Category Archives: Europe

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!


Episode 096: Strangest Big Fish



Because there are so many weird fish out there, I’ve narrowed this week’s episode down to weird BIG fish! We’ll cover the smaller ones another time. Thanks to Damian and Sam for suggestions this week!

A manta ray being interviewed by a diver:

A manta ray with white markings:

A mola mola, pancake of the sea, with a diver:

The flathead catfish head. So many teeth:

A Wels catfish with Jeremy Wade:

A couple of red cornetfish:

Howick Falls in South Africa. Put that on my endless list of places I want to visit:

Further reading:

Karl Shuker’s blog post about the black and white manta rays

Show transcript:

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

It’s another listener suggestion week! Recently, Damian sent a list of excellent topic suggestions, one of which was weirdest fish, and I am ALL OVER that! But because there are so many weird fish, I’m going to only look at weird humongous fish this time, including a mystery fish.

We’ll start with a fish that doesn’t actually look very fishlike. Rays are closely related to sharks but if you didn’t know what they were and saw one, you’d probably start to freak out and think you were seeing some kind of water alien or a sea monster. The ray has a broad, flattened body that extends on both sides into wings that it uses to fly through the water, so to speak. The wings are actually fins, although they don’t look like most fish fins. Like sharks, rays have no bones, only cartilage. Rays are so weird that I’m probably going to give them their own episode one day, but for now let’s just look at one, the manta ray.

There are two species of manta ray alive today. The reef manta can grow 18 feet from wingtip to wingtip, or 5.5 meters. Manta birostris is even bigger, up to 29 feet across, or 8.8 meters, which is why it’s called the giant manta ray. This is just colossally huge. I didn’t realize how big manta rays were until just now. Both species live in warm oceans throughout the world and both eat plankton, krill, and tiny fish. Sometimes the manta ray is called the devil fish because of its horns, which aren’t horns at all, of course. The two protuberances that stick forward at the manta ray’s front are actually fins that grow on either side of the rectangular mouth. These fins help direct plankton into the mouth. When the manta ray isn’t feeding, it can roll up these fins into points and close its mouth. Its eyes are on the sides of its head.

Manta rays are white underneath and black or dark brown on top. But there is a mystery associated with the giant manta ray, with reports of black and white striped rays dating back to at least 1923. In April of that year, naturalist William Beebe spotted a manta ray near the Galapagos Islands that had white wingtips and a pair of broad white stripes extending from the sides of the head halfway down the back. Beebe thought it might be a new species of manta ray. There are other reports of manta rays with white or grayish V-shaped markings on the back.

Better than that, in the last few decades divers and boaters started to get photographs and even video of these manta rays with white markings. These days, manta rays with white markings are known to be common, although for decades scientists thought all manta rays were unmarked dorsally, or on the back. Since the markings are unique to individuals, it makes it easy for researchers to track individuals they recognize. The manta ray also sometimes has black speckles or blotches on its belly.

But wait, there’s more! According to zoologist Karl Shuker, in 2014, researchers in Florida published a paper discussing the ability of manta rays to actually CHANGE COLOR in minutes when they want to. The color in question that it changes? Its white markings. The markings can be barely visible against its background color, and then will brighten considerably when other manta rays are around or when it’s feeding. I’ll put a link to Shuker’s blog post in the show notes, which contains an excerpt from the article, if you want to read it.

The reef manta mostly lives along coasts, especially around coral reefs, while the giant manta ray sometimes crosses open ocean. Researchers used to think it migrated, but new studies suggest most don’t travel all that far. It does dive deeply, though, sometimes as deep as 3,300 feet, or 1,000 meters.

Another fish with a mostly cartilaginous skeleton instead of bone are the various species of ocean sunfish. The largest is the mola mola, although the southern sunfish is about the same size. Both grow to about 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and they are really, really weird.

The ocean sunfish doesn’t look like a regular fish. It looks like the head of a fish that had something humongous bite off its tail end. It has one tall dorsal fin and one long anal fin, and a little short rounded tail fin that’s not much more than a fringe along its back end. The sunfish uses the tail fin as a rudder and progresses through the water by waving its dorsal and anal fins the same way manta rays swim with their pectoral fins. Pectoral fins are the ones on the sides, while the dorsal fin is the fin on a fish’s back and an anal fin is a fin right in front of a fish’s tail. Usually dorsal and anal fins are only used for stability in the water, not propulsion.

Because it’s almost round in shape and its body is flattened, it actually kind of looks like a pancake with fins. I would not want to eat it but a lot of people do, with the fish considered a delicacy in some cuisines. These days it’s a protected species in many areas, but it often gets caught in nets set for other fish. It also ends up eating plastic bags and other trash that float like jellyfish.

The mola mola lives mostly in warm oceans around the world, and it eats jellies, small fish, squid, crustaceans, plankton, and even some plants. It has a small round mouth that it can’t close and four teeth that are fused to form a sort of beak. It also has teeth in its throat, called pharyngeal teeth. Its skin is thick and rough like sandpaper. It likes to sun itself at the water’s surface, and it will float on its side like a massive fish pancake and let sea birds stand on it and pick parasites from its skin. Occasionally it will jump completely out of the water, called breaching, as far as ten feet high, or 3 meters. Since the mola mola is one of the world’s heaviest fish that isn’t actually a shark or ray, sometimes weighing over two tons, or 2,000 kg, you really don’t want to be in a boat near a breaching mola mola. If it lands in your boat, it could sink you, or just squash you as flat as a finch under a giant tortoise.

Some researchers think the mola mola’s internal organs contain a neurotoxin—not a surprise since it’s related to the pufferfish—but we don’t know a whole lot about it yet and other researchers say it’s not toxic at all. Until recently researchers thought it only ate jellyfish, but more recent studies show that jellies only make up a small part of its diet. It feeds near the surface at night, but during the day it dives deeply, warming up between dives by sunning itself at the surface. Instead of a swim bladder, it has a layer of a jelly-like substance under its skin that helps make it neutrally buoyant.

The mola mola looks like it has no tail because it actually has no tail. Its little tail fin is called a pseudotail, or false tail. At some point during its evolution it lost its real tail. As a result, it has fewer vertebrae than any other fish, only 16. It’s a slow and clumsy swimmer but its size means it doesn’t have many natural predators beyond orcas and large sharks. It can grind its teeth together to make a croaking sound when it’s in distress. It can also blink, unlike most fish, and can retract its eyes deeper into their sockets to protect them.

In 2017, a new species of sunfish was named, the hoodwinker sunfish, Mola tecta. It grows up to ten feet long, or 3 meters, and is smooth and silvery with speckles. It’s really pretty. It lives in the southern hemisphere and that is pretty much all we know about it so far.

From the gentle giants of the sea, the manta ray and the mola mola, let’s move on to a weird freshwater fish that’s a lot scarier-looking. A few years ago, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which is an awesome place that is well worth a visit if you’re in the area, was contacted by a man whose dog had found and was chewing on a hideous fish head. It had a wide grinning mouth full of rows and rows of short sharp teeth. He wanted to know what it was, naturally, because while it looked like a catfish, he’d never seen one with teeth.

It turns out that the flathead catfish does have teeth, and that’s what his dog had found. It’s native to parts of the southeastern United States into northern Mexico, but has been introduced in other places as game fish and can become an invasive species. It can grow really big, with the longest specimen ever caught measuring almost six feet long, or 1.75 meters, and weighing just shy of 140 lbs, or 63.45 kg. It eats fish, insects, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It’s yellowish or even purplish in color. The weird thing is that all the descriptions I read of the flathead catfish mentioned how big it is and how people like to fish for it, and how it is supposed to be the best-tasting catfish, but they don’t mention its horrifying teeth! I was going by the picture posted by the Tennessee Aquarium, sent in by the guy whose dog found the ultimate chew toy. That picture made the teeth look vicious. But I found a description of the teeth finally that said they’re more like sandpaper to human hands if you hold the fish correctly, possibly because the teeth are packed so tightly. I don’t want to put my fingers in a fish’s mouth for any reason, teeth or no teeth.

Big as it is, the flathead isn’t the biggest catfish in the world. That would be the Wels catfish, a topic suggestion by Sam. Thank you, Sam! The first time I heard about the Wels catfish was from the show River Monsters, where the fisherman Jeremy Wade caught several. I hope everyone listening finds a special someone one day who looks at them the way Jeremy Wade looks at gigantic fish. I love that show. The Wels catfish is native to parts of Europe but like the flathead catfish, it’s been introduced as a game fish in other areas and has become an invasive species.

Like other catfish, the Wels has a skin with no scales, but instead is protected by a layer of slime that has antibacterial properties. This is true for the manta ray and the sunfish too, in fact. It also has barbels that give catfish the name catfish, since the barbels look a little like whiskers. The barbels act as feelers and contain chemical receptors that help the fish taste potential prey in the water.

The Wels catfish likes warm, slow-moving water and can grow up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, although most are much smaller. It has lots and lots of small teeth but it generally swallows its prey whole, sucking it into its big mouth. It eats fish, crustaceans, insects, worms, and anything else it can catch, but bigger ones will eat frogs, rats, even ducks and other birds. On occasion a Wels will come out of the water to catch a bird on land, but this behavior seems to be from fish that have been introduced to rivers and lakes that aren’t in its native range. The wels is also rumored to drown people and even eat them. There are reports of Wels catfish grabbing anglers by the leg or arm and dragging them into the water.

The red cornetfish lives throughout the world in tropical oceans, although young fish may live in the mouths of rivers that connect with the sea. It’s a long, skinny fish that can grow up to six and a half feet long, or 2 meters, but barely weighs more than ten pounds, or 4.7 kilograms. It can be red, orange, brownish, or even yellowish, sometimes with white or dark stripes or blotches. There’s some evidence that it can actually change its color to match its background. It also has a row of bony plates along its back.

The red cornetfish eats small squid, shrimp, and fish, which it’s able to sneak up on because it’s so incredibly thin. Basically, if it’s swimming straight toward you, all you see is a dot with two bulges for eyes. It also sneaks up on prey by hiding behind harmless fish that are fatter than it is, which is every fish.

The red cornetfish is related to pipefish and seahorses, and like those fish it has a long, pipe-like snout with a tiny mouth at the end that gives it its other common name, flutemouth. Its teeth are also tiny. At the end of its tail, a whip-like filament grows past the tail fin that extends the lateral line, which is a row of sensory cells that helps a fish detect the movements of other fish in the water.

Finally, let’s finish up with a mystery fish from South Africa. It’s called the inkanyamba and is supposed to be some twenty feet long, or six meters. It lives in lakes and near waterfalls and is generally supposed to look like a snake or eel with a horselike head.

The inkanyamba seems to be associated with storms and other severe weather, an association that goes back untold centuries to cave paintings of what are known as rain animals. So it could be that the inkanyamba is like the thunderbird, a creature of spiritual belief rather than a physical one. Groups such as the Xhosa and the Zulu believe that Inkanyamba is a giant winged snake that appears as a tornado as he flies around looking for his mate, who lives in a lake. Houses with metal roofs that aren’t painted are in danger from Inkanyamba since he might mistake the roof for water.

