Category Archives: fossils

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



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

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

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 172: Temnospondyls



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

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

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

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

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

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 157: Rodents of Unusual Size



Uh, yeah, not the legless lizard episode. But just as interesting! This week let’s learn about the largest rodents in the world! Hint: way bigger than a rat.

Further reading:

Rodents of Uncertain Systematics

The mellow and photogenic capybara:

Oh to be a capybara in an open bath with an orange on its head:

Hey, pacarana:

Oh to be a paca with half an orange:

Oh to be a chevrotain with a piece of orange. (The chevrotain is not a rodent. It has hooves. Episode 116 explains this creature):

Show transcript:

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

Yes, I know, last week I said we might have an episode this week about legless lizards and other snakey things that aren’t snakes, but I got this episode ready first so instead, this week we’re going to learn about some rodents of unusual size!

Rodents are mammals in the order Rodentia, and there are thousands of them throughout the world. Mice and rats are rodents, of course, but so are chipmunks and squirrels, hamsters and gerbils, prairie dogs and guinea pigs, and many others. But you may notice that all the animals I just mentioned are pretty small. That’s because most rodents are on the small side. But not all of them.

The biggest rodent alive today may be one you’ve heard of, the capybara. It’s native to much of South America and lives in forests, rainforests, and other areas, but always near water. It really likes water and eats a lot of aquatic plants, although it also eats grass, fruit, tree bark, and other plants. Like other rodents, its teeth grow throughout its life but constantly wear down as it eats tough plants.

So how big is the capybara? It grows to about two feet tall, or 62 cm, and four feet long, or 1.3 meters. Females are usually a little larger than males. Basically they’re the size of a big dog, but a big dog with webbed toes, small ears, big blunt muzzle, basically no tail, and a calm outlook on life. Because unlike many rodents who tend to be nervous and quick-moving, the capybara is pretty chill.

The capybara is semiaquatic and likes to hang out in the water, often in social groups. It can hold its breath underwater for up to five minutes, and can even sleep while submerged with just its nose above water. That’s why its nose, eyes, and ears are close to the top of its head, so it can be alert to predators while remaining safely underwater.

The capybara has a scent gland on its nose called a morillo. The female has a morillo but the male’s is bigger since he scent marks more often by rubbing the gland on plants, trees, rocks, other capybaras, and so on. During mating season, the female capybara attracts a male by whistling through her nose, because who doesn’t like a lady who can whistle through her nose? The capybara will only mate in water, so if a female decides she doesn’t like a male, she just gets out of the water and walks away from him.

The female usually gives birth to four or five babies in one litter. If the female is a member of a group of capybaras, all the babies stay together in the middle of the group and all the females care for them. In most mammals, the female will only let her own babies drink her milk, but a female capybara will suckle any babies in the group who are hungry. Like I said, they’re pretty chill.

There are actually two species of capybara, but some people consider the lesser capybara to be a subspecies of capybara and anyway, we don’t know much about it. Other than that, though, the capybara is most closely related to the guinea pig. Like the guinea pig and like humans, the capybara can’t synthesize vitamin C in its body and has to get it through its diet. That means if a capybara in captivity doesn’t receive fruit and other plant material containing vitamin C, eventually it will show symptoms of scurvy.

The capybara is killed for its meat and hide, but it’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s not a domesticated animal and it’s as heavy as a full-grown human, so while the capybara isn’t specifically dangerous it’s not really a good pet. Also, it will eat your garden and wallow in mud and if you don’t have a pool it’s going to wander around until it finds one. It’s probably better to get a dog.

While the capybara is a strong swimmer, it can move fast on land when it wants to. It can run up to 22 miles per hour, or 35 km/hour. This is what a capybara sounds like.

[capybara sounds]

Big as the capybara is, even bigger rodents used to live in South America. Around 8 million years ago a rodent called Phoberomys pattersoni [foe-barommis] lived in what is now Venezuela and nearby areas, especially around the Orinoco River. It was discovered in 2000 when an almost complete skeleton was found, and it was really big. We’re talking nine feet long, or 2.75 meters, and that doesn’t even include its tail. It stood over four feet tall, or 1.3 meters. It was described in 2003 and is a relative of guinea pig and the capybara.

But since then, paleontologists have found fossils of rodents that are estimated to be even bigger. Around 3 million years ago an animal called the giant pacarana grew to an estimated five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, with a body ten feet long, or 3 m. But we don’t know for sure if it was bigger or smaller than that estimate, since so far all we have is a fossilized skull discovered in 1987 and described in 2008. Another closely related rodent is only known from some teeth. Some researchers think it used its massive teeth like elephants use their tusks, to fend off predators and fight each other.

So if there was once a giant pacarana, what’s a regular pacarana? It’s another South American rodent, and while it’s not exactly capybara size it’s much larger than a mouse. It grows more than 3 ½ feet long, or 100 cm, and is shaped sort of like a capybara with a tail, although its head is more rodent-like. It’s dark brown-gray with rows of white spots down its sides and a thick tail covered with fur. It’s the only living member of the family Dinomyidae and it has many unusual features compared to other rodents. I’d tell you what they are but they’re all things like “it has a flatter sternum,” which wouldn’t mean a whole lot to most of us. Shout-out to any rodent experts listening, though.

The pacarana was discovered by scientists in 1873 when a Polish nobleman traveling in Peru shot one and sent its skin and skeleton home, where it was studied by the director of the Berlin Zoo. But after that one specimen was killed, the pacarana seemed to vanish. Then in 1904 someone sent two pacaranas to a museum in Brazil. The museum’s director gave them to the local zoo where they could be taken care of, although the female died after giving birth shortly afterwards.

It turns out that the pacarana isn’t all that rare, but it’s shy and hard to spot in its habitat, forested mountains in South America. But because it’s seldom seen, not very many zoos have them, but zookeepers all report that pacaranas are docile and friendly. I can confirm that they are very, very cute although I haven’t seen one in person.

The pacarana is named after another rodent called the paca, which looks similar but has a shorter tail and is smaller than the pacarana, although still a pretty big rodent. The paca grows up to about two and a half feet long, or 77 cm, not counting its 9-inch tail, or 23 cm, and is dark brown with rows of white spots on each side. It looks kind of like a chevrotain, which as you may remember from episode 116 is also called the mouse deer even though it’s not a mouse or a deer. The paca lives in a burrow that can be ten feet long, or 3 meters, usually with two entrances that it covers with leaves to hide it. It likes fruit, leaves, flowers, fungi, and other plant material, but it will also eat insects.

The paca likes to swim and can stay underwater even longer than the capybara, as much as 15 minutes. It usually mates in the water too. It’s mostly nocturnal, although some populations may be crepuscular, and it lives in much of Central and South America, although it’s also present in southern Mexico.

After her babies are born, the mother paca tucks her babies in a hole she digs that’s too small for predators to enter. But the hole is also too small for her to enter. To let the babies know it’s safe to come out, she calls to them in a low trill. The paca, in fact, makes a lot of sounds, and its voice is way louder than you’d think. It has resonating chambers in its cheeks to make its voice even louder.

Here are some sounds that a paca makes:

[paca calls]

Ages ago, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about some interesting rodents of South America. I’ve included a link to it in the show notes in case you want to learn more about South American rodents that aren’t quite as big as the ones we’ve covered today, but which are just as interesting.

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

Thanks for listening! Oh, and this is what a baby capybara sounds like.


Episode 151: Fossils with other fossils inside



Thanks to Pranav who suggested this week’s amazing topic, animals that fossilized with the remains of their last meal inside!

Indrasaurus with a lizard inside. Yum!

Baryonyx:

Rhamphorhynchus (left, with long wing bones) and its Fish of Doom (right):

The fish within a fish fossil is a reminder to chew your food instead of swallowing it alive where it can kill you:

The turducken of fossils! A snake with a lizard inside with a bug inside!

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a listener suggestion from Pranav, who has sent me so many amazing suggestions that he has his own page on the ideas spreadsheet. When he emailed me about this one, he just suggested cool fossils, but the links he provided had a really interesting theme that I never would have thought about on my own. This week we’re going to learn about some fossil animals that have fossils of their last meal inside them!

We’ll start with a recent discovery of a new microraptor species, Indrasaurus wangi, which lived about 120 million years ago. It was an interesting animal to start with, because it had arms that were very similar to bird wings, although with claws, but its hind legs also had long feathers that made it almost like a four-winged animal. It was found in 2003 in northeastern China, but when researchers were studying it in 2019 they found something amazing. Not only did it have an entire lizard skeleton where its stomach once was, showing us that it swallowed its prey whole, the lizard itself was a species new to science.

We know what else Indrasaurus ate because more Indrasaurus fossils have been found in the area, many of them so well preserved that its fossilized stomach contents have been preserved too. It ate mammals, birds, lizards, and fish—basically anything it could catch.

Another species that was similar to Indrasaurus, called Anchiornis, also called a four-winged bird-like dinosaur, was found with what appears to be a gastric pellet in its throat. The pellet contains the bones of more than one lizard and was probably ready to be horked up the way many carnivorous birds still regurgitate pellets made up of the indigestible parts of their prey, like bones, scales, and fur.

