Episode 368: The Bison

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

Further reading:

New research documents domestic cattle genetics in modern bison herds

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

A cave painting of steppe bison and other animals:

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

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

The bison sound in this episode came from this site.

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[bison sound]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 366: The Muntjac AKA Deer with Fangs

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

Further reading:

Dam Project Reveals Secret Sanctuary of Vanishing Deer

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

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[muntjac barking sound]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 365: A New Temnospondyl

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

Further reading:

Ancient giant amphibians swam like crocodiles 250 million years ago

Fossil of Giant Triassic Amphibian Unearthed in Brazil

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

Koolasuchus was a weird big-headed boi:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

Temnospondyls were semi-aquatic animals that probably looked a lot like really big, really weird salamanders. This was before modern amphibians evolved, and scientists still aren’t sure if the temnospondyls are the direct ancestors of modern amphibians or just cousins that died out with no living descendants. Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians, but they still had a lot in common with their fish ancestors.

Most temnospondyls had large heads that were broad and flattened in shape, often with a skull that was roughly triangular. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. The earliest species had relatively small, weak legs and probably spent most of their time in the water, but it wasn’t long before species with stronger legs developed that probably lived mostly on land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 357: When Scientists Ate Mammoth Meat

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

Don’t eat me bro:

Blue Babe, a steppe bison mummy found in Alaska:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 351: The Bunyip and the Kelpie

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

Further reading:

Does the Bunyip Really Haunt the Australian Wetlands?

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

An elephant seal can really look like a monster:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[southern elephant seal sound]

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

[leopard seal sound]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 349: The Masked Monkey-Man

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

Further reading:

The Return of Spring-Heeled Jack

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the monsters in both cases were just humans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 335: Large Blue Butterfly vs Ants

We’re kicking off July with a beautiful butterfly that does horrible things to ants!

Further reading:

UK Butterflies – Large Blue

The large blue butterfly (picture taken from page linked above):

Show transcript:

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

I recently realized that I have so many weird and interesting invertebrates saved up to feature for invertebrate August that I can’t fit them all into one month, so let’s kick off invertebrate August in July!

This week we’re going to learn about a beautiful butterfly called the large blue, because it is both large and blue. Well, sort of large. The butterfly has a wingspan of up to two inches, or about 5 cm. Its wings are a dusty blue with black spots, although there are a lot of regional differences. Some populations are almost black, some are more tan than blue, and some don’t have spots.

The large blue lives throughout much of Eurasia, although its numbers have decreased in many places in the last 50 years or so. In some places it’s even gone extinct, mainly due to habitat loss. It needs specific host plants for the caterpillars to eat, and it also needs a particular type of ant in order for the caterpillars to survive–because the large blue caterpillar is a brood parasite!

We’ve talked about brood parasites before in birds, where a bird will lay an egg in the nest of a different species of bird. In the case of the large blue butterfly, in summertime the female lays her eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants near a colony of red ants in the genus Myrmica [meer-mee-kuh]. She usually only lays one egg on any given plant.

When the eggs hatch, the newly emerged caterpillars feed on plants at first, just like any other caterpillar, especially the flowers of the plant. If more than one large blue caterpillar is on a plant and they encounter each other, one of them will grab the other and eat it. Drama among the thyme plants! The caterpillar goes through three growth stages, called instars, as an ordinary caterpillar (except for the cannibalism thing), but once it reaches the fourth instar it starts acting very different.

The caterpillar drops to the ground and releases a chemical that mimics the smell of the Myrmica ant larvae. When an ant finds a caterpillar, the caterpillar will rear up so that it resembles an ant larva. The ant usually takes it back to its nest at this point, but sometimes the caterpillar will just follow an ant trail and enter the nest on its own. Either way, the ants will assume it’s a lost baby and take it to the nesting chamber, where they feed and take care of it.

The caterpillar is bigger than a usual ant larva, but it uses this to its advantage. It mimics the sounds made by a queen ant, which means the ants take extra good care of it. If the ants run out of regular food to feed the caterpillar, they will even start feeding it real ant larvae. But sometimes the caterpillar gets impatient, or maybe just hungry, and will just start eating the other pupating ant larvae.

