Episode 384: Dragons Revisited

This week we need to thanks a bunch of listeners for their suggestions: Bowie, Eilee, Pranav, and Yuzu!

Further reading:

Elaborate Komodo dragon armor defends against other dragons

Giant killer lizard fossil shines new light on early Australians

A New Origin for Dragon Folklore?

The Wyvern of Wonderland

The Komodo dragon:

The beautiful tree goanna:

The perentie:

Fossilized scale tree bark looks like reptile scales:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to revisit a popular topic we talked about back in episode 53. That episode was about dragons, including the Komodo dragon. Since then, Bowie has requested to learn more about the Komodo dragon and Eilee and Pranav both suggested an updated dragon episode. We also have a related suggestion from Yuzu, who wants to learn more about goannas in general.

We’ll start with the Komodo dragon, which gets its name because it’s a huge and terrifying monitor lizard. It can grow over 10 feet long, or 3 meters, which means it’s the biggest lizard alive today. It has serrated teeth that can be an inch long, or 2.5 cm, and its skin is covered with bony osteoderms that make it spiky and act as armor. Since the Komodo dragon is the apex predator in its habitat, it only needs armor to protect it from other Komodo dragons.

Fortunately for people who like to hike and have picnics in nature, the Komodo dragon only lives on four small islands in Indonesia in southeast Asia, including the island of Komodo. Young Komodo dragons have no armor and spend most of the time in trees, where they eat insects and other small animals. As the dragon gets older and heavier, it spends more and more time on the ground. Its armor develops at that point and is especially strong on the head. The only patches on the head that don’t have osteoderms are around the eyes and nostrils, the edges of the mouth, and over the pineal eye. That’s an organ on the top of the head that can sense light. Yes, it’s technically a third eye!

The Komodo dragon is an ambush predator. When an animal happens by, the dragon jumps at it and gives it a big bite from its serrated teeth. Not only are its teeth huge and dangerous, its saliva contains venom. It’s very good at killing even a large animal like a wild pig quickly, but if the animal gets away it often dies from venom, infection, and blood loss.

Like a lot of reptiles, the Komodo dragon can swallow food that’s a lot bigger than its mouth. The bones of its jaws are what’s called loosely articulated, meaning the joints can flex to allow the dragon to swallow a goat whole, for instance. Its stomach can also expand to hold a really big meal all at once. After a dragon has swallowed as much as it can hold, it lies around in the sun to digest its food. After its food is digested, which can take days, it horks up a big wad of whatever it can’t digest. This includes hair or feathers, horns, hooves, teeth, and so on, all glued together with mucus.

A Komodo dragon eats anything it can catch, and the bigger the dragon is, the bigger the animals it can catch. One thing Komodo dragons are just fine with eating are other Komodo dragons.

As we mentioned a few minutes ago, the Komodo dragon is a type of monitor lizard, and there are lots of monitor lizards that live throughout much of the warmest parts of the earth, including Australia. Yuzu suggested we talk about the goanna, which is the term for monitor lizards in the genus Varanus, although it’s also a term sometimes used for all monitor lizards. Goannas are more closely related to snakes than to other types of lizard.

Like the Komodo dragon, the goanna will eat pretty much any animal it can catch, and will also scavenge already dead animals. Smaller goannas mostly eat insects, especially the tiny goanna often called the short-tailed pygmy monitor or just the pygmy monitor. Its tail is actually pretty long for its size. It only grows about 8 inches long at most, or 20 cm, and babies are less than the length of your pinkie finger. It spends most of its time underground in a burrow, but comes out to hunt for grasshoppers and other insects, spiders, scorpions, and sometimes frogs and small snakes. Many species of goanna spend the hottest part of the day in a burrow, and some species will hibernate in winter.

Most goannas spend all their time on the ground unless they’re actually underground, but some live in trees. The tree goanna, also called the lace monitor or just lacy, can grow up to seven feet long, or over two meters, but is lightly built to climb around on tree branches looking for food. The tree goanna eats a whole lot of bird eggs, along with whatever animals it can catch in trees or on the ground. It eats a lot of carrion and will even get into trash cans if it smells food. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she digs a hole in the side of a termite nest and lays them in the nest. The termites repair the hole, which hides the eggs, and when the babies hatch, they have lots of termites to eat. The mother goanna keeps watch on the termite nest and once her eggs hatch, she’ll dig into it again to let her babies out.

Genetic testing has discovered that the tree goanna is the closest living relative to the Komodo dragon, but another relative is the biggest goanna alive today in Australia. It’s called the perentie and it can definitely grow up to 8 and a half feet long, or 2.5 meters, and possibly close to 10 feet long, or 3 meters. That’s almost the length of the Komodo dragon.

Long as it is, the perentie isn’t very heavy for its size. It has big claws that allow it to dig quickly, so that if it feels threatened it can dig a burrow and hide in it in only a few minutes. It can also climb trees and is a fast runner. Sometimes it will rear up on its hind legs, propping itself up with its tail, to get a good look around. It’s covered with a maze-like pattern of spots and speckles, and it has a very long neck and a very long tail. Like most monitor lizards, its head is flattened so that it looks a little like a snake’s head. Also like other monitor lizards, it has a long forked tongue that it flicks in and out like a snake to detect the chemical signature of other animals nearby, sort of like smelling but with the tongue.

Also like other monitor lizards, the perentie has a venomous bite. Its venom isn’t all that strong, but you still wouldn’t want to get nipped by one. A big perentie will kill and eat just about anything it can catch, including wombats and small kangaroos. It’s not dangerous to humans, though, and in fact very few people in Australia have ever seen a perentie in the wild. It’s shy and lives in remote areas, mostly in the interior of the country over to the western coast.

There used to be a goanna in Australia that was even bigger than the perentie, but it went extinct around 50,000 years ago. We talked about it briefly in episode 325, but Pranav suggested we learn more about it. It’s called megalania and not only was it bigger than the perentie, it made the Komodo dragon look like a little baby lizard. Megalania may have grown as much as 23 feet long, or 7 meters, although most scientists these days think it wasn’t quite that big. The latest estimates are still pretty big, possibly 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters. It was also heavily built, more like the Komodo dragon than the perentie, so it may have weighed as much as a polar bear. That’s about 1200 pounds, or around 550 kg, but I thought the polar bear comparison was funny. We don’t know for sure how big megalania was because we don’t have a complete skeleton.

Megalania has been classified with the living goannas in the genus Varanus, so it was probably related to the Komodo dragon, although we don’t know exactly how closely. It was probably venomous, and we know its teeth were serrated like the Komodo dragon’s. It lived throughout much of eastern Australia and may have been even more widespread, we just don’t know because we don’t have very many fossils.

Megalania lived alongside another giant monitor lizard in what is now Queensland, the Komodo dragon. That’s right, the Komodo dragon once lived in Australia, although it went extinct there around 300,000 years ago. Megalania went extinct around the time that humans first arrived in Australia, so it’s very possible that the ancestors of today’s Aboriginal Australians encountered it. In 2015, a study was published detailing the discovery of a large goanna osteoderm from a cave system in Queensland. The osteoderm has been dated to about 50,000 years ago and probably belonged to megalania, and some scientists think humans may have been a factor in its extinction, along with climate change.

There are supposedly stories passed down for thousands of years among the Aboriginal Australian peoples that suggest meetings with megalania. I tried hard to find accounts of any of these stories to share, but the sources were always questionable. I did learn that European accounts of the Dreamtime, especially older ones, are inaccurate at best. European colonizers didn’t fully understand the Aboriginal cultures and in many cases weren’t interested in understanding them. They just wanted to collect stories that they would then change to fit the European worldview. This trend continues to the present day, with non-Aboriginal writers changing, misinterpreting, or even straight up inventing Dreamtime stories to fit their own interests. Sometimes that interest is cryptozoology. From what I was able to discover, there really is one aspect of the Dreaming that does apparently include a giant goanna, but that the traditions involved are especially sacred and not meant for outsiders to learn. So it’s none of our business.

As we discussed in episode 53, European stories about dragons were probably inspired by snakes, since early dragons were described as snake-like. Dragon stories in other parts of the world were probably inspired by various local reptiles such as crocodiles. Fossilized bones also played a part, since in the olden days no one knew what dinosaurs were. All anyone knew was that sometimes they found gigantic bones that seemed to be made of stone, and people made up stories to explain them.

Stories about giant reptiles are common throughout much of the world, and in 2020 a study was published suggesting that one of the reasons wasn’t an animal at all. It was a plant, specifically a 300 million year old plant called Lepidodendron, also called the scale tree.

The scale tree wasn’t actually a tree, but it was a really big plant that could grow 160 feet tall, or 50 meters. It’s been extinct for a long time, but it does have living relations called quillworts that kind of look like weird grass.

The scale tree gets its name from the diamond-shaped pattern on its trunk, which looks for all the world like reptile scales. These were just places where leaves once grew, but as the plant got taller, it shed its lower leaves as new ones grew from the top. Different species of the plant had different scale patterns. The study suggests that fossilized pieces of scale tree trunks inspired stories about giant reptiles. Since the plants grew throughout the supercontinent Pangaea and often ended up fossilized in coal beds, their fossils have been found in many different parts of the world.

Let’s finish with a dragon story from England, specifically the village of Sockburn in County Durham. It’s referred to as the Sockburn Worm, since “worm” used to mean any creature that was snakey or worm-shaped in appearance. It’s closely related to the story of the Lambton Worm that we talked about in episode 53.