The fossilized remains of food inside a fossilized organism has a term, of course. It’s called a consumulite. It’s a type of bromalite, which is a broader term for any food or former food found in a fossilized organism’s digestive tract. The term bromalite also includes coprolites, which are fossilized poops.

Naturally, it requires a high degree of preservation for consumulites to form, and a high degree of skill to reveal the often tiny and delicate preserved details. And consumulites are important because they let us know exactly what the animal was eating.

Consumulites aren’t limited to prey animals, either. A small armored dinosaur, a type of ankylosaur, called Kunbarrasaurus, which lived around 115 million years ago in what is now Australia, was a herbivore. The type specimen of the species, which was described in 2015, was incredibly well preserved—almost the entire skeleton, most of its body armor, and the contents of its stomach. Paleontologists can determine not just what kinds of plants it had eaten—which include ferns and seeds—but how it was processing its food. Most herbivorous dinosaurs swallowed leaves and other plant parts whole, then crushed the food in a powerful gizzard or gizzard-like organ along with rocks or grit. The rocks helped break up the plant material, and we have lots of these rocks associated with fossilized dinosaurs. The rocks are called gastroliths and are usually worn smooth. But Kunbarrasaurus didn’t have any gastroliths, and the plant material was so well preserved that researchers could see the cut ends of the plants where Kunbarrasaurus had bitten them. And all the pieces were small. Kunbarrasaurus therefore probably chewed its food, which meant it also probably had lips and cheeks of some kind to help keep the food in its mouth while it was chewing.

Another example of an animal with a consumulite that helped solve a mystery about its diet is Baryonyx. Baryonyx is a type of spinosaurid, a theropod dinosaur that grew at least 33 feet long, or 10 meters. It was discovered in 1983 in Surrey, England, and was described in 1986. It lived around 125 million years ago. It walked on its hind legs and probably used its arms to tear its prey into bite-sized pieces, because its first finger had a huge claw 12 inches long, or 31 cm.

But its skull was the real puzzle. Most theropods are meat-eaters, although a few evolved to eat plants. But Baryonyx had a long, relatively slender snout with a lot of close-growing teeth, and a sort of bulb at the end of its snout called a rosette. It looks more like the skull of a crocodilian called a gharial than a theropod. But as far as anyone knew when Baryonyx was discovered, there were no fish-eating theropods.

Until 1997, that is, when paleontologists studying Baryonyx spotted some overlooked details. In addition to a gastrolith in its belly area, they found some fish scales and teeth that showed evidence of being damaged by digestive acids. It probably hunted by wading through shallow water like a heron, catching fish and other animals with its long toothy snout.

It’s not just dinosaurs that are found with consumulites. Animals of all kinds eat all the time, so as long as the conditions are right to fossilize the remains of an animal, there’s a chance that whatever food was in the digestive tract might fossilize too. For instance, the same part of China that has yielded amazingly well preserved feathered dinosaurs has also produced other animals—including a carnivorous mammal called Repenomamus that grew more than three feet long, or one meter. I think we’ve talked about Repenomamus before, because we have evidence that it actually ate dinosaurs—at least baby ones, or it might have scavenged already dead dinosaurs. Either way, it lived around 125 million years ago and was shaped sort of like a badger with a long tail, although it wasn’t related at all to badgers or any other modern mammal. It probably laid eggs like monotremes still do. The reason we know what Repenomamus ate is because one specimen was found with pieces of a young Psittacosaurus in its stomach.

In at least one case it’s hard to tell which animal should be considered the eater and which should be considered the eaten. A fossil slab found in Southern Germany and described in 2012 contains a Rhamphorhynchus associated with two different fish.

Rhamphorhynchus lived around 150 million years ago and was a type of pterosaur with a long tail. Its wingspan was about six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It mostly ate fish, which it probably caught not by flying down to grab fish out of the water, like eagles do, but by floating like a goose and diving for fish. It had large feet and short legs, which would have helped it take off from the water just like a goose.

A fish that lived at the same time as Rhamphorhynchus was called Aspidorhynchus, and it grew up to two feet long, or 60 cm. It had long jaws filled with teeth, with the upper jaw, or rostrum, extending into a pointy spike.

In the fossil found in Germany, a Rhamphorhynchus has a small fish in its throat that it had probably just caught. While it was still swallowing it, an Aspidorhynchus fish attacked! But things obviously went wrong for everyone involved. Researchers suggest that the fish’s rostrum cut right through the flying membrane of Rhamphorhynchus’s left wing. The fish bit down but its teeth became tangled in the tissue. It started thrashing to free itself and Rhamphorhynchus was thrashing around too trying to get away, which only got them more tangled up together. The fish dived, drowning Rhamphorhynchus, and the weight of its body dragged Aspidorhynchus into deep water where there wasn’t enough oxygen for it to survive. It died too, and its heavier body lay partially across Rhamphorhynchus, holding it down so it wouldn’t drift away. The fossil shows Rhamphorynchus, Aspidorhynchus, and the tiny fish that Rhamphorhynchus never did get to finish swallowing.

Another fish, Cimolichthys, lived around 75 or 80 million years ago and grew a little over six feet long, or two meters. Its body was heavily armored by large scutes and it had several rows of teeth. It may have been related to modern salmon. It lived in what is now North America and Europe, and ate fish and squid. We know it ate fish and squid because, of course, we have the remains of various last meals found with preserved fossil Cimolichthys. For instance, one specimen was found with the internal shell of a cephalopod lodged in its throat. Researchers suspect the fish had tried to swallow a Tusoteuthis that was too big to fit down its throat. The Tusoteuthis got stuck and blocked the flow of water over the fish’s gills, basically drowning it. Tusoteuthis, by the way, could possibly grow up to 36 feet long, or 11 meters, although that depends on whether it had long feeding tentacles like modern squid or not. If it didn’t have long feeding tentacles, it was probably only about 19 feet long, or 6 meters, which is pretty darn big anyway. I wouldn’t want to have to swallow that thing whole. Not even if it was deep-fried first.

Another fish called Xiphactinus, which grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, lived in the late Cretaceous period. It died out at the same time as the non-avian dinosaurs. It had massive fangs and was a terrifying predator, but sometimes that backfires. The fossil of a 13 foot, or 4 meter, Xiphactinus was found with a 6 foot long, or 1.8 meter, fish called Gillicus inside it. Paleontologists think Xiphactinus swallowed its prey whole, which thrashed around so much inside it that it ruptured an organ and killed the predator fish. Both fish sank to the bottom of the shallow Western Interior Seaway in North America until it was discovered in 1952.

Let’s finish with two even more incredible fossils. In 2008 paleontologists found a fossilized freshwater shark they dated to 250 million years ago. Right before it died, it had eaten two animals called temnospondyls. Temnospondyls were common animals, with many species found throughout the world, and researchers still aren’t sure if they were the ancestors of modern amphibians or a similar type of animal that died out without any descendants. One of the temnospondyls that the shark ate had the well digested remains of a spiny fish in its stomach.

But a few years later researchers in Germany found something even better. It’s a fossilized snake called a Palaeopython, related to boas. It was about three feet long, or one meter, and was still young. If it had lived to grow up, it would have doubled in size. It lived in trees but also hunted along the edges of rivers and lakes. About 48 million years ago, this particular snake caught a lizard that’s related to modern basilisk lizards. It swallowed the lizard headfirst. But then the snake died, possibly asphyxiated by a cloud of carbon dioxide from the volcanic lake nearby. We have a lot of incredibly detailed fossils from that lake, known as the Messel Pit.

Researchers aren’t sure how the snake made it into the lake. Maybe it was already in the shallow water when it died, or on the bank, and a wave washed it into the water. Maybe the wave was actually what killed the snake, washing it into the lake where it drowned. However it died, it sank into deep water and was covered in sediment that preserved it. Then, 48 million years later, paleontologists found it.

When the fossil was cleaned and prepared for study, researchers found that the lizard was preserved inside it. But there was another surprise inside the lizard! Right before it had been eaten by the snake, the lizard had eaten an insect. And the insect was so well preserved that researchers could tell it had an iridescent exoskeleton.

If I was fossilized right now, paleontologists from the far future would find a lot of chocolate in my stomach. Happy holidays to everyone, whatever your reason for celebrating at this time of year!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 133: The mangrove killifish and the unicorn pig



This week’s (short) episode is about two animals that should have been in the strangest small fish and weird pigs episodes, respectively. I left them out by accident but they’re so interesting that they deserve an episode all to themselves anyway. Thanks to Adam for suggesting the mangrove killifish!

Further reading:

25 Years in the Mud: How a Quirky Little Fish Changed My Life

The mangrove killifish just looks normal:

Not a unicorn pig (okay yes technically a unicorn pig):

Unicorn pig skull:

Show transcript:

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

A few weeks ago we had an episode about strange small fish. Shortly after that episode released, I was going through my disorganized ideas and suggestions file and realized I’d left out one of the best weird small fish ever, a suggestion by Adam. I also discovered I’d missed an extinct pig I’d planned to include in the recent weird pigs episode. So let’s play catch up in a short episode and learn about both this week.

