Category Archives: Europe

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!


Episode 139: Skunks and Other Stinkers



This week we’re commemorating my HOUSE getting SKUNKED by a SKUNK and it was STINKY

The skunk, stinky but adorkable, especially when it’s eating yellow jackets:

The stink badger looks like a shaved skunk with a bobbed tail:

The zorilla wants to be your stinky friend:

A woodhoopoe, most magnificent:

A Eurasian hoopoe, looking snazzy:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that are infamous for their stinkiness. This wasn’t the topic I had planned on for this week, but last week my house got skunked. That is, a skunk sprayed an animal very close to my house, which means I woke up at 4:45am gagging from the smell of point-blank skunk odor. And this was with the windows closed and the air conditioning going. It was so bad I thought I would throw up, so I yanked on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and fled the house at 5:30am. I went to work early—don’t worry, I got coffee on the way—and spent the whole day smelling skunk faintly where the smell clung to my hair and, oddly, my phone case. Also I spent the whole day complaining to my coworkers.

Fortunately, when I got home the smell had dissipated somewhat, so I opened all the windows and doors and by the next morning it was mostly gone. But it got me wondering why skunk spray smells so, so bad and how many other stinky animals are out there.

The skunk is native to North and South America, although there are two species of related animals that live in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, called stink badgers. No seriously, that’s really what they’re called. Skunks and stink badgers are related to actual badgers and to weasels, but not closely.

The stink badger is black or dark brown with a white stripe that runs from its head down the back of its neck and along its spine, and finishes at its little short tuft of a tail. The skunk is black or dark brown with one or two white stripes or white spots, depending on the species, which continues down its long fluffy tail. In all cases, though, these stinky animals are vividly patterned with dark fur and bright white markings as a warning to other animals. Do not get too close or there’s a world of stink coming your way. Also, I can verify from my own experience that the white markings of a skunk make it much easier to see in the darkness and therefore avoid. Since the skunk is crepuscular, meaning it’s most active around dusk and dawn, that’s important. The stink badger is more nocturnal than the skunk.

Both the skunk and the stink badger have relatively short legs with sharp claws. Both are relatively small, about the size of a cat. Both are also good diggers and spend the daytime asleep in their burrows. In winter the skunk doesn’t hibernate but it does stay in its burrow more, spending most of its time asleep. This is the best way to deal with winter cold, if you ask me.

Female skunks share a den in the winter but males are usually solitary. This means the females retain a higher amount of body fat when the weather warms up, since they didn’t need to burn that fat to keep themselves warm. Researchers think this helps the females stay in better condition for a spring pregnancy. Meanwhile, males are skinnier at the beginning of the winter but by staying alone they’re less likely to contract disease or parasites.

Mating season for skunks is in spring and babies are born in early summer. They mostly stay in the burrow for about two months, then start accompanying their mother when she goes out foraging. The mother is really protective of her babies and will spray any animal that approaches.

Although the skunk can hear and smell well, it has poor vision. That’s why so many are killed by cars. The skunk’s biggest predator is the great horned owl, because owls don’t have much of a sense of smell and don’t care about being sprayed.

The skunk and the stink badger are both omnivorous and will dig up grubs and earthworms, will sometimes eat carrion, and also eat frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, leaves and other plant parts, especially berries and nuts, and insects. The skunk especially likes bees. It has thick fur that helps protect it from stings, and will eat all the bees it can catch.

The skunk also eats other stinging insects, including the dreaded yellow jacket. That’s a type of wasp that’s common where I live, with incredibly painful stings. A few years ago I noticed a yellow jacket nest in the ground behind my garage, and that night when the yellow jackets were asleep I carefully trimmed the long grass around the nest opening to see how extensive it was. Then I made a mental note to get some yellow jacket poison the following day. When I went back out to deal with the nest the next night, it was gone. A skunk had discovered it, probably because I’d exposed it by trimming back the grass, and had dug the whole nest up to eat the yellow jackets. There wasn’t a single one left. Ever since I have been lowkey fond of skunks, although I do wish they wouldn’t spray so close to my house.

So what is skunk spray and why is it so stinky? The skunk has two anal glands that contain an oily liquid made up of sulfurous chemical compounds. If a skunk feels threatened, it will raise its tail and fluff it out as a warning. It may also hiss, stomp its feet, and pretend to charge its potential attacker. The skunk doesn’t actually want to spray if it can avoid it, though. Its anal glands only hold enough of the oil to spray a few times, and when the skunk runs out it can’t spray again for almost two weeks. But if its warnings don’t work, it will use muscles to contract the glands and spray the oily liquid more than ten feet, or 3 meters.

If you’ve only ever smelled skunk spray in the distance, you may not think it’s so bad. But the smell is horrific up close, strong enough to induce vomiting, and it can cause irritation to the skin or even temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. And the skunk is really accurate when spraying, aiming at the face. Not only that, because it’s an oil, the spray clings to skin, hair, or fur, and it won’t just wash off. It can literally take weeks to wear off normally. If your clothes get sprayed, or your dog’s collar, the smell will never come out and you will have to throw the clothes away.

Domestic dogs get sprayed by skunks a lot. Some dogs just never learn. I once had a cat who was sprayed by a skunk too. You may have heard that you can remove the smell by washing your pet in tomato juice, but this actually doesn’t work. I asked a veterinarian how to clean up my cat, and this is what she told me. This worked great, by the way.

