Category Archives: Europe

Episode 188: The Hyena and Hyaenodon



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

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

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

Further watching:

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

A spotted hyena:

TEETH:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


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



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

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

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven



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

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

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

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 172: Temnospondyls



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

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

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

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

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

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 171: The Animals of St. Kilda



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

St. Kilda:

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

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

A Boreray ram (on a farm):

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

The St. Kilda wren (not a sheep):

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the St. Kilda wren sounds like:

[St Kilda wren singing]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 166: The Domestic Cat



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

Further listening:

Weird Dog Breeds – an unlocked Patreon episode

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

The African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat:

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

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

The big friendly Maine Coon cat:

The Norwegian forest cat SO FLUFFY:

The surprised-looking Singapura cat:

The hairless sphynx breed (with sweater):

The Madagascar forest cat:

The European wildcat:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cat meowing]

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

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

[cat purring]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 165: Furry Fish



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

Further reading:

Mirapinna esau – a Furry Fish from the Azores

The so-called fur-bearing trout:

A hairy frogfish:

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 161: Strange Bird Sounds 2



I still have a cold, so let’s let some birds do part of the talking in this episode about more weird bird calls!

Further reading:

Listen to the Loudest Bird Ever Recorded

Further listening/watching:

A video of the screaming piha. You need to see this.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a real bird, and an adorable one too:

The mute swan is not actually mute:

The white bellbird is the loudest bird ever recorded (photo by Anselmo d’Affonseca):

The screaming piha is hilariously loud. Left, sitting like a normal bird. Right, screaming:

Show transcript:

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

I still have this rotten cold, although I’m getting over it. As you can hear, my voice is pretty messed up, so for this episode I’ll let birds do some of the talking for me. Yes, it’s another weird bird calls episode!

We’ll start with this cute little call:

[yellow-bellied sapsucker call]

That’s not a dog’s squeaky toy, it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, that’s a real bird. It’s a type of woodpecker that lives in much of eastern and northern North America, breeding in Canada and spending winters in the eastern United States and Mexico. I get them in my yard sometimes. The sapsucker will also drum on dead trees and other items to make a loud sound to communicate with other sapsuckers.

It mostly eats tree sap, but it also eats berries, small insects, and fruit. To get the tree sap, it drills small holes in tree bark, usually in neat rows, and licks up the sap that oozes from the holes. If you ever see a tree with rows of little holes in the bark, that was done by a sapsucker. It can sometimes even kill trees this way, but for the most part it doesn’t hurt the tree unless the tree is already dying.

Males and females both forage for insects to feed their babies. They usually dip the insects in tree sap before feeding them to the chicks. Yummy!

Next up is this little grunty call:

[mute swan call]

Maybe it’s not exciting or loud, but it’s made by a bird you wouldn’t expect to hear, the mute swan. I mean, the word mute is right there in its name but it’s not mute at all. The mute swan is a big white waterfowl from Eurasia, although it’s been introduced to other parts of the world since it’s so pretty. Its legs are black with an orange and black bill, and it has a long neck that it uses to reach plants that are deeper underwater than ducks and most geese can get at. Its wingspan can be seven and a half feet across, or 2.4 meters. It’s more closely related to the black swan of Australia and the black-necked swan of South America than it is to other swan species from Eurasia.

Mute swans get their name not because they can’t make sounds, obviously, but because they’re not as noisy as other swan species. Not only does it make the little grunting sounds we just heard, it will sometimes hiss aggressively if a person or animal gets too close to its nest. Also, swans can give you such a wallop with their wings that they could knock you out stone cold, so it’s best to just watch them from a distance and not get too close. When mute swans fly, their wings make a distinctive thrumming sound that helps them stay in contact with other mute swans. This is what their wingbeats sound like:

[mute swans flying]

That sounds more like a UFO than a bird, just saying.

Next is a weird metallic call that doesn’t sound like a noise a bird could make either. It sounds like an industrial machine of some kind:

[white bellbird call]

That’s the sound the male white bellbird gives to attract a female. It also happens to be the loudest bird call ever recorded. In late 2018, an ornithologist from Brazil teamed up with a bioacoustician from the United States. They traveled into the mountainous forests of the Brazilian Amazon to record both the white bellbird and our next bird, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The male white bellbird is white with a black bill with a long wattle hanging from it. The female is green streaked with brown. It’s about the size of a pigeon but the male is as loud as a piledriver hammering rock. The male sits on an exposed perch to call, usually the top of a tree. If a female is interested, she’ll join him. The male will turn his back on the female, then turn around quickly to face her during the call, which adds an extra level of drama to an already dramatic call. These birds are the rock stars of the bird world.

