Category Archives: cryptozoology

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!


Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses



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

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

Further reading:

The Conakry monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/05/30/conakry-monster-tubercle-technology

Brydes whale almost swallows a diver! https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2015/AugSept/PhotoZone/Brydes-Whales

The Moore’s Beach monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/07/08/moores-beach-monster

The Tecolutla Monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/07/10/tecolutla-monster-carcass

Further watching:

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

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

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

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

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

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

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at 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!


Episode 175: Three Small Mystery Animals



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

The water chevrotain:

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

Flying ants:

It’s flying ants, that’s what it is:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at 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!

 


Episode 174: MONSTER CEPHALOPODS!



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

Further watching:

River Monsters episode about the Lusca

A colossal squid, up close to that gigantic eyeball:

Blue holes in the ocean and on land:

A giant Pacific octopus swimming:

The popular image of the kraken since the 1750s:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at 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!


Episode 166: The Domestic Cat



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

Further listening:

Weird Dog Breeds – an unlocked Patreon episode

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

The African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat:

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

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

The big friendly Maine Coon cat:

The Norwegian forest cat SO FLUFFY:

The surprised-looking Singapura cat:

The hairless sphynx breed (with sweater):

The Madagascar forest cat:

The European wildcat:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cat meowing]

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

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

[cat purring]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 165: Furry Fish



I hope you’re all well and not too bored if you’re one of the millions who are having to stay inside right now! This week let’s learn about a fishy mystery, fish with fur!

Further reading:

Mirapinna esau – a Furry Fish from the Azores

The so-called fur-bearing trout:

A hairy frogfish:

The hairyfish (I couldn’t find any actual photos of one):

This man is serious about moldy fish. He wants the mold to think about what it’s done while it’s in time out:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about a fishy mystery, if not an actual mystery fish. Are there any fish with hair?

Sometimes you’ll see a mounted fish that has fur, usually decorating a restaurant. It may be the same type of restaurant that also has a stuffed jackalope, which we talked about in episode 113. Fur-bearing trout are jokes by taxidermists, who usually attach rabbit fur to a stuffed fish.

But some cultures have stories about fish with hair. This includes the Japanese story of big river fish with hair on their heads like people, although since these fish are supposed to come out of the water at night to fight and play, they’re probably not actual fish. There’s also an Icelandic legend about an inedible trout with fur that shows up in rivers where people are not being nice enough.

Could these stories be based on a real animal? Are there any fish that grow fur or hair?

Mammals are the only living animals that grow actual hair from specialized cells, but lots of animals have hair-like coverings. Baby birds have downy fuzzy feathers that look like hair and many insects have hairlike structures called setae [see-tee], made of chitin, that make them look furry.

Some fish grow hairlike filaments that help camouflage them among water plants and coral. We’ve talked about the frogfish and its relatives, the anglerfish, many times before, because they’re such weird-looking fish, many of them deep-sea species that are seldom seen. The hairy frogfish isn’t a deep-sea species, though. It lives in warm, shallow waters, especially around coral reefs, and grows to about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The hairlike filaments that cover its body help it blend in among seaweed and anemones. It’s usually brownish-orange or yellowish, but it can actually change its color and pattern to help it blend in with its surroundings. This color change doesn’t happen fast, though. It takes a few weeks.

Like other frogfish, it has a modified dorsal spine called an illicium with what’s called an esca at the end. In deep-sea species of anglerfish, the esca contains bioluminescent bacteria, but in the hairy frogfish it just looks like a worm. The fish sits immobile except for the illicium, which it twitches around. When a fish or other animal comes to catch what looks like a worm swimming around in the water, the frogfish goes YOMP and gulps the animal down. Like other frogfish species, the hairy frogfish has large, strong pectoral and pelvic fins that it uses to walk across the sea floor instead of swimming.

Another fish that looks like it has hair is called the hairyfish. The hairyfish barely grows more than two inches long, or 5.5 cm. It eats copepods and other tiny crustaceans that live near the ocean’s surface and it’s covered with small hairlike filaments. Its close relations are equally small fish called tapetails because its tail fin has a narrow extension at least as long as the rest of its body called a streamer. The tapetail was described in 1956 but scientists were confused because no one had ever found an adult tapetail, just young ones. It wasn’t until 2003 that a team of Japanese scientists discovered that the DNA of tapetails matched the DNA of a deep-sea fish called the flabby whalefish. There are lots of whalefish species, but the largest only grows to about 16 inches long, or 40 cm. It looks very different from its larval form, with loose skin without scales or hair-like filaments or the tail streamer. But even after researchers figured out that the tapetail and hairyfish are larvae of whalefish, there was still another mystery. All the whalefish ever found were females. Where were the males? Finally they identified yet another deep-sea fish called a bignose fish as the male of the species. The bignose fish has a huge liver but its mouth doesn’t go anywhere—it doesn’t have a throat or stomach. It gets its name from a bulge on its snout that gives it a keen sense of smell.

It turns out that after a larval whalefish develops into an adult, the male doesn’t need to eat. It lives off the fat and nutrients stored in its huge liver and uses its sense of smell to find a female in the depths of the ocean. The female remains a carnivore, eating any small animals it can catch, and it often migrates at night from the deep sea to nearer the surface, then returns to the depths during the day. So far we don’t know which species the hairyfish develops into as an adult.

But the hairy frogfish and the hairyfish are both rarely seen marine fish. Are there hairy-looking freshwater fish that might have inspired the legends of furry fish?

There is a disease called cotton mold that infects fish and makes them look like they have white or grayish spots of fur. Saprolegnia is the name of the mold, which lives in water and can infect fish in the wild and in aquariums. It mostly prefers cold fresh water and usually infects fish that are already injured. It spreads across the fish’s skin and makes it look fuzzy, and eventually it kills the fish. Salmon and trout are common targets of this mold, which may be the source of the Icelandic story.

As for the Japanese story about the hairy fish creatures that come out of the river at night, zoologist Karl Shuker suggests the legend may be based on sightings of the northern fur seal. While seals are mammals, not fish, they do look superficially like fish, and while seals also usually live in the ocean, they occasionally stray into rivers.

So that seems to cover the hairy fish mystery. But next time you go on a fishing trip or just hang out in a boat, keep an eye out for fish with fur just in case.

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 159: Sky Animals



To celebrate my new book, Skyway, this week let’s learn about sky animals! They’re fictitious, but could they really exist? And what animals are really found in the high atmosphere?

You can order a copy of Skyway today on Kindle or other ebook formats! It’s a collection of short stories published by Mannison Press, with the same characters and setting from my novel Skytown (also available)!

Further reading:

“The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (and you can even listen to a nice audio version at this link too!)

Charles Fort’s books are online (and in the public domain) if not in an especially readable format

Further Listening:

unlocked Patreon episode The Birds That Never Land

Rüppell’s vulture:

The bar-headed goose:

The common crane:

Bombus impetuosus, an Alpine bumblebee that lives on Mount Everest:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got something a little different. Usually I save the weirder topics for Patreon bonus episodes, and in fact I had originally planned this as a Patreon episode. But I have a new book coming out called Skyway, so in honor of my new book, let’s learn about some sky animals!