The system isn’t perfect, because a lot of times the ants figure out that the caterpillar is an intruder and will kill and eat it. If the queen ant encounters the caterpillar, she recognizes that it isn’t an ant larva and will attack it. Sometimes the ants just up and abandon the nest, leaving the caterpillar behind. In that case, the caterpillar will either leave the nest itself and find another one, or it will wait for a new ant colony to find the nest and move in. This can actually happen repeatedly during the nine months or so that the caterpillar requires to finish growing, although during the winter the caterpillar is more or less dormant.

Around the end of spring, the caterpillar spins a cocoon and pupates right there in the ant nest. The ants continue to take care of it, making sure the pupa is clean. When it emerges as a new butterfly after a few weeks, it has to find its way out of the ant nest and to the surface, where it climbs a plant stem and rests while its wings inflate and dry. The adult butterflies only live for a few weeks, eating flower nectar, especially of the thyme plant.

One of the places where the large blue butterfly went extinct was in the British Isles, where it was last seen in 1979. Before that, though, scientists already recognized that the species was in danger in Britain. They knew that the butterflies needed wild thyme and Myrmica ants, and made sure to plant lots of the thyme in areas with lots of Myrmica ant colonies. But the butterflies still declined until none were left in Britain. It turns out that the large blue butterfly requires a particular species of Myrmica ant, Myrmica sabuleti, and if the caterpillars are adopted by other ant species, they aren’t usually successful in surviving to grow up.

Fortunately, a few years later, scientists re-introduced large blue butterflies to Britain from Sweden, and this time it worked. Not only are there still large blue butterflies in Britain again, they’re now more common in Britain than anywhere else throughout its range.

Other butterflies closely related to the large blue also act as brood parasites to Myrmica ants, but to different species. There are probably more butterflies that do this than we know, since it takes a lot of very careful observation of the butterflies, caterpillars, and ants to determine what exactly is going on. Considering that even the ants don’t really know what’s going on, it’s no surprise that scientists have trouble figuring it out too.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 333: Robins and Ravens

Thanks to Liesbet, Simon, and Thea for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some birds!

Further reading:

Blue Tits and Milk Bottle Tops

Ravens parallel great apes in flexible planning for tool-use and bartering

Further watching:

A Raven Calling [this is a great video of a raven making all sorts of interesting sounds–I only used a tiny clip of it in the episode but it’s worth watching the whole thing]

The European robin:

The American robin and a worm that is having a very bad day:

A blue tit [photo By © Francis C. Franklin / CC-BY-SA-3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37675470]:

A blue tit about to get the cap off that milk bottle [photo from link above]:

The Eastern bluebird:

A raven:

An American crow:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have suggestions from Liesbet, Simon, and Thea, who suggested some relatively common birds that you may already think you know all about, but there’s lots to learn about them!

We’ll start with Liesbet’s suggestion, about the European robin and bluebird, and while we’re at it we’ll learn about the American robin and bluebird. The European and American birds are completely different species. The reason they have the same names is because when Europeans first started paying attention to the birds of North America, they needed names for the birds. The native peoples had names for them, of course, but the Europeans wanted names in a language they understood, so in a lot of cases they just borrowed names already in use at home.

Let’s start with the robin, which we also talked about way back in episode 81.

The European robin is a little bitty bird, only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm, with a brown back, streaked gray or buff belly, and orange face and breast. It has a short black bill and round black eyes. It eats insects, worms, berries, and seeds. The eggs are pale brown with reddish speckles.

It lives throughout much of Eurasia, but robins in Britain tend to be fairly tame, probably because they were traditionally considered beneficial in Britain and Ireland, so farmers and gardeners wouldn’t hurt them. In other parts of Europe they were hunted and are much more shy. European robins are also common on Christmas cards in Britain and Ireland, possibly because in the olden days, postmen used to wear red jackets. The postmen started to be called robins as a result, and since postmen bring Christmas cards, the bird robin became linked with card delivery and finally just ended up on the Christmas cards. Plus, their orange markings are cheerful in winter.

This is what the European robin sounds like:

[robin song]

The American robin is a type of thrush. It lives year-round in most of the United States and parts of Mexico, spends summers in much of Canada, and winters in parts of Mexico. It’s very different from the European robin. The European robin is tiny and round and adorable, while the American robin is big and always looks kind of angry. It grows around 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It’s dark gray on its back, with a rusty red breast, white undertail coverts, and a long yellow bill. It also has white markings around its eyes. Young birds are speckled. It mostly eats insects, worms, and berries.