Then again, there are sightings. In 1962 a park ranger saw an eel-like or snake-like creature on a sand bank along the Umgeni River, which slithered into the water as he approached. Another witness sighted the monster twice near Howick Falls in 1971 and 1981. He said it was thirty feet long with a crest along its neck. The waterfall known in English as Howick Falls in South Africa is sacred to the Zulu, who believe it’s the home of Inkanyamba. It’s 310 feet high, or 95 meters, and is situated on the Umgeni River. The only people who are traditionally allowed to approach the pool at the base of the falls, or who can safely approach it, are sangomas, or traditional healers.

One suggestion is that the inkanyamba is a giant mottled eel, which has fins that run all around the tail like a crest. But it only grows to about six and a half feet long at most, or 2 meters. This is pretty big, but not anywhere near twenty or thirty feet. It eats fish, frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, and isn’t dangerous to humans. It’s nocturnal, spends most of its time at the bottom of the lakebed or riverbed, and migrates from fresh water into the ocean to spawn and lay eggs. You may remember this from episode 49, which goes into the complicated details about eel migration.

I’m not convinced that Inkanyamba is an eel, even a big one. I think it’s more a creature of legend. If you’re lucky enough to visit Howick Falls, don’t get too close to the water, out of respect for a sacred place and just in case there’s something there that could eat you up.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 091: The Spookiest Owls



It’s Halloween week! Join us this week for an episode about spooky, spooky owls…including the chickcharnie and the owlman.

I’ve unlocked a few Patreon episodes as a Halloween treat. Click through and you can listen on your browser:

The Hazelworm

VAMPIRE BIRDS

See-through animals

And a reminder that my fantasy novel Skytown is available now in ebook and paperback. Buy many copies!

The Eurasian eagle owl will murder you without remorse and look fabulous doing it:

The Eastern screech owl is tiny but has a loud, creepy call:

The barn owl is sometimes called the ghost owl FOR OBVIOUS REASONS:

A great horned owl:

Further reading:

The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales by Ruth Ann Musick

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally Halloween week, my favorite week of the year! Let’s learn about another animal frequently associated with Halloween spookiness, the owl!

First, though, a reminder that if you want a Strange Animals sticker, always feel free to contact me and ask for one. You can email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com or contact me through social media. If you’ve got an extra dollar or two a month just lying around, you can support the podcast on Patreon and get access to twice-monthly bonus episodes. And if you want to read a fun book that actually has very little to do with animals, my novel Skytown is now out in both paperback and ebook. I’ll put a link in the show notes for both my book’s Goodreads page and to the Patreon page. Not everyone knows what Patreon is, so briefly, it’s just a site where you can set up recurring monthly donations and in return get patron rewards.

I have unlocked two more patreon bonus episodes for anyone to listen to. I’ll put a link to them in the show notes too. You can click on the links and listen via your browser, without needing a Patreon login.

Now, with housekeeping out of the way, on to the owl episode!

Like bats, owls are mostly nocturnal animals and that makes many people afraid of them. They also look kind of weird, can sound really creepy, and fly so silently that they’re like ghosts. But we’re going to start this week’s episode off with an owl-like mystery animal in a place you might not expect.

The Bahamas is a country made up of over 700 islands, many of them tiny, located roughly between the Florida peninsula and Cuba. These days it’s famous for sunny beaches and warm waters. Tourism is a big part of its economy and lots of people take cruises to the Bahamas. But between about 500 years ago and 200 years ago, the Bahamas was a terrible place. The native people of the area, called the Lucayan, were enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work on plantations under horrific conditions. Most of them died. The British took over the islands around the mid-17th century, bringing enslaved people from Africa to work the plantations. Also during this time, pirates treated the area as a haven, leading eventually to one really good Pirates of the Caribbean movie and a lot of terrible sequels, although this is perhaps a little off topic. In 1807 the British came to their senses and abolished the slave trade, although they didn’t actually abolish slavery until 1834. British ships sometimes attacked slave ships and rescued the captives on board. Many of the captive people were brought to the Bahamas, where they made new homes. Freed and escaped slaves made their way to the Bahamas too, where they could live in relative peace.

The largest of the islands that makes up the Bahamas is called Andros Island, although it’s technically a collection of three main islands and some smaller ones that are all quite close together, protected by a barrier reef. It’s the only island in the Bahamas with a freshwater river, and naturally there are many animals found on Andros Island that live nowhere else. There used to be even more native animals, before the forests of Andros were chopped down.

The island has many spooky stories, of course. Most places do, and the darker the history of a place, the more spooky stories it’s likely to have. For instance, it’s said that a fisherman named James was caught in a hurricane one night and never arrived home. His fiancée, a woman named Anna, spent every night walking along the beach and waving a lantern, hoping against hope that he was alive and would be able to find his way home when he saw her light. But he never came home, and eventually Anna was found on the beach one morning, dead of a broken heart. Then, a year after James’s disappearance, another storm blew up. The fishermen of the island sailed for home as fast as they could, but the night was dark, the waves were enormous, and the rain pelted down so hard they couldn’t tell which way they were sailing. Then one sailor noticed a small light waving in the distance. All the fishermen turned their boats in that direction, and they all managed to reach land safely. But they couldn’t figure out what the light was that they had seen…until the morning, when the storm had blown over. On the beach they found the wreckage of James’s boat, lost the year before and finally blown ashore…and they also found Anna’s lantern lying on the sand although she had been buried months before. Oh my gosh, that is spooky.

But the Andros Island story we’re interested in today is that of a creature called the chickcharney. It’s sort of a bird, sort of a goblin. It was supposed to be about three feet tall, or almost a meter, with big round eyes—possibly only one eye in the middle of its face. It was covered with hairy feathers and could turn its head almost all the way around. Some versions of the story say it had a long prehensile tail that it used to climb trees. It was supposed to live in the pine forests and make its nest in trees that were so close together that the branches touched near the top.

The chickcharney was mischievous and would sometimes play tricks on people, but if people treated it with respect and left it alone, they would have good luck. If they bothered it, not only would they have bad luck, sometimes the chickcharney would grab the person and twist their head around backwards. The best way to keep the chickcharney from bothering you was to carry brightly colored cloth or flowers when you went into the woods.

You may think that the story of the chickcharney is a lot less believable than the one about James and Anna. But as it happens, Andros Island used to be home to a flightless owl that sounds a lot like the chickcharney.

The Andros Island barn owl stood over three feet tall, or about a meter, with long legs, and lived in the pine forests. It was a burrowing owl that nested in holes beneath the trees, but we don’t know much about it since it’s extinct. It probably went extinct in the 16th century when the pine forests on Andros Island were felled, but people still report seeing the chickcharney. So while it’s a slim chance, maybe a small population of the owl is still hanging on.

Another owl-like cryptid is called the owlman. Supposedly, in April of 1976 two sisters saw a huge winged creature hovering over a church tower during a family holiday in Cornwall, England. In July of that same year, two other girls who were camping near the church heard and saw a huge owl. They said it was the size of a grown man, had red eyes and pointed ears, and black claws. It hissed at them and flew straight up into the air. Other people reported seeing the owlman too.

The problem with this story is that it was initially reported and investigated by a man named Doc Shiels, who has been associated with hoaxes in the past. But if the owlman sightings are real, could the witnesses be seeing an actual owl?

One of the biggest owls alive today is the great grey owl, which lives throughout northern Eurasia and in parts of Canada and the northwestern United States. Its body is nearly three feet long, or 84 cm, and its wingspan can be up to five feet across, or 1.5 meters. It’s brown and grey with yellow eyes, and it mostly eats small rodents. It has incredible hearing and can hear animals moving around under up to two feet of snow, which it then dives into to catch its prey.

But the great grey owl doesn’t live in England, and it doesn’t really fit the sightings of owlman. The Eurasian eagle-owl does, and while it also doesn’t typically live in England, up to 40 pairs are estimated to live in the British Isles and it’s common throughout much of Eurasia.

The Eurasian eagle-owl has a shorter body than the great grey owl, but its wingspan is broader. Females are larger than males, so a big female might have a wingspan up to 6 feet 2 inches, or 1.9 meters. Females also tend to have darker plumage than males. The Eurasian eagle-owl has ear tufts and its eyes are orange or red-orange. It eats small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, even large insects.

Like many owls, the Eurasian eagle owl will hiss when it’s disturbed. It will also fly during the day when it’s been disturbed, although it will sometimes hunt before it’s fully dark.

But could someone mistake an owl for a human-sized creature? No matter how big their wings are, owls just aren’t that big.

Then again, most people aren’t very familiar with owls. I’m an avid birder and I don’t see owls very often, so the average person who isn’t into birdwatching may never have seen an owl in person before. Owls look even bigger than you think they would because of how enormously fluffy their feathers are, and if they’re disturbed they may ruffle their feathers out to look even bigger. Their legs are much longer than you’d think too. Add in someone being startled and potentially really scared by a sudden owl, and possible poor light conditions, and you have a recipe for owlman reports.

Even if owlman is probably just a giant owl, owls in general are just kind of creepy. Creepy-cute, but definitely on the spooky end of the animal spectrum. And all those odds and ends of weird facts you know about owls? They’re probably true.

For instance, owls really can turn their heads around backwards and even farther, as much as 270 degrees. Owls have 14 neck vertebrae, twice as many as humans and most other mammals have, and they have other adaptations that allow them to turn their heads that far without injury. The reason owls need to be able to turn their heads so far is because they can’t move their eyes. Owl eyes are fixed in their sockets so they can only look straight ahead from wherever their head is pointing. This is actually the case for most birds.

Owls are nocturnal and can see extremely well even in low light. Owls that mostly hunt in darkness have black eyes, while owls that usually hunt at dawn or dusk have yellow or orange eyes. Most owls have good hearing too. The reason many owls have that circle of feathers around their eyes, called a facial disc, is to help focus the owl’s hearing. The owl can adjust the angle of the feathers in its facial disc to focus sounds. Not only that, some owls have asymmetrical ear cavities, which makes it easier for them to pinpoint the source of sounds. The ear tufts some owls have on their heads are not actually ears or anywhere near the ear cavities. They’re just decorations.

Owl feathers are shaped so that the owl can fly silently, not only softening the edges of the feathers so sound is reduced, but lowering the frequencies of the sounds produced by the feathers so that it’s below the prey’s hearing spectrum, while the owl can hear itself and other owls flying just fine. Researchers are studying owl feathers to help design quieter airplane wings, wind turbines, and other machines.

Most bird feathers are somewhat waterproof because when a bird preens, it spreads oil over the feathers. Owls don’t do this, which means owls can’t hunt in wet weather.

An owl swallows its prey whole. Teeth, claws, some bones, hair, and feathers can’t be digested, so instead of passing through the digestive system, these indigestible pieces are compacted into pellets in the gizzard and regurgitated by the owl before it eats its next meal. Researchers study owl pellets to determine what an owl is eating. Some other birds of prey make pellets too, including hawks and eagles.

There are a lot of superstitions about owls, just as there are about bats. Some cultures believe that an owl calling around a home means someone who lives there is going to die, but some cultures consider owls lucky. Owls are also known for their wisdom, and I do not know where this comes from because they’re no smarter or dumber than any other bird. Actually, I do know where this comes from. The owl was associated with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena.