Skyway is a collection of short stories about the same characters in my other book Skytown, so if you’ve read Skytown and liked it, you can buy Skyway as of tomorrow, if you’re listening on the day this episode goes live. I’ll put links to both books in the show notes so you can buy a copy if you like. The books have some adult language but are appropriate for teens although they’re not actually young adult books.

Anyway, the reason I say this episode is a little different is because first we’re going to learn about some interesting sky animals that are literary rather than real. Then we’ll learn about some animals that are real, but also interesting—specifically, animals that fly the highest.

Back before airplanes and other flying machines were invented, people literally weren’t sure what was up high in the sky. They thought the sky continued at least to the moon and maybe beyond, with perfectly breathable air and possibly with strange unknown animals floating around up there, too far away to see from the ground.

People weren’t even sure if the sky was safe for land animals. When hot-air balloons big enough to carry weight were invented in the late 18th century, inventors tried an important experiment before letting anyone get in one. In 1783 in France, a sheep, a duck, and a rooster were sent aloft in a balloon to see what effects the trip would have on them. The team behind the flight assumed that the duck would be fine, since ducks can fly quite high, so it was included as a sort of control. They weren’t sure about the rooster, since chickens aren’t very good flyers and never fly very high, and they were most nervous about the sheep, since it was most like a person. The balloon traveled about two miles in ten minutes, or 3 km, and landed safely. All three animals were fine.

After that, people started riding in balloons and it became a huge fad, especially in France. By 1852 balloons were better designed to hold more weight and be easier to control, and that year a woman dressed as the goddess Europa and a bull dressed as Zeus ascended in a balloon over London. But the bull was obviously so frightened by the balloon ride that the people watching the spectacle complained to the police, who charged the man who arranged the balloon ride with animal cruelty. The bull was okay, though, and no one made him get in a balloon again.

After airplanes were invented and became reliable, if not especially safe, the world went nuts about flying all over again. In 1922 Arthur Conan Doyle published a story called “The Horror of the Heights,” about a pilot who flew high into the sky and came across sky animals. You can tell from the story’s title that things did not go well for the main character.

The story is written as though it’s an excerpt from a journal kept by the main character, named Joyce-Armstrong. Early on, Joyce-Armstrong is talking about height records achieved by pilots and that no one has had any trouble that high in the sky. He says,

“The thirty-thousand-foot level has been reached time after time with no discomfort beyond cold and asthma. What does this prove? A visitor might descend upon this planet a thousand times and never see a tiger. Yet tigers exist, and if he chanced to come down into a jungle he might be devoured. There are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.”

After that are some really lovely descriptions of the pilot’s ascent into the sky, trying for both a height record and to see the so-called jungle of the upper air. In the story, he climbs to over 41,000 feet in an open cockpit monoplane without any special equipment. He’s wearing, like, a nice warm hat and wool socks. In actuality, at 40,000 feet, or 12,000 meters, the temperature can be as low as -70 degrees F, or -57 Celsius.

Anyway, Joyce-Armstrong writes in his journal, “Suddenly I was aware of something new. The air in front of me had lost its crystal clearness. It was full of long, ragged wisps of something which I can only compare to very fine cigarette smoke. It hung about in wreaths and coils, turning and twisting slowly in the sunlight. As the monoplane shot through it, I was aware of a faint taste of oil upon my lips, and there was a greasy scum upon the woodwork of the machine. Some infinitely fine organic matter appeared to be suspended in the atmosphere. There was no life there. It was inchoate and diffuse, extending for many square acres and then fringing off into the void. No, it was not life. But might it not be the remains of life? …The thought was in my mind when my eyes looked upwards and I saw the most wonderful vision that ever man has seen. …Conceive a jelly-fish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size—far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St. Paul’s. It was of a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsated with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles, which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble…”

After that, Joyce-Armstrong sees more of the sky jellyfish and some long smoke-like creatures that he calls the serpents of the outer air. And then he’s attacked by a huge purplish creature sort of like a sky octopus with sticky tentacles. He escapes and flies home, writes his journal entry, and says he’s going back to capture one of the smaller sky jellyfish and bring it back to show everyone. And after that, the journal ends except for a terrible addendum scrawled in pencil on the last page. It’s a fun story that you can read for free online, since it’s in the public domain. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Arthur Conan Doyle is the same author who invented Sherlock Holmes, if the name sounds familiar. But he wasn’t the first one to imagine strange high-altitude sky animals. He was influenced by the writings of a man named Charles Fort. Fort liked to collect the accounts of weird happenings reported in newspaper articles and magazines, and he published his first book in 1919. If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may remember Fort from a bonus episode last October where I talked about a few of his animal-related cases. I’d unlock the episode for anyone to listen to except that I just re-listened to it myself, and at the end I talk about my recent eye surgery in really way too much detail. So I won’t unlock it, but I will say that Fort had a weird writing style that can be hard to follow. He likes to present outlandish theories as though he’s deadly serious, then claim that he’s only joking, then say, “Well, maybe I’m not joking.” His main goal is to make readers think about things that would never have occurred to them.

Fort was especially interested in falls of fish and frogs and other things, which we talked about in episode 140 last October. In his first book he suggested there are places in the sky where items collect, and that occasionally things fall out of those places. He called this the Super-Sargasso Sea, after the Sargasso Sea that’s supposed to be a becalmed area of the ocean where sailing ships get caught because there’s no wind or currents. The Sargasso Sea is a real place in the North Atlantic Ocean that has clear blue water and which is full of a type of seaweed called Sargassum. It’s also full of plastic, unfortunately, since that’s where the North Atlantic garbage patch is.

But Fort described his Super-Sargasso Sea as something between another dimension and an alien world that just brushes up against the earth’s atmosphere. He pointed out that this theory made as much sense as any other explanation for falling frogs and other things, which of course is why he suggested it. He didn’t actually believe it.

This is how Fort describes the super-Sargasso Sea: “I think of a region somewhere above this earth’s surface in which gravitation is inoperative…. I think that things raised from this earth’s surface to that region have been held there until shaken down by storms…. [T]hings raised by this earth’s cyclones: horses and barns and elephants and flies and dodoes, moas, and pterodactyls; leaves from modern trees and leaves of the Carboniferous era…. [F]ishes dried and hard, there a short time; others there long enough to putrefy…. [O]r living fishes, also—ponds of fresh water: oceans of salt water.

“But is it a part of this earth, and does it revolve with and over this earth—

“Or does it flatly overlie this earth…?

“I shall have to accept that, floating in the sky of this earth, there often are fields of ice as extensive as those on the Arctic Ocean—volumes of water in which are many fishes and frogs—tracts of lands covered with caterpillars—

“Aviators of the future. They fly up and up. Then they get out and walk. The fishing’s good: the bait’s right there. … Sometime I shall write a guide book to the Super-Sargasso Sea, for aviators, but just at present there wouldn’t be much call for it.”

