Episode 382: Smilodon, the Sabertoothed Cat

Thanks to Luke for suggesting this week’s topic: Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat, AKA the sabertooth tiger!

Further reading:

Did sabertooth tigers purr or roar?

The double-fanged adolescence of saber-toothed cats

We don’t know for sure what Smilodon looked like, but it might have been something like this:

An artist’s rendition of an adolescent Smilodon with doubled fangs [picture from second link above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about an animal suggested by Luke, the sabertooth tiger, also called the sabertooth cat since it wasn’t actually a tiger, also called smilodon after its scientific name. We’ve talked about it before, way back in episode 34, but a lot of new studies have been published since then and we know a lot more about this terrifying-looking animal!

The genus of the saber-toothed cat is Smilodon, so that’s mostly what I’m going to call it in this episode. It’s classified as a member of the family Felidae, which is the same family where you find domestic cats, wildcats, big cats, and lots of extinct animals like the cave lion, but Smilodon wasn’t closely related to what we think of as cats. There were at least three species of saber-tooth cats in the genus Smilodon that we know of, but it had many other similar-looking relatives.

Smilodon is best known from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California, where the remains of hundreds of individuals have been discovered. That’s a big reason why we know so much about Smilodon, especially the species Smilodon fatalis that lived in North America and parts of South America. An even bigger species lived exclusively in South America, while both were probably descended from a smaller species that also lived in South America.

S. fatalis is estimated to have grown up to 39 inches tall at the shoulder, or 99 cm, while S. populator stood at an estimated 47 inches tall, or 119 cm. That’s almost four feet tall. Some full-grown humans are that height! Smilodon was so stocky and heavily muscled that it probably looked more like a bear than a cat. Its had a broad head and jaws that could open much wider than most modern animals, which allowed it to deploy its most deadly weapon, its saber teeth, without its jaw getting in the way.

Smilodon’s saber teeth were as much as 11 inches long, or 28 cm, although S. fatalis typically had teeth around 8 inches long, or 20 cm. Big as they were, the saber teeth were also relatively delicate. A young Smilodon didn’t start growing its big teeth until it was about a year old, and even then it had to learn how to use them so they wouldn’t break. Luckily for adolescent smilodons, they didn’t lose their baby fangs until they were fully grown.

Most mammals only grow two sets of teeth in our lifetimes. The first set is usually called baby teeth or milk teeth. As the baby grows up, its adult teeth start growing in one at a time. The adult tooth pushes at the baby tooth until it gets loose and either comes out on its own or, in the case of me in second grade, I asked to go to the bathroom and then spent half an hour twisting at a loose baby tooth until it finally came out, along with some blood. But I got a quarter that night from the tooth fairy. (Kids, maybe don’t do that.)

In the case of a young smilodon’s saber teeth, they grew in just next to the baby fangs. Instead of pushing the baby fangs out, the new teeth grew alongside them and even had a groove for the baby teeth to fit into. When scientists first discovered preserved jaws with these double fangs, they thought it was a fluke, that sometimes the new teeth came in wrong and didn’t push the old teeth out. That happens in humans sometimes too and then you have to go to the dentist to get the old baby teeth taken out. But paleontologists kept finding these double toothed jaws, and only in adolescent smilodons.

Finally a team of scientists studied the teeth carefully and made a surprising discovery. The baby fang stayed in place next to the saber tooth until the animal was about two and a half years old, at which time the baby fang finally fell out. In early 2024 the team published their study, which concluded that these double teeth acted sort of like a set of training wheels. Training wheels on a bicycle keep a new rider from tipping over sideways, and the doubled fangs kept the saber teeth from getting bent sideways until they broke. By the time the baby fang fell out, the smilodon had lots of experience hunting properly and no longer needed training wheels.