If you wonder why anyone would think an owl’s call is a bad omen, you may not have heard an owl call. Sure, some owls make jolly little hoot-hoot sounds. But some sound like this:

[screech owl call]

That’s an eastern screech owl, and I recorded it myself in my own driveway a few weeks ago. It sounds like a ghost. A lot of owls sound like ghosts. I mean, I’ve never actually heard a ghost. I’m just making an assumption that they sound scary. Maybe people who hear scary owl calls didn’t know what was making the sound, and assumed they were made by ghosts.

Some people even call barn owls ghost owls. Some farmers in Florida and other areas have started putting up nest boxes to attract barn owls, because owls hunt rats that damage sugar cane and other crops. Putting up owl nest boxes is a lot less expensive and better for the environment than rat poison. The common barn owl lives throughout much of the world. It’s brown or gray on its back, white underneath, and with a white face and dark eyes. It’s a medium-sized owl with a wingspan of about three feet, or 95 cm. This is what it sounds like:

[barn owl call]

Let’s finish with a creepy little story I found in a book called The Telltale Lilac Bush by Ruth Ann Musick. It’s a collection of ghost tales from West Virginia, and Musick was a folklorist who collected the tales with the help of her students. I reread the book this week hoping to find mention of an owl to close out this episode. Instead, I found this. Listen and decide what you think really landed on this poor man’s back during his ride through the night. It’s a story called “A Ride with the Devil,” collected in 1955 and related to the student by his mother, as told to her by her mother.

“One dark evening, about one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather had a strange experience. He was riding his horse back from a small country store somewhere in Randolph County in the vicinity of Mill Creek. He heard something that sounded like a log chain falling from a tree, and then he felt the presence of something on the horse behind him.

“He was frightened half out of his wits, but he turned his head around to see what the thing was. First he saw long claws that were digging into the flesh on his shoulder. He thought that a bear had jumped behind him on his horse, but, turning his head farther around, he found himself staring straight into two fire-red eyes. The creature had hardly any nose, but there were two protruding objects on his head that looked like horns. He was face to face with Satan himself! He tried many times to shake him off his back. He pushed. He tried racing his horse to get rid of him. But all this did no good. Satan clung to his back with those razorlike claws through it all.

“As he came within sight of his home, a strange thing happened. To his utter surprise, the thing disappeared.

“Upon arriving home, he slowly walked into the house. His wife noticed his torn shirt and bleeding shoulder and was terrified.

“He told her the whole story, but asked her never to say anything about it to anyone. Then he said something else. He said, ‘I have just seen the devil, and it won’t be long now before he gets me.’

“Exactly three weeks from that chance meeting with the devil, Grandfather fell while repairing his tobacco shed and was killed almost instantly. His last word before he died was ‘Water!'”

On a possibly related note, this is what a great horned owl sounds like:

[great horned owl hoot]

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 089: The Lavellan and the Earth Hound



As we get closer and closer to Halloween, the monsters get weirder and weirder! This week let’s look at two mystery animals from Scotland, one of which is supposed to break into coffins and eat the bodies! That’s disgusting!

A stoat in its winter ermine coat:

The Russian desman:

Show transcript:

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

We’re one week closer to Halloween and things are getting spookier and spookier. This week, we’ll learn about two mystery animals from Scotland. One of them poisons the water it lives in, and the other breaks into coffins to eat dead bodies. oh my gosh that’s horrible

The lavellan was supposed to be a rat-like rodent but bigger than a rat with an oversized head, and with a venomous bite. It lived in marshes and in deep pools along rivers, and its presence was enough to poison the water it lived in. If cattle drank the water, they would die.

It’s possible that the lavellan was just a story to keep children away from marshy areas and deep water. But it’s also possible that it might be based on a real animal.

The name lavellan is the same name used in Scottish Gaelic for the water shrew and water vole. The water shrew is big for a shrew, but small in comparison to a rat, only 4” long, or 10 cm, not counting its long tail. The water shrew does have a venomous bite, but it’s not powerful enough to kill a cow. It eats small fish, snails and small crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and small rodents. The water vole is about twice the length of the water shrew, but with a relatively short tail. It mostly eats plants, although it sometimes also eats frogs and tadpoles. It’s also not venomous.

But before we talk any more about the lavellan, we need to learn about the earth hound.

The earth hound, or yard pig, is supposed to be a rat-like animal that lives in burrows and is occasionally unearthed when plowing. It’s the one that is supposed to dig into graveyards, break into coffins, and eat the dead bodies.

We know more about the earth hound than the lavellan, largely due to a letter in the archives of the Natural Museums of Scotland.

The letter was written by a man named Smith of Wartle, who in 1917 wrote to James Ritchie in Edinburgh. Smith’s letter said that the father of a local gardener had dug up an earth hound while plowing in 1867 or thereabouts. The animal bit his boot when he kicked at it, biting so hard that it cut through the leather. The man beat it to death with the plow’s singletree.

Smith reported that the animal was dark brown, the size of a ferret but shaped roughly like a rat with a more doglike head, and a bushy tail that was about half the length of a rat’s tail. The head was long and the nostrils piglike, and it had white tusks—probably incisors. And it had feet like a mole’s, which makes sense if it is a burrowing animal.

Stories of the earth hound are still around in parts of rural northern Scotland. The animal is said to be seldom seen, often lives in churchyards, and likes areas around rivers. But is this a real animal, maybe one that’s either rare or now extinct? Or is it just an interesting bit of folklore?

Earth hound and earth pig are local names for the badger, but it’s clear this animal isn’t a badger. In Smith’s letter, he mentions that “At a casual glance it would be mistaken for a rat, but was quite unlike on close examination.”

The first thing I did was make a drawing, going by the description given of the 1867 animal. It turned out to look like a small, skinny-tailed otter with rat teeth—but while otters do dig burrows, do live near water, and are carnivorous and might occasionally snack on carrion if they happened upon a fresh body, they’re also much larger than the earth hound. Plus, everyone knows what an otter looks like. Plus, no one could look at an otter and mistake it for a rat.

The lavellan is a folktale reported from Caithness and Sutherland in the highlands of Scotland, while the earth hound is reported from Banffshire in the lowlands. The two areas aren’t all that far apart these days, with a rough driving distance of around 150 miles along the coast, or 270 km. But in the days before internet, TV, telephones, and quick and easy travel, local legends and stories could develop very differently in different areas although they stemmed from the same source. In other words, is it possible that the lavellan and the earth hound are based on the same animal?

Both the lavellan and the earth hound are described as about the size of a rat, which they somewhat resemble. We have a better description of the earth hound, but we do know that both animals are supposed to live in and around water. The lavellan has an oversized head, the earth hound has pronounced piglike nostrils.

So is there a real animal that fits this description? Let’s take a look at a few possibilities.

Voles have pronounced nostrils but are small, and are very common. Moles are likewise quite small, well-known, and have stubby little tails.

Stoats live throughout Scotland and much of northern Europe and the northern parts of North America. Its winter coat is white and the fur is known as ermine. It’s bigger than the weasel, which it resembles, with males being around a foot long, or 30 cm. It eats small rodents and rabbits, pursuing its prey down their burrows, and will also climb trees to eat eggs from bird nests.

But while the stoat fits the physical description of both animals pretty well, it’s not a water animal by any means. And it’s also common and therefore well known to locals. Its snout is also relatively short.

So what about a ground squirrel of some kind? There are lots of ground squirrels around the world, from chipmunks and gophers to marmots and prairie dogs, all the way up to groundhogs. Ground squirrels usually have relatively short tails that are usually somewhat bushy. They dig burrows and many are omnivorous, although I don’t know whether they’d eat carrion. But there are no known ground squirrels in Scotland, and ground squirrels do tend to be plump, short-snouted, and don’t resemble rats very closely.

It’s looking more and more like the lavellan and the earth hound have to be animals from folklore only. But there is one other possibility, a little-known animal called a desman. And this is where it gets interesting.

There are two known species of desman, the Russian and the Pyrenean. The desman is related to moles and eats insects, amphibians, and small crustaceans. It likes ponds and streams, and it lives in burrows connecting to the water. Its paws are webbed and it swims well, although it’s not as good at digging as moles are. Its nose is long and pointed, and it has a long tail that is slightly flattened to help it swim. Its eyes are tiny and it doesn’t see well, instead relying on the touch-sensitive Eimer’s organs at the end of its snout. It doesn’t have a nose star like its distant cousin the star-nosed mole, but its nostrils are almost as sensitive. Its ears aren’t visible under its fur and it’s nocturnal.

But the desman is not very large. The Russian desman is about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, with a tail nearly as long as the body. This is actually a bit shorter than the average rat. The Pyrenean desman is even smaller, only about 6 inches long, or 14 cm, with a tail the same length as its body. Both species are grayish-brown with lighter underparts.

And, most importantly, the desman is not found in Scotland. The Russian desman lives in one small part of Russia, while the Pyrenean desman lives in mountainous areas of Spain, Portugal, and a few other spots. Both are endangered.

Is it possible, though, that there was once a species of desman that lived in northern Scotland? We know from the fossil record that the Russian desman used to be much more widespread than it is now, and it did live in parts of the British Isles during the Pleistocene, or ice age, although not as far north as Scotland.

Moles and shrews are related, so while the desman species alive today aren’t venomous, as far as we know, perhaps the Scottish desman might have been. It also might have been larger than the living species. If it was already rare in the 19th century and before, it might have taken on mythical characteristics that persist today even though the animal must have gone extinct by now.

This is just speculation, of course. But it would be pretty awesome if evidence of a species of large desman was found in Scotland one day, and it might very well have given rise to both the earth pig and the lavellan stories. Let’s hope it didn’t actually break into coffins, though. Ick.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 083: Lions, tigers, and other big cats…of mystery!



I’ve been meaning to do a big cat episode for a while, thanks to listener Damian who suggested lions and tigers! But when I started my research, I immediately got distracted by all the reports of mysterious big cats. So here’s another mysteries episode!

Here are the links to some Patreon episodes that I’ve unlocked for anyone to listen to. Just click on the link and a page will open, and you can listen on the page. No need to log in.

Marsupial lions

Blue tigers and black lions

The Queensland tiger, which is not actually about any kind of actual tiger

A lion and cub. This picture made me die:

The Barbary lion, possibly extinct, possibly not:

Watch out! Tigers!

A king leopard with stripe-like markings instead of spots:

Further reading:

Hybrid and Mutant big cats

Peruvian mystery jaguar skulls studied

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some mystery big cats. We’ve touched on big cats before in various episodes, including the British Big Cats phenomenon in episode 52. We’re definitely going to see some more out of place animals this week, along with lots of information about big cats of various kinds. Thanks to Damian who requested an episode about lions and tigers ages ago.

I’ve also unlocked three Patreon episodes so that anyone can listen to them. They won’t show up in your feed, but there are links in the show notes and you can click through and listen on your browser without needing a patreon login. The first is about marsupial lions and the second is about blue tigers and other big cats with anomalous coat colors. The sound quality on the blue tigers episode is not that great, but it’s a long episode with lots of information about blue tigers, white tigers, black tigers, white lions, king cheetahs, and lots more. The third is about the Queensland tiger, an Australian animal that’s not a feline of any kind, but why not?