That quote is actually cobbled together from pages 90-91, 179, and 182 of my copy of The Complete Books of Charles Fort, because one thing Fort is not good at is a straightforward, clear narrative. Reading his books is like experiencing someone else’s fever dream. But you can definitely see where Conan Doyle got his inspiration for “The Horror of the Heights.”

These days we know a lot more about the sky—or, more technically, about the atmosphere that surrounds the Earth. Researchers have labeled different parts of the atmosphere since the different layers have different properties. The layer closest to the earth, the one that we breathe and live in, is the troposphere. That’s where weather happens, that’s where most clouds are, and that’s where 99% of the water vapor in the entire atmosphere is located. The troposphere extends about 6 miles above the earth, or 10 km, or 33,000 feet. Mount Everest is 29,000 feet high, by the way, or 8,850 meters. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends to about 31 miles above the earth, or 50 km.

The jet stream, a steady wind that commercial jet planes use to help them cross oceans and continents faster, occurs roughly where the troposphere becomes the stratosphere. Above the jet stream, there’s hardly any turbulence. There are no updrafts, basically no weather, just increasingly thin air. Weather balloons and spy planes ascend into the stratosphere and that’s also where the ozone layer is, but there’s basically not much up that high.

Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere, where the air is too thin for any animal known to breathe, plus the air pressure is only about 1% of the pressure found at sea level. There just aren’t very many air molecules in the mesosphere. This is where meteors typically burn up, and the only vehicles that fly there are rockets. It extends to about 53 miles above the earth, or 85 km, and above that is the thermosphere, the exosphere, and then empty space, although it’s hard to know exactly where the thermosphere and exosphere end and space begins. It’s so far away from the earth’s surface that some satellites orbit within the thermosphere, and that’s where the northern and southern lights are generated as charged particles from the sun bounce against molecules.

But let’s return to the troposphere, our comfortable air-filled home. As far as we know, there aren’t any animals that live exclusively in the air and never land. Even the common swift, which lives almost its entire life in the air, catching insects and sleeping on the wing, has to land to lay eggs and take care of its babies. But what animals fly the highest?

As far as we know, the highest-flying bird is Rüppell’s vulture, an endangered bird that lives in central Africa. It’s been recorded flying as high as 37,000 feet, or 11,300 meters, and we know it was flying at 37,000 feet because, unfortunately, it was sucked into a jet engine and killed. There’s so little oxygen at that height that a human would pass out pretty much instantly, but the vulture’s blood contains a variant type of hemoglobin that is more efficient at carrying oxygen so that it gets more oxygen with every breath. It has a wingspan of 8 ½ feet, or 2.6 meters, and is brown or black with a lighter belly and a white ruff around the neck. Its tongue is spiky to help it pull meat off the bones of the dead animals it eats, but if there’s no meat left on a carcass, it will eat the hide and even bones. The more I learn about vultures, the more I like them.

Any bird that migrates above the Himalayas has to be able to fly incredibly high, since that’s where Mount Everest is and many other mountains that reach nearly into the stratosphere. The bar-headed goose has been recorded flying at 29,000 feet, or 8,800 meters, and in fact, mountaineers climbing Mount Everest have claimed to see and hear the geese flying overhead. The bar-headed goose has the same variant hemoglobin that Rüppell’s vulture has so it absorbs more oxygen with every breath.

The bar-headed goose is pale gray with black and white markings, especially black stripes on its head. It’s not an especially big goose, with a wingspan of about five feet, or 160 cm. It nests in China and Mongolia during the summer, then migrates to India and surrounding areas for the winter, and it generally crosses the Himalayas at night when winds aren’t as high.

The common crane is another high-flying bird, which has been recorded flying at 33,000 feet, or 10,000 meters, above the Himalayas. It’s a large bird with long legs and a wingspan of nearly 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. It’s gray with a red crown on its head and a white streak down its neck, and a tail that’s not so much a tail as just a bunch of floofy feathers stuck to its butt. Supposedly it flies so high to avoid eagles, but it’s a strong bird with a stabby beak that has been observed fighting eagles that attack it. It nests in Russia and Scandinavia but flies to many different wintering sites across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

So those are the three highest-flying birds known, but what about insects? How high can an insect fly?

Most insects can’t fly if the air is too cold, typically if it’s below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or 10 degrees Celsius. Since the air is that cold just a few thousand feet above ground, that means most insects don’t fly very high, especially small ones. But not all of them.

Because insects are so small and lightweight, they’re often carried by the wind even if they aren’t technically flying, an activity called kiting. In 1961 during a study of insect migrations, an insect trap installed on an airplane caught a single winged termite at 19,000 feet, or 5.8 kilometers above sea level. An insect trap on a weather balloon collected a small spider at 16,000 feet, or 5 km. If you’re wondering how the spider got in the air in the first place, many small spider species travel to new habitats by ballooning, which in this case has nothing to do with a balloon. The spider lifts its abdomen until it feels a breeze, and then it spins a short piece of silk. The breeze lifts the silk and therefore the spider and carries it sometimes long distances.

Some bumblebee species live and fly just fine at high altitudes. The bumblebee Bombus impetuosus lives on Mount Everest, although not at its very top because nothing grows that high. It lives at around 10,600 feet, or 3,250 meters, and studies of how it flies show that it actually beats its wings in a different way from other bumblebees in order to fly at high altitudes where the air is thin.

So maybe there aren’t weird jellyfish-like creatures floating around in the stratosphere, but there are certainly other animals that occasionally reach incredible heights. So I guess the only thing the fictional pilot Joyce-Armstrong really had to worry about was freezing to death.

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 at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 156: Animals of Mongolia



In honor of my new favorite band, The Hu, let’s learn about some animals from their country, Mongolia! (You can also watch the “Wolf Totem” video with English lyrics.)

The Hu. Oh my heart:

If you need the podcast’s feed URL, it’s https://strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/

A handsome prize-winning domesticated yak and rider (photo taken from this site):

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

A Bactrian camel (photo by *squints* Brent Huffman, looks like):

The taimen, a fish that would swallow you whole if it could:

Further watching:

A clip from the TV show Beast Man showing how moist the soil is in parts of the Gobi

Show transcript:

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

Recently, podcaster Moxie recommended a band she liked on her excellent podcast Your Brain on Facts. The band is called The Hu, spelled H-U, and she mentioned they were from Mongolia. I checked the band out and FELL IN LOVE WITH THEM OH MY GOSH, so not only have I been recommending them to everyone, I also want to learn more about their country. So let’s learn about some interesting animals from Mongolia.