Once upon a time in the olden days, maybe around 750 years ago, maybe longer ago, Sockburn and the farmland around it were terrorized by a dragon. The dragon had a poisonous breath and would eat anyone it came across, and killed and ate all the livestock it could find. No one could kill it.

Sir John Conyers was a knight who lived in the area and he decided he had to do something. He got dressed in his armor and went to the local church to pray, and said he would give up his only son’s life if it meant killing the dragon. Then he set out to find the dragon.

He didn’t so much find the dragon as the dragon found him. Instead of getting eaten, Sir John drew his magical sword and battled the dragon until finally he lopped its head off with one massive chop. Sir John survived and so did his son.

Centuries later, in 1855, a writer was inspired by the story and wrote a poem based on it. He eventually included the poem in a book called Alice Through the Looking-Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. You may know the poem “The Jabberwock,” and now you know the dragon story that inspired it.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 381: Out of Place Birds

Thanks to Richard from NC, Pranav, and Alexandra for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

ABA Rare Bird Alert

One Reason Migrating Birds Get Lost Is Out of This World

Inside the Amazing Cross-Continent Saga of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

Bird migration: When vagrants become pioneers

A red-cockaded woodpecker:

Steller’s Sea Eagle making a couple of bald eagles look small:

Steller’s sea eagle:

A whole lot of birders showed up to see a European robin that showed up in the Beijing Zoo [photo from the fourth article linked above]:

A robin:

Mandarin ducks:

Richard’s pipit [photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23214345]:

Show transcript:

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

We’re talking about some birds again this week, with a slightly mysterious twist. These are birds that have shown up in places where they shouldn’t be, sometimes way way far from home! Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode and suggesting one of the birds we’re going to talk about, and thanks to Pranav for suggesting we cover more out of place animals.

Last week we talked about some woodpeckers, and I said I thought there was another listener who had suggested the topic. Well, that was Alexandra! Let’s start today’s episode talking about the red-cockaded woodpecker, another bird Alexandra suggested.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is native to the coastal southeastern United States, where it lives in pine forests. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss since the pine forests get smaller every year, and not only does it need old-growth pine forests to survive, it also needs some of the trees to be affected by red heart fungus. The fungus softens the interior wood, which is otherwise very hard, and allows a woodpecker to excavate nesting holes in various trees that can be quite large. The female lays her eggs in the best nesting hole and she and her mate raise the babies together, helped by any of their children from previous nests who don’t have a mate of their own yet. When they don’t have babies, during the day the birds forage together, but at night they each hide in their own little nesting hole to sleep.

It’s a small bird that doesn’t migrate, which is why Beth Miller, a birder in Muskegon, Michigan, couldn’t identify it when she spotted it on July 1, 2022 in some pine trees near a golf course. She took lots of photos and a recording of its calls, which she posted in a birding group to ask for help. She knew the bird had to be a rare visitor of some kind, but when it was identified as a red-cockaded woodpecker, she and nine birder friends went back to the golf course to look for it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the bird again. It was the first time a red-cockaded woodpecker had ever been identified in Michigan, although individual birds do sometimes wander widely.

While bird migration isn’t fully understood, many birds use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to new territories and back again later in the year. Humans can’t sense magnetic fields but birds can, and being able to sense Earth’s magnetic field helps birds navigate even at night or during weather that keeps them from being able to see landmarks.

But sometimes birds get lost, especially young birds who have never migrated before or a bird that gets caught in storm winds that blow it far off course. If a bird shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range, birdwatchers refer to it as a vagrant, and some birders will travel great distances to see vagrant birds.

One interesting note is that birds navigating by the earth’s magnetic field can get confused if the magnetic field is disrupted by geomagnetic storms, including solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. Very recently as this episode goes live, the aurora has been occasionally visible across much of the world. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing a colorful glow or shimmer in the night sky, and it’s usually only visible at or near the poles. This month it was visible in places far away from the poles. Fortunately, a really strong geomagnetic storm like the ones this month can actually make it easier for birds to migrate. Instead of getting a scrambled sense of the earth’s magnetic field, a strong geomagnetic storm can temporarily knock out a bird’s ability to sense the magnetic field at all, and that means it uses landmarks, the position of the stars and sun, and other methods to find its way.

Sometimes a bird just flies the wrong way, like the Steller’s sea eagle that showed up in Alaska at the end of August 2020. Steller’s sea eagle is native to the coast of northeastern Asia and is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, poaching, and overfishing, a real problem if you’re an eagle that eats a whole lot of fish. Only about 4,000 of the birds remain in the wild. It’s a huge eagle, one of the biggest in the world, with a big female having a wingspan over 8 feet across, or almost 2.5 meters. Some unverified reports indicate birds with a wingspan over 9 feet across, or 2.8 meters. It has a huge yellow bill and feet, and is black and white in color. It’s related to the bald eagle but is larger and heavier, and its head is black instead of white.

To an eagle as big as Steller’s sea eagle, the distance between the eastern coast of Russia and the western coast of Alaska is very small, so it’s not all that unusual for birders to see one in Alaska. The difference in 2020 is that the bird was far inland, not on the coast. Then, several months later, a Steller’s sea eagle was reported in Texas. Texas! Very far away from Alaska and the northeastern Asian coast.

No one could definitively say if the Texas bird was the same one seen in Alaska, but a few weeks before there had been a massive storm that could have blown the eagle to San Antonio. It was the first time a wild Steller’s sea eagle had been spotted in Texas.

But the bird wasn’t done traveling. In late June 2021, a ranger in eastern Canada spotted the sea eagle. It was seen by multiple birders and photographers, some of whom got pictures good enough to compare to the Alaska photos from the year before, and it was the same bird! A few months later it was spotted in Nova Scotia, Canada, and in mid-December 2021 it arrived in southern Massachusetts in the United States for a few days. By the end of 2021 it was in Maine.

Since then the eagle appears to divide its time between Maine in the northeastern United States and Newfoundland, Canada, not too far away.

Richard from NC suggested that sightings of Steller’s sea eagle might explain the mystery of Washington’s eagle. I go into detail about Washington’s eagle in the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. There is a rare color morph of Steller’s sea eagle that is almost all black, which matches Audubon’s painting of Washington’s eagle, but Steller’s sea eagle always has a yellow bill, not a dark one as Audubon painted. Still, it’s a very interesting theory that matches a lot better than the theory that Washington’s eagle is just a big juvenile bald eagle.

Eagles are spectacular birds, but even an ordinary bird turns into a celebrity when it shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range. That’s what happened to a European robin at the beginning of 2019. We talked about the European robin back in episode 333. It’s a common bird throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia, but it’s only been documented in Beijing, China three times. The third time was when one showed up in the Beijing Zoo in 2019, at least 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km, away from its usual range. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby in China, and hundreds of birders showed up at the zoo not to see the animals it has on display but to see a little robin that someone in England would barely glance at.

A few months before that, on the other side of the planet, a Mandarin duck showed up in Central Park in New York City. Birders showed up soon after to look at it. The Mandarin duck is a beautiful bird related to the wood duck native to North America, but it’s native to China and other parts of east Asia. The male has a red bill, rusty red face with white markings, and purplish feathers on his sides, while the female is softer and more muted in color. Both males and females have a purplish crest and the male also has a reddish crest on both of his wings that sticks up like a sail when his wings are folded.

In other words, the male in particular is a spectacular duck, and the duck that showed up at Central Park was a male in full breeding plumage, looking his best. Since Mandarin ducks are so attractive and increasingly threatened in the wild, many zoos and private owners keep them, and the Central Park duck did have a band on his leg that indicates he might have been an escaped bird. But no one ever claimed him and in March of 2019 he flew off for good.

Vagrant birds show up in weird places all the time, especially in spring and fall when most migratory birds are on the move. Sometimes a vagrant bird returns to the mistaken area in following years, brings its mate and offspring, and essentially founds a new migratory route. This is what scientists think has happened with several species of songbird that breed in Siberia and migrate to southeast Asia for the winter.

Richard’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird with long legs, a long tail, and a relatively long bill. It’s mainly brown and black, with lighter underparts. It looks like a stretched-out sparrow. It migrates to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and a few other parts of central Asia to nest during the summer, and flies back to India and other parts of southeast Asia to spend the winter. But a small population flies west instead of south and spends the winter in Spain, Italy, and surrounding areas instead of in India.

For a long time scientists thought the birds seen in Europe were just lost. They’re still quite rare in Europe compared to their high population in Asia. Then a team of scientists caught 81 of the birds, installed leg-bands on all of them and GPS loggers on seven of them, and released them again. The birds migrated north to breed, then returned to Europe instead of Asia to spend the winter, where some were caught again and their leg-bands recorded. So just remember that when a bird shows up where it’s not expected, it might not be as lost as people think.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 380: Woodpeckers

Thanks to Joel and Mary for suggesting some really interesting woodpeckers this week!

Further watching:

Rare woodpecker thought extinct spotted in Ohio

The green woodpecker really likes to eat ants [picture by Remyymer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65008314]:

The white-headed woodpecker looks like its face got splashed with paint:

The red-headed woodpecker has the prettiest shade of red [picture by colleen – originally posted to Flickr as Red Headed Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639146]:

The acorn woodpecker looks like it got its face splashed with white paint and then dipped its beak in black paint [picture by Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136903489]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about a type of bird that several people have suggested, the woodpecker! Thanks to Joel and Mary for their suggestions, and I could swear someone else suggested woodpeckers a while back. If that was you, thank you and I’m sorry I didn’t write it down!

