Category Archives: elephants

Episode 123: Linnaeus’s mystery animals



Carolus Linnaeus was a botanist who worked out modern taxonomy and binomial nomenclature, but there are two mystery animals associated with his work. Let’s find out about them!

Rembrandt sketched this elephant whose skeleton is now the type specimen of the Asian elephant:

Linnaeus’s original entry about Furia infernalis:

Further reading:

Ewen Callaway, “Linnaeus’s Asian elephant was wrong species

Karl Shuker, “Linnaeus’s Hellish Fury Worm – The History (and Mystery) of a Non-Existent Micro-Assassin

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn a little something about binomial nomenclature, which is the system for giving organisms scientific names. Then we’ll learn about a couple of mystery animals associated with the guy who invented binomial nomenclature.

That guy was Carlolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who lived in the 18th century. Botany is the study of plants. If you’ve ever tried to figure out what a particular plant is called, you can understand how frustrating it must have been for botanists back then. The same plant can have dozens of common names depending on who you ask.

When I was a kid, the local name for a common plant with edible leaves that tasted deliciously tart was rabbit grass. I’ve never heard anyone anywhere else call it rabbit grass. Maybe you know it as sourgrass or false shamrock or wood sorrel.

There are over a hundred species of that plant throughout the world in the genus Oxalis, so it’s also sometimes just called oxalis. The species that’s most common in East Tennessee where I grew up is Oxalis dellenii, but all species look pretty much the same unless you get down on your stomach and really study the leaves and the flower petals and the stems. So if you were a botanist wanting to talk to another botanist about Oxalis dellenii back in the early 18th century, you couldn’t call it Oxalis dellennii. Not yet. You’d have to say, hey, do you know what rabbit grass is? And the other botanist would say, why no, I have never heard of this no doubt rare and astounding plant; and you’d produce a pot full of this pretty little weed that will grow just about anywhere, and the other botanist would look at it and say, “Oh. You mean sourgrass.” But imagine if you weren’t right by the other botanist and didn’t have the plant to show them. You’d have to draw it and label the drawing and write a paragraph describing it, just so the other botanist would have a clue about which plant you were discussing. Nowadays, all you have to do is say, “Hey, are you familiar with Oxalis dellenii?” and the other botanist will say, “Ah yes, although I myself believe it is the same as Oxalis stricta and that the differences some botanists insist on are not significant.” And then you’d fight. But at least you’d know what plant you were both fighting about.

Before Linnaeus worked out his system, botanists and other scientists tried various different ways of describing plants and animals so that other scientists knew what was being discussed. They gave each plant or animal a name, usually in Latin, that described it as closely as possible. But because the descriptions sometimes had to be really elaborate to indicate differences between closely related species, the names got unwieldy—sometimes nine or ten words long.

Carl Linnaeus sorted this out first by sorting out taxonomy, or how living creatures are related to each other. It seems pretty obvious to us now that a cat and a lion are related in some way, but back in the olden days no one was certain if that was the case and if so, how closely related they were. It’s taken hundreds of years of intensive study by thousands upon thousands of scientists and dedicated amateurs to get where we are today, not to mention lots of technological advances. But Linnaeus was the first to really attempt to codify different types of animals and other organisms depending on how closely they appeared to be related, a practice called taxonomy.

Linnaeus’s system is beautifully simple. Each organism receives a generic name, which indicates what genus it’s in, and a specific name, which indicates the species. This conveys a whole lot of information in just two words. A zoologist who hears the name Stenella longirostris will know that it belongs to the genus Stenella, which means it’s a type of dolphin, which means it’s in the family delphinidae. If they’re familiar with dolphins they’ll also know they’re talking about the spinner dolphin, and in this case they can even get an idea of what it looks like, since the specific name longirostris means ‘long beak.’ To make things even clearer, a subspecies name can be tagged on the end, so Stenella longirostris centroamericana is a subspecies of spinner dolphin that—you guessed it—lives in the ocean around Central America.

Carl Linnaeus was a young man when he started working out his classification system. He was only 25 when he traveled to Lapland on a scientific expedition to find new plants and describe them for science. This was in 1732 so travel was quite difficult. Linnaeus traveled on horseback and on foot, which as you can imagine took a long time and gave him lots of time to think. Within three years he had worked out the system we still use today.

You know what else Linnaeus invented? The index card. He needed index cards to keep track of all the animals and plants he and other scientists named using his binomial nomenclature system.

Linnaeus named a whole lot of plants and animals himself—something like ten thousand of them during his lifetime. And naturally enough, some mistakes crept in that have since been corrected. But a couple of his mistakes have led to mysteries, and those are the ones we’re going to look at today.

In 1753 Linnaeus got to examine a fetal elephant preserved in a jar of alcohol. Back then hardly anyone outside of Asia and Africa had seen an elephant, so Linnaeus was enormously excited about it and wrote to a friend that the specimen was as rare as a diamond.

Linnaeus described the species and named it Elephas maximus, also known as the Asian elephant today. But from records that still survive, the specimen was marked as having come from Africa. A Dutch pharmacist and collector had acquired the specimen around 1736, and after he died it was sold to King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, who let Linnaeus examine it. The auction catalog where it was listed for sale indicates that it was from Africa, but in his official description of the elephant Linnaeus wrote that it was from Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka, which is in Asia.

So ever since there’s been a mystery as to whether the elephant specimen was actually an Asian elephant or an African elephant, and if Linnaeus even knew that there were elephants in Africa. Because the specimen is of a fetal elephant—that is, a baby that died before it was fully developed, probably when its mother was killed while she was pregnant—it’s hard to tell just by looking if the specimen is an African or Asian elephant. We do still have the specimen, fortunately, which is held in the Swedish Natural History Museum’s collection.

A mammal expert at the London Natural History Museum, named Anthea Gentry, got curious about the specimen in 1999, when she saw it on a trip to Sweden. Gentry’s husband was a paleontologist who specialized in mammals, and later she showed him a photograph of the specimen and asked what he thought. He said he was pretty sure it was an African elephant, not an Asian elephant. Gentry got permission to do DNA testing on the specimen, but since it had been in alcohol for so long, not even the most advanced technology and the world’s most experienced expert in ancient DNA could get a usable genetic sequence from the tissue.

The world’s most experienced expert in ancient DNA was Tom Gilbert of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He did his best and failed, but he couldn’t forget about the little mystery elephant. In 2009 he got an idea for extracting genetic material from the specimen in a new way that might yield results. It took years, but he and his team got it to work. In 2012 the mystery was finally solved. Linnaeus’s little elephant was actually an African elephant.

But that’s not the end of the story. When a scientist describes a new species and gives it its scientific name, the first specimen described is known as the type specimen. Linnaeus’s elephant was the type specimen of the Asian elephant—but since it was proven to be an African elephant, it couldn’t continue to be the type specimen of the Asian elephant. But that meant that there was no official type specimen of the Asian elephant. They needed a specimen that was still available and that had been described by someone who had examined it scientifically.

When an animal is described officially, it’s a formal process. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature decides whether a suggested name is acceptable and makes decisions on type specimens and taxonomy. So researchers connected with the Commission started digging around for a new type specimen, preferably one from Linnaeus’s time or earlier.

