Episode 344: Psittacosaurus!

Thanks to Clay for suggesting this week’s topic, psittacosaurus! Thanks to Will for a correction about kangaroos too.

Don’t forget to check out the great podcast I Know Dino for all the best big dinosaur info!

Further reading:

What dinosaurs’ colour patterns say about their habitat

Unusual fossil shows rare evidence of a mammal attacking a dinosaur

A countershaded psittacosaurus model [photo by Jakob Vinther, from first article linked above]:

Repenomamus and psittacosaurus, fighting forever [photo from second article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at a dinosaur suggested by Clay, who has been very patient waiting for this one. In a huge coincidence, the podcast I Know Dino is trading promos with us, so if you haven’t heard about I Know Dino yet, make sure to listen until the very end of this episode for some more information about it. It’s a great podcast that I love to pieces, and I think you’ll love it too.

We also have a quick correction, and I feel really bad because this one should have gone in the updates episode last month. Will emailed me back in April to point out that in episode 73, about phantom kangaroos, I said that kangaroos and wallabies were native to Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea. In fact, they’re not native to New Zealand, although they’ve been introduced there. So yikes, that was a big oversight on my part, and thanks very much to Will!

Now, on to Clay’s suggestion, psittacosaurus!

Psittacosaurus was a type of ceratopsian that lived during the early Cretaceous, between about 125 and 100 million years ago. We’ve talked about ceratopsians before back in episode 125, so if you remember that episode you’ll know that ceratopsians were big herbivorous dinosaurs famous for their head frills and horns. Triceratops is the most famous example, although it had lots of relations. But Psittacosaurus was a very early ceratopsian, and it’s nothing like Triceratops.

If you had a time machine and went back to look at Psittacosaurus, you might not even think it was related to Triceratops at all. It didn’t have real horns or frills, most species were only about six and a half feet long at most, or two meters, but most importantly, it walked on its hind legs.

We have hundreds of Psittacosaurus fossils, so we know quite a bit about it. Young individuals apparently walked on all four legs, but as it grew up, Psittacosaurus became bipedal. It still ate plants, though, and may have specialized in eating seeds and other tough plant materials. It couldn’t chew its food the way later ceratopsians could, but it did swallow little stones to help it grind up hard plant parts. These gastroliths have been found preserved with Psittacosaurus fossils.

Psittacosaurus lived in what is now Asia, especially eastern and central Asia, and probably spent most of its time in forested areas. Because it lived only in the early Cretaceous, and because it was such a common animal with so many fossils found, if a paleontologist finds a Psittacosaurus fossil at a dig site, they can be pretty confident that the site dates to the early Cretaceous. Paleontologists have identified about twelve species of Psittacosaurus so far, although there’s still debate about the actual number of species, and at least some of them had feathers. We know because we have some well-preserved fossils with feather and skin impressions.

Psittacosaurus wasn’t completely covered with feathers, though. Its feathers were bristle-like and have only been found sticking up along the top of the tail. Scientists think they were probably used for display. That means they were probably brightly colored, so if you go back in that time machine I mentioned earlier, please make sure to take lots of pictures.

In fact, Clay said that Psittacosaurus looks like it’s “half parrot, half porcupine and half dinosaur” (that is actually one and a half animals, Clay, but we know what you mean and that actually is a really good description of it). Psittacosaurus’s bristles stuck up kind of like porcupine quills, although they weren’t sharp. Careful study of the quills shows that they were probably more like highly modified scales instead of feathers like you’d find on a modern bird, and that they grew around 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Some modern birds do actually have bristles like this, including the turkey. Most male turkeys, and some females, have a bundle of hair-like bristles on the breast that’s called a beard.

Psittacosaurus’s name means “parrot lizard” because of the shape of its beak, which may have helped it crack seeds and nuts. Its head kind of resembled that of a turtle, although unlike a turtle it also had teeth. Its head was broad with cheekbones that jutted out sideways, sometimes so far that it looked like it had horns on the sides of its face just above the jaw. At least one species had prominances behind the eye that again, kind of look like little horns but technically aren’t.

We even have a hint about what Psittacosaurus looked like. A study published in 2016 examined preserved melanosomes, which are the structures that pigment an animal’s skin and feathers. The study determined that Psittacosaurus had a light-colored belly and was darker on its back. This is called countershading and it’s very common because it acts as a form of camouflage.

As part of the study, scientists created two life-sized models of Psittacosaurus. One of them they painted gray all over, while the other they painted brown with lighter brown underparts. They took the models to the Bristol Botanic Garden in the UK, which has a section with plants from the Cretaceous. (This sounds awesome and I really want to visit.) They placed the models in various spots and photographed them, then compared how well the models were camouflaged. The countershaded model was most well camouflaged in forested areas, which matches up with what scientists know about how it lived.

In addition to the fossils with skin and feather impressions, we have lots of fossils of Psittacosaurus of all ages, from newly hatched to big old dinosaurs. We even have a fossilized juvenile Psittacosaurus preserved in what would have been the stomach of Repenomamus, and it looks like the little dinosaur was bitten into pieces before being swallowed. Repenomamus was a mammal that was built like a miniature badger.

For a long time scientists weren’t sure if Repenomamus hunted baby dinosaurs or just scavenged ones that were already dead. Then, in 2012, an amazing fossil was unearthed in China. A study of the prepared fossil was just released in July 2023.

The fossil is of two animals, Repenomamus and Psittacosaurus. The Psittacosaurus was bigger than the Repenomamus but not by much. The two animals died suddenly when they were buried in a mudslide following a volcanic eruption, and their skeletons are tangled up together. But this wasn’t just chance. A close look reveals details that show they’d been fighting ferociously even while the mudslide was bearing down on them. Repenomamus has one little front foot wrapped around the jaw of Psittacosaurus, a back foot wrapped around one of the dinosaur’s hind legs, and its jaws are biting at Psittacosaurus’s ribs. It looks like the mammal was winning the fight, but in this particular case no one got out alive.

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

Thanks for listening!

Rediscover your love for dinosaurs with I Know Dino, the Big Dinosaur Podcast!

A new dinosaur is discovered and named nearly every week and I Know Dino covers the latest scientific discoveries, fun facts about dinosaurs, and a deep dive into a specific dinosaur.

I Know Dino is made by adults for adults, but we keep it clean so kids who are science buffs can listen too. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Episode 338: Updates 6 and an Arboreal Clam!?!

This week we have our annual updates and corrections episode, and at the end of the episode we’ll learn about a really weird clam I didn’t even think was real at first.

Thanks to Simon and Anbo for sending in some corrections!

Further reading:

Lessons on transparency from the glass frog

Hidden, never-before-seen penguin colony spotted from space

Rare wild asses spotted near China-Mongolia border

Aye-Ayes Use Their Elongated Fingers to Pick Their Nose

Homo sapiens likely arose from multiple closely related populations

Scientists Find Earliest Evidence of Hominins Cooking with Fire

153,000-Year-Old Homo sapiens Footprint Discovered in South Africa

Newly-Discovered Tyrannosaur Species Fills Gap in Lineage Leading to Tyrannosaurus rex

Earth’s First Vertebrate Superpredator Was Shorter and Stouter than Previously Thought

252-Million-Year-Old Insect-Damaged Leaves Reveal First Fossil Evidence of Foliar Nyctinasty

The other paleo diet: Rare discovery of dinosaur remains preserved with its last meal

The Mongolian wild ass:

The giant barb fish [photo from this site]:

Enigmonia aenigmatica, AKA the mangrove jingle shell, on a leaf:

Show transcript:

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

This week is our annual updates and corrections episode, but we’ll also learn about the mangrove jingle shell, a clam that lives in TREES. A quick reminder that this isn’t a comprehensive updates episode, because that would take 100 years to prepare and would be hours and hours long, and I don’t have that kind of time. It’s just whatever caught my eye during the last year that I thought was interesting.

First, we have a few corrections. Anbo emailed me recently with a correction from episode 158. No one else caught this, as far as I can remember. In that episode I said that geckos don’t have eyelids, and for the most part that’s true. But there’s one family of geckos that does have eyelids, Eublepharidae. This includes the leopard gecko, and that lines up with Anbo’s report of having a pet leopard gecko who definitely blinked its eyes. This family of geckos are sometimes even called eyelid geckos. Also, Anbo, I apologize for mispronouncing your name in last week’s episode about shrimp.

After episode 307, about the coquí and glass frogs, Simon pointed out that Hawaii doesn’t actually have any native frogs or amphibians at all. It doesn’t even have any native reptiles unless you count sea snakes and sea turtles. The coqui frog is an invasive species introduced by humans, and because it has no natural predators in Hawaii it has disrupted the native ecosystem in many places, eating all the available insects. Three of the Hawaiian islands remain free of the frogs, and conservationists are working to keep it that way while also figuring out ways to get them off of the other islands. Simon also sent me the chapter of the book he’s working on that talks about island frogs, and I hope the book is published soon because it is so much fun to read!

Speaking of frogs, one week after episode 307, an article about yet another way the glass frog is able to hide from predators was published in Science. When a glass frog is active, its blood is normal, but when it settles down to sleep, the red blood cells in its blood collect in its liver. The liver is covered with teensy guanine crystals that scatter light, which hides the red color from view. That makes the frog look even more green and leaf-like!

We’ve talked about penguins in several episodes, and emperor penguins specifically in episode 78. The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and is threatened by climate change as the earth’s climate warms and more and more ice melts. We actually don’t know all that much about the emperor penguin because it lives in a part of the world that’s difficult for humans to explore. In December 2022, a geologist named Peter Fretwell was studying satellite photos of Antarctica to measure the loss of sea ice when he noticed something strange. Some of the ice had brown stains.