The white bellbird eats fruit, some of it rather large, so the bird can open its beak really wide. This makes its beak act as the bell of an instrument like a trumpet, which helps increase the volume of its call. It also has a robust syrinx and unusually strong abdominal muscles. Its call can reach 125 decibels, which is louder than a firetruck’s siren, a rock band, and even a thunderclap.

Let’s finish with another extremely loud bird:

[screaming piha call]

That’s the male screaming piha, which is related to the white bellbird and lives in the same areas in South America. It’s a drab-looking bird, plain grayish in color, and it looks like a type of thrush. It’s a little bit bigger than an American robin. But drab as it is, keep in mind the bird has “screaming” right in its name. It’s almost as loud as the white bellbird.

The screaming piha eats fruit and insects, and it especially likes figs, which it often swallows whole. I like figs too but I chew them. Also, I don’t scream to attract a mate. The male usually perches in a tree and starts with a couple of relatively ordinary-sounding notes. But when he does the actual screaming part, he tips backwards on his perch, pulls his head back into his shoulders, so to speak, opens his beak wide to show how orange it is inside, and SCREAMS. It’s hilarious to watch. I’ve linked to a video in the show notes and you really do owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

The male gives these calls to attract a female, but it’s also useful to define his territory to other males. During mating season the males gather in a group called a lek to show off for females, and then pairs return to the male’s territory to build a nest. We don’t know a whole lot about the bird’s nesting behavior, but they appear to only lay one egg. Fortunately the screaming piha is a common bird that’s doing well, because if you’ve watched that video of one screaming you’ll agree that it’s probably the funniest bird ever and we definitely need them in the world.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 158: Legless Lizards and Other Not-Snakes



What’s the difference between a snake and a legless lizard? Find out this week and learn about all kinds of interesting reptiles without legs that aren’t actually snakes!

The slow-worm. Not a snake:

Burton’s legless lizard. Not a snake:

The excitable delma. Not a snake:

The Mexican mole lizard. Not a snake or a worm:

The red worm lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Also not a snake or a worm, but honestly, it looks a lot like I imagine the Mongolian death worm to look:

The giant legless skink. Not a snake:

Stacy’s bachia. Not a snake:

Further reading (and this is where I got the Stacy’s bachia picture above):

Bachia lizards–look, no hands!

An Explosive Enigma from Kalmykia—the ‘Other’ Mongolian Death Worm?

Show transcript:

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

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the Mongolian death worm and the possibility that it was an animal called an amphisbaenian, which is a reptile without legs that’s not a snake. But there are lots of other legless reptiles that aren’t snakes. So this week we’re going to learn about legless lizards and their friends.

Researchers have determined that leglessness evolved in reptiles many different times in species that aren’t related, often in species that spend at least part of their time underground. If the legs get in the way of burrowing or other movement, over time individuals born without legs or with much smaller legs end up finding more food than those with legs. That means they’re more likely to reproduce, and their offspring may inherit the trait of no legs or smaller legs.

Some legless lizards look so much like snakes at first glance that it can be hard to tell them apart. The common slow-worm, for instance, lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia. It grows to about a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and is brown. It mostly eats slugs and worms so it spends most of its time in damp places or underground. But while it looks superficially like a snake, it’s not a snake. It’s a lizard with no legs. Like some other lizard species, including many legless lizards, it can even drop its tail if it’s threatened and then regrows a little tail stump.

So how can you tell the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? The one big clue is if the reptile blinks. Snakes don’t have eyelids; instead, their eyes are protected by a transparent scale that covers the eye completely. Lizards have eyelids and blink. Legless lizards have a different head shape from snakes too, usually more blocky and less flattened. The tongue is not so much forked as just notched, and shorter and less slender than a snake’s tongue.

Species of one family of legless lizards do sometimes have legs. Honestly, this is almost as confusing as the whole deer and antelope mix-up from episode 116. The family is Pygopodidae and they’re actually most closely related to geckos although they don’t look much like geckos. They look like snakes, and to make things even more complicated, geckos and Pygopodids don’t have eyelids. I know I know, I just said lizards have eyelids but geckos are an exception. Pygopodids don’t have front legs at all, but some do have vestigial hind legs that look more like little flaps than actual legs. They’re sometimes called flap-footed lizards as a result. They live in Australia and New Guinea.