A type specimen isn’t always a whole animal. A lot of times it’s just a little piece of a skeleton or a partial fossil, although the more complete a specimen is, the better. Linnaeus had described a partial elephant tooth at some point which was still available in a Swedish museum, and taxonomists were considering using that as a type specimen when they got an email from a paleontologist who specialized in elephants. He sent a copy of a travel journal from an amateur naturalist named John Ray, who had visited Florence in 1664 and wrote his observations of an elephant skeleton and skin on display in the duke’s palace.

And, it turned out, the elephant skeleton John Ray had described was in the collection of a museum in Florence. And it was definitely the skeleton of an Asian elephant—in fact, we even have what amounts to a photograph of the elephant when it was alive, because none other than the artist Rembrandt sketched it. So that skeleton was designated as the type specimen of the Asian elephant and all is well.

That brings us to the other mystery associated with Linnaeus, and this one is a lot less cute than a misidentified baby elephant. But before I tell you what the mystery animal is, let me tell you something that happened to Linnaeus before he’d even come up with his system of nomenclature. This happened in 1728, when Linnaeus was a broke college student staying with a professor and spending all his free time collecting botanical specimens in the marshes.

One day Linnaeus was searching for plants he didn’t already have specimens of when something stung him on the neck. Since he was wading around in a marsh, this was not really that unusual. But this wasn’t the usual insect sting or midge bite. Before long Linnaeus’s neck was painfully swollen, and soon one of his arms had swollen up too.

These days we’d recognize this as an allergic reaction, but back in 1728 they didn’t know what allergies were. By the time Linnaeus got home, he was in such bad shape that the doctor they called worried he wouldn’t survive.

Fortunately for Linnaeus and for science and humanity in general, he survived and went on to invent his naming system only eight years later. Some thirty years after he almost died, he published the tenth edition of his book, Systema Naturae, and included a formal description of the animal that had almost killed him. He named it the fury worm, Furia infernalis.

But there was no type specimen of a fury worm. Linnaeus hadn’t seen the one he believed had bitten him, and the only one anyone had shown him was a tiny worm so dried up and old that he couldn’t see any details. But he knew the fury worm existed because it had bitten him, and anyway everyone knew it was a real animal.

The fury worm was supposed to be tiny and slender, so small that it could be picked up by the wind and blown to other places. If it landed on a person or an animal it would immediately bite them with its sharp mouthparts, breaking the skin, then burrow into the flesh through the wound. It would dig in so quickly and so deeply that it was impossible to find, and even if you did find it, it was impossible to get out because of the backward-pointing bristles on its tail that kept it anchored in place. A person or animal bitten by the worm was likely to die within a day, sometimes within half an hour, unless a poultice of cheese or curds was applied to the bite.

Fortunately for most of the world, this horrible worm only lived in swampy areas in northern Sweden and Finland, Russia, and a few other nearby areas. In one year, 1823, some 5,000 reindeer died from fury worm attacks, and the export of reindeer furs was banned so the worm wouldn’t spread.

But. Where. Are. The. Worms??? And why would a parasitic worm kill its host so quickly? A parasite depends on its host staying alive for enough time that the parasite can benefit from whatever it’s getting from the host, whether that’s nutrients or a protected place to develop into its next life stage. This isn’t going to happen in half an hour.

So we have all this anecdotal evidence of the fury worm’s existence, even from such noted a scientist as Linnaeus himself, but no worms. And the symptoms reported from fury worm attacks varied quite a lot from patient to patient.

Doubts about the fury worm’s existence were already common in the 19th century, and even back in the late 18th century Linnaeus started to have doubts. And as technology and scientific knowledge improved, the fury worm started to look less and less like a real animal and more and more like an explanation for things people had once not understood—like allergies, infection, and bacteria. The death of 5,000 reindeer in 1823 was finally traced to a disease called neurocysticercosis [neuro-cyst-iser-kosis], which is actually caused by a parasite, but not a fury worm. It’s caused by tapeworm larvae that only kill its host after the larvae have matured and are ready to infect a new animal, which happens when something eats the meat of the animal that has died.

So was the fury worm ever a real animal? Almost certainly not. I tried to find out if people are still reporting fury worm bites in northern Sweden and Finland, but I didn’t come up with anything. On the other hand, I did check and it doesn’t look like there’s a band named Furia infernalis, so if you were trying to think of a really cool name for your band, I got you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 120: Hybrid Animals



If you’re a subscriber on Patreon, you may recognize some of the information in this episode, but I’ve updated it and added a whole bunch. Thanks to Pranav for the topic suggestion!

A cama, llama/camel hybrid:

A swoose, swan/goose hybrid:

Motty the Asian/African elephant hybrid and his mother:

A zorse, zebra/horse hybrid:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got another listener suggestion. Pranav really really wants me to do an episode about hybrid animals, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I actually already did an episode on the topic back in 2017—but only for Patreon subscribers. It wasn’t my best episode so for various reasons I’d decided not to unlock it. But Pranav really really wants to learn about hybrids! So I’ve taken part of the Patreon episode and added a lot of newer information to it to bring it up to date and make it more interesting.

The term for an animal with parents of different species is hybrid. Crossbreed is also a common term, although technically a crossbred animal is one with parents of the same species but different breeds, like a labradoodle is a crossbreed of a Labrador and a poodle. Both parents are domestic dogs.

A mule, on the other hand, is a hybrid between a horse and a donkey, specifically a mare and a jack, which is what a male donkey is called. The offspring of a stallion and a lady donkey, known as a jenny, is a hinny.

So why can a horse and a donkey breed while, for instance, a possum and a rat can’t? The two species must belong to the same family, and with very few exceptions, they must also belong to the same genus. The genus is indicated in an animal’s scientific name. Equus caballus is a horse and Equus africanus is a donkey, while a Labrador and a poodle are both Canis familiaris, or Canis lupus familiaris depending on who you ask. The Virginia opossum is Didelphis virginiana while the brown rat is Rattus norvegicus. They’re not even slightly related, although superficially they look alike.

If the hybrid’s parents are from species with different numbers of chromosomes, hybrid males will almost always be sterile. You can’t cross two mules to get more mules, for instance, because male mules can’t make babies. Female mules are sometimes fertile but very rarely conceive. Horses have 64 chromosomes while donkeys have 62. Mules end up with 63. Hinnies are much rarer than mules because if the female of a pair of related species has fewer pairs of chromosomes than the male, it’s less likely that any offspring will result.

More closely related species can have fertile offspring. Killer bees, for instance, are hybrids of a European honeybee and an African honeybee. The two are actually subspecies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, so it’s less like creating a hybrid and more like crossing a Labrador and a poodle to get an adorable happy pup with curly hair. It seemed like a really good idea. The result was supposed to be a tropical bee that would produce more honey. What actually happened was killer bees. Which do actually kill people. Hundreds of people, in fact, since they escaped into the wild in 1957 and started spreading throughout the Americas.

When animals hybridize even though they aren’t of the same genus, it’s called an intergeneric hybrid. That’s the case with sheep and goats. While sheep and goats are related on the subfamily level, they belong to separate genuses. Sheep have 54 chromosomes while goats have 60. That’s enough of a difference that most hybrid babies don’t survive long enough to be born alive, but it does happen occasionally. Usually the babies have 57 chromosomes, and sometimes the babies survive and even prove to be fertile when crossed with either a goat or a sheep. So that’s weird.

