Category Archives: Europe

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!


Episode 123: Linnaeus’s mystery animals



Carolus Linnaeus was a botanist who worked out modern taxonomy and binomial nomenclature, but there are two mystery animals associated with his work. Let’s find out about them!

Rembrandt sketched this elephant whose skeleton is now the type specimen of the Asian elephant:

Linnaeus’s original entry about Furia infernalis:

Further reading:

Ewen Callaway, “Linnaeus’s Asian elephant was wrong species

Karl Shuker, “Linnaeus’s Hellish Fury Worm – The History (and Mystery) of a Non-Existent Micro-Assassin

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn a little something about binomial nomenclature, which is the system for giving organisms scientific names. Then we’ll learn about a couple of mystery animals associated with the guy who invented binomial nomenclature.

That guy was Carlolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who lived in the 18th century. Botany is the study of plants. If you’ve ever tried to figure out what a particular plant is called, you can understand how frustrating it must have been for botanists back then. The same plant can have dozens of common names depending on who you ask.

When I was a kid, the local name for a common plant with edible leaves that tasted deliciously tart was rabbit grass. I’ve never heard anyone anywhere else call it rabbit grass. Maybe you know it as sourgrass or false shamrock or wood sorrel.

There are over a hundred species of that plant throughout the world in the genus Oxalis, so it’s also sometimes just called oxalis. The species that’s most common in East Tennessee where I grew up is Oxalis dellenii, but all species look pretty much the same unless you get down on your stomach and really study the leaves and the flower petals and the stems. So if you were a botanist wanting to talk to another botanist about Oxalis dellenii back in the early 18th century, you couldn’t call it Oxalis dellennii. Not yet. You’d have to say, hey, do you know what rabbit grass is? And the other botanist would say, why no, I have never heard of this no doubt rare and astounding plant; and you’d produce a pot full of this pretty little weed that will grow just about anywhere, and the other botanist would look at it and say, “Oh. You mean sourgrass.” But imagine if you weren’t right by the other botanist and didn’t have the plant to show them. You’d have to draw it and label the drawing and write a paragraph describing it, just so the other botanist would have a clue about which plant you were discussing. Nowadays, all you have to do is say, “Hey, are you familiar with Oxalis dellenii?” and the other botanist will say, “Ah yes, although I myself believe it is the same as Oxalis stricta and that the differences some botanists insist on are not significant.” And then you’d fight. But at least you’d know what plant you were both fighting about.

Before Linnaeus worked out his system, botanists and other scientists tried various different ways of describing plants and animals so that other scientists knew what was being discussed. They gave each plant or animal a name, usually in Latin, that described it as closely as possible. But because the descriptions sometimes had to be really elaborate to indicate differences between closely related species, the names got unwieldy—sometimes nine or ten words long.

Carl Linnaeus sorted this out first by sorting out taxonomy, or how living creatures are related to each other. It seems pretty obvious to us now that a cat and a lion are related in some way, but back in the olden days no one was certain if that was the case and if so, how closely related they were. It’s taken hundreds of years of intensive study by thousands upon thousands of scientists and dedicated amateurs to get where we are today, not to mention lots of technological advances. But Linnaeus was the first to really attempt to codify different types of animals and other organisms depending on how closely they appeared to be related, a practice called taxonomy.

Linnaeus’s system is beautifully simple. Each organism receives a generic name, which indicates what genus it’s in, and a specific name, which indicates the species. This conveys a whole lot of information in just two words. A zoologist who hears the name Stenella longirostris will know that it belongs to the genus Stenella, which means it’s a type of dolphin, which means it’s in the family delphinidae. If they’re familiar with dolphins they’ll also know they’re talking about the spinner dolphin, and in this case they can even get an idea of what it looks like, since the specific name longirostris means ‘long beak.’ To make things even clearer, a subspecies name can be tagged on the end, so Stenella longirostris centroamericana is a subspecies of spinner dolphin that—you guessed it—lives in the ocean around Central America.

Carl Linnaeus was a young man when he started working out his classification system. He was only 25 when he traveled to Lapland on a scientific expedition to find new plants and describe them for science. This was in 1732 so travel was quite difficult. Linnaeus traveled on horseback and on foot, which as you can imagine took a long time and gave him lots of time to think. Within three years he had worked out the system we still use today.

You know what else Linnaeus invented? The index card. He needed index cards to keep track of all the animals and plants he and other scientists named using his binomial nomenclature system.