Smilodon legs are relatively short, which suggests it didn’t do a lot of running after prey. It was probably an ambush hunter and may have hunted in groups, sort of like lions do today. Some scientists think that instead of big groups, smilodon lived in small family groups of a mated pair and their offspring, which they took care of for several years. There’s even some evidence that adult animals with debilitating injuries or congenital issues that meant they couldn’t hunt were taken care of by other adults.

Smilodon ate large animals like ground sloths, horses, deer, camelids, and glyptodonts. It went extinct about 11,000 years ago, the same time that a lot of its prey went extinct too. We don’t know what color it was, but modern cats that hunt in forested areas generally have spots while cats that hunt in open areas generally have plain coats. Since smilodon lived in a variety of habitats, from forests to deserts, its coat pattern and coloration may have varied from region to region. It also had a short tail like a bobcat instead of a long tail like most modern cats.

Let’s finish with one last important detail about smilodon. Did it purr or did it roar? Remember that modern cats can either do one or the other, not both. A tiger can’t purr, while a wildcat can’t roar. In modern cats, the difference appears to be due to the number of hyoid bones in the throat. Humans have a single hyoid bone, which anchors the larynx in place, but cats have a whole row of them. Cats that can roar have seven of these tiny bones, while cats that can purr have nine of them.

Smilodon had seven hyoid bones. Therefore, scientists assumed, smilodon could roar but not purr. But a study from 2023 suggests it’s not that simple. The hyoid bones in purring cats are shaped differently from those in roaring cats. Smilodon only had seven hyoid bones, but some of them were shaped like really big purring hyoid bones, big even for the animal’s large size. Scientists aren’t sure if that means smilodon was able to purr in a deep register, if it could roar instead but with a really deep voice compared to modern cats, or if it made some other sound that we can’t even guess at.

In other words, I’m sorry, we don’t know if smilodon roared or purred, and we probably won’t know for sure until someone invents a time machine. Personally, I like to think that smilodon could purr and roar, and that it could also meow, but in a really deep voice. MEOW.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 378: Ichthyotitan

Thanks to Nathan-Andrew for suggesting giant ichthyosaurs!

Further reading:

Paleontologists unearth what may be the largest known marine reptile

Ruby and some other scientists with the ichthyotitan fossils [photos taken from this page]:

How the pieces fit together:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some of the biggest animals that have ever swum through the oceans of this planet we call Earth, a suggestion from Nathan-Andrew.

We talked about ichthyosaurs way back in episode 63, but we haven’t really discussed these giant marine reptiles since. Ichthyosaurs and their close relations were incredibly successful, first appearing in the fossil record around 250 million years ago and last appearing around 90 million years ago. Most ichthyosaurs grew around 6 and a half to 11 feet long, or 2 to 3.3 meters, depending on species, so while they were pretty big animals, most of them weren’t enormous. They would have been fast, though, and looked a lot like fish or dolphins.

Even though ichthyosaurs were reptiles, they were warm-blooded, meaning they could regulate their body temperature internally without relying on outside sources of heat. They breathed air and gave birth to live babies the way dolphins and their relations do. They had front flippers and rear flippers along with a tail that resembled a shark’s except that the lower lobe was larger than the upper lobe. Some species had a dorsal fin too. They had huge eyes, which researchers think indicated they dived for prey. Not only were their eyes huge, they were protected by a bony eye ring that would help the eyes retain their shape even under deep-sea pressures.

We know a lot about what ichthyosaurs ate, both from coprolites, or fossilized poops, and from the fossilized remains of partially digested food preserved in the stomach area. Most ichthyosaurs ate cephalopods like squid and ammonites, along with fish, turtles, and pretty much any other animals they could catch. Ichthyosaurs also ate smaller ichthyosaurs.

Nathan-Andrew specifically suggested we look at Shastasaurus and Shonisaurus, two closely related genera that belong to the ichthyosaur family Shastasauridae. Both genera contained species that were much larger than the average dolphin-sized ichthyosaur. The biggest species known until recently was Shonisaurus sikanniensis, which grew to almost 70 feet long, or 21 meters.