Mix hydrogen peroxide about half and half with warm water and add about a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Rub the mixture into the fur thoroughly, making sure to work it in well right down to the skin. If you can tell where the spray is, concentrate on that part. Do your best not to get the mixture into your pet’s eyes, and make sure to use good warm water. Part of the reason animals hate getting bathed is because they get cold really easily once their fur is wet, so using really warm water helps. Then rinse your pet thoroughly, making sure to get all the soap out so they won’t get itchy. You may need to mix up another batch of the hydrogen peroxide, water, and soap and give the stinkiest areas another wash. After you’ve rinsed your pet thoroughly, wrap them up in a towel and gently squeeze as much of the water out of the fur as you can. Then make sure you have a dry towel to put in your pet’s bed or basket or wherever it wants to hide after its horrible bath.

In July of 2019 a research team published a report about a type of fungus that makes a chemical called pericosine A that neutralizes noxious chemicals. The researchers tested pericosine on skunk spray and discovered that it neutralized the smell harmlessly. So it’s probably just a matter of time before pericosine is marketed to veterinarians to help pet owners. Let’s hope so.

Even skunks don’t like to be sprayed, incidentally. Males fight each other during mating season and will sometimes spray each other. A skunk reacts like any other animal when it gets sprayed.

The zorilla is another stinky animal related to the skunk, although it lives in parts of Africa. It’s brown with white markings and is sometimes called the striped polecat or African skunk. It’s about the same size as a skunk or stink badger and looks and acts very similar, although it’s a carnivore and much more social than the skunk. It’s also related to the honey badger, which we talked about in episode 62. If you remember, the honey badger is also black with a broad white or silvery stripe down its back, and it can invert its anal sacs and discharge a stinky oil, although it doesn’t spray like a skunk.

It’s not really surprising that all these animals are related, since most members of the weasel family, known as mustelids, have anal scent glands that produce a strong odor. Most species just use the glands to mark their territory, though.

But are there animals who spray like skunks but aren’t related to the skunk? Many animals have anal glands for marking territory, and if threatened some animals will empty the anal glands as a form as defense. The king ratsnake will sometimes do this, as will the lesser anteater, the opossum, and others.

But there’s another animal that actually sprays a smelly substance for defense, and it’s not one you’d expect. It’s a bird called the hoopoe, along with its relative the woodhoopoe.

The woodhoopoe lives in woods, savannah, and rainforests of Africa. It looks something like a cuckoo, with a very long tail marked with white spots. It’s mostly a metallic black in color, although some species have markings in other colors. Males have longer, more curved bills than females because they eat larger insects that live in bark and rotten wood while females eat smaller insects that live mostly on leaves. In this way, mated pairs don’t compete with each other for food.

The hoopoe lives across Eurasia and parts of Africa, and while it’s related to the woodhoopoe, it looks very different. It has a long crest that it can raise and lower like a crown, and it’s a pretty tan or brown color with black and white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly curved bills that they use to catch insects and other small animals.

Female hoopoes and woodhoopoes are picky about nesting spots. The female likes to nest in dead trees in rotting wood, or sometimes in a gap in a rock wall. The female incubates her eggs alone. But animals find dead trees and crumbling walls easy to climb, so to protect her nest the female can spray a foul-smelling liquid from the gland that most birds just use to secrete preening oil. This is the case for the female hoopoe and woodhoopoe too most of the time, but after she lays her eggs the gland becomes weaponized. Not only that, when the babies hatch, they develop the same gland. The female rubs the stinky oil on her babies and on the nest to deter predators, and researchers think it may also deter parasites. If an animal approaches the nest anyway, the female can spray the oil at it. And if the female is off catching food for her babies, the babies will hiss, peck, and squirt liquid poop at the predator. At that point, most predators probably just decide to go hunt something else. After they clean up.

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 138: City Animals



This week we’re going to learn about some animals that have made their homes in cities alongside humans. Thanks to Corianne who suggested this amazing topic!

Further reading:

The BBC’s Urban Fox FAQ

Toronto vs. Raccoons

The urban fox has a favorite coffee shop and knows where to find parking downtown:

The urban raccoon’s apartment is really small but it’s in a great location:

The urban (rock) pigeon can walk to work in good weather:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at animals that live in cities. This is a great suggestion by Corianne, who especially suggested the pigeon. But pigeons aren’t the only animals that live in cities alongside people. In fact, in 2018 a large-scale camera trap study of animals in Washington DC and Raleigh, NC concluded that just as many mammal species live in cities as live in the countryside. That’s only mammals, though. There aren’t as many species of other animals in cities.

Different animals hang out in cities in different parts of the world. In parts of Africa and Asia, local monkeys have moved into cities and cause mischief by stealing food from markets and tourists. Gulls are also thieves of food, sometimes getting so bold as to snatch a sandwich from a person’s hands while they’re eating it, even in cities nowhere near the ocean. City parks attract squirrels and deer, decorative fountains and ponds attract geese and ducks as well as alligators, peregrine falcons move in to feast on pigeons, rats, and other small animals, and some cities have to deal with the occasional bear or leopard, wild boars, even penguins. But today we’re going to focus on three really common city dwellers, both because they’re interesting and because there are so many misconceptions out there about them.

We’ll start with urban foxes. We talked about foxes in episode 106, but while urban foxes are plain old red foxes and not a separate species or subspecies, they’ve adapted to city life easily since they’re omnivores and agile animals that can climb obstacles like fences.

Many cities throughout the world have urban foxes, but they’re especially common in the UK. They eat out of trash cans for some of their diet, but they also hunt rats and other small animals that live in cities too, along with earthworms, insects, and even plants. They especially like fruit and acorns. When a fox finds some food, it will often run off with it and bury it somewhere, then come back later to eat it.

Because an urban fox doesn’t have to worry about predators as much as ordinary countryside foxes do, it can grow larger on average than its country cousins. But it’s also in more danger of being hit by cars or infected with diseases common to dogs and other canids, like mange and distemper.