Linnaeus named a whole lot of plants and animals himself—something like ten thousand of them during his lifetime. And naturally enough, some mistakes crept in that have since been corrected. But a couple of his mistakes have led to mysteries, and those are the ones we’re going to look at today.

In 1753 Linnaeus got to examine a fetal elephant preserved in a jar of alcohol. Back then hardly anyone outside of Asia and Africa had seen an elephant, so Linnaeus was enormously excited about it and wrote to a friend that the specimen was as rare as a diamond.

Linnaeus described the species and named it Elephas maximus, also known as the Asian elephant today. But from records that still survive, the specimen was marked as having come from Africa. A Dutch pharmacist and collector had acquired the specimen around 1736, and after he died it was sold to King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, who let Linnaeus examine it. The auction catalog where it was listed for sale indicates that it was from Africa, but in his official description of the elephant Linnaeus wrote that it was from Ceylon, which is now called Sri Lanka, which is in Asia.

So ever since there’s been a mystery as to whether the elephant specimen was actually an Asian elephant or an African elephant, and if Linnaeus even knew that there were elephants in Africa. Because the specimen is of a fetal elephant—that is, a baby that died before it was fully developed, probably when its mother was killed while she was pregnant—it’s hard to tell just by looking if the specimen is an African or Asian elephant. We do still have the specimen, fortunately, which is held in the Swedish Natural History Museum’s collection.

A mammal expert at the London Natural History Museum, named Anthea Gentry, got curious about the specimen in 1999, when she saw it on a trip to Sweden. Gentry’s husband was a paleontologist who specialized in mammals, and later she showed him a photograph of the specimen and asked what he thought. He said he was pretty sure it was an African elephant, not an Asian elephant. Gentry got permission to do DNA testing on the specimen, but since it had been in alcohol for so long, not even the most advanced technology and the world’s most experienced expert in ancient DNA could get a usable genetic sequence from the tissue.

The world’s most experienced expert in ancient DNA was Tom Gilbert of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He did his best and failed, but he couldn’t forget about the little mystery elephant. In 2009 he got an idea for extracting genetic material from the specimen in a new way that might yield results. It took years, but he and his team got it to work. In 2012 the mystery was finally solved. Linnaeus’s little elephant was actually an African elephant.

But that’s not the end of the story. When a scientist describes a new species and gives it its scientific name, the first specimen described is known as the type specimen. Linnaeus’s elephant was the type specimen of the Asian elephant—but since it was proven to be an African elephant, it couldn’t continue to be the type specimen of the Asian elephant. But that meant that there was no official type specimen of the Asian elephant. They needed a specimen that was still available and that had been described by someone who had examined it scientifically.

When an animal is described officially, it’s a formal process. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature decides whether a suggested name is acceptable and makes decisions on type specimens and taxonomy. So researchers connected with the Commission started digging around for a new type specimen, preferably one from Linnaeus’s time or earlier.

A type specimen isn’t always a whole animal. A lot of times it’s just a little piece of a skeleton or a partial fossil, although the more complete a specimen is, the better. Linnaeus had described a partial elephant tooth at some point which was still available in a Swedish museum, and taxonomists were considering using that as a type specimen when they got an email from a paleontologist who specialized in elephants. He sent a copy of a travel journal from an amateur naturalist named John Ray, who had visited Florence in 1664 and wrote his observations of an elephant skeleton and skin on display in the duke’s palace.

And, it turned out, the elephant skeleton John Ray had described was in the collection of a museum in Florence. And it was definitely the skeleton of an Asian elephant—in fact, we even have what amounts to a photograph of the elephant when it was alive, because none other than the artist Rembrandt sketched it. So that skeleton was designated as the type specimen of the Asian elephant and all is well.

That brings us to the other mystery associated with Linnaeus, and this one is a lot less cute than a misidentified baby elephant. But before I tell you what the mystery animal is, let me tell you something that happened to Linnaeus before he’d even come up with his system of nomenclature. This happened in 1728, when Linnaeus was a broke college student staying with a professor and spending all his free time collecting botanical specimens in the marshes.

One day Linnaeus was searching for plants he didn’t already have specimens of when something stung him on the neck. Since he was wading around in a marsh, this was not really that unusual. But this wasn’t the usual insect sting or midge bite. Before long Linnaeus’s neck was painfully swollen, and soon one of his arms had swollen up too.

These days we’d recognize this as an allergic reaction, but back in 1728 they didn’t know what allergies were. By the time Linnaeus got home, he was in such bad shape that the doctor they called worried he wouldn’t survive.

