Category Archives: Europe

Episode 242: Snakes with Nose Horns



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Thanks to Max for suggesting the rhinoceros viper! We’ll learn about that one and several other snakes with nose horns this week.

The rhino viper, AKA the butterfly viper because of its beautiful colors and pattern:

The rhino viper has nose horns (photo by Balázs Buzás):

The West African Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros), AKA the other rhino viper:

The rhinoceros snake, AKA the Vietnamese longnose snake (photo taken by me! That’s why it’s kind of blurry!):

The nose-horned viper is a beautiful snake:

Show transcript:

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

Just a reminder about our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book! Check the show notes for a link if you want to look at the preliminary cover and maybe bookmark the page for when we go live in just two weeks!!

This week we’ll learn about the rhino viper, which was suggested by Max, who at the time was almost eight years old but that was so long ago I bet Max is eight now or maybe nine or ten. Maybe thirty.

The rhinoceros viper lives in forests in parts of western and central Africa, and can grow three and a half feet long, or 107 cm. It’s a heavy chonk of a snake but it’s beautifully colored, with big triangular blotches and smaller markings of red, yellow, black, and blue or green. If you look at one on a white background it stands out, but on the forest floor where it lives, with dead leaves and plants all around, it blends right in. It has rough scales that make it look bristly, called keeled scales. The rhino viper’s scales are so strongly keeled that they can cut your hand if you pet it. It’s not a good idea to pet wild snakes anyway.

The rhino viper’s scientific name is Bitis nasicornis. At first I thought it was pronounced like “bite us,” which I thought was hilarious, and I was disappointed to find that it’s pronounced “bit-us,” although that’s actually funny too. Actually it’s pronounced “bit-is.” It’s spelled B-I-T-I-S. Nasicornis means nose horn, and it definitely has horns on its nose. It has a pair of horns, in fact, side by side, and they stick up and slightly forward. Some rhino vipers even have three nose horns. They’re not true horns, though. Instead they’re made of modified scales. They’re bendy like scales too.

The rhino viper mostly eats rodents but will also eat frogs, birds, and other small animals if it can catch them. It’s an ambush hunter, meaning it hides among fallen leaves and waits for an animal to come too close. Most of the time it moves slowly, but when it strikes, it does so very quickly, in less than a quarter of a second. It has relatively mild venom, although some other Bitis species have venom that’s deadly to humans.

The rhino viper spends most of its time on the ground, but it can climb trees if it wants to. The end of its blunt tail is even partially prehensile, meaning it can curl around branches to help it hang on. This is the closest thing to a hand that snakes have. It can also swim well.

Sometimes the rhino viper is called the butterfly viper because of its colorful markings, and to stop people from confusing it with another closely related snake called Bitis rhinoceros. Rhinoceros also means nose-horn, by the way. B. rhinoceros is also called the West African Gaboon viper because it lives in West Africa. It looks similar to the other rhino viper with a similar pattern but in more neutral tones of brown and tan. It’s sort of a more sophisticated-looking rhino viper. It also has a pair of nose horns but they’re smaller and generally point up and slightly back.

All snakes in the genus Bitis have a threat display that has earned them the name puff adder, although that’s also the name of a specific species, Bitis arietans, that’s extremely venomous. Some people call the various species of hognose snake found in North America puff adders too because of its behavior when it feels threatened. The hognose snake flattens its neck and raises its head so that it looks like a cobra, all the while hissing in a way that sounds like it’s puffing air in and out. Snakes in the genus Bitis have a similarly impressive display. It appears to inflate and deflate as it hisses loudly, as though you’re being warned away by a bicycle tire innertube with keeled scales and nose horns. This is what it sounds like when a puff adder puffs and hisses:

[snake hissing sounds]

Vipers of all kinds are members of the family Viperidae, which includes a whole lot of venomous snakes from many parts of the world. Vipers have fangs that are so long, they’re actually hinged so they can fit in the mouth. Each fang is attached to a small bone that can rotate forward and back to extend and refold the fangs. Most of the time the viper’s fangs are folded down along the sides of the mouth, protected by a sheath of skin. When it’s ready to bite, either in defense or to kill prey, the viper extends its fangs, but because the fangs are delicate and easily broken, the snake waits to extend its fangs until the last possible moment.

The fangs are also hollow and are connected to venom glands located behind the eyes. That’s why so many vipers have triangular heads, because the venom glands take up extra space at the back of the head. The venom glands are equipped with tiny muscles that the snake contracts to send venom flowing through the fangs and into the bite wound, and it can control how much venom it injects, if any.

Vipers in the genus Bitis have especially long fangs with powerful bites, so that many animals die from the bite itself and not the venom. The reason that snakes inject venom into small prey that it could easily kill and swallow without venom is that the venom begins the digestion process. Most snakes don’t actually have very efficient digestive systems, so by having venom that not only kills its prey but starts digesting it before the snake even swallows it, vipers can extract more nutrients from their food.

The rhino viper and the other rhino viper aren’t the only snakes with nose horns. The rhinoceros snake isn’t a viper but it does have a nose horn—in this case just one nose horn, which grows from the tip of the nose and points straight forward. It’s also called the rhinoceros ratsnake or the Vietnamese longnose snake. It lives in rainforests in northern Vietnam and southern China and spends almost all of its time in trees. Adults are a lovely pale green or blue-green. It can grow over five feet long, or 1.6 m, and is a slender, active snake that mostly eats rodents and other small animals.

Another snake with a nose horn is the nose-horned viper. This one lives in parts of southern Europe and the Middle East, and it’s also called the sand viper. Since lots of vipers live in sandy areas but not all vipers have nose horns, I don’t know how you could possibly look at this snake and decide to call it a sand viper and not a nose-horned viper. Also, it doesn’t live in the sand. It likes rocky areas and can sometimes be found in old stone walls where it has lots of crevices to hide in. It eats small animals, including rodents, lizards and other snakes, large insects like centipedes, and the occasional bird.

The nose-horned viper can grow over three feet long, or about a meter. Individuals can be gray-brown, reddish-brown, coppery-red, dark red, or pale brown, and it has a darker zigzag pattern. Like most vipers it’s a chonky, fairly slow-moving snake. Its nose horn points upward in some subspecies, forward in others.

That brings us to the big question: what are these nose horns used for? Why do these snakes have nose horns at all?

The answer is: we don’t know. They’re soft and bendy, made of scales, so they can’t be used as weapons, not that a four-foot-long snake with massive fangs and deadly venom needs to poke at predators with a little nose horn. They’re probably just for display, but only the snake knows for sure.

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. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 241: Weird and Wonderful Squirrels



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Our pre-launch Kickstarter page! You can see what the book cover will look like!

Thanks to Liesbet and Enzo for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about squirrels!

Further reading:

Project Squirrel

Interspecies Breeding Is Responsible for Some Squirrels’ Black Coloring

The Indian giant squirrel, without filter (left) and with filter (right):

Some variable squirrels (see lots more at iNaturalist):

The Eastern gray squirrel:

The Eurasian red squirrel:

The fox squirrel:

White Eastern gray squirrels (photos taken from the White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative):

A white variable squirrel spotted in Thailand (picture found here):

The African pygmy squirrel:

The least pygmy squirrel of Asia:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally the squirrel episode! Both Liesbet and Enzo have suggested squirrels as a topic, and Enzo specifically asked about white squirrels, hybrid squirrels, and squirrels in danger. We’re going to cover all those, and also a few squirrel mysteries!

First, though, a quick note to say that the Kickstarter campaign for the Strange Animals Podcast book is definitely going to happen NEXT MONTH! It’ll go live in early October 2021. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when so you can go pre-order a copy of the book if you want, and in fact I think I’ll do a bonus episode the first day of the Kickstarter. If you want to get an email to remind you when the campaign launches, there’s a link in the show notes to the pre-launch page where you can request an email notification on launch. You can also see what the book cover will look like! Now, on to the squirrels.

The animal we generally just call a squirrel is specifically a tree squirrel, as opposed to ground squirrels. Tree squirrels are arboreal, which means they live in trees, although they spend plenty of time on the ground too. Squirrels mostly eat nuts and seeds, including acorns and the seeds inside pine cones, but will also eat berries, flowers and buds, tree bark and sap, fungus, and sometimes insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds. Squirrels are rodents and are active in the daytime.

Squirrels can be helpful to trees even though they eat tree nuts, because most species bury nuts to dig up and eat later. The squirrel doesn’t always remember where it hid all its nuts, and in spring the buried nuts sprout and grow into new trees. Some species also hide nuts in caches, often in holes in trees.

