of fish it might be. He thought it was shaped like a gar, but it was so extraordinary he didn’t know what to think. He actually saw four of them swimming almost vertically, heads up and tails down, at about 2,500 feet deep, or 760 m. He named them rainbow gar because of their coloring: bright red head and jaws, a light blue body, and a yellow tail. They were about four inches long, or a little over 10 cm, with long, pointed jaws. They moved by fanning the dorsal fin, sort of like a seahorse.

Beebe wrote scientific articles about some of these fish and included them all in his book Half Mile Down. But it wasn’t long before other scientists started doubting the sightings. Some people thought he’d made up the fish to make his expeditions more exciting, some thought he was just mistaken. One irate ichthyologist wrote in 1933 that the constellation fish was probably just light reflecting off Beebe’s own breath fogging the window, because no fish had photophores like the ones he described. Because I guess in 1933 everything was known about fish that would ever be known, right?

Beebe seems to have been an honest scientist, though, and he didn’t really need to make anything up. He discovered dozens, if not hundreds, of fish new to science, many of which have either been found and properly described later, or which Beebe himself managed to later catch. Whenever he and Barton came up from a descent in the bathysphere, Beebe had his team on the boat send down nets, and sometimes they caught some of the animals he had seen. This allowed Bostelmann to add details to her paintings that Beebe wouldn’t have known about from just a look through the bathysphere’s windows.

Not only that, if Beebe wanted to make up a fish that would excite the general public and make them want to buy his books, he would have made up something huge and frightening. His mystery fish are mostly quite small. Only Bathysphaera intacta was large, and he only said they were about six feet long. That’s big for a deep-sea fish, but remember that the bathysphere never made it to the really crushing depths of the abyss. It descended into the mesopelagic zone, which is extremely dark but not completely lightless. There’s also a lot of life in this zone, and many fish that spend the day here migrate nearer the surface at night where they can find more food while still remaining hidden. The long-snouted lancetfish lives in this zone and it can grow seven feet long, or 2.15 m.

Plus, Beebe didn’t need to convince anyone to buy his books. They were already runaway bestsellers and he was quite famous, although it seems not to have gone to his head. He just wanted to have fun and do science. He actually seems to have been a good person by modern standards too, which is always refreshing. He disagreed with people who claimed to have scientific proof that women were inferior to men or that some races were inferior to others. He insisted that his team members work hard, but he worked hard too, and if he thought everyone was feeling too stressed, he’d announce that his birthday was coming up and they should take a few days off to celebrate. Some years he had several birthdays.

Beebe did spot one other mystery animal, but he didn’t get a good enough view to make a guess as to what it might be. This is what he wrote about it:

“…I saw its complete, shadow-like contour as it passed through the farthest end of the beam [of light]. Twenty feet is the least possible estimate I can give to its full length, and it was deep in proportion. The whole fish was monochrome, and I could not see even an eye or a fin. For the majority of the ‘size-conscious’ human race this marine monster would, I suppose, be the supreme sight of the expedition. In shape it was a deep oval, it swam without evident effort, and it did not return. That is all I can contribute, and while its unusual size so excited me that for several hundred feet I kept keenly on the lookout for hints of the same or other large fish, I soon forgot it in the (very literal) light of smaller, but more distinct and interesting organisms.

“What this great creature was I cannot say. A first, and most reasonable guess would be a small whale or blackfish. …[O]r, less likely, it may have been a whale shark, which is known to reach a length of forty feet. Whatever it was, it appeared and vanished so unexpectedly and showed so dimly that it was quite unidentifiable except as a large, living creature.”

Twenty feet is six meters, by the way. It might easily have been a whale, since many species of whale routinely dive much farther than the bathysphere descended at its deepest. Whatever it was, and whatever Beebe’s other five mystery fish were, hopefully one day a modern deep-sea vehicle will find them again.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway if you haven’t already, too! Details are on the website.

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 strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon 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 strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!