But first, a quick note. About six months ago I had to migrate the site to an actual podcasting host, since I’d run out of memory on my own site. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to keep the old site open anymore since all the podcasting apps I checked appear to have the new feed and everything is on the new website. So in another week or two, the old site will close. If you suddenly stop receiving new episodes, please email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and let me know what app you use for podcast listening, so I can get it updated. In the meantime, if your app gives you the option of entering a podcast feed manually, I’ve made a new page on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net, where you can copy and paste the feed URL. It’s also in the show notes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if something isn’t working. Now, back to Mongolia and its animals.

Mongolia is located in Asia, north of China and south of Russia, with the Gobi Desert to the south and various mountain ranges to the north and west. You actually probably know some Mongolian history without realizing it. You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, right? Well, it was built to keep out the Mongols, who would ride their horses into China and raid villages. Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol in history, a fearsome warrior who conquered most of Eurasia in the early 13th century.

While you’re thinking about that, here’s a short clip of my favorite Hu song, called “Wolf Totem.” There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the official video.

Oh my gosh I love that song.

Anyway, Mongolia has short summers but long, bitterly cold winters. Many people are still nomadic, a traditional culture that’s horse-based. A lot of Mongolia is grassland referred to as the steppes, which isn’t very good for farming, but which is great for horses. Domesticated animals include horses, goats, and a bovid called the yak. Let’s start with that one.

The yak is closely related to both domestic cattle and to bison, and is a common domesticated animal in much of Asia. The wild yak is native to the Himalaya Mountains in Eurasia. It’s a different species from the domesticated yak and is larger, with a big bull wild yak standing up to 7.2 feet at the shoulder, or 2.2 meters. A big bull domesticated yak is closer to 4 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or almost 1.4 meters. The wild yak is usually black or brown, but domesticated yaks may be other colors and have white markings. Occasionally a wild yak is born that has golden fur.

Both male and female yaks have horns, although the males usually have larger horns with a broader spread than the females. The male also has a larger shoulder hump than the female, much like bison, and males are also larger and heavier. The reason the domesticated yak is so popular in the mountains and in areas where winters are long and cold, like Mongolia, is that it has long, dense hair with a soft undercoat that keeps it warm. It’s also naturally adapted to high altitudes where there’s less oxygen, with large lungs and heart. As a result, it doesn’t do well in lower altitudes and can even die of heat if it gets too warm, since it can’t sweat.

The yak is domesticated for its meat and milk, to pull plows, as a riding animal, and for its soft undercoat which is combed out in spring and used to make yarn. Even the yak’s droppings are useful, since they’re mostly undigested plant fibers that burn really well once they’re dry, so they can be used instead of wood to build fires.

In Mongolia, yak milk is used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. And vodka. Yak races and yak festivals are increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but yak herding is a tradition dating back thousands of years.

The wild yak is a protected species where it still lives, mostly in China, India, and Tibet, but it’s still threatened by poaching and habitat loss due to domesticated yak herds pushing out their wild cousins. In the wild, the yak prefers to live in elevations too high for trees to grow. It eats grass and other plant material and can survive on a diet too poor to sustain cattle. This is because it has a larger rumen and the plants it eats can stay in its digestive tract for longer to extract as many nutrients as possible.

It’s rare for a domesticated animal to also be endangered, but yak herding in Mongolia is in steep decline, with 70% fewer yaks raised now than there were twenty years ago. There are a number of reasons for the decline. More people are moving to cities in Mongolia since they can make more money there instead of farming. Some farmers have started raising cattle or yak-cattle hybrids instead of yaks, since cattle and cattle hybrids produce more milk and meat even though they eat considerably more than yaks do. Worse, cloth made of sheep’s wool and other fibers is being exported by Chinese farmers labeled as Mongolian yak wool, which has caused the market for actual yak wool to crash. Yak wool is as soft and warm as cashmere, which comes from goats, but yaks are much better for the fragile mountain environment in Mongolia than goats are. Hopefully, increased tourism, including yak festivals, will help farmers make money from their traditional ways of life.

Instead of mooing like a cow, the yak grunts, although wild yak are usually silent. This is what a domesticated yak sounds like:

[yak grunting]

Another bovid, this one found only in Mongolia, is the Mongolian saiga. Some researchers consider it a subspecies of the saiga that was once found throughout Eurasia while others consider it a separate species. It’s critically endangered, possibly with as few as 5,000 animals left in the wild, threatened by poaching and competition with livestock. But the saiga frequently has twins instead of just one baby at a time, which helps its numbers increase quickly as long as people stop shooting the males for their horns. Some people think have medicinal qualities. They don’t, of course. The saiga almost went extinct back in the 1920s, but it recovered, so it can recover again as long as people leave it alone.

The saiga stands nearly three feet tall at the shoulder, or 81 cm, and its coat is usually a sandy pale brown in color. In winter it grows a long coat to keep warm. It’s also rather stocky in shape compared to other antelopes, which helps keep it warm too. But the main adaptation it has for cold weather is its nose. The saiga has a remarkable snoot. It almost looks like it has a little trunk. Its muzzle is considerably enlarged to make plenty of room for large nasal passages, which warms air before it reaches the lungs and also filters dust from the air. The nostrils point downward. The males have pale-colored horns that can grow nearly nine inches long, or 22 cm, although the closely related Russian saiga has horns that are almost twice that long. The horns grow upward and slightly back. The saiga migrates across the steppes and lives in herds that are sometimes quite large.

Another animal that’s domesticated but still lives wild in some parts of southern Mongolia and northern China is the Bactrian camel. That’s the camel that has two humps instead of just one. Like the yak, the domesticated and wild Bactrian camels are different species although they’re closely related. The wild Bactrian camel is smaller with a flatter head. A domesticated Bactrian camel can stand up to 7 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 2.3 meters.

The wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, although it’s protected in both Mongolia and China. There may be only 1,000 of them left in the wild, and some of those are hybrids of wild and feral domesticated Bactrian camels. Since they’re different species, offspring of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels are often infertile. A wild Bactrian captive breeding program in Mongolia is underway and has been successful so far.

When you think of a camel, you probably think of a hot desert. Camels of all kinds are well adapted to desert life. The one-hump camel is a dromedary, which is a domesticated animal native to the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and other arid regions. But the two-humped Bactrian camel is adapted to a different kind of desert, the cold desert. Although it can get hot in the Gobi Desert in summer, winters are long and very cold, but mainly a desert just doesn’t get much rain. In the case of the Gobi, what little moisture it receives in winter is mainly from snow and frost, although it also gets an average of almost 8 inches of rain in the summer, or 19 cm.

The wild Bactrian camel, therefore, has to be able to survive without a lot of water. Some people think camels store water in their humps, but the humps are actually made up of fat. Fat is full of water, though, and when the camel can’t find any food or water, its body will reabsorb the fat to keep itself alive. If you see a camel with floppy or skinny humps, you know it’s not had much to eat recently and has had to use up its fat stores.

The wild Bactrian camel grows thick fur in winter to keep it warm in temperatures that can drop to -27 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, or -32.8 Celsius, but it sheds a lot of this heavy coat in summer when temperatures can soar to 99 F, or 37 C. Unlike most animals, it can safely eat snow without risking hypothermia, where the body core temperature falls to dangerous levels. It can also safely drink water that’s even saltier than the ocean. It lives in small herds that travel across the desert from one water source to another, since if it stayed in one area it would soon eat all the food available. It eats any plants it can find.