Urban foxes have a bad reputation for biting, attacking pets, and in general being a nuisance. But the fox is just being a fox and doing the best it can. In many parts of the world, the red fox’s natural habitat is fragmented more every year as cities grow larger and farmland and woodland is turned into houses. Besides, foxes have been reported in cities for a long time—over a century in London, England, where foxes are relatively common. They especially like areas with parks, or where people have gardens or lawns.

The biggest problem with urban foxes is people who treat them like they’re dogs. They’re wild animals, so while it’s okay to leave food out for them, don’t try to touch one or get too close to it. Foxes who get too used to people can become aggressive. Foxes usually don’t bother animals as large as cats, either, and they avoid dogs, but don’t leave small pets like guinea pigs or rabbits outside, especially at night, because that is just asking for trouble.

The urban fox doesn’t always live only in the city, though. One fox, nicknamed Fleet, was tagged by researchers in 2014 and tracked to see where he spent his time. To their surprise, Fleet lived up to his name and traveled from the city of Hove into the countryside across England. In 21 days he traveled 195 miles, or 314 km, and probably went farther but his GPS tracker stopped working so we don’t know how far.

This is what a fox sounds like:

[fox sound]

In the UK, foxes are frequent city animals, but in North America it’s much more common for raccoons to fill the same ecological niche. The raccoon is native to North and Central America although it’s been introduced in parts of Europe as a fur animal and briefly to Japan as a pet. The raccoon makes a really bad pet, by the way. It’s not domesticated and will tear your house up.

The raccoon is mostly gray or gray-brown with some lighter areas of fur, black rings on its bushy tail, and black markings over its eyes. It grows a little over two feet long, or around 70 cm, not counting its tail. Its legs are relatively short and it scurries instead of really running, although it can swim well. The raccoon is a great climber and can even climb down trees headfirst by turning its hind feet so that they point backwards, which gives it a better grip. It has sharp claws too, and dexterous hands although they don’t have opposable thumbs. The raccoon’s front paws have as many sensory receptors as human hands, which means it can learn a lot by just touching something. Like, for instance, how to unlock a trash bin.

The raccoon is well-known for getting into trash no matter what kind of bin it’s in. This is because raccoons are remarkably intelligent. By now you probably know that intelligence and social complexity are linked, but raccoons have a much different society than other intelligent animals. Groups of related females generally occupy the same territory and come together to eat and rest, while males usually live in small groups that are mostly separate from females.

Like the fox, the raccoon is an omnivore. It eats insects and worms, fruit and nuts as well as other plant material, bird and reptile eggs, frogs, fish, crustaceans, and other small animals. Raccoons in captivity are known to wash their food by dipping it in water, but this behavior hasn’t actually been documented in wild raccoons. Some researchers think the raccoons aren’t actually trying to clean the food, but are mimicking the motion of catching food in water, while others suggest the raccoons are stimulating the nerve endings in their hands with water to learn more about the food they’re touching.

Raccoons prefer open forests near water, since they like to catch fish and frogs. But they will eat pretty much anything, which means they raid trash bins. For years, the city of Toronto in Canada had trouble with raccoons getting into people’s trash bins. The bins were designed to be picked up and emptied by city trucks, but the raccoons had learned to break the locks. In 2015 the city redesigned the bins to be raccoon resistant, and in 2016 after extensive testing the new bins were distributed to residents. Before long the raccoons had figured out how to open them.

Researchers think that the daily puzzles urban raccoons solve to find food actually make them smarter. Since they’re pretty smart to start with, that’s kind of scary.

Like urban foxes, urban raccoons can get too used to humans. They’re rarely dangerous to people or pets, but they can cause a real mess if they get into your house and will bite if they feel threatened.

This is what a raccoon sounds like:

[raccoon sound]

We’ll finish with the ubiquitous city bird, the pigeon. It’s properly called the rock pigeon or rock dove and is native to parts of Eurasia and Africa. But these days it’s spread throughout much of the world, especially in cities.

Most people are familiar with the pigeon. It’s usually gray or brownish-gray with a white patch on its rump and two broad stripes of black on its wings. Both males and females have iridescent feathers on the neck that shine green and purple in sunlight, but the iridescence in males is much more pronounced. Pigeons with other markings are either feral domesticated pigeons or have feral domesticated pigeons in their ancestry. The domesticated pigeon was actually developed from the rock pigeon and it’s probable that most city pigeons are actually mostly feral domesticated pigeons.

The pigeon is a fairly large bird, up to 15 inches long, or 37 cm, with a wingspan over two feet, or 72 cm. It mostly eats seeds and other plant material, but will also eat small insects. City pigeons will eat bread and other foods too, but they would be happier with whole grains. Like many other birds, the pigeon stores food in its crop after swallowing it, which allows it to eat more food than it would otherwise be able to hold. The crop is a chamber at the bottom of the esophagus.

Not only do pigeons have a crop, which not all birds have, pigeon parents produce a food called crop milk or pigeon milk that they feed to babies. It’s not milk at all, of course, but the nutrient-rich lining of the crop that it sheds and regurgitates to feed its babies, which are called squabs. Both parents produce crop milk, which sort of looks like cottage cheese. The babies can’t digest anything except crop milk for the first week of life, so the parents may actually not eat anything during the first days after the eggs hatch to make sure there aren’t any seeds mixed in with the crop milk. After a few days the parents mix in food that’s been softened in the crop.

Pigeons and doves are almost the only birds that produce crop milk. The flamingo and the male emperor penguin do too, even though they aren’t related to pigeons. But that’s it, as far as we know. So if anyone asks you what the flamingo, the emperor penguin, and the pigeon have in common, now you know. Also, they’re all birds.