Fortunately for Linnaeus and for science and humanity in general, he survived and went on to invent his naming system only eight years later. Some thirty years after he almost died, he published the tenth edition of his book, Systema Naturae, and included a formal description of the animal that had almost killed him. He named it the fury worm, Furia infernalis.

But there was no type specimen of a fury worm. Linnaeus hadn’t seen the one he believed had bitten him, and the only one anyone had shown him was a tiny worm so dried up and old that he couldn’t see any details. But he knew the fury worm existed because it had bitten him, and anyway everyone knew it was a real animal.

The fury worm was supposed to be tiny and slender, so small that it could be picked up by the wind and blown to other places. If it landed on a person or an animal it would immediately bite them with its sharp mouthparts, breaking the skin, then burrow into the flesh through the wound. It would dig in so quickly and so deeply that it was impossible to find, and even if you did find it, it was impossible to get out because of the backward-pointing bristles on its tail that kept it anchored in place. A person or animal bitten by the worm was likely to die within a day, sometimes within half an hour, unless a poultice of cheese or curds was applied to the bite.

Fortunately for most of the world, this horrible worm only lived in swampy areas in northern Sweden and Finland, Russia, and a few other nearby areas. In one year, 1823, some 5,000 reindeer died from fury worm attacks, and the export of reindeer furs was banned so the worm wouldn’t spread.

But. Where. Are. The. Worms??? And why would a parasitic worm kill its host so quickly? A parasite depends on its host staying alive for enough time that the parasite can benefit from whatever it’s getting from the host, whether that’s nutrients or a protected place to develop into its next life stage. This isn’t going to happen in half an hour.

So we have all this anecdotal evidence of the fury worm’s existence, even from such noted a scientist as Linnaeus himself, but no worms. And the symptoms reported from fury worm attacks varied quite a lot from patient to patient.

Doubts about the fury worm’s existence were already common in the 19th century, and even back in the late 18th century Linnaeus started to have doubts. And as technology and scientific knowledge improved, the fury worm started to look less and less like a real animal and more and more like an explanation for things people had once not understood—like allergies, infection, and bacteria. The death of 5,000 reindeer in 1823 was finally traced to a disease called neurocysticercosis [neuro-cyst-iser-kosis], which is actually caused by a parasite, but not a fury worm. It’s caused by tapeworm larvae that only kill its host after the larvae have matured and are ready to infect a new animal, which happens when something eats the meat of the animal that has died.

So was the fury worm ever a real animal? Almost certainly not. I tried to find out if people are still reporting fury worm bites in northern Sweden and Finland, but I didn’t come up with anything. On the other hand, I did check and it doesn’t look like there’s a band named Furia infernalis, so if you were trying to think of a really cool name for your band, I got you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 115: Giant Rabbits and King Hares



This week let’s learn about some giant-sized rabbits and hares! Also some regular-sized ones.

Further listening:

Life, Death & Taxonomy podcast episode about the Collared Pika

Further reading:

Dr Karl Shuker’s post about giant rabbits and hares

The National Cryptid Society’s post about giant rabbits and hares

An eastern cottontail rabbit:

The Flemish giant looks Photoshopped. It’s a big bunny:

A European hare (also called the brown hare):

The Belgian hare is a domestic rabbit bred to look like a hare:

Show transcript:

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

A few weeks ago we had an episode about some animal hoaxes that were based on true animal facts, including the horned hare. While I was researching that topic, I kept running across interesting facts about rabbits and hares, specifically mysterious reports about giant rabbits. So this week, let’s have a whole episode about gigantic rabbits and hares.

We’ll start with some general information. Collectively rabbits and hares are called leporids after their family, Leporidae, or lagomorphs after their order, Lagomorpha. Lagomorphs include pikas, which are really cute and look sort of like oversized hamsters. The podcasts Species and Life, Death and Taxonomy both did really good episodes about the pika recently, so we’re just going to talk about rabbits and hares today.

Leporids are famous for hopping instead of walking, and they’re able to do so because their hind legs are longer than their front legs and have specialized ankle joints. Ancestors of leporids developed this ankle as much as 53 million years ago, but their legs were much shorter so they probably ran instead of hopped. Hares have longer legs than rabbits and can run faster as a result, but both rabbits and hares are known for their ability to bound at high speeds. When a rabbit or hare runs, it pushes off from the ground with the tips of its long hind toes, and its toes are connected with webbed skin so they can’t spread apart. If the toes did spread apart, they would be more likely to get injured. Rabbits and hares also don’t have paw pads like dogs and cats do. The bottom of a leporid’s foot is covered with dense, coarse fur that protects the toes from injury. Its long claws help it get a good purchase on the ground so its feet won’t slip.