Scientists are divided as to whether S. sikanniensis should be considered a species of Shonisaurus or if it should be placed in the genus Shastasaurus. The main difference is that species in the genus Shastasaurus were more slender and had a longer, pointier rostrum than species in the genus Shonisaurus. Either way, S. sikanniensis was described in 2004 and at the time was the largest ichthyosaur species ever discovered.

But in May of 2016 a fossil enthusiast came across five pieces of what he suspected was an ichthyosaur bone along the coast of Somerset, England. He sent pictures to a couple of marine reptile experts, who verified that it was indeed part of an ichthyosaur’s lower jawbone, called a surangular. Studies of the fossil pieces compared it to S. sikanniensis, and it was similar enough that the new fossil was tentatively placed in the family Shastasauridae. Based on those comparisons, scientists estimated that this new ichthyosaur might have grown to around 72 feet long, or 22 meters, or even longer.

Almost exactly four years after the 2016 discovery, in May of 2020, an 11-year-old named Ruby Reynolds was looking for fossils with her father on the beach at Somerset. She discovered two big chunks of a fossil bone that she thought might be important. Ruby’s father contacted a local paleontologist, who in turn reached out to the man who had found and helped study the 2016 surangular bone. They studied the 2020 fossil and determined that it too was a surangular bone, and looked a lot like the one found in 2016. Not only was it better preserved and more complete, it was bigger.

Ruby and her father joined the team of paleontologists searching for more pieces of the surangular, and they actually found them. The pieces fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

The bone has been dated as being about 202 million years old, from right before the end-Triassic extinction event and 13 million years after the other most recent ichthyosaur fossils from this era. It was described in early 2024 and named Ichthyotitan, and I’m happy to report that Ruby and her father helped with the research and are both included in the list of authors in the paper describing it. They also helped name it.

The estimated size of this specific Ichthyotitan specimen is about 25 meters, or 82 feet. That’s incredibly huge, rivaling the biggest whales alive today. But one other detail about this ichthyotitan bone is even more stunning. When the animal died, it was still growing. It hadn’t reached its full size yet.

As a comparison, the biggest animal ever known to have lived is the blue whale. A blue whale can grow up to 98 feet long, or 30 meters. Until now, scientists thought that no other animal had ever reached the size of a blue whale. Now, some paleontologists suspect that a full-grown ichthyotitan might have been at least as long or even longer than a blue whale.

The next step, of course, is to find more of the fossils. Ichthyotitan’s only fossils so far have been found in Somerset, England, but fossils of closely related ichthyosaurs have been found in parts of California, Nevada, British Columbia, China, Italy, Switzerland, and Tibet. In other words, they might be found just about anywhere with rocks dating to about 200 million years ago. The next time you’re out for a walk, keep a look-out just in case you spot a bone belonging to the biggest animal that ever lived.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 377: The Giant-est Snake Ever

Thanks to Max for suggesting Titanoboa!

Further reading:

Largest known madtsoiid snake from warm Eocene period of India suggests intercontinental Gondwana dispersal

This Nearly 50-Foot Snake Was One of the Largest to Slither on Earth

Meet Vasuki indicus, the ‘crocodile’ that was a 50ft snake

Titanoboa had really big bones compared to its modern relatives:

Vasuki had big bones too:

Show transcript:

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

Almost exactly two years ago now, Max emailed to suggest we talk about titanoboa. The problem was that we had covered titanoboa in episode 197, and even though there’s always something new to learn about an animal, in this case since titanoboa is extinct there wasn’t much more I could share until new studies were published about it. But as the years passed I felt worse and worse that Max was waiting so long. A lot of listeners have to wait a long time for their suggested episode, and I always feel bad. But still there were no new studies about titanoboa!