A squirrel sleeps in a nest made of dead leaves and sticks it builds in the branches of a tree. The nest is called a drey and it’s lined on the inside with moss, grass, and other soft, warm material. A mother squirrel will line the nest with some of her fur right before her babies are born, so the nest is especially soft and warm. Some species also nest in old woodpecker holes. In winter when it’s cold, several squirrels may share the same drey to stay warm, but squirrels are usually solitary. They don’t hibernate, but like most of us, they sleep more in winter and are less active.

Most people know what a squirrel looks like, because it’s such a common animal throughout most of the world. Some squirrel species get used to humans and often live in people’s yards and in city parks. A tree squirrel has a long, fluffy tail, a long, slender body, relatively short legs, small ears, and large eyes. It’s usually gray or brown and sometimes has spots or stripes.

Some tree squirrels look different from the squirrels you may be used to, depending on where you live. Squirrels of the genus Ratufa are called giant squirrels and they’re the size of domestic cats. They live in parts of Asia, especially southeast Asia. The Indian giant squirrel lives in India, and not only is it especially big, up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its long tail, it’s brightly colored. Different individuals and subspecies can have different shades of fur, although the belly and front legs are usually cream-colored. The rest of the body can be tan, dark brown, black, cream-colored, rusty-red, or even a dark maroon color. You may have seen pictures online of brightly colored giant squirrels, and while those are real pictures of real animals, the photographer used a filter that enhances the colors to make them look even brighter than they really are.

The Indian giant squirrel and its close relations eat fruit, nuts, flowers, and other plant material, and hardly ever come down from the tall trees where they live.

Another colorful squirrel is the variable squirrel, which also lives in southeast Asia. It’s on the small side for a tree squirrel, less than 9 inches long at most, or 22 cm, not counting the tail. There are over a dozen subspecies that vary in color and pattern, and some researchers think there may be enough differences that it’s actually more than one species of closely related squirrel. It’s a member of a genus called “beautiful squirrels,” because so many species in the genus have pretty markings. Some variable squirrels are white underneath and red-brown above, with little pointed ears outlined in white, and a reddish tail. Some are glossy black with red markings. Others can be gray, black, orangey-red, reddish-brown, brown, or white with various patterns and markings. It’s so pretty that it’s been introduced in places like Japan, Singapore, Italy, and the Philippines, where it can be an invasive species.

The eastern gray squirrel of eastern North America has also been introduced to other areas where it’s become an invasive species. It was introduced to the UK in 1876 and because it’s a large, aggressive species, the native Eurasian red squirrel has been driven almost to extinction in Britain. It’s still doing fine in the rest of its range, though. Habitat loss is also a factor in the red squirrel’s declining numbers, but the gray squirrel certainly isn’t helping.

The gray squirrel also carries a disease called the squirrel parapoxvirus that causes squirrelpox. Don’t worry, only squirrels can catch it. The gray squirrel is mostly immune to the disease, but the red squirrel isn’t. If an infected gray squirrel is bitten by a mosquito that then bites a red squirrel, the red squirrel can catch squirrelpox from the mosquito bite.

The red squirrel is a reddish-brown in color with tufts on its ears, and in winter it grows a thick undercoat to keep it warm. It also generally looks more gray in winter. Some populations of red squirrel in parts of Europe are black, or nearly black, although it still has a white belly. The red squirrel only grows up to about 9 inches long, or 23 cm, much smaller than the eastern gray squirrel, which can grow up to 12 inches long, or 30 cm. Those lengths don’t include the tail. The red squirrel generally prefers fir trees while the gray squirrel prefers deciduous trees, especially oaks, but the gray squirrel will steal food from the red squirrel no matter what kind of food it is.

In its native range in eastern North America, the eastern gray squirrel often lives alongside other species of squirrel. In 1997 an evolutionary behavioral ecologist named Joel Brown noticed that there are two species of squirrel that live in Chicago, Illinois, a large city in the middle of the gray squirrel’s range. The gray squirrel shares the city with the fox squirrel, which is about the same size and looks very similar to the gray squirrel but is more of a rusty-red color. Dr. Brown noticed that the gray squirrel mostly lives in wealthy neighborhoods while the fox squirrel mostly lives in neighborhoods where people don’t have as much money, and he wanted to figure out why.

Dr. Brown started Project Squirrel to study the mystery. The program teaches people how to tell the difference between the two species so they can report what kind of squirrels they see and where they see them. Right away he started noticing patterns. Fox squirrels live in areas where there are more predators, including feral and free-roaming dogs and cats, urban foxes and coyotes, and hawks. Gray squirrels prefer areas where there aren’t as many predators. Dr. Brown thinks it’s because the fox squirrels are bolder and on average a little larger than gray squirrels, which tend to be more shy. He even noticed a change in his own neighborhood when gray squirrels started becoming more numerous, a shift that happened right after a local leash law went into effect, meaning that fewer pets were running loose.

Project Squirrel has since expanded. There’s an app and everything if you want to take part as a citizen scientist and help solve squirrel mysteries.

Another small squirrel mystery is white squirrels. In August of 2021, just last month as this episode goes live, we had a Q&A episode where we talked about the black squirrels Connor was seeing in Michigan. Those black squirrels turned out to be melanistic eastern gray squirrels. Are white squirrels albino animals or is there something else going on?

Albinism is due to a genetic anomaly that causes an individual to lack pigment. That means its fur or hair is pure white and its skin looks pink because the lack of pigment means its blood shows through and makes it look pink. Its eyes will look red or pink for the same reason, although in some animals the eyes are pale blue instead. Humans with albinism have pale blue eyes.

But most white squirrels have dark eyes and may appear pale brown or gray instead of pure white. Instead of albinism, these squirrels are leucistic. Leucism is related to albinism but instead of a lack of pigment, a leucistic animal has reduced pigment. Sometimes the reduced pigment happens all over the body, sometimes in patches. A leucistic animal often has ordinary colored eyes and skin but pale or white fur. In some domestic species of animal, leucism is bred for or happens frequently in a population, like piebald horses and cows with white spots. It’s a common enough condition that I’ve actually seen leucistic birds while birdwatching. Humans can sometimes show a type of leucism called vitiligo that usually develops in adults, where patches of skin lose their pigment over time. It’s most noticeable on people with dark skin but it also happens to people with light skin. You can’t catch vitiligo from someone else; it’s just a genetic anomaly. Unfortunately, sometimes people who develop the condition get treated badly by others, because people are often afraid of things they don’t understand. Now you know what it is and you can share that knowledge when you need to.

In squirrels, individuals with white fur are usually in more danger from predators. Everything likes to eat squirrels, which is why most squirrel species are gray or reddish-brown as camouflage against tree trunks and branches. A white squirrel shows up like a flashing sign saying, “Snacktime!” As a result, squirrels with white fur are rare to start with and usually don’t live long enough to pass their genes along to the next generation—but in some places, they’re much more common.

In many towns in the United States and Canada, white squirrels are not just common, most squirrels are white. Some towns have white squirrel festivals as a way to promote local pride and bring tourists to the area. Why do some places have white squirrels while most don’t, and why are all the white squirrel populations in North America?

It’s all back to the eastern gray squirrel again. Most squirrel species don’t have a gene that can cause leucism, but the eastern gray squirrel does. Other squirrel species can be albinistic since that’s a genetic anomaly that can happen in any animal, but it’s the eastern gray squirrel that shows leucism most commonly. The closely related fox squirrel also sometimes exhibits leucism.

Some towns have high populations of white squirrels because people think they’re neat. If the white squirrels are in a protected area, like a city park or a college campus, there are fewer predators to start with. People who like the squirrels will leave food out for them and make sure no one hurts them, and as a result the squirrels survive to have babies. Since leucism is a genetic condition, the babies of white squirrels are more likely to be white too.

Remember the variable squirrel we talked about earlier in the episode? Some of them exhibit leucism too, usually a pale brown-white all over with dark eyes.

One thing I learned about black squirrels after last month’s Q&A episode is that some black squirrels are hybrids of eastern gray and fox squirrels. The two species are closely related and often live in the same areas, so it’s not surprising that they sometimes interbreed. Hybrid babies may inherit a genetic variant found in fox squirrels that gives them darker fur. Some researchers think that all gray squirrels with black fur may have inherited the gene for black fur color from fox squirrels in their ancestry.

For the most part, though, tree squirrels don’t hybridize very often, probably because in most places, only one species predominates in any given area. Grey squirrels and Eurasian red squirrels belong to different genera and subfamilies, so aren’t very closely related although their habitats sometimes overlap.