Baby rabbits are called bunnies, kits, or kittens, and like baby dogs and cats, they’re born helpless, without fur and with their eyes still sealed closed. Baby hares are called leverets and are born fully developed, with fur and with their eyes open.

Leporids eat plants, including grass, weeds, twigs, and bark. Animals that eat grass and other tough plants have specialized digestive systems so they can extract as many nutrients from the plants as possible. Many animals swallow the plants, digest them for a while, then bring up cuds of plants and water to chew more thoroughly. Rabbits and hares don’t chew their cud in that way, but they do have a system that allows them to digest the plants they eat twice.

After a leporid eats some plants, the plants go into the stomach, naturally, and then travel into the first part of the large intestine, called the cecum. The cecum separates the softer parts of the plants from the harder, less digestible parts. The hard parts are compressed into hard pellets that the rabbit poops out. But the soft parts of the plants, which are most nutritious, develop into softer pellets. These are called cecotropes, and as soon as the rabbit poops out the cecotropes, it immediately eats them again. This allows the digestive system to get a second round to extract more nutrients from the plants.

Most rabbit species are native to North America, but there are also rabbits native to parts of South America, parts of Europe and Asia, parts of Africa, and a few Japanese islands. They’ve also been introduced to other areas of the world, especially Australia, where they’re a real pest since rabbits eat a lot and reproduce rapidly.

Most hare species are native to Eurasia, with some species also living in parts of Africa, North America, and some Japanese islands. Despite its name, the jackrabbit of North America is a hare.

Hares live above ground and are generally solitary. Almost all rabbits are sociable and sleep underground in warrens and burrows. The exceptions are the rare hispid hare of South Asia, which is actually a rabbit, and the cottontail rabbit of North America. These rabbits make nests in long grass like hares do to raise their babies. Eastern cottontails are the rabbits I’m familiar with, and the cottontail gets its name because its short tail is white all over instead of only white underneath. It looks like a powder puff.

Hares aren’t domesticated, but rabbits have been and there are a lot of breeds of domestic rabbit. I had a pet red satin when I was a kid. Her name was June and she was beautiful. Domestic rabbits can be trained to use a litter box just like a cat, but unlike most cats, rabbits will chew on everything. I say most cats because I had a cat once who liked to chew through phone cords, back when I had a landline phone. But a rabbit will chew on all cords, on furniture, on wallpaper, and things like that if the rabbit isn’t trained and isn’t given appropriate things to chew on. A pet rabbit can be spayed or neutered just like a pet dog or cat to make it healthier, less likely to spray urine to mark its territory, and less aggressive.

So now we have a good idea of what rabbits and hares are like. Now let’s find out about some gigantic and mysterious leporids.

I’ll start with an account by a witness named Evelyn who saw something unusual while waiting for the school bus one morning. This happened in New Jersey, which is in the northeastern United States. I’ll quote the account I found in the National Cryptid Society archives.

“In 1954, I had just turned 14. I was waiting for the school bus at 6:45 AM by our house in the country, which was across the road from a holly farm. At that time before they planted hollies it was mostly weeds along the road but sweet potatoes in the rest of the field.

“I glanced over at the 10+ acre field in front of me and there sat what appeared to be a huge ‘rabbit.’ It was brown and I was roughly ten to fifteen feet from it. I had seen hares before but this was not a hare; besides, hares hadn’t been seen in that part of New Jersey in forty years.

“This creature was sitting on its haunches and stood nearly four and a half feet tall. It just watched me for several minutes, and then it just disappeared! It did not hop away.

“I wasn’t frightened. I had a strange feeling of peace. I had such a calm, peaceful feeling. It was almost as if it was reassuring me it was not unreal; that is the only way I can explain it.

“No one else ever saw it and my family lived there for over 25 years. To this day I wonder what it really was and where it came from.”

Wow, wait, what?? How does an animal that big just disappear? Like, actually vanish into thin air?

Let’s take a closer look at the details here and see what we can figure out.

We’ll start with the detail about the sweet potatoes in hopes of figuring out what time of year it was. In New Jersey, sweet potatoes are planted around the end of spring and harvested in late summer into early autumn. In other words, if there were sweet potatoes in the field, the days would be long and it would have been fully light at 6:45 am. So Evelyn probably did get a good look at the animal for at least a minute.