Just because someone wants to find out what you get when you cross, say, a sheep and a goat, doesn’t mean the sheep and goat in question are willing to make that effort. The less closely related the two animals are, the less interested they are in mating. Occasionally hybrids are produced by artificial insemination, or rarely by genetic manipulation of embryos, although genetic manipulation technically results in a chimera, not a hybrid.

Another intergeneric hybrid is a cross between a male camel and a female llama. In this case it’s accomplished by artificial insemination and has only produced a handful of living babies, called camas. Researchers were hoping to produce a camel-sized animal with a llama’s more cooperative temperament, but camas turn out to act like camels. So basically they’re just camels that aren’t as big or strong as camels.

In the 1970s, Chester Zoo in Cheshire in the UK kept a female Asian elephant and a male African elephant together in the same enclosure. The pair mated but no one thought they could produce a hybrid calf, since Asian elephants and African elephants aren’t that closely related. They’re another pair of animals that don’t share a genus. But a calf named Mottie was born in 1978. Surprise!

Many hybrids resemble one or the other of their parents. Motty was a fascinating blend of both. He had five toenails on his forefeet and four on the hind feet like his mom. African savannah elephants like his dad have four front toenails and three hind toenails. But he had longer legs and bigger ears than an Asian elephant. His trunk was wrinkled like his dad’s, but had only one digit at the tip like his mom’s. African elephants have two digits at the tip of their trunks. Even the shape of Motty’s head and back were a mixture of his parents’ characteristics.

So why would anyone want to cross species to get a hybrid? I mean, you might end up with killer bees.

A lot of times hybrids show what is known as hybrid vigor. This is more common in hybrid plants, but some hybrid animals combine the best features of their parents. Mules, for instance, have more stamina than horses and are stronger than donkeys. A hybrid of a domestic cow and an American bison is called a beefalo, which is bred to produce leaner meat in an animal that is better for the environment than a cow but easier to handle than a bison. But a lot of times, hybrids are the result of human ignorance, such as keeping related animals together without realizing babies might result, or human curiosity. We just want to see what might happen.

Unfortunately, for every healthy mule-like hybrid, there’s an unhealthy, malformed, or stillborn animal from parents who should have never produced offspring. Motty the elephant was premature and died of infection when he was only eleven days old, probably because his immune system was weakened due to his hybridized genetics.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats can all interbreed, but the resulting babies sometimes have unusual health issues. When a male lion and a female tiger breed, the resulting babies are known as ligers, and ligers are enormous. They’re much bigger and heavier than both their parents. This sounds neat, but it happens because of a genetic anomaly that means the animals just grow and grow much faster and longer than a normal tiger or lion cub. This puts stress on the body and can lead to health problems. Ligers can sometimes weigh over 1200 pounds, or over 550 kg, and grow up to 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, bigger than a full-grown tiger or lion. The offspring of a puma and a leopard, often called a pumapard, has the opposite problem, with cubs usually inheriting a form of dwarfism. The cubs are only half the size of the parents.

The savannah cat is now accepted as a domestic cat breed by some organizations, but it was first developed in 1986 by crossing a female domestic cat and a male serval. The serval is a wild cat from Africa with large ears, long legs, and a spotted and striped coat pattern. It’s a little larger than a domestic cat and is sometimes kept as an exotic pet, although it’s not domesticated. The hybrid babies inherited their mother’s domesticated nature and turned out to be mostly sociable with humans, although some are less tame. But while Savannah cats are pretty, the kittens of a serval and domestic cat are often stillborn or premature, and many male offspring are infertile. Savannah cats are also prone to certain health issues, especially heart problems. Some areas have banned savannah cats since they’re not considered fully domesticated.

The more closely related the parents, the more likely a hybrid baby will result, and the more likely it will be healthy. Many wolf-like canids can and do easily hybridize with other wolf-like canids, since they have 78 chromosomes in the same arrangement and are closely related. Offspring are usually fertile. The wolf-like canids include wolves, domestic dogs, coyotes, jackals, and dholes. Where the ranges of these various species overlap in the wild, hybrids are not uncommon. But canids that are less closely related to the wolf-like canids, like foxes and raccoon dogs, can’t and don’t hybridize with their cousins.

Some whales will hybridize in the wild, including the fin whale and the blue whale, which are closely related. Dolphins of different species sometimes hybridize when they’re kept together in captivity, such as the false killer whale and the bottlenose dolphin. The resulting babies don’t usually live very long. Occasionally dolphins also hybridize in the wild too. In 2017 a hybrid baby of a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale, which is actually a species of dolphin, was spotted off the coast of Hawaii. Researchers were able to get a small tissue sample from the young hybrid to DNA test, which confirmed its parentage. The melon-headed whale mother was also spotted with her calf in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

Birds also sometimes hybridize in the wild. This happens occasionally where the range of two closely related species overlap. Since the resulting babies may look very different from both their parents, this makes bird-watching even more challenging. Some warbler species hybridize so often that the hybrid offspring are well-known to birders, such as Brewster’s warbler and Lawrence’s warbler. These two birds are both offspring of a golden-winged warbler and a blue-winged warbler mate, with the appearance different depending on which traits the babies inherit from which parent.

Occasionally a domestic chicken will mate with a wild pheasant and produce babies, since chickens and pheasants are related. Very rarely, a swan and goose will mate and produce babies, although the babies don’t usually survive very long. One swan-goose hybrid that did survive was hatched in 2004 in Dorset in the UK, with a mute swan mother and a domestic goose father. The baby was referred to as a swoose and it was the only of the offspring to survive. It looks like a goose but with a longer, more swan-like neck and head.

If you’ve listened to episode 25, part one of the humans episode, you’ll recall that human DNA contains traces of DNA from our extinct cousins, including Neandertals. If Neandertals were still around, we could undoubtedly produce hybrids with them. But what about our living cousins, the other great apes? Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, but could a human produce a hybrid with a chimp? It’s possible but very unlikely. We belong to different genuses and have different numbers of chromosomes, not to mention the enormous ethical issues involved.

Let’s finish up with my favorite hybrid animal, the zebroid. This is a term for any hybrid where one parent is a zebra and the other parent is a horse, a donkey, or a pony, which also leads to the terms zorse, zedonk, and zony. These all crack me up, especially zedonk.

Zebroids are usually at least partially striped, frequently on the legs and neck but sometimes all over. The mane may stand up like a zebra’s or fall over the neck like a horse’s. The zebroid is adorable because of the stripes, but it’s also ornery and can be aggressive. There goes my dream of having a stripy horse.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 110: Three mystery animals from India



Thanks to Pranav for this week’s suggestion! We’re going to look at three mystery animals from India, ones you may not have heard of.

A photograph reportedly of a kallana pygmy elephant, although scale is hard to tell:

A pink-headed duck, deceased:

Show transcript:

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

It’s time for a mystery animals episode, and this one was a suggestion from Pranav, who suggested mystery animals from India. Pranav also gave me lots of other excellent suggestions that I’ll hopefully get to pretty soon.