The term big cat refers to tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards, and jaguars, but it can also include cheetahs and cougars depending on who you ask. Big cats have round pupils instead of slit pupils like domestic cats and other smaller cats.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can all roar. Snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars can’t. But snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars can purr, while lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars can’t. The ability to roar is due to special adaptations in the larynx, but these adaptations also mean big cats can’t purr. So basically a cat can either roar or purr but not both.

The word panther, incidentally, refers to any big cat and not to a specific type of animal. So a black panther, in addition to being an awesome movie, is any kind of big cat exhibiting melanism, which causes the animal’s fur to be black all over. Leopards and jaguars are most commonly referred to as black panthers. Lions, tigers, and cheetahs do not exhibit true melanism as far as researchers have found.

Let’s start with lions. Lions live only in Africa these days, but were once common throughout parts of southern Asia too and possibly even parts of southern Europe. The lion is most closely related to the leopard and jaguar, less closely related to the tiger and snow leopard, but it’s so closely related to all those big cats that it can interbreed with them in rare cases.

There are two species of lion, the African and the Asian. Until recently there were also several subspecies of African lions, including the American lion, which once lived throughout North and South America. It only went extinct around 11,000 years ago. The American lion is the largest subspecies of lion ever known, about a quarter larger than modern African lions. It probably stood almost four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters. Cave paintings and pieces of skin preserved in caves indicate that its coat was reddish instead of golden. It lived in open grasslands like modern lions and even in cold areas. There are reports of a reddish, short-maned cat supposedly called a “jungle lion” sighted in South America, but I can’t find much information about it and it’s much more likely to be a jaguar or cougar than a relic population of American lions. But wouldn’t that be awesome if it was.

The Barbary lion was a subspecies of African lion that lived in northern Africa until it was hunted to extinction. The Barbary lion was the one that battled gladiators in ancient Rome and was hunted by pharaohs in ancient Egypt, a big lion with a dark mane. The last one was supposedly killed in 1922, but recent research indicates that they survived much longer—maybe as late as 1958 or later. The last recorded sighting was in 1956, but the forest where it was seen was destroyed two years later.

One zoo in Morocco claims that their lions are purebred Barbary lions, descended from royal lions kept in captivity for centuries. But since we don’t have a full genetic profile of the Barbary lion to start with, it’s hard to determine whether the royal lions are Barbary lions. So far a 2005 DNA test on five of the royal lions indicates they probably aren’t, but DNA testing has come a long way since then and new tests on the royal lions and on preserved Barbary lion skins will hopefully be done soon.

The Sumatran golden lion, also called the cigau [pronounced chee-gow] is a mystery lion that is supposed to be golden in color with no markings, a relatively short tail, and with a mane or ruff of fur that’s sometimes described as white. It’s only about the size of a small donkey or large goat, but stocky like a lion. The most recent sightings are from the 1960s, where one supposedly attacked and killed a man. Some researchers think it may be a subspecies of the nearly extinct Asiatic lion, but others say it’s more likely to be an animal of folklore. Then again, there are tigers on Sumatra and it’s always possible it’s an anomalous coated tiger with no stripes, or stripes that are almost the same color as its coat. Tigers do have a white ruff around the face.

Lions are well known to live on the savanna despite the term king of the jungle, but they do occasionally live in open forests and sometimes in actual jungles. In 2012 a lioness was spotted in a protected rainforest in Ethiopia, and locals say the lions pass through the reserve every year during the dry season. That rainforest is also one of the few places left in the world where wild coffee plants grow. So, you know, extra reason to keep it as safe as possible.

Let’s talk about tigers next. Tigers are awesome animals, with the Bengal tiger being the biggest big cat alive today—on average even bigger than the lion. Tigers are good swimmers and most really like the water, unlike most cats. They live throughout Asia but once were much more common and widespread. I’ve found a lot of mystery tiger reports, but if you’re interested in tigers of unusual colors, I really do recommend you go listen to the unlocked Patreon episode about blue tigers.

The so-called beast of Neamt is a modern mystery from Romania. In spring of 2016, farmers started finding livestock killed during the night, but not eaten. The predator was clearly extremely strong, much stronger and larger than a dog. Its method of killing didn’t suggest a bear, which locals were familiar with anyway.

Some of the sightings seem normal, of a catlike animal the size of a calf. Other sightings were more bizarre. Some people reporting seeing a huge animal running on two legs, one guy said he’d wounded it with an axe but it didn’t bleed, and of course there were the predictable reports that animals it killed were drained of blood.

But in this case, DNA testing solved the mystery of what was killing the animals. The beast was injured by a barbed-wire fence, and a test of its blood indicated it was a Siberian tiger. The Siberian tiger is also called the Amur tiger, which we talked about in episode 44, Extinct and Back from the Brink. But there are probably no more than 500 Siberian tigers alive in the wild, and none of them live within 3,000 miles of Romania, or 5,000 km. So while we know what the beast of Neamt is, we don’t know how it got there. Out of place tigers, hurrah!

Another mystery tiger is from Chad in Africa. This one is sometimes called the mountain tiger, and it’s supposed to be the size of a lion but with reddish fur, white stripes, no tail, and huge fangs.

This doesn’t sound like anything alive today—but it does sound like an extinct cat called Machairodus. It was the size of a lion, or over 3 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1 meter, and around 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. It was a type of saber-toothed cat like Smilodon, although it wasn’t closely related to Smilodon and its fangs weren’t as big. It probably had a short tail. But Machairodus and its relatives died out probably a million years ago, although it might have persisted to only 130,000 years ago. That’s still a lot of years, so it’s not too likely that a population of its descendants still lives in Chad. For one thing, northern Chad is part of the Sahara, while southern Chad is a savanna. It’s not dense jungle or remote mountains.

But there are similar reports of the mountain tiger in other parts of Africa, where there are steep mountain ranges that aren’t well explored. And, oddly enough, similar reports also come from South America and even from Mexico. Machairodus did live in Africa, Eurasia, and North America, although its fossils haven’t been found in South America. Maybe the reports aren’t of a living animal but were inspired by fossil remains. Hunters who stumbled across fossil machairodus bones would recognize them as similar to tiger or lion skeletons, but wouldn’t know that the living animal was long gone.

Another South American big cat report comes from Ecuador. It’s called the rainbow tiger or rainbow jaguar, and it sounds really pretty. In the Macas region in southeastern Ecuador, in the Amazon jungle, locals have a story about a big cat properly called Tshenkutshen. The cat is the size of a jaguar, or up to six feet long not counting the tail, or 1.85 meters, but instead of having a pattern of dark rosettes on a tawny background coat, the rainbow tiger is black with stripes on its chest. The stripes are different colors: white, red, yellow, and black, which gives it the rainbow name. One report I saw says it’s white with black spots in addition to the stripes on its chest. It lives in the trees in remote areas, is rare, and at least one report says it has a hump on its shoulders and monkey-like forepaws but with claws. One was supposedly shot and killed in 1959, but there are no pictures of the carcass and no one knows where it went, if it even existed in the first place.

Naturally, the rainbow tiger isn’t actually a tiger since tigers don’t live in South America. If it is a real animal and not a folktale, it’s probably a type of jaguar. But the whole monkey hands thing implies it’s probably more of a mythological creature than a flesh and blood one, because no feline of any kind has forepaws that resemble hands.

There’s an interesting addition to the rainbow tiger mystery. Dutch primatologist Dr. Marc van Roosmalen spotted a strange jaguar during an expedition through Brazil in the late 1990s. It was mostly black, but had a white pattern around its throat.

There are plenty of other South American big cat mysteries, including the yemish that we covered in episode 59 along with the onza, a mystery cat from Mexico and central America. But one especially interesting report is from Peru. Peter Hocking is a Peruvian ornithologist, or someone who studies birds, but he’s also interested in other animals. In 1996 he got his hands on two skulls that were similar to jaguar skulls but reportedly not from jaguars, but from strange striped big cats instead.

In 2010, zoologist Darren Naish asked for and finally received high-quality plaster replicas of the skulls so he could study them. His conclusion is that both skulls are actually from jaguars, but he points out that most big cat species do occasionally produce anomalously striped individuals. No one knows where the pelts of these two jaguars are, unfortunately. Hopefully they’ll turn up eventually, or another striped jaguar will be found and can be studied so we can learn if it’s just an individual with an anomalous coat pattern, or an actual subspecies of jaguar with stripes instead of spots.

I couldn’t find any mystery cheetah reports beyond one called the Tennessee red cheetah. That excited me because I live in Tennessee and I’d never heard of it before. The Tennessee red cheetah is supposed to resemble the cheetah, golden brown with black spots, but with a reddish dorsal stripe and tail. Some reports say it’s reddish-brown all over with black spots.

That’s it. That’s all the information I can find. I was so disappointed, but basically it sounds like a tall tale or maybe a sighting of a jaguar. That’s the problem with mystery big cat reports. There are so many reports of so many animals that don’t correspond to any known species or subspecies of big cat, with few concrete details. In the case of the Tennessee red cheetah, the only details I could find were vague stories about one being shot and skinned, but the skin was missing. No date, no place, no names, nothing.

You can’t treat a report like that with anything but skepticism, so let’s move on to another mystery big cat, the Zanzibar leopard. When I was making notes for this episode, I wrote “probably extinct, may be too depressing to use.” But there’s always a chance it’s not extinct.

The Zanzibar leopard lives on Zanzibar Island off of Tanzania. It’s not a big island, only around 50 miles long, or 85 km, and 20 miles wide, or 30 km. The Zanzibar leopard was probably separated from the mainland population of leopards when sea levels rose after the last ice age. It’s smaller than a mainland leopard, with smaller spots, but not much is known about it since it hasn’t been studied in the wild and it may be extinct now. Unfortunately, many people on the island believed that the leopards were witches’ familiars, and that they should be killed. In 1964 the islanders overthrew the government, but also unfortunately, the newly installed government persecuted people it decided were witches. This included a government-run campaign to kill all leopards on the island. By the mid-1990s, conservationists suspected the Zanzibar leopard was extinct.

But there is hope. Earlier this year an Animal Planet show caught footage on a camera trap of what appears to be a Zanzibar leopard. Hopefully there are still some of the leopards remaining, and if so, hopefully they can also be protected.

Speaking of Tanzania, let’s finish with a big cat that might very well be a real animal—or something even more mysterious. The nunda is supposed to be a huge gray cat with tabby stripes, reported in Tanzania. Its paw prints are supposed to resemble a leopard’s, but are as big as a lion’s.

In a 1927 article, a British administrator named William Hichens reported about his investigation into nunda attacks around the village of Lindi in Tanzania. The attacks occurred in 1922, and started with a night watchman who was found dead one morning. Clutched in the dead man’s hand was a tuft of gray fur that Hichens thought might have been torn from a lion’s mane. But lions were rare in that part of Tanzania, and two locals reported seeing a huge brindled cat attack the man during the night. A few nights after that, another watchman was also killed in the same way, including the tuft of hair clutched in one hand, and that was followed by more attacks in other villages over the next several weeks. The attacks stopped, but resumed in the 1930s. Some huge footprints and more of the gray fur were found by a British hunter who tried to track the animal.