She also states she was only ten to fifteen feet away from it, which would be about 3 to 4 and a half meters away. That’s really close. But from the way she describes the scene, it sounds like she was across the road from the field where she saw the animal. She says she was waiting by her house, which was across from the farm. I actually measured the road in front of my house when I was researching episode 17 about the Thunderbird. My road is a typical two-lane road in a small town and I believe it measured 18 ½ feet, or just over 5.6 meters. Of course, I don’t know how wide roads were back in 1953, but it’s likely Evelyn was a little farther away from the animal than she remembers.

It sounds like the animal was close to the road, probably in the weeds along the edge of the road rather than in the cultivated field full of sweet potatoes. Deer are considered sweet potato pests but rabbits aren’t, so if it was a giant rabbit of some kind, it was probably eating weeds instead of sweet potato leaves.

Next, what kind of rabbits and hares live in New Jersey? The eastern cottontail and the New England cottontail are both small rabbits that Evelyn would have recognized easily. The European hare, black-tailed jackrabbit, and white-tailed jackrabbit, which are all hares, have been introduced into parts of New Jersey for hunting at different times. But Evelyn states specifically that this was not a hare.

The snowshoe hare is sometimes seen in northern New Jersey and might occasionally stray farther south. I don’t know what part of New Jersey Evelyn was from, but sweet potato farming is more common in the southern parts of the state. The snowshoe hare is more rabbit-like in appearance than other hares, since its ears are smaller and its body more rounded. Its fur usually turns white in winter to camouflage it against the snow, but in summer it would be brown. And it’s also fairly large, certainly bigger than a cottontail rabbit. Not counting the tail, a snowshoe hare can grow up to a foot and a half long, or 48 cm. If it was sitting up on its hind legs, especially if it was sitting up high on its hind legs to watch Evelyn in case it needed to run, it might appear to be even bigger, say two feet or more, or over 61 cm. But even accounting for the animal’s size being exaggerated in Evelyn’s memory, that’s still a lot smaller than the almost four and a half foot tall animal she describes. Four and a half feet is 137 cm. That’s really tall.

If you’ve listened to episode 73, about phantom kangaroos, you know that wallabies and kangaroos are sometimes kept as pets in the United States and often escape. Wallabies and kangaroos have long ears, long hind legs, and sit up like rabbits and hares. If Evelyn saw a wallaby but didn’t see its long tail, she might have thought she was looking at an enormous rabbit.

But…it disappeared. Hares are considered masters of hiding and are said to be able to seem to disappear from view even in short grass, but how in the heck can an animal more than four feet tall just vanish?

I don’t have an answer, so all I can offer is that either Evelyn misjudged the animal’s size and thought it was much larger than it was, and it was able to drop down quickly and appear to vanish in tall weeds, or Evelyn actually saw a ghostly giant rabbit of some kind that actually vanished. Now this sounds like a Halloween episode. At least her ghost rabbit wasn’t scary. She even points out that she felt peaceful after seeing it.

Evelyn isn’t the only person who’s reported seeing a giant rabbit or hare. In 1976 in Dorset, England, a woman named Louise Hodgson and two men out walking their dogs in the evening saw a group of about a dozen hares in a field. This was in September so it was unusual to find that many hares together just to start with, since hares are usually solitary except during mating season in spring. But there was a bigger animal with the hares. The dog-walkers at first thought it was a roe deer due to its size, but then they realized it was another hare, but huge. A roe deer stands no more than two and a half feet at the shoulder, or 75 cm, which is the same measurement of the length of a large European hare’s body. So a European hare could appear as tall as a roe deer when sitting up, but then why did it appear so much larger than the other hares?

In April of 2006, not long after the awesome movie Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released, reports of a giant rabbit eating up gardens in Northumberland, England hit the news. People thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but the gardeners were furious and had proof: giant-sized rabbit footprints, and of course their destroyed produce. They reported that the rabbit was the size of a dog and was black and brown in color. The first witness saw it in February of that year. But before anyone could get a good photo of the rabbit or capture it, a local woman reported that she’d been driving one night in early April when a massive rabbit bounded in front of her car. She wasn’t able to stop and collided with the rabbit, which was so big that the front bumper of her car was damaged. The rabbit died, unfortunately, and the woman said she got out and looked at it. She estimated it was at least two feet long, or 61 cm, with long legs. Rabbit fur was found stuck in the damaged bumper of her car, but the dead rabbit was long gone, probably eaten by a fox. After that the giant rabbit wasn’t seen again and the gardeners were left in peace.