The fish Adam suggests is called the mangrove killifish, also called the mangrove rivulus, which lives in parts of Florida and Mexico, down to Central and South America. It’s technically a marine fish, meaning it lives in salt-water, but it also likes brackish water, that’s less salty than the ocean, and occasionally it even lives in freshwater. It especially likes mangrove swamps. It grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm and is a mottled brown in color with an eye spot on its tail. It doesn’t look like anything special.

But the mangrove killifish has a lot in common with amphibians, especially the lungless salamanders. Many types of salamander absorb air through the skin instead of through lungs or gills. The mangrove killifish does this too. It often lives in abandoned crab holes, which may not have very high quality water. But that’s okay, because it can absorb air through its skin and can live out of the water for well over a month as long as its skin stays damp. It’s sometimes found in places where you wouldn’t expect to find a fish, like the inside of rotting logs or buried in damp dead leaves.

So how does the killifish get into the rotting logs or the leaf litter or the crab burrows that aren’t connected to waterways? It actually uses its tail to flip itself out of the water and onto land, and then it continues to flip here and there until it finds a place where it wants to live for a while. It can direct this jumping, not just flop around like most fish out of water, and can jump several times its own length.

A lot of times when the tide goes out, fish get trapped in crab holes, dimples in the sand or mud, and other shallow water. That’s okay if the tide comes back in far enough to re-submerge the holes, but if the water doesn’t quite reach, it’s not long before fish start to suffocate as all the oxygen in the water is used up. But the killifish doesn’t have that problem. It just flips itself out of the water. It can also leave the water if it gets too hot.

The killifish is also territorial in water, which requires a lot of energy. When it’s out of the water, or in a little temporary pool or a crab burrow where it doesn’t have to worry about other killifish, it can relax. On the other hand, it loses a lot of weight while it’s out of the water since it doesn’t eat as much. So there are trade-offs.

Even the killifish’s eggs can survive out of water. The fish usually lays its eggs in shallow water, sometimes even on land that’s just near water. The eggs continue to develop just fine, in or out of water, but they delay hatching until they’re submerged.

And that leads us to the most astonishing thing about the mangrove killifish. In most populations, almost all killifish are females, and most of the time they don’t need a male fish to fertilize their eggs. Females produce eggs but they also produce sperm that fertilize the eggs before they’re even laid. The eggs hatch into genetic duplicates of the parent—clones, basically. The term for an organism that produces both eggs and sperm is hermaphrodite, and while it’s common in some invertebrates, the killifish is the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite. Vertebrate, of course, is an animal with a backbone.

But while most killifish are females, there are occasionally males. Male killifish are orangey in color. When a male is around, females suppress their ability to self-fertilize eggs and they lay the eggs for the male to fertilize, just like any other fish. This helps keep the species genetically diverse and able to adapt to external pressures like increased numbers of parasites.

Next, let’s talk about the unicorn pig. Or pigicorn, if you like. It’s called Kubanochoerus [koo-ban-oh-ko-rus] and there were several species. It was related to modern pigs and lived throughout most of Eurasia and parts of Africa around 10 million years ago.

It was big, up to four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters, and had tusks like other pigs. It probably looked a lot like a wild boar. But its skull is longer than modern pig skulls and it had horns. Three horns, specifically. Two of the horns were small and grew above the eyes, while a bigger horn grew forward from its forehead. The forehead horn wasn’t very long and was probably blunt. Researchers used to think males used these forehead horns to fight each other, but females had them too so they may also have been used for defense from predators.

That is literally all I can find out about this fascinating animal. I can’t even speculate about the horns since literally no other pig has horns, at least that I can find. Presumably the warty protrusions that many modern pig species have are similar to the horns that Kubanochoerus had. The eyebrow horns might have had the same purpose as the facial protrusions on warthogs and other pigs, as a way to protect the eyes when the pigs fight. The forehead horn, though…well, that’s just weird. It probably wasn’t covered with keratin, but we don’t know. My own guess is that it was something more like an ossicone and was covered with skin and hair. But again, we don’t know. Not until we invent a working time machine and go back to look at one.

That’s it, a very short episode. I’m actually in Dublin, Ireland right now attending WorldCon, so while I’m here I will keep an eye out for leprechauns, fairies, and pigicorns, just in case.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 132: Paleontological Frauds



Ever heard of the Piltdown Man? What about Missourium or Archaeoraptor? They’re all frauds! Let’s learn about them and more this week.

Further reading:

The Chimeric Missourium and Hydrarchos

Investigation of a claim of a late-surviving pterosaur and exposure of a taxidermic hoax: the case of Cornelius Meyer’s dragon

Missourium was literally an extra mastodon:

Hydrarchos (left) was a lot more, um, exciting than its fossil donors, six Basilosauruses (right):

Piltdown man’s suspicious skull:

A lot of people were excited about Archaeoraptor:

Not a pterosaur:

Show transcript:

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

Last week we learned about some mistakes paleontologists made while working out what an extinct animal looked like using only a few fossilized bones. Mistakes are a normal part of the scientific method, no matter how silly they seem once we know more about the animal. But this week we’re going to look at some frauds and hoaxes in the paleontology world.

We really need to start with a man named Albert Koch. He was from Germany but moved to the United States in 1835, and was something of a cut-rate PT Barnum. He called himself Dr. Koch although he hadn’t earned a doctorate. A lot of the so-called curiosities he displayed were fakes.

Back in the mid-19th century, fossils had only recently been recognized as being from animals that lived millions of years before. People were still getting their heads around that concept, and around the idea that animal species could even go extinct. Then the fossils of huge animals started to be discovered—and not just discovered, but displayed in museums where the public could go look at them. Naturally they were big hits.

Sometimes these fossil exhibits weren’t free. For example, the mounted fossil skeleton of a mastodon was exhibited by the naturalist Charles Peale starting in 1802—one of the first fossil exhibits open to the public. Peale and his workers had mounted the skeleton to seem even larger than it really was by putting wooden discs between some of the bones. But the exhibit was primarily meant to educate, not just bring in money. It cost 50 cents to see the mastodon and lots of people wanted to. These days Peale’s mastodon is on display in Germany, without the wooden discs.

Albert Koch knew about Peale’s mastodon, and more to the point he knew how much money Peale had made off his mastodon. Koch wanted one for himself.

In 1840 he heard about a farmer in Missouri who had dug up some huge bones. Koch bought the bones and assembled them into a mastodon. But Koch wasn’t a paleontologist, he didn’t care about educating the public, and when he looked at those fossils, he just saw dollar signs. And he had ended up with bones from more than one mastodon, so, you know, he used them all. And he added wooden discs between the bones to make the animal bigger. A lot bigger. Between the wooden discs and the extra bones, Koch’s skeleton was twice the size of a real mastodon. Plus, he turned the tusks around so that they pointed upward, either because he didn’t know any better or because he thought that looked more exciting.

He called his mastodon Missourium and displayed it at his exhibit hall in St. Louis, Missouri later in 1840. It was a hit, and in 1841 he decided he’d make more money if he took Missourium on the road. He packed the massive skeleton up, sold his exhibit hall, and went on tour with just the mastodon.

Paleontologists spoke out against Koch’s Missourium as being unscientific, but that only gave him free publicity. People thronged to his exhibit for the next two years, until 1843 when he sold it to the British Museum. Needless to say, the experts at the British Museum promptly disassembled Missourium so they could study the fossils properly before remounting them into a mastodon that didn’t contain any extra ribs and vertebrae. Also, they put the tusks on the right way up.

But Koch wasn’t done riding roughshod over paleontology. To learn about what he did next, we have to learn about an animal called Basilosaurus.

Despite its name, Basilosaurus isn’t a dinosaur or even a reptile. It’s a mammal—specifically a whale, although it didn’t look like any whale alive today. It probably grew up to 70 feet long, or over 21 meters, with long jaws full of massive teeth—more like a crocodile or mosasaur than a whale. It had short flipper-like front legs that still had an elbow joint. Modern whales don’t have elbows. It also had little nubby hind legs, but the legs were far too small to support its weight on land. It probably mostly lived at or near the surface of the ocean since its vertebrae were large, hollow, and filled with fluid, which would have made Basilosaurus buoyant. It wouldn’t have been able to dive much at all as a result. It ate sharks and fish as well as smaller whale relatives.

Basilosaurus went extinct around 34 million years ago. Modern whales aren’t related to it very closely, although modern whales did share an ancestor with Basilosaurus. But Basilosaurus was a common animal and its fossils are relatively common as a result. They were so common, in fact, that they were sometimes used as house supports in parts of the American South.

In 1835 a British naturalist named Richard Harlan examined some fossils found in Alabama and decided it was a marine reptile, which he named Basilosaurus, which means king lizard. The mistake was corrected soon after when another paleontologist determined that the animal was a whale-like mammal, but it was too late to change the name due to taxonomic rules in place to minimize confusion. That’s why Basilosaurus is sometimes called Zeuglodon, since that was the name everyone wanted as a replacement for Basilosaurus.

In 1845, Albert Koch got hold of a lot of Basilosaurus fossils and decided this was his next big thing. And again, he didn’t care what Basilosaurus was or what it was called, he just wanted that moolah.