Pigeons live in flocks, although the flock may break up into smaller groups or pairs during part of the day. At night the birds usually roost together except for pairs who have eggs or babies in a nest. Pigeons mate for life and both parents take care of the eggs and squabs. Flock leaders find food and lead the rest of the birds to it, whether the food comes from plants growing in a park or from a person scattering birdseed.

Pigeons are actually clean animals when they have access to water. They like to bathe and preen to keep their feathers clean. If you’ve ever watched a typical bird drink water, maybe at a puddle or a birdbath, you might have noticed that the bird dips some water into its beak, then tilts its head back so the water runs down its throat. This is because most birds can’t actually swallow water the way most mammals can. I mean, if you had to you could drink water while you were upside down, although you might choke or get it in your sinuses. But some of the water at least would get into your stomach. Birds couldn’t. Except for the pigeon, which can actually drink like a mammal, keeping its head down as it swallows. The pigeon and its close relatives are the only birds known who can do this.

No one thinks of pigeons as especially smart birds, but guess what. They’re actually pretty bright. Pigeons can easily memorize images, even hundreds of them, and retain those memories for years. They not only recognize individual humans, they can learn to understand what human expressions mean. They also have keen vision and can differentiate between very similar items or pictures, which leads to pigeons being trained to do something unexpected. Wait for it. You’re not going to believe this. Pigeons can learn to identify malignant breast tissue in mammograms at least as well as humans can. Researchers train birds to identify the differences in mammogram slides, then use four birds in a team. The team can be 99% accurate in identifying malignancies that need to be treated. So pigeons can save human lives!

Not only that, but researchers can find sources of lead pollution by taking blood samples from sick or dead pigeons found in cities. Since city pigeons generally have small territories that only encompass a few blocks, researchers can measure the level of lead found in birds and know roughly where the lead exposure occurred. That helps the city find and clean up sources of lead pollution.

Pigeons are actually quite healthy birds, despite their reputation as diseased. They’re surprisingly resistant to a lot of bird diseases, including bird flu. Many people think of pigeons as dirty scavengers, but like other urban animals, they’re just living out their lives in an environment humans made. And if they’re scavengers, just think about where that food is coming from. People are dropping it on the ground, that’s where. Maybe people are the dirty ones, throwing food around. Pigeons are just cleaning it up for us.

This is what a pigeon sounds like:

[pigeon sound]

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 134: The Magpie



Thanks to Emma for this week’s suggestion about the magpie! We’ll learn all about the magpie and also about the mirror test for intelligence and self-awareness.

The black-billed magpie of North America (left) is almost identical in appearance to the Eurasian magpie (right):

Not all magpies are black and white. This green magpie is embarrassed by its goth cousins:

The beautiful and altruistic azure-winged magpie:

Chimps pass the mirror test. So do magpies:

The Australian magpie, or as Emma calls it, MURDERBIRD:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about the magpie, a frighteningly intelligent bird. Thanks to Emma for the suggestion!

The magpie is a member of the corvid family, so it’s related to crows, ravens, jackdaws, jays, rooks, and a few other kinds of birds. Most magpies are native to Europe and Asia, but there are a couple of species found in western North America. There are also two species found in Australia, but we’ll come back to those later on. People think of magpies as black and white, but some Asian species are green or blue. They look like parrots at first glance.

The most well-known magpie is the Eurasian or common magpie. Its body and shoulders are bright white and its head, tail, wings, beak, and legs are a glossy black. It has a very long tail for its size, a little longer than its body, and its wingspan is about two feet across, or 62 cm. It looks so much like the black-billed magpie of western North America that for a long time people thought the two birds were the same species.

Like most corvid species, the magpie is omnivorous. It will eat plant material like acorns and seeds, insects and other invertebrates, the eggs and babies of other birds, and roadkill and other carrion. It will also hunt small animals in groups. It mates for life and is intensely social.

The big thing about the magpie is how intelligent it is. It’s a social bird with a complex society, tool use, excellent memory, and evidence of emotions usually only attributed to mammals, like grief. An experiment with a group of Azure-winged magpies, a species that lives in Asia, shows something called prosocial behavior, which is incredibly rare except in humans and some other primates. Prosocial behavior is also called altruism. In the experiment, a magpie could operate a seesaw to deliver food to other members of its flock, but it wouldn’t get any food itself. All the magpies tested in this way made sure their bird buddies got the food. When access to the food was blocked for the other birds, the bird operating the seesaw didn’t operate it.

The magpie also passes what’s called the mirror test. The mirror test is when a researcher temporary places a colored dot on an animal’s body in a place where it can’t see it, usually the face. Then a mirror is introduced into the animal’s enclosure. If an animal sees the dot in the reflection and investigates its own body to try to examine or remove the dot, the researcher concludes that the animal understands that the reflection is itself, not another animal.

This sounds simple because most humans pass the mirror test when we’re still just toddlers. But most animals don’t. Obviously researchers haven’t been able to try the test with every single animal in the world, but even so, the results they’ve found have been surprising. Great apes pass the test, bottlenose dolphins and orcas have passed, and the European magpie has passed the test. Cleaner wrasse fish also passed the test.

You know what else passed the mirror test? Ants.

The mirror test is supposed to be a test of self-awareness, but that’s not necessarily what it’s showing. Dogs fail the mirror test but pass other tests that more clearly indicate self-awareness. But in dogs, the sense of smell is much more important than sight. Humans don’t even usually think of smell since we’re more attuned to sight and hearing, so we’ve constructed a flawed test without realizing it.

Gorillas also don’t always pass the mirror test, but researchers think this may be because in gorilla society, it’s an act of aggression to look into another gorilla’s eyes. So the gorilla looking in the mirror may literally not see the dot that was painted on its forehead while it was asleep, since it automatically avoids looking at another gorilla’s face, even its own reflection. As far as I can find, no one has tried painting the dot on bottom of the gorilla’s foot or something instead of its face.