Enzo specifically asked about squirrels in danger, and I’m happy to report that most squirrel species are actually doing just fine. Squirrels are adaptable and can learn to live around humans. As long as they have trees to live in and enough food to support a population, they’re okay. The main danger most squirrels face is habitat loss, especially logging and clear-cutting of forests to build houses or businesses.

A subspecies of fox squirrel called the Delmarva fox squirrel was put on the endangered species list in 1967. It’s native to areas of northeastern North America. It’s about the size of the eastern gray squirrel, which it resembles since it’s gray with a white belly, although it’s usually a more silvery gray in color. By 1967 its population had declined by 90% from habitat loss and overhunting. A conservation plan put in place in 1979 focused on protecting the squirrel’s remaining habitat, restoring its habitat wherever possible, and monitoring the population carefully. The program was such a success that in 2015, the Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the endangered species list. It’s yet another reminder that protecting an animal’s habitat is just as important as protecting the animal itself. The Delmarva fox squirrel now only lives on the eastern coasts of Maryland and Virginia, a much smaller range than before, so continued conservation efforts are in place to keep it safe and healthy.

Let’s finish with the smallest tree squirrel known, the African pygmy squirrel. It lives in tropical rainforests in parts of western and central Africa. It only grows 5.5 inches long, or 14 cm, and that includes its tail! That’s the size of a mouse. We don’t actually know a whole lot about the African pygmy squirrel, but we do know that it’s an omnivore. This is unusual for squirrels, even though most squirrel species will eat the occasional insect or bird egg. The African pygmy squirrel eats insects regularly as well as fruit, bark, and other plant materials. Unlike most squirrels, it doesn’t store food.

The African pygmy squirrel is the same size as the least pygmy squirrel that lives on three islands in southeast Asia. We know even less about the least pygmy squirrel than we do the African pygmy squirrel…or I guess you could say we know the least about the least pygmy squirrel.

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. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 232: Almost Domesticated



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Thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” we’re going to learn about some animals that aren’t exactly domesticated but aren’t really wild either.

Further reading:

Memories of Ángela Loij

Mongolian horse and its person:

Mongolian horses:

OH MY GOSH HEART HEART HEART (photo from this website):

Dingos!

An artist’s rendition of the Fuejian dog (left) and a picture of the cuelpo (right):

The cuelpo, happy fox-like canid:

A very fancy rat:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, and before I forget again to tell you about this, I’m planning a bonus Q&A episode for August. If you have any questions about the podcast, podcasting in general, me, or anything else, feel free to email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com, or otherwise contact me through social media!

A few episodes ago I mentioned in passing that the Australian dingo is a type of feral dog. It’s a more complicated situation than it sounds, so while I didn’t want to confuse the issue at the time, I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered that a listener emailed me a while back wanting to know more about how dogs were domesticated. We covered the topic pretty thoroughly back in episode 106, but I realized that there’s an aspect of domestication we didn’t cover in that episode. So thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” here’s an episode about a few animals that are only semi-domesticated.

Domestication, after all, isn’t a switch you can flip. It’s a process, and depending on the animal species and the circumstances, it can take a really long time. It’s not the same thing as taming an animal, either. An individual animal might become tame with the right treatment, but that doesn’t mean any individual of that species would react the same way. Domesticated animals show genetic changes that their wild counterparts don’t, changes that make them more likely to treat humans as friends instead of potential predators.

Generally, a fully domesticated animal requires some level of care from a human to survive, even if it’s just feral cats living near humans so they can find and kill rodents and avoid most predators. Feral domesticated cats don’t live the same way as their wild ancestors do. But sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. While mustangs and other feral horse populations are considered domesticated animals, they live like wild animals and don’t need humans to survive. They mostly just need humans to leave them alone so they can thrive on their own. But if you capture a mustang that’s lived its whole life in the wild, with the right treatment it will eventually become tame, because its ancestors were bred for thousands of years to trust and depend on humans.

That brings us to our first semi-domesticated animal, the Mongolian horse. Yes, I’m still really into Mongolia and the Hu, and I’m excited to say I have tickets to see the Hu twice in concert this fall, if everything goes well. I’ve been listening to a program called the Voice of Mongolia in English, which is primarily a shortwave radio program but it’s also released as a podcast, and it talks about various aspects of Mongolian culture. Recently they had an episode about horses, so some of my information comes directly from that show.

Mongolia is a country in central Asia that’s mostly open steppes, which is a type of grassland. The soil isn’t right for most crops, but it’s great for horses. The people of Mongolia are traditionally nomadic, moving around from place to place to find grazing for their horses and other livestock, and about half of the current population still lives this way.

The Mongolian horse is a small, tough breed that probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years, possibly longer. It’s one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and the ancestor of many other horse breeds. For a long time people assumed it was the domesticated descendant of the wild Przewalski’s horse, but genetic testing has determined that domestic horses developed from a different wild horse species that’s extinct now. Genetic testing also showed that the Mongolian horse has the highest genetic diversity of any horse breed tested. It’s incredibly strong for its size, can gallop for miles without tiring, has strong hooves that never need trimming or shoeing, and seldom needs or receives veterinary care.

The main reason for all these traits is that Mongolian horses live like wild horses in most ways. They live loose, grazing as they like, and if they get too far away from their humans, the owners will go out to find them. But they’re still domesticated. Mare’s milk is an important part of the Mongolian diet, so the mares are used to being milked, and people use their horses to ride, carry packs, and pull carts. The stallions are frequently raced. At the same time, though, they’re not really pets. Mongols don’t give their horses names, but instead refer to them with a detailed description. The Voice of Mongolia in English says the Mongolian language has over 300 words to describe horses, while Wikipedia says it’s over 500. Either way, the terminology is so precise that everyone knows exactly which horse someone’s talking about, which if you think about it is more useful than a name.

The Australian dingo is in a similar situation. It’s considered a feral dog breed, but it doesn’t need people to survive. Most feral dogs throughout the world barely scrape by, eating garbage and rats and often dying of starvation or disease. Dingos live like wild animals and do just fine. But at the same time, they’re happy to hang out with people from time to time, acting as hunting companions who are neither dependent on humans nor frightened of them.

The dingo is a strong, tough, lean dog that stands around 22 inches tall at the shoulder, or 56 cm. It has flexible joints like the Norwegian lundehund we talked about in episode 230, which allows it to climb cliffs and fences and otherwise navigate difficult terrain. It’s usually a yellowy or ginger color, sometimes with small white markings, although some dingoes are black and tan. It can survive on very little water. It often hunts in packs and will hunt animals larger than it is, like the red kangaroo.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans, although we’re not sure when. Dingo fossils have been found dating to 3,500 years ago in western Australia, so it was at least that long ago. Genetic studies show that the modern dingo and the dingo of 3,500 years ago are pretty much identical. It also shows that it’s definitely a domestic dog, related to other dog breeds that were once common in Asia around 7,000 years ago, but which are rare now. It’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, which makes sense since New Guinea is so close to Australia. Until somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago, New Guinea and Australia were connected when sea levels were low. Genetically the two dog breeds have been separated for about 8,300 years, which suggests that the dingo has been in Australia for at least that long.

Traditionally, Aboriginal Australians would take a dingo puppy from its den to keep as a pet, a hunting dog, or sometimes a herding animal. Sometimes the dingo would stick around when it was grown, but sometimes it would return to the wild. There’s a lot of controversy about breeding dingoes as pets, since it would be easy to breed the wild traits and behaviors out. Since the dingo has been killed as a livestock pest since white settlers arrived in Australia, in many places its numbers are in decline and there are worries that the wild dingo could go extinct. There are already problems with the dingo cross-breeding with other dog breeds. It’s a complicated topic, because while the dingo is a dog, it’s not precisely domesticated at this point but also not precisely a wild animal.

There used to be a domesticated canid in South America called the Fuegian dog, which was probably used as a hunting dog, especially to hunt otters. On cold nights, the dogs would wrap themselves around their people like living blankets so everyone stayed nice and warm.

The Fuegian dog wasn’t a dog, though. It was the domesticated form of the culpeo, also called the Andean fox. It’s actually not a fox although it looks a lot like one. It’s related to wolves and jackals, and it lives on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. It eats small animals like rodents and introduced European rabbits. While the culpeo is sandy or tawny in color with gray on its back and a black tip to its tail, the Fuegian dog was sometimes brown and white or all white. Reportedly the Fuegian dog was not very tame in general and was an aggressive animal compared to actual dogs. It would hunt on its own and basically acted like a wild animal that just happened to hang out with humans a lot, like the dingo does today.