Dr Fretwell knew exactly what those stains were: emperor penguin poop. When he obtained higher-resolution photos, he was able to zoom in and see the emperor penguins themselves. But this wasn’t a colony he knew about. It was a completely undiscovered colony.

In episode 292 we talked about a mystery animal called the kunga, and in that episode we also talked a lot about domestic and wild donkeys. We didn’t cover the Mongolian wild ass in that one, but it’s very similar to wild asses in other parts of the world. It’s also called the Mongolian khulan. It used to be a lot more widespread than it is now, but these days it only lives in southern Mongolia and northern China. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss, climate change, and poaching, even though it’s a protected animal in both Mongolia and China.

In February of 2023, a small herd of eight Mongolian wild asses were spotted along the border of both countries, in a nature reserve. A local herdsman noticed them first and put hay out to make sure the donkeys had enough to eat. The nature reserve has a water station for wild animals to drink from, and has better grazing these days after grassland ecology measures were put into place several years ago.

In episode 233 we talked about the aye-aye of Madagascar, which has weird elongated fingers. Its middle finger is even longer and much thinner than the others, which it uses to pull invertebrates from under tree bark and other tiny crevices. Well, in October of 2022 researchers studying aye-ayes started documenting another use for this long thin finger. The aye-ayes used it to pick their noses. It wasn’t just one aye-aye that wasn’t taught good manners, it was widespread. And I hope you’re not snacking while I tell you this, the aye-aye would then lick its finger clean. Yeah. But the weirdest thing is that the aye-aye’s thin finger is so long that it can potentially reach right through the nose right down into the aye-aye’s throat.

It’s pretty funny and gross, but wondering why some animals pick their noses is a valid scientific question. A lot of apes and monkeys pick their noses, as do humans (not that we admit it most of the time), and now we know aye-ayes do too. The aye-aye is a type of lemur and therefore a primate, but it’s not very closely related to apes and monkeys. Is this just a primate habit or is it only seen in primates because we have fingers that fit into our nostrils? Would all mammals pick their nose if they had fingers that would fit up in there? Sometimes if you have a dried snot stuck in your nose, it’s uncomfortable, but picking your nose can also spread germs if your fingers are dirty. So it’s still a mystery why the aye-aye does it.

A recent article in Nature suggests that Homo sapiens, our own species, may have evolved not from a single species of early human but from the hybridization of several early human species. We already know that humans interbred with Neandertals and Denisovans, but we’re talking about hybridization that happened long before that between hominin species that were even more closely related.

The most genetically diverse population of humans alive today are the Nama people who live in southern Africa, and the reason they’re so genetically diverse is that their ancestors have lived in that part of Africa since humans evolved. Populations that migrated away from the area, whether to different parts of Africa or other parts of the world, had a smaller gene pool to draw from as they moved farther and farther away from where most humans lived.

Now, a new genetic study of modern Nama people has looked at changes in DNA that indicate the ancestry of all humans. The results suggest that before about 120,000 to 135,000 years ago, there was more than one species of human, but that they were all extremely closely related. Since these were all humans, even though they were ancient humans and slightly different genetically, it’s probable that the different groups traded with each other or hunted together, and undoubtedly people from different groups fell in love just the way people do today. Over the generations, all this interbreeding resulted in one genetically stable population of Homo sapiens that has led to modern humans that you see everywhere today. To be clear, as I always point out, no matter where people live or what they look like, all people alive today are genetically human, with only minor variations in our genetic makeup. It’s just that the Nama people still retain a lot of clues about our very distant ancestry that other populations no longer show.

To remind everyone how awesome out distant ancestors were, here’s one new finding of how ancient humans lived. We know that early humans and Neandertals were cooking their food at least 170,000 years ago, but recently archaeologists found the remains of an early hominin settlement in what is now Israel where people were cooking fish 780,000 years ago. There were different species of fish remains found along with the remains of cooking fires, and some of the fish are ones that have since gone extinct. One was a carp-like fish called the giant barb that could grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters.

In other ancient human news, the oldest human footprint was discovered recently in South Africa. You’d think that we would have lots of ancient human footprints, but that’s actually not the case when it comes to footprints more than 50,000 years old. There are only 14 human footprints older than that, although there are older footprints found made by ancestors of modern humans. The newly discovered footprint dates to 153,000 years ago.

It wouldn’t be an updates episode without mentioning Tyrannosaurus rex. In late 2022 a newly discovered tyrannosaurid was described. It lived about 76 million years ago in what is now Montana in the United States, and while it wasn’t as big as T. rex, it was still plenty big. It probably stood about seven feet high at the hip, or a little over 2 meters, and might have been 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It probably wasn’t a direct ancestor of T. rex, just a closely related cousin, although we don’t know for sure yet. It’s called Daspletosaurus wilsoni and it shows some traits that are found in older Tyrannosaur relations but some that were more modern at the time.

Dunkleosteus is one of a number of huge armored fish that lived in the Devonian period, about 360 million years ago. We talked about it way back in episode 33, back in 2017, and at that time paleontologists thought Dunkleosteus terrelli might have grown over 30 feet long, or 9 meters. It had a heavily armored head but its skeleton was made of cartilage like a shark’s, and cartilage doesn’t generally fossilize, so while we have well-preserved head plates, we don’t know much about the rest of its body.

With the publication in early 2023 of a new study about dunkleosteus’s size, we’re pretty sure that 30 feet was a huge overestimation. It was probably less than half that length, maybe up to 13 feet long, or almost 4 meters. Previous size estimates used sharks as size models, but dunkleosteus would have been shaped more like a tuna. Maybe you think of tuna as a fish that makes a yummy sandwich, but tuna are actually huge and powerful predators that can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Tuna are also much heavier and bigger around than sharks, and that was probably true for dunkleosteus too. The study’s lead even says dunkleosteus was built like a wrecking ball, and points out that it was probably the biggest animal alive at the time. I’m also happy to report that people have started calling it chunk-a-dunk.

We talked about trace fossils in episode 103. Scientists can learn a lot from trace fossils, which is a broad term that encompasses things like footprints, burrows, poops, and even toothmarks. Recently a new study looked at insect damage on leaves dating back 252 million years and learned something really interesting. Some modern plants fold up their leaves at night, called foliar nyctinasty, which is sometimes referred to as sleeping. The plant isn’t asleep in the same way that an animal falls asleep, but “sleeping” is a lot easier to say than foliar nyctinasty. Researchers didn’t know if folding leaves at night was a modern trait or if it’s been around for a long time in some plants. Lots of fossilized leaves are folded over, but we can’t tell if that happened after the leaf fell off its plant or after the plant died.

Then a team of paleontologists from China and Sweden studying insect damage to leaves noticed that some leaves had identical damage on both sides, exactly as though the leaf had been folded and an insect had eaten right through it. That’s something that happens in modern plants when they’re asleep and the leaves are folded closed.

The team looked at fossilized leaves from a group of trees called gigantopterids, which lived between 300 and 250 million years ago. They’re extinct now but were advanced plants at the time, some of the earliest flowering plants. They also happen to have really big leaves that often show insect damage. The team determined that the trees probably did fold their leaves while sleeping.

In episode 151 we talked about fossils found with other fossils inside them. Basically it’s when a fossil is so well preserved that the contents of the dead animal’s digestive system are preserved. This is incredibly rare, naturally, but recently a new one was discovered.

Microraptor was a dinosaur that was only about the size of a modern crow, one of the smallest dinosaurs, and it probably looked a lot like a weird bird. It could fly, although probably not very well compared to modern birds, and in addition to front legs that were modified to form wings, its back legs also had long feathers to form a second set of wings.

Several exceptionally well preserved Microraptor fossils have been discovered in China, some of them with parts of their last meals in the stomach area, including a fish, a bird, and a lizard, so we knew they were generalist predators when it came to what they would eat. Now we have another Microraptor fossil with the fossilized foot of a mammal in the place where the dinosaur’s stomach once was. So we know that Microraptor ate mammals as well as anything else it could catch, although we don’t know what kind of mammal this particular leg belonged to. It may be a new species.

Let’s finish with the mangrove jingle shell. I’ve had it on the list for a long time with a lot of question marks after it. It’s a clam that lives in trees, and I actually thought it might be an animal made up for an April fool’s joke. But no, it’s a real clam that really does live in trees.

The mangrove jingle shell lives on the mangrove tree. Mangroves are adapted to live in brackish water, meaning a mixture of fresh and salt water, or even fully salt water. They mostly live in tropical or subtropical climates along coasts, and especially like to live in waterways where there’s a tide. The tide brings freshly oxygenated water to its roots. A mangrove tree needs oxygen to survive just like animals do, but it has trouble getting enough through its roots when they’re underwater. Its root system is extensive and complicated, with special types of roots that help it stay upright when the tide goes out and special roots called pneumatophores, which stick up above the water or soil and act as straws, allowing the tree to absorb plenty of oxygen from the air even when the rest of the root system is underwater. These pneumatophores are sometimes called knees, but different species of mangrove have different pneumatophore shapes and sizes.

One interesting thing about the mangrove tree is that its seeds actually sprout while they’re still attached to the parent tree. When it’s big enough, the seedling drops off its tree into the water and can float around for a long time before it finds somewhere to root. If can even survive drying out for a year or more.

The mangrove jingle shell clam lives in tropical areas of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, and is found throughout much of coastal southeast Asia all the way down to parts of Australia. It grows a little over one inch long, or 3 cm, and like other clams it finds a place to anchor itself so that water flows past it all the time and it can filter tiny food particles from the water. It especially likes intertidal areas, which happens to be the same area that mangroves especially like.