So what might the nunda be? The description doesn’t sound like any known big cat. Cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans suggested it might be a huge African golden cat with anomalous markings. The African golden cat is related to the caracal and the serval, both fairly small, long-legged cats. It has variable markings and coloring, from reddish to grey, from spotted to nearly plain. But it’s only about twice the size of a domestic cat. Its paws are large for its size, but it’s not anywhere near the size of a leopard, much less a lion.

Of course, it might be a larger subspecies of golden cat, or a totally different species. But there is another possibility, one that’s far creepier and darker than an unknown big cat.

According to a book called Wild Cats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, published in 2012, in the early 20th century a group of witch doctors in that part of Tanzania ran an extortion racket. They demanded money from people and threatened to turn into lions and kill them if they didn’t pay up. And they did kill people—over 100 of them, according to the book. The murders were committed by young men who dressed like lions, including wearing lion paws on their feet so they left lion paw prints.

That would explain the rash of murders in a localized area, and the fact that so many of the victims were found clutching gray fur. The fur was never tested and could have come from any animal and been planted on the victims.

Zoologist Karl Shuker suggests that if the deaths weren’t due to these lion-men, the mystery big cat might be a type of leopard with stripes instead of spots. Leopards with stripes due to genetic coat anomalies are extremely rare, but they aren’t unheard-of. They’re sometimes referred to as king leopards. I have a picture of one in the show notes. While leopards can cross-breed with tigers, tigers don’t live in Africa, so a striped leopard-tiger hybrid wouldn’t be hanging around in Tanzania, certainly not in the 1920s.

Whatever the cause, no one has reported a nunda sighting in about 80 years.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 081: Little Yard Animals



This week we’re staying at home and looking around our own yards and gardens to learn about some of the little critters we see every day but maybe never pay attention to. Thanks to Richard E. for the topic suggestion, and thanks also to John V. and Richard J. for other animal suggestions I used in the episode!

The common or garden snail:

A couple of robins:

A brown-eared bulbul nomming petals:

An Eastern hognose snake. srsly, no one believes ur dead snek:

The hognose in happier times:

An Australian water dragon. Stripey!!

The edible dormouse. I think you mean the ADORABLE dormouse:

The eastern chipmunk:

A guppy with normal eyes:

Show transcript:

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

I’m out of the country this week, visiting Paris, France and undoubtedly eating my weight in pastries and cheese as you listen to this. Since I’m away from home, though, I’m probably feeling a little homesick. So this week’s episode is all about the ordinary-seeming little animals found in gardens and yards, a suggestion from Richard E. This is also a perfect opportunity to feature some listener-suggested animals that aren’t really complex enough for a full episode but are still really interesting.

But I’m not going to just look at the animals in my yard. Depending on where you live, hopefully I’ll touch on one or two animals you might be able to see for yourself just by going outside and looking around.

It sounds corny, but no matter how boring you think the nearest patch of greenery is, if you look closely enough you’ll see a world of activity. The other day I was sitting on a bench outside the library, enjoying a breeze and the shade of an oak tree, and because I am sort of disgusting and was wearing flip-flops, I was picking at one of my toenails that was partly broken. I pulled the broken part off and flipped it into the grass nearby. A few minutes later I noticed that a couple of ants had found that piece of toenail and were working hard to wrestle it over the grass and twigs and presumably back to their home. Why? Why did they want my toenail? It’s just a piece of keratin, and while keratin is a type of protein, it’s not digestible by most animals.

I looked it up, and guess what. I am not the first person to notice this. No one’s sure why ants take toenail and fingernail clippings, either. They’re not interested in hair, just nails. Hair and nails have different properties so it’s possible the ants are able to digest the keratin in nails but not the keratin in hair.

That was probably not the best story to start with. Try to forget that picture of me and remember that I’m sipping wine at a sidewalk café in Paris right now, or touring the Louvre.

Let’s move on to a small invertebrate that is sometimes eaten as a delicacy in France and other parts of Europe, the common or garden snail. That’s Cornu aspersum, which is native to the Mediterranean and western Europe, but which has been introduced in other parts of the world. It’s pretty big for a snail, with a shell almost 2 inches across, or 5 cm. The shell varies in color and pattern, but it’s usually brown with yellow markings.

The shells almost always coil to the right, or clockwise, but the occasional rare snail will have a left-coiling shell. Researchers have found that left-coiling shells are due to a genetic mutation and only occur about once in a million snails. A famous lefty snail was called Jeremy, who died in October 2017 at the ripe old age of two years. Since snails are hermaphrodites who both fertilize other snails’ eggs and lay their own, a boy name seems like a random choice. Jeremy was discovered by a retired scientist in his London garden, who gave the snail to the University of Nottingham for study. After a public appeal, two other left-handed snails were found by the public, but while the three snails all laid eggs, all the babies had clockwise shells.

The garden snail mostly eats plants, but will sometimes scavenge on small dead animals like drowned worms and squished slugs. When it’s threatened, it can pull itself all the way into its shell, and if it’s too dry out, it will pull itself into its shell and secrete a thin layer of mucus, which dries out to form a seal.

Snails raised to be eaten are kept in special cages, traditionally made from wine-grape vines. I am probably not going to eat any snails while I’m in France, but you never know. I will let you know if I do.

One animal Richard E. suggested as a topic is the robin, specifically the difference between the American robin and European robin. That’s a good one for this episode, because in both North America and Britain, the robin is a really common bird—so common that most people barely pay any attention to it.

The American robin is a type of thrush. It lives year-round in most of the United States and part of Mexico, spends summers in much of Canada, and winters in parts of Mexico. It’s big for a songbird, around 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It’s dark gray on its back, with a rusty red breast, white undertail coverts, and a long yellow bill. It also has white markings around its eyes. Young birds are speckled. It mostly eats insects, worms, and berries. If you see a bird on the ground, running quickly and then stopping, it’s probably a robin. Mostly the robin hunts bugs by sight, but it has good hearing and can actually hear worms moving around underground. You can sometimes see a robin with its head cocked, listening for a worm, before pouncing and pulling it out of the ground, just like in a cartoon.

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

This is what an American robin’s song sounds like. If you live in North America, you’ve probably heard this song a million times without noticing it.

[robin song]

The American robin was named after the European robin, also called the robin redbreast, but while the European robin does have a rusty red breast, it doesn’t look much like the American robin. The European robin is much smaller, only around 5 inches long, or 13 cm, with a brown back, streaked gray or buff belly, and orange face and breast. It has a short black bill and round black eyes. It eats insects, worms, berries, and seeds. The eggs are pale brown with reddish speckles.

It lives throughout much of Eurasia, but robins in Britain tend to be fairly tame, probably because they were traditionally considered beneficial in Britain and Ireland, so farmers and gardeners wouldn’t hurt them. In other parts of Europe they were hunted and are much more shy. European robins are also common on Christmas cards in Britain and Ireland, possibly because in the olden days, postmen used to wear red jackets. They started to be called robins as a result, and since postmen bring Christmas cards, the bird robin became linked with card delivery and finally just ended up on Christmas cards. Plus, their orange markings are cheerful in winter. And, of course, in the traditional story Babes in the Wood, which is often associated with Christmas pantomimes, robins cover the children’s dead bodies with leaves. Because nothing says Christmas spirit like a story about dead children.

This is what the European robin sounds like. If you live in Britain or parts of Europe, you’ve probably heard this song a million times without noticing it.

[other robin song]

Another common bird in gardens, this one from Japan and other parts of Asia, is the brown-eared bulbul. It’s about the size of the American robin, around 11 inches long, or 28 cm, including its long tail. It’s gray or gray-brown all over, with a speckled breast and belly, a sharp black bill, and a dark brown spot on the sides of its head that gives it its name. It mostly eats plants, including fruit, seeds, flowers, and even leaves. I have a picture in the show notes of one chowing down on a flower, just swallowing petals like it’s in a video game and petals give it a power-up. It likes nectar too, and in spring and summer especially will look like it has a yellow head or yellow markings because of all the pollen on its feathers. It helps pollinate plants as a result. It also sometimes eats insects. It gathers in large flocks at times and many farmers consider it a pest, especially fruit farmers.

It has a loud song and call that many people dislike. I’ll let you decide, if you’re not already familiar with it. I kind of like it, to be honest. This is what a brown-eared bulbul sounds like:

[brown-eared bulbul call]

Listener John V. recently suggested the Eastern Hognose snake for an episode, and tickled me because he referred to it as the “dramatic hognose snake.” The hognose is a common snake in many parts of North America, and can grow almost four feet long, or 116 cm, although about half that length is much more average. Its snout turns up like a little snub nose. It varies in color and pattern, and some snakes are black or gray, some orange, brown, even greenish. Some snakes have no pattern, some snakes have various colored blotches or even a checkered pattern. The belly is usually yellowish but is sometimes gray or almost white. It has a big head that makes some people believe it’s venomous, but it’s actually harmless to humans and most animals.

The only animals that really need to worry about the Eastern hognose are amphibians, like toads and frogs. As it happens, the hognose does have mild venom, but it’s only effective on amphibians. It especially likes to eat toads, and while some toads are toxic, the hognose snake is resistant to toad toxins. A toad will frequently puff itself up to make it appear larger and make it hard for a snake to eat, but the Eastern hognose has a solution for that too. It has big teeth at the rear of its upper jaws, like fangs in the back of its mouth. It uses those teeth to puncture puffed-up toads so they deflate.

But the most memorable thing about the Eastern hognose, and the thing that earns it the drama snake award, is what it does when it feels threatened. Phase one of the dramatics is aggression. The snake will flatten its neck to look more threatening, raise its head like a cobra, and hiss and strike—but without biting. It’s just trying to scare you away. If that doesn’t work, the snake puts phase two into effect. It will flop down and roll onto its back, its tongue hanging out, and emit a foul musky smell from its cloaca, and play dead. If you call its bluff and roll drama queen snake onto its belly, it will turn onto its back again. It is really insistent that it is dead.

A common reptile visitor to yards in Australia is the water dragon. Of course Australia would have a little dragon running around in suburban neighborhoods. Males can grow up to three feet long, or a little over a meter, with females smaller, but those lengths include a tail that’s almost twice the length of the body. Males are more brightly patterned than females. It’s a long-leggedy lizard with a spiky crest along its head and spine. It’s generally a pale greeny-grey with dark stripes, especially on the tail and legs, or gray with white stripes. Depending on the species and individual, it may also have a colorful blotch on the throat, usually white or yellow, but sometimes orange or red.

It’s a fast runner and can even run on its hind legs if it really needs to hurry. It climbs trees well, but it especially likes water and is semi-aquatic. Its long tail helps it swim. It likes to bask on branches overhanging the water, and if something threatens it, it drops into the water, where it hides. It can stay underwater without needing to take another breath for over half an hour. It eats small animals like frogs and worms, crustaceans and mollusks, insects, fruit, and plants.

In areas where it gets cold in winter, such as Sydney, the water dragon will dig a burrow if it doesn’t already have one, close the entrance off with dirt, and hibernate until spring, when it emerges and starts searching for a mate. Males sometimes fight each other, biting and scratching. Once the weather is warm, the female lays 6 to 18 eggs in a hole she digs in sandy soil.