He constructed a mounted skeleton with the Basilosaurus fossils. But just as he did with his mastodon fossils, he didn’t arrange them as they appeared in life. He constructed a sea serpent that was 114 feet long, or almost 35 meters, and contained bones from six Basilosauruses, as well as some ammonite shells to bulk it out even more. He named it Hydrarchos and exhibited it first in New York City, then went on tour throughout the United States and Europe. It was even more popular than Missourium. Heck, I would have paid to see it.

Koch sold Hydrarchos to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, who exhibited it in the Royal Anatomical Museum in Berlin even though the paleontologists there really, really didn’t want it. Kock promptly bought more Basilosaurus bones and built a new fake, a mere 96 feet long this time, or 29 meters. He toured with it and sold it to another flim-flam artist in Chicago, who exhibited it until 1871, when the great Chicago fire destroyed it and most of the rest of Chicago.

Koch wasn’t the only person putting together real bones to make a fake animal back then, but at least he did it for the money. Other fakes were more insidious because we aren’t even sure why the hoaxer did it. That’s the case with the so-called Piltdown Man.

This is how the story goes. A man called Charles Dawson said that a worker at a gravel pit in Piltdown had given him a piece of skull in 1908. Dawson searched the pit and found more pieces, which he gave to a geologist at the British Museum, Arthur Woodward. Woodward and Dawson both returned to the gravel pit in 1912, where they found more pieces of the skull and part of a jawbone. Woodward reconstructed the skull from the pieces and reported that the ape in question must be a so-called missing link between humans and apes.

Just going to mention here that if anyone refers to a fossil as a missing link, you should be suspicious that maybe they don’t actually know what they’re talking about, or that the fossil is a fake.

Not everyone agreed with the reconstruction. In 1913, Woodward, Dawson, and a geologist and priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin returned to the gravel pit. Teilhard found an ape-like canine tooth that fit the jaw. But the tooth raised even more controversy, leading to the loss of friendships and colleagues splitting into camps for and against the Piltdown fossil. Teilhard de Chardin washed his hands of the whole thing and moved to France, and later helped discover Homo erectus, one of our direct ancestors.

Piltdown Man, of course, was a fake. Some people had already suspected it was a fake in 1912, and through the years afterwards people repeatedly examined the bones and kept pointing out that it was a fake. Now, of course, it’s easy for researchers to see that the jaw and teeth are from an orangutan while the skull is from a human. But for a long time, no one was sure who was behind the hoax. Was it Dawson, Woodward, Teilhard de Chardin, or all of them together? Or did someone else plant the fakes for those people to find?

In 2008, a team of experts decided to examine the fossil and the circumstances surrounding its so-called discovery. It took them eight years. They determined that the orangutan teeth were all from the same animal while the pieces of skull came from at least two different people and were possibly several hundred years old. The jaw and skull pieces had been treated with putty, paint, and stain to make them look fossilized, with some carving to make the bones match up better. The hoaxer had even crammed pebbles into the natural hollow places inside the bones, then puttied them over, presumably to make the bones weigh more and therefore feel more like fossils.

All these methods were the work of a single person, and experts have seen that person’s work before. Charles Dawson was an amateur geologist, historian, and archaeologist who “discovered” a lot of things, almost all of which have been proven to be hoaxes. But the Piltdown man hoax was the one that got him into the history books, even if only as a cheater.

So why did Dawson do it? It’s possible he wanted Britain to be home to a human ancestor more impressive than Homo heidelbergensis, which was discovered in Germany in 1907 and which was probably the common ancestor of humans and Neandertals. More likely, he just wanted to be part of the excitement of a big discovery, one which would bring him the respect of the professional scientists he envied. His other hoaxes had brought him a certain amount of fame and weren’t discovered during his lifetime, so he just kept making them.

You’d think the days of faked fossils were behind us now that paleontology is so much more sophisticated. But fake fossils are actually more of a problem now than ever, mostly because fossils can be worth so much money. Usually the fakes are obvious to experts, but sometimes they’re much more sophisticated and can fool paleontologists for at least a short time. And that brings us to Archaeoraptor.

In 1999, National Geographic announced the discovery of a feathered dinosaur fossil from China, which was a mixture of elements seen in both dinosaurs and birds. National Geographic called it a missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

Yep, another missing link.

Archaeoraptor looked like a small dinosaur but with feather impressions. This doesn’t sound weird to us now, but in 1999 it was shocking. Dinosaurs with feathers? Who ever heard of such a thing! Supposedly, the farmer who found the fossil had cemented the broken pieces together as best he could before selling it to a dealer. The fossil ended up in the United States where it was bought in early 1999 by The Dinosaur Museum in Utah for $80,000.

The National Geographic Society was interested in publishing an article about it in the magazine after the official description appeared in Nature. But Nature rejected the description. The paleontologists tried the journal Science next but again, Science rejected it. By then, other paleontologists who had examined the fossil reported that it wasn’t one fossilized animal but pieces from at least three different animals glued together to look like one. Albert Koche would be proud.

But National Geographic decided not to pull the article. It appeared in the November 1999 issue and the fossil itself was put on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, a paleontologist named Xu Xing who’d seen the Archaeoraptor fossil thought it looked really familiar. He asked around in the area of China where Archaeoraptor was supposedly found, and eventually discovered the fossil of a small dinosaur called dromaeosaur. The tail of Archaeoraptor matched the tail of the Dromaeosaur fossil exactly—like exactly, right down to a yellow ochre stain in the same place. This doesn’t mean it was a fake or a copy, but that the two pieces had once been joined. Quite often fossils leave impressions on both sides of a piece of rock, which are called the slab and counterslab. Once Xing’s information got out, people started calling the fossil the Piltdown bird.

Remember last week when an extinct peccary tooth was misidentified as an ape tooth? People who didn’t believe evolution was real claimed that that one mistake proved they were right and all of science was wrong wrong wrong. Well, the same argument is going on today with people who still don’t believe evolution is real. For some reason they think that because Archaeoraptor was a hoax, evolution is somehow also a hoax—even though we now have plenty of perfectly genuine feathered dinosaur fossils that show how a branch of dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.

There are a lot of hoaxed fossils coming from China, which has some of the world’s most amazing fossil beds and some of the most amazingly well preserved fossils in the world. But because the people finding them are often desperately poor farmers, it’s common for fossils to be sold to dealers for resale. The dealers prepare the fossils and sometimes, to improve the resale value, they add details that aren’t really there to make the fossils seem more valuable. Even worse, the preparation by non-experts and those added details often destroy parts of the fossil that are then lost to science forever. And because the fossils are dug up by non-experts, paleontologists usually don’t know exactly where the fossils were found, which means they can’t properly estimate the fossil’s age and other important information.

Let’s finish with a very old hoax that was started for the best of reasons but took some unusual twists and turns. Way back in the late 17th century, the countryside near Rome in Italy kept getting flooded by rivers. Rumor had it that a dragon-like monster was responsible, that when it moved around too much in the river where it lived, the river overflowed its banks like water out of an overfull bathtub. In actuality the area is in a natural floodplain so of course it was going to flood periodically, but that didn’t make it any easier for the people who lived there.

A Dutch engineer, architect, and engraver named Cornelius Meyer had a solution, though, involving levees to make the River Tiber more navigable and less prone to flooding. He started the project around 1690 but had trouble with his local workers. They expected to come across the dragon at any moment, which made them reluctant to get too near the river.

So Meyer decided to show them that the local dragon was dead. In 1691 he “found” its remains and mounted them to put on display. The workers were satisfied and got to work building the levees that did exactly what Meyer promised, reducing flooding and saving many lives. No one knows what happened to Meyer’s dragon, but we have an engraving he made of it in 1696. You can see it in the show notes. It shows a partially skeletal monster with hind legs, bat-like wings, a long tail, and horns on its skeletal head.

Centuries later, in 1998 and again in 2006, two men saw the engraving reprinted in a book about dragons published in 1979 and decided it was a depiction of a recently killed pterosaur. Wait, what? Pterosaurs disappear from the fossil record at the same time as non-avian dinosaurs, about 66 million years ago. Why would anyone believe Meyer’s dragon was a pterosaur? It didn’t even look like one.

The two men were part of a group called the young-earth creationists, who believe the earth is only about 6,000 years old. In order to shoehorn the entire 4 ½ billion years of earth’s actual history into only 6,000 years, they claim that rocks only take a few years to form and that dinosaurs and other extinct animals either still survive today in remote areas or survived until modern times. I shouldn’t have to point out that their ideas make no sense when you understand geologic processes and other fields like cosmology, the study of the entire universe and how planets form. Young-earth creationists are always on the lookout for anything that fits their theories, like so-called living fossils and cryptids that resemble dinosaurs, like the mokele mbembe we talked about way back in episode two. I’m not sure why they think that finding a living dinosaur would prove that the earth is only 6,000 years old. All it would prove is that that a non-avian dinosaur survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago.

Anyway, these two men decided that Meyer’s dragon was a pterosaur, which brought the engraving to the attention of modern scientists, who hadn’t known about it before. Obviously the dragon wasn’t actually a pterosaur. What was it?