If you see a bird on the ground, running quickly and then stopping, it’s probably a robin. Mostly the robin hunts bugs by sight, but it has good hearing and can actually hear worms moving around underground. You can sometimes see a robin with its head cocked, listening for a worm, before pouncing and pulling it out of the ground, just like in a cartoon.

American robin eggs are a light teal blue, so common and well-known that robin’s-egg-blue is a typical description of that particular color. In the spring after eggs hatch, the mother robin will carry the eggshells away from the nest to drop them, so predators won’t see the shells and know there’s a nest nearby. That’s why you’ll sometimes see half a robin eggshell on the sidewalk. It doesn’t mean something bad happened to the baby, just that the mother bird is doing her job. Both parents feed the chicks, and the parents also carry off the babies’ droppings to scatter them away from the nest.

This is what an American robin’s song sounds like.

[robin song]

Liesbet also wanted to learn about the European bluebird, more commonly called the Eurasian blue tit. We haven’t talked about it or the American bluebird before, even though they’re both beautiful birds.

The blue tit lives throughout Europe and parts of western Asia. It grows around 4 and a half inches long, or 12 cm, and has a bright blue crown on its head with blue on its wings, tail, and back. Its face is mostly white but it has a black streak that crosses its eye and a black ring around its neck. In fact, if you’re familiar with the blue jay of North America, the blue tit looks a lot like a miniature blue jay. It even has a little bit of a crest that it can raise and lower.

Because it eats a lot of insects and other small invertebrates, along with some seeds, the blue tit is an acrobatic bird. It will hang upside down from a twig to reach a caterpillar on the underside of a leaf, that sort of thing. It will also peel bits of bark away from a tree trunk to find tiny insects and spiders hiding underneath it. This habit leads it to sometimes peel bits off of people’s houses, like the putty that holds windowpanes in place. It also once led to the blue tit learning a surprising way to find food, and to learn about that, we have to learn a little bit about how people in the olden days got their milk if they didn’t own cows.

Back in the early 20th century, people used to get milk delivered every morning by a milkman. Refrigerators and ice boxes weren’t common like they are today, and most people didn’t have a way to keep milk cold. That meant it would go bad very quickly, so people would just order how much milk they needed in one day and when they got up in the morning, the milkman would have left the milk and other dairy products on the doorstep for the family.

The milk was always whole milk, also called full-fat, and as it sat in its bottles on the doorstep waiting for the family to wake up and bring the milk in, the cream would separate and rise to the top of the milk. Cream is just the fattiest, richest part of the milk. These days milk is processed differently so even if you buy whole milk, the cream won’t separate from it, and most milk sold today has already had most of the cream separated out. That’s why skim milk is called that, because the cream has been skimmed off the top. It’s sold separately as heavy whipping cream or mixed with milk as half-and-half. But back in the olden days, if you wanted to make whipped cream or clotted cream or some other recipe that calls for cream, you’d just skim the cream off yourself to use it.

The problem is, cream is so rich and full of protein that other animals learned to rob milk bottles, especially the blue tit. Birds can’t digest milk, naturally, since only mammals produce milk and are adapted to digest it, and even most adult mammals have trouble digesting milk. But cream contains a lot less lactose than the milk itself, and lactose is the type of sugar in milk that can cause stomach upset in adults. Blue tits learned that if they peeled the little foil cap off a milk bottle, they could get at the cream, and it became such a widespread behavior that each generation of blue tits became more adapted to digest cream.

These days, of course, most people buy their milk at the grocery store. The blue tits have had to go back to eating bugs and seeds.

This is what a blue tit sounds like:

[blue tit song]

The bluebird is a North American bird that also eats insects and other small invertebrates, along with berries and seeds. It grows around 7 inches long, or 18 cm. There are three species, the eastern bluebird and western bluebird, which look similar with bright blue above and white underneath with rusty red breast, and the mountain bluebird, which is blue almost all over and lives in mountainous areas of western North America. The bluebird is a type of thrush, meaning that it’s actually related to the American robin and used to be called the blue robin.

The bluebird spends a lot of its time sitting on a branch and watching for insects in the grass below. When it spots a grasshopper or beetle or spider or even a snail, it will drop down from its branch to grab it. It prefers open grasslands with trees or brush it can perch in, so it’s common around farmland. The mountain bluebird hunts like this too, but it doesn’t always bother to perch and will just hover above the ground until it spots a bug.