The culpeo is doing just fine, but the Fuegian dog is extinct. The Fuegian dog was tamed by a Patagonian people called the Selk’nam [shelknam], or ‘Ona, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in such a remote part of South America that Europeans didn’t encounter them until the late 19th century when settlers showed up to raise sheep and rubber trees. We’ve talked about what happened to them in a previous episode, although I can’t remember which one. The Selk’nam didn’t understand the concept of livestock, so they figured those sheep were literally fair game. The sheep were living on their own hunting grounds, after all. The Selk’nam killed some of the sheep, and in retaliation, the European settlers murdered all the Selk’nam. I was going to tell you the name of the man who started the genocide, but I don’t think anyone should remember his name. It wasn’t just “oh, you killed my sheep, I’m going to shoot you because I’m mad,” either. There was a bounty on Selk’nam people, and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s just too awful and disturbing.

By 1930, only about 100 Selk’nam remained alive, and the very last member of the people, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. There’s a link in the show notes to a page with lots of information about her as a person.

In 1919 when Christian missionaries visited what was left of the Selk’nam, they discovered that all the dogs had been killed off by the people themselves because the dogs were too fierce and killed livestock. It sounds like a last, desperate attempt by the Selk’nam to stop the murder of their people by keeping their dogs from killing any sheep. But by then it was too late, and the genocide wasn’t really about the sheep in the end. It was racism and hatred. Remember that all people are equal, no matter what they look like or how they live. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay. Let’s finish with the story of another semi-domesticated animal, one that doesn’t involve people being terrible to each other. The kind of rat you can buy as a pet is considered semi-domesticated, and it hasn’t actually been domesticated for very long. The person mainly responsible for the pet rat is a man called Jack Black. Not the actor Jack Black; this was a different guy who lived in the mid-19th century.

Jack Black was a ratcatcher in London, England who said he was the Queen’s official rat-catcher even though he wasn’t. He was definitely an extravagant character who always wore what he called his uniform, which included a big leather sash over one shoulder decorated with rats made of iron, a crown, and the initials V.R. for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. He told people the queen herself gave him the sash, but actually his wife made it for him. Black also carried a big domed cage with him to hold the rats he caught.

He mainly caught rats to sell to people who were training their dogs to kill rats, which was also a popular thing to watch. I mean, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me but this was before video games were invented. Occasionally, though, Black would catch a rat that had interesting markings or that was an unusual color. These rats he would keep, tame, and breed to produce more rats with different colors and patterns. He sold the tame, pretty young rats to people as pets. He especially liked white rats, which made popular pets then and are still popular today.

Pet rats, usually called fancy rats, are a subspecies of the brown rat, or Norway rat, which we talked about in episode 143. We also talked about Jack Black briefly in that episode, but at the time I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a royal rat catcher. By 1900 fancy rats were popular pets and remain so today, and are becoming more and more domesticated. If they’re not fully domesticated they’re well on their way, all thanks to a guy who thought rats were neat.

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. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 218: More Unusual Hoofed Animals



So many interesting hoofed animals in this episode, so many awesome suggestions! Thanks to Page, Elaine, Pranav, Richard E., Richard from NC, and Llewelly!

Further Reading:

Meet the Takin: The Largest Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of

New hope for the elusive okapi, the Congo’s mini giraffe

The Resurrection of the Arabian Oryx

Eucladoceros was not messing around with those antlers:

Megaloceros and Thranduil’s elk in the Hobbit movies. COINCIDENCE?

The stag-moose. What can I say? This thing is AWESOME:

Hoplitomeryx. Can you have too many horns? No, no you cannot:

The gerenuk, still beautiful but freaky-looking:

The golden takin looking beautiful [pic from the article linked above]:

The elusive okapi:

Okapi bums [pic from the article linked above]:

The giraffe being really tall and a baby giraffe being somewhat less tall:

A giraffe exhibiting dwarfism but honestly, he is still plenty tall:

The Arabian oryx is just extra:

The weird, weird tusks of the babirusa. Look closely:

Show Transcript:

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

Back in episode 116, we talked about some amazing hoofed animals. This week we’re going to look at some more amazing hoofed animals that you may have never heard about. Some are extinct but some are running around out there looking awesome even as we speak! Thanks to Page, Elaine, Pranav, Richard E., Richard from NC, and Llewelly for their suggestions! If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may recognize part of the end of the episode as largely from a Patreon episode, by the way.

Let’s start with an extinct deer with amazing antlers. Llewelly suggested it, or more accurately replied to a Twitter conversation mentioning it. That counts as a suggestion. It’s been a while but I think the conversation was about the Hobbit movies.

Eucladoceros was a deer the size of a moose but with much weirder antlers. We’re not talking about the Megaloceros, often called the Irish elk, although it was distantly related. Eucladoceros’s antlers were much different. They branched up and out but were spiky like an ordinary deer’s antlers instead of palmate like a moose’s or Megaloceros’s antlers. But they were seriously big, with up to twelve points each and over five and a half feet across, or 1.7 meters. The deer itself stood just under 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters. It’s often called the bush-antlered deer because the antler’s many points look like the branches of a bush.

Eucladoceros lived in Eurasia but we’re not completely sure when it went extinct or why. We don’t really know that much about it at all, in fact, which is surprising because it was such a big animal. It was one of the earliest deer with branching antlers and it probably went extinct before humans encountered it, but we don’t know that for sure either.

Another deer relation is a gigantic animal called the stag moose that lived at the very end of the Pleistocene, or ice age, until around 13,000 years ago. It probably looked a lot like a huge, muscular deer more than a moose, but had moose-like antlers that grew up to 6 1/2 feet across, or 2 meters. The animal itself stood almost six feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 m, which is about the size of the modern moose. It lived in northern North America until melting glaciers allowed other animals to migrate into the area, and the modern moose outcompeted its cousin.

Early deer and deer relations looked a lot different from the deer we’re familiar with today. For instance, Hoplitomeryx. It was a ruminant and therefore related to modern deer, but while it probably looked a lot like a deer, it didn’t have antlers. It had horns. Antlers grow every year from the skull and the animal sheds them later, usually after breeding season. Horns are permanent, usually made of a bony core with a keratin sheath over it.

Hoplitomeryx lived around 11 to 5 million years ago in one small area of Europe. Specifically, it lived on a large island near what is now Italy, although the island is now part of a little peninsula. It probably also lived on other, smaller islands nearby. While some specimens found are quite small, probably due to island dwarfism, some grew as big as the bush-antlered deer, over 5 ½ feet tall, or 1.7 meters.

It had a pair of horns that were shaped like a modern goat’s, that grew from the top of its head and curved backwards. And it had a smaller pair of horns underneath those horns that grew outward. And it had a single horn that was about the same size or bigger and shaped the same as the goat-like horns, but which grew in the middle of the forehead like a really weird unicorn. Also, it had fangs. I am not making this up. It’s sometimes called the five-horned deer for obvious reasons.

We also don’t know much about Hoplitomeryx except that it was really awesome, so let’s move on to our next strange hoofed animal. This one is a suggestion by Page, who wanted to know more about the gerenuk. We talked about it in episode 167 but it’s such an interesting animal that there’s more to learn about it.

The gerenuk is an antelope that lives in East Africa. It’s considered a type of gazelle, although it’s not very closely related to other gazelles. It’s slender with long legs and a long neck, and stands about three feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. The male has a pair of S-shaped, ridged black horns that can grow up to 18 inches long, or 45 cm, while the female doesn’t have horns at all. It’s reddish-brown with a pale belly and a pale stripe down its sides, a short tail, and a white patch around each eye. But as we talked about in episode 167, its legs are extremely thin—so thin that they look like sticks, especially the front legs.

The gerenuk is the only type of antelope that can stand on its hind legs, which it does all the time. It will even use its front legs to pull branches down closer to its mouth while standing on its hind legs. As a result, even though it’s not very big, it can reach leaves that other antelopes can’t. Not only does this mean it can find food where other antelopes can’t, it also means it doesn’t need very much water because it can reach tender leaves with a higher moisture content.

Like many gazelles, the gerenuk marks its territory with scent glands. It has scent glands on its knees, covered with tufts of hair, and scent glands in front of its eyes. So if you see a gerenuk rubbing its knees or face on a branch, that’s why.

Our next hoofed animal is the golden takin, which looks kind of like a musk ox except that it has pale golden fur. But it isn’t a musk ox although it is in the family Bovidae. It’s actually most closely related to sheep but is sometimes referred to as a goat-antelope. It does resemble the mountain goat in some respects, which makes sense because it lives in the Himalayan Mountains in China. As a result, it has a lot of adaptations to intense cold.