It’s funny that we haven’t talked about woodpeckers very often, because they are definitely strange animals. How many animals use their head to hammer holes in wood? The woodpecker has a strong, heavy bill that it uses to drill holes in trees to find hidden insects and other invertebrates. A lot of insects dig little burrows in wood, and the woodpecker hammers away at the wood until it exposes the burrow. Then it has to get the insect or grub out of the burrow without it getting away, so it has a long, sticky tongue with barbs at the end. It can stick its tongue into the burrow and use it to drag the insect out and eat it.

When I say woodpeckers have long tongues, I mean their tongues are way longer than you think. The woodpecker’s skull contains a special cavity that wraps all the way around the brain and back down to the right nostril, and this cavity is where the main part of the tongue is when the woodpecker isn’t actually using it. It also helps cushion the brain and keep it from moving too much while the woodpecker is pecking. The skull itself is lined with spongy bone to soften impacts too.

The woodpecker also has a lot of other adaptations to using its entire head like a hammer. To protect its eyes from debris and pressure damage, it has a thick membrane that it uses to cover the eye, like built-in safety goggles. It has tiny, tough feathers that protect the nostrils from debris, and its nostrils are usually very small and thin too. Even its skin is thicker than that of most birds.

Woodpeckers have weird feet too. Almost all species have four toes, two that point forward, two that point backward. This arrangement is called zygodactyly, and it’s a trait also found in parrots and some other birds, and in chameleons. It allows the woodpecker to climb trees and branches securely and easily. The woodpecker also has a relatively short tail with stiff feathers that it uses to prop itself up against a tree trunk while hammering.

The woodpecker doesn’t just use its hammering ability to find food. It also hammers to communicate with other woodpeckers, the same way other birds use song. Each species has its own pattern of drumming, and the sound can attract a mate or tell rivals that this territory is already taken. When it’s communicating, the woodpecker will drum on different surfaces than when it’s just looking for food. This might be a hollow tree that amplifies the sound, or even an artificial surface. The first time I observed this as a birdwatcher was when I noticed a red-breasted woodpecker hammering repeatedly on a metal light post.

Woodpeckers do make ordinary sounds, though. Mary suggested the European green woodpecker and pointed out that its old name is yaffle, which mimics its call. This is what the green woodpecker sounds like:

[green woodpecker call]

Birders still refer to the sound as yaffling, which is the funniest word I’ve said all day.

The green woodpecker is native to much of Europe and parts of Asia. It has a bright red head and a black mask on its face, and its body is mostly an olive green color with a yellow rump patch. It’s a large bird, with a wingspan up to 20 inches across, or 51 cm. It especially likes to eat ants and spends most of its time on the ground looking for them. When it finds an ant nest, it will use its bill to open the nest up and then it licks up all the yummy ants and larvae with its long sticky tongue. As an example of how long a woodpecker’s tongue is, the green woodpecker has a tongue 4 inches long, or 10 cm, while its entire body is 14 inches long, or 36 cm.

Unlike most woodpeckers, the green woodpecker doesn’t do a lot of drumming or woodpecking. When it does, it’s mostly on very soft or rotten wood, and it’s probably not looking for food but excavating a nest hole to lay eggs in. Its favorite habitat is open woodland, since it can nest and hide in the trees but find lots of ants on the ground.

Joel suggested we learn about the white-headed woodpecker. I’d never heard of that one before, probably because it only lives in mountainous pine forests in parts of the Pacific northwest of Canada and the United States. It’s a glossy black in color with a mostly white head and a streak of bright white on its wings. Males have a red head patch too. It mostly eats pine seeds, which are found in pine cones. The seeds are quite large and the white-headed woodpecker is relatively small, only about 9 inches long, or 23 cm.

It will take a pine seed, wedge it into a crevice in a tree, and break it into bite-sized pieces by hammering it. It also eats insects, but it mainly finds them under the bark of trees, and it will sometimes peck little holes into tree trunks and eat the sap that oozes out. Unlike pretty much every woodpecker known, the white-headed woodpecker’s tongue isn’t especially long, probably because it doesn’t need a long tongue to find pine seeds.

This is what the white-headed woodpecker sounds like:

[white-headed woodpecker call]

One of my favorite birds is the red-headed woodpecker, which has a vibrantly red head and a black and white body that almost looks checkered. It’s native to North America and lives year-round in much of the eastern and central United States, but for some reason it took me years as a birdwatcher before I saw one for the first time. I didn’t know just how beautiful it really is until I saw one in person. Red is my favorite color, and the red-headed woodpecker’s red head is my exact favorite shade of red.

The red-headed woodpecker is about the size of the white-headed woodpecker, or a little larger. It eats lots of insects but will also eat seeds, berries and other fruit, and even the eggs of other birds. It sometimes catches insects on the wing. It’s also one of only a few species of woodpecker that stores food, hiding it in crevices in trees or under the shingles of people’s houses. Occasionally when it catches too many grasshoppers to eat, it will wedge the living grasshoppers in crevices so tightly that the insect is stuck there until the bird comes back when it’s hungry. That’s disturbing.

Another bird that caches food is the acorn woodpecker, which lives in parts of southwestern North America down through Central America. It’s mostly black with white patches on the face and black and white streaks underneath. Males have a red patch on the back of the head too. As you probably guessed from its name, it eats a lot of acorns along with insects, fruit, and tree sap. Because acorns are seasonal foods, only available in the fall, the acorn woodpecker stores acorns to eat later in the year. It hides the acorns in holes and crevices, often pecking little holes in a tree specifically for storage, but as the acorns dry out they take up less space. The bird spends a lot of time throughout the year moving its acorns to better hiding spaces.

The acorn woodpecker lives in small flocks of up to about a dozen or 15 birds. All birds in the flock help raise any babies, and in years where there aren’t very many acorns, only a few of the females in the group will lay eggs. In years where there are lots of acorns, all of the females will usually lay eggs. They all lay their eggs in the same nesting cavity and the babies are raised together.

So why do so many woodpeckers have such bright colors and markings? Many are black and white, often with red or yellow markings on the head or neck. They look conspicuous to us, but the black and white patterning blends in with the pattern of light and shadow under trees. The bright spots of color help attract mates, since a bird with brightly colored feathers shows other birds that they’re healthy. In many species, only the male has a red patch, or the female’s red patch may be smaller than the male’s.

Way back in episode 9 we talked about the ivory-billed woodpecker and some of its close relations. The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct but possible sightings and audio recordings indicate it may still be alive in remote areas of the southeastern United States. Most recently, video footage of a bird spotted in Ohio has the controversy starting up again. I’ve linked to the video in the show notes. The bird in the video is probably just the very similar-looking pileated woodpecker, but the light isn’t good so it’s hard to tell for sure. It’s just barely possible it might actually be an ivory-billed woodpecker. Let’s hope it is an ivory-billed.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 372: Mystery Bovids

Thanks to Will and Måns for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some mystery bovids, or cows and cow relations!

Further reading:

A Book of Creatures: Songòmby

Kouprey: The Ultimate Mystery Mammal

A musk ox (top) and a wild yak (bottom):

A young kouprey bull from the 1930s:

Sculpture of two grown kouprey bulls [photo by Christian Pirkl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73848355]:

A banteng bull (with a cow behind him) [photo taken from this site]:

A qilin/kilin/kirin looking backwards:

The “purple” calf:

The Milka purple cow:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some mystery bovids, or cow relations, suggested by Will and Måns, whose name I am probably mispronouncing.

We’ll start with a mystery about the musk ox, which is not otherwise a mysterious animal. Måns emailed about reading a children’s book about animals that had a picture of a musk ox in the part about the Gobi Desert. The problem is, the musk ox is native to the Arctic and was once found throughout Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. So the question is, was the book wrong or are there really musk oxen in the Gobi Desert?

We’ll start by learning about the musk ox and the Gobi Desert. The musk ox can stand up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters. It has thick, dense, shaggy fur all over, a tiny tail only about four inches long, or 10 cm, and horns that curve down close to the sides of its head and then curve up again at the ends.

The musk ox is well adapted to the cold, which isn’t a surprise since it evolved during the ice ages. Its ancestors lived alongside mammoths, woolly rhinos, and other Pleistocene megafauna. Like many cold-adapted animals, its fur consists of a thick undercoat that keeps it warm, and a much longer layer of fur that protects the softer undercoat. The undercoat is so soft and so good at keeping the animal warm in bitterly cold temperatures that people will sometimes keep musk oxen in order to gather the undercoat in spring when it starts to shed, to use for making clothing and blankets. But it’s definitely not a domesticated animal. It can be aggressive and extremely dangerous.

A warm coat isn’t the musk ox’s only cold adaptation. The hemoglobin in its blood is able to function well even when it’s cold, which isn’t the case for most mammals. It lives in small herds that gather close together in really cold weather to share body heat, and if a predator threatens the herd, the adults will form a ring around the calves, their heads facing outward. Since a musk ox is huge, heavy, and can run surprisingly fast, plus it has horns, if a wolf or other predator is butted by a musk ox it might end up fatally injured.

The main predator of the musk ox is the human, who hunted it almost to extinction by the early 20th century. It was completely extirpated in Alaska but was reintroduced there and in parts of Canada in the late 20th century. Similarly, it was reintroduced to parts of Siberia and even parts of northern Europe, although not all the European introductions were successful.