This is what an eastern bluebird sounds like:

[bluebird song]

Next, Simon and Thea wanted to learn about crows and ravens. The raven is another bird we covered a long time ago, in episode 112. I had a really bad cold the week of that episode and not only did I sound awful, I didn’t do a very good job with my research. I’m glad to revisit the topic and correct a few mistakes.

Crows and ravens look similar and are closely related, with both belonging to the genus Corvus. There are lots of species and subspecies of both, but let’s talk specifically about the American crow since it’s closely related to the hooded crow and the carrion crow found throughout Europe and Asia. Likewise, we’ll talk about the common raven since it’s found throughout much of the northern hemisphere.

The American crow can grow up to about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, with a wingspan over 3 feet across, or about a meter. Meanwhile, the common raven has a wingspan of up to 5 feet across, or 1.5 meters, and can grow up to 26 inches long, or 67 cm. Both are glossy black all over with large, heavy bills and long legs.

Crows and ravens both mate for life. Crows in particular are devoted family birds, with the grown young of a pair often staying to help their parents raise the next nest.

Both crows and ravens are omnivores, which means they eat pretty much anything. They will eat roadkill and other carrion, fruit and grain, insects, small animals, other birds, and eggs. They’re also extremely smart, which means a crow or raven can figure out how to get into trash cans and other containers to find food that humans think is secure.

Both also sometimes make and use tools, especially sticks that they use to dig out insects in places where their beaks can’t reach. But ravens in particular show a lot of tool use. Ravens sometimes throw pinecones or rocks at people who approach too close to their nests, and will even use sticks to stab at attacking owls. A few ravens have been observed to hold big pieces of bark in their feet while flying in strong winds, and they use the bark as a sort of rudder to help them maneuver. Other cognitive studies of ravens show that they have sophisticated and flexible problem-solving abilities where they can plan at least one step ahead, similar to great apes. Other corvids show similar abilities.

The raven can imitate other animals and birds, even machinery, in addition to making all sorts of calls. It can even imitate human speech. If a raven finds a dead animal but isn’t strong enough to open the carcass to get at the meat, it may imitate a wolf or fox to attract the animal to the carcass. The wolf or fox will open the carcass, and even after it eats as much as it wants, there’s plenty left for the raven.

Ravens also communicate non-vocally with other ravens. A raven will use its beak to point with, the way humans will point with a finger. They’ll also hold something and wave it to get another raven’s attention, which hasn’t been observed in any other animal besides apes.

The raven is much larger and heavier than a crow, and you can also distinguish a crow from a raven by their calls. This is what an American crow sounds like:

[crow call]

And this is what a raven sounds like:

[raven call]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 328: Giant Ants

Thanks to Richard from NC for suggesting Titanomyrma!

Further reading:

‘Giant’ ant fossil raises questions about ancient Arctic migrations

A fossilized queen Titanomyrma ant with a rufous hummingbird (stuffed) for scale:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a suggestion from Richard from North Carolina, who sent me an article about an extinct giant ant called Titanomyrma. This episode is short, but I think you’ll find it interesting.

We’ve talked about ants in previous episodes, most recently episode 185. Most ant colonies consist of a single queen ant who lays all the eggs for her colony, seasonally hatched males with wings who fly off as soon as they’re grown, and worker ants. The worker ants are all female but don’t lay eggs. Army ants have another caste, the soldier ant, which are much larger than the worker ants and have big heads and strong, sharp mandibles. In many species of ant, the worker ants are further divided into castes that are specialized for specific tasks.

The biggest species of ant alive today is probably the giant Amazonian ant. The workers can grow over 1.2 inches long, or more than 3 cm, which is huge for an ant. It lives in South America in small colonies, usually containing less than 100 workers, and unlike most ants it doesn’t have a queen. Instead, one of the workers mates with a male and lays eggs for the colony. The giant Amazonian ant can sting and its sting contains venom that causes intense pain for up to two days. Fortunately, you will probably never encounter these giant ants, and even if you do they’re not very aggressive.

Another contender for the biggest species of ant alive today is the Dorylus genus of army ants, also called driver ants, which we talked about in episode 185. It lives in Africa in colonies that have millions of members, and the queen is the largest ant known. A queen army ant can measure 2.4 inches long, or 63 millimeters, but worker ants are much smaller.