It has a thick coat that grows even thicker in winter, with a soft, dense undercoat to trap heat next to the body. It also has large sinus cavities that warm the air it breathes before it reaches the lungs, which means it has a big snoot. Its skin is oily, which acts as a water repellent during rain and snowstorms. In spring it migrates to high elevations, but when winter starts it migrates back down to lower elevations where it’s not quite as cold.

Like the gerenuk, the golden takin will stand on its hind legs to reach leaves, but it has to balance its front legs against something to stay upright. It will eat just about any plant material it can reach, including tree bark, tough evergreen leaves, and bamboo. Yes, bamboo. It sometimes shares the same bamboo forests where pandas live. The golden takin is a strong animal that will sometimes push over small trees so it can eat the leaves. It visits salt licks regularly, and some researchers think it needs the minerals available at salt licks to help neutralize the toxins found in many plants it eats.

Both male and female golden takins have horns, which grow sideways and back from the forehead in a crescent and can be almost three feet long, or 90 cm. It has a compact, muscular build and can stand over four feet tall at its humped shoulder, or around 1.4 m. Baby golden takins are born with dark gold-brown fur that helps camouflage it, but as it ages, it fur grows more and more pale gold. A full-grown golden takin is big enough and strong enough that it doesn’t have many predators. If a bear or wolf threatens it, it can run fast if it needs to or hide in dense underbrush.

Next, let’s learn about an animal requested by both Elaine and Pranav. In the 19th century and earlier, Europeans exploring central Africa kept hearing about an elusive animal that lived deep in the remote forests. It was supposed to be a kind of donkey or zebra, but it was so little-known that some Europeans started calling it the African unicorn because they didn’t even think it existed.

In 1899, a British man named Harry Johnston decided to get to the bottom of the African unicorn mystery. When he asked the Pygmy people about it, they knew exactly what he was talking about and showed him some hoof prints. Like most Europeans at the time, Johnston thought the African unicorn was a zebra, so he was surprised to learn that it had cloven hooves.

The Pygmy people also gave Johnston some strips of skin from the animal, and later he bought two skulls and a complete skin. He sent these to England where the animal was identified as a giraffe relation. It was named Okapia johnstoni, and is known by the name okapi.

The okapi’s discovery by science was as astounding in its way as the coelacanth’s discovery a few decades later. Until it was described in 1901, scientists thought all the giraffe relations had died out long ago. Paleontologists had found fossils that showed how the giraffe evolved from a more antelope-like animal, and suddenly there was a living animal with those same features. It was mind-blowing!

The okapi is the giraffe’s closest living relation, but it doesn’t look much like a giraffe. For one thing, it’s not quite five feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters, and while it does have a long neck, it’s nothing like as long as a giraffe’s. It looks more like an antelope than a giraffe, at least at first glance. It’s dark reddish-brown with pale gray markings on its face, and its lower legs are white and its rump and upper legs are striped black and white. It also has a tail with a tuft at the end like a giraffe’s. Females are usually larger than males.

The male okapi has a pair of ossicones on his head, but they’re not very long compared to giraffe ossicones. As you may remember, an ossicone is a bony projection from the skull that’s covered with skin and hair. The female has little forehead bumps instead of actual ossicones.

The okapi lives in rainforests in central Africa and is a solitary animal. It has a long tongue like a giraffe which it uses to grab leaves. Its tongue is almost as long as the giraffe’s, up to 18 inches long, or 46 cm, whereas the giraffe’s tongue is 20 inches long, or 56 cm. A female okapi has one calf every two years or so, and in the first month of life, the calf doesn’t defecate at all. Not a single baby okapi poop. Some babies may hold it until they’re ten weeks old. Scientists aren’t sure if this same behavior is found in the wild, since okapis are hard to observe in the wild and most behavioral observations come from captive animals, but the hypothesis is that by not defecating, the baby is less likely to attract the attention of leopards who would smell the poops.

For a long time scientists thought the okapi didn’t make any sounds at all, just some whistles and chuffing sounds. It turns out, though, that a mother okapi communicates with her baby with infrasound, which is below the range of human hearing.

Speaking of giraffes, in March of 2021 a study of the giraffe genome was published, focusing on the giraffe’s adaptations for growing so extremely tall. One interesting discovery is that the giraffe has very little sense of smell although it has excellent eyesight. This makes sense considering that the giraffe’s head is so far above the ground. Most scents left by predators will be on or close to the ground, not high up in the air. The giraffe also doesn’t sleep very much and it shows a lot of genetic adaptations for extremely high blood pressure. It needs that high blood pressure to push blood up its long neck to its brain. Researchers are especially interested in the genetics of blood pressure, since high blood pressure in humans is a serious problem that can lead to all sorts of medical issues.

We’ve talked about giraffes before, especially in episode 50, about the tallest animals. Giraffes have extremely long necks and legs and a big male can stand 19.3 feet high, or 5.88 m, measured at the top of his head. Even a short giraffe is over 14 feet tall, or 4.3 meters. To put that into perspective, the average height of a ceiling in an average home is 8 or 9 feet high, or just over 2.5 meters. This means a giraffe could look into an upstairs window to see if you have any giraffe treats, and not only would it not need to stretch to see in, it would probably need to lower its head.

But in 2015, a team of biologists surveying the animals in the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, which is in eastern Africa, noticed a male giraffe that had much shorter legs than usual. They nicknamed him Gimli after one of the dwarf characters from Lord of the Rings, and estimated his height as just over nine feet tall, or about 2.8 meters. Gimli would not be able to peek into an upstairs window, but he was still a fully grown giraffe.

Since dwarfism affects the length of an animal’s limbs, it was obvious that Gimli was actually a dwarf giraffe, the first ever documented.

Then, in 2018, a different team of scientists found a different giraffe in a different place, Namibia in southwest Africa, who was fully grown but also had short legs. He was also a male, nicknamed Nigel, and was hanging around with some other giraffes on a private farm. The farmer had seen Nigel plenty of times over several years. Nigel’s height was estimated at 8 ½ feet tall, or 2.6 meters.

In animals, dwarfism can result from inbreeding, which is sometimes done on purpose by humans trying to breed cute pets. It also just sometimes happens, a random mutation that affects growth hormones. In the wild, an animal with unusually short legs usually doesn’t live very long. Either it can’t run fast enough to escape a predator or it can’t run fast enough to catch prey. Both Gimli and Nigel appear healthy, though, and even a short giraffe is still a large animal that can kick and run pretty fast.

Next, Richard from North Carolina suggested the Arabian oryx, and it is a beautiful and amazing hoofed animal. It’s a large antelope and used to live throughout the Middle East, but by the 1930s, habitat loss and hunting had restricted it to the desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Then oil company employees and Arabian princes both discovered the fun that is to be had when you have a car and a machine gun and can just drive around shooting everything you see. Such fun, driving animals to extinction, I’m being sarcastic of course. The last few Arabian oryx survived to 1972, but they were effectively extinct decades before then.

But. Zoos to the rescue. The Arabian oryx is a beautiful animal that does well in captivity, so lots of zoos had them on display. In 1960 conservationists realized they had to act fast if the oryx wasn’t going to go extinct completely, and they started a captive-breeding project called Operation Oryx at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, which is in the southwestern United States. They managed to capture three of the remaining wild animals and added to the herd with captive-bred oryxes donated by other zoos.

Operation Oryx was such a success that in only twenty years they were able to reintroduce oryx into the wild. Currently there are an estimated 1,200 oryxes in the wild with another 7,000 or so in zoos and conservation centers around the world. It’s still vulnerable, but it’s not extinct.

The oryx is white with dark brown or black markings, including dark legs and a pair of long, straight, slender black horns. Both males and females have these horns, which can grow up to two and a half feet long, or 75 cm. Since the oryx itself only stands a little over three feet high at the shoulder, or 1 meter, the horns are sometimes longer than the animal is tall. The oryx lives in small herds of mixed males and females, which travel widely in their desert habitat to find food and water. During the hot part of the day, the oryx digs a shallow nest under a tree or bush to lie in. It also has a short tufted tail. I just noticed the tail in a picture I’m looking at. It’s so cute.

In the last weird hoofed animals episode, we ended with a pig relation, so we’re going to end this episode with a pig relation too. Richard E. suggested the babirusa, and you definitely need to know about this weird piggy.