And in 2017 a man reported that when he was a kid in the late 1960s, in Placer County, California, he and his mother both saw some jackrabbits that were almost four feet tall when they sat up, or 1.2 meters. The best part of this story is that they saw more than one giant jackrabbit.

So what could these giant hares and rabbits be? Do leporids ever really get that big?

Actually, yes. There are two breeds of domestic rabbit that are enormous. One is called the Flemish giant and the other is a British breed called the Continental giant. Both were originally bred for fur and meat, but are good-natured rabbits that are often kept as pets these days. A typical domestic rabbit is roughly the size and weight of a small to medium-sized cat, but a Flemish or continental giant rabbit can be as large as a medium-sized dog. The biggest is a rabbit named Darius, who is officially four feet four inches long, or 134 cm. Pictures of him and other domestic breed giants look photoshopped, because how can a rabbit be so big? But they are.

It’s probable that the Northumberland giant rabbit was a Flemish or continental giant that had escaped its home. But what about the giant hares reported in other places? Hares look much more slender and angular than rabbits and usually have longer ears.

Some cryptozoologists suggest that an extinct leporid might be the culprit, if it isn’t really extinct. Nuralagus rex, also called the Minorcan giant lagomorph, and sometimes referred to as a giant jackrabbit, was only described in 2011 and went extinct 3 to 5 million years ago. But Nuralagus wasn’t a jackrabbit and it only lived on one island, Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea. While it was related to modern rabbits and hares, it was definitely very different and not really all that big. It probably stood about a foot and a half high at the highest part of the back, or around half a meter, and was big and heavy. But it had small eyes and ears, and it probably couldn’t hop or even run very fast. If it was alive today, no one would think it was even related to a rabbit or hare.

The king hares seen in parts of England might be unusually large hares whose size has been exaggerated, since it’s hard to estimate size of an animal seen in the distance or seen only briefly. The king hare seen by Louise Hodgson in Dorset amid a bunch of smaller hares might actually have been a large hare in a field of rabbits, which Hodgson and her companions might have interpreted as being one giant hare and a lot of normal-sized hares. Hares and rabbits don’t typically interact where their ranges overlap, but they also don’t apparently dislike each other. A solitary hare might feed in a field where rabbits are also feeding.

Of course it’s also possible that there are anomalously large hares born sometimes. But there is another possibility.

In the mid-1980s, a man named Andrew Munro was walking through his mother’s garden in County Cork, Ireland when he saw a huge hare. He stopped and stared at it, and it stopped and stared at him, standing on its hind legs with its ears perked up. Munro estimated it was over four feet tall, or 1.2 meters. Munro’s dog saw it and gave chase, but the hare bounded away and was gone in moments.

This is an interesting sighting, because Munro pointed out that the hare was only four feet tall because it was standing up tall on its hind legs with its long ears up. A large hare can have ears more than half a foot long, or 15 cm. If you add the ear length to the body and head length, a big hare sitting up can measure three feet, or over 91 cm, and if it’s also standing on its hind legs instead of sitting on its bottom, that adds more height. So maybe we’re talking about big hares, but not ENORMOUS hares.

Not only that, there’s a breed of domestic rabbit called the Belgian hare that was bred to look like a hare. It’s slender, strong, and energetic, with long ears and legs. It was first bred in the early 18th century and was considered a meat rabbit, and while it’s not as heavy or bulky as a Flemish giant or continental giant rabbit, it’s big, much bigger than a wild hare. In fact, the Flemish giant was developed from the Belgian hare breed.

The Belgian hare became incredibly popular at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th as a meat rabbit and as a show rabbit. Some prize Belgian hares sold for as much as a thousand dollars, which is expensive now and was ridiculously expensive back in the olden days. By 1917 its popularity had fallen, mostly because there were just so many Belgian hares that the price dropped to almost nothing, which made fewer people want to bother keeping them to sell.

According to zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, during the 1940s, Belgian hares may have been released into the wild in Ireland with the expectation that people could shoot them for meat. But before long Ireland was overrun with rabbits to such an extent that they were eradicated. I can’t find anything else about this online so this might not be the case, or the rabbits might only have been released in one small area, but it is interesting to consider that the big hare Andrew Munro saw in the 1980s might actually have been a descendant of one of these hare-like rabbits.