Parrots, monkeys, lesser apes, and octopuses don’t pass the test, but all these animals express intelligence in many other ways. Not only that, but some animals that don’t technically pass the test because they don’t give any attention to the dot painted on them will use the mirror for other purposes, like looking at parts of the body they can’t ordinarily see. Asian elephants do poorly on the mirror test, but do well in other tests that measure self-awareness.

Also, most of the animals given the mirror test have never looked in a mirror before. Maybe they don’t realize that dot wasn’t always on their cheek. Or maybe they just don’t care if they’ve got a dot on their face.

That brings us to a final criticism of the mirror test. Some animals live in environments where they’re likely to see reflections. An animal that frequently sees its own reflection in still water when it drinks is more likely to understand that this is a reflection of itself. An animal that has never seen its own reflection won’t necessarily understand what it is. Even humans have this trouble. People who have been blind since birth but who regain vision later in life often don’t know what a reflection is at first. This doesn’t mean they’re stupid or not self-aware, it’s just something new that they have to learn.

But it’s still interesting that magpies pass the mirror test. Okay, let’s move on.

There are a lot of folklore traditions and superstitions about magpies. In Britain, seeing a single magpie is sometimes said to be bad luck, a sign of bad weather to come, or even an omen of death. Seeing two magpies is good luck or a good omen. In parts of Asia all magpies are considered lucky. The nursery rhyme “one for sorrow, two for joy” is originally about magpies, although as a kid I learned it about crows since I live in a part of the world where we don’t have magpies. The rhyme varies, but the version I learned is “one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, and seven’s a secret that’s never been told.”

Magpies are supposed to be attracted to shiny objects and are thought of as thieves. There’s a whole opera about this, Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, about a girl who’s accused of stealing a silver spoon. The girl is convicted and condemned to death, but just in time the spoon is discovered in a magpie’s nest and the girl is pardoned. You’ve probably heard the overture to this opera without knowing it, since it appears in a lot of movies.

But do magpies really steal shiny things like jewelry, coins, and silver spoons? Results of a study of wild common magpies indicate that they don’t. A few of the magpies investigated the shiny objects, but none took any and most birds were wary of getting too close to items they’d never seen before.

Many people think magpies are pests who chase off or kill other songbirds, steal things, and are basically taking over the world. That’s actually not the case. The magpie is an important part of its ecosystem, and areas with plenty of magpies actually have healthier populations of other songbirds. The black-billed magpie of North America will hang around herds of cattle, cleaning the animals of ticks and other insects.

Let’s return now to the Australian magpies I mentioned earlier. The black magpie is mostly black with white on its wings. It’s actually not closely related to the magpie at all but is a species of treepie. Other treepies are found in southeast Asia. Treepies are corvids, but they’re not closely related to magpies although they look similar.

The Australian magpie also looks similar to the common magpie, but it’s not a corvid, although its family is distantly related to the corvid family. It’s mostly black with white markings and a heavy silvery-white bill with a black tip. It lives in Australia, southern New Guinea, and has been introduced to New Zealand, where it’s an invasive pest that displaces native birds. It’s about the size of the common magpie, but more heavily built with a shorter tail. It mostly eats insects and other invertebrates, but it is omnivorous. Researchers have noticed that some Australian magpies dunk insects in water before eating them, a practice seen in many species of birds. It doesn’t just dip the insect in the water, though, it thrashes it around. Researchers theorize that this helps rid certain insects of toxins and therefore improves the taste.

If someone gets too close to an Australian magpie’s nest, it will divebomb them, especially the male. It may also peck at the face, sometimes causing injuries. Sometimes people will paint eyes on the back of a hat to try and fool a magpie into attacking the painted face instead of their actual face, although this generally doesn’t work. The magpie especially attacks people who are moving fast, like joggers and bicyclists, so some bike helmets have spikes on them to stop magpies from diving at them. But since a magpie will also sometimes land on the ground in front of a person, then fly up and attack their face from that angle, it doesn’t really matter what kind of hat you wear. It’s probably safest to avoid magpies who are nesting. The babies will be grown and flown away soon enough and then you can have your public park back.

Australian magpies also chase off predatory birds, mobbing them the same way crows and other birds mob hawks.

The Australian magpie is also an intelligent bird. Researchers think intelligence in birds and animals of all kinds is linked to sociability, and Australian magpies are just as social as their far-distant Eurasian and North American cousins. Magpies who grow up in larger groups score higher on tests of intelligence than magpies from smaller groups. The larger a group, the more complex the social interactions required of an individual bird, which drives cognitive development.

The Australian magpie has an amazing singing voice and can mimic other birds and animals. It even sometimes imitates human speech. A magpie may sing constantly for over an hour at a time, and pairs often call together. These duets actually indicate to other birds that the pair is working together to defend their territory, so maybe if you hear it it’s time to put on the bike helmet with spikes.

This is what an Australian magpie sounds like:

[magpie call]

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 128: Weird Pigs



If you think pigs are just cute little pink animals that go oink, you definitely need to listen to this week’s episode!

Further listening (two unlocked Patreon episodes):

Weird teeth featuring the babirusa

Peccaries

Further reading:

More about the swamp pig of Hungary

An adorable pygmy hog:

A Javan warty pig, looking magnificent:

An actual warthog, not a cartoon warthog, just sayin:

A giant forest hog, looking kind of similar to the warthog but bigger:

A wild boar looking surprisingly fluffy:

A wild boar piglet, awwww:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at an animal all of us know as the thing that goes oink-oink. Some people eat them, some people will absolutely not eat them, some people keep them as pets, but everybody knows what a pig is. But you might not know about these weird and sometimes mysterious pigs!