The original remains were long gone, but the engraving was of extremely high quality. In 2013 researchers were actually able to determine what animal bones Meyer had used to make his dragon. The skull is from a dog, the jaw is from another dog, the ribs are from a large fish, the hind limbs are actually the front leg bones of a young bear, and so on. The wings, horns, and a few other parts are carvings.

Gradually, historians pieced together the real story behind Meyer’s dragon. We don’t know who actually made the fake dragon, but they did a great job. But it wasn’t a real dragon, and it definitely wasn’t a pterosaur.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 131: Paleontological Mistakes



Part of the scientific method involves making mistakes and correcting them. Here are some interesting and sometimes goofy mistakes made by paleontologists through the years, and how the mistakes were corrected.

Iguanodon did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Pterosaur did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Elasmosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Apatosaurus/brontosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Stegosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Gastornis did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Those are Gastornis’s footprints:

Show transcript:

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

Paleontology is the study of fossils, and really it’s only been a discipline for a little over a century. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, even experts made major mistakes in preparing and assembling fossil skeletons, and dishonest amateurs made deliberate errors so their fossil animals looked bigger or scarier. Many of these mistakes or hoaxes were displayed in museums, sometimes for decades.

I found so many interesting examples during my research that I decided to split the episode into two. This week we’ll learn about some paleontological mistakes and what the fossil animals really looked like when they were alive. Next week we’ll look at the frauds and hoaxes.

We’ll start with Iguanodon, a dinosaur that lived around 125 million years ago in what is now Europe. It ate plants and was fairly common, with a number of species now known to science. The biggest could grow as much as 43 feet long, or 13 meters. It had teeth that resemble an iguana’s, which is how it gets its name, and a beak probably covered in keratin that it used to clip through tough plants. It probably mostly walked on two legs and browsed from trees, but its front legs were long and it might have spent at least some of its time on all fours. But the most interesting thing about Iguanodon was its hands. Its little finger was slender and usually longer than the others and many researchers think it was used for handling food and other objects. The first finger, which is equivalent to a thumb, wasn’t so much a digit as just a big spike. It’s called a thumb spike and no one’s sure what it was for. It might have been used for defense, but it might also have been used to help dig up plants. Maybe it was used for both. But it was the source of an embarrassing mistake that many paleontologists made for years.

Iguanodon came to the attention of science in 1822 when a medical doctor in Sussex, England found some fossilized teeth. No one was sure what kind of animal the teeth belonged to, although guesses ranged from a crocodile to a rhinoceros. In 1824 the doctor, Gideon Mantell, noted the teeth’s resemblance to iguana teeth, but so big that he estimated Iguanodon must have been almost 60 feet long, or 18 meters. He also thought Iguanodon looked like an iguana.

In 1834 more Iguanodon fossils came to light in a quarry and Mantell bought them. This incomplete skeleton included a thumb spike, but Mantell didn’t know where it belonged. He thought it was a horn, so when he made a drawing of the living animal, he placed the thumb spike on the nose.

And there it stayed, despite other fossils found with the thumb spike in place on the hand, and despite other scientists pointing out that they didn’t think Iguanodon had a horn on its nose. It wasn’t until 1882 that the nose horn vanished for good and Iguanodon started looking more like itself.

Similarly, pterosaurs have been misunderstood since the very beginning, with a lot of frankly ridiculous suggestions made about them. To be fair, they are really strange animals and nothing like any animal living today. The first pterosaur was described in 1784 by an Italian naturalist, but he thought it was a swimming animal and that its wing bones were actually flippers. Zoologist Georges Cuvier pointed out it was a flying reptile in 1801, but the swimming hypothesis wasn’t abandoned for decades after that. Even after the flying part was accepted by other researchers and the general public, many people believed they were related to bats for a remarkably long time. In 1843 one scientist suggested pterosaurs were not only bats, but specifically marsupial bats. (There are no marsupial bats. Bats are placental mammals.) The notion that pterosaurs and bats were related hung around a really long time, right up to the 1930s, although experts had more or less figured it out by then.

Elasmosaurus lived around 80 million years ago and was a type of plesiosaur. We talked about Elasmosaurus in episode 92 about marine reptiles. It wasn’t a dinosaur but it lived at the same time as dinosaurs, and could grow up to 34 feet long, or over 10 meters. It had a very long neck containing 72 vertebrae, a short tail, and four paddle-like legs. These days we know that the neck wasn’t very flexible, but for a long time Elasmosaurus and its relatives were depicted with flexible, serpentine necks. But the real mistake came when it was first discovered.

The first Elasmosaurus fossil was found in Kansas in 1867 and given to Edward Cope, a well-known paleontologist who discovered many fossil species found in North America.

The problem was, Cope was the bitter rival of another well-known paleontologist, Othniel Marsh. The two men were so frantic to publish more descriptions of new animals than the other that it sometimes led to sloppy work. That may have been why, when Cope described Elasmosaurus in 1869, he placed its head at the end of its tail so that it looked like it had a short neck and a really long tail instead of the other way around. The bones were all jumbled together and the jaws had ended up at the wrong end of the skeleton when it was covered over with sediment and the fossilization process began.

Another paleontologist pointed out Cope’s mistake only a few months later. Cope tried to buy up all the copies of the article and reissued a corrected version. But Cope’s nemesis Marsh got hold of a copy of the original article and was absolutely gleeful. He never would let Cope forget his mistake, and in fact it was the final straw in the relationship between the two. Cope and Marsh had started out as friends but their friendship soured, and by 1870 they pretty much loathed each other.

But Marsh made his own mistakes. In 1877 he found a dinosaur he named Apatosaurus, although the specimen was missing a skull. He used the skull of a different dinosaur when he prepared the specimen. Then in 1885 his workers found a similar-looking skeleton with a skull. He named it Brontosaurus.

Guess what. They were the same animal. Marsh was so eager to describe a new dinosaur that Cope hadn’t described yet that he didn’t even notice. But for some reason the name Brontosaurus stuck in pop culture, which is why you probably know what a Brontosaurus was and what it looked like, while you may never have heard of Apatosaurus. The mistake has been corrected and the dinosaur’s official scientific name is Apatosaurus, but Marsh’s Apatosaurus skeleton from 1877 didn’t get the right skull until 1979. The skeleton had been on display with the wrong skull for almost a century, but researchers found the correct skull that had been unearthed in 1910 and stored away.

Apatosaurus lived in North America around 150 million years ago and was enormously long, growing on average 75 feet long from head to tail, or 23 meters. It ate plants, and some researchers suggest that it used its incredibly long tail as a whip to scare predators by cracking the whip and making a loud noise. This sounds absurd but the physiology of the tail’s end supports that it could probably withstand the pressures involved in a whip-crack. The neck was also quite long and researchers are still debating how flexible it was. The reason so much old artwork of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus shows the animal standing in water eating swamp plants is because scientists used to think it was such a heavy animal that it couldn’t even support its own weight out of the water, much like whales. Not true, of course. It had strong, column-like leg bones that had no trouble supporting its weight on dry land, and it lived on what are referred to as fern savannas. Grass hadn’t yet evolved so the main groundcover was made up of ferns.

The name Brontosaurus has been retained for some Apatosaurus relations, fortunately, because it’s a pretty nifty name. It means thunder lizard.

Marsh is also responsible for the notion that some of the larger dinosaurs, specifically Stegosaurus, had a second brain at the base of their tails. This isn’t actually the case at all. Marsh just couldn’t figure out how such a large animal had such a small brain. Then again, Marsh also thought Stegosaurus’s tail spikes, or thagomizer, belonged on its back while its back plates belonged on its tail.

If you want to learn more about the Stegosaurus, check out episode 107 where we learn about it and Ankylosaurus. It’s too bad a paleontologist named Charles Gilmore couldn’t listen to that episode, because in 1914 he decided the back plates were osteoderms that lay flat on its skin. This was an early idea of Marsh’s that he had rejected early on but which Gilmore liked. Gilmore also thought the thagomizer spikes grew between the back plates so that the Stegosaurus was covered in both big plates like armor with spikes in between the plates.

A man named Henry Fairfield Osborn made a couple of mistakes too. He was the guy who named Oviraptor, which means “egg thief.” That was a reasonable assumption, really, since the first specimen was found in 1923 in a nest of Protoceratops eggs…but the Protoceratops eggs were later found to actually be Oviraptor eggs, and Oviraptor was just taking care of its own nest.

In 1922 Osborn was the president of the American Museum of Natural History when a rancher sent him a fossil tooth he’d found in Nebraska in 1917. Paleontologists often have to extrapolate an entire animal from a single fossil, and teeth are especially useful because they tell so much about an animal. So Osborn examined the tooth carefully and published a paper describing the ape that the tooth came from.

If you remember, though, there are no apes native to the Americas, just monkeys. The media found out about the discovery and wrote articles about the missing link between humans and apes, which was a popular topic back before people fully understood how evolution worked and when so little was known about human ancestry. The papers called the fossil ape the Nebraska man.

Then, a few years later, paleontologists went to Nebraska to find the rest of the fossilized ape bones. And while they did find them, they didn’t belong to an ape. The tooth came from a species of extinct peccary. You know, a type of pig relation. Peccaries do evidently have teeth that look a lot like human teeth, which is kind of creepy, plus the fossil tooth was badly weathered. Osborn retracted his identification in 1927.