Mongolia has several rivers and lakes, so naturally it has some interesting water animals too. The taimen [TIE-min] is a large fish sometimes called the Eurasian river trout or Siberian giant trout, but it’s actually more closely related to the salmon. It lives in parts of Mongolia and Russia but is threatened by overfishing and water pollution. Until recently in Mongolia, people didn’t eat much fish, plus the taimen was considered the offspring of an ancient river spirit so was left alone. These days, unfortunately, not only are more people eating fish in Mongolia, sport fishing has become a big tourist draw. Conservationists are encouraging anglers to practice catch and release to save the remaining population.

The taimen grows up to six feet long, or two meters, and is a vicious predator. It will eat anything it can catch, including smaller taimen, and in fact will occasionally try to swallow a fish that’s too big, and will suffocate and die as a result. It lives in swift-moving water but is sometimes found in lakes. It grows slowly and lives a long time, and there are rumors of it hunting in packs. As a result, it’s sometimes called the river wolf. Stay away from anything called the river wolf, that’s my advice.

It wouldn’t be an episode about Mongolian animals if we didn’t talk about a mystery animal called the Mongolian death worm. We talked about it once before way back in episode ten, about electric animals, but that was a long time ago so let’s look at it again now.

The story goes that a huge wormlike creature lives in the western or southern Gobi Desert, and most of the time it stays below ground. During the rains of June and July it sometimes comes to the surface. It’s generally described as looking like a sausage or an intestine, red or reddish in color, as thick as a person’s arm, and as long as three or four feet, or up to about 1.5 meters. Its head and tail look alike, sort of like a giant fat earthworm, although some reports say it has some pointy bristles or spines at one end. Touching a death worm is supposed to lead to a quick, painful death, because why would you name something a death worm if it didn’t kill you? Some people report that it can even spit venom or emit an electrical shock that can kill people or animals at a distance.

The National Geographic Channel has a show called Beast Man, or used to, I don’t know, but in 2018 it aired an episode about the Mongolian death worm. I didn’t watch the whole episode, just clips, and while they didn’t actually find one, it was interesting. One lady they interviewed, who saw a death worm when she was a little girl, said it was about two feet long, or 60 cm, reddish in color, and its head and tail looked the same. This matches up with what other people have reported. In one clip, the show’s host tests the soil moisture content in the southern Gobi and is surprised that underneath the dry surface, the ground is actually quite moist. I’ll put a link to that one in the show notes.

There are actually earthworms that live in parts of the Gobi, including two species described in 2013. The earthworms don’t resemble reports of the Mongolian death worm, but if an earthworm can survive, other soft-bodied creatures can too. That’s assuming that the death worm is actually a worm and not a reptile or amphibian of some kind.

The best suggestion for what the death worm might be is an animal called the amphisbaenian. It’s sometimes also called the worm lizard, and while it’s not any kind of lizard, it is a reptile. Amphisbaenians live in many parts of the world, including most of South America and parts of North America, parts of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. But since amphisbaenians live almost all of their lives underground, it’s very likely that species unknown to science live in other places. And much of Mongolia is extremely remote and probably not very well explored by scientists.

Amphisbaenians resemble snakes but they also resemble worms. The eyes are tiny and can be hard to spot, and the head and tail look very similar as a result. Many species are pink or reddish in color, although some are blue or other colors, including spotted, and many have scales that grow in a ringed pattern that make it look even more like an earthworm. But they’re not big animals, generally around six inches long, or 15 cm. Also, they’re slender like an earthworm, not as big around as someone’s arm. And they’re completely harmless to humans and large animals.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a big amphisbaenian living in the remote parts of the Gobi, rarely seen even by the people who live there. Or, of course, the Mongolian death worm might be a completely different kind of animal, one totally unknown to science—maybe one that’s related to the amphisbaenian but radically different in appearance. Or it might be a mythical monster, although there are enough plausible-sounding witness sightings to think there’s something in the Gobi that looks like a big fat red horrible worm, even if it’s not actually dangerous.

What worries me, though, is that there don’t seem to be any sightings from recent times. Only old people report having seen a death worm back when they were young. Considering that so many Mongolian animals are endangered, it could be that the death worm is also declining in numbers so that fewer of them are around to be seen. Let’s hope Mongolian scientists are out there looking for the death worm and that they figure out what it is so it can be protected and studied in its natural habitat.

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 at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 153: The White River Monster



Let’s start out the new year with a bona fide mystery animal, the White River Monster from Arkansas! Is it a real animal? If so, is it a known animal or something new to science? If it’s a known animal, what could it be? Lots of questions, maybe a few answers! Happy new year!

Further listening:

MonsterTalk

The not exactly useful picture supposedly of the White River Monster, taken in 1971:

A northern elephant seal, AKA Mr. Blobby:

A Florida manatee:

A bull shark:

Two bottlenose dolphins:

An alligator gar (below) and a human (above):

Alligator gar WEIRD FISH FACE:

Gulf sturgeon:

Show transcript:

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

If you’ve listened to the final episode of 2019 last week, you’ll remember it was about some mystery water animals of various kinds. Well, I’ve got another water mystery for you today to start off the new year, the White River monster. I heard about this one in a recent episode of MonsterTalk, which is a great podcast I recommend if you don’t already listen to it.

The White River is in North America, originating in the mountains in northwestern Arkansas and flowing from there through Missouri, then back into Arkansas where it joins the Mississippi River. In 1915 a man near the small town of Newport, in the central Ozarks region of Arkansas, saw an enormous animal with gray skin in the river.

A few other people saw it too, but it wasn’t until July of 1937 that things really heated up. The monster returned, and this time a lot of people saw it. News of it hit the local papers and spread throughout the country, and people started showing up to look for it. Some people came prepared to kill or catch it while others just wanted to see it.

Estimates of the monster’s size varied quite a bit. A man named Bramlett Bateman, who owned a lot of the farmland along that stretch of the river, was quoted in several newspaper articles. He described the monster as being the length of three cars in one article, but in another his estimate was smaller, only 12 feet long, or 3.7 m, and four or five feet wide, or 1.2 to 1.5 meters. But it doesn’t seem that he or anyone else got a really good look at it.

It was described by numerous people as being gray-skinned. Bateman said it had “the skin of an elephant…with the face of a catfish.” I dug into as many original newspaper articles as I could find without actually paying for access to them, and very few of them have a real description of the animal. The only description given in a New York Times article from July 23, 1937 is this:

“Half a dozen eye-witnesses…reported seeing a great creature rise to the surface at rare intervals, float silently for a few minutes and then submerge, making its presence known only by occasional snorts that bubbled up from the bottom.”

Another article quotes Bateman as saying he saw the monster “lolling on the surface of the water.”