We’ll finish with another interesting rabbit, but not a big one. It’s the marsh rabbit, and it’s a type of cottontail that lives in swamps and along the coast of the southeastern United States. It’s smaller than other cottontail species with small ears and shorter legs, and it always lives around water. There are three subspecies, including the endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit that lives in the Florida Keys.

The marsh rabbit can hop just fine like other rabbits, but because its legs are so much shorter than other rabbit species, it can also walk. Its walking gait resembles a cat’s. This helps it navigate dense vegetation more easily. Not only that, its toes are much more widely spread than in other rabbit species.

But the really extraordinary thing about the marsh rabbit is that it likes to swim. It spends a lot of time in the water—and I mean, actually in the water. It mostly eats aquatic plants. It will submerge itself in muddy water to hide with just its nose and eyes above water and its ears laid flat to hide them. If a predator approaches, the rabbit will swim away. This is not behavior I think of when I think of rabbits but you have to admit, it’s adorable.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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 113: Horned Hares and Winged Cats



It’s April Fool’s Day, but while these two mystery animals may mostly be associated with hoaxes and tall tales, there’s a really interesting nugget of truth in both.

Unlocked Patreon episode about mammals with nose horns

Further reading: Dr Karl P N Shuker’s blog post about winged cats and his blog post about horned hares

Traditional drawings of horned hares:

You can take classes in taxidermy that specialize in making jackalopes!

A genuine horned hare (with an extreme case of SPV):

A winged cat:

Mitzi/Thomas the winged cat:

Show transcript:

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

This episode releases on April Fool’s Day, April 1. I’m not a fan of April fool jokes, so we’re going to discuss two interesting strange animals that turned out to be hoaxes—but hoaxes with a nugget of truth that’s actually more interesting than the hoax.

The first hoax is akin to the jackalope and it’s pretty obvious to us nowadays. The horned hare was a tradition in European folklore and drawings of it look like a jackalope. There are even stuffed horned hares, just as there are stuffed jackalopes.

Some of you may be wondering what the heck a jackalope is, so I’ll explain that first.

The jackalope legend may have started as a tall tale, but was probably just a taxidermy joke. When someone prepares a dead animal for taxidermy, it’s not a simple process. The taxidermist has to remove the skin from the body, clean it and add preservatives, make a careful armature or mannequin of the body out of wood or other materials, and put the skin on the armature and sew it up. The taxidermist then adds details like glass eyes and artificial tongues. It can take months of painstaking work to finish a specimen, and it requires a lot of artistry and training. Taxidermists who are learning the trade will often mount small, common animals like rabbits and rats as practice. And sometimes they’ll get creative with the process, just to make it more interesting. For instance, a taxidermist may add pronghorn antelope horns to a jackrabbit. Voila, there’s a jackalope!

You can see stuffed jackalopes today in a lot of places, since they’re fun conversation pieces. Some restaurants will have one stuck up on a wall somewhere, for instance. Horned hares are similar, but instead of a jackrabbit with pronghorn horns or white-tailed deer antlers, which are animals from North America, the European horned hare is usually a European hare with horns [I should have said antlers] from a roe deer.

The horned hare was such a common taxidermied animal that people actually believed it was real. Eventually, around the 19th century, as knowledge of the natural world grew more sophisticated, scientists realized rabbits and hares don’t have horns and those stuffed specimens were just hoaxes. The tip-off was probably when taxidermists started getting really fancy and adding bird wings and saber teeth to their mounted hares.

But…

The horned hare goes way back in history. It appeared in medieval bestiaries, sometimes called the unicorn hare. The unicorn hare was supposed to have a single black horn on its head. The hare would act normal, but when someone approached, it would spring at them and stab them with its horn. Then it would eat them. The legend of the horned hare is so widespread and long-lived, in fact, and was believed for so long, that it’s easy to think maybe it was based on something real. I mean, we just talked about rodents with nose horns a few weeks ago, so nothing’s impossible.

Wait, I think that’s a Patreon episode. If it is, I’ll unlock it. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

There is a strange truth behind all the jackalopes and horned hares. A disease called the Shope papilloma virus, or SPV, affects hares and rabbits. There are a lot of papilloma viruses in various animals, even humans, but in most animals, including humans, it only results in tumors in the body. In rabbits and hares, it causes keratinized tumors to grow from the skin, often on the head. Usually these are small and don’t show through the fur, but sometimes an animal has an extreme case of SPV and it genuinely looks like it has horns. The horns are hard and usually dark in color. As if that wasn’t bad enough, rabbits and hares in Europe can also get a disease called Leporipoxvirus that again causes facial horns to grow from the skin.