All this wouldn’t have been a big deal except that people who didn’t believe evolution was real decided that this one relatively small mistake, quickly corrected, meant ALL scientists were ALL wrong FOREVER.

We’ll finish with a bird fossil, a bird you’ve probably never heard of although it’s massive. The first Gastornis fossil was found in the mid-19th century near Paris and described in 1855. More fossils were found soon after, and in the 1870s there were enough Gastornis bones that researchers were able to reconstruct what they thought it looked like, a gigantic crane. They were wrong.

Gastornis was as big as a big moa, over six and a half feet high, or 2 meters. It had a heavy beak and a powerful build that for over a century led many paleontologists to think it was a predator. But these days, we’re pretty sure it only ate tough plant material. Its bill could have crushed nuts but wasn’t the right shape to strip meat from bones, and a carbon isotope study of Gastornis bones indicate that its diet was entirely vegetarian.

Gastornis had vestigial wings that probably weren’t even visible under its body feathers. It was actually related most closely to modern waterfowl like ducks and geese. We have some fossilized Gastornis eggs and they were bigger than ostrich eggs, although they were shaped differently. They were oblong instead of ovoid, about ten inches long, or over 25 cm, but only four inches in diameter, or 10 cm. Only the elephant bird of Madagascar laid bigger eggs. We even have two fossil feather impressions that might be from Gastornis, and some fossil footprints in Washington state that show Gastornis had three toes with blunt claws. The bird went extinct around 40 million years ago.

At about the same time that Gastornis was being described in Europe as a kind of giant wading bird, our old friend Edward Cope found some bird fossils in New Mexico. He described the bird in 1876 as Diatryma gigantea and recognized that it was flightless. Cope’s deadly enemy Othniel Marsh also found a bird’s toe bone and described it as coming from a bird he named Barornis regens in 1894. As more and more fossils were found, however, it became clear that Cope’s and Marsh’s birds were from the same genus, so Barornis was renamed Diatryma.

By then, some paleontologists had already suggested that Diatryma and Gastornis were the same bird. In 1917 a nearly complete skeleton, including the skull, was discovered in Wyoming in the United States, but it didn’t really match up to the 1881 reconstruction of Gastornis.

But in the 1980s, researchers looked at that reconstruction more closely. It turned out that it contained a lot of mistakes. Some of the elements weren’t from birds at all but from fish and reptiles, and some of the broken fossil bones had been lengthened considerably when they were repaired with plaster. A paper published in 1992 highlighted these mistakes, and gradually the use of the term Diatryma was changed over to Gastornis.

So remember, everyone, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how you get better at things. And for the same reason, don’t make fun of other people who make mistakes. Other people get to learn stuff too. And even if you don’t think you’ve made a mistake, maybe double check to make sure you didn’t accidentally include a fish fossil in your extinct flightless bird reconstruction.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. 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 125: Triceratops and other ceratopsids



It’s time to learn about some more dinosaurs, ceratopsids, including the well-known Triceratops!

Triceratops:

An artist’s frankly awesome rendition of Sinoceratops. I love it:

A Kosmoceratops skull:

Pachyrhinosaurus had a massive snoot:

Protoceratops:

Fighting dinos!

Show transcript:

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

Back in episode 107, about ankylosaurus and stegosaurus, I mentioned that one day I’d do an episode all about triceratops and its relations. Well, that day is today. It’s the ceratopsid episode!

Ceratopsids are a family of dinosaurs with elaborate horns on their faces and frills on the back of their heads. They almost all lived in what is now North America and most of them lived in the late Cretaceous. Triceratops is the most well known, so we’ll start with it.

The name triceratops, of course, means three face horns, and it did indeed have three face horns. It had one on its nose and two on its brow, plus a frill that projected from the back of its skull.

Triceratops was a big animal, around 10 feet high at the shoulder, or 3 meters, and about 30 feet long, or 9 meters. Its body was bulky and heavy, sort of like a rhinoceros but, you know, even bigger and more terrifying.

Like the rhinoceros, triceratops was a herbivore. It had a horny beak something like a turtle’s that it probably used to grab plant material, and it had some 40 teeth on each side of the jaw. These teeth were replaced every so often as the old ones wore down, sort of like crocodilians do. Back when triceratops lived, around 68 million years ago, grass hadn’t developed yet. There were prairies in parts of western North America the same way there are today, but instead of grass, the prairies were covered in ferns. Many researchers think triceratops mostly ate ferns, grazing on them the same way bison graze on grass today.

In fact, the first paleontologist to study a triceratops fossil thought it was an extinct type of bison. This was a man called Othniel Charles Marsh. To his credit, Marsh only had a little piece of a triceratops skull to examine, the piece with the brow horns. And since the brow horns of a triceratops do look a little like the horn cores of a bovid, and since this was 1887 before a lot was known about dinosaurs, and since the fossil was found in Colorado where the buffalo roam, it’s understandable that Marsh would have assumed he was looking at a gigantic fossil bison skull. He figured it out the following year after examining another skull with the nose horn intact, since bovids are not known for their nose horns, and he naturally named it Triceratops.

It’s tempting to assume that Triceratops was a herd animal, but we don’t have any evidence that it lived in groups. It was common and we have lots of fossil triceratops, especially the thick-boned skulls, but it seems to have mostly been a solitary animal.

It’s pretty obvious that the triceratops’ horns must have been for defense. It lived at the same time as Tyrannosaurus rex, which preyed on triceratops often enough that we have a lot of Triceratops fossils with T rex tooth marks in the bones. We also have some triceratops fossils with T rex tooth marks in the bones that show signs of healing, indicating that the triceratops successfully fended off the T rex and lived. But what was the frill for?

Researchers have been trying to figure this out for years. There were a lot of different ceratopsid species, many of which may have overlapped in range and lived at the same time, so some researchers suggest the frill’s size and shape may have helped individuals find mates of the same species. Triceratops has a rather plain frill compared to many ceratopsid species, which had frills decorated with points, spikes, scalloped edges, lobes, and other ornaments.

But the ornamental elements of the frills change rapidly through the generations, which suggests that they weren’t for species recognition. If that was the case, the frills would have stayed about the same to minimize confusion. Instead, they get more and more elaborate, which suggests that they were a way to attract mates who liked fancy head frills. You know, like a snazzy hairstyle.

Of course, the frill could have more than one use. It could be attractive to potential mates and also could have protected the back of the skull from T rex bites, just like a snazzy hairstyle still keeps your head warm in cold weather. Then again, in many species of ceratopsid the frill is thin and rather fragile, so it’s more likely to be just for display. It’s very likely that the frills were brightly colored or patterned.

So what were some of these other ceratopsids with strange shaped frills? I’m SO glad you asked! There were so many ceratopsids, and they all had bodies shaped roughly the same but with head frills and horns that looked very different from each other. Some had no horns, just a frill. Some just had a nose horn, some just had brow horns. The horns were shaped differently in different species, too. Researchers group ceratopsids into two major groups: the chasmosaurines, which have longer frills and usually long brow horns and short nose horns; and the centrosaurines, which typically had larger nose horns and small brow horns, and snouts that were thicker top to bottom.

Almost all the ceratopsids have been found in North America, where they were super common in the Cretaceous. But Sinoceratops was discovered in 2008 in China. It wasn’t as big as Triceratops, topping out at about 6 ½ feet tall, or 2 meters, but what it lacked in bulk it made up in head frill ornamentation. Its frill was relatively short and was edged with small horns that curve forward. Its frill also had knobs along its edge and down the middle, which is unique among all ceratopsids and may have been the base for small keratin horns. Since keratin doesn’t fossilize, we have no way of knowing. It also had two holes in the frill that made it lighter, but they would have been covered with skin (no matter what a certain movie may have led you to believe). Its single nose horn pointed almost straight up, and in front of the nose horn it had a bony knob. It basically had no brow horns, just what may have been bony knobs above its eyes.

Kosmoceratops had probably the most ornamented skull of any known ceratopsid, and maybe any known dinosaur, with 15 horns growing from it. The rear of its frill curled forward like a collar, edged with flat, pointed projections. The frill was scalloped along its sides. Its brow horns were long, pointy, and arched sideways and slightly downward. Kosmoceratops also had a cheek horn under each eye and a flattened nose horn just in front of the brow horns. It lived in what is now Utah, in the United States, some 76 million years ago, and was only described in 2010.

Pachyrhinosaurus had flattened bony nose and brow horns more properly called bosses, since they aren’t actually horns. But Pachyrhinosaurus did have horns on its frill, although the size, shape, and number of the frill horns vary from individual to individual.

These bosses resemble the base of rhinoceros horns, which as you may recall are made of keratin. Some researchers think the bosses found in Pachyrhinosaurus and other ceratopsids may have also had keratin horns growing from them.

Remember how I said Triceratops didn’t appear to be a herd animal? Triceratops is considered a chasmosaurine, and chasmosaurines all seemed to be fairly solitary animals. But the other big group of ceratopsids, centrosaurines, may have been herd animals. Pachyrhinosaurus was a centrosaurine, for instance, and several bonebeds containing dense collections of fossil pachyrhinosaurus have been found where the individuals appear to have died at the same time. The biggest found so far is in Alberta, Canada, where paleontologists have excavated thousands of bones, from full grown adults to babies. Researchers suggest a herd of the animals may have died trying to cross a flooded river. The species of Pachyrhinosaurus found in the Alberta bonebed had both bosses and short brow horns.