Larval jingle shells can swim, but they need to find somewhere solid to anchor themselves as they mature. When a larva finds a mangrove root, it attaches itself and grows a domed shell. If it finds a mangrove leaf, since mangrove branches often trail into the water, it attaches itself to the underside and grows a flatter shell. Clams attached to leaves are lighter in color than clams attached to roots or branches. Fortunately, the mangrove is an evergreen tree that doesn’t drop its leaves every year.

So there you have it. Arboreal clams! Not a hoax or an April fool’s joke.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 325: The Burrunjor

We have merch available again!

Thanks to Will for suggesting this week’s topic, the burrunjor!

Muttaburrasaurus had a big nose [picture by Matt Martyniuk (Dinoguy2) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3909643]:

The “rock art” that Rex Gilroy “found”:

Show transcript:

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

Recently, Will suggested we learn about an Australian cryptid called the burrunjor. As it happens, this is a short chapter in my book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, which is available to buy if you haven’t already. I’ve updated it a little from the chapter, so even if you have the book I think you’ll find this a fun episode.

Dinosaurs once lived in what is now Australia, just as they lived throughout the rest of the world. Similar to the southwestern United States reports of little living dinosaurs that we talked about in episode 252, some people in northern Australia report seeing living dinosaurs running around on their hind legs—but these dinosaurs aren’t so little.

The burrunjor, as it’s called, is often described as looking like a Tyrannosaurus rex. Mostly, though, people don’t actually see it. Instead, they hear roaring or bellowing and later see the tracks of a large, three-toed animal that was walking on its hind legs.

One Australian dinosaur that people mention when trying to solve the mystery of the burrunjor is Muttaburrasaurus. It was an ornithopod that grew up to 26 feet long, or 8 meters. It walked on its hind legs and had a big bump on the top of its muzzle that made its head shape unusual. No one’s sure what the bump was for, but some scientists speculate it might have been a resonant chamber so the animal could produce loud calls to attract a mate. Other scientists think it might have just been for display. Or, of course, it might have been both—or something else entirely. None of the Australian dinosaur sightings mention a big bump on the dinosaur’s nose. Muttaburrasaurus also had four toes on its hind feet, not three, and it disappeared from the fossil record about 103 million years ago. It also probably ate plants, not meat.

Another suggestion is that the burrunjor is a megaraptorid that survived from the late Cretaceous. These dinosaurs looked like theropods but with longer, more robust arms. Most scientists these days group them with the theropods. Most of the known specimens are from what is now South America, but two species are known from Australia, Australovenator and Rapator.

Australovenator is estimated as growing up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and probably stood about the same height as a tall human. It was a fast runner and relatively lightly built. It disappeared from the fossil record around 95 million years ago, not that we have very many bones in the first place. We only know Rapator from a single bone dated to 96 million years ago. It was probably related to Australovenator, although some paleontologists think Australovenator and Rapator are the same dinosaur. Either way, it’s doubtful that any of these animals survived the extinction event that killed off all the other non-avian dinosaurs.

“Burrunjor” is supposed to be a word used by ancient Aboriginal people to describe a monstrous lizard that eats kangaroos. But in actuality, Burrunjor is the name of a trickster demigod in the local Arnhem Aboriginal tradition and has nothing to do with reptiles or monsters. The Aboriginal rock art supposedly depicting a dinosaur-like creature doesn’t resemble other rock art in the region and isn’t recognized by researchers or Aboriginal people as being authentic.

All accounts of the burrunjor trace back to a single source, an Australian paranormal writer named Rex Gilroy. Gilroy was the one who “discovered” the rock art of a supposed dinosaur and none of the sightings he reports appear in local newspapers. The first mention of the word burrunjor referring to a monster appears in 1995, when Gilroy’s book Mysterious Australia was first published. According to Gilroy, the most recent burrunjor sighting is from 1985, when a family driving to Roper River reported seeing a feather-covered dinosaur that was 20 feet long, or 6 meters. But again, that report doesn’t appear in the newspapers, just in Gilroy’s books.

Gilroy’s burrunjor is probably a hoax, but there is a big lizard in Australia that sometimes stands on its hind legs. Monitor lizards live throughout Australia and are often called goannas. The largest Australian species can grow over 8 feet long, or 2.5 meters. All monitor lizards, including the Komodo dragon that lives in Indonesia, can stand on their hind legs. The lizard does this to get a better look at the surrounding area. It uses its tail as a prop to keep it stable and can’t actually walk on its hind legs, but an 8-foot lizard standing on its hind legs might look like a dinosaur from a distance.

An even bigger monitor lizard, called Megalania, lived in Australia until at least 50,000 years ago and maybe much more recently. It’s possible that Aboriginal Australians lived alongside it, although there’s no evidence for this either way. (Unless you count the evidence that that would be really really cool.)

Megalania is considered the largest terrestrial lizard known. Dinosaurs weren’t lizards and crocodilians aren’t either, but monitor lizards are. We don’t have any complete fossils of Megalania but its total length, including its tail, is estimated to be as much as 23 feet long, or 7 meters. This is more than twice the length of the Komodo dragon, the largest lizard alive today and a close relation. Like the Komodo dragon, Megalania was probably venomous.

As for Rex Gilroy, he recently passed away at the age of 79 and his books about the burrunjor are out of print. Rest in peace, burrunjor man.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 321: Archaeopteryx

We have merch available again!

Thanks to Eilee for suggesting this week’s topic, Archaeopteryx!

Further reading:

Dinosaur feather study debunked

Archaeopteryx fossil provides insights into the origin of flight

An Archaeopteryx fossil [By H. Raab (User: Vesta) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8066320]:

Show transcript:

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

We’ve had a lot of mammal episodes lately, so this week let’s learn about a reptile…uh, a bird. Not quite a bird, not exactly a reptile. That’s right, it’s an episode about archaeopteryx, a suggestion by Eilee!

A quick note before we start to say that I finally got around to setting up merch again if you want to order a t-shirt or water bottle or whatever with the podcast’s logo on it. I’m using Redbubble this time because they have a lot more items available than our previous vendor. There’s a link in the show notes.

We also have new stickers and those are free, so if you want one, just drop me an email and let me know what your mailing address is. The new sticker is a drawing of a capybara made by me. Anyway, on to the archaeopteryx!

The first archaeopteryx fossils were discovered in Germany in 1861. Before the first skeleton of an archaeopteryx was discovered, though, a single feather impression was found in a limestone quarry that has produced a lot of spectacularly well-preserved fossils. When the full specimen turned up later that same year, palaeontologists decided the feather came from the same animal.

That decision has been questioned repeatedly over the years. A study conducted with laser imaging determined that the single feather was different from the feathers of other archaeopteryx specimens. Results of that study were published in 2019, but in October of 2020 results of a study conducted with a specialized electron microscope determined that the feather did come from an archaeopteryx. The 2020 study also found that the feather was black.

Archaeopteryx lived around 150 million years ago in what is now Europe. It was about the size of a crow but while it looked a lot like a bird, it also looked a lot like a little dinosaur. It had small teeth and a long lizard-like tail. Of the twelve Archaeopteryx fossils found so far, all but one have feather impressions that indicate it had flight feathers on its arms, or rather wings, but at least one specimen also had flight feathers on its legs, which are sometimes referred to as hind wings. These hind wings would have helped it maneuver through branches even though its front wings were limited in their range of motion. It was probably a slow flyer that ate whatever small animals it could catch.

The wing feathers of archaeopteryx were very similar to those of modern birds, and a study published in late 2020 discovered another similarity. Birds molt their feathers and replace them the same way mammals shed hairs and regrow them, but it’s a little trickier for birds. A bird that loses too many feathers from its wings can’t fly until new feathers grow in. Modern birds solve this issue by molting only one pair of wing feathers at a time, and once the replacement grows in, the next pair is shed. The study examined fossilized archaeopteryx wings using a process called laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging, which can reveal details that aren’t otherwise visible. It discovered feather sheaths hidden under what would have been the skin of the wings, ready to grow new feathers. The feather sheaths were the same on both wings and resembled the molting pattern seen in modern falcons.

Archaeopteryx also had feathers on the rest of its body, but they aren’t well preserved so paleontologists can’t determine too much about them. They might have been more fluffy than sleek, like the soft downy feathers in young modern birds, or it might be that the fluffy feathers just happened to be the ones that were most preserved.

Palaeontologists study archaeopteryx because it gives us so much information about how birds evolved from dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx was still very much a dinosaur even though it looked superficially like a bird. Microscopic examination of the fossilized cells and blood vessels inside its bones show that it actually grew very slowly. Modern birds grow extremely quickly when they’re young. One scientist pointed out that when you watch a flock of pigeons, you can’t really tell which ones are fully grown and which ones are still quite young, because baby pigeons grow to an adult size so quickly. Dinosaurs grew to their adult size much more slowly, even the small carnivorous dinosaurs that were ancestral to modern birds. The study determined that Archaeopteryx would probably have taken almost three years to grow to its adult size.

The Archaeopteryx fossil called “specimen number eight” was determined to be a different species from the others, in a study published in 2018. It’s about half a million years younger than the other known specimens and has characteristics found in modern birds that the others don’t have. Its adaptations would have made it a better, more efficient flyer. The differences weren’t noticed before because it’s not a very good specimen and many of the bones are damaged and still embedded in the rock where they can’t be seen. The study used a process called synchrotron microtomography to basically take a 3D scan of the fossil and its rock matrix so scientists can study the scan without breaking the rock open and destroying parts of the fossil.

At the time that archaeopteryx lived, the sea levels were much higher than they are now and Europe was mostly a series of large islands in a shallow sea. The part of Europe that’s now Germany was subtropical but fairly dry, without much rain. All the archaeopteryx specimens have been found in limestone that was once mud at the bottom of a placid lagoon, protected from ocean currents and waves by small islands covered with shrubby vegetation. Archaeopteryx probably lived on these small islands, and while we don’t know how it behaved, many paleontologists think it may have hunted both by running on its long hind legs and by flying, just like a lot of birds do today. We have fossilized remains of little lizards and insects that would have made good meals for a hungry archaeopteryx.