One Pygopodid is Burton’s legless lizard, which does actually have vestigial hind legs. It lives in parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea and is kind of a chunky reptile with a pointed nose. It’s brown or gray, sometimes with long stripes, and can grow to more than three feet long, or one meter. It eats other lizards, especially skinks, but will also sometimes eat small snakes.

Burton’s legless lizard mostly stays in leaf litter in forests. Sometimes it will twitch the end of its tail to attract a lizard, which it then grabs by the neck. It will swallow small lizards whole, but if it’s too big to swallow, it will just hold onto its neck until the lizard suffocates or just gives up out of exhaustion. It can also retract its eyes so they’re less likely to be injured if its prey fights back.

The excitable delma is another pygopodid, this one without any legs at all. It lives in many parts of Australia and can grow nearly two feet long, or 54 cm, but almost half that length is tail. It’s shy and nocturnal, so even though it’s very common, it’s seldom seen. It’s brown or grayish with darker stripes on its head. The reason it’s called the excitable delma is because it uses its long tail to jump, twisting and changing directions as it jumps repeatedly up to six inches off the ground, or 15 cm. It does this to escape from predators but it also sometimes just jumps around for the heck of it, according to observations of excitable delmas in captivity. It can also make a squeaky sound. It likes dry, rocky areas and eats insects.

There are other reptiles that look like snakes but aren’t, in addition to the legless lizards. We talked about the amphisbaenians in the Mongolian animals episode a few weeks ago, and also in episode 10. Amphisbaenians are sometimes called worm lizards because they look less like snakes than they do worms. They’re related to both legless lizards and snakes but lost their legs independently.

The amphisbaenian moves like a worm, not a snake. Its skin is loosely attached to its body so that it can move freely, and it bunches up its skin the way a worm bunches up its body, then extends it to move forward or backward. This kind of action is called peristalsis, by the way. Unlike worms, the amphisbaenian has scales because it’s a reptile, but the scales are often arranged in rings that make it look even more like an earthworm. Many amphisbaenians are pink like many earthworms, too.

Most amphisbaenians live underground their entire lives, hunting worms, insect grubs, and other small animals. In most cases they only come to the surface at night or after a heavy rain. Most have no legs at all, but one family consisting of four species, all of them native to Mexico, has little front legs. One of these species is the Mexican mole lizard, which can grow over a foot long, or more than 30 cm. It mostly eats soft-bodied animals like worms and termites, but it will occasionally eat small lizards. It’s pink and has little black dots for eyes and is actually really cute, but don’t let that fool you. If you are a worm, the Mexican mole lizard is a murder machine. It has sharp little teeth that it uses to bite pieces from its prey instead of swallowing them whole.

All the other known amphisbaenians have no legs at all, and for most species we know very little about them. The red worm lizard, for instance, lives throughout much of western South America and appears to be common, but it lives underground and is hardly ever seen. It’s the largest amphisbaenian known and can grow nearly three feet long, or 85 cm, although it’s only a few inches thick, or around 6 cm. It’s brown, reddish, or yellowish in color with a white belly and has tiny eyes that are barely visible. Its tail is blunt and rounded like other amphisbaenian tails, but its tail is tough enough to withstand bites from predators without being injured. If the red worm lizard feels threatened, it raises its head and tail and bends itself into a U shape so that it looks like it has two heads.

That’s why the amphisbaenian has that name, by the way. In ancient mythology, the amphisbaena was a serpent with a head on each end of its body. It was said to mostly eat ants, and that’s actually a good observation of the real amphisbaenian, which often eats ants, termites, and other insects.

Legless skinks are another group of lizards that either have no legs at all or just little flaps instead of hind legs. The males are the ones with the hind leg flaps, which they use to hold onto the female while mating. Most legless skinks look sort of like amphisbaenians, with a blunt-ended tail that’s sometimes hard to tell from the head, but more snakey than wormy for the most part.

One example is the giant legless skink, which is dark gray or black with no legs, and which lives in South Africa. It grows almost a foot and a half long, or 42 cm, and is a little bit of a chonk. We still don’t know much about it but it probably eats insects and other invertebrates like most legless skinks do.

A while back, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about Stacy’s bachia, a lizard that lives in the tropics of South America. It’s a member of the spectacled lizards, which all have lower eyelids that are transparent. That way the lizard can see even if its eyes are closed. I put a link to the article in the show notes if you want to read it.