Even though only one species of ceratopsid has been discovered in Asia so far, earlier basal forms were common in Asia. Protoceratops, which only stood about two feet tall, or 60 cm, lived in what is now the Gobi Desert in Mongolia around 80 million years ago. Researchers think some of these early species in the genus Protoceratops migrated into North America on the Bering land bridge, where they evolved into ceratopsids.

Protoceratops looked like a mini ceratopsid with a simple neck frill and no horns. We have a lot of Protoceratops fossils and some of them are frankly amazing.

For instance, a Protoceratops fossil found in 1965 was preserved with its own footprint in the ground near it. The fossils of baby protoceratopses have been found together in one nest, which suggests the parents cared for their young. We even have a fossil of a protoceratops and a Velociraptor that both died together while fighting. The velociraptor’s hind leg is extended where it kicked protoceratops with its vicious claws, but the velociraptor’s arm is in protoceratops’s jaws, broken.

Fighting dinosaurs. It’s one of those things that makes life worth living, you know?

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 124: Updates 2 and a new human



It’s our second updates and corrections episode! Thanks to everyone who sent in corrections and suggestions for this one! It’s not as comprehensive as I’d have liked, but there’s lots of interesting stuff in here. Stick around to the end to learn about a new species of human recently discovered on the island of Luzon.

The triple-hybrid warbler:

Further reading:

New species of ancient human discovered in the Philippines: Homo luzonensis

Show transcript:

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

Yes, it’s our second updates episode, but don’t worry, it won’t be boring!

First, a few corrections. In episode 45 I talked about monotreme, marsupial, and placental mammals, and Tara points out that the placenta and bag of waters are different things. I got them mixed up in the episode. The bag of waters is also called the amniotic sac, which protects and cushions the growing baby inside with special amniotic fluid. The placenta is an organ attached to the lining of the womb, with the bag of waters inside the placenta. The umbilical cord connects the baby to the placenta, which supplies it with all its needs, including oxygen since obviously it can’t breathe yet.

Next, I covered this correction in in episode 111 too, but Judith points out that the picture I had in episode 93 of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly was actually of an atlas moth. I’ve corrected the picture and if you want to learn more about the atlas moth, you can listen to episode 111.

Next, Pranav pointed out that in the last updates episode I said that the only bears from Africa went extinct around 3 million years ago–but the Atlas bear survived in Africa until the late 19th century. The Atlas bear was a subspecies of brown bear that lived in the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa, and I totally can’t believe I missed that when I was researching the nandi bear last year!

Finally, ever since episode 66 people have been emailing me about Tyrannosaurus rex, specifically my claim that it was the biggest land carnivore ever. I don’t remember where I found that information but it may or may not be the case, depending on how you’re defining biggest. Biggest could mean heaviest, tallest, longest, or some combination of features pertaining to size.

Then again, in 1991 a T rex was discovered in Canada, but it was so big and heavy and in such hard stone that it took decades to excavate and prepare so that it can be studied. And it turns out to be the biggest T rex ever found. It’s also a remarkably complete fossil, with over 70% of its skeleton remaining.

The T rex is nicknamed Scotty and was discovered in Saskatchewan. It lived about 68 million years ago, and turns out to not only be the biggest T rex found so far, it was probably the oldest. Paleontologists estimate it was over 30 years old when it died. It was 43 feet long, or 13 meters. This makes it bigger than the previously largest T rex found, Sue, who was 40 feet long, or 12.3 meters. Scotty also appears to be the heaviest of all the T rexes found, although estimates of its weight vary a lot. Of course some researchers debate Scotty’s size, since obviously it’s impossible to really know how big or heavy a living dinosaur was by just looking at its fossils. But Scotty was definitely at least a little bigger than Sue.

Scotty is on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada.

Way back in episode 12, I talked about snakes that were supposed to make noises of one kind or another. Many snakes do make sounds, but overall they’re usually very quiet animals. A snake called the bushmaster viper that lives in parts of Central America has long been rumored to sing like a bird. The bushmaster can grow up to ten feet long, or 3 meters, and its venom can be deadly to humans.

Recently, researchers discovered the source of the bushmaster’s supposed song. It’s not a snake singing. It’s not a bird singing. It’s not even a single animal–it’s two, both of them tree frogs. One of the frogs is new to science, the other is a little-known frog related to the new one.

I tried so hard to find audio of this frog, and I’m very bitter to report that I had no luck. The closest I could find was not great audio of this frog, whose name I forgot to write down, which I think is related to the new frogs.

[frog sound]

Now let’s do some quick, short updates, mostly from recent articles I’ve happened across while researching other things.

A triple-hybrid warbler, its mother a golden-winged/blue-winged hybrid (also called a Brewster’s warbler) and its father a warbler from a different genus, chestnut-sided, was sighted in May of 2018 by a birder in Pennsylvania. Lowell Burket noticed it had characteristics of both a blue-winged and a golden-winged warbler but sang like a chestnut-sided warbler. He contacted the Cornell Evolutionary Biology Lab about the bird with photos and video of it, and they sent a researcher, David Toews, out to look at it. Toews caught the bird, measured it, and took a blood sample for analysis. I think a listener told me about this article but I didn’t write down who, so thank you, mystery person.

Red-fronted lemurs chew on certain types of millipedes and rub the chewed-up millipedes on their tails and their butts. They also eat some of the millipedes. Researchers think the millipedes secrete a substance called benzoquinone, which acts as an insect repellant and may also help the lemurs get rid of intestinal parasites. Other animals rub crushed millipedes on their bodies for the same reasons.

A recent study of saber-toothed cat fossils show that many of the animals with injuries to their jaws and teeth that would have kept them from hunting properly survived on softer foods like meat and fat. Researchers think the injured cats were provided with food by other cats, which suggests they were social animals. The study examined micro-abrasions on the cats’ teeth that give researchers clues about what kinds of food the animals ate.

Simon sent me an article about a 228 million year old fossil turtle, Eorhynchochelys [ay-oh-rink-ah-keel-us]. It was definitely a turtle but it didn’t have a shell. Instead, its ribs were wide, which gave its body a turtle-like shape. Turtle shells actually evolved from widened ribs like these. Researchers are especially interested because Eorhynchochelys had a beak like modern turtles, while the other ancient turtle we know of had a partial shell but no beak. This gives researchers a better idea of how turtles evolved. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Eorhynchochelys grew over six feet long, or over 1.8 meters.

The elephant bird, featured in episode 51, was a giant flightless bird that lived in Madagascar. Recently new research about elephant birds has revealed some interesting information. For one thing, we now know what the biggest bird that ever lived was. It’s called Vorombe titan and grew nearly ten feet tall, or 3 meters, and weighed up to 1,800 lbs, or 800 kg. It was first discovered in 1894 but not recognized as its own species until 2018.

There’s also some evidence that at least some elephant bird species may have been nocturnal with extremely poor vision. This is the case with the kiwi bird, which is related to the elephant bird. Brain reconstruction studies of two species of elephant bird reveal that the part of its brain that processed vision was very small. It resembles the kiwi’s brain, in fact. One of the species studied had a larger area of the brain that processed smell, which researchers hypothesize may mean it lived in forested areas.

Another study of the elephant bird bones show evidence that the birds were killed and eaten by humans. But the bones date to more than 10,000 years ago. Humans supposedly didn’t live in Madagascar until 4,000 years ago at the earliest. So not only is there now evidence that people colonized the island 6,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers now want to find out why elephant birds and humans coexisted on the island for some 9,000 years before the elephant bird went extinct. Hopefully archaeologists can uncover more information about the earliest people to arrive on Madagascar, which may help us learn more about how they interacted with the elephant bird and other extinct animals of the island.

Speaking of humans, humans evolved in Africa and until very recently, evolutionarily speaking, that’s where we all lived. Scientists rely on fossils, archaeological materials, and studies of ancient DNA to determine when and where humans spread beyond Africa. But at the moment, the DNA that researchers have studied doesn’t overlap entirely with what we’ve learned from the other sources. Basically this means that there are big chunks of data we still need to find to get a better picture of where our ancestors traveled. Part of the problem is that DNA preserves best in cold, dry areas, so most of the viable DNA recovered is from middle Eurasia. Fortunately, DNA technology is becoming more and more refined every year.

This brings us to a suggestion by Nicholas, who told me about a newly discovered hominin called Homo luzonensis. Homo luzonensis lived on an island called Luzon in the Philippines at least 50,000 years ago. It wasn’t a direct ancestor to Homo sapiens but was one of our cousins, although we don’t know yet how closely related.

No one thought humans could reach the island of Luzon until relatively recent times, because of how remote it is and because it hadn’t been connected to the mainland for the last 2 ½ million years. But when Homo floresiensis was discovered in 2004 on the island of Flores in Indonesia, which you may remember from episode 26, suddenly scientists got interested in other islands. Researchers knew there had been human settlements on Luzon 25,000 years ago, but no one had bothered to search for older settlements. In 2007 a team of paleoanthropologists returned to the island and found a foot bone that looked human. In 2011 and 2015 the team found some teeth and more bones from at least three different individuals.