When I got the suggestion, I realized the only mystery animal from India I really knew about was one we talked about in episode 55, the buru. I had no idea what else might be hiding in the forests and mountains of India. Apologies in advance for undoubtedly mangling names and places from India. I tried to look up pronunciations to at least make an effort to get them right.

India is in south Asia, and it’s a huge country. The area is often referred to as the Indian subcontinent because it mostly sits on its own tectonic plate. Around 100 million years ago it was connected with Madagascar, then split off around 75 million years ago and for many millions of years it was a giant island. But it moved northward slowly—and we’re talking only around 8 inches a year, or 20 cm, which is actually pretty fast for a tectonic plate—and slowly crashed into Eurasia, shoving beneath the Eurasian plate and causing it to crumple upwards, creating the Himalayas.

About half of India’s landmass projects southward into the Pacific Ocean like someone dipping their foot into a bath to see if it’s too hot. As a result, the country has a lot of coastland. So there are amazingly high mountains to the north, tropical coasts to the south, and everything from desert to tropical rainforest in between. It even has some volcanic islands off its coast. It pretty much has everything you could want in a country, and that means it has an amazing variety of animal life too.

Many of India’s animals are ones everyone is familiar with from zoos and storybooks: elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, cobras, pangolins, and lots lots lots more. But it also has its share of mystery animals. We’ll look at three of those mystery animals today. I think you’re going to like all three of them.

Let’s start with the mande burung. It’s supposed to be a giant ape-like animal as much as 8 or 10 feet tall, or up to 3 meters, with black hair. It lives in the remote forests of northeast India—specifically, in Meghalaya.

The mande burung has long been a creature of folklore in the area, until November 1995 when someone saw one. But I can’t find any information at all about what that sighting entailed. Interest in the mande burung has increased steadily since then, with cryptozoologists from India and other parts of the world mounting expeditions to look for it. They report finding footprints up to 15 inches long, or 38 cm, hair from unidentified animals, and nests made from leaves and grass. But there are no photographs of the animals, no mande burung feces, no dead bodies, and very few sightings, all of them within the last few decades and some of them decidedly questionable.

It’s certainly possible that there’s a mystery animal living in the area. Meghalaya is heavily forested outside of the cities and farmland. Some areas of forest are considered sacred, so they’ve never been logged, no one’s ever lived there, and no one hunts there. As a result, these sacred forests contain some of the richest habitats in all of Asia, containing plants and animals that live nowhere else. Meghalaya also has wildlife sanctuaries. So it’s pretty much guaranteed that there are animals living in Meghalaya that are unknown to science.

But while Meghalaya is primarily an agricultural region, tourism is becoming more and more important. A 2007 press release even talks about how the mande burung legend will bring more tourists to the area, and that a local group had started offering tours for people looking for the mande burung. That doesn’t mean the sightings aren’t genuine—I think most of them are—but as I’ve said many times, people see what they expect to see. The more people talk about the mande burung, the more likely people will think of it when they see a large animal they can’t identify. And there are lots of big animals living in the forests of Meghalaya, including an endangered species of gibbon, four species of macaque, and three species of bears. Any of these might resemble a bigfoot type of creature if seen in low light or poor conditions.

In 2001, a hair found in what’s called a “cedar tree root den” was DNA tested. Bear and human DNA was ruled out, and the DNA results didn’t match any known animals. But a follow-up test in 2008 gave a result that was just as surprising to scientists: the hair belonged to a Himalayan goral, a bovid that wasn’t known to live in the area until the DNA results came in. The goral is a small antelope-like animal with short horns that lives in the southern slopes of the Himayalas. It’s dark gray or gray-brown in color with a darker eel stripe along the spine. Generally, websites that like to talk about Bigfoots mention the first DNA test but don’t mention the follow-up, but I think the discovery of Himalayan goral hairs in Meghalaya is exciting. Who knows what else might be hiding in the forests too?

For instance, maybe a pygmy elephant! Well, okay, reports of a suspected dwarf elephant species called the kallana come from southern India, not northeastern. But it’s definitely a mystery animal.

The Indian elephant is a subspecies of Asian elephant that lives throughout much of mainland Asia. It’s smaller than the African elephant but still pretty big, with males standing as much as 11.3 feet at the shoulder, or 3.4 meters, although most are much smaller than this. Females are smaller than males and have smaller tusks, or sometimes no tusks. It was once common throughout India but is now endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Tame elephants help with farming and with carrying heavy items and human riders across uneven terrain, but the elephants aren’t actually domesticated.

The kallana elephant reportedly only grows to around five feet high, or 1.5 meters, and while it looks like an ordinary Indian elephant except for its size, it doesn’t mix with Indian elephants and even appears to avoid them. It lives in rocky hills in and around the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Kerala. It’s shy and can move much faster than regular elephants, and it doesn’t appear to have trouble with steep slopes the way elephants usually do.

In 2005, a wildlife photographer named Sali Palode got pictures of two kallana elephants, one alive, one a dead one they found by a lake. He took more photos in 2010, and in 2013 he got brief video footage. But there are no photos of a herd of kallana elephants, just solitary animals. Without being able to examine a kallana elephant in person, researchers don’t know if the elephant photographed is a new species or subspecies, or just an Indian elephant with a genetic anomaly similar to dwarfism in humans. The photos might even just be of young elephants that haven’t grown to their full size yet.

Until someone gets definitive footage of a herd of Kallana elephants, an individual is captured and studied, or someone takes samples of the elephant dung found throughout the hills and sends it for DNA testing, there’s no way of knowing if the small elephants Sali Palode has photographed and the local tribespeople report seeing are something special. Not that regular elephants aren’t special enough already, but if there is a population of anomalous elephants in the area, it’s important to learn about them so they can be further protected.

Our final mystery animal of India is the pink-headed duck. It lives in wetlands in parts of eastern India and a few nearby countries, and it gets its name because the male has a pink head and neck. It builds its nests in dense elephant grass and its eggs are almost completely round. It’s shy and prefers remote, isolated areas with deep ponds or lakes and thick grass.

So why are we talking about the pink-headed duck in a mystery animals episode? Well, unfortunately, there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting of the duck since 1949. Some researchers push this back ever farther to 1935. The main reason it hasn’t been classified as extinct is that the occasional report of one occasionally trickles in.

The difficulty in knowing whether there really are pink-headed ducks still alive out there is that the areas where they are known to have lived are really hard to get to. I mean, unless you’re a duck. Then they’re great. The decline of the species started in the 19th century when British big game hunters would come through and basically just shoot everything that moved. It was already considered rare by the turn of the 20th century, which made hunters even more eager to shoot it so they’d have a rare trophy. Habitat loss and trophy hunting drove it nearly to extinction even if it’s not actually already extinct.

Recent expeditions by conservationists and birders hoping to find some pink-headed ducks haven’t found any definitive proof that any are still alive. A 2017 expedition to Myanmar didn’t find any of the ducks, but the team did interview locals who said they’d seen the ducks as recently as 2010.

We don’t know a whole lot about the pink-headed duck. Researchers think it was a diving duck, but it may have been a dabbler. A dabbling duck tips its body forward, head underwater and tail sticking up, to forage in shallow water, often on plants. A diving duck dives for its food, usually small animals of various kinds. We know the pink-headed duck ate snails and plants, but it probably ate other things too that we don’t know about.