Bateman decided he was going to blow the monster up with dynamite. What is it about people whose go-to solution to seeing an unidentified animal is to throw dynamite in the water? The local authorities said, uh no, you cannot just throw dynamite into the river, but other people brought machine guns and other weapons and patrolled the river looking for the monster. A plan to make a giant net and catch the monster petered out when people found out that making and deploying a net that big is expensive and difficult.

The monster was mostly reported in an eddy of the river that stretched for about a mile and was unusually deep, about 60 feet deep, or 18 meters. The river is about 75 feet wide at that point, or 23 meters. The Newport Chamber of Commerce hired a diver from Memphis named Charles B. Brown, who brought an eight-foot harpoon with him when he descended into the river. He didn’t find anything, but the tourists had fun.

Suggestions as to what the monster might be ranged from a sunken boat that sometimes bobbed briefly to the surface to a monstrous catfish. Many people were convinced it was a huge fish of some kind, especially an alligator gar.

Eventually sightings tapered off and the excitement died down until June of 1971, when it started being seen again. Again the size estimates were all over the place, with one witness saying it was the size of a boxcar, which would be about 50 feet long, or 15 meters, and 9 feet wide, or 2.8 meters. Another witness said it was only 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Some witnesses said it had smooth skin that looked like it was peeling all over, had a bone sticking out of its forehead, and it made sounds that one witness described as similar to both a horse’s neigh and a cow’s moo. On July 5, 1971, three-toed tracks 14 inches long, or 36 cm, were also found on an island together with crushed plants that showed a huge animal had come out of the water.

This time, at least, no one tried to dynamite or even net the monster. Instead, in 1973 Arkansas passed a law creating the White River Monster Refuge along that section of the river, to protect the monster. But no one has seen it since.

There is a photo of the monster taken in 1971, but it’s a blurry Polaroid that was reproduced in a newspaper and the original lost. The photo was taken by a man named Cloyce Warren, who was out fishing with two friends. Warren said it had “a spiny ridged backbone and [was] splashing all around.”

So what could the White River Monster be? Is it a misidentified known animal, a completely unknown animal, or just a hoax?

Obviously people are seeing something in that part of the White River. But it’s reportedly so big that if there was a population living anywhere in the river, it would be spotted all the time. So maybe it’s an animal that only sometimes strays into the White River and actually lives in the much larger Mississippi River—or even in the Gulf of Mexico, where it sometimes swims upriver.

Cryptozoologists and other interested people have made suggestions over the years. One suggestion is that it’s an elephant seal. The northern elephant seal is an enormous animal, although it’s nowhere near 50 feet long. The male is much larger than the female, up to 16 feet long, or 4.8 meters, and bulky with blubber that keeps it warm when diving deeply for food in the Pacific Ocean where it lives.

But wait, the Pacific Ocean? You mean it doesn’t live in the Gulf of Mexico?

Nope, the endangered elephant seal only lives in the Pacific. And the Pacific Ocean is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a whole lot of the North American continent.

A man named Joe Nickell, who’s a paranormal investigator and who was interviewed on MonsterTalk episode 204, has suggested the White River Monster is a manatee—specifically the Florida manatee, which is a subspecies of West Indian manatee. In the winter it mostly lives around Florida but in summer many individuals travel widely. It’s sometimes found as far north as Massachusetts along the Atlantic coast, and as far west as Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.

The manatee is large, up to 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, with females being somewhat larger than males. Its skin is gray but since it moves slowly, it can look mottled in color due to algae growing on its skin, and it sometimes also has barnacles stuck to it the way some whales do. It has a pair of front flippers with three or four toenails, no hind legs, and a paddle-like tail. It eats plants and only plants, and is completely harmless to humans, fish, and other animals. Also because it moves slowly and spends a lot of time at the surface, since it’s a mammal and has to breathe air, it’s vulnerable to being injured by boats.

In the 1970s there were only a few hundred manatees alive and it nearly went extinct. It was listed as an endangered species and after a lot of effort by a lot of different conservation groups, it’s now only considered threatened. So while people might recognize a manatee these days, back in the 1970s it was practically unknown everywhere except southern Florida since it was so rare. And in the decades before 1971, people didn’t travel as much and didn’t know much about increasingly rare animals that didn’t live in their particular part of the world.

In other words, it’s completely possible that people from Arkansas would see a manatee in 1915, 1937, and 1971 and not know what it was. But could a manatee really travel that far from the ocean and survive?

The Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana in the United States. Texas is to the west of Louisiana, then Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to the east. In other words, it’s well within the known range of the Florida manatee. Manatees are known to sometimes travel up the Mississippi. This happened most recently in October of 2016 when a manatee traveled as far as Memphis, Tennessee before it was found dead in a small lake connected to the river. That’s a distance of 720 miles, or 1,158 km, and that was with wildlife officials trying to capture it to return it to the Gulf. That same year a manatee also traveled as far as Rhode Island along the Atlantic coast. Memphis is actually much farther up the Mississippi than the White River is, so if the manatee had branched off into the White River it might have led to new sightings of the White River Monster.

The manatee can live in fresh water perfectly well. One species, the Amazonian manatee, is a fully freshwater animal that never leaves the South American rivers where it lives. But despite its size, the manatee doesn’t have a lot of blubber or fat to keep it warm. The farther away it travels from warm water, the more likely it is to die of cold.

But while an errant manatee might explain some White River Monster sightings, it doesn’t fit with all of them. Other animals from the Gulf of Mexico sometimes find their way up the Mississippi too. It’s a huge river, and since an ocean animal doesn’t understand what a river is, it doesn’t know it’s never going to reach the ocean again unless it turns around. Most marine animals can’t survive for long in fresh water, but some animals, like the manatee, can tolerate fresh water much better. That’s also the case for the bull shark.

In 1937, the same year the White River Monster was spotted for the second time, a five-foot bull shark, or 1.5 meters, was caught in Illinois, which is even farther upstream from the Gulf of Mexico than Tennessee and Arkansas. Bull sharks live throughout much of the world’s oceans in warmer water near coasts and are often found in rivers and lakes, although they don’t live as long in fresh water as they do in salt water. The largest bull shark ever measured was 13 feet long, or 4 meters, so a large one is about the size of a manatee.

Occasionally a dolphin travels up the Mississippi River, but marine dolphins can’t survive for long in fresh water and will die soon if they can’t make their way back to the ocean. A dolphin in fresh water starts to develop skin lesions and then the skin begins to peel, leading to bacterial infection and death. Remember that some witnesses in 1971 described the White River Monster as a gray animal with peeling skin.

Nine different species of dolphin and many species of whale live in the Gulf of Mexico. Of those, only the bottlenose dolphin lives close to the coast and is usually the species that accidentally travels into fresh water and can’t find its way out. The bottlenose dolphin isn’t any larger than the manatee, up to about 13 feet long, or 4 meters.