Water dragons will visit yards if there’s cover and a water source nearby, whether it’s a creek or just a dog’s water bowl. Don’t try to pet one, though. Dragons bite.

Now let’s look at a couple of common rodents. The edible dormouse lives throughout much of western Europe and is big, about the size of a squirrel, which it also roughly resembles. It’s grey or grey-brown with paler underparts. In autumn when it’s preparing for hibernation it gets very fat, which is why it’s also called the fat dormouse. The name edible dormouse comes from the Romans, who used to farm them in captivity and eat them as a delicacy. In some parts of Europe, especially Slovenia, wild edible dormice are still trapped and eaten.

The edible dormouse lives in dense forests, caves, and people’s attics, where it can be a real pest. It eats plants, especially fruit and nuts, but will eat bark and leaves, and sometimes bird eggs and insects. It especially likes beech tree seeds. It’s mostly nocturnal. Unlike most rodents, it doesn’t always breed every year.

If a predator grabs the edible dormouse’s tail, the skin and fur will slide off, allowing the dormouse to escape. The exposed tail vertebrae later break off and the wound heals up, making the tail shorter. That is kind of horrifying.

Chipmunks are rodents common throughout North America, although the Siberian chipmunk lives in Asia. The Eastern chipmunk is the one I’m going to talk about today, primarily because I got audio of one calling this morning on my way to work. I spilled coffee all over myself to get the audio, so I definitely want to share it.

The chipmunk is larger than a mouse but smaller than a squirrel. It has reddish-brown fur with stripes down its sides, a white band in between two thinner black bands. It prefers woodlands with lots of brush and rocks to hide in, but it lives in parks, yards, and definitely all over the college campus where I work. It climbs trees well but mostly it stays on the ground. It digs complex burrows with tunnels that can be more than 11 feet long, or 3.5 meters. It even digs a special latrine burrow to keep droppings out of the rest of the burrow system, and will throw nut shells and other trash into the latrine too. When it’s digging a new tunnel or burrow, it carries the dirt it’s dug away from the tunnel entrance in its cheek pouches, so predators won’t notice newly dug soil and come to take a look.

The chipmunk is omnivorous, and eats everything from bird eggs, worms, snails, and insects to seeds, nuts, and mushrooms. It even eats small animals like baby mice and nestling birds. It carries food in its cheek pouches to store for the winter, and helps disperse some plants as a result. It doesn’t hibernate, but in winter it spends most of its time sleeping, which is pretty much what I like to do in winter too.

THIS is what an Eastern chipmunk sounds like! A cup of coffee died to bring you this audio:

[chipmunk sound]

Our final animal isn’t something you’d typically find in your yard or garden—but you might find it in your house, if you have a freshwater aquarium: the guppy. A different Richard suggested this animal, specifically my brother Richard. He texted me a while back about Poecilia reticulata, a “common aquarium fish that can turn its little eyes black.” Then we texted back and forth about how that would be a really neat superpower, and how we would apply it in our lives if we could turn our eyes black.

The guppy is a tropical fish native to parts of South America, although it’s been introduced into the wild in other parts of the world and is an invasive species in many places. In the wild it eats algae, insect larvae, and various tiny animals. It’s usually between one and two inches long, or 3 to 6 cm, with females being larger. Females are gray or silvery in color, while males are gray with spots of bright color. Aquarium enthusiasts breed different strains of guppy that may have bright colors and striking patterns.

So does the guppy turn its eyes black? Yes, it really does. Most of the time guppies have silver eyes, but some species can change their eye color in only seconds. In the wild, guppies that live in dangerous areas with many predators tend to group together and cooperate. But guppies that live in safer areas tend to be loners and more aggressive toward each other. When a guppy is angry at another guppy, it turns its eyes black to indicate that it’s willing to fight. Other guppies may back off at that point, or if the other guppy is bigger, it may attack. Researchers don’t know yet how guppies change their eye color.

Until next week, when I’m home from Paris and hopefully caught up on my sleep, remember to look around at the strange little animals in your own backyard. But watch out if their eyes turn black.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 080: Mystery Dogs



This week we’re looking at some strange and mysterious canids from around the world!

The African wild dog:

A dhole:

An old photo of the ringdocus and a newer photo of the ringdocus:

A coyote:

Sri Lankan golden jackal:

The maned wolf MONEY SHOT:

A bush dog:

A stuffed Honshu wolf, dramatically lit:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s look at a bunch of mystery doggos from around the world! I really like dogs, but for some reason dogs and their relations don’t come up much on the podcast. When I started looking into mystery canids, though, I found so much information that there’s no way I can stuff even half of it into one episode. So we’ll definitely be revisiting mystery dogs in the future.

The family Canidae includes dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes. Yes, foxes are canids, but not closely related to more dog-like canids. We’re going to skip the foxes this week, since foxes deserve an episode all their own eventually.

Dogs were domesticated at least 9,500 years ago, possibly as long as 14,700 years ago, maybe even as long as 36,000 years ago. Dogs and humans go way back. The closest living relative of the dog is the gray wolf, which is still alive today, but the wild ancestor of the domestic dog was a different species of wolf that has gone extinct.

There are canids called wild dogs, but they’re not the same species as domestic dogs. The African wild dog, for instance, is not very closely related to dogs and wolves—in fact, it’s the only species in its own genus. It’s a tall, lean canid with large ears and no dewclaws. It has a yellowish coat with black blotches and some white spots, including a white tail tip, although some subspecies have darker coats. As the dog ages, it loses its fur until old dogs are nearly bald. It hunts in packs and mostly preys on antelopes, warthogs, ostriches, hares, and rodents.

The nomadic Tuareg people who live in northern parts of Africa around the Sahara have stories of a supernatural creature called the Adjule, among other names. The Adjule’s description makes it sound a lot like the African wild dog, including its lack of a dew claw. Since the African wild dog is rare in that part of Africa, it’s possible that rare sightings of what is a distinctively odd-looking animal may have given rise to the stories.

Another so-called wild dog is the dhole, also called the Indian wild dog, which is closely related to the African wild dog. It used to be common throughout Eurasia and North America, but these days it’s restricted to parts of Asia and is endangered. It looks something like a fox and something like a wolf, but is neither. Like many other canids in this episode, the dhole has its own genus. Because it tends to be easily tamed and is sometimes kept as a pet, researchers once believed domestic dogs might have descended from the dhole or an ancestral species of dhole, but genetic evidence shows that the dhole isn’t closely related to domestic dogs or to wolves.

There are three subspecies of dhole, two of them reddish-brown in color and one with fur that’s pale brown in winter. But there is a mystery animal called the gray dhole that may turn out to be a fourth subspecies or something else.

The gray dhole supposedly lives in the forests and mountains of Myanmar. It’s dark gray with a black muzzle and small, round ears, and is supposed to be smaller than the other dhole species. In 1913 a Major E.G. Phythian-Adams wrote about the grey dhole after he saw one that year, and in 1933 E.H. Peacock mentioned it in his book A Game Book for Bhurma and Adjoining Territories. In 1936 an explorer named Tsaing reported seeing one in Burma. But after these reports, the Bombay Natural History Society tried to find physical evidence of the animal in the 1950s, but couldn’t track down anything. They only found one person who even reported seeing the grey dhole. So even if it is a separate species or subspecies and not just a rare color morph of a known species of dhole, it’s probably extinct now.

Kipling wrote about the dhole in one of his Jungle Book stories, calling it the red whistling dog of the Deccan, and reporting that packs of the animals were so ferocious that even tigers would avoid them. This is true, even the whistling part. Instead of barking or howling, dhole calls are whistles. This is what a dhole sounds like:

[dhole sound]

In 1886 a Montana settler named Israel Hutchins shot a wolflike animal that had reportedly been killing livestock. No one knew what it was, so Hutchins traded it to a taxidermist for a cow. He needed the cow because when he first tried to shoot the canid, he accidentally shot one of his own cows instead. The taxidermist, Joseph Sherwood, also owned a general store in Idaho. He displayed the stuffed canid in the store, where it stayed for almost a hundred years until it disappeared. In 2007 Hutchins’s grandson, Jack Kirby, traced it to the Idaho Museum of Natural History.

The stuffed mystery canid is usually called the ringdocus, a name Sherwood made up. It has a sloping back and some other un-wolf-like features that might be due to bad taxidermy or might be due to physical anomalies in an ordinary wolf—or might be due to the ringdocus being an animal new to science. Suggestions as to what it might be include a thylacine, a hyena, a wolf-coyote hybrid, a wolf-dog hybrid, or a dire wolf. It’s not a thylacine, just going to say that straight out. Since we have the taxidermied specimen, it seems logical that a DNA test would clear up the mystery or bring us a brand new scientific mystery, if it turns out to be an unknown animal. But Kirby doesn’t want a DNA test done. That tells me it’s probably just a wolf, and he knows it’s a wolf. Prove me wrong, Kirby. I bet you ten whole dollars it’s just a wolf.

Around the same time that Hutchens was shooting at the ringdocus and killing his cow, and probably saying some very bad words when it happened, a man called Payze bought what he thought was a fox cub from some men traveling to London. It was 1883 and the men had caught the cub, along with two others, in Epping Forest. Payze named the cub Charlie, but as Charlie grew up, he started looking less and less like a fox. Payze took him to London Zoo and showed him to the superintendent, who identified him as a coyote.

But how had a coyote gotten to England? Coyotes are native to North America. The coyote is smaller than a wolf, usually a bit bigger than a fox but with longer legs, and can look fox-like. It’s gray and brown, or sometimes reddish, with large ears and a brushy tail.

It turns out that four coyotes had been brought to England and released near Epping Forest not long before, presumably for hunting. Clearly they’d had at least one litter of pups, but is it possible they survived and had more offspring? Locals do occasionally report seeing wolves or gray foxes in the area. Since coyotes readily breed with dogs and produce fertile offspring, it’s possible that some local dogs have coyote in their ancestry.

The Sri Lankan golden jackal lives in Sri Lanka and parts of India. It’s a small canid, with grizzled black and white fur above and tan or golden on the belly and legs. It’s a subspecies of the golden jackal, and it’s sometimes called the horned jackal. Local people in Sri Lanka believe that the leader of the pack has a small horn on the back of its skull, although other people report the horn is on its forehead. The horn is supposed to have supernatural powers and is considered a valuable talisman or charm.

That sounds nutty, but we actually have golden jackal skulls with small pointy horns less than an inch long, or a few centimeters. So the horns are real, but they’re not actual horns. They’re most likely bony growths resulting from an injury to the skull. No one’s sure why golden jackals grow them but not other canids.

The Falkland Islands is an archipelago about 300 miles, or 480 km, off the coast of Patagonia at the southern end of South America. When European explorers first discovered the islands in the late 17th century, no people lived there, just lots of birds and a fox-like wolf. Charles Darwin saw it in 1834 and described it as a wolf-like fox, but modern DNA research shows that it’s not only not a fox, its closest living relative is the maned wolf, which still lives in parts of South America.