The babirusa is native to four islands in Indonesia. It’s related to pigs, but researchers think it split off from other pigs early on because of how different it is. Females have only one pair of teats, for instance, and usually only one piglet is born at a time, sometimes two. Females make a nest of branches to give birth in.

The babirusa also lacks the little bone in the snout that helps most pig species root. The babirusa only roots in very soft mud, but sometimes it digs for roots with its hooves. It eats plants of all kinds, including cracking nuts with its strong jaws, and will eat insect larvae, fruit, mushrooms, and even occasionally fish and small animals when it can catch them. Unlike most pigs, the babirusa is good at standing on its hind legs to reach branches, much like deer, which is why it’s sometimes called the deer-pig. Its stomach is more like a sheep’s than a pig’s, with two sacs that help it digest fibrous plant material, and it has relatively long, slender legs compared to most pigs.

Most pigs have tusks of some kind, but the babirusa’s are really weird. At first glance they’re just surprisingly long tusks that curve up and back, but when you look closer, you see that the upper pair actually grows up through the top of the snout.

The babirusa boar has two pairs of tusks, which are overgrown canine teeth. The lower pair jut out from the mouth the way most pig tusks do. The upper pair are the weird ones. Before a male babirusa is born, the tooth sockets for its upper canines are normal, but gradually they twist around and the teeth grow upward instead of down. They grow right up through the snout, piercing the skin, and then continue to grow up to 17 inches long, or 43 cm, curving backwards toward the head. In at least one case, a tusk has grown so long it’s actually pierced the boar’s skull.

For a long time researchers assumed males used their tusks to fight, but males fight by rearing on their hind legs and kicking each other with their forehooves. Then researchers decided the tusks were actually for defense during fights, to keep a boar from getting its face kicked. But the tusks aren’t actually very strong and don’t appear to be used for much of anything. Most likely, it’s just a display for females.

The babirusa does well in captivity, even becoming quite tame. Many zoos keep them, which is a good thing because they’re becoming more and more endangered as their island habitats are taken over by farming and development.

So that’s it for the second episode about strange hoofed animals. I guarantee you that we’re going to have a third because there are so many.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 195: Black Dogs and Mystery Canids



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

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

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

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

The Horse-Eel

The Hook Island Sea Monster

The Minnesota Iceman

Further reading:

Shuckland

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

The Lore and Legend of the Black Dog

The Mystery of North America’s Black Wolves

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

A short-eared dog AKA the ghost dog:

A Himalayan wolf:

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

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

Show Transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[thunder! unless I forget to add it]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 188: The Hyena and Hyaenodon



This week we’re going to learn about hyenas and the not-related-but-similarly-named hyaenodon! BUT we’ve got a PARENT WARNING WHOOP WHOOP WHOOP *klaxon sounds, red lights flash*

Parents and others who listen with small kiddos, you may want to pre-screen this episode since we go into some details of hyena anatomy that may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

CORRECTION! Thanks to Bal who pointed out that despite what I say on the episode, the hyena is not a canid! Oops, that was a really basic mistake.

Further watching:

Two hyena cubs pester their napping mom until she wakes up and lets them nurse.

A spotted hyena:

TEETH:

An aardwolf. My friend, your ears are very pink:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve actually got a PARENT WARNING. Parents, grandparents, and other adults who listen with younger children may want to pre-screen this episode. I go into detail about some aspects of hyena anatomy and reproduction that may not be appropriate for your kiddo to listen to. This is only a small part near the end of the episode, though, and I’ll give you a heads-up when we reach it in case you want to skip forward or stop listening at that point. To make up for all this, I’ve also released a Patreon episode about animal poop that will go live at the same time as this episode so you can download it just like any other episode.

So, this episode is about hyenas. Thanks to Pranav for suggesting both hyenas and hyaenadon!

The hyena is [NOT] a canid that lives in Africa. There are only four species in its family, with three genera. Although it’s a canid, the hyena has a lot of traits associated with felids, and some traits associated with viverrids [vy-VERrids]. Viverrids are interesting animals that look sort of like cats and sort of like weasels, and one day I need to do a whole episode about them. Hyenas belong to the suborder Feliformia along with cats, viverrids, mongooses, and some other animals, so even though hyenas are canids, they’re very different from wolves and dogs and foxes.

The hyena has a distinctive body shape, with a back that slopes downward to a rounded rump with shorter hind legs. It also has a relatively short tail. Its forequarters are strong while the hindquarters are less powerful. Its neck is short and thick and its face has a short muzzle. The sloping back and rounded rump actually serve an important purpose. If a predator tries to grab a hyena from behind, not only will it find it hard to get a purchase on the rump, the hyena can use its strong front legs to scramble out of a predator’s grip and run away.

But let’s talk about the hyena’s ancestors before we talk about modern hyena. The first hyena ancestor, called Protictitherium, was a tree-dwelling animal with short legs and long body. Protictitherium had retractable claws like a cat and probably mostly ate small animals and birds. It first appears in the fossil record around 18 million years ago, but although its descendants evolved into much larger ground-dwelling animals starting around 17 million years ago, it actually didn’t go extinct until around 4.5 million years ago.

Around 10 million years ago, some hyaenids started to look more doglike than their ancestors, developing into a jackal-like animal that chased its prey through open forests in Europe. And around 6 or 7 million years ago, the first bone-crushing hyaenids developed, which would probably have looked a lot like modern hyenas, but bigger, with a few species as big as a lion.

Hynaeids were doing great throughout Europe and Asia…until other canids made their way to Eurasia from North America. Around 3 or 4 million years ago the first wolf-like canids moved into Europe and almost immediately hyaenids started becoming rarer and rarer in the fossil record as their distant relatives outcompeted them. Almost the only exception was the cave hyena, which lived throughout much of Europe up into Siberia and which primarily killed horses, bison, and woolly rhinoceroses. They also killed wolves, which is probably why the cave hyena didn’t go extinct until around 11,000 years ago when most of its megaherbivore prey also went extinct. We have rock art of cave hyenas made by ancient humans, which means we know it looked a lot like a modern spotted hyena.

Modern hyenas all live in Africa. They have a reputation as a cowardly scavenger, but this isn’t actually the case. While the hyena will scavenge food occasionally, it’s a fierce hunter, especially the spotted hyena. Not only that, it can and will eat every part of the animal, including skin, bones, and hooves.

The only species of hyena that doesn’t have stripes is the spotted hyena, but that’s not the only difference. Let’s look into what makes the spotted hyena so different from its hyena cousins.

The spotted hyena is indeed spotted, although the color and pattern of its coat is variable. Generally, though, it’s yellowish or pale brown with darker spots in an irregular pattern. It’s also the only hyena species that doesn’t have a mane on its neck. It’s a large animal too, up to three feet tall at the shoulder, or 91 cm. Females are generally larger than males.

The spotted hyena has a complicated social life. It lives in sometimes large groups, called clans, with up to 80 hyenas. This isn’t the same as a wolf pack. The spotted hyena’s clan structure is actually very similar to that of some monkeys like baboons and macaques, with an individual’s status in the group coming from who its friends and immediate family members are, not how big or strong it is. Clans are also matriarchal, meaning that females are leaders of the group and are considered more socially important than males. In fact, even the lowest ranking spotted hyena female is more important to the clan than the highest-ranking spotted hyena male.

That brings us to the spotted hyena female’s extraordinary differences from other hyenas, and to our content warning. Bing bing bing, content warning for small ears time! We’re going to go into some details of mating and anatomy that may not be appropriate for everyone. If you want to skip forward about two minutes, you can learn about a living hyena relation and an extinct hyena-like animal at the very end of the episode.

The female spotted hyena has what’s called a pseudo-penis. We’ve mentioned this before in one or two other species, but we need to go into detail about this one because it’s so unusual. The pseudo-penis is formed from the female’s clitoris and doesn’t just look like a penis, it acts like one. The female can actually get an erection. She also urinates through the pseudo-penis. The labia are also fused to form a pseudo-scrotum, which means the entrance to the female’s vagina is blocked. This means that it’s actually difficult for the male to mate with the female, because her pseudo-penis is in the same place that a male’s penis is and he has to mate with her through it.

But things get even more complicated when it’s time for the female to give birth. She has no vaginal opening, remember, just a pseudo-penis. Well, she actually has to give birth through the pseudo-penis, and as she does, the clitoris ruptures because—and this is the worst thing of all—spotted hyena cubs are actually quite large. Females usually give birth to one or two cubs in a litter, but about a quarter of the time, one of the cubs will kill the other within a few weeks.