So what about the Gobi Desert? It’s nowhere near the Arctic. Not all deserts are hot. A desert just has limited rainfall, and the Gobi is a cold desert. Parts of the Gobi are grasslands and parts are sandy or rocky, and it covers a huge expanse of land in central Asia, mainly divided between northern China and southern Mongolia. Some parts of it do get limited rainfall in the summer and limited snowfall and frost in the winter, but for the most part it’s dry and therefore has limited vegetation for animals to eat.

Animals do live in the Gobi, though. The wild Bactrian camel, which has two humps, is found nowhere else in the world and is critically endangered. The Mongolian wild ass lives in parts of the Gobi, as do several species of antelope and gazelle, wild sheep, and ibex. The Gobi bear, which is the rarest bear in the world, also lives in the Gobi, along with smaller animals like hares, foxes, polecats, marmots, and various lizards, snakes, and birds. Occasionally wolves and snow leopards visit parts of the Gobi. So do humans, specifically nomadic herders who travel through parts of the desert to find food for their animals.

Of all the animals found in the Gobi, and in central Asia in general, the musk ox is not listed on any scholarly site I could find. Despite its name, it’s not actually closely related to other cattle and is instead most closely related to goats and sheep. However, a close relation of the domestic cow and its ancestors is the wild yak, the ancestor of the domestic yak. The wild yak lives mostly in the Himalayas these days but was once much more widespread, and the domestic yak is farmed by nomadic herders in the colder, more mountainous parts of the Gobi.

The yak isn’t closely related to the musk ox, but it does have a very similar-looking long, shaggy coat. Its horns point forward and up like cattle horns, but to someone who doesn’t really know much about yaks or musk ox, it would be easy to get the two confused. This seems to be what has happened in the case of the children’s book Måns read and in various non-academic websites. I think we can call this mystery solved.

Next, let’s go on to Will’s suggestion of mystery bovids. The family Bovidae includes not just the domestic cow and its relations but goats, sheep, antelopes, and many other animals with cloven hooves who chew the cud as part of the digestive process–but not deer or giraffes, and not the pronghorn even though people call it an antelope. Many bovids have horns, usually only two but sometimes four or even six, and those horns are never branched. Sometimes only the male has horns, sometimes both the male and female. Bovids don’t have incisors in the front of the upper jaw, only in the lower jaw, and instead has a tough dental pad that helps it grab plants.

One mystery bovid is a creature from Madagascar, called the habeby. It’s supposed to look like a big white sheep with brown or black spots. It has cloven hooves and droopy ears but not horns, and it’s supposed to be nocturnal and never seen in the daytime. Its eyes are very large and staring. It’s shy and fortunately not dangerous. Bovids are almost always diurnal, so a nocturnal bovid would be quite unusual.

Since sheep and other bovids aren’t native to Madagascar, it’s much more likely that the habeby is a type of large lemur that looks enough like a sheep at a distance that people thought it was a sheep. Either it’s extinct now or it lives in such remote areas that it’s never seen anymore.

Another Madagascar mystery animal is called the songòmby, which either looks like a wild ox or a horse depending on the story. Like the habeby it has floppy ears, a spotted coat, and hooves. Some stories say it has a single horn, some stories say it has a pair of horns, and other stories say it has no horns at all. It lives in mountainous areas and can run incredibly fast uphill, but is much slower downhill because its long ears flop over its eyes and it has trouble seeing where it’s going. This is fortunate, because it’s also supposed to eat people.

One clue to the songòmby’s possible real identity comes from some stories that state it always looks backwards over its back, and is only ever seen from the side. This is reminiscent of how the Chinese kilin is often represented, and also explains why the songòmby has a varying number of horns and looks like a cow or horse but is supposed to eat people. The kilin is often depicted as having both hooves and fangs, and may have a single horn, a pair of horns, or no horns at all. Arab traders began stopping in Madagascar around a thousand years ago and would have brought Chinese goods, including some items decorated with kilins. It’s possible that the kilin artwork inspired the story of the songòmby, but it’s also so similar to the habeby in some ways that details of that animal may have been incorporated into the story of the songòmby, or vice versa.

Way back in episode 100 we talked briefly about an animal called the kouprey. It’s a wild ox native to southeast Asia, sometimes called the forest ox. It can stand over six feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and while bulls are dark brown, cows and calves are a lighter brownish-gray. Both have white lower legs with a dark stripe down the front of the front legs. The bull’s horns look like those of a domestic cow or wild yak, but are extremely large and curve forward, but the cow’s horns grow up and back, more like an antelope’s horns. As a bull ages, the tips of his horns start to fray and end up looking almost tassled. A bull also develops a large dewlap as he ages, which in older bulls can actually be so big it touches the ground.

By 1937, when a kouprey was sent to a zoo in Paris, the animal was probably mostly restricted to the forests of Cambodia. Before then it had been completely unknown to science, but after that, European big game hunters went to Cambodia to kill as many as possible. It was already rare and by the 1950s there were probably fewer than 500 individuals left alive. By the 1960s, there were probably no more than 100 animals left alive. The last verified sighting of one was in 1983.

Recently, some scientists have questioned whether the kouprey actually existed at all. Its description sounds a lot like another bovid, the wild banteng. A bull banteng is dark brown or black while the cows are light brown or reddish-brown. Both have white lower legs and a white patch on the rump. Some scientists started to think that either the kouprey was a misidentification of the banteng or the hybrid offspring of a banteng and a domestic cow.

A 2006 genetic study suggested that this was the case, that the kouprey was just a hybrid animal. But a follow-up study, including genetic testing of a kouprey skull that dated back to before cattle were domesticated, came to a different conclusion. The kouprey was a distinct species, not a hybrid animal. The real mystery now is whether it’s still alive or if it has gone extinct in the last 40 years.

We’ll finish with a domestic cow that’s a little bit of a mystery. A popular brand of chocolate in Europe is Milka, and since 1973 many of its advertisements have included a light purple and white cow with a bell around her neck. Well, in 2012 a calf was born in Serbia that actually looked like the Milka purple cow. It was a purple cow!

In January of 2012 a bull calf was born on a small farm in Serbia. There’s not a lot of information available about it, but it looks like it was a breed of cattle called the busa, or maybe a busa cross. The busa is mainly raised in the mountainous parts of Serbia and mostly raised as a meat animal. It’s rare these days but was once extremely popular in the area, so a lot of cattle raised in Serbia have at least some busa ancestry. The busa can be white with darker markings, or a solid color with no white or very little white. It can be red-brown, black, or gray.

In pictures, the purple calf’s mother looks to be black and white. The calf itself is white with markings that look pale blue-gray, almost lilac. The pictures aren’t very good so it’s hard to tell. The farmer was surprised when he saw the calf and called a veterinarian to make sure it was healthy, which it was. The veterinarian suggested the calf’s strange coloration was just a rare color mutation.

As it happens, a blue-gray coloration is common in a variety of busa cattle raised in Macedonia. It’s also a common coloration in other breeds of cattle. A pale version of this color can look almost like a shade of lilac. Since I can’t find a follow-up to the 2012 articles about the calf, it’s probable that as he grew up, his spots darkened to look more gray than purple. The farmer said that he would be keeping the little purple cow instead of slaughtering him to make steaks and hamburgers, so hopefully there’s still a handsome purple and white bull living his best life in the mountains of Serbia.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 368: The Bison

Thanks to Jason for suggesting this week’s topic, the bison!

Further reading:

New research documents domestic cattle genetics in modern bison herds

Higgs Bison: Mysterious Hybrid of Bison and Cattle Hidden in Ice Age Cave Art

A cave painting of steppe bison and other animals:

An American bison [photo by Kim Acker, taken from this site]:

Some European bison [photo by Pryndak Vasyl, taken from this site]:

The bison sound in this episode came from this site.

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about the bison, a suggestion from Jason. There are two species of bison alive today, the American bison and the European bison. Both are sometimes called buffalo while the European bison is sometimes called the wisent. I’m mostly going to call it the wisent too in this episode so I only have to say the word bison 5,000 times instead of 10,000.

Bison are herd animals that can congregate in huge numbers, but these big herds are made up of numerous smaller groups. The smaller groups are made up of a lead female, called a cow, who is usually older, other cows, and all their offspring, called calves. Males, called bulls, live in small bachelor groups. The American bison mostly eats grass while the European bison eats a wider selection of plants in addition to grass.

The bison is a big animal with horns, a shaggy dark brown coat, and a humped shoulder. The American bison’s shoulder is especially humped, which allows for the attachment of strong neck muscles. This allows the animal to clear snow from the ground by swinging its head side to side. The European bison’s hump isn’t as pronounced and it carries its head higher. The bison looks slow and clumsy, but it can actually run up to 35 mph, or 55 km/hour, can swim well, and can jump obstacles that are 5 feet tall, or 1.5 meters.

The American bison can stand over six and a half feet high at the shoulder, or 2 meters, while the European bison stands almost 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters. This is massively huge! Bison are definitely ice age megafauna that once lived alongside mammoths and woolly rhinos, so we’re lucky they’re still around. Both species almost went extinct in recent times and were only saved by a coordinated effort by early conservationists.

The American bison in particular has a sad story. Before European colonizers arrived, bison were widespread throughout North America. Bison live in herds that migrate sometimes long distances to find food, and many of the North American tribes were also migratory to follow the herds, because the bison was an important part of their diet and they also used its hide and other body parts to make items they needed. The colonizers knew that, and they knew that by killing off the bison, the people who depended on bison to live would starve to death. Since bison were also considered sacred, the emotional and societal impact of colonizers killing the animals was also considerable.