The Falkland Islands wolf was tawny in color with a white tip to its tail. It had relatively short legs but was a fairly large animal, standing about two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm. Its fur was thick and it barked like a dog. It may have lived in burrows. Because no mammals except the wolf lived on the Falkland Islands until settlers arrived, the wolf probably mostly ate seabirds, insects, and anything it could scavenge from the seashore.

For a long time it was a mystery how the Falkland Islands wolf got to the islands. There were no other wild canids in Patagonia, and the islands were never connected to the mainland. The islands aren’t even visible from the mainland. But the Falkland Islands wolf used to have a close relative that lived in Patagonia and other parts of South America. Dusicyon avus was about the size of German shepherd, and may have been at least partially domesticated. The grave of a young D. avus was found among human graves dating to over 2,000 years ago in Argentina. Estimates of when D. avus went extinct vary from 1,000 BCE to only around 300 years ago. Either way, researchers think that about 16,000 years ago, during the last ice age, the sea level was lower and only a shallow strait separated the mainland from the Falkland Islands. At times the strait may have frozen over, allowing animals to travel to the islands. When the glaciers melted and the sea level rose, some of the wolves were trapped on the islands. They evolved over the centuries to better fit their island habitat.

The Falkland Islands wolf wasn’t afraid of humans since it had no predators. That meant that sailors and other people who visited the islands could kill the wolves easily. It was hunted for its fur, or sometimes just poisoned by settlers who believed it killed sheep. It went extinct in 1876.

So what about the maned wolf, the Falkland Islands wolf’s living relation? It is a very weird animal, and in fact you’ll often see it listed in articles about the weirdest animals ever.

The maned wolf resembles a fox in many ways. It has reddish fur with black legs and muzzle and a black mane along its spine, a white tip to its tail, and a white patch on its throat. Its ears are big and its muzzle relatively short. Oh, and its legs are long. Really, really long. Super long. At first glance, it almost looks like a deer.

The maned wolf’s body is about the size of a good-sized dog’s, but its legs are far longer than any dog’s legs. Researchers think the maned wolf evolved longer legs to better see over the tall grasses where it lives. It’s a solitary animal and hunts small animals and birds, but about half its diet is plants. It especially likes a tomato-like fruit called the wolf apple. It marks its territory with a stinky musk that smells enough like cannabis that at least one zoo security team has mistaken it for people smoking marijuana.

Not only is the maned wolf not a wolf, it’s not a fox either. It’s not really closely related to any other living canids. It is, in fact, its own thing, the only living canid in its genus. While it’s related to the Falkland Islands wolf, its closest living relative is the bush dog, also the only species in its genus, also an odd canid from South America. But while the maned wolf is very tall, the bush dog is very short, only about a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30 cm.

The bush dog has plush brown fur that’s lighter on the back and darker on the belly, legs, and rump. Its ears are small, its snout short, and its tail is relatively short. It actually looks more like an otter or big weasel than a dog. It sometimes hunts in packs, sometimes alone. When it hunts alone it mostly eats small rodents, lizards and snakes, and birds, but packs can kill larger animals like peccaries, a type of wild pig. It lives in extended family groups and hunts during the day.

The bush dog is rare and not much is known about it. Its toes are webbed and it spends a lot of time in the water within its forest habitat. It’s so rare that for a long time it was only known from fossils found in some caves in Brazil, and was thought extinct.

Conversely, the Japanese wolf, or Honshu wolf, is a canid that is supposed to have gone extinct in January of 1905 when the last known wolf was killed. But people keep seeing and hearing it in the mountains of Japan.

The Honshu wolf was also small, not much more than a foot tall at the shoulder, or 30-odd cm, but it was a subspecies of gray wolf. Its legs were short and its short coat was greyish-brown. It was once considered a friend to farmers, since it ate rats and other pests. Wolves were also regarded as protective of travelers in Japanese folklore. But in 1732 rabies was introduced to Japan. That disease combined with loss of habitat made the Honshu wolf more of a threat to humans and their livestock, and led to its persecution.

But sightings of the wolf have continued ever since that last one was killed in 1905. Photographs of a canid killed in 1910 were studied by a team of researchers in 2000, who determined that the animal in the photos was probably a Honshu wolf. People have found tracks, heard howling, seen wolf-like animals, even taken photos of what look like wolves. The problem is that the Japanese wolf looked similar in many ways to some Japanese dog breeds like the Shiba inu and the Akita, which are probably partly wolf anyway since wolves and dogs interbreed easily and produce fertile offspring. People might be seeing dogs roaming the countryside. We can’t even DNA test hairs and old pelts to see if they’re from wolves, because we don’t have a genetic profile of the Honshu wolf. There are only a few taxidermied specimens of the wolf, and none of them have yielded intact DNA.

Another mystery not definitely solved by DNA testing, although at least they’ve tried, is the Andean wolf, sometimes called Hagenbeck’s wolf. It’s another South American mystery canid. In 1927, a German animal collector called Lorenz Hagenbeck bought a wolf pelt in Buenos Aires. The seller said the pelt, and three others, came from a wolf-like wild dog in the Andes Mountains.

The pelt is about six feet long, or 1.8 meters, including the tail, with thick, long fur, especially a thick ruff on the neck. It’s black on the back and dark brown elsewhere.

Hagenbeck didn’t recognize the pelt, so when he got home he sent it for examination. In the 1930s and 1940s, various studies suggested it belonged to a new species of canid, possibly one related to the maned wolf. One mammologist, Ingo Krumbiegel, also thought he might have seen a skull of the same canid in 1935, which he said had resembled a maned wolf skull but was much larger, and was supposed to have come from the Andes. Krumbiegel was convinced enough that in 1949 he described the Andean wolf formally as a new species. But no more specimens have come to light.

In 1954 another study determined Hagenbeck’s pelt was just a dog pelt, possibly of a German Shepherd crossbreed. A 1957 study came to the same conclusion. In 2000, a DNA analysis came back inconclusive due to the pelt having been chemically treated during preparation, and contamination with dog, wolf, human, and pig DNA. Currently the pelt is on display at the Zoological State Museum in Munich.

Finally, the dire wolf is a famous canid from books, games, and movies, but it was also a real animal. It lived throughout North and South America and was bigger than modern gray wolves, standing over three feet tall at the shoulder, or about 97 cm. It had massive teeth and powerful jaws that would have helped it kill giant ground sloths, mastodons, bison, horses, and other ice age megafauna. It wasn’t as fast a runner as modern wolves, though, and some researchers think the gray wolf may have outcompeted the dire wolf.

The dire wolf probably died out about 9,500 years ago, but there’s a group called the Dire Wolf Project that’s attempting to breed a dog that looks like a dire wolf. The group isn’t introducing any modern wolf genes into the breed, though, since they want a dog that looks like a dire wolf but doesn’t act like one. Which is pretty smart considering that dire wolves probably snacked on our own ancestors from time to time.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 073: Phantom and Otherwise Kangaroos



This week we’re learning about some out-of-place marsupials, from phantom kangaroos to colonies of wallabies living in places like England and Hawaii. Thanks to Richard E. for the suggestion!

A Bennett’s wallaby and a red kangaroo:

George Stubbs’s kangaroo painting:

The controversial maybe-it’s-a-kangaroo engraving from 1593 (detail to the right). For more information, this is a great article.

You can find the 2013 video of a kangaroo in an Oklahoma cowfield here. It’s definitely a kangaroo, too.

Show transcript:

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

We started 2018 with a couple of episodes about out of place animals. I meant to make that a regular feature this year, but I keep getting distracted. Imagine that. This week I was going to revisit out of place animals in general, with lots of excellent suggestions from Richard E. But the second I started researching some populations of wallabies in places far outside of their usual home, I got sucked into the strange world of phantom kangaroos.

Reports of so-called phantom kangaroos are something between an urban legend and a genuine cryptozoological mystery. The problem with the earliest accounts is that they’re impossible to verify as real reports. Newspapers from earlier than about the 1920s would sometimes play fast and loose with reality in order to sell papers or just fill space. I suspect that at the time, most people reading the papers understood that these sorts of accounts were just fun nonsense, but we don’t have the same frame of reference to interpret them properly today. A hundred years from now scholars are going to be reading memes from 2018 and taking them at face value because they don’t understand most of the pop culture references.

But let’s dig into some of these phantom kangaroo reports and see what we can find out.

The first report of a phantom kangaroo is usually listed as one from 1899 in Wisconsin. The story goes that on June 12 of that year, a woman in New Richmond reported seeing a kangaroo run through her neighbor’s yard. Some accounts say it was her yard, and some reports say it happened during a storm. Some reports also mention that a circus was in the area, but that while people assumed the kangaroo had escaped from the circus, it turned out that the circus had never had a kangaroo.

This story doesn’t seem to appear anywhere except books and websites about unexplained phenomena. On the surface it seems to have good details, but when you think about it, it’s mostly vague. We have a specific date and a specific place…but what was the woman’s name? Which circus was in town? How did the woman know she had seen a kangaroo, and what did it look like? It was described as running, not hopping, but does that verb come from the witness or from reporters?

The next phantom kangaroo account is from 1907, and supposedly happened near Pennsburg, PA. I found it in three old newspapers, including the August 3, 1907 Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph, and the Harrisburg Daily Independent.

This is the text of the article that appears in both those newspapers, with the headline “Kangaroo” at Large Alarms a Community, with Kangaroo in quotes, a rather sophisticated touch that makes me think the story was real:

“Pennsburg, Pa, Aug. 3 Tales of a kangaroo that is said to be roaming the wooded hills in the vicinity of Pleasant Run, a few miles west of here, have occasioned intense excitement in that region. Several persons, among them Erwin Styer and Martin Stengel, have seen the strange animal within the last week, and while it is so fleet that no one has been able to obtain a good view of it, the descriptions tend to substantiate the theory that it is a kangaroo. Dogs have attacked the animal, but have always been worsted. People living in the neighborhood of Pleasant Run are afraid to venture away from home after nightfall, and there is little disposition to linger long at the village store in the evening.”

unquote

I checked and Pleasant Run, Pennsylvania is indeed four miles away from Pennsburg, so that’s accurate. I also found an article in the Pinedale (Wyoming) Roundup of December 4, 1907, with the headline “Big Kangaroo at Large” and the subheadline “Keeps Lovers from Their Sweet Summer Saunterings,” which makes me want to throw up a little. This version of the story has been expanded, but whether that was done by the original reporter or was added to give the story more flavor, I don’t know. Here it is in full:

Quote

“Tales of a kangaroo that is said to be roaming the wooded hills in the vicinity of Pleasant Run, a few miles west of here, have occasioned intense excitement. Several persons, among them Erwin Styer and Martin Stengel, have seen the strange animal within the past week, and while it is so fleet that no one has been able to obtain a good view of it, the descriptions substantiate the theory that it is a kangaroo. It is described as being of gray color, with a head shaped like that of a sheep and a body of large proportions. Upon the approach of a human being it darts away at tremendous speed.

“Dogs have attacked it, but were always worsted. They were not bitten but apparently the animal flung them off with terrific force in the manner that a kangaroo defends itself with its hind legs and tail.