A study of a taxidermied pink-headed duck’s feathers in 2016 determined that the pink color came from carotenoids, a pigment that also gives the flamingo its pink color. The only other duck with feathers pigmented by carotenoids is the pink-eared duck of Australia, which is only distantly related to the pink-headed duck. It has a tiny pink spot on each side of its head.

Conservationists and birdwatchers hold out hope that the pink-headed duck is still alive, hiding its round eggs in clumps of elephant grass far away from humans. Some researchers have even suggested it might be nocturnal, which would explain why it’s always been hard to find. It was never much of a duck for moving around, preferring to stay put instead of flying off to other areas. Hopefully someone will discover a healthy population one day, possibly somewhere no one’s even looked yet, and we can protect it and learn about it before it’s too late. Once a duck is gone, a duck is gone forever.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 071: The Not-Elephants



Not-Elephants! They’re like elephants but WEIRD! Let’s take a look at a lot of extinct proboscidea this week.

Oh, and the Casual Birder Podcast episode where I talk about indigo buntings should be released this week, not last week. Oops.

Gomphotheres, looking deceptively normal at first glance:

THEIR FACES AAAHHHH art by Pedro Toledo:

Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon, art also by Pedro Toledo. Note the spiral on Cuvieronius’s tusks:

Stegodon:

Deinotherium, just going totally weird with the tusks and chin:

It might have looked a little something like this when alive. What the actual heck:

Anancidae tusks were just out of control:

Guess what! These two proboscidae are still alive! Hooray for Asian elephants (left) and African elephants (right)!

Okay, what the heck is going on in these genealogy sites, pretty sure elephants don’t use them:

And finally, I swiped this picture of the Mystery Tusk from Karl Shuker’s blog, specifically this post.

Show transcript:

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

We haven’t had an episode about Pleistocene megafauna in a while, so this week we’re covering some interesting mammals that are related to elephants and mammoths, but aren’t elephants or mammoths. Oh, and I jumped the gun last week with our mystery birds episode. The Casual Birder podcast is running the finch episode this week, where I have a little spot talking about the indigo bunting. I’ll make sure to put a link in the show notes so you won’t miss it if you don’t already listen to the Casual Birder podcast.

We’ll start off this week with an elephant that…isn’t an elephant. Just wait till you hear about the gomphothere, oh man. I’ve been saving this one for a while.

Gomphothere is the name for a family of animals that lived throughout much of the world, except for Antarctica and Australia. Researchers aren’t sure yet whether it eventually gave rise to elephants and mammoths or whether gomphotheres and mammoths were just cousins with a shared ancestor. The first gomphotheres evolved in Africa and spread into Asia and Europe around 22 million years ago. From there they moved into North America and eventually even into South America during the Pleistocene, shortly before they all went extinct.

So what did gomphotheres look like, and how did they differ from elephants? I’m SO glad you asked. A big part of why gomphotheres would have looked weird to us today is because their bodies were very elephantine. But their faces…were just wrong.

For instance, several species of Gomphotherium had a relatively short trunk and four tusks. The upper two tusks were on the upper jaw and jutted forward and downward. Not too unusual. The other pair of tusks were in the lower jaw. They jutted forward side by side and were flattened to form a sort of shovel. For a long time researchers thought it lived in swamps and used its shovel jaw to scoop up water plants, but more recent research suggests it used its lower tusks to cut through tough vegetation. Some species may have used the shovel to gouge bark off trees, for instance. Its head was elongated as a result of the long lower jaw, so while its body looked like a pretty average elephant, size and all, its face would have been long and flattened compared to the elephants we’re used to. I’m picturing the big reveal in an elephant horror movie where the mysterious character in the shadows turns its head and the music goes BWAHHHH and all the elephants in the audience scream.

Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon are the only gomphotheres that lived in South America. Despite its name, Notiomastodon was not closely related to actual mastodons. Both Cuvieronius and Notiomastodon evolved in North America just over 5 million years ago, then migrated into South America around 3 million years ago. Cuvieronius preferred cooler environments and lived along the Andes Mountains, and may have had thick hair to keep it warm, while Notiomastodon lived in open forests in the lowlands and along the coast, and probably had very little hair, much like modern elephants. Both stood over 8 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.5 meters. Both also probably looked pretty normal compared to elephants, and probably acted a lot like modern elephants too. Both had a single pair of tusks. But while Notiomastodon’s tusks were relatively ordinary and usually curved upward like a modern elephant’s, Cuvieronius’s grew in a spiral—although not a tight spiral like narwhal tusks. A band of enamel spiraled along the tusk’s length, and the tusk could be over eleven feet long, or 3.5 meters. Some other gomphothere tusks have enamel coverings, unlike elephant and mammoth tusks, which do not contain enamel.

Notimastodon died out in South America about the time humans migrated into the area, or maybe a little before, but it lived longer in parts of North America, as recently as 28,000 years ago in Mexico. Cuvieronius lived even longer before going extinct, with fossils dated to only about 11,500 years ago found in Chile.

Researchers are still working out the relationships between various gomphotheres and their relations. Gomphotheres, elephants, and some other relations are all in the same order, proboscidea, but different families.

Let’s jerk everything to a halt for a second while I explain the scientific classification system for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. Every living creature that has been described scientifically is assigned a place in the classification system so other researchers can get an idea of what the organism is most closely related to. Classifications can and do change as more information is learned.

The top tier is kingdom, extremely broad groups. All mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, insects, sponges, worms, jellyfish, and basically anything else that could possibly be called an animal is part of the kingdom Animalia. Kingdoms are divided into phyla, which is the plural of phylum. You may remember me talking at length about phyla in the Cambrian explosion episode a few weeks ago, and I probably should have put this explanation in that episode. Any animal with a backbone or notochord or some similar structure is in the Chordate phylum. The next section under phylum is class, and that’s where we separate mammals from birds from reptiles from fish, and so forth. Elephants, Gomphotheres, and humans are all part of the class Mammalia. But when we reach the next big section down, Order, we separate humans from elephants and gomphotheres, because those are part of the order Proboscidea while humans are in the order Primate. Under Order is family, then genus, then species. The genus and species give an organism its scientific name, such as Homo sapiens or Stegodon zdansky. There are finer gradations, like subfamily and subspecies and clade and so forth, but we won’t go over those here. Let’s get back to the not-elephants.

So, what’s Stegodon zdansky? It’s in the proboscidea order along with elephants and gomphotheres, but it’s not either. And the reason I bring it up is because it was really, really big. It could stand some 13 feet high at the shoulder, or 4 meters, and its tusks were similarly enormous—not just long, although they were over ten feet long, or more than three meters, but so big and close together that it had to drape its trunk to one side or the other of the tusks, not in between like most other proboscideans. Stegodon zdansky lived in China. Other species of Stegodon also lived in Asia, mostly in forested areas, and like zdansky they all had long tusks set close together.