In the 19th century, colonizers killed an estimated 50 million bison. A lot of them weren’t even used for anything. People would shoot as many bison as possible from trains and just leave the bodies to rot, and this practice was actually encouraged by the railroads, who advertised these “hunting” trips. The United States government also encouraged the mass killing of bison and even had soldiers go out to kill as many bison as possible. Bison that escaped the coordinated slaughter often caught diseases spread by domestic cattle, and the increased plowing and fencing of prairie land reduced the food available to bison. By 1900, the number of American bison in the world was probably only about 300.

As early as the 1860s people started to sound the alarm about the bison’s impending extinction. Some ranchers kept bison, partly as meat animals and partly to just help stop them from all dying out. The Yellowstone National Park had been established in 1872, and 25 bison survived there, although many others were poached by hunters. Members of various Plains tribes, who had been forced onto reservations by the United States government so the government could give their land to colonizers, collected as many bison as they could to keep them safe.

These days the American bison is out of immediate danger, although its numbers are still very low. Because there were so few bison when conservation efforts started, the genetic diversity is also low. Bison will also hybridize with domestic cattle and the resulting female calves are fertile, so the main goal of modern conservationists is to genetically test herds to determine which bison have a larger percentage of cattle genes, and mainly only breed the ones that have the least. A 2022 study determined that there is no population of American bison alive today that doesn’t have at least a small percentage of cattle genes. Cattle are domesticated animals, and it’s never a good thing when a wild animal ends up with the DNA of a domestic counterpart. Bison need their wildness in order to survive and stay safe.

There are two living subspecies of American bison, the wood bison and the plains bison. I’m happy to report that the scientific name of the plains bison is Bison bison bison. The wood bison mainly lives in Canada, where it’s classified as threatened.

As for the European bison, or wisent, it was once common throughout much of Europe and Asia. As the human population increased after the ice age, the wisent’s numbers decreased until it was mostly restricted to a few areas of Russia, Transylvania, Poland, and Lithuania. Even as early as the 16th century, people were aware it was endangered. Local rulers declared it a protected animal in most of its range.

During World War I, German troops occupying Poland killed hundreds of wisents, and as the troops retreated at the end of the war, they shot as many of the bison as they could find and left them to rot. Only nine individuals remained alive and by 1921 they had died too. By 1927, the very last wisent in the wild was killed by a poacher.

But 12 animals remained, kept in various zoos. In 1923 a preservation society was set up, modeled after the one in the United States that had helped save the American bison from extinction. Poland in particular worked hard to increase the wisent’s numbers and re-introduce it to its forest home, although its efforts were interrupted by World War II. These days the wisent is out of danger of extinction, although like the American bison its numbers are still relatively low.

American and European bison are related and can crossbreed, but they’re not as closely related genetically as was once thought. Genetic studies are ongoing, but it appears that the wisent is most closely related to domestic cattle while the American bison is most closely related to the yak.

We recently talked about the steppe bison in episode 357, which is about mammoth meat. The steppe bison is an ancestor of the American bison and lived throughout Europe and Asia across to North America, during the Pleistocene when Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. It only went extinct around 3,000 years ago. It had much larger horns than modern bison, with a horn spread of almost seven feet across, or over 2 meters.

About 17,000 years ago, in a cave in what is now France, an ancient artist picked up a stick of charcoal and made a drawing of a bison alongside many other bison drawings made by many artists over the years. According to a study published in 2016, there are two different types of bison depicted in the cave. One type is the steppe bison, but the other is distinctly different. After a genetics study of bison in Europe, researchers made a surprising discovery. The second type of bison depicted in the cave is actually a hybrid animal. Hybrids come about when two species of closely related animals interbreed. The more closely related the species are, the more likely they are to interbreed where their territories overlap, and the more likely that the offspring will be fertile. This is exactly what happened toward the end of the Pleistocene, when climate change made it harder for the steppe bison to survive. Instead, a hybrid of steppe bison and the aurochs, the wild ancestor of the domestic cow, not only became common throughout much of Europe, eventually the hybrid species was so numerous that it became a distinct species of its own.

This hybrid bison had small horns and a smaller hump than the steppe bison, although it was still a really big animal. Eventually it gave rise to the modern European bison while the steppe bison gave rise to the antique bison, which itself is the direct ancestor of the American bison. So many bison!

This is what a bison sounds like, specifically an American bison recorded in Yellowstone National Park:

[bison sound]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 366: The Muntjac AKA Deer with Fangs

Thanks to Chuck for suggesting this week’s topic, a weird little deer called the muntjac!

Further reading:

Dam Project Reveals Secret Sanctuary of Vanishing Deer

Wildlife camera trap surveys provide new insights into the occurrence of two threatened Annamite endemics in Viet Nam and Laos

Getting ahead (or two?) with Vietnam’s Viking Deer – the Long-Running Saga of a Slow-Running Mystery Beast

A giant muntjac [photo by Mark Kostich, taken from article linked above]:

A Reeve’s muntjac [photo by Don Southerland, taken from this site]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a suggestion from Chuck, who wanted to learn about a small hoofed animal that I don’t think we’ve ever covered before, the muntjac. It’s a deer, but it’s a very weird deer.

In fact, it’s not just one deer, it’s at least 12 different species that are native to parts of south and southeast Asia, although it used to have a much broader range. Muntjac fossils have been found throughout Europe in particular. It prefers thick forests with lots of water around. Most species live in tropical or subtropical areas, although it can tolerate colder temperatures. It eats leaves, grass, fruit, seeds, and other plant parts, and it will also sometimes eat bird eggs and small animals when it finds them. It will even sometimes eat carrion.

The typical muntjac is small, barely larger than a fox. The largest species, the giant muntjac, stands a little over two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 80 cm, while there are several species of muntjac that don’t grow taller than 15 inches high, or 40 cm. It’s brown or reddish-brown, sometimes with darker or lighter markings depending on species. The muntjac appears hump-backed in shape like a rabbit, since instead of having a mostly level back, its back slopes upward from the shoulders to the rump. Its tail is very short and males grow short antlers that either have no branches or only one branch. Males also have a single pair of sharp, curved fangs that grow down from the upper jaw, more properly called tusks.

The muntjac is usually a solitary animal, with each individual defending a small territory. Both males and females have a large gland near the eye that secretes an oily substance with a strong smell. It also has another pair of scent glands on the forehead. The muntjac rubs its face on the ground to mark the edges of its territory with scent. It can even flare its scent glands open to communicate with other muntjacs by smell more effectively.

Unlike many deer species, the muntjac doesn’t have a particular mating season. Females, called does, can come into season any time of the year, so males are always ready to fight with other males for a doe’s attention. The male loses and regrows his antlers yearly, but mainly he only uses them to push an opponent over. He does the real fighting with his fangs.

There are other types of hoofed animals with fangs. We talked about the musk deer and the chevrotain in episode 116, but even though the chevrotain in particular looks a lot like the muntjac, it’s not closely related to it at all. Neither is the musk deer. In fact, neither the musk deer nor the chevrotain are actually deer, and they’re not even closely related to each other.

The southern red muntjac is one of the smallest species of muntjac known and is fairly common throughout much of southeast Asia, although we don’t know much about it. One thing we do know is that it has the smallest number of chromosomes of any mammal ever studied. Males have 7 diploid chromosomes and females only have 6. In comparison, the common Reeve’s muntjac has 46 diploid chromosomes. Scientists have no idea why there’s so much difference in chromosome count between species, but it works for the muntjac.

Many species of muntjac are common and are doing just fine, but others are endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and the other usual factors we talk about a lot. But the muntjac is small, solitary, and very shy, so there are also species that are probably still waiting to be discovered.

The giant muntjac, also called the large-antlered muntjac, was only discovered in 1994 from a skull found in Vietnam. Scientists were eager to learn more about the animal, especially whether it was still alive or had gone extinct. They talked to hunters and other local people in Vietnam and Laos, and set up camera traps, and went on expeditions searching for it. The hunters said it was still around but the scientists just couldn’t find any. It wasn’t until 1997 that a camera trap took a few pictures of one near a newly constructed dam, which gave everyone hope that this animal could be saved from possible extinction.

Scientists had been searching for the giant muntjac for so long, and had only finally gotten a photograph after 13 years of trying, that they figured it would be an even longer time before they learned more about it. But then, suddenly, only four months after the first pictures of the giant muntjac were captured, a team of conservationists working to relocate animals from the flood area of the new dam ended up capturing 38 of the deer.

When a new dam is constructed across a river or other waterway, it doesn’t flood right away. It takes a long time for the water to back up behind the dam and turn into a lake or large pond, sometimes several years depending on the size of the dam and the waterway. There’s time to relocate animals to higher ground so they’ll be safe, and that’s exactly what Ulrike Streicher and her team were doing in 2007. Not only that, they made sure to transport the animals to a protected area where they’d be safer from hunters. Before they released the giant muntjacs, they had the opportunity to study them and fit some of them with radio collars so the scientists could track where they went. It turned out that the muntjacs settled into their new home just fine, so although the giant muntjac is still classified as critically endangered, at least we know that one small population is doing well.