I’ve unlocked two Patreon bonus episodes about pigs so that anyone can listen to them. I recently posted a bonus episode about peccaries, and there’s an older bonus episode about some animals with weird teeth that features the babirusa. Check the show notes for links to those episodes. You don’t need a Patreon login, just click on the link and use your browser to listen.

There are two groups of piglike animals, known as the New World pigs found throughout the Americas, and the Old World pigs from Africa and Eurasia. Domestic pigs are Old World pigs, although escaped domestic pigs live as feral animals in many parts of the world. New World and Old World pigs are related, but not closely. They used to be classified together in the pig family, Suidae, but the New World pigs now have their own family, Tayassuidae.

All these pigs have one thing in common: a snout that ends in a disc with nostrils at the end. You know, a pig snout. The disc is made of cartilage and is usually extremely tough, with leathery skin, but it’s also full of nerve endings so the pig can tell exactly what it’s touching with its snout. Pigs use their snouts to root in the ground, digging up plant material and small animals like grubs and worms. You know why pigs sometimes have a ring in their nose, through the nostrils? This stops a pig from rooting, because the ring gets caught on rocks and things and pulls at the sensitive nostrils.

Male pigs of all kinds also have tusks, or teeth that grow long enough that they extend out of the mouth. Plus pigs have small, thin tails, bulky bodies with relatively slender legs, cloven hooves with two dew claws on each foot, and small eyes. The babies of wild pig species are usually furry with stripes the length of their body.

Pigs are surprisingly intelligent and can learn all kinds of tricks, just like dogs. And while a domestic pig that’s been handled often since it was a piglet will make a good pet, wild pigs and pigs that aren’t used to people can be dangerous. Pigs will eat people, which seems only fair since people eat so many pigs. Pigs will eat anything, in fact. They’re omnivores, just like humans are. Pigs also carry a lot of parasites and diseases that humans can catch too.

Let’s look at some of the more unusual wild pigs out there, starting with the pygmy hog. The pygmy hog isn’t actually very closely related to most pigs. It’s much smaller than most pig species, only about a foot high, or 30 cm. It’s brown in color with short hair and rounded ears, and it lives in India although it used to be much more widespread.

The pygmy hog lives in small family groups, usually females and their young. Males are more solitary. In cold weather the pygmy hog digs a nest to sleep in, rooting out a small trough in the dirt with its snout and lining it with grass. This is adorable.

The pygmy hog was first described in 1847 but by the 1960s it was supposedly extinct. But a population was rediscovered in 1971 living in a wildlife sanctuary. By the time a conservation program was set up in 1995, only a few hundred pygmy hogs were still alive in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting. The pygmy hog likes wet grasslands, which are often overgrazed by livestock. Fortunately it’s now a protected species in India, and over a hundred captive-bred pygmy hogs have been reintroduced into the wild and are repopulating areas where they were once common.

Another endangered pig is the Javan warty pig, which lives on several islands in Indonesia. It’s black with some reddish areas on its head and belly. Males can grow up to three feet tall, or about a meter, although females are smaller. It’s mostly active at night, with females and young living in small groups, while adult males are mostly solitary. When something scares it, it gives a shrill whistle to warn other pigs.

The male Javan warty pig has three pairs of so-called warts on its head, one pair under the eyes, one pair under the ears, and one pair on the jaw. These aren’t warts at all, of course, but thickened skin that protect the eyes, the ears, and the neck from the tusks of other male pigs, since males fight with their tusks during mating season.

The most famous wart-bearing pig, of course, is the warthog. The warthog lives in Africa and is well-adapted to the savanna and hot weather. It has very little hair except for a mane down the spine, and very little fat, which helps keep it cool, and it often sleeps in abandoned aardvark burrows or digs its own burrow for shade. It usually backs into its burrow so if anything tries to come in after it, it will meet its tusks.

Warthogs have two pairs of massive tusks that rub against each other, sharpening them. The upper tusks can grow up to two feet long, or 61 cm, with the lower tusks up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm. Males fight each other with the tusks, but both males and females have them since they make good weapons against predators like lions. But the warthog can run so fast that it doesn’t usually need to defend itself. It can run up to 34 mph, or 55 km/hour.

The warthog mostly eats grass and other plants, including roots that it digs up with its snout. It can go without water for months at a time, getting the moisture it requires from the plants it eats. But when water is available, it likes to sit in the water to cool down. It will also wallow in mud just like domestic pigs do. It often kneels while it eats but no one’s sure why. I guess it just finds that comfortable.

One of the biggest species of wild pig alive today is the giant forest hog, which lives in forests in a few parts of Africa. There are three subspecies, but only the one that lives in East Africa is really big. It can grow more than 3 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.1 meters, and a big male can weigh over 600 lbs, or 275 kg. It looks sort of like a hairier, bigger warthog with a broader head.

The giant forest hog is black, gray, and dark brown. It likes forests and mostly eats plants, especially grass, although like other pigs it will eat anything it can find when its favorite foods aren’t available. This includes insects, carrion, and elephant dung. It lives in small family groups, usually one male, a few females, and their piglets. Younger males without a mate will hang out together in bachelor herds, but adult males will fight if they encounter each other, mostly by ramming their heads together or pushing snout to snout in a test of strength.

The other biggest species of wild pig is the wild boar, native to Eurasia and north Africa, and the ancestor of the domestic pig. It’s been introduced to other parts of the world as a game animal, including Australia and the United States. There are 16 subspecies of wild boar, including the Ussuri wild boar, which grows the largest. It lives in parts of China and Russia. A big male Ussuri can weigh 660 pounds, or 300 kg.