Remember the island of Flores, where the Flores little people lived, Homo floresiensis? We learned about them in episode 26. Popular articles about the Floes little people often say they hunted a dwarf elephant, but it wasn’t an elephant at all. It was a Stegodon that had adapted to life on an island by becoming smaller, not much bigger than a cow. But it’s not clear if it was actually hunted by the Flores little people or if it went extinct before they arrived.

There are more proboscideans, believe me. Deinotherium, for instance, which was simply enormous. It could stand more than 13 feet tall, or 4 meters, but some big males may have stood nearly 16 feet tall, or 5 meters. Only paraceratherium, which you may remember from our tallest animals episode, was taller and heavier.

It had such weird tusks that researchers aren’t sure what it used them for. It had one pair on the lower jaw. Not only did the tusks grow almost straight downward, its lower jaw also curved downward. Some researchers think it dug up plants with the tusks, while others think it used its tusks to pull branches down so it could strip leaves off with its trunk. But no one knows for sure. Researchers also think it had a strong trunk, although we don’t know whether it was a long trunk or a short one. It lived in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and went extinct around a million years ago.

Amebelodontidae was a family that paleontologists thought for a long time were gomphotheres, but new research has separated them into their own family. Like many Gomphotheres, the lower jaw is elongated with a pair of flat, short tusks at the end. The upper tusks are straight and reach only to the end of the jaw, or not as far as the end of the jaw in some species. Reseachers think it used its tusks to cut through tough plants. Similarly, Anancidae were once thought to be Gomphotheres but are now considered their own family. It looked a lot like modern elephants, although its legs were relatively short. Even so, it stood around ten feet tall, or three meters, and lived in forests. It had one pair of tusks…but that’s where the resemblance to modern elephants ends, because its tusks were ridiculously long: 13 feet long, or four meters, and they just pointed straight ahead. Researchers think the Anancidae used their tusks for defense and to dig up plants.

All the proboscidea are extinct now except for Asian and African elephants. It’s a shame so many amazing animals are gone, but just think about how sad it would be if we didn’t have elephants at all. We’re lucky they’re still around.

In 1904 a couple of French zoologists noticed part of a strange tusk in a market stall in Ethiopia. The tusk was darker than regular elephant ivory, oddly shaped with a single groove along its length, and only a couple of feet long, or around 60 cm. The seller didn’t know where it was from. The zoologists bought it to study, and in 1907 published a paper on the tusk. It wasn’t a complete tusk and had apparently been broken off, not sawed off. Their conclusion was that it was from a proboscidean that was not yet known to science. Unfortunately the tusk has been lost, possibly gathering dust in the depths of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris where it was donated.

While the zoologists stated that the tusk wasn’t fossilized and that they thought it might have been almost semicircular when complete, it’s possible they were wrong on both counts. It might have been a walrus tusk, possibly a fossilized one, which could explain its dark brown patina. It might have been a fossilized deinotherium tusk. But the zoologists learned something interesting soon after they bought the tusk. Some Somali hunters told them that there were hippo-like animals that lived in large lakes of East Africa, and that the animals had tusks like the one they’d bought. If you’ve listened to episode 18, where we talk about mystery elephants, you might remember the water elephant reportedly seen in East Africa prior to 1912. Could the water elephant be a real animal, and the source of the mystery tusk? Until the tusk actually turns up so it can be tested, we can’t know for sure what animal it’s from. But it’s sure fun to think about.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 023: Nonhuman Musicians



This week’s episode is about nonhuman musicians. It’s rarer than you’d think.

The palm cockatoo. Nature’s drummer. In possibly related news, I know what my next tattoo is going to be.

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.

Members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center:

Further reading:

Kinship with Animals by Dave Soldier

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode about nonhuman musicians was inspired by an article about palm cockatoos. The male cockatoos drum on tree trunks or hollow logs as part of their courtship display, which doesn’t sound all that unusual until you learn that they use special crafted sticks to drum. A male will select a stick, trim it down the way he wants it, and hold it in his claw to drum. Sometimes he’ll use a hard seedpod instead. The resulting beats are not only consistently in rhythm, each individual has a personal style. Some drum quickly, some slowly, some throw in little flourishes. Sometimes females will drum too, and if a female likes a male’s drumming, she may imitate him or join in.

Here’s a little clip of a male drumming. He’s also whistling.

[palm cockatoo drumming]

The palm cockatoo is an awesome-looking bird. It looks like a drummer. It’s up to two feet long, or 61 cm, smoky gray or gray-black with a heavy gray beak, red cheek patches that flush when the bird is upset or excited, and a messy crest of feathers. It’s native to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the very northern tip of Australia, Cape York Peninsula. Only the Australian birds are known to drum. Unfortunately, the Australian birds are the ones most threatened in the wild due to habitat loss.

The palm cockatoo eats nuts and seeds, and like all parrots it can live a long time. And yes, you can get them as pets—and now I’m desperate for one even though the last thing I need is a pet cockatoo. I have a coworker with a pet parrot who she says is incredibly neurotic. He tends to get overexcited and starts screaming, and she has to put him in his cage and cover it so he’ll shut up. Her kids found the parrot when they were young. He plopped down in her yard when they were playing outside, and they put an empty laundry basket over him to trap him. No one claimed him, so my coworker has now been stuck with a neurotic parrot for over twenty years. She’s pretty sure he survived in the wild by hanging out with crows, because one of the things that will set off his excited screaming is hearing crows outside. And while cockatoos and parrots in general are typically affectionate and make good pets, palm cockatoos are not. They’re considered “difficult.” When parrot fanciers call a type of bird difficult, it’s difficult.

Anyway, the really unusual thing about the palm cockatoo’s drumming isn’t its tool use, which is well known among many types of birds, especially parrots and their relations. It’s the rhythm.

Most animals can’t keep a beat. Synchronization to an external rhythm is called rhythmic entrainment. Humans are really good at it and recognize a beat automatically, but responding in time to a rhythm is a learned skill. Small children have to learn to keep a beat by moving their bodies, speaking, or singing, and they learn it best in social settings. That’s why music, dance, and rhythmic play activities are so important to preschool children. And as a drummer myself, I promise you, humans of any age can learn to improve their rhythm.

But most animals don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish rhythmic beats, although it hasn’t been studied all that much until fairly recently. Some researchers think it may have something to do with the ability to mimic vocal sounds.

That would explain why many birds show rhythmic entrainment, varying from species to species. A sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball was internet-famous for a while in clips where the bird danced to music. As a result, Snowball became the subject of a rhythmic entrainment study that shows he can adapt his dancing to changing tempos.

But not all animals who show rhythmic entrainment can mimic vocally. California sea lions aren’t exactly the parrots of the sea animal world, but they can be trained to move to a beat. On the other hand, closely related seals are vocal learners. In fact, one famous harbor seal who was raised by a fisherman who found the orphaned pup could imitate the fisherman so well he was known as “Hoover the Talking Seal.”

Here’s the only clip I would find of Hoover. The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t figure out when the seal was talking. All I could hear was some gruff-sounding guy talking really fast. Well, that’s Hoover.

[Hoover the talking seal]

That is Hoover the talking seal talking. It’s creepy as heck.

It’s possible that sea lions still retain neural pathways that allow vocal mimicking even if they no longer use them. Then again, some researchers now believe that vocal mimicking ability may only be a skill related to rhythmic entrainment, not the source of the ability, and that the neural pathways for rhythmic entrainment may be very old. Some species can express entrainment, others appear to have lost it.