Another muntjac search involves a camera trap in Vietnam and Laos too, but it’s still an ongoing mystery. The story actually starts back in 1929 when a dead muntjac was sent to the Field Museum in Chicago. The scientists at the museum couldn’t identify it as any known species of muntjac, so they described it in 1932 as Muntiacus rooseveltorum, also called Roosevelt’s muntjac. Modern genetic testing of the specimen determined that it’s a subspecies of Fea’s muntjac that lives in a small area of southern Myanmar and Thailand. Fea’s muntjac itself is so rare and so little known that we don’t even know if it’s extinct or not. As for Roosevelt’s muntjac, no one had seen it since the 1929 specimen was killed and it was presumed extinct.

Then, starting in 2014, a team of scientists conducted surveys in parts of the Annamites, a mountain range along the Vietnam/Laos border. Over the next five or six years, camera traps recorded every animal that passed by them in various remote locations. In addition to lots of animals the scientists expected to see, they found three animals that were either extremely rare or thought extinct. One of these was the Annamite striped rabbit we talked about in episode 254, but the other two were muntjacs.

One of the muntjacs captured on camera was identified as Roosevelt’s muntjac while the other was identified as the Annamite muntjac, a species that was only identified in 1997. The problem is that we only have pictures of the animals, and only a single specimen of Roosevelt’s muntjac to compare the pictures to. Scientists disagree as to whether Roosevelt’s muntjac is for sure still alive and well in the Annamite mountains, or whether the pictures are of a totally different species of muntjac. At least the pictures were taken in a nature reserve, so we know the muntjacs should be safe.

Muntjacs are such strange, attractive animals that rich people used to keep them as pets to show off. Sometimes they would escape into the wild, or were even released on purpose, and that’s why Japan, England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ireland all have invasive populations of Reeve’s muntjac. Reeve’s muntjac is common in southeastern China and Taiwan and only grows a little over a foot high at the shoulder, or maybe half a meter. The male has stubby little antlers and long tusks, so that his tusks are almost as long as his antlers. Cute as the animals are, they’re also bad for the local ecosystems, since they reproduce quickly and eat food that native animals need.

Rumors have circulated for a few decades now of another possible mystery muntjac, usually referred to as the quang khem. Supposedly it’s a large muntjac with unbranched antlers that lives in remote areas of Vietnam. So far it hasn’t been discovered, if it exists at all, but there’s definitely a chance that it’s yet another muntjac that’s just waiting to be spotted by scientists or their camera traps.

The muntjac is sometimes called the barking deer because of its alarm call. This is what a muntjac sounds like:

[muntjac barking sound]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 365: A New Temnospondyl

Let’s take a look at some new findings about the temnospondyls this week!

Further reading:

Ancient giant amphibians swam like crocodiles 250 million years ago

Fossil of Giant Triassic Amphibian Unearthed in Brazil

Kwatisuchus rosai was an early amphibian [picture taken from article linked above]:

Koolasuchus was a weird big-headed boi:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to revisit an animal we talked about way back in episode 172, the temnospondyl. That’s because a new species of temnospondyl has been named that lived about 250 million years ago, and some other new information has been published about temnospondyls in general.

In case you haven’t listened to episode 172 in a while, let’s brush up on some history. The temnospondyls arose about 330 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. Ocean levels were high, the continents were coming together slowly to form the supercontinent Pangaea, and much of the land was flooded with warm, shallow water that created enormous swampy areas full of plants. Naturally, a whole lot of animals evolved to live in the swamps, and the temnospondyls were especially successful.

Temnospondyls were semi-aquatic animals that probably looked a lot like really big, really weird salamanders. This was before modern amphibians evolved, and scientists still aren’t sure if the temnospondyls are the direct ancestors of modern amphibians or just cousins that died out with no living descendants. Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians, 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. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. 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.

Many temnospondyls were small, but some grew really big. The biggest found so far is Prionosuchus, which is only known from fragmentary specimens discovered in Brazil in South America. It had an elongated snout something like a ghavial’s, which is a type of crocodilian that mostly eats fish, and a similar body shape. That’s why its name ends in the word “suchus,” which refers to a crocodile or an animal that resembles a crocodilian. Inside, though, prionosuchus probably had more in common with its fish ancestors than with modern crocodiles, and of course it wasn’t a reptile at all. It was an amphibian, possibly the largest one that’s ever lived. The biggest specimen found so far had a skull that measured just over 5 feet long, or 1.6 meters. That was just the skull! The whole animal, tail and all, might have measured as much as 30 feet long, or about 9 meters, although most paleontologists think it was probably more like 18 feet long, or 5-1/2 meters. That’s still incredibly big, as large as the average saltwater crocodile that lives today.

The resemblance of many temnospondyls to crocodilians is due to convergent evolution, since researchers think a lot of temnospondyls filled the same ecological niche as modern crocodiles. If you’re an ambush predator who spends a lot of time hiding in shallow water waiting for prey to get close enough, the best shape to have is a long body, short legs, a long tail that’s flattened side to side to help you swim, and a big mouth for grabbing, preferably with a lot of teeth. A study published in March of 2023 examined some trace fossils found in South Africa that scientists think were made about 255 million years ago by a temnospondyl. The fossils were found in what had once been a tidal flat or lagoon along the shore of the ancient Karoo Sea. You didn’t need to know it was called the Karoo Sea but I wanted to say it because it sounds like something from a fantasy novel. Truly, we live in a wonderful world. Anyway, there aren’t very many footprints but there are swirly marks made by a long tail and body impressions where the animal settled onto the floor to rest.

From those trace fossils, scientists can learn a lot about how the animal lived and moved. The swirly tail marks show that it used it tail to swim, not its legs. Since there are hardly any footprints, it probably kept its legs folded back against its body while it was swimming. When it stopped to rest, it may have been watching for potential prey approaching from above, since its eyes were situated on the top of its head to allow it to see upward easily. All these traits are also seen in crocodiles even though temnospondyls aren’t related to crocodilians at all.

Other big temnospondyls that filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles were species in the family Benthosuchidae. Some grew over 8 feet long, or 2.5 meters. That may not seem very big compared to a dinosaur or a whale, but this is your reminder that it was an early amphibian, and that amphibians are usually little guys, like frogs and newts.

The newly discovered fossil I mentioned at the beginning of this episode has been identified as a member of the family Benthosuchidae. It’s been named Kwatisuchus rosai and was discovered in Brazil in 2022. That’s a big deal, because while temnospondyl fossils have been found throughout the world, until Kwatisuchus, benthosuchids have only been found in eastern Europe. It was five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and it was probably an ambush predator that mostly ate fish.

Kwatisuchus lived only a few million years after the end-Permian extinction event, also called the Great Dying, which we talked about in episode 227. That extinction event wiped out entire orders of animals and plants. Temnospondyls in general survived the Great Dying and hung on for another 100 million years afterwards.

The last temnospondyl that lived, as far as the fossil record shows, was Koolasuchus. It lived in what is now Australia and went extinct about 120 million years ago. This is a lot more recent than most temnospondyls, so much so that when it was first discovered, scientists at first didn’t think it could be a temnospondyl. It was only described in 1997, although it was first discovered in 1978.

Not only was Koolasuchus the most recently living temnospondyl, it was also big and heavy and very weird-looking. It was about 10 feet long, or about 3 meters, and might have weighed as much as 1,100 lbs, or 500 kg. It lived in fast-moving streams and filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles, which eventually replaced it after it went extinct.

Like its relations, Koolasuchus had a roughly crocodile-shaped body with short legs and a fairly long tail, but its head was almost as big as its body. Most temnospondyls had big heads, and Koolasuchus’s was broad and rounded with a blunt nose. It also had what are called tabular horns that projected from the rear of the skull, which gave its head a triangular appearance. Its body was relatively slender compared to the chonky head, which made it look kind of like a really really big tadpole.

Remember, as an amphibian, Koolasuchus would have laid eggs that hatched into a larval form the same way frogs do today. We have a lot of larval temnospondyl fossils and even some fossilized eggs that paleontologists think were laid by a temnospondyl, which were attached to water plants the same way many species of frog do today. Larval temnospondyls did look a lot like tadpoles. In other words, Koolasuchus looked like a tadpole in shape but its larval form was also probably tadpole-like. Extra, extra tadpole-shaped.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 357: When Scientists Ate Mammoth Meat

This week we’re going to talk about stories of scientists, explorers, and other modern people eating meat from long-dead extinct animals. Did it ever really happen?

Check out the great new podcast Herbarium of the Bizarre! I highly recommend it even though they don’t eat any mammoth meat.

Further reading:

Was frozen mammoth or giant ground sloth served for dinner at The Explorers Club?

Study Proves the Explorers Club Didn’t Really Eat Mammoth at 1950s New York Dinner

Company Serves World’s First ‘Mammoth’ Meatball, but Nobody Is Allowed to Eat It

Don’t eat me bro:

Blue Babe, a steppe bison mummy found in Alaska:

Show transcript:

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

We’ve talked about mammoths and other ice age megafauna plenty of times before, but this week we’re going to learn something specific and really weird about these animals, although it’s more accurate to say we’re going to learn how weird humans are.

You may have heard this story before, or something similar to this story. A group of scientists in Siberia or Alaska have unearthed a mammoth carcass that’s been frozen in permafrost for at least 25,000 years. It’s in such good shape that the meat looks as fresh as a fancy restaurant steak that’s ready to go on the grill. At the end of a long day of using pickaxes to dig the mammoth out of ground frozen as solid as rock, the scientists are so hungry that when someone suggests they actually grill some mammoth meat, they all think it’s a good idea. The meat turns out to taste as good as it looks. Everyone has a big steak dinner, even the camp dogs, and when the expedition ends they not only have a mammoth to put on display in their museum, they have a great story to tell about a meal no human has eaten for thousands of years.