Around 50 million years ago, giant ants related to modern driver ants lived in both Europe and North America. The genus is Titanomyrma and three species are known so far, found in Germany, England, Canada, and the American states of Tennessee and Wyoming.

The Wyoming ant fossil was discovered years ago and donated to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where it was stored in a drawer and forgotten about. In 2011 a curator found it and showed it to a paleoentomologist named Bruce Archibald. Dr. Archibald recognized it immediately as a fossilized queen ant even though it was the size of a hummingbird. He also realized it was very similar to a type of giant ant that once lived in Germany.

The German discovery was the first Titanomyrma species discovered, and it’s also the biggest known so far. The queen Titanomyrma gigantea grew up to 2.8 inches long, or 7 centimeters. Males grew up to 1.2 inches long, or 3 cm. The fossilized queen ants found have wings, with a wingspan of over 6 inches, or 16 cm. The other two known species are generally smaller, although still pretty darn big for ants.While they’re not that much bigger than the living Dorylus queens, most of the size of a queen Dorylus ant comes from her enlarged abdomen. Titanomyrma ants were just plain big all over.

Titanomyrma didn’t have a stinger, so it’s possible it used its mandibles to inflict bites, the way modern army ants do. It might also have sprayed formic acid at potential predators, as some ants do today.

The biggest ants alive today all live in tropical areas, so researchers thought Titanomyrma probably did too. During the Eocene, the world was overall quite warm and parts of Europe were tropical. The northern hemisphere supercontinent Laurasia was in the process of breaking up, but Europe and North America were still connected by the Arctic. Even though the Arctic was a lot warmer 50 million years ago than it is now, it was still too cold for a tropical ant. If Titanomyrma couldn’t survive in cold weather, how did it spread from one continent to another when it had to go through the Arctic?

There were warming periods during the Eocene that lasted a few hundred thousand years at a time, so researchers thought the ants probably migrated through the Arctic while it was warmer than usual. Then, in early 2023, a fossilized Titanomyrma queen ant was discovered in Canada. Because the rock it was preserved in has been distorted over the years, we can’t be certain how big the ant actually was. What we do know, though, is that the ant lived in a mountainous area that could get quite chilly, very different from the tropical climate scientists thought the giant ants needed.

As a result of the new finding, researchers are reconsidering whether the giant ants that lived 50 million years ago were really all that similar to modern giant ants. Just because the biggest ants alive today require tropical climates doesn’t mean that ancient giant ants did.

Hopefully more giant ant fossils will turn up soon, so we can learn more about where they lived, how they lived, and precisely how big they could get.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 327: The Humble Marmot

Thanks to Dean for suggesting this week’s topic, the marmot!

Thanks also to Al-Ka-Lines Studio for the beautiful bat pin! You should definitely visit their online shop, because all their jewelry is hand-made by the two of them.

Further reading:

The secret to longevity? Ask a yellow-bellied marmot

The yellow-bellied marmot doing a sit [By Inklein, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2675916]:

A groundhog keeping an eye out for danger:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to have a short little episode about a short little animal suggested by Dean, although I don’t know if Dean is short and/or little. Probably not. The name Dean makes me think of a tall person, probably someone who plays sports and can run really fast, so basically completely unlike a marmot. Dean suggested the marmot, specifically the yellow-bellied marmot.

Before we get started, two quick notes. First, thanks so much to Kathi and Alex of Al-Ka-Lines Studio for the gorgeous bat pin! They make hand-crafted leather jewelry and while they usually sell wholesale to shops, I checked with Kathi to see if it was okay to link to their shop and they said that yes, they sometimes sell to individuals too. I’ve put a link in the show notes in case you’re interested in seeing what they have for sale. They recently started listening to the podcast in order from the first episode and so far they’re not sick of my voice yet.

Second, I’ll be at Furry Weekend Atlanta this coming weekend, assuming you’re listening to this episode when it comes out on May 8, 2023. If you’re going to be there too, let me know and we can meet up. I went to way too many conventions last year so this one and Dragon Con at the end of August are the only ones I have planned this year, and I’m not on any programming on either. I just plan to look at people’s amazing costumes and attend interesting panels and have fun dancing in the evenings. Also, I’ll probably eat a lot of pizza.

Now, on to the marmots!