Studies on human brains show that when music plays, pretty much the entire brain lights up in response. That’s because we have special neural connections that help coordinate motor planning, speech, and other skills with the perceived beat. Brains of parrots and other birds are very similar. But monkeys are not. Monkeys can’t dance. Poor monkeys.

One study with rhesus monkeys who were trained to tap in rhythm with a metronome determined that they couldn’t anticipate the beat but could tap just after it, responding to it, even after years of training. Many rhythmic entrainment studies focus on great apes, since it’s reasonable to suppose that humans’ close cousins might share our rhythmic ability.

Patricia Grey, a bio-music researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, taught a group of captive bonobo apes to play a drum along with a beat. But it wasn’t as simple as showing a bonobo how a drum worked and seeing if it could keep a beat. She had to encourage the apes in a social setting, just like with human children. Also, she had to design a drum that could take a whole lot of abuse. I love that she went to Remo, a company that manufactures drums and drumheads, to have the drum made.

Her experiment started by accident. In 2010, Grey was at the Great Ape Research Center in Des Moines waiting for an experiment to be set up, and while she waited she idly tapped the glass on the bonobo enclosure. A bonobo named Kanzi came over and tapped her hand on the glass in response, matching Grey’s tempo. Intrigued, Grey continued tapping to see how long Kanzi would keep it up. Kanzi didn’t stop, even when her snack time came. She ate her snack lying on her back so she could continue to tap with her feet.

Wild chimpanzees and bonobos drum on logs and their own bodies to make rhythmic noise during play and dominance activities. Dominant male chimps do a particularly exaggerated slow display when thunderstorms approach, called a rain dance by researchers, that involves drumming. A variation of the rain dance has been seen when wildfires are approaching a troupe of chimps. Naturally it’s called a fire dance, and it includes a vocalization heard at no other time.

Chimps are pretty chill when it comes to fire, by the way. They understand how it spreads and how to avoid it without panicking.

Another animal that can keep the beat? Elephants! Asian elephants are vocal mimics and their ability to keep a beat is extremely precise. In 2000, the Thai Elephant Orchestra was created with elephants at a conservation center in Thailand, who learned to play oversized versions of traditional Thai percussion instruments.

The elephants learned the instruments easily, taking to it so quickly and so well that the orchestra’s founders were astonished. The great thing is, the elephants actually create much of the music themselves. The orchestra’s founders, neuroscientist Dave Soldier and elephant conservationist Richard Lair, wanted the elephants to have fun and enjoy making music. So for most songs, the animals are only signaled when to start and stop playing. Occasionally human musicians play along.

The orchestra released three albums between 2002 and 2011, which were all well received—not as novelty albums, but as actual improvisational compositions. Some of the songs are arranged, with the elephants trained to play traditional Thai music. The orchestra performs live for visitors at the conservation center.

The orchestra varies in size from five to fourteen elephants. One particularly talented drummer, Luk Kop, could play three drums at the same time and set up complex rhythms. Unfortunately he was also a dangerous elephant, and that’s not good for a band or an elephant orchestra, so he had to drop out.

The elephants prefer non-dissonant tones and learn to strike the properly resonant parts of their instruments without even being taught. The elephants at the center also enjoy playing harmonicas. The tip of an elephant’s trunk has a fingerlike projection, so an elephant can hold a harmonica and blow through it with its trunk. Soldier reports that one morning he arrived at the center early when the elephants were heading down to the river for their morning bath. Almost all the elephants had brought their harmonicas and were playing together as they walked.

Most of the elephants at the center are former logging animals, and many of their handlers, known as mahouts, once worked with them when they were logging. Mahouts traditionally sing to their elephants, which is supposed to keep them calm. So the elephants in the orchestra are familiar with traditional Thai music.

Locals who have heard the orchestra play say the music sounds like the music in Buddhist temples. Soldier, a musician and composer himself, transcribed an original elephant piece which was then played by a human orchestra in New York. The audience didn’t know it was composed by elephants. Some guesses as to who the composer might be included John Cage, Dvorak, and Charles Ives.

Whether or not you like improvisational Thai music played by elephants, or you think it’s just a stupid gimmick, it’s clear the elephants are having a lot of fun. Here’s a clip of some of their music recorded at the conservation center. That’s some mighty fine percussion for animals who don’t even have hands.

[elephant orchestra]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 018: Some mystery elephants and the tapir



This week’s episode is about a couple of mystery elephants and a non-mysterious animal, the tapir…but there might be some mystery associated with that little-trunked cutie too.

The tapir and its weird snoot:

The Moeritherium probably looked something like this:

Some super cute Borneo elephants with super long tails:

A baby tapir omgimgoingtodieofcuteomg

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at some animals with snoots. Specifically, a couple of mysterious elephants, and the tapir, which looks like what you might get if a pig and an elephant had a baby.

Usually I start episodes with the facts about a known animal and finish up with a mystery, but this week we’re starting with a strange and mysterious animal called a water elephant.

There’s only been one reported sighting of a water elephant and it’s not a recent one. In 1912, an article appeared in the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society. It was written by R.J. Cuninghame but concerned a Mr. Le Petit.

Now, before I go on to discuss the water elephant, let me just say that I have a great big problem with someone named M. Le Petit. No pun intended. Going by the name, and the secondhand nature of the account, and the fact that a lot of stories about strange African animals from this era are hoaxes of one variety or another, I’m taking this whole thing with a grain of salt. But it’s an interesting story, and if there really was a guy saddled with the name of little mister man, I can see why he spent a lot of time exploring the Congo instead of becoming a Shakespearian actor or something.

Anyway, I was able to find the original article, which has been digitized. It’s quite short, so instead of paraphrasing it I’ll just read the whole thing. It’s from the July 1912 issue of the journal, volume two number four, pages 97 through 98.

[read article]

There is no known animal that precisely fits Le Petit’s description. The closest is possibly the tapir. You can pronounce it taper if you want. It’s spelled T-A-P-I-R and no one seems to know how it’s supposed to be pronounced. Anyway, there are five species of tapir still around, four in Central and South America and one in Asia.

While the different species vary in size and coloring, generally a tapir is about 3 feet high at the shoulder and up to 8 feet long with short fur. The ears are oval-shaped with white tips. Its body is rounded with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk. Superficially the tapir looks kind of like a piggy but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a little hoof. Depending on the species, the tapir may be gray, reddish-brown, black and white, or if it’s a baby, stripey. Females have a single pair of teats and males have a remarkably long, somewhat prehensile penis with flaps on the end that helps make a seal so it can mate underwater. You won’t get this information on National Geographic Kids, no sirree.

The tapir is a shy, largely solitary, mostly nocturnal animal that prefers forests near rivers or streams. It can bite like heck if it needs to, but it much prefers to run away from danger. Its favorite method of hiding is to submerge in water. It spends a lot of time in water, in fact, eating water plants and cooling off when it’s hot. It swims well and can use its snoot as a snorkel.

Technically its snoot is called a proboscis. It’s like a short elephant trunk although tapirs and elephants aren’t closely related. When it’s not snorkeling, the tapir uses its snoot to help gather plants. I just like saying snoot.