You may even have come across an event that inspired this particular story. The incredibly well preserved 44,000 year old Berezovsky mammoth was discovered in Russia in 1900 and excavated in 1901, and it’s now on display in the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg. Rumors persisted for years that the expedition members ate some of the mammoth meat, but while we don’t know exactly what happened, definitely no one actually sat down to have a yummy meal of mammoth steak.

It turns out that the meat did look appetizing when thawed, but stank like old roadkill. The expedition erected a big tent over the dig site as they excavated the carcass, which was a slow process in 1901, and the smell became so bad that the expedition members had to take frequent breaks and leave the tent for fresh air.

Apparently the scientists got drunk one night and dared each other to try a bite of the meat, but even after they practically covered it in pepper to disguise the taste, no one could force any down. One man might have managed to eat a single bite, but reports vary. They fed the meat to the camp dogs instead, who were just fine. Dogs and wolves have short, fast digestive tracts and can tolerate eating foods that would make humans very sick.

But that’s not the only story of modern humans eating meat from frozen mammoth carcasses. It supposedly happened on January 13, 1951 at the Roosevelt Hotel’s grand ballroom in New York City. A group called the Explorers Club met for their annual fancy dinner that evening, and as always, the menu contained lots of exotic foods. The main course has gone down in history as being slices of mammoth meat from a 250,000-year-old carcass found in Alaska.

That’s where things get confusing, though, because supposedly the main course was megatherium meat found in Alaska. Megatherium was a giant ground sloth that hasn’t ever been found frozen in permafrost at all, certainly not in Alaska. It lived in South America. However, the Christian Science Monitor magazine thought megatherium was another word for mammoth and reported that the group was served mammoth meat.

Some of the Explorers Club members genuinely thought they were dining on megatherium. Some may have thought it was mammoth. The club’s press release just said “prehistoric meat,” which doesn’t sound very appetizing.

An Explorers Club member who couldn’t attend the dinner asked that his portion be saved for him in a bottle of formaldehyde that he provided. This was done, and the promoter himself, Wendell Phillips Dodge, better known as Mae West’s one-time film agent, filled out the supplied specimen card as “megatherium meat.” The club member put his bottled meat on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked.

There the bottle stayed until 2001, when it ended up at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 2014, a couple of Yale students ran DNA tests on the meat.

As you may have already guessed, the meat wasn’t from a mammoth or a giant ground sloth. It’s meat from the decidedly not extinct green sea turtle, although the green sea turtle is endangered and protected these days, so don’t eat it. Since green sea turtle soup was also served at the meal, it’s probable that the leftover turtle meat was called megatherium meat as a sort of joke. Dodge even published a statement after the dinner that he’d discovered how to turn green sea turtle into giant sloth meat. But by then the story of mammoth meat being served at the dinner had already passed into history.

But while we don’t know if anyone in modern times has eaten frozen mammoth meat, we do know for certain that a group of scientists did eat the meat of a mummified steppe bison that died around 36,000 years ago.

The bison was discovered in 1979 in Alaska and was nicknamed Blue Babe, both from the folktales of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyon and his pet, Babe the Blue Ox, and because the mummy was coated in crystals of vivianite, which turns blue when exposed to oxygen. Eventually Blue Babe was taxidermied and put on display in the University of Alaska Museum at Fairbanks.

At some point, the team in charge of the specimen decided to try some of its meat in a stew, which from all accounts turned out okay and didn’t make anyone sick. The scientists examined the meat carefully before deciding to cook and eat it, and decided that it was basically freezer-burned but not actually rotten.

Dale Guthrie was part of the Blue Babe excavation team. I’ll quote the relevant paragraph from page 29 of her booklet Blue Babe. The Bjorn Kjurten mentioned in the quote is the man who helped preserve the mummy, and he was also the guy who interviewed one of the Russian scientists who tried to eat mammoth meat with pepper.

“To celebrate Eirich’s work and the new Blue Babe, we decided to cook a bison stew. A marvelous bit of luck had brought Bjorn Kjurten to Fairbanks for guest lectures, and we invited other friends who were game enough to try the stew. Spring was underway. With a good burgundy to brave the rather muddy tone of the dish, we toasted the past and present in the long evening twilight, a taste of the Pleistocene with friends who shared and added to it with their talents and imagination. It was a special evening.”

Guthrie reported that the meat wasn’t very good, but that anything is edible if you use enough onions.

In March of 2023, a company that produces lab-grown meat for human consumption made a giant meatball grown from mammoth DNA. They displayed it as a way to advertise the possibilities of lab-grown meat, but because this particular meat hasn’t been tested to make sure it’s safe for people to eat, no one was allowed to eat it. But maybe in the future, you’ll be able to order a mammoth steak from your local restaurant. Let me know what it tastes like.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 351: The Bunyip and the Kelpie

Thanks to Will and Henry for their suggestions this week! This episode is two bats out of five on the spookiness scale for monster month, so it’s only a little spooky.

Further reading:

Does the Bunyip Really Haunt the Australian Wetlands?

A map and drawing of the original earth carving of a bunyip, from the mid-19th century:

An elephant seal can really look like a monster:

So can a leopard seal [photo by Greg Barras and taken from this site]:

Show transcript:

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

This week, as we get closer and closer to Halloween, we’re taking a break from spooky bigfoot monsters. Instead, we’re in the water with some spooky monsters suggested by Henry and Will! This episode is rated two bats out of five on our spookiness scale, so it’s not too scary.

We’ll start with Will’s suggestion, the bunyip. We talked about it a long, long time ago in episode 36, so it’s definitely time to revisit it.

The bunyip is supposed to be a monster that attacks and eats people who come too near the waterholes or lagoons where it lives. It’s sometimes said to be gray and covered with feathers, or is described as a humongous starfish or snake, or is supposed to be yellow with black stripes, but the earliest reports in English, back in 1812, describe it as looking like a huge black seal. It was supposed to warn people away with a terrifying bellow or roar.

By about the 1850s the word bunyip had been adopted into Australian English as a term meaning something like humbug or poser. As early as 1933, at least one non-Aboriginal person suggested that the bunyip was inspired by seals that sometimes come up into rivers. If someone who had never seen or heard of a seal before saw one up close, it would definitely look like a monster.

That’s mainly what we talked about in episode 36. An Aboriginal sacred site near Ararat, Victoria once had the outline of a bunyip carved into the ground and the turf removed from within the figure. Every year the local indigenous people would gather to re-carve the figure so it wouldn’t become overgrown, because it symbolized an important event. At that spot, two brothers had been attacked by a bunyip. It killed one of the men and the other speared the bunyip and killed it. When he brought his family and others back to retrieve his brother’s body, they traced around the bunyip’s body.

The bunyip carving was 26 feet long, or 8 meters. Unfortunately it’s long gone, since eventually the last Aborigine who was part of the ritual died sometime in the 1850s and the site was fenced off for cattle grazing. But we have a drawing of the geoglyph from 1867. A copy of it is in the show notes. It’s generally taken to be a two-legged sea serpent type monster with a small head and a relatively short, thick tail. Some people think it represents a bird like an emu.

But if you turn it around, with the small head being the end of a tail, and the blunt tail being a head, suddenly it makes sense. It’s the shape of a seal.

The Southern elephant seal lives around the Antarctic, but is a rare visitor to Australia. It’s also enormous, twice the size of a walrus, six or seven times heavier than a Polar bear. The males can grow over 20 feet long, or over six meters, while females are typically about half that length. The male also has an inflatable proboscis which allows him to make a roaring or grunting sound, although he usually only does this when he’s about to fight another male. This is what it sounds like:

[southern elephant seal sound]

The leopard seal also lives in the Antarctic Ocean but sometimes it’s found around Australia, especially the western coast. It’s not as big as the elephant seal but it can grow up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters, the size of a walrus although it’s not as heavy. It’s an active, streamlined animal with large jaws. Its teeth that lock together to allow it to filter small animals from the water by pushing the water out of its mouth through its teeth and swallowing any tiny food that remains in its mouth. In addition to filter feeding, the leopard seal can kill and eat fish and even large animals like penguins and even other species of seal, including young southern elephant seals. Its only natural predator is the orca. It’s a fast swimmer with large front flippers to help it maneuver. It’s also quite vocal, especially the males, and even though it mostly makes sounds underwater, they’re often loud enough to hear above the water too. This is what a leopard seal sounds like (admittedly it does not sound scary, unless perhaps you are a small fish):

[leopard seal sound]

Even though the bunyip carving was bigger than the largest known leopard seal or southern elephant seal, it’s possible the carving was enlarged by accident over the years. Then again, maybe there really was a truly enormous seal or other animal that attacked two brothers centuries ago. But the bunyip is much more than this one event.

“Bunyip” isn’t even the word that all Aboriginal Australians use for this monster, it’s just the one that got picked up by English speakers and popularized. It probably came from the word “banib” from the Wemba-Wemba language spoken around what is now Victoria.

The monster known as the bunyip in English is a creature of folklore, religion, history, and storytelling to the people whose ancestors have lived in Australia for probably 50,000 years. That’s an astounding amount of time, and naturally that means that the cultures of Aboriginal Australians are complex. All this is complicated because of how disrupted the Aboriginal cultures were when Europeans showed up and decided that they were just going to take Australia for themselves, leading to the often-deliberate and sometimes accidental destruction of the ancient cultures they encountered.