What we do know is that sometimes an archaeopteryx had a very bad day and ended up drowning in the lagoon. On rare occasions, the body floated around until it decomposed enough that it sank into the mud at the bottom. Over millions of years, this mud turned into fine-grained limestone that preserved the fossil archaeopteryx remains in incredible detail.

For a long time, people thought archaeopteryx was a so-called missing link between dinosaurs and birds, and that it was the first bird. We now know that isn’t true. There were other bird-like dinosaurs that could fly before archaeopteryx evolved, although archaeopteryx was a very early flying avian dinosaur.

More importantly, we now know that birds are basically very derived dinosaurs. Dinosaurs had so many features we associate with birds, and birds still have so many features we associate with dinosaurs, that it’s hard to decide whether an animal like archaeopteryx was a bird-like dinosaur or a dinosaur-like bird. I guess it was sort of both.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 297: Dinosaur Mummies

This week we have a two-ghost rating for our episode about dinosaur mummies! It’s a little spooky because we talk about mummies, but it’s mostly an episode about dinosaurs, which are not spooky.

Further reading:

The lost Tarbosaurus mummy

Dinosaur Mummy Found with Fossilized Skin and Soft Tissues

Dakota the Dinomummy: Millenniums in the Making

Spectacularly Detailed Armored Dinosaur “Mummy” Makes Its Debut

Was a Dinosaur Mummy Dubbed ‘Appalachiosaurus’ Found in Tennessee?

An Edmontosaurus mummy found in 1908:

A 3D model of Dakota’s skin [photo from third link above]:

The Nodosaurid ankylosaur mummy:

Show transcript:

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

It’s monster month and this week we’ve got a monster from ancient times—really ancient times. We’re talking about mummies today, DINOSAUR mummies! On our spooky scale, this one rates two ghosts out of five since we do talk about mummies, but it’s not too spooky because we mostly talk about dinosaurs!

A dinosaur named Tarbosaurus lived around 70 million years ago in what is now Mongolia. It was probably closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex and would have looked very similar, with a big strong body but teeny-tiny front legs. Its front legs were even smaller than T. rex’s in relation to its body. It grew up to about 33 feet long, or 10 meters, and probably stood about 10 feet high at the hip, or 3 meters, and its big head had a big mouth full of really big teeth. It probably killed and ate hadrosaurs, sauropods, and other big dinosaurs. Some scientists think it was so closely related to T. rex that it should be classified as another species in the genus Tyrannosaurus.

We have quite a few Tarbosaurus fossils, including some very well-preserved skulls, so we know quite a bit about it. It had a good sense of smell and good hearing, but its vision wasn’t all that great. Some paleontologists think it might have been nocturnal. We’ve also found lots of bones of big dinosaurs with bite marks from teeth the size and shape of Tarbosaurus’s.

In 1991, though, a team of scientists found something even more incredible. They found a partial skeleton of a Tarbosaurus with lots of skin impressions. In short, they’d sort of found a mummified dinosaur. (It’s not really a mummy.)

The mummy consisted of the back end of the dinosaur, including the pelvis, tail, and hind legs. It had fallen onto sandy sediment that was especially fine-grained, so when the sediment transformed into sandstone over many millennia, it retained an exceptionally clear impression of the skin, including every small pebbly scale.

The expedition members took pictures and measurements, but they didn’t collect the specimen. Another expedition returned to the area to do so in 1993, but by then the specimen was gone. It was probably stolen by fossil poachers, who probably didn’t even realize the skin impressions were far more valuable than the bones and may have destroyed them while removing the skeleton.

The lost Tarbosaurus specimen is called a fossilized mummy since a dead animal’s skeleton with skin is sort of like a mummy. When the soft tissues of a dead animal or person are preserved in some way that causes them to stop decaying, that’s considered a mummy, and there are a lot of causes.

The most famous mummies, of course, are from ancient Egypt. It was important in Egyptian culture at the time to preserve a dead person’s body, and dead animals were also mummified sometimes, especially cats. The body was treated with salt and spices that helped dry the tissues and preserve them from bacteria, and once it was fully dehydrated the body was wrapped in linen bandages, covered with a natural waterproofing material made from plant resins, and placed in a wooden coffin. Sometimes the coffin was then put into a stone sarcophagus to keep it extra safe.

Other cultures across the world have practiced mummification too, and sometimes mummification happens naturally. This mostly happens in deserts and other dry areas, or in places where it’s very cold and the body freezes before it can decay, then dries out slowly. Sometimes a body is preserved after it’s buried, when the soil of the grave or the conditions in an underground crypt are just right, although bodies found in bogs are mummified too since bogs lack oxygen and that stops the decay of soft tissues.

Another dinosaur mummy was found in 1910 in the western United States, in Wyoming. It’s an Edmontosaurus specimen that’s remarkably well preserved and nearly complete, including skin impressions and even the horny beak. Initially the scientists who studied the animal thought the stomach contents had been preserved too, but more modern studies have concluded that the plant material was probably deposited in the body cavity after death. The dinosaur died near water and flooding may have washed plants into the partially decomposed carcass. There was even a little fish among the plant material, which was probably already dead when it was washed into the body cavity.

Edmontosaurus lived in what is now North America around 67 million years ago, surviving right up to the extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. It’s one of many species of hadrosaurid, which are often called duck-billed dinosaurs. It could grow up to 39 feet long, or 12 meters, and possibly larger, and it was relatively common throughout its range. It probably walked on all fours most of the time but could stand or walk on its hind legs only, when it wanted to. It ate plants and may have migrated long distances to find food. It probably lived in groups.

The skin impressions of the 1910 specimen were impressive, but it isn’t the only edmontosaurus mummy ever found. We have several, in fact. The earliest was found in 1908, known as specimen AMNH 5060, and it was discovered by a man named Charles Sternberg and his three sons, who all three became paleontologists later in life. They were hoping to find a good triceratops skull to sell to a museum, but they found something even better when one of the sons realized the dinosaur they were uncovering was wrapped in skin impressions.

AMNH 5060 had died in an area that was very dry, so instead of rotting away, all the moisture in the body dried out and the skin remained stretched across the bones. It was essentially a natural mummy at that point. Then, as in the 1910 specimen, flooding probably covered the dead animal with sediment that preserved it in fine detail. Not only is the skeleton mostly intact, it’s also articulated so that the fossilized body parts are in the same places they were when the animal died, instead of having been scattered around after death.

More edmontosaurus mummies were found later, too, but it wasn’t until 2006 when the most important find so far was discovered in North Dakota, part of the United States. It isn’t just skin impressions we have from this specimen, which is nicknamed Dakota. We have actual fossilized skin and muscles and tendons, along with bones.

Dakota was discovered by Tyler Lyson on his uncle’s ranch when he was still in high school. He knew the dinosaur was there but he didn’t realize how important the find was until five years later when he was a paleontology student. The specimen was excavated in 2006 and was identified as an adolescent edmontosaurus that died about 67 million years ago. It was recently given a new 3D scan and results will hopefully be published soon, letting us all know if there are any fossilized organs inside the body.

Because so much of the soft tissues were preserved in place, we know a lot about how edmontosaurus looked when it was alive. For instance, the intervertebral discs that act as little shock absorbers between vertebrae are still in place, which means we know exactly how long Dakota was when it was alive, about 40 feet long, or 12 meters. Because so many of its tendons and muscles are preserved, scientists can calculate how fast it could run. Dakota could probably run 28 mph, or 45 km/hour. We even have a clue about Dakota’s pattern, if not its coloration. Differences in scale size and texture suggest that the dinosaur might have had stripes on at least part of its body.

Edmontosaurus fossils aren’t the only dinosaur mummies, though. In 2011, an amazing ankylosaur fossil was discovered in a Canadian mine. Ankylosaurs had short legs and wide bodies covered in armor, and while some had club-like tails, Nodosaurids had regular tails but spikes on their backs that pointed sideways. The Canadian ankylosaur mummy is a nodosaurid.

Researchers think the dinosaur was probably caught in a flash flood, which swept it out to sea. It probably swam as long as it could, but its armored body made it heavy and it eventually drowned. Its body sank into the bottom sediment, which protected it from decay, scavengers, weathering, and other things that might have destroyed it. 110 million years later, an equipment operator fortunately noticed how weird the rock was that he’d just uncovered, and the world now has an amazing idea of what a living ankylosaur looked like.

The animal’s armored plates from the front of its body, some skin, and even its stomach contents are beautifully preserved, and the body is still articulated. It looks like it lay down to sleep and turned to stone. Some chemical pigments called melanosomes were discovered during study of the skin, which suggests that its skin was probably reddish-brown in color with a lighter-colored belly. It had massive spikes on its shoulders and along the sides of its neck, along with the smaller osteoderms that made up its armor on the rest of its body.

We know it mostly ate ferns because that was mostly what was in its stomach when it died. There was also some charcoal in its stomach, and researchers think it was probably eating ferns that had grown in an area where a wildfire had been recently. The ferns are so well preserved that scientists can determine their stage of growth, which means the dinosaur probably died in early to mid-summer.

Another dinosaur mummy is a Brachylophosaurus nicknamed Leonardo. Leonardo was found in July 2000 and wasn’t full grown when it died, only maybe three or four years old. Its skin and some of its internal organs are fossilized, and 3D scans have allowed scientists to learn a lot about it.