According to Hungarian folklore, there used to be a type of large wild pig called the fisher pig or swamp pig that lived in marshy areas near certain rivers. Hungary is a country in central Europe, roughly between Austria and Romania. The swamp pig is supposed to be extinct now, dying out around the end of the 19th century, but it was once well known in parts of Hungary. It mostly ate crabs and fish and lived in herds. That’s pretty much all I could find out about it. It may have been a population of feral pigs or it might have been a subspecies of wild boar that’s gone extinct now.

So what’s the biggest domestic pig ever measured? Pigs are usually assessed by weight, naturally, and a pig named Big Bill holds the world record. He weighed 2,552 pounds, or 1,157 kg, in 1933. This is really unusual, though. Most pigs that weigh anywhere near that much end up dying of heart failure or other health issues brought on by their unusual size after being overfed by their owners.

Wild boars can and do crossbreed with domestic pigs. The offspring usually resembles the wild parent more than the domestic parent, often with a mane of bristly hair that gives it the name razorback. It can be hard to tell whether a particular animal is a wild boar or a hybrid or just a feral domestic pig.

Sometimes unusually large pigs are shot and killed. You may have heard of Hogzilla, Hog Kong, and the Monster Pig, among others. Where wild boars have been introduced as game animals, they’re incredibly destructive to the environment and can be dangerous. It’s common for people to hunt them and sometimes they kill humongous pigs. Or at least they claim they did.

In 2004 a man shot a pig on a hunting reserve in Georgia, in the United States, that he claimed weighed over a thousand pounds, or 450 kg. It actually turned out to be much smaller, only about 800 pounds, or 360 kg. That’s still a big pig, so I don’t know why the hunter had to lie about its size.

Similarly, in 2007, some hunters in Alabama in the United States reported that an 11yo boy with them, the son of one of the hunters, had shot and killed a pig that weighed over a thousand pounds, or more than 475 kg. They sent photos of the boy and the dead pig to local media, but pretty soon the story fell apart. It turned out that the photos used forced perspective to make the pig look bigger than it really was, and that the pig wasn’t even wild. It was a domestic pig named Fred who was quite friendly and had been raised as a pet. Fred’s owners had sold him to a hunting preserve and recognized their former pet in the pictures. The 11yo boy had “hunted” Fred in a relatively small enclosure. Whatever your views on hunting, this wasn’t a fair hunt and it turned out that the whole thing was a publicity stunt to drum up business at the preserve.

I don’t know, maybe don’t sell your pet pig to a canned hunt business in the first place.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 126: The Hedgehog and the Moonrat



This week thanks to Romy, who suggested the topic of hedgehogs! And researching hedgehogs led me to their only close relation, the moonrat.

Hedgehogs are adorable:

Pictures of listener QuillviaPlath’s adorable friend Delilah, an African pygmy hedgehog. Delilah has crossed the Rainbow Bridge since these pictures were taken, but QuillviaPlath has a rescue hedgehog named Lily now and will soon be adopting another rescue named Toodles too!

Moonrats are a little less adorable but still cute:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a humble little animal that’s well-known in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa, but totally unknown in the Americas except as a pet. It’s the hedgehog, a suggestion from Romy. Thank you, Romy! We’ll also learn about the hedgehog’s closest relation, the moonrat.

There did actually used to be a hedgehog native to North America, but it went extinct some 50 million years ago. The hedgehogs alive today pretty much haven’t changed in about 15 million years. The North American hedgehog is called Silvacola and only grew a few inches long, or maybe 7 cm. It lived in what is now British Columbia, Canada. We don’t know if it had quills, but the hedgehogs living in Europe at the same time as Silvacola lived had already evolved quills, so maybe it did.

I have seen exactly one hedgehog in my life, a pet named Button. I got to pet her and everything. She was very sleepy, though, because it was daytime and hedgehogs are nocturnal. But I can verify that hedgehogs do have spines on the back and sides, although if you pet the hedgehog properly you won’t get your fingers poked by the spines. I can also verify that hedgehogs are adorable.

But other than adorable and prickly, what are hedgehogs? Are they related to porcupines? Are they related to hogs? Do they really live in hedges?

The answers are no, no, and yes. Thanks for listening. You can find Strange Animals—ha ha, just kidding!

There are a number of hedgehog species in five separate genera. A few species have been domesticated, although it’s illegal in many places to keep a wild hedgehog as a pet. In some places it’s illegal to keep a hedgehog as a pet at all, since hedgehogs can become invasive pests if released into the wild in areas where they shouldn’t be. This has happened in New Zealand and a few other places, where introduced hedgehogs have no natural predators and have become so numerous they’ve caused damage to the local ecosystems. The hedgehog is an omnivore, and will eat bird eggs, insects, frogs and toads, snails, plants, and pretty much anything else. It’s especially damaging to shore birds that nest on the ground. But in its natural habitat, the hedgehog plays an important role as both a predator of small animals, including garden pests, and as prey to larger animals like foxes, badgers, and owls.

The hedgehog will also eat small snakes, and actually has some natural immunity to certain snake venoms. Of course, if a snake injects enough venom it will overwhelm the hedgehog’s protections and make it sick or kill it anyway. It also has resistance to toxins and will eat toxic toads that would kill other animals. But the hedgehog’s best protection is its spines, more properly called quills. If a hedgehog feels threatened, it will roll itself into a tight ball with its quills sticking out.

The quills are hairs that are hollow and stiffened with keratin. Good old keratin. You know, keratin is the same tough material that fur and fingernails and rhinoceros horns and hooves and baleen are made of. European hedgehogs are famous for the number of fleas they carry, a specific species of flea called the hedgehog flea. Who named that? They were a genius. Hedgehog fleas won’t infest dogs or cats. They only like hedgehogs.