Whew. I think that covers it. If you didn’t wince and cross your legs protectively during that fun little segment, you are made of sterner stuff than me.

All clear, bing bong. It’s safe for little ears to come back and learn about the aardwolf, an animal that lives in eastern and southern Africa. It’s nocturnal and spends its days in a burrow, sometimes digging a burrow itself but most often just moving into burrows abandoned by other animals. It has black stripes on a yellowish coat, a mane down its neck and back, large ears, and a bushy tail. It’s about the size of a big dog, about 20 inches tall at the shoulders, or 50 cm, but it looks like a small, slender hyena. That’s because it is actually considered a hyena, although it’s not very closely related to other hyenas, and it has evolved to eat mostly insects. It especially likes termites and can eat up to a quarter million termites a night. Its teeth are weak and its tongue is long and sticky.

Let’s finish up with a family of animals called Hyaenodontidae, which means “hyena tooth.” Despite the name, Hyaenodonts weren’t related to hyenas or canids at all. They evolved much earlier and died out about the time that little Protictitherium was climbing around in trees eating birds.

The first hyaenodonts evolved in Africa around 60 million years ago and soon spread into Europe and Asia, and eventually into North America. It was a big carnivore with long, slender jaws, a long tail, and big flat feet sort of like a bear’s paws. There were lots of species, including one that lived along the coast and specialized in eating shellfish, and which was adapted to swim sort of like an otter. But the largest Hyaenodont was Hyaenodon gigas, and it was huge even by modern standards. It stood 4.5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.4 meters.

Hyaenodon had massive jaw muscles that allowed it to bite right through an animal’s skull to kill it. We know because we have a fossil skull of a small cat-like mammal that has puncture wounds that exactly match up to Hyaenodon’s tooth pattern. Hyaenodon’s rear teeth were sharper than its front teeth, though, and it used them to slice its meat into smaller pieces before swallowing it. But it also crushed and ate a lot of bones, just like modern hyenas do. It was probably an ambush predator, and we have a lot of Hyaenodon fossils found in areas that were once watering holes. So even though Hyaenodon had a small brain compared to modern hyenas and other mammals, it was pretty smart about where to find food.

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

Thanks for listening!


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



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

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

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven



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

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

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

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 172: Temnospondyls



This week let’s go back back back in time to more than 300 million years ago, when amphibian-like animals lived in enormous swamps. Don’t be fooled by the word amphibian: many Temnospondyls were really big!

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

And Sclerocephalus, five feet long and full of teeth. This one has a couple of larvae nearby:

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

Mastodonsaurus had nose teeth too and it was way bigger than Nigerpeton, but somehow it just looks goofy instead of cool:

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back into the past, way before the dinosaurs, to look at an order of animals that resembled modern amphibians but weren’t precisely amphibians, or reptiles, or fish. Let’s look at the Temnospondyls.

During the early Carboniferous period, which lasted from about 360 to 300 million years ago, the ocean levels were high, the climate across much of the world was humid and tropical, and the continents were in the process of smushing together to form a huge landmass called Pangea. Much of the land was flooded with warm, shallow water that created enormous swampy areas full of plants and newly evolved trees. These swampy areas, full of decomposing leaves, eventually became coal and peat beds. As the Carboniferous period continued, the climate turned milder and the sea levels dropped, but while the huge swamps remained, many life forms evolved to take advantage of the various habitats and ecological niches they provided.

The armored fish of the Devonian went extinct, replaced by more modern-looking fish, including sharks and the first freshwater fish. The first conifer trees appeared, land snails, dragonflies and other insects, and the first animals that could survive on land for part of the time. This included the Temnospondyls, a numerous and successful order of animals whose fossils have been found worldwide and appear in the fossil record for more than 200 million years. But most people have never heard of them.

Temnospondyls are grouped in the class Amphibia alongside Lissamphibia, which is the order all living amphibians and their ancestors belong to. But researchers aren’t sure if Temnospondyls gave rise to lissamphibians or if they all died out.

The first Temnospondyl fossils were discovered in the early 19th century and early paleontologists immediately started debating what exactly these strange animals were. It was originally classified as a reptile, but as more fossils came to light, it became clear that these weren’t reptiles. Finally it was classified as a subclass of amphibian called Labyrinthodontia, where it remains today, at least for now.

Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians. We know that at least some species had a larval form that was completely aquatic, with fossil evidence of gill arches. Some retained external gills into adulthood the way some salamanders do. But they still had a lot in common with their fish ancestors.

Most Temnospondyls had large heads that were broad and flattened in shape, often with a skull that was roughly triangular. The earliest species had relatively small, weak legs and probably spent most of their time in the water, but it wasn’t long before species with stronger legs developed that probably lived mostly on land.

When you think about amphibian relatives, you probably think these animals were small, maybe the size of a bullfrog. But while some Temnospondyls were small, many grew much larger. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. Let’s look at some individual species of Temnospondyl and get an idea of how varied they were.

Let’s start with a group of temnospondyls with one of the most confusing names ever, Dvinosauria. That may not sound too confusing, but it’s spelled just like dinosauria but with a V after the D. It lived in the late Permian around 260 million years ago, and its fossils have been found in parts of Russia. It was named not to mess with people who keep seeing dvinosaur and thinking dinosaur, but after the Northern Dvina River.

Dvinosaurs were either semi-aquatic or fully aquatic, depending on the species. The genus Dvinosaurus was pretty typical for aquatic Temnospondyls. It had external gills and was fully aquatic, with small legs but a powerful tail for swimming. It grew over three feet long, or around a meter, and probably looked like a big salamander with a big triangular head. It probably ate fish and other small animals. Like many Temnospondyls, it had extra teeth growing from the roof of its mouth to help it hold onto fish. Some paleontologists think it lurked at the bottom of rivers and streams until it saw a fish or other animal approach, at which point it shot upward and grabbed it.

A typical land Temnospondyl was Sclerocephalus, which lived around 300 million years ago in what is now Germany. We have a lot of Sclerocephalus fossils, which means it was probably a successful animal. It was also big, around five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Because we have so many Sclerocephalus fossils, we know a lot more about it than we do other Temnospondyls. Its larval form was aquatic and had a long tail to help it swim. As a juvenile it probably had external gills but as it matured, it spent more and more time on land, using its lungs to breathe. Its tail was shorter as an adult because it didn’t need to swim as often. But it did spend time in the water and retained the lateral line system still found in fish and some amphibians, a sensory organ that detects water movements. It also had a pineal eye that a few animals retain today, notably the reptile Tuatara that we talked about way back in episode three. This third eye was at the top of the skull and was probably only sensitive to light rather than being useful for seeing. As in modern animals that still have a pineal eye, it probably helped regulate behaviors according to the length of days.

We even know exactly what Sclerocephalus ate, because we have fossilized stomach contents in a few cases. It ate fish and amphibians and sometimes smaller Sclerocephaluses, and was probably an opportunistic predator. Like other Temnospondyls it had teeth on its palate, three pairs in its case that grew from the roof of its mouth.

A less typical temnospondyl was the genus Fayella, which lived in what is now Oklahoma in the United States and lived around 270 million years ago, in the early Permian. It grew to about four feet long, or 1.15 meters, and had unusually long legs for a Temnospondyl. It also had a smaller head in proportion to its body compared to most Temnospondyls, and was more lightly built. As a result, it looked more like a reptile or an early synapsid, which as you may remember from episode 119 were proto-mammals that looked like weird reptiles. Researchers think Fayella could run much faster than other Temnospondyls could, which didn’t so much help it catch prey as evade hunting synapsids.

Nigerpeton looked more like your average Temnospondyl, mostly. It lived in what is now the African country of Niger, around 250 million years ago. It was only discovered in the early 2000s and we still don’t have very many fossils so we don’t know exactly how big it was. But its skull was two feet long, or 60 cm, so it was definitely a big animal. It probably looked a lot like a crocodile in many ways, including a long, heavy snout with lots of teeth. Lots of teeth. LOTS of teeth. As with other Temnospondyls, it ate fish and other small, wriggly animals, and to help it catch those fish it had ordinary teeth and extra teeth that grew from the top of the mouth and the lower jaw. Basically it just had a mouthful of teeth. This is true for many Temnospondyls, but Nigerpeton took that one step too far. Two of its extra teeth are referred to as tusks, because they grew upward from the lower jaw, pierced through the roof of the mouth, and emerged from the top of the nose about where you’d expect nostrils to be in a modern animal. Instead of nostrils, NOSE TEETH. Actually, the nostrils were behind the nose teeth. We don’t know enough about Nigerpeton to know what it used these tusks for, but it sure looked cool.