Brachylophosaurus was a hadrosaurid that lived around 80 million years ago in North America, and it could grow up to around 36 feet long, or 11 meters. It may have lived and migrated in groups. It had a flat crest on its head and a frill down the back, although some individuals had big crests and some had small ones. Paleontologists think big crests might have been a trait found only in males or only in females, we’re not sure which.

It ate plants, and we know from studies of Leonardo’s fossilized digestive system that it had eaten a lot of ferns right before it died, as well as leaves and other material from ancient relatives of conifers and magnolias. It also had worms. That’s right, even the parasites in Leonardo’s digestive system were fossilized. They were needle-like bristly worms who left more than 200 tiny burrows in the digestive lining, fossilized for eternity. Leonardo also had an internal pouch in its neck that was similar to a modern bird’s crop, where food was stored immediately after swallowing and where the digestive process may have started.

We’ll finish by talking about a story from April 2022, which discusses a dinosaur mummy found in my own state of Tennessee. The dinosaur was called Appalachiosaurus and was at least 77 million years old, and its skin and even some of its internal organs were reportedly intact—so much so that DNA was able to be extracted from them. The problem is that this particular story was posted to Facebook on April 1, also known as April Fool’s Day, and yes, it was a hoax. But Appalachiosaurus is a real species of dinosaur, a theropod that grew at least 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters, and probably quite a bit longer since the most complete specimen found so far is a juvenile. We don’t know a lot about Appalachiosaurus since only a few partial remains have ever been discovered. It would be fantastic if a fossilized mummy of one really did turn up one day.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 294: Updates 5 and a New Zealand Parrot!

It’s our fifth updates and corrections episode, with some fun information about a New Zealand parrot, suggested by Pranav! Thanks also to Llewelly, Zachary, Nicholas, and Simon who sent in corrections.

Further reading:


Tyrannosaurus remains hint at three possible distinct species

Study refutes claim that T. rex was three separate species

The reign of the dinosaurs ended in spring

Impact crater may be dinosaur killer’s baby cousin

California mice eat monarch butterflies

‘Hobbit’ human story gets a twist, thanks to thousands of rat bones

Playground aims to distract mischievous kea

The kea showing off the bright colors under its wings:

A kea jungle gym set up to stop the birds from moving traffic cones around for fun:

Show transcript:

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

This is our fifth annual updates episode, where I catch us up on new studies published about various animals we’ve talked about before. This is mostly just whatever happens to catch my eye and isn’t comprehensive by any means. Also, because things have been so busy for me the last few weeks, I decided to just go with what I’d already finished and not try to add more.

We’ll start as usual with corrections, then do some updates, then learn about a parrot from New Zealand, which was a suggestion from Pranav. This part of the episode started as a Patreon episode from 2019, so patrons, I promise your October bonus episode will be brand new and interesting and in-depth!

First, both Llewelly and Zachary pointed out that there are lions living in Asia, not just Africa. It’s called the Asiatic lion and these days, it only lives in a few small areas in India. It’s a protected animal but even though their numbers are increasing, there are probably still no more than 700 Asiatic lions living in the wild.

Next, Nicholas points out that vitiligo isn’t a genetic condition, it’s an autoimmune disorder that can be caused by a number of different diseases and conditions. You still can’t catch it from other people, though. We talked about vitiligo briefly in episode 241, about squirrels. Nicholas included a link, which I’ll put in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in learning more.

For our final correction, Simon questioned whether there really are only six living species of macaw known. This was polite of him, since I was completely wrong about this. In fact, there are six genera of macaws and lots of species, although how many species there are exactly depends on who you ask. Since this mistake made it into the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book, I am very irritated at myself, but thank you to Simon for helping me clear this up.

Let’s start our updates with the animal who gets an update every single time, Tyrannosaurus rex. A study published in February 2022 examined the fossilized remains of 37 T. rexes and suggested that there may actually be three distinct species of T. rex instead of just one. The study focused specifically on differences in teeth and leg bones that don’t seem to have anything to do with the individual’s age when it died or whether it was male or female.

However, in July 2022, another study found that all the T. rexes found so far do indeed belong to the same species. This is how science works, because new information is always being discovered and that means we have to reassess the things we thought we knew.

In other dinosaur news, in episode 240 we talked about the last day of the dinosaurs. Results of a study released in February 2022 suggest that the asteroid struck in early spring in the northern hemisphere. The asteroid hit the earth so hard that it rocked the entire continental plate that it struck, which caused massive waves unlike any other waves, since all the water above the continental plate was pushed upwards at once. This pushed all the sediment lying quietly on the bottom of the ocean up into the water, so much of it at once that it actually buried a lot of fish alive. The same thing happened in lakes and every other body of water. The fossil site we talked about in episode 240 is still being studied, the one that appears to date to literally the day of the asteroid impact, and preserved soft tissues in some of the fish have been discovered. Careful analysis of the fish show evidence that they all died in early spring. Researchers suggest that the time of year may have been especially bad for many dinosaurs, who were probably just starting to lay eggs and have babies.

In even more recent last-day-of-the-dinosaurs news, in August 2022 a study was released about a newly discovered crater off the coast of West Africa. Researchers are pretty sure it was from an asteroid impact, although much smaller than the big one that hit what is now Mexico and led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs. They’re also not completely certain when it formed, since it’s deep under the sea floor these days and was only discovered when scientists were examining seismic survey data of the sea floor. But it does seem to have formed about 66 million years ago, and another crater found in Ukraine is also about the same age. In other words, there may have been more than one asteroid that hit earth at the same time, either because a bigger asteroid broke into pieces as it entered earth’s atmosphere, or because smaller asteroids were orbiting the bigger one.

We’ve talked about the monarch butterfly several times, especially in episode 203. The monarch is a beautiful orange and black butterfly that migrates from the United States and Canada into central Mexico for the winter, where it gathers in huge groups. The monarch butterfly caterpillar primarily eats the milkweed plant, which contains toxins that the caterpillar stores in its body. Those toxins remain in the body even after the caterpillar has transformed into a butterfly, meaning the butterflies are toxic too. Birds and other animals learn to recognize the bright orange and black pattern of the butterfly and avoid eating it, because it tastes bad and makes them sick.

But a study from December 2021 determined that one animal does eat monarch butterflies, and a whole lot of them. Many species of mouse that live where monarch butterflies spend the winter, in a few spots in Mexico and California, will eat the butterflies, especially ones that fall to the ground either by accident or because they’re unhealthy and weak. The mice show resistance to the butterfly’s toxins.

Research into the small hominin remains on the island of Flores is ongoing, and the most recent findings shed some light on what might have happened about 60,000 years ago. The so-called Hobbit fossils have all been found at Liang Bua, a giant cave, but lots of other fossils have been found at the same site. A whole lot of those are from various species of rodent, especially rats, ranging in size from mouse-sized to ordinary rat-sized to giant rat sized, over two feet long including the tail, or about 75 cm.

Because we know a lot about the rats that lived on Flores, and in some cases still live there, we can infer a lot about what the area around Liang Bua was like over the centuries. Until about 60,000 years ago, most of the rat remains found were of medium-sized species that like open habitats. That means the area around Liang Bua was probably pretty open. But after about 60,000 years ago, there’s a big shift in what kind of rodents appear in the fossil record. More rats of smaller size moved in, ones that were adapted for life in forests, while the medium-sized rats moved out. That corresponds with other animals disappearing from the fossil record in and around the cave, including a species of Komodo dragon and a subspecies of Stegodon, an elephant relation that exhibited island dwarfism and was about the size of a cow. The Flores little people remains also vanish from the cave during this time, until by 50,000 years ago there are no signs of them.

But that doesn’t mean that H. floresiensis went extinct at that time. Researchers now think that as the land around the cave became more heavily forested, the Flores little people moved to other parts of the island that were more open. We don’t know where yet, and as a result we don’t know when exactly they went extinct. They might even have left the island completely. One neighboring island is Sulawesi, and researchers have found small stone tools on that island that are very similar to those made by H. floresiensis.

Modern humans probably arrived on the island of Flores about 46,000 years ago, and it’s possible that when they did, their small-statured cousins were still around.

We’ll finish with Pranav’s suggestion, a New Zealand parrot called the kea!

The kea is a type of parrot, but it doesn’t look much like a parrot at first glance. Parrots usually have brightly colored feathers but the kea appears more drab initially. It’s olive green with black-laced feathers, but it has bright orange feathers under its wings that show when it flies and the tips of its wings are blue. It’s a big, heavy bird with a wingspan more than three feet across, or one meter, and it has a big hooked beak like other parrots. It lives in the mountains of New Zealand’s South Island, the only parrot that lives in such a cold environment.

The kea is an omnivore but it mostly eats plants and insects. It will eat roadkill, small animals like rabbits, chicks of other species of bird, and trash. For over a century there were rumors that the kea would attack sheep, which led to the New Zealand government paying a bounty for dead keas that wasn’t lifted until 1970. By the time the bounty ended, there were only around 5,000 keas left, and even then the bird wasn’t fully protected until 1986.

So does the kea kill sheep or was that just an excuse to kill birds? Actually, the kea does attack sheep, or at least some keas do. Most of the attacks aren’t fatal, but we definitely know it happens because someone got it on video in 1992.

The keas land on the sheep’s back and pull out hunks of wool, which exposes and injures the skin underneath. Then they use their sharp beaks to dig into the wound and eat the fat from the living sheep. This can result in the sheep dying from infection and shock, naturally, so it’s no wonder sheep farmers disliked the kea. But the sheep is not an animal native to New Zealand while the kea is, plus the kea primarily eats plants—and sheep destroy the plants the kea eats, especially the ones high in vegetable lipids that provide the same high energy food that sheep fat does.

Besides, there’s some tantalizing evidence that the kea used to do the same thing to the moa, a huge flightless bird that lived in New Zealand until it went extinct after humans arrived. Moa bones dating to 4,000 years ago and found in a swamp along with lots of other well-preserved bones show markings on the pelvis that may be from kea beaks.