If you live in North America, you may have seen a marmot without realizing it. I didn’t realize that the groundhogs that are pretty common where I live in the eastern United States are a type of marmot. Similarly, if you live in the western part of North America, especially in mountainous areas, you may have seen the yellow-bellied marmot. Other species of marmot live in Asia, Europe, and other parts of North America. One interesting thing is that the groundhog of eastern North America is actually more closely related to the marmots of Europe and Asia than it is to the other North American marmot species.

Marmots are big rodents related to squirrels, and in fact they’re considered a type of ground squirrel along with the closely related chipmunks and prairie dogs. They dig burrows and mostly eat plant material, and can grow quite large. The largest species is probably the Olympic marmot that only lives in the state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest of North America, which can weigh up to 18 lbs, or 8 kg. That’s its summer weight, though, when it’s had time to eat lots of food. All marmots hibernate and during that time they survive on the fat reserves they build up in warm weather. Basically all marmots are about the size of a cat, but they’re big chonks with short legs, short tails, little round ears, and a blunt muzzle. Its thick fur makes it look even larger than it really is.

The yellow-bellied marmot mostly lives in higher elevations and, like all marmots, it’s well adapted to cold weather. It’s a social animal that lives in small colonies and spends most of its time underground when it’s not out finding food. It’s mostly brown with yellowish markings underneath and a spot of white between its eyes. It usually digs its burrow among rocks and can have multiple burrows in its territory, so if it spots a predator it doesn’t have far to run to get safely underground. It digs an especially deep burrow to hibernate in, sometimes as much as 23 feet deep, or 7 meters. Since it spends as much as eight months hibernating every year, it needs to stay comfortable. It lines its sleeping chamber with dried leaves and even digs a little side burrow that acts as a latrine.

In a study released in March of 2022, a team of scientists studying yellow-bellied marmots discovered that when it hibernates, an adult marmot’s body basically stops aging. The marmot exhibits true hibernation where its body temperature drops almost to the air temperature and its breathing and heart rate slow dramatically. It will hibernate for a week or two, wake up slightly for about a day so it can stretch and rearrange itself more comfortably, and then will go back into hibernation for another few weeks. This goes on for almost three-quarters of the year and during that time, the yellow-bellied marmot doesn’t eat or drink anything. It just lives off its fat reserves, and because its metabolic rate is so low it hardly uses any energy on any given day, only burning about a gram of fat. A small paperclip weighs about a gram, to give you a comparison. As a side effect, the marmot basically only ages during the summer when it’s active. The scientists think this may be the case for all animals that hibernate.

Like other marmots, the yellow-bellied marmot starts its mating season as soon as it emerges from hibernation around May. Males may have several mates and they all live together with him. Females give birth to around four babies during the summer, which like kittens and puppies are born without fur and with their eyes still sealed shut. They stay in the mother’s nesting burrow for the next six weeks, at which point they can see and have grown fur, so they can go outside with their mother. The babies stay with their mother for up to two years.

Most marmot species are social like the yellow-bellied marmot, but the groundhog is different. It’s mostly solitary, although it’s still part of a complex social network of all the groundhogs in a particular area, and sometimes it will share a burrow with other groundhogs. It also prefers lower elevations while most marmots prefer high elevations. It lives throughout most of the eastern United States and throughout much of Canada.

Because the marmot is a relatively big, common animal, it’s an important food source for many animals. Bears will sniff out marmot burrows and dig them open, and badgers, foxes, coyotes, and mountain lions eat lots of marmots in North America. In Europe and Asia, marmots are frequently eaten by foxes, wolves, snow leopards, and hawks. People will eat them too. In parts of Mongolia where marmots are common, it’s been a food source for thousands of years, traditionally prepared on special occasions by putting hot stones into the dead animal’s body cavity and letting the heat cook the meat slowly. But the marmot can carry diseases that humans can catch, including the plague, so these days a dead goat is often used instead of a marmot.

After I learned this, I naturally got distracted and started reading about other traditional Mongolian foods, and now I suddenly remember that I haven’t eaten anything today but trail mix and toast. So I’ll leave you with a final marmot fact. When a marmot sees a predator, it will whistle to warn other marmots, and the whistle sounds like this:

[marmot whistle]

Now I’m going to go make myself dinner. But it won’t be marmot.

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

Thanks for listening!