1971 was an active hurricane year, including the category 5 Hurricane Edith that killed 37 people in mid-September. Marine animals that can travel quickly, like dolphins and sharks, will flee to calmer waters when a hurricane approaches, and while that usually means out to sea, it wouldn’t be out of the question for a frightened dolphin or other large marine animal to make its way into the Mississippi by accident ahead of a hurricane, especially a hurricane as big as Edith.

Another possible identity for the White River Monster is one that was suggested in 1937, the alligator gar. It’s a freshwater fish that lives throughout the Mississippi River and other rivers and lakes in the southern United States and parts of northern Mexico. The alligator gar gets its name because of its toothy jaws, which do resemble an alligator’s, and it can grow up to ten feet long, or 3 meters. It’s a really weird fish and eventually I’ll probably do a full episode on it and its relatives, just as I have a full episode planned about the manatee. It has gills like other fish, but it can also breathe air through its swim bladder, which is lined with lots of blood vessels that absorb oxygen. Every so often an alligator gar will come to the surface and gulp air to replenish the oxygen in its swim bladder, so it would be seen at the surface briefly but periodically as was described by many witnesses. This is also the case for the manatee and dolphin, who breathe air.

The alligator gar is an ambush predator, which means it waits in the water without moving much at all until an animal approaches. Then it shoots forward and grabs it. It mostly eats small fish, invertebrates of various kinds, and waterfowl like ducks.

The final possibility of the White River Monster’s identity is the gulf sturgeon. It’s a subspecies of the Atlantic sturgeon that lives in the Gulf of Mexico, although it’s also known from various rivers in the southeastern United States. The reason it’s found in rivers is that the gulf sturgeon is anadromous [a-NADro-mus], the term for a fish that migrates from the ocean into fresh water to spawn. The salmon is the most famous anadromous fish, which fights its way upriver to spawn and then die. In the case of the gulf sturgeon, it hatches in fresh water and lives there for the first two years or so of its life before making its way downstream to the ocean. Then it returns to freshwater to spawn every spring, usually the same river where it was hatched, and goes back to the ocean in autumn.

The gulf sturgeon fits a lot of the descriptions of the White River Monster sightings. It’s covered with five rows of scutes that project from the back and sides in a sort of low sawtooth pattern, which fits the “spiny ridged backbone” that Cloyce Warren reported seeing in 1971, and its elongated snout has sensory barbels like a catfish, which matches Bramlett Bateman’s 1937 description of the monster having the face of a catfish. It’s gray, gray-green, or brownish in color with a lighter belly, and it can grow up to 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, although most are about half that length.

The gulf sturgeon usually migrates in groups, but occasionally one can get separated from its group and find its way into a stretch of water by itself. It also doesn’t eat much during the summer when it’s in freshwater. In the winter it lives just off the coast in shallow water, where it’s a bottom feeder. It sucks up invertebrates from the sea floor, feeling for them with their barbels. It gains lots of weight during the winter and then loses it all in the summer. Sturgeons do sometimes jump out of the water, especially in summer–as much as fix feet out of the water. No one’s sure why. Also during the summer, the sturgeon makes a sound like a creaky hinge.

I think it’s probable that the White River Monster sightings are of more than one type of animal, and while we can make an educated guess as to which animals might have been spotted and misidentified, we can’t know for sure. So while at least some of the sightings may have been of a manatee or a gulf sturgeon or another of the animals we talked about today, there’s also the possibility that something else occasionally swims up the Mississippi from the Gulf and into the White River. Hopefully, next time the White River Monster appears, someone gets a really good look at it and some good pictures so we know for sure.

This is what a sturgeon sounds like, by the way:

[sturgeon creaky sound]

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 and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 152: The Freshwater Seahorse and Other Mystery Water Animals



This week let’s look at some (mostly) smaller mystery animals associated with water! Thanks to Richard J., Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

Further reading:

What Was the Montauk Monster?

The black-striped pipefish. Also, that guy has REALLY BIG FINGERTIPS:

The Pondicherry shark, not looking very happy:

A ratfish. What BIG EYES you have!

The hoodwinker sunfish, weird and serene:

The Montauk monster, looking very sad and dead:

Show transcript:

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

Let’s finish off the year with an episode about a few mystery animals, specifically a few mystery animals associated with water. Thanks to Richard, Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

We’ll start off with a mystery suggested by Richard J, but not the Richard J. who is my brother. A different Richard J. Apparently half the people who listen to my podcast are named Richard, and that’s just fine with me.

Richard wanted to know if there are there such things as freshwater seahorses. We’ve talked about seahorses before in episode 130, but seahorses are definitely marine animals. That means they only live in the ocean. But Richard said he’d heard about a population of seahorses native to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, which is in South America. I put it on my suggestions list, but Richard was on the case. He sent me a link to an article looking into the mystery, which got me really intrigued, so I bumped it to the top of my list. Because I can do that. It’s my podcast.

Freshwater seahorses are supposedly known in the Mekong River and in Lake Titicaca, and sometimes you’ll see reference to the scientific name Hippocampus titicacanesis. But that’s actually not an official scientific name. There’s no type specimen and no published description. Hippocampus is the generic name for many seahorse species, but like I said, they’re all marine animals and there’s no evidence that any live in freshwater at all. Another scientific name supposedly used for the Mekong freshwater seahorse is Hippocampus aimei, but that’s a rejected name for a seahorse named Hippocampus spinosissimus, the hedgehog seahorse. It does live in parts of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, including around Australia, especially in coral reefs, and sometimes in the brackish water at the Mekong River’s mouth, but not in fresh water.

On the other hand, there’s no reason why a seahorse couldn’t adapt to freshwater living. A few of its close relatives have. There are a few species of freshwater pipefish, and in the world of aquarium enthusiasts they are actually sometimes called freshwater seahorses. The pipefish looks like a seahorse that’s been straightened out, and most of them are marine animals. But some have adapted to freshwater habitats.

This includes the black-striped pipefish, which is found off the coasts of much of Europe but which also lives in the mouths of rivers. At some point it got introduced into the Volga River and liked it so much it has started to expand into other freshwater lakes and rivers in Europe.

The pipefish is closely related to the seahorse, but while it does have bony plates like a seahorse, it’s a flexible fish. It swims more like a snake than a fish, and it can anchor itself to vegetation just like a seahorse by wrapping its tail around it. It mostly eats tiny crustaceans and newly hatched fish, since it swallows its food whole. It usually hides in vegetation until a tiny animal swims near, and then it uses its tube-shaped mouth like a straw to suck in water along with the animal. Just like the seahorse, the male pipefish has a brooding pouch and takes care of the eggs after the female deposits them in his pouch.

So where did the rumor that seahorses live in the Mekong come from? The Mekong is a river in southeast Asia that runs through at least six countries, including China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Parts of it are hard to navigate due to waterfalls and rapids, but it’s used as a shipping route and there are lots of people who live along the river. Like all rivers, it’s home to many interesting animals, including a type of giant softshell turtle that can grow up to six feet long, or 1.8 meters, a type of otter, a bunch of enormous fish, including three species of catfish that can grow up to almost ten feet long, or 3 meters, and a giant freshwater stingray that can grow up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, and of course lots more animals that aren’t as big or as impressive, but which are still important to the river’s biodiversity. But there’s no evidence of seahorses anywhere throughout the Mekong’s 2700 mile length, or 4,350 km.