Stacy’s bachia usually has no hind legs, although it may have little stubby ones, but it hatches with small front legs. But it spends most of its life burrowing in soil and in leaf litter as it hunts termites, ants, and other small animals, and eventually all its legs wear away to nothing.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal. Kalmykia is a small region of Russia, and the native people of the area are called Kalmyks. The Kalmyks report that there’s an animal that lives in both the steppes and in sand dunes in the desert that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake, which they actually call the short gray snake. It grows around 20 inches long, or 50 cm, and has smooth skin and a tail that’s short and rounded at the end. It has no legs. This report is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, and check the show notes for a link. The person who told him about this animal also says it’s about six to eight inches thick, or up to 20 cm, so if that’s correct it’s even more of a chonk than the giant legless skink.

Kalmykia is west of Kazakhstan, which is west of Mongolia, so there’s always the possibility that this legless animal is related to or the same animal as the Mongolian death worm that we talked about in episode 156. But Kalmykia is actually pretty far away from Mongolia, and the short gray snake is different from the death worm in two important ways. One, reports say it has no bones. If this is true, it must be some kind of invertebrate, not a reptile. It’s also supposed to move like a worm, although remember that the amphisbaenian does too and it’s a reptile.

But the other thing reported about the short gray snake is much weirder than having no bones. Apparently if someone hits the animal in a particular place on its back—presumably with a stick—it EXPLODES. It explodes into goo that spreads for several feet in every direction, or about a meter, leaving nothing else behind.

It’s possible this isn’t a real animal but a folktale, something like American tall tales about the hoop snake that’s supposed to grab its tail in its mouth and roll itself along like a hoop. The hoop snake is not a real animal, in case you were wondering. There’s no way of telling whether the exploding boneless short gray snake is a real animal, a folktale, or reports of more than one real animal that have gotten mixed up in translation. Hopefully someone who lives in Kalmykia will investigate and find out more. In the meantime, don’t hit any animals with sticks. For one thing, that’s mean. For another, it might explode and leave you covered in goo.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 150: Hamsters, Gerbils, and Ferrets



This week we venture into the land of CUTE to learn about hamsters, ferrets, and some other small domesticated animals. Thanks to Kim and the Angel City Ferret Club for the suggestions!

Hamsters are SO CUTE:

Hamsters have giant cheek pouches to carry food in:

Gerbils are also SO CUTE:

Ferrets are SO CUTE in a totally different way:

The black-footed ferret does not want anything to do with the domestic ferret, thank you:

An extremely complicated but neat way to use your pet’s exercise wheel to generate power:

Hamster-Powered Night Light

Show transcript:

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

Back in episode 106 we learned about domestication, especially the domestication of dogs and other canids. But recently, Kim suggested an episode about the domestication of other animals, like hamsters and ferrets. Then the Angel City Ferret Club suggested I talk about ferrets too. So this week, let’s learn about hamsters, gerbils, and ferrets.

Hamsters are rodents, and there are lots of different species. The most common domesticated hamster is the golden hamster, also called the Syrian hamster, which is indeed from Syria. A DNA study of domesticated golden hamsters indicate that they’re all descended from a single female captured in Syria in 1930 and kept as a laboratory animal. It wasn’t long before some of her babies became pets, because hamsters are incredibly cute.

The golden hamster is about five inches long, or 13 cm, and is a chunky little rodent with a little nub of a tail, short legs, and rounded ears. And a little pink nose and shiny black eyes. I had a pet hamster named Wembley when I was little. It’s a golden tan in color with lighter fur underneath, and some breeds of domesticated golden hamsters may have white spots on the body or long fur.

Some other hamster species, most of which aren’t kept as pets, can grow much larger than the typical golden hamster. The European hamster, which lives in parts of eastern Europe, can grow up to 14 inches long, or 35 cm. It’s mostly brown with white patches. One of the smallest hamster species is Campbell’s dwarf hamster, which is sometimes kept as a pet but is originally from Mongolia. It grows about three inches long, or 8 cm. It’s brown-gray in color with a darker stripe down the middle of its back and pale gray fur underneath.

All hamsters have cheek pouches that extend down to their shoulders. In the wild, a hamster tucks food into its cheek pouches to carry back to its burrow, where it pushes the food out by pressing its forefeet against its sides and pushing them forward. Campbell’s dwarf hamster has cheek pouches that are big even compared to other hamsters. They extend all the way down the sides of its body.