The hedgehog is a good digger and sometimes digs burrows to sleep in during the day. It’s adaptable to many habitats but likes woodlands, meadows, and, yes, hedgerows where it can find lots of food. It has a pig-like snout, short legs, a little stub of a tail, and small ears. Baby hedgehogs are born with a protective membrane over their quills. It grows to around a foot long, or 30 cm, although many of the species are typically smaller than that. Most hedgehogs are brown but some are naturally cream-colored, a rare variety called blonde. This color is bred for in domesticated hedgehogs. Button the hedgehog is blonde with a dark spot on her back, which is why she’s named Button.

The population of West European hedgehogs has decreased substantially in the last few decades, which has conservationists worried. A 2016 study reported that the population has declined over 7% in the UK over the last 50 years, with similar declines in parts of Europe like Sweden and Belgium. Researchers speculate this may be due to habitat loss.

The hedgehog can hibernate although it doesn’t always. It may hibernate in piles of leaves or sticks, or in a burrow it digs underground, or somewhere else that’s protected from predators and cold. If you’ve gathered wood for a bonfire, make sure to check the pile for sleeping hedgehogs before you get the matches out.

One of the most persistent legends about the hedgehog is that it rolls on fruit, especially apples, in order to stick its quills into the fruit. Then it goes home to its burrow, carrying the fruit on its quills to eat later.

So, do hedgehogs actually do this? Probably not. Some observers say hedgehogs will roll in leaves and allow the leaves to stick to its quills, possibly as a form of camouflage. It would be easy for one to accidentally pick up a small rotten apple this way, giving rise to the legend, although the quills aren’t strong enough to hold a large apple without breaking. The sites I read online all say that hedgehogs don’t bring food back to the burrow to eat later, but T.H. White shares an anecdote to the contrary in his Book of Beasts. This is a translation of a 12th century bestiary, and his anecdote appears in a note on page 95. The text repeats the story of hedgehogs carrying apples home, and White adds:

“The Hedgehog constructs a humble nest in ditches, and there it hibernates. In 1939, the present translator dug out such a nest, near an orchard, with an Irish laboring companion who proceeded to tell him that hedgehogs carried apples to their nests on their spines—an anecdote which the translator had just been reading in this manuscript, eight hundred years older than the Irishman. The latter asserted the truth of his statement with passion, pointing to the apples, which were indeed there, and had punctured bruises on them. But the creature had probably trundled them there with its nose, subsequently making the punctures when it curled up to sleep on top of them.”

I haven’t found anyone else who reports seeing a hedgehog push an apple home with its nose, or anything else for that matter. But the apples were in the hedgehog’s nest. T.H. White saw them. It could be the apples had fallen from a nearby tree and rolled into the ditch on their own, and the hedgehog just happened to nest on them. Then again, one source I found mentions that hedgehogs may anoint themselves with apple juice to help repel fleas and other parasites. This seems a little on the farfetched side, but the hedgehog does do a weird thing called anointing that might have something to do with controlling parasites. No one’s sure what it’s for.

Anointing seems to be triggered when a hedgehog encounters a new or unusual odor. The hedgehog starts foaming at the mouth, often contorting its body oddly, and then it licks the foam onto its quills. This happens with domesticated hedgehogs as well as wild ones, and one site I read mentions that it may happen if you handle a pet hedgehog after putting hand lotion on.

So what is the hedgehog related to? It’s not a rodent, so it’s not related to porcupines. It’s a placental mammal so it’s not related to echidnas, which are monotremes. Both porcupines and echidnas evolved quills for protection independently. The hedgehog is probably most closely related to the shrew, but the other member of its family is an animal called the moonrat.

The moonrat lives in Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, Borneo, and Myanmar, and shares a lot of characteristics with the hedgehog, like being omnivorous and digging burrows, but it doesn’t have quills. It looks a lot like the Virginia opossum, or as it’s properly called around where I live, the possum. But the possum is a marsupial, and again, the moonrat, like the hedgehog, is a placental mammal. It also looks a little like a rat, but the rat is a rodent and the moonrat isn’t a rodent.

The moonrat has a relatively long, skinny tail that’s mostly bare of fur and is actually scaly, which makes its tail look kind of like a snake. It also hisses like a snake (it’s not a snake). (Also going to point out that the possum hisses too.) The moonrat also has a long, thin muzzle, small rounded ears, and short legs. It grows to about a foot and a half long, not counting the tail, which can be nearly as long as the body. A foot and a half is about 40 cm. One subspecies of moonrat has light gray or white fur on its head and forequarters except for a black mask, while the rest of its body is black. Another subspecies is mostly white.

The moonrat prefers jungles and forests and is mostly nocturnal. It eats pretty much anything, but it especially likes insects, crabs, worms, and frogs, and will even eat fish when it can catch one.

One interesting thing about the moonrat is its smell. The moonrat marks its territory with a scent that smells like ammonia. You know what else smells like ammonia? Cat pee. That is not a good smell, if you’ve ever had to clean out a cat’s litter box that should have been cleaned out a lot earlier. It also smells kind of like rotten onions. As a result of its scent glands for marking territory, the moonrat smells pretty bad to human noses. But people do occasionally eat it, just as they sometimes eat hedgehogs.

People are omnivores too, after all. But, you know, maybe don’t eat animals that smell like ammonia.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at a new URL! I finally had to move to a real podcast hosting platform since I had topped out the memory and usage available without one. Our website is now at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. I will keep the old website up but it won’t be updated. The podcast feed shouldn’t change unless I’ve really messed something up, in which case you probably aren’t hearing this.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, or just want a sticker, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast where you can get bonus episodes for as little as one dollar a month donation.

Thanks for listening!