We don’t know a whole lot about the Luzon humans yet. The discoveries are still too new. The Luzon hominins have a combination of features that are unique, a mixture of traits that appear more modern and traits that are seen in more ancient hominins. They’re also smaller in stature than modern humans, closer to the size of the Flores people. Homo luzonensis apparently used stone tools since researchers have found animal bones that show cut marks from butchering.

Researchers are starting to put together a picture of South Asia in ancient times, 50,000 years ago and more, and it’s becoming clear that there were a surprising number of hominins in the area. It’s also becoming clear that hominins lived in the area a lot longer ago than we thought. Researchers have found stone tools on the island of Sulawesi that date back at least 118,000 years. Even on Luzon, in 2018 researchers found stone tools and rhinoceros bones with butcher marks that date back over 700,000 years ago. We don’t know who those people were or if they were the ancestors of the Luzon people. We just know that they liked to eat rhino meat, which is one data point.

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 122: Strange Shark Ancestors



This week let’s learn about some ancestors of sharks and shark relatives that looked very strange compared to most sharks today!

Stethacanthus fossil and what the living fish might have looked like:

Two Falcatus fossils, female above, male below with his dorsal spine visible:

Xenacanthus looked more like an eel than a shark:

Ptychodus was really big, but not as big as the things that ate it:

A Helicoprion tooth whorl and what a living Helicoprion might have looked like:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time again to learn about some animals that are long-extinct…but they’re not land animals. Yes, it’s a weird fish episode, but this one is about shark relatives!

The first shark ancestor is found in the fossil record around 420 million years ago, although since all we have are scales, we don’t know exactly what those fish looked like. The first true shark was called Cladoselache [clay-dough-sell-a-kee] and lived around 370 million years ago, at the same time as dunkleosteus and other massive armored fish. We covered dunkleosteus and other placoderms back in episode 33. Cladoselache grew up to four feet long, or 1.2 meters, and was a fast swimmer. We know Cladoselache ate fish because we have some fossils of Cladoselache with fish fossils in the digestive system—whole fish fossils, which suggests that cladoselache swallowed its prey whole. Cladoselache also had fin spines in front of its dorsal fins that made the fins stronger, but unlike its descendants, it didn’t have denticles in its skin. It didn’t have scales at all.

The denticles in shark skin aren’t just protection for the shark, they also strengthen the skin to allow for the attachment of stronger muscles. That’s why sharks are such fast swimmers.

[Jaws theme]

Stethacanthidae was a family of fish that went extinct around 300 million years ago. It was related to ratfish and their relatives, including sharks. Stethacanthus is the most well-known of the stethacanthidae. It grew a little over 2 feet long, or 70 cm, and was probably a bottom-dwelling fish that lived in shallow waters. It ate crustaceans, small fish, cephalopods, and other small animals.

We have some good fossils of various species of Stethacanthidae and they show one feature that didn’t get passed down to modern ratfish or sharks. That’s the shape of its first dorsal fin, the one that in shark movies cuts through the water just before something awful happens.

[Jaws theme again]

Stethacanthidae’s dorsal fin was really weird. It was shaped sort of like a scrub brush on a pedestal, with the bristles sticking upwards, which is sometimes referred to as a spine-brush complex. Researchers aren’t sure why its fin was shaped in such a way, but since it appears that only males had the oddly shaped fin, it was probably for display. It also had a patch of the same kind of short bristly denticles on its head. Males also had a long spine that grew from each pectoral fin that was probably also for display. Some researchers think the males fought each other by pushing head to head, possibly helped by the odd-shaped dorsal fin.

In the past, before researchers figured out that only the males had the strange dorsal fin, some people suggested that the fish may have used the fin as a sucker pad to attach to other, larger fish and hitch a ride. This is what remoras do. Remoras have a modified dorsal fin that is oval-shaped and acts like a sucker. The oval contains flexible membranes that the remora can raise or lower to create suction. The remora attaches to a larger animal like a shark, a whale, or a turtle and lets the animal carry it around. In return, the remora eats parasites from the host animal’s skin. But remoras aren’t related to sharks.

Other shark relatives had dorsal spines. Falcatus falcatus lived about the same time as Stethacanthus, around 325 million years ago. It grew up to a foot long, or 30 cm, and ate shrimp, fish, and other small animals. We have so many fossils of falcatus from the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana that we know quite a bit about it. It probably detected prey with electroreceptors on its snout like many modern sharks do, and it was probably a fast swimmer that could dive deeply. Its eyes are unusually large for a shark too. Females would have looked like a small, slender sharklike fish, but males had a spine that grew forward from just behind its head, sort of like a single bull’s horn. It’s called a dorsal spine and is actually a modified dorsal fin. It was probably for display, although males may have also used it to fight each other. We have a well preserved fossil of a pair of falcatus together, a male and female, where it looks like the female may be biting the male’s dorsal spine. Some researchers suggest the spine was used in a pre-mating ritual, but it’s probable that the fish just happened to die next to each other and no one was actually biting anyone.

Another shark relative with a dorsal spine is Hybodus, which grew up to 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. Hybodus was a successful genus of cartilaginous fish that lived from around 260 million years ago up to 66 million years ago. Researchers think its dorsal spine was used for defense since both males and females had the spine. Hybodus would have looked like a shark but its mouth was relatively small. It probably ate small fish and squid, catching them with the sharp teeth in the front of its mouth, but it also probably ate a lot of crustaceans and shellfish, which it crushed with the flatter teeth in the rear of its mouth.

Xenacanthus had a dorsal spine too, but it was a much different shark ancestor from the ones we’ve talked about so far. It lived until about 208 million years ago in fresh water. It grew to about three feet long, or one meter, and would have looked more like an eel than a shark. It was slender with an elongated body, and its dorsal fin was short but extended along the back down to the pointed tail. This suggests it probably swam like an eel, since eels have a similar fin structure. It probably ate crustaceans and other small animals.

Xenacanthus’s spine grew from the back of the skull and, unusually for a shark relation, it was made of bone instead of cartilage. Both males and females had the spine and some researchers suggest that it may have been venomous like a sting ray’s tail spine.

Rays are closely related to sharks, and if you want to see a fish that makes every single weird extinct shark look normal, just look at a sawfish. The sawfish is a type of ray and it’s alive today, although it’s endangered. I’m going to do a whole episode on rays pretty soon so I won’t go into detail, but the sawfish isn’t the only fish alive today with a long snout with teeth that stick out on either side. The sawshark is related to the sawfish but is actually a shark, not a ray. And there’s a third type of fish with a saw, related to both sawfish and sawsharks, called the Sclerorhynchidae. Sclerorhynchids went extinct around 55 million years ago and are considered part of the ray family, although they’re not ancestors of living rays. Sclerorhynchids grew around three feet long, or about a meter, and probably looked a lot like modern sawfish although with a rostrum, or snout, that was more pointed and less broad than most sawfish rostrums. The teeth that stuck out to either side were also relatively small. Researchers think Sclerorhynchids used their saws the same way modern sawfish and sawsharks do, to find small animals living on or near the bottom in shallow water and slash them to death before eating the pieces.

[Jaws theme again]

Most of the shark relatives we’ve talked about so far were pretty small, certainly compared to sharks like the great white or megalodon, which by the way we covered in episode 15 along with the hammerhead shark. But a shark called Ptychodus grew up to 33 feet long, or ten meters. It went extinct about 85 million years ago. Its dorsal fin had serrated spines and its mouth had lots and lots of really big teeth–up to 550 teeth, but they weren’t sharp. Instead, they were flattened with riblike folds that helped Ptychodus crush the mollusks it ate. It probably also ate squid and crustaceans, along with any carrion it might come across. It lived at the bottom of the ocean, but in relatively shallow areas where there were plenty of mollusks but not too many mosasaurs or other sharks that might treat Ptychodus as a nice big meal.

In episode 33, the one about dunkleosteus, we also talked about helicoprion and some of its relations. Helicoprion looked like a shark but was actually less closely related to true sharks than to ratfish. Helicoprion lived until about 250 million years ago and some researchers estimate it could grow up to 24 feet long, or 7.5 meters.

Instead of a weird dorsal fin, helicoprion had weird teeth. Weird, weird teeth. It had a tooth whorl instead of the regular arrangement of teeth, where its teeth grew in a spiral that seems to have been situated in the lower jaw. It looked like the blade of a circular saw. Now, this is bizarre but it’s not really all that much more bizarre than sawfish teeth, which aren’t even inside the mouth and stick out sideways. But the frustrating thing for researchers is that we still don’t have any helicoprion fossils except for the teeth whorls and part of one skull. Like most sharks and shark relatives, almost all of helicoprion’s skeleton was made of cartilage, not bone, and cartilage doesn’t fossilize very well. So even though helicoprion was widespread and even survived the Permian-Triassic extinction event, we don’t know what it looked like or what it ate or how exactly its tooth whorl worked. But I think it’s safe to say that it would not be good to be bitten by helicoprion.

[stop playing the Jaws theme omg]

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!

[Jaws theme again]