Hamsters in the wild like warm areas without a lot of rain, like deserts and dry grasslands. They dig well and spend most of their time underground when they’re not out searching for food. They’re most active at dawn and dusk, although they’re nocturnal to some degree also. In cold weather some species hibernate for short periods of time, generally only a few days. A hamster’s burrow can be pretty elaborate, with several entrances, a cozy sleeping burrow, a pantry where the hamster stores food, and even a bathroom where the hamster urinates. Hamsters are hindgut fermenters, and like some other rodents and rabbits, some of the poops they produce aren’t waste material, they’re partially digested food that the hamster eats again to gain as much nutrients from it as possible.

Hamsters are omnivores, eating seeds and other plant material as well as insects and other small animals. Occasionally wild hamsters hunt together to catch insects, although in general the hamster is a solitary animal. In addition to its ordinary diet of hamster food, a pet hamster likes seeds and nuts, green vegetables, root vegetables like carrots, a little bit of fruit, and other plant foods, but shouldn’t be given people food since it can contain too much salt, sugar, or other additives that can harm it. Give your hamster deep bedding that it can burrow into to sleep and dig around in, but cedar shavings can be bad for their lungs. Paper bedding made for small pets is safest. And, of course, your hamster needs to chew to keep its teeth from growing too long, since like other rodents its teeth continue to grow throughout its life. It also needs an exercise wheel and toys designed for hamsters so it can get exercise and have fun. You can find good books about how to care for a hamster in the library. I mean you can find a book on hamster care in the library, not how to turn your hamster into a tiny furry librarian.

Hamsters don’t see very well but have a good sense of smell and hearing, and in fact they communicate mostly in the ultrasonic range—too high-pitched for humans to hear most of their calls. Generally hamsters only call to each other during courtship, when a male and female are trying to decide if they’ve found a good mate.

I tried to find audio of hamster calls, pitched down so humans could hear it, but had no luck. I guess the sound of their calls is a secret only hamsters know.

Gerbils are also closely related to mice and therefore to hamsters, and have a lot in common with the hamster. Both are about the same size but the gerbil is smaller, less chunky, and has a much longer tail. The tail has fur on it and helps the gerbil retain its balance while climbing.

There are a lot of gerbil species, all of them native to dry areas like deserts and grasslands in parts of Asia and Africa. The Mongolian gerbil was domesticated in the late 19th century but wasn’t well known until the 1950s when it became a popular pet. In the wild the Mongolian gerbil is a gray-brown color but pets have been selectively bred to produce colors from white to black with various patterns. Unlike the hamster, the gerbil is a social animal and is healthier when it lives with at least one other gerbil. It also likes to burrow in its bedding and needs to chew to keep its teeth from growing too long. It’s important to get an exercise wheel that’s solid instead of having rungs, since otherwise the gerbil could catch its tail between the rungs and get injured.

In the wild, gerbils live in groups with extensive burrows, sometimes connected with the burrows of other groups. It has a good sense of smell and if a gerbil whose smell it doesn’t recognize approaches, the two will probably fight. The Mongolian gerbil grows about 2 ½ inches long, or 6 cm, not counting its tail, which is about the same length as its body. But the biggest species of gerbil is the great gerbil from central Asia. It grows up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, not counting its tail. That’s the size of a squirrel.

If a gerbil feels threatened or nervous, it may thump its hind legs on the ground to warn other gerbils. Other gerbils that hear the thumping may also start thumping. Sometimes pet gerbils will start thumping in response to rhythmic sounds in a house, like a washing machine on a spin cycle. This is hilarious, but of course if your pet gerbil is thumping you should look around to see if there’s something near its cage that it finds frightening, like a pet dog or a light that’s too bright. This is what a gerbil sounds like when stamping its tiny feet.

[gerbil thumping sound]

Next, let’s look at the ferret. The ferret isn’t a rodent. It’s a type of weasel called the European polecat, which has been domesticated. Unlike the hamster and gerbil, which are small and somewhat delicate animals, the ferret is much larger and more robust. It grows nearly two feet long, or almost 60 cm, with a long, slender, flexible body, long neck, and short legs.

The ferret is generally a crepuscular animal, meaning it’s most active at dawn and dusk. It’s solitary in the wild, but domesticated ferrets are much more social. It likes to burrow, and in the wild it sleeps in a burrow during the day.