One aspect of the bunyip story is similar to many of the monster stories we’ve talked about this month. It was often used as a way to keep children away from dangerous places, especially water. A little kid might not understand that a placid-looking pond can be dangerous, but they do understand that monsters are scary.

That’s the case for our other monster this week, the kelpie. That’s Henry’s suggestion, and one that we talked about briefly in episode 317. The kelpie is a Scottish water spirit that’s supposed to appear as a pony wandering by itself, but if someone tries to catch the pony or get on its back to ride it, suddenly it drags the person into the water and either drowns them or eats them.

The story comes from the olden days when it was common to see ponies wandering around loose in Scotland and other parts of the British Isles. Some of the ponies in these areas were semi-feral, meaning they lived a lot of the time like wild animals. Some ponies were kept in stables and farmyards as working animals, but others were allowed to roam around and feed themselves as they liked. The problem is that many places where these ponies lived could be dangerous, especially boggy areas, swift-moving rivers, or lochs with deep water.

A typical kelpie story goes like this. Once some children were playing near the local loch when they saw a beautiful gray pony grazing by itself near the water. All the children wanted to ride the pony, so they climbed onto its back. Even though there were eight children, somehow they all fit on its back, all but the youngest boy who wasn’t so sure that this was a good idea. He’d been told never to go near strange ponies near the water for fear of kelpies. The other children jeered at him and dared him to climb up. Against his better judgment, he started to do so but as soon as he brushed the pony’s side with one finger he realized that finger was stuck fast to the animal. He stopped but it was too late. The kelpie, for of course that’s what it was, took off at a gallop toward the water. The children on its back screamed and realized they were also stuck fast and couldn’t jump off the pony even when it plunged into the water. Meanwhile, the youngest boy was dragged into the water too by his stuck finger.

Fortunately for him, the youngest boy had a pen-knife with him. He took it out of his pocket with his free hand and cut his own finger off, freeing him from the kelpie just in time. All the other children were drowned, but the youngest was able to swim to shore and run home to safety, but for the rest of his life he only had nine fingers.

And that’s why this episode is two bats on the spookiness scale instead of just one. Next week is our big Halloween episode, so be prepared for a whole lot of spookiness, and while you’re at it, it’s probably best to stay away from the water and any strange ponies you encounter.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 349: The Masked Monkey-Man

Thanks to Pranav for suggesting one of the monsters we’re talking about this week! This episode is rated three out of five bats on our spookiness scale.

Further reading:

The Return of Spring-Heeled Jack

Show transcript:

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

As monster month continues, this week we have a really spooky episode on a topic Pranav suggested a long time ago. I’m rating it three out of five bats, meaning that if you’re one of our younger listeners, you might want to skip this one or make sure to listen to it in the daytime with your favorite grown-ups around you. It’s about the monkey-man of New Delhi, but we’re also going to talk about one of my favorite monsters too as part of it.

In May of 2001, several families made a strange complaint to the police in the city of Ghaziabad in India, near the capital city of New Delhi. A masked man had sneaked into their homes and pushed and scratched people before running away into the darkness. No one was badly injured, but they were definitely scared.

Then other people started reporting something similar in parts of East Delhi. People were left with scratches and bruises caused by a masked man, according to some witnesses. But others said they were attacked by a monkey.

As the reports flooded in over the next few days, the reports got stranger and stranger. The attacker was said to be a man with a monkey-like face, a big monkey wearing skin-tight clothes and a helmet, a creature with black fur and glowing cat eyes, even a robot with metal claws. It could reportedly jump incredibly high and even disappear. No one could agree on what the attacker looked like, but before long everyone was jumpy and ready to run if they even thought the strange creature was nearby. This sadly led to at least two people dying on different occasions when they panicked and tripped down stairs.

The police tried their best to find the culprit, but it was always gone before they arrived. Meanwhile, the news media exaggerated the reports and whipped people into a frenzy of fear. But despite all the sightings, no one ever got even a blurry photo of the so-called monkey-man. When the police questioned people who were supposedly attacked, most of them admitted that they hadn’t really seen anything. Often they only felt the presence of the monkey-man, and later noticed bruises or scratches that might have been caused by ordinary events during the day.

Weird as all this sounds, it isn’t the first time such a strange situation has happened in a big city. In 1837, in London, England, a very similar creature caused a very similar panic. The main difference is that instead of a monkey-man, the London monster was more like a devil, sometimes said to have horns and bat wings. He was called spring-heeled Jack.

Spring-heeled Jack got his nickname because he was supposed to be able to jump incredibly high, as though he had springs in his boots. Some reports said the creature had claws, possibly metal ones, that he could shoot sparks or blue fire from his mouth, that he had glowing red eyes, and that his hands felt cold and clammy like a corpse. Some people even referred to him as a ghost.

The monster was supposed to have attacked young women in particular, scratching them with his claws. In the most famous case, a teenaged girl named Jane Alsop was at home in February 1838 when someone knocked on the door and shouted that he was a police officer who had caught spring-heeled Jack! The officer asked for a light, since it was a dark evening, but when Jane brought a candle outside, instead of meeting a valiant police officer who had caught a monster, she only encountered the monster himself. Spring-heeled Jack grabbed her by the neck!

With the help of her sisters, who heard her screams, Jane was able to tear herself away from the monster with only some scratches on her arms and neck. Spring-heeled Jack bounded away into the night. Another encounter only nine days later happened to eighteen-year-old Lucy Scales, who was returning home with her sister in the evening. As they passed an alley, a man wearing a large black cloak jumped out at Lucy, spat blue flame into her face, and hurried away when she collapsed in shock.

As in India over 150 years later, the newspapers printed sensationalized reports of the attacks that made things even worse. The police arrested various men at different times, but there was no evidence that any of them had attacked the women or had dressed up as spring-heeled Jack. The scratches and bruises reported by victims weren’t actually that bad, and might have been caused by anything. In the end, the reports gradually stopped, although there was a brief revival of reports in the 1870s, over 30 years later.

So what’s going on here? Could spring-heeled Jack and the monkey-man of New Delhi be reports of the same creature or entity, with details differing between the two monsters because of the cultural differences of people reporting those details? Where people in modern India might think they see a monkey-man, because monkeys are common in India, people in old-timey England might have though they saw a demonic man since devils and demons were a common aspect of English culture at the time.

Let’s look at the details that both monsters share. Both are mostly described as being human-like in shape. Both walk on two legs, have two arms and a head with human-like features, or at least primate-like features. This argues that the monsters must be some sort of primate. Spring-heeled Jack in particular was always mistaken for an ordinary man at first, so instead of a monkey, he must have been a great ape, and more likely a hominin, or human or human relation. The reports of the monkey-man of New Delhi are less detailed and more varied, but the initial reports and many later ones called him a man, meaning a human male.

In other words, logically both monsters can’t be extraterrestrial creatures or they wouldn’t look and act so similar to earth creatures. Both also had physical aspects, able to interact with people and things normally, so even though some people called spring-heeled Jack a ghost, he actually seemed to be a living creature. And both seemed to be human, or at least human-like.

Maybe the monsters in both cases were just humans.

Some historians think that both the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack weren’t real monsters at all but urban legends, and most if not all of the reports were caused by mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is a real condition, although it’s rare, where a group of people become convinced that they’re in danger in some way despite a lack of real evidence. Sometimes the group of people will think they’ve been exposed to a dangerous chemical or poison, and will actually show physical symptoms of illness. The symptoms go away after a while with no lasting health issues, but for the people who feel sick, it’s completely real and very scary.

Mass hysteria happens when rumors of danger get repeated so much that people start to believe the danger even though there’s no evidence that it exists. Newspaper and social media reports contribute to the feeling that danger is imminent, and before long everyone’s jumpy and ready to believe any ridiculous story they hear.

In the case of spring-heeled Jack, the very first reports may have been real attacks on people by someone who was trying to scare them or even rob them. Once rumors and newspaper reports got started, before long people were convinced that a dangerous monster was bouncing around in London terrorizing people.

As for the monkey-man, there are many species of monkey that live in India, including some that have moved into cities as cities grow larger and the wilderness areas grow smaller. As many as 40,000 monkeys live in New Delhi alone, mostly rhesus macaques that often steal food, phones, and other items from people. It’s a brown or gray monkey with a pink face and a short tail, and in its natural habitat it spends most of its time in treetops. The rhesus macaque can walk on its hind legs pretty well, but it’s not very big, rarely weighing more than a domestic cat. It eats fruit and other plant material, and while it can be aggressive to humans, most of the time it’s not dangerous. Not only that, but people who live in Delhi and other cities are familiar with the macaques and aren’t afraid of them.

In other words, it’s not very likely that the monkey-man of New Delhi was an actual monkey. The initial reports might have been of a man who was trying to rob people’s homes, or it might even have started when someone had a bad dream. After that, rumors and media accounts made people think they were in danger from the monster.

The next time you start to hear rumors that people are in danger, and the rumors get wilder and wilder, remember the monkey-man and spring-heeled Jack. Take a moment to look at the situation logically, and decide if it’s more likely that a weird monster with metal claws and the ability to jump as high as a rooftop is really running around scaring people, or if that could be an urban legend. Urban legends are fun, but you don’t have to be afraid of them.

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

Thanks for listening!