If you’re feeling totally creeped out right now, don’t worry, humans can’t catch these diseases from rabbits and hares.

Remember how I mentioned taxidermied hares with wings? What about cats with wings—but not taxidermied, real live domestic cats with fur-covered wings. That totally can’t be real, right? It’s not real?

It’s real…but only if you are really generous with what you mean by wings.

Winged cats are a real phenomenon, but the wings in question are furry, not feathered, and winged cats can’t fly. That doesn’t stop people from claiming they’ve seen these winged cats flying around causing mischief. For instance, in Ontario, Canada in 1966 a so-called vampire cat was supposedly flying around attacking other animals. It was a black tomcat with furry wings 7 inches long, or 18 cm. Eventually someone shot the cat, which was examined by veterinarians and found to be rabid. Its wings were nothing but thickly matted fur, so the stories of it flying around weren’t true, although sadly, it was definitely attacking other animals due to having rabies.

In 1959, a case went to court in West Virginia over a winged cat. A 15 year old boy named Douglas Shelton said he’d rescued the cat from a tree and adopted her. But a woman named Mrs. Hicks said that the cat was hers, named Mitzi, but that Mitzi had run away and she wanted her back. This makes sense. I mean, I would want my cat back too. At first the judge awarded the cat to Mrs. Hicks, but when Douglas brought her into the courtroom, she had no wings. Douglas said she’d shed them during the summer but he’d kept the wings, which he showed to the judge. At that point, Mrs. Hicks suddenly decided she didn’t want the cat after all. Frankly, I’m sure Mitzi was better off with Douglas, who didn’t care if she had wings or not, although he did change Mitzi’s name to Thomas.

Stories like these didn’t just happen back in the olden days. There are lots of winged cat reports today, including photos and videos. What’s going on? Why do some cats develop these furry appendages that people call wings?

Sometimes the cats in question just have long fur that has become unusually matted and appears to form winglike flaps along the sides. But in many cases, the wings are due to a rare skin condition called feline cutaneous asthenia, or FCA.

Cats with FCA have unusually elastic skin. All skin stretches at least a little bit but almost immediately snaps back into place. You can try this yourself by gently tugging up the skin on the back of your hand and releasing it. But in cats with FCA, the skin doesn’t snap back properly, especially the skin along the shoulders and back. Since in the ordinary course of living its life, a cat’s skin stretches quite a bit along the back, eventually an FCA cat ends up with long flaps of furry skin that stretched and didn’t snap back repeatedly. The wings aren’t really wings, of course, and can’t allow the cat to fly.

Cats with FCA do usually need special care, especially if the case is severe. The skin is elastic, but it’s also prone to damage because it’s actually very delicate. The so-called wings sometimes tear off naturally, leaving wounds that bleed very little but still need to be treated by a veterinarian. They then reform. The wings tend to be on the sides near the hind legs but are sometimes closer to the shoulders.

Mitzi, AKA Thomas, was definitely a cat with FCA. Her wings were six inches long, or 15 cm, and her tail was described as squirrel-like. She was a white cat described as a Persian, although she may have just had long hair like a Persian cat. A reporter who examined Thomas described her wings as fluffy at the ends but with a gristly feel at the base, as though they contained tendons or other structure. This was probably the extended skin due to FCA.

It sounds like Douglas was a really nice kid who rescued the cat from the tree and took her home, and when his friends made fun of the unusual-looking cat, he was really upset. Once word of the winged cat got around, people started showing up at the family’s house to look at it. At first Douglas charged 10cents to see the cat, and he was even invited to New York where he and Thomas appeared on the Today Show.

But after that, things started to go kind of nuts. Thousands of people kept trying to see the cat, so many that Douglas’s mom spread the story that the cat had died, just so people would leave the family alone. She also took the cat to a friend’s house for a while until the fuss died down, swearing the friend to secrecy that the cat was still alive. Then Mrs. Hicks sued.

I tried to find out what happened to Douglas Shelton and Thomas after all the excitement died down. Douglas and his family were awarded custody of Thomas by the judge, with Mrs. Hicks rewarded a single dollar in damages, but whatever happened after that has vanished into the pre-internet vacuum. I’m sure Thomas lived a good life with the Sheltons, and Douglas is probably still alive today. He would be about the right age to be a granddad by now, so I bet he tells his grandkids stories about the time he had a cat with wings. I bet they don’t even believe him.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. 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!