Nigerpeton wasn’t the only Temnospondyl with tusks that emerged from the top of the nose when its mouth was closed. Others had it too, including one of the first Temnospondyls discovered, Mastodonsaurus. Mastodonsaurus was a successful genus of Temnospondyls that lived from about 247 million years ago to 201 million years ago in what is now Europe. Despite its name, Mastodonsaurus was neither a mastodon nor a dinosaur. It was big, though—one species grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Like other Temnospondyls it had a big head and a somewhat short tail. It also had legs that were small and weak, which suggests it was mostly if not completely aquatic, and it ate fish and other small animals.

The most recently living Temnospondyl, which went extinct around 120 million years ago, lived in what is now Australia. Koolasuchus lived in fast-moving streams and filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles, which eventually replaced it after it went extinct. But it didn’t look anything like a crocodile. It had the typical big head of a Temnospondyl, in this case broad and rounded with a blunt nose, but with what are called tabular horns that projected from the rear of the skull, which gave its head a triangular appearance. Plus, it probably grew up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters. But its body was relatively slender compared to the chonky head, which made it look kind of like a really really big tadpole.

We’ll finish with the largest species of Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus. It lived between 299 and 272 million years ago in what is now Brazil, and while it didn’t look much like a modern crocodile, it filled the same ecological niche. It had relatively small legs and a big head like most Temnospondyls, but its snout was slender and elongated like a ghavial’s. It was an aquatic animal and was probably an ambush predator that mostly ate fish.

While we don’t know exactly how big Prionosuchus could grow since we don’t have any complete specimens, the largest skull found measured 5.2 feet long, or 1.6 meters. That’s just the skull. Researchers estimate the animal was 30 feet long, or 9 meters, when it was alive.

But although Prionosuchus was amphibious like other temnospondyls, it retained a lot of features from its fish ancestors. Basically, it looked something like the biggest salamander you could imagine, but with jaws and teeth like a ghavial’s, but inside it was more fish than amphibian. It’s no wonder paleontologists have been trying to figure Temnospondyls out for almost two centuries.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 171: The Animals of St. Kilda



Thanks to Emma for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals that live on the St. Kilda islands off the coast of Scotland!

St. Kilda:

Soay rams (kept on farms, not the feral sheep):

A small flock of Soay sheep (these are from a farm too):

A Boreray ram (on a farm):

A Boreray ewe with her babies (also on a farm, or at least I think so):

The St. Kilda wren (not a sheep):

The St. Kilda field mouse (also not a sheep) is the size of a hamster:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is a suggestion from Emma, who long ago told me about the interesting history and unique animals of the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. I’ve been meaning to cover it ever since, so finally I’m getting around to it after only two years or so.

Emma says, “It’s an amazing little island and sort of a reverse of the usual ‘humans cause extinction’ story. The humans on the island went ‘extinct’, being evacuated from the island partly because increased mainland human contact was bringing illnesses they couldn’t fight without hospitals. Two lots of rad ancient sheep and some unique wrens and mice are happily living there to this day.”

St. Kilda is not one but a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, but the largest island and the only one where people once lived is called Hirta. In 1930, everyone who still lived there moved to the mainland, but by that time hardly anyone remained on St. Kilda anyway. The island probably never had more than a few hundred people in residence at any given time. In 1957 St Kilda was designated as a nature reserve and in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.

Since then, as Emma says, the animals of the islands have mostly been left alone. This includes two breeds of sheep that were left behind on two of the smaller islands when the last residents moved away.

One of these sheep breeds is the Soay, which originally lived on a tiny island called Soay, which actually means “sheep island.” The island of Soay is only about 250 acres in size, or 100 hectares, but that’s not the only place they used to be found. The breed has lived in northern Europe for probably 4,000 years, and was a popular sheep in Britain for centuries. When all the people moved away, 107 sheep living on Soay were moved to Hirta. The sheep on Hirta are feral and receive no care from humans, but they also have basically no predators on the island. They have been studied since 1955 by a small team of scientists and conservationists.

The Soay is a primitive breed of sheep that closely resembles its wild ancestor, the Asiatic mouflon. It’s brown, usually with lighter markings on the face and rump, and the rams often grow a short mane of hair in addition to wool. Rams have dark brown horns and ewes often grow smaller horns too. It also has a short tail. In late spring, Soay sheep shed their fleece naturally instead of needing to be shorn. This is the case with many primitive sheep breeds. Its wool is considered high quality and sought after by handcrafters.

Also like many primitive breeds, the Soay doesn’t have much of a flocking instinct. Soay sheep have been exported from the islands and are kept on farms in many areas for their wool, but if a sheep dog tries to herd a flock of Soay, the poor dog is going to be so frustrated. Soay scatter instead of flocking together. It can also be an aggressive sheep, especially the rams, but it’s also a small breed, with even a big ram rarely heavier than 70 lbs, or 32 kg. And these days, the feral Soay sheep are actually getting smaller overall and have been for the last twenty years. The research team that studies the sheep thinks it’s because climate change has led to shorter, warmer winters, which allows more of the sheep to survive, including smaller sheep that would ordinarily have trouble in cold weather. The smaller sheep breed and their offspring are more likely to be small too, and after twenty years of this the breed overall is smaller than it used to be.

While the Soay used to be a popular breed throughout much of Europe, it’s an at-risk rare breed these days. There are fewer than 1500 breeding ewes registered on farms, in addition to the feral flock on Hirta.

The other breed of St. Kilda sheep is called the Boreray, and it’s also a feral sheep on one of the St. Kilda islands. In this case it lives on the island of Boreray. It’s even rarer than the Soay sheep, the rarest sheep breed in the UK. In 1999 there were only 84 individuals known, but a conservation effort by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has increased the number to nearly 900 breeding ewes as of 2018.

The Boreray is a little smaller than the Soay and shares characteristics with that breed, including a short tail and its fleece shedding naturally in late spring. It’s usually gray or white, although sometimes brown, often with a speckled black face. Its wool is much coarser than the Soay’s and was traditionally used to make tweed fabric or carpets.

But sheep are domesticated animals, feral or not. What about some of the other animals of St. Kilda?

The St. Kilda wren is a subspecies of Eurasian wren that’s found nowhere else in the world. Like other wrens it’s a tiny songbird, brown and gray with a short tail. It was only recognized as a separate subspecies in 1884, and as happened a lot in those days, museum collectors killed so many of them to stuff and mount that the bird nearly went extinct. Fortunately, early conservationists realized the danger in time, and a special Act of Parliament in 1904 protected the bird. After all the people were evacuated from Hirta, a small team of scientists studied the wren. In 1931 68 nesting pairs were counted, and in 2002 230 breeding pairs were counted. That’s still a low population, but since the wren has almost no predators on St. Kilda, that’s a decent number for such a small habitat.

The St. Kilda wren eats insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. The male builds the nest out of dead grass and other plants, moss, and seabird feathers.

This is what the St. Kilda wren sounds like:

[St Kilda wren singing]

Another animal found nowhere else in the world is the St. Kilda field mouse, a subspecies of wood mouse. There used to be another mouse subspecies found only on St. Kilda, the St. Kilda house mouse. Both mice were described in 1899, and both are larger than mainland mice. But because the house mouse is dependent on humans, once everyone evacuated the islands the St. Kilda house mouse went extinct within two years.

But the field mouse was fine, and is common throughout the island of Hirta and at least one other island. It actually moved into the abandoned buildings after the house mice went extinct, since houses are full of little nooks and crannies that mice can use as homes. Researchers think the mouse may have been on the islands for something like a thousand years, arriving with Viking settlers.

The St. Kilda field mouse is twice as large and heavy as mainland mice, probably because it basically has no predators. It’s an omnivore like most other mice, and eats seeds, moss, insects and other small animals, and even scavenges meat from dead sheep and birds.

Many sea birds nest on St. Kilda, including Atlantic puffins and northern gannets. The grey seal started breeding on Hirta after everyone left. But except for the sheep, the mice, and the gray seals coming ashore during breeding season, there are no other mammals living on St. Kilda. There are also no trees, no bees, and a limited number of plants and animals, all due to how remote the islands are. They’re 41 miles, or 66 km, away from the Outer Hebrides, a series of much larger islands off the Scottish coast.

Humans have probably lived on Hirta for two thousand years, maybe longer, and have visited the St. Kilda islands as long as 5,000 years ago. But now that the people are gone, the mice and sheep and birds are free to live their quiet lives. As long as they don’t mind a few curious scientists keeping an eye on them.

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