No one is sure when the ferret was domesticated, but it may be descended from animals kept to hunt for rats and rabbits. Like other members of the weasel family, ferrets are carnivores and evolved to be slender and short-legged to fit into burrows of smaller animals. There’s even a term for hunting with a ferret, called ferreting. It was also used to keep mice and rats out of grain stores. Ferret breeders selected for white or albino ferrets because they were easier for their handlers to see, so many pet ferrets are albinos.

The ferret makes a good pet although it’s an intelligent, active animal and will get into all sorts of mischief if it doesn’t have enough to do. It likes to climb, explore, and solve puzzles, and needs lots of exercise and a safe place to play. The ferret can be litter trained like a cat and trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash like a dog. It’s sociable so it’s always better to have more than one ferret if you can.

The ferret needs to eat frequently, so it’s a good idea to keep a feeder full of ferret kibble where your pet can eat whenever it’s hungry even if you’re not home. Since ferrets are carnivores like cats are, your pet’s diet should be high in animal-based protein and fat. If you can’t find ferret food in your area, you can feed high-quality cat kibble, but food formulated just for ferrets is best. For treats, ferrets like cooked eggs, freeze-dried liver treats that you can get for dog training, and small pieces of cooked meat. You shouldn’t feed fruit to your ferret, since it can lead to digestive issues.

Ferrets are illegal to own in some areas because escaped and released ferrets can breed in the wild and cause a lot of problems as an invasive species. This is particularly true in small, fragile ecosystems like islands, so it makes sense that Hawaii doesn’t allow ferrets or many other animals as pets, including gerbils and hamsters.

Ferrets occupy the same ecological niche as the black-footed ferret, and the black-footed ferret is the most endangered mammal in North America. It was even declared extinct in 1979, but a small population was re-discovered in 1981 in Wyoming. Some of these animals were captured for a captive breeding program, so even though the black-footed ferret was declared extinct in the wild in 1996, the breeding program was able to reintroduce ferrets in parts of its original range in the western part of North America. It’s now considered an endangered species, which is still pretty bad but not as bad as extinct.

The black-footed ferret primarily eats prairie dogs, and prairie dogs are also on the decline due to habitat loss, poisoning and killing of them by ranchers and farmers, and disease. So saving the black-footed ferret also means saving the prairie dog. However, pet prairie dogs are legal to own in most states even though they’re not really domesticated animals and they can spread diseases fatal to humans, like bubonic plague. And since prairie dogs don’t breed well in captivity many animals sold as pets were captured in the wild, and many of them die soon after being captured.

But while feral domesticated ferrets are a problem in some areas, there don’t seem to be any feral populations of ferrets in the United States. It looks like ferret owners in North America take good care of their pets and make sure they don’t get out and cause problems for wildlife.

California has a lot of restrictions about what animals can be kept as pets. Ferrets are not allowed. Neither are gerbils, prairie dogs, or hedgehogs. But you can keep hamsters and chinchillas as pets in California, rabbits, camels, wolf-dog hybrids, and most birds including ostriches. The only reason I even mention California’s restrictions on pets is because the Angel City Ferret Club is working to get the ferret ban changed, and they told me all about it.

I don’t live in California so I don’t want to get involved in the debate. But wherever you live and whatever pet you have, always make sure that you know how to take care of it properly and that you only buy your pet from an ethical and reputable breeder. And, of course, never release a pet into the wild if you can’t take care of it anymore. Most of the time your pet will die of cold, starvation, injury, or predation from a wild animal. If you can’t find someone who can take your pet, contact your veterinarian who can give you information about rescue services in your area.

That is a super depressing way to end an episode, so let’s finish up with something cute and interesting. If you’ve ever watched a hamster or other small pet run on an exercise wheel, you may have wondered how much energy the little fuzzball was generating and if it could charge your phone or power a light. Well, other people have wondered the same thing. I found a how-to article at Otherpower.com detailing how they made a working power generator from a hamster wheel. Their pet hamster Skippy was easily able to power a nightlight while running on his wheel. I’ve put a link to the article in the show notes. It looks really complicated but if you’re an engineer type of person you might look at it and think, “Oh, that’s simple and fun! Let’s try it!”

There’s even a new company based in Taiwan that’s marketing exercise equipment that generates energy as people use it. People are a lot bigger and stronger than hamsters, so we can generate a lot more energy by running on a treadmill or working out on a stationary bike, enough to power the lights in the room where the equipment is. Gyms that have installed the equipment report that users feel more motivated to exercise longer and harder when they know they’re generating power. That’s good for the person and helps reduce energy use for the gym. And that’s good for everyone, including our small pets.

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

Thanks for listening!