Like other parrots, the kea is remarkably intelligent and known for its tool use. It’s also infamous for its curiosity and willingness to disassemble things, including cars. I found an article about the kea in New Zealand Geographic that has some awesome stories about the bird, like this one that I’ll quote.

“In September 1983, the Old Pompolona Hut on the Milford Track was destroyed by flood when the pent-up Clinton River broke through its winter avalanche dam. The walking track season was only six weeks away. Planners, builders and helicopter crews worked night and day to complete a new hut complex before the first walkers arrived.

“The local clan of kea took a keen interest in all this frantic activity after a cold and quiet winter. Just what were these people up to? One bird, for whom building materials seemed to hold a particular attraction, began stealing nails. So persistent was the bird’s thievery that an exasperated carpenter chased it (in vain) over the roof of the new main hut. While his back was turned, another kea stole his packet of roll-your-owns, shredding tobacco and papers to the raucous approval of spectator kea perched in nearby trees.

“Weeks later, after the new hut had been completed, the purloined nails were discovered. They had been neatly laid in the gutters of an outbuilding’s iron roof, sorted according to size.”

The kea’s intelligence, tool use, and problem-solving abilities line up with those in corvids like crows and ravens. Studies show that corvids are more successful figuring out tasks that require them to make pecking motions in one way or another while parrots, including the kea, are more successful when the tasks require pulling motions. This makes sense, since parrots have a hooked beak that they use to pull things apart, like rotting logs to get at grubs, while corvids have straight beaks that they use to stab through things to find food.

The kea is also really sociable. Young keas play together, often using items as toys. For instance, from the same article, witnesses at a ski resort watched a kea steal a plastic mug, fly off with it, and start up a game of catch with it with a group of other keas.

The kea even has a particular call it makes to encourage other keas to play. In a recent study, when the call was broadcast to some captive keas over a loudspeaker, the keas immediately started a game of chase. Researchers think the call isn’t so much an invitation to play but is more like laughter which makes other keas want to laugh along, or in this case play.

This is what the play call sounds like:

[kea call]

The kea builds its nests in burrows it digs in the ground, with some burrows 20 feet long, or 6 meters. The nesting chamber is lined with soft plant material. Females lay two to five eggs, which hatch in about three weeks. Despite the parents’ care, more than half of babies don’t survive their first year, mostly due to introduced predators like rats, stoats, and possums. But if a kea survives to grow up, it can live up to 50 years or possibly more.

Young keas, like young adult humans, can cause a lot of mischief that sometimes leads to tragedy. A lot of keas are killed by cars because they find cars and roads interesting. They especially like to move road cones, which of course is also dangerous to humans. One community set up a kea jungle gym well off the road to give keas a safe place to play, and it succeeded so well that other communities have built kea jungle gyms too.

Kea numbers are improving slowly, with an estimated 7,000 individuals alive today. Part of the problem is that keas find humans interesting. They like our things, which they want to steal or destroy, and they like our junk food, which they want to eat. In other words, they’re suspiciously like us. Only they can fly.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 293: Bat-Winged Dinosaurs and an Actual Bat

We’ll have a real episode next week but for now, here are two Patreon episodes smashed together into one!

Happy birthday to Speed!

Further reading:

Yi qi Is Neat But Might Not Have Been the Black Screaming Dino-Dragon of Death

Yi qi could probably glide instead of actually flying:

The Dayak fruit bat [photo by Chien C. Lee]:

Show transcript:

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

I’ve finally finished moving, although I’m still in the process of unpacking and finding places for all my stuff. I haven’t had the chance to do any research this week, so this episode is actually two repurposed Patreon episodes, one from June of 2019 and one from May of 2021. They’re both short episodes so I put them together. I apologize to patrons for not getting something new this week, but I think everyone else will find these animals interesting.

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday to Speed! I hope this next year is the very best one yet for you!

Please excuse the varying quality of audio.

Listener Simon sent me an article about a recently discovered dinosaur with batlike wings, only the second batwinged dinosaur ever discovered. I thought that would make a really neat episode, so thank you, Simon!

These are really recent discoveries, both from the same area of northeastern China. In 2007 a small fossil found by a farmer was bought by a museum. A paleontologist named Xing Xu thought it looked interesting. Once the fossil had been cleaned and prepared for study, Xing saw just how interesting it was.

The dinosaur was eventually named Yi qi, which means strange wing. It was found in rocks dated to about 163 million years ago. Yi qi was about the size of a pigeon and was covered with feathers. The feathers were probably fluffy rather than the sleek feathers of modern birds. But most unusual was a long bony rod that grew from each wrist, called a styliform element. Yi qi also had very long third fingers on each hand. The long finger was connected to the wrist rod by a patagium, or skin membrane, and another patagium connected the wrist rod to the body. So even though it had feathers on its body, it probably didn’t have feathered wings. Instead, its forelimbs would have somewhat resembled a bat’s wings.

Paleontologists have studied the fossilized feathers with an electron microscope and discovered the structures of pigments that would have given the feathers color. Yi qi was probably mostly black with yellow or brown feathers on the head and arms. It probably also had long tail feathers to help stabilize it in the air.

Ambopteryx longibrachium was only discovered in 2017, also in northeastern China. It also lived around 163 million years ago and looked a lot like Yi qi. The fossil is so detailed it shows an impression of fuzzy feathers and even the contents of the animal’s digestive tract. Its body contained tiny gizzard stones to help it digest plants but also some bone fragments from its last meal, so paleontologists think it was an omnivore. Its hands have styliform elements, although not a wrist rod like Yi qi, and there’s a brownish film preserved across one of its arms that researchers think are remains of a wing membrane.

Paleontologists think the bat-winged dinosaurs were technically gliders. Careful examination of the wrist rods show no evidence that muscles were attached, so the dinosaurs wouldn’t have been able to adjust the wings well enough to actually fly. Modern bats have lots of tiny muscles in their wing membranes to help them fly.

Yi qi’s wrist rod isn’t unique in the animal world. The flying squirrel has styliform rods made of cartilage that project from the wrists, with the patagia attached to them. When a squirrel wants to glide, it extends its arms and legs and also extends the wrist rods, stretching the patagia taut. It can even control its glide to some extent by adjusting the wrist rods.

These two bat-winged dinosaurs were related, but they aren’t direct ancestors to modern-day birds. They’re scansoriopterygids,[scan-soarie-OPterigid] which are related to the group of dinosaurs that gave rise to birds. We only have five scansoriopterygid fossils, all found in the same area of China, but they’re all exceptionally well preserved fossils. Scansoriopterygids all appear to have been good climbers. They probably mostly lived in trees and mostly ate insects and small animals, gliding from branch to branch like modern flying squirrels do.

Researchers suggest the bat-winged dinosaurs might have gone extinct when bird ancestors evolved true flight with feathered wings, outcompeting the bat-winged dinosaurs’ more limited gliding flight. But with so few fossils, it’s impossible to say how successful the bat-winged dinosaurs were. All we know is they are rare in the fossil record and left no descendants.

So were scansoriopterygids related to pterosaurs? Nope. Pterosaurs weren’t even dinosaurs. They were reptiles and the first vertebrates we’ve found that could actually fly instead of just glide. Pterosaurs first appear in the fossil record around 228 million years ago and they all went extinct about 66 million years ago in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.

When Yi qi’s description was first published in 2015, the media acted as though it was a radical new find that would change the way we looked at dinosaurs forever. Some people even claimed the fossil was a fake, either a deliberate fraud by Xing and the other paleontologists that worked on the specimen, or that Xing and the others actually had a fossil made up of more than one animal with the bones jumbled together, which they had mistaken for a single animal. But this isn’t the case. Yi qi has been studied extensively with all the technology paleontologists have available these days. It’s the fossil of a single animal and it hadn’t been touched up or altered or messed with in any way before it was prepared by an expert. But while it is a radical new finding, it’s not as radical as some articles made it seem.

In 2008, the description was published of another scansoriopterygid called Epidexipteryx. Epidexipteryx appears to be closely related to Yi qi. It doesn’t have a wrist rod, but its arms were long and its fingers were especially elongated. It had forward-pointing teeth in the front of its jaw and probably had long tail feathers. Paleontologists think it was most likely a strong climber that may have spent most of its time in and around trees. But after that publication, paleontologist Andrea Cau published a paper suggesting that Epidexipteryx’s elongated arms and fingers might have been connected with patagia that allowed it to glide short distances. This was before the first paper about Yi qi was published and before Ambopteryx was even discovered. So the idea of a dinosaur with gliding membranes was already out there.

Hopefully, more scansoriopterygid fossils will be found and studied soon, which will give us more knowledge about what these little animals really looked and acted like. I want one as a pet.

Next, let’s go from bat-winged dinosaurs to some actual bats, specifically an unusual feature found in at least one species of bat, and something of a mystery.

As you probably know, only female mammals lactate. That just means that after a mammal gives birth, the mother produces milk for her baby to drink until it’s old enough to eat the same food that its parents do. All mammals do this, from whales to vampire bats, from humans to kangaroos, from mice to lions. The word mammal actually comes from mammary gland, which is the gland that allows a mother animal to produce milk after she has a baby.

Researchers have examined the genes that allow for milk production and determined that the genes probably developed over 200 million years ago in the common ancestor of all mammals alive today. The genes responsible for making egg yolk proteins started to be lost around 70 million years ago, except in monotremes that still lay eggs. Monotremes are platypuses and echidnas, and while they’re mammals, they retain some features that modern mammals have lost, like egg-laying. But even monotreme mothers produce milk.