Tapir fossils have been discovered in Europe, China, and North America, but not Africa. So whatever M. Le Peti saw, assuming the account wasn’t a hoax or a mistaken identity, it probably wasn’t a tapir. So what else might fit the water elephant’s description?

There is an extinct animal that fits the description pretty well as far as we know. The Moeritherium lived about 35 million years ago and its fossils have been found in many parts of Africa. It was related to modern elephants although it wasn’t a direct ancestor, just an offshoot that as far as we know died out without descendants.

It wasn’t a very big animal—like the tapir, it looked more like a pig than an elephant. It stood between 2 and 3 feet high at the shoulder but was long-bodied, almost 10 feet long. Its legs were short, it may have had a tapir-like trunk, and it had small tusks more like those of a hippo, nothing like elephant tusks. Studies of its teeth indicate it ate a lot of aquatic plants, so it probably lived a lot like a hippo.

So could the water elephant be a descendant of Moeritherium? It sure sounds like a possibility, but there are two important facts to keep in mind.

First of all, the hippo evolved about 16 million years ago. If the Moeritherium had lived and continued to evolve, it’s possible it would have ended up looking a lot like the modern hippo. But the hippo is most closely related to whales—I’m not even kidding, and somehow I always manage to bring up whales no matter what animal I’m researching, huh?—and the hippo wouldn’t have become so wide-spread if the Moeritherium had a lock on the big aquatic freshwater herbivore niche.

Second, the date of the article is suspicious if you look at the discoveries of Moeritherium fossils. The Moeritherium was first described in 1901 from fossils found in Egypt. More fossils were discovered in 1902 and 1904. In 1911 the fossils were examined more closely and divided into two species. During this time, discoveries in palaeontology were popular subjects in magazines and newspapers. Dinosaurs and other extinct animals were even more a part of popular culture as they are now. Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Lost World was published in 1912, continuing a tradition already well established by Jules Verne of science fiction stories where people discover supposedly extinct animals in remote areas. Scientists and explorers were still hopeful that living dinosaurs or ice age megafauna would be found alive and well. So it’s not a bit outlandish to suggest that the author of the water elephant story made it up with the best possible intentions—perhaps he expected to find the Moeritherium living in the Congo and wanted to excite interest in more expeditions. Or perhaps he was hoaxed by someone who’d read about the Moeritherium and thought it would make a plausible subject of a tall tale.

Clearly, I’m skeptical about the water elephant being a real animal, although I’d love to be proven wrong. But there is another definitely real elephant that might be a mystery that’s been hiding in plain sight for hundreds of years.

In 1750 or thereabouts, according to locals, a pair of elephants was given to the Sultan of Sulu who brought them to Borneo. At some point the elephants were released into the wild and their descendants now live throughout the western and northern parts of the island. This story sounds straightforward and interesting, but there are a lot of confusing details that make it less certain. Supposedly, the Raja of Java gave a pair of elephants to Raja Baginda of Sulu, but that was around 1395. We do know that in 1521, tame elephants were part of the palace’s wonders, but by the 1770s there were no tame elephants, only feral ones. Supposedly, the elephants were released into the wild at some point to keep them from being captured for use in war in the event of an invasion.

Whenever and however it happened, it sounds plausible that the elephants still living in Borneo are descendants of elephants gifted to a local ruler. Elephants have long been considered appropriate royal gifts. The story is given more weight by the fact that no elephant fossils have ever been found in Borneo, which suggests the elephants were introduced recently. The Bornean elephants have a very low genetic diversity, which would be the case if they were descendants of a single pair.

But here’s why these smallish, rather tame elephants in Borneo are such a big deal. Locals, and some researchers, think they’re the only surviving members of an otherwise extinct subspecies of Asian elephant, called the Java elephant. And they are different in appearance and behavior from other Asian elephant subspecies. They’re slightly smaller, although they’re not actually pygmy elephants as they’re sometimes called. A big male Borneo elephant may stand about eight feet tall at the shoulder while a big male Asian elephant may reach close to 10 feet. The Borneo elephant’s tusks are straighter than other Asian elephants—some males don’t have tusks at all—and their tails are so long that in some individuals, they actually touch the ground. Roughly 2,000 Borneo elephants remain on the island, although their habitat is increasingly being lost to palm oil plantations. Poaching is also a problem.

Borneo and Java are both part of the Malay Archipelago in southeast Asia, which is full of islands and nations I’ve mostly only ever heard about in songs and stories, like Singapore and Sumatra, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. I bet it’s beautiful out there, wow. Java is over 800 miles south of Borneo, so it’s not like the elephants could get there without human help. And the Java elephant was extinct by the 1800s.

In 2003, DNA testing on the Borneo elephants indicated they were not related to other Asian subspecies of elephant and were either from Java or native to Borneo. Since Borneo was cut off from the Asian mainland and the rest of the Malay Archipelago around 18,000 years ago, when sea levels rose due to melting glaciers, that means the elephants must have been on the island for at least 18,000 years if they truly are a native subspecies. But if that’s the case, where are the fossil and subfossil remains? Why do the locals insist that the elephants were introduced only hundreds of years ago?

I tried very hard to find information about DNA testing supposedly underway in 2015, but without luck. It could be that the results haven’t yet been analyzed or that the analysis hasn’t yet been published. But my bet is that the locals are right and these are Java elephants, once owned by kings.

To bring things back around to where we started, more or less, in November of 1975 a young tapir was supposedly captured in Borneo. Unfortunately, no one knew what they’d caught—the papers were described as a mixture of various types of animals, such as a tiger’s body, an elephant’s trunk, a goat’s legs but claws like a chicken’s, and so forth. Put that way it sounds absurd and made up. The papers dubbed it a tigelboat. But as zoologist Karl Shuker points out in his blog, everything about the tigelboat fits the characteristics of a young Malayan tapir. Tapir babies are stripey, and while tapirs have hooves, they do have a claw-like appearance since the toes are widely spread and the hooves pointed.

Unfortunately, no one in the scientific community followed up on the animal’s capture and it’s not known what happened to it. It was kept at a prison but wasn’t cared for and eventually disappeared. Someone probably ate it, that’s my guess. But it’s possible that tapirs still live in the swamps and rainforests of Borneo. We know they lived on the island during the Pleistocene.

Finally, one last mystery tapir was supposedly seen in New Guinea in 1906, when two New Guinea natives were employed as scouts for an expedition. The two were sent ahead to check on a trail but had to be rescued after a terrifying encounter with what they called devil-pigs. There were two of the animals, and the description sounds exactly like dark gray or black tapirs. But tapirs don’t live in New Guinea—as far as we know.

Papua and Papua New Guinea make up an island about 1,900 miles away from Borneo, so it’s not a close neighbor by any means, but it is part of the same archipelago. During the ice ages of the Pleistocene, when so much of the world’s water was locked up in glacial sheets and the sea levels were therefore much lower, the 25,000 or so islands that make up the Malay Archipelago were connected to each other and to the Asian mainland. When the oceans rose again some 18,000 years ago animals were stranded on the islands and have since either died out or adapted to their smaller territories. Who knows what secrets these little pockets of the ancient world may still hide?

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