But there is a hint about where the rumor of a Mekong seahorse could have come from. One researcher named Heiko Bleher chased down the type specimens of the supposed Mekong seahorse in a Paris museum, which were collected in the early 20th century by a man named Roule. Roule got them in Laos from a fisherman who had nailed the dried seahorses to his fishing hut. The fisherman told Roule the seahorses were from the Mekong, but when they were further studied in 1999 Roule’s specimens were discovered to actually be specimens of Hippocampus spinosissimus and Hippocampus barbouri. Both are marine fish but do sometimes live in brackish water at the mouth of the Mekong. So the fisherman wasn’t lying, but Roule misunderstood what he meant.

As for the freshwater seahorse supposedly found in Lake Titicaca, that one’s less easy to explain. Titicaca is a freshwater lake in South America, specifically in the Andes Mountains on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It’s the largest lake in South America and is far, far above the ocean’s surface—12,507 feet above sea level, in fact, or 3,812 meters. It’s also extremely deep, 932 feet deep in some areas, or 284 meters. It’s home to many species of animal that live nowhere else in the world. Why couldn’t it be home to a freshwater seahorse too?

Titicaca was formed when a massive earthquake some 25 million years ago essentially shoved two mountains apart, leaving a gap—although technically it’s two gaps connected with a narrow strait. Over the centuries rainwater, snowmelt, and streams gradually filled the gaps, and these days five rivers and many streams from higher in the mountains feed water into the lake. Water leaves the lake by the River Desaguadero and flows into two other lakes, but those lakes aren’t connected to the sea. Sometimes they dry up completely. So Titicaca isn’t connected to the ocean and never was, and even if it was, seahorses are weak swimmers and would never be able to venture up a river 12,000 feet above sea level. Some 90% of all fish in the lake are found nowhere else in the world. There’s just simply no way a population of seahorses could have gotten into the lake in the first place, even if they could survive there.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any freshwater seahorses out there ready to be discovered, of course. But I don’t think you’re going to find any in Lake Titicaca. And I have no idea how the rumor got started that any live there.

From a tiny seahorse let’s move on to a small shark, another topic suggested by Richard J. The Pondicherry shark grows to about 3.3 feet, or 1 meter, and once lived throughout the Indo-Pacific, especially in coastal waters. It’s considered critically endangered, but it’s so rare these days that we hardly know anything about it except that it’s harmless to humans, eats small fish and other small animals, and was once common. But until the mid-2010s, scientists were starting to worry it was already extinct. Then in 2016 two different Pondicherry sharks were photographed in two different places—and not where anyone had expected to find it. Some tourists took a photo of one in a river called the Menik and a freshwater fish survey camera caught a photo of one in the Kumbuk River. Both rivers are in Sri Lanka. Since then researchers have spotted a few more. The shark is protected, and hopefully the excitement around the shark’s rediscovery has helped people in the area learn about it so they know not to bother it. Some sharks tolerate fresh water and brackish water quite well, so it’s not surprising that the Pondicherry shark has moved into the rivers where it has less competition from commercial fishing boats.

Our next water mystery is actually not really a mystery, just a really strange-looking fish related to sharks. This one was suggested by my aunt Janice who doesn’t actually listen to the podcast but who likes to send me links to strange animal articles that she comes across on the internet. This one is called Chimaera Monstrosa, sometimes called the rat fish.

The rat fish mostly lives in the deep sea, although it’s sometimes seen in shallower water, and can grow up to 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. It’s mostly brown but has white markings. Its body looks more or less like a regular plump shark-like fish, but it has great big round green eyes, relatively long pectoral fins, and a very long tail that tapers to a point. The tail gives it its common name, since it kind of resembles a rat’s tail. It eats whatever it can catch on the ocean floor, including crustaceans and echinoderms.

Ratfish, and other chimaeriformes, are most closely related to sharks, and like sharks they have skeletons that are made of cartilage instead of bone. Since they’re rarely seen and look really weird, every so often someone catches one and posts about it online, and then my aunt sends me a link. They are really interesting fish, though.

Simon also sent me an article about an interesting fish a while back, the hoodwinker sunfish. We talked about the sunfish, or mola mola, in episode 96. The hoodwinker sunfish, or mola tecta, was only discovered in 2017 despite its large size. So far it’s known to live in the South Pacific around New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Chile, but only off the southernmost parts of those countries. But in early 2019 one washed up in Southern California.

The mystery sunfish was measured at almost 7 feet long, or 2.1 meters. An intern at the University of California at Santa Barbara found it, but didn’t know what it was. But once photos of the fish were posted online, two experts from Australia recognized it immediately—but because it showed up so far out of its known range, they were cautious about IDing it from just a photo. That’s despite the fact that one of the experts, Marianne Nyegaard, was actually the person who named the species. She asked for samples and more photos, and when she got the results, it really was a hoodwinker sunfish. But what was it doing in the warm waters of the northern Pacific instead of the cold southern waters? No one knows except the sunfish.

Let’s finish with another mystery animal you may have heard of. On July 12 or 13, 2008, depending on which source you consult, three friends visited Ditch Plains Beach, two miles away from the little town of Montauk in New York state in eastern North America. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded, and when the three noticed people gathered around something, they went to look too. There they saw a weird dead animal that had obviously washed ashore. One of the three took a picture of it, which appeared in the local papers and then the local TV news along with an interview with the three. From there it went viral and was dubbed the Montauk monster.

The monster was about the size of a cat, but with shorter legs and a chunkier body, and a relatively short tail. It didn’t have much hair but it did have sharp teeth, and the front part of its skull was exposed so that it almost looked like it had a beak. Its front paws were elongated with long fingers, almost like little hands.

So what was the monster? People all over the world made guesses, everything from a sea turtle without a shell to a diseased dog or just a hoax. Some people thought it was a mutant animal that had been created in a lab on one of the nearby islands, escaped, and died trying to swim to the mainland.

But while no one knows what happened to the animal’s body, scientists have studied the photo and determined that it was probably a dead raccoon that had been washed into the ocean. The waves had tumbled the animal’s body around through the sand long enough to rub off most of its remaining fur and some of its facial features, and then it washed ashore during the next high tide. It was also somewhat bloated due to gases building up inside during decomposition. It’s the animal’s teeth and paws that made the identification possible, since both match a raccoon’s exactly. Remember that raccoons have clever front paws that help them open locking trash bins, as we learned in episode 138.

So the Montauk monster isn’t actually a mystery, except what happened to it, but don’t be discouraged. There are still lots of genuinely mysterious animals in the ocean, from misplaced sunfish to creatures no one has ever seen yet. Maybe you’ll be the one to discover them.

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 at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!