Once our far-distant mammal ancestors evolved the ability to feed its babies with milk, the babies didn’t need as much yolk in their eggs. Gradually, over millions of generations, mammals lost the ability to produce egg yolks completely. I mean, except for the monotremes. From now on just assume that any time I talk about modern mammals, in this episode at least, I’m excluding monotremes, because they’re weird.

Ancient mammals laid eggs like reptiles and birds do, with a shell protecting the yolk and other fluids inside, that in turn protected and nourished the growing baby. But eventually a mammal mother retained her eggs in the body, which meant they didn’t need an eggshell since they were safely inside her, and because she was able to feed them nutritious, easy to digest milk as soon as they were born, they didn’t need an egg yolk either. So mammals eventually lost the ability to produce eggs at all.

This gets confusing, of course, because we use the same word, “egg,” to refer to the egg that a chicken or turtle lays, and to refer to the cell that a mother animal produces that can develop into a baby if it’s fertilized by sperm. Obviously I’m just talking about the first kind of egg here.

Anyway, milk production is a complex process that can be hard on the mother’s body, since she has to produce enough nutrients to feed all her babies, whether that’s just one human infant or twin fawns or a whole litter of puppies or kittens. Researchers have compared the genes associated with milk production and discovered that it’s pretty standard across all mammals. While the nutrients available in milk vary from species to species, since not every mammal has the same nutritional needs, how the body produces milk is pretty much identical across the board. All female mammals produce milk after they give birth, but only the females.

If that’s the case, though, why do male mammals have nipples? It turns out that nipples are just part of the basic body plan of a mammal. Some researchers think that originally both males and females lactated, but over the generations males lost the ability.

Except in one case. In that species, the females produce milk…and so do the males.

The Dayak fruit bat lives in parts of southeast Asia and is quite rare. It lives in rainforests and mostly eats fruit, especially figs. It has short, gray-brown fur and only weighs a little more than three ounces, or 95 grams. That’s about the same weight as a deck of cards. Its wingspan is about 18 inches across, or 46 cm. It’s a nocturnal bat but it’s also a megabat, which if you remember episode 88 means that it doesn’t have the advanced echolocation ability that microbats have. It may only navigate through the trees using its vision, since it has large eyes, but it may have some form of echolocation ability we don’t know about yet. There’s a whole lot we don’t know about the Dayak fruit bat.

What we do know is that in summer, female Dayak fruit bats give birth to one or two babies. We also know that in summer, when researchers net bats to examine, both males and females have enlarged breasts that produce milk. The bat, by the way, has breasts toward the sides of its body, basically in the armpits of its wings because that’s most convenient for the baby bats to grab hold of.

That’s all we know so far. We don’t know for sure that the males actually nurse their babies. They don’t produce nearly as much milk as females do, only about 1/10th as much. Some researchers think the father bat may take care of his babies while the mother finds food, but that she takes care of them the rest of the time. That’s just speculation, though, because so little is known about the bat.

Sometimes various diseases, genetic issues, or pollutants in the environment will cause a male animal to produce a little milk, but that’s rare. All the male Dayak fruit bats caught in summer were lactating, as were the females. Males and females caught at other times of the year weren’t lactating. Since mammals stop producing milk after their babies no longer need it, that means both males and females are probably producing milk for babies.

There may be one other bat where males lactate, although I can’t find enough information to verify it. The Bismarck masked flying fox, which sounds like an old-timey superhero, is related to the Dayak fruit bat, since they’re both megabats, but they’re not closely related.

The Bismarck masked flying fox lives in Papua New Guinea and eats fruit and other plant material. Like other flying foxes, it probably finds its food by smell and can’t echolocate. We don’t know much about it either, though, and until 2001 researchers thought it was a subspecies of Temminck’s flying fox. If you do a search for it online, every entry you find will mention that the males lactate, but never with any documentation to back up the claim. So that’s a mystery for now, although I’ll keep trying to find out more.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 267: The Mystery Sauropod

Show transcript:

Hi. If you’re hearing this, it means I’m sick or something else has happened that has kept me from making a new episode this week. This was a Patreon bonus episode from mid-August 2019. I think it’s a good one. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, I’m sorry you don’t have a new episode to listen to this time. Hopefully I’ll be feeling better soon and we can get back to learning about lots of strange animals.

Welcome to the Patreon bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast for mid-August, 2019!

While I was doing research for the paleontology mistakes and frauds episodes, I came across the discovery of what might have been the biggest land animal that ever lived. But while I wanted to include it in one episode or the other, it wasn’t clear that it was either a mistake or a fraud. It might in fact have been a real discovery, now lost.

In late 1877 or early 1878, a man named Oramel Lucas was digging up dinosaur bones for the famous paleontologist Edward Cope. Cope was one of the men we talked about in the paleontological mistakes episode, the bitter enemy of Othniel Marsh. Lucas directed a team of workers digging for fossils in a number of sites near Garden Park in Colorado, and around the summer of 1878 he shipped the fossils he’d found to Marsh. Among them was a partial neural arch of a sauropod.

The neural arch is the top part of a vertebra, in this case probably one near the hip. Sauropods, of course, are the biggest land animals known. Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus are all sauropods. Sauropods had long necks that were probably mostly held horizontally as the animal cropped low-growing plants and shrubs, and extremely long tails held off the ground. Their legs were column-like, something like enormous elephant legs, to support the massively heavy body.

We know what Diplodocus looked like because we have lots of Diplodocus fossils and can reconstruct the entire skeleton, but for most other sauropods we still only have partial skeletons. The body size and shape of other sauropods are conjecture based on what we know about Diplodocus. In some cases we only have a few bones, or in the case of Cope’s 1878 sauropod, a single partial bone.

Cope examined the neural arch, sketched it and made notes, and published a formal description of it later in 1878. He named it Amphicoelias [Am-fi-sil-i-as] fragillimus.

The largest species of Diplodocus, D. hallorum, was about 108 feet long, or 33 meters, measuring from its stretched-out head to the tip of its tail. Estimates of fragillimus from Cope’s measurement of the single neural arch suggest that its tail alone might be longer than Diplodocus’s whole body.

Cope measured fragillimus’s partial neural arch as 1.5 meters tall, or almost five feet. That’s only the part that remained. It was broken and weathered, but the entire vertebra may have been as large as 2.7 meters high, or 8.85 feet. From that measurement, and considering that fragillimus was seemingly related to Diplodocus, even the most conservative estimate of fragillimus’s overall size is 40 meters long, or 131 feet, and could be as long as 60 meters, or 197 feet. This is far larger than even Seismosaurus, which is estimated to have grown 33.5 meters long, or 110 feet, and which is considered the largest land animal known.

So why isn’t fragillimus considered the largest land animal known? Mainly because we no longer have the fossil to study. It’s completely gone with no indication of where it might be or what happened to it. And that has led to some people thinking that it either never existed in the first place, or that Cope measured it wrong.

One argument is that Cope wrote down the measurements wrong and that the neural arch wasn’t nearly as large as Cope’s notes indicate. But Lucas, who collected the fossil, always made his own measurements and these match up with what Cope reported. Lucas and Cope both remarked on the size of the fossil, which was far larger than any they had ever found.

Oddly, Cope’s nemesis Marsh inadvertently vouches for him by the things Marsh didn’t do. We know that Marsh kept tabs on Cope, including even paying people to spy on his fossil excavations. Marsh was also always ready to pounce on any of Cope’s mistakes and make them a big deal. But Marsh never said anything about the neural arch not being a real find, and never questioned Cope’s measurements of it.

Cope never mentioned what happened to the fossil. It wasn’t until 1921 that two researchers pointed out that it was missing from the Cope Collection. So what happened to it?

Most researchers suspect it just crumbled away. The fossil formed in a type of rock called mudstone, which fractures easily into little irregular cubes. In fact, Cope gave the sauropod the name fragillimus because the fossil appeared so fragile—not because of the mudstone per se, but because so much of the fossil had already weathered away and as a result it looked too delicate to be part of such a large animal.

These days paleontologists treat fossils with various preservatives to harden them, but that practice didn’t start until 1880, several years after the neural arch was found. Cope only made one drawing of it, which wasn’t his usual practice. It’s possible the fossil was so delicate at that point that just turning it over to draw the other side caused it to fall apart. Many researchers suspect that Cope or one of his assistants eventually discarded it after it crumbled into a pile of mudstone blocks.

Obviously, if we don’t have the fossil Cope examined, maybe we should go looking for more fossils that Cope’s workers might have missed. Cope did mention a femur located near the neural arch that may have been another fragillimus bone, but it’s not clear if the femur was actually collected. We have Cope’s journal entry where he sketched the dig sites Lucas was working, a rough map that shows at least seven sites. But it’s been a century and a half since then and most of the sites have been lost. In 1994 a team tried to relocate the site where Lucas found the neural arch, but without luck. It’s also possible that any remaining fossils have weathered away completely. In the dig sites that have been found, the mudstone has mostly weathered away down to the underlying sandstone.

Researchers have been able to estimate a probable age for fragillimus from Cope’s notes about the stratigraphy where the neural arch was found. Fragillimus probably lived in the late Jurassic, roughly 150 million years ago. This matches up with the age of other enormously large sauropods. But if fragillimus really was so much larger than the others, how did it live? Would an animal that size actually be able to support its weight, feed itself, and function overall? Wouldn’t it overheat in the sun or starve due to not finding enough food to power its colossal body?

Researchers think that sauropods grew to such enormous sizes because their food was nutritionally lacking. That doesn’t make sense until you realize that when a herbivore’s food is poor, the longer it can keep the plant material in its digestive system, the more nutrients it can extract from it. Sauropods were probably hindgut fermenters like all modern herbivorous reptiles and a lot of birds. The best way to keep lots of plant material in the digestive system is to be really big and have a really big digestive tract. This is the case with many herbivores today, like elephants, rhinos, and horses. Other benefits come from being extremely large, too, such as being larger than potential predators.