“People living in the neighborhood are afraid to venture away from home after nightfall and there is little disposition to linger at the village store or tavern in the evening. Young men say that the customary outdoor rural amusements are no longer safe. ‘It ain’t that I’m afraid of any wild beast that ever roamed the jungles of Montgomery county,’ said one young swain, ‘but I certainly do object to the disgrace of being knocked out by the hind legs or the tail of a kangaroo. So I guess we fellows won’t do much stirring up with the girls for some time to come.’”

Unquote

Okay, first of all, barf. Second of all, I don’t know what people sounded like in 1907, but I lived in Pennsylvania for a while and no one talks like that there. Third of all, I’m pretty sure Montgomery County, PA, which is not far from Philadelphia, wasn’t exactly a jungle even in 1907. I guarantee you that the quote at the end of the Wyoming article was made up by some bad writer, either in Wyoming or in some other newspaper, to give it more pizzazz.

It’s possible the whole article was an invention. I suspect the original version reports a real event, but since there are so few details it’s impossible to know if the animal was actually a kangaroo.

The next phantom kangaroo is a lot more interesting. It happened near South Pittsburg, Tennessee, which is near Chattanooga and therefore not far from where I live. Over five days in January 1934, an animal people called a kangaroo was repeatedly seen outside the town. One person said it leaped across a field, others reported it had killed and partially eaten some dogs and ducks, and was even reported carrying away a sheep. Its prints were tracked to a cave, but the animal was never found. Now, I’m going to be honest here and admit that I didn’t hunt too hard for original newspaper articles on this one. I should have, but I literally ran out of time. Basically, whatever this animal was, it probably wasn’t a kangaroo. While kangaroos, like all herbivores, will occasionally eat birds or small animals, or even fish, they don’t eat dogs. They don’t live in caves. They aren’t usually aggressive at all. So basically, while it’s possible this was a mystery animal, it wasn’t a kangaroo.

People tend to see what they expect to see. If someone sees an animal they can’t identify, their subconscious will suggest the most plausible mystery animal. These days that might be Bigfoot or a dogman. In the olden days, it might have been a kangaroo. But why? Why kangaroos?

Kangaroos have been known to science and to general non-Australian people for centuries. The most famous painting of a kangaroo was by artist George Stubbs, who is best known for his gorgeous paintings of horses and dogs. Stubbs painted it in 1772 from a skin brought to England by Captain Cook, not from a live animal. As a result, the kangaroo isn’t as accurate as most of his paintings, but it’s still definitely a kangaroo. It was exhibited in London in 1773 and was a huge attraction. Prints and reproductions of Stubbs’s kangaroo were also popular, and until zoos started to exhibit live kangaroos, that’s what many non-Australians thought kangaroos looked like.

But there were earlier European depictions of kangaroos and other marsupials from Australia, definitely as early as 1711 and possibly as early as 1593. People do tend to see what they expect to see, but presumably no one outside of Australia actually expects to see a kangaroo hopping around on any given day. But something did happen around the time of the earliest phantom kangaroo reports. Kangaroos and their relations started being exhibited in zoos.

This is different from traveling menageries and circuses. The first kangaroos were known to have been in traveling menageries around 1828, when one or two kangaroos were exhibited in England, with a few others in circuses and menageries traveling mostly around Boston and Ontario in North America. But public zoos became more and more common around the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially in the United States. Kangaroos and their smaller relations, wallabies, started to appear in American zoos in the early 20th century.

So it’s possible that the phantom kangaroo sightings resulted from more people being familiar with what kangaroos were and what they looked like, but not being familiar with what they ate or how they acted outside of captivity. Zoos in those days were grim places, with animals kept in small cages, so many people who saw one on display may not even have been aware they hop instead of run. If your sole experience with hopping animals is rabbits, and someone told you kangaroos hop, you’d probably picture a rabbit-like gait.

But…well…maybe people were actually seeing kangaroos, at least sometimes.

Here’s the thing. Kangaroos and wallabies are sometimes kept as pets. Apparently they can get pretty tame, although I’m just going to point out that you’d be a lot better off with a pet that’s actually domesticated. If you must have a hopping pet, rabbits are pretty awesome. Anyway, guess what. There are actual known populations of wallabies living in various places where they really shouldn’t be. And we don’t actually know how they got there in most cases. All we can do is guess they were escaped pets or escaped from zoos.

Wallabies look like miniature kangaroos, maybe the size of an average dog. They eat all kinds of plants, can bound quickly and jump fences and other obstacles, and are largely nocturnal although they also come out in daylight. Basically they fill a similar ecological niche as deer. They breed well in captivity and are cute, so are often kept in zoos. They’re marsupials native to Australia, New Zealand, and New Guinea…but they are also found in parts of England, Scotland, Ireland, on the Isle of Man, in one tiny area of France, and a few other places.

We do know where some of the wallabies come from. Lady Fiona of Arran was a bit of an eccentric who kept what would have been considered exotic pets back in the 1920s and 30s: llamas, alpacas, pot-bellied pigs, and wallabies. At some point in the 1940s she turned the wallabies loose on an island in Loch Lomond, where they’ve lived ever since. The problem, of course, is that they shouldn’t really be there. They’re cute, sure, and tourists do come to see them, but some people think their presence threatens certain native bird species and they ought to be killed off, or at least captured and taken to zoos. Other people point out that the native birds on the island don’t seem to be bothered by the wallabies, which after all have been there for the better part of a century now. About sixty wallabies live on the island at any given time.

There are also wallabies in the Peak District in Derbyshire, England. This was the population Richard E. told me about, which got me started on this episode that has taken me way too long to research. We know where these wallabies came from too. A man named Henry Courtney Brocklehurst, which honestly does not even sound like a real person’s name, once kept a private zoo on the Roaches, a rocky ridge that’s part of a national park in England. At some point in the 1930s five wallabies in his zoo either escaped or were quietly turned loose, reports vary. They did well in the wild and multiplied, until at their most numerous there were around 50. For a while people thought the wallabies had all died off after some especially cold winters, but in 2009 a hiker got pictures of one.

But wallabies also live in other parts of the British isles, and we don’t know where most of them came from. At least some are probably escaped pets or escaped from zoos—wallabies are apparently pretty good at escaping—while others may be individuals from the peak district population that have gone wandering. All the wallabies in Britain are a subspecies of red-necked wallaby called Bennett’s wallaby, which is from Tasmania. This means it’s better adapted to the British climate than most other wallabies would be. They’re sometimes killed by cars or dogs.

So let’s get back to more modern sightings of phantom kangaroos. There are a lot of reports from the United States, believe me, and a few from Canada. I won’t go into detail for most of them, but they include a 1949 sighting in Ohio, a 1958 sighting in Nebraska, the “Big Bunny” kangaroo sightings in Minnesota that persisted for a decade between 1957 and 1967, and many more.

On October 18, 1974 someone called the Chicago police to report a kangaroo on their porch. Two officers responded…and found a kangaroo in a nearby alleyway. They reported it was five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, which points to its being an actual kangaroo and not a wallaby. Now, Chicago cops probably are not trained to deal with kangaroos, but you’d think they would have the sense to call animal control or a zoo or someone who does know how to deal with kangaroos. Instead, they decided to treat the kangaroo like a human criminal. That’s right, they tried to handcuff a kangaroo.

The kangaroo kicked and punched the officers, who called for backup and probably still haven’t lived that down, but the kangaroo jumped a fence and disappeared into the night.

The next day a paperboy near Oak Park reported hearing a car’s brakes squeal, and when he turned to look, he saw a kangaroo only a few feet away, staring at him. It hopped away. Over the next few weeks sightings poured in from all over Chicago, from other Illinois cities, and even from Indiana. By July 1975, sightings had tapered off and finally stopped.

In April 1978, a schoolbus driver in Waukesha, Wisconsin saw two kangaroos hop across the road. She wasn’t the only one to see them, either. The road was busy and drivers had to slam on their brakes to avoid the kangaroos. One driver actually hit one, but it just jumped back up and hopped away. More people spotted the kangaroos in the weeks that followed. By the end of the month, a kangaroo hunt was organized in an attempt to capture it. They failed, and it seems mostly to have been a joke, but an anonymous photographer sent a Polaroid of a kangaroo to the local paper, supposedly taken in the area. It turned out to be a hoax, a photo of a stuffed wallaby someone had dragged out into a field. But sightings of the kangaroo persisted for months.

And sightings of kangaroos and wallabies don’t just happen in North America and the British Isles. Between 2003 and 2010, people in the Mayama mountain district of Osaki, Japan reported seeing a large brown animal with long ears, variously described as three to five feet tall, or one to 1.5 meters. Most sightings of the animal took place on roadsides when people were on their way to work or home from work.

No one has pictures of the kangaroo seen in Japan, though. No one has photos of the kangaroos reported in Chicago or any of the other sightings from 1899 on up through the new millennium. All those kangaroos were seen but never caught or photographed. A photo of a kangaroo was, however, once passed off as a photo of the Jersey Devil. According to a century of reports, the phantom kangaroos are just that, phantoms.

But these days, many people carry high-quality cameras with them everywhere, more commonly referred to as phones. And things started to change.

On January 3, 2005, a woman in Iowa County, Wisconsin called the sheriff’s department to say she’d seen a kangaroo hopping around on her horse farm. When the sheriff arrived, he was shocked to actually find a kangaroo, specifically a male red kangaroo. He knew better than to try to handcuff it, and instead got help to lure the kangaroo into a barn. It was captured safely and taken to the Henry Vilas Zoo, where it stayed until it died five years later. No one knows where it came from or why it was hopping around loose, but it was apparently fairly tame.

In 2013, some hunters took a video of a kangaroo in Oklahoma. I’ll put a link in the show notes, but it is 100% a kangaroo and not a blurry video that might be anything. A pet kangaroo named Lucy Sparkles had escaped in November of 2012 not too far away, but it turned out that the kangaroo caught on video wasn’t Lucy. It also wasn’t an escapee from a local exotic animal farm. It was a kangaroo from a man who kept kangaroos, which means there are way, way too many kangaroos in Oklahoma than I ever imagined.

Similarly, a man driving to work in July 2013 in North Salem, Connecticut got a few seconds of video of a kangaroo or wallaby bounding down the road and up someone’s driveway. In February of 2017, police officers on patrol spotted a wallaby in Somers, New York, which is believed to be a pet wallaby that escaped three years before in North Salem.

In other words, people really are seeing wallabies and kangaroos, not phantoms. Is it possible there are populations of either living in remote areas of North America, and that occasionally one wanders closer to a town or city and is seen? It’s possible, but not especially likely. Wallabies would be easy prey for wolves and coyotes, bears and cougars, and domestic dogs. We’d also probably have a lot of roadkill wallabies. Kangaroos would be more able to hold their own against predators, but are larger and therefore easier to spot. The climate in much of the United States also isn’t ideal for kangaroos or wallabies. Red kangaroos might be able to thrive in the arid and sparsely populated parts of the southwestern United States, but sightings of phantom kangaroos aren’t generally from those areas.

I’m pretty sure that the wallabies and kangaroos seen in North America, and probably most other places, are escaped pets. Wallabies in particular seem to be escape artists. So if you’re tempted to get an exotic pet and are looking at a wallaby, trust me: you’d be a lot happier with a dog.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!