Sauropods generally lived in semiarid savannas. Grass hadn’t evolved yet, so researchers think the main groundcover plant was ferns, which sauropods probably ate in bulk. There would also have been shrubs, small trees, and some areas with much taller trees. It’s possible that sauropods spent most of the day among the trees, sleeping in the shade, and came out at night to do most of their grazing.

Cope also found fossils from another sauropod that he named Amphicoelias altus. In fact, he described both Amphicoelias species in the same paper. Some researchers have therefore suspected that the two species were actually the same. A. altus is estimated to grow about the same size as Diplodocus, about 82 feet long, or 25 meters.

But in 2018, a paleontologist named Kenneth Carpenter examined Cope’s information on fragillimus and came to some interesting conclusions. He reclassified it from the family Diplodocidae to the family Rebbachisauridae and renamed it Maraapunisaurus fragillimus. As a result, the estimates of its size have changed. Carpenter suggests that it was much smaller, about 99 feet long, or 30 meters, but that Cope’s measurements were correct. Sauropods of this family just have larger vertebrae than Diplodocidae.

The only difficulty with fragillimus being a member of the Rebbachisauridae is that this group of sauropods isn’t known to have lived in North America, just Europe and South America. But the fossil record is incomplete and every find requires researchers to adjust what we know about where dinosaurs lived and how widespread a particular species or family was.

Hopefully, eventually more and better remains of fragillimus will turn up soon. Then we can work out exactly how big it really was.

Thanks for your support, and thanks for listening! The next episode in the main feed will be about an unusual small fish and an extinct pig relative called the unicorn pig. Basically both those animals should have gone in other episodes but I messed up and forgot to add them to strangest small fish and the weird pigs episodes, but they’re both really neat and I wanted to share them.


Episode 264: Sick, Sad Dinosaurs

This week we answer a question you probably didn’t ask, did dinosaurs ever get sick? The answer is yes (or else it would be a super short episode). (Thanks to Llewelly for some corrections!)

A big birthday shout-out to Gwendolyn! Have a great birthday!

The unlocked Patreon episode about green puppies

Further reading:

Researchers discover first evidence indicating dinosaur respiratory infection

Sauro-throat, Part 3: what does Dolly’s disease tell us about sauropods?

Dinosaurs got cancer

Giant Dinosaur Had 2 Tumors on Its Tailbone

Dinosaurs got sick, too–but from what?

cough cough:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a dinosaur episode, but not one you may expect. We’re going to learn about some dinosaur fossils found with evidence of sickness to answer the question, did dinosaurs get sick? Yes, they did. Otherwise this episode would be about two minutes long.

I know some people get squicked when they hear about illness and disease, so I’ve also unlocked a Patreon episode about puppies that are born green. Don’t worry, the puppies are fine! There’s a link in the show notes so you can click through and listen to the episode on your browser, no login needed.

Before we get to the dinosaurs, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Gwendolyn, who is turning two years old this week! Oh my gosh, Gwendolyn, you’re going to learn so many new things this year! I hope you have a wonderful birthday.

And now, the dinosaurs.

Just a few days ago as this episode goes live, researchers announced that they’d found the fossilized remains of a young sauropod dinosaur. It lived around 150 million years ago in what is now the United States, specifically in southwestern Montana. The fossil was nicknamed Dolly by the paleontologists who studied it.

Dolly was a sauropod in the family Diplodocidae, and like other sauropods the Diplodocids all had huge neck vertebrae because their necks were so long. The bones weren’t solid, though, but contained air sacs that made the bones lighter and also connected to the respiratory system. This is the case in birds too. Technically the air sacs in the bones are called pneumatic diverticula, but that’s hard to say so I’m just going to call them air sacs.

When a bird breathes, instead of its lungs inflating and deflating, the air sacs throughout its body and bones inflate and deflate. This pumps fresh air through the lungs and allows the bird to absorb a lot more oxygen with every breath than most mammals can.

The bones of Dolly’s neck had unusual bony protrusions around the spaces where the air sacs once were. When the paleontologists made a CT scan of the protrusions they discovered they were abnormal bone growths that probably resulted from an infection. Sauropods share a common ancestor with birds and researchers think they might have sometimes caught a respiratory illness similar to aspergillosis [asper-jill-OH-sus], a disease common in birds and reptiles today.

Dolly would have had a fever, difficulty breathing, coughing, a sore throat, and other symptoms familiar to us as flu-like or pneumonia-like. Aspergillosis can be fatal in birds, so this respiratory infection might have actually been what killed Dolly. I think we can all agree that the worst symptom to have as a sauropod, whose necks were as much as 30 feet long, or 9 meters, is a sore throat.

That’s not the only indication of illness in a dinosaur fossil, of course. A 2003 paper published in Nature detailed the results of a study where paleontologists scanned 10,000 dinosaur vertebrae from over 700 animals to see if any of them showed tumors. They found 97 individuals that did, all of them from around 70 million years ago and all of them hadrosaurs. Those are the duck-billed dinosaurs that were common in the late Cretaceous in many parts of the world, especially in what is now North America and Asia. Hadrosaurs had flattened snouts that made the skull look like it has a duck bill, but it wasn’t a birdlike bill and hadrosaurs had teeth.

The hadrosaur was a plant-eater and it especially liked to eat conifers. Conifers were really common through most of the Cretaceous and are still around today, including pines, cedars, junipers, hemlocks, redwoods, yews, cypresses, larches, spruces, and more. Most are fast-growing evergreens with scaly or needle-like leaves, and many of them produce resins that are high in toxins to help ward off insects and fungus, and help keep many animals from eating the leaves. Amber is fossilized resin from conifer trees.

Conifer resins contain carcinogenic chemicals, which means that eating enough conifer leaves can increase the risk of developing tumors. Hadrosaurs ate conifers all the time, so it’s not surprising that the 2003 study found a relatively high percentage of hadrosaur vertebrae with tumors. Most of the tumors were small and benign. Only two dinosaurs showed evidence of cancerous tumors. Most confusing to the researchers is that the tumors are mostly in the hadrosaurs’ tail vertebrae.

A more recent study, from 2016, found two tiny tumors on one vertebra from a titanosaur. It lived 90 million years ago in what is now Brazil in South America. Titanosaurs are some of the largest sauropods known, including one species that was 85 feet long, or 26 meters, but the tumors were only about 8 millimeters across and were benign. This was the first study that found a tumor in a dinosaur that wasn’t a hadrosaur, although they’ve been found in fossils of other animals like mosasaurs and ancient crocodiles.

A study published in 2020 found advanced cancer in the leg bone of a centrosaurus too. Centrosaurus was a ceratopsian dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous in what is now Canada. It had a single horn on its nose, two smaller horns over its eyes, and a frill at the back of its head that was decorated with two more small hook-like horns. It lived in herds and ate plants. The individual with the cancerous leg bone would have had trouble running or even walking on its bad leg, but it didn’t die of cancer or predation. Instead, researchers think it drowned in a flood along with the rest of its herd. This means it was protected by its herd and able to live a normal life despite its disease. In fact, when the centrosaurus bone was first discovered, researchers thought it just showed a healed fracture.

That’s the case for a disease seen in some theropod dinosaurs, specifically tyrannosaurids, including Tyrannosaurus rex. Even Sue the T. rex shows evidence of this disease and researchers think it might have been wide-spread among tyrannosaurids. Initially paleontologists thought it was the result of bite wounds from other dinosaurs, but a 2009 study presented evidence that the lesions seen in many tyrannosaurid skulls were due to a parasitic infection similar to that found in some birds today.

The infection is called trichomonosis and is especially common in pigeons, where it’s called canker, and birds of prey, where it’s called frounce. Other birds can catch it too and it can decimate songbird populations. It’s due to a parasite that only affects birds, so you can’t catch it from a sick bird. If you have a birdfeeder or birdbath in your yard, it’s a good idea to give it a good scrub every so often and let it dry out thoroughly before putting it out again in a different area. The parasite is spread from bird to bird and causes lesions in the mouth and throat that can eventually cause the bird to die. 

Researchers think trichomonosis in tyrannosaurids was spread not only between individuals when fighting, but the parasite might have been present in other dinosaurs that tyrannosaurids typically killed and ate. The parasite might not have caused symptoms in other dinosaurs, but when a tyrannosaurid was infected, the parasite completed its life cycle in its host. Other researchers think tyrannosaurids practiced cannibalism, which would also spread the parasite. The parasite actually feeds on the infected animal’s jawbone, causing erosive lesions in the mouth and throat which can stop a bird from being able to swallow, so researchers think many tyrannosaurids died of it the same way birds do.

A 2011 study of a reptile called Labidosaurus, which lived about 275 million years ago in the midwestern United States, showed a bacterial infection in the jaw bone that was the equivalent to an abscessed tooth. Labidosaurus grew about a foot long, or 30 cm, and looked like a lizard with a wide head. It lived long before dinosaurs evolved. This specimen is the first fossil ever found that shows a bacterial infection in a land-dwelling animal. The reptile had bitten something that caused it to lose two teeth, and as the injury healed over, bacteria were trapped inside the jaw. This led to a bad bone infection that was still active when the animal died, although researchers aren’t sure if the infection caused the animal’s death or not.

Most diseases don’t leave any evidence in bones, so we don’t have a fossil record of them. Since all animals get sick sometimes, it’s certain that dinosaurs had various diseases too. Next time you get a sore throat, just be glad that your throat isn’t as long as a sauropod’s.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 252: Mini Rex

Sign up for our mailing list! We also have t-shirts and mugs with our logo!

Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

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

Thanks for listening!