Why am I telling you all this? Because we’re finally going to talk about titanoboa today, even though by now Max is probably old and gray with great-grandkids. But we’re only going to talk about titanoboa to compare it to another extinct snake. That’s right. Paleontologists have discovered fossils of a snake that was even longer than titanoboa!

Let’s start with Titanoboa, because it’s now been a really long time since episode 197 and all I remember about it is that it’s extinct and was way bigger than any snake alive today. Its discovery is such a good story that I’m going to include it too.

In 1994, a geologist named Henry Garcia found an unusual-looking fossil in Colombia in South America, in an area that had been strip-mined for coal. Fifty-eight million years ago the region was a hot, swampy, tropical forest along the edge of a shallow sea.

Garcia thought he’d found a piece of fossilized tree. The coal company in charge of the mine displayed it in their office along with other fossils. There it sat until 2003, when palaeontologists arranged an expedition to the mine to look for fossil plants. A researcher named Scott Wing was invited to join the team, and while he was there he poked around among the fossils displayed by the mining company. The second he saw the so-called petrified branch he knew it wasn’t a plant. He sent photos to a colleague who said it looked like the jawbone of a land animal, probably something new to science.

In 2007, the fossil was sent for study, labeled as a crocodile bone. But the palaeontologists who examined the fossil in person immediately realized it wasn’t from a crocodile. It was a snake vertebra—but so enormous that they couldn’t believe their eyes. They immediately arranged an expedition to look for more of them, and they found them!

Palaeontologists have found fossilized remains from around 30 individual snakes, including young ones. The adult size is estimated to be 42 feet, or 13 meters. The largest living snakes are anacondas and reticulated pythons, with no verified measurements longer than about 23 feet long, or 7 meters. Titanoboa was probably twice that length.

Because titanoboa was so bulky and heavy, it would be more comfortable in the water where it could stay cool and have its weight supported. It lived in an area where the land was swampy with lots of huge rivers. Those rivers were full of gigantic fish and other animals, including a type of lungfish that grew nearly ten feet long, or 3 meters. Studies of titanoboa’s skull and teeth indicate that it probably mostly ate fish.

So if titanoboa was so huge that until literally a few days ago as this episode goes live, we thought it was the biggest snake that had ever existed, how big was this newly discovered snake? It’s called Vasuki indicus and while it wasn’t that much bigger than titanoboa, estimates so far suggest it could grow almost 50 feet long, or over 15 meters. It’s named after a giant serpent king called Vasuki from Hindu folklore, who symbolizes strength and prosperity.

Vasuki indicus was discovered in a mine in India in 2005. The original discovery consisted of 27 vertebrae, including some that were still articulated. That means they remained in place after the rest of the body decayed and were preserved that way, which helps palaeontologists better estimate the snake’s true size.

Like titanoboa, the fossils were misidentified at first. They were labeled as a known giant crocodile and set aside in the discoverer’s lab for decades. In 2022, paleontologist Debajit Datta joined the lab, and one of the things he wanted to study were these giant crocodile fossils. He started preparing them for study by removing the rock matrix from around them, and almost immediately realized they belonged to a snake, not a crocodile.

The fossils have been dated to about 47 million years ago in what is now India, in Asia. Titanoboa lived about 58 million years ago in what is now Colombia, in South America. The two snakes are related, although not closely, and this helps scientists determine how snakes spread across the world as the continents moved into their current positions.

Both snakes lived in what were then very similar habitats, a tropical, swampy area near the coast. The researchers think Vasuki spent most of its time on land, unlike titanoboa. It wasn’t as bulky as titanoboa and could probably maneuver on land a lot more easily.

Until titanoboa was described in 2009, a snake called Gigantophis was thought to be the largest snake that ever lived. It lived around 40 million years ago in what is now the northern Sahara desert and could grow over 35 feet long, or almost 11 meters. It turns out that Vasuki was closely related to gigantophis.

As it stands now, until more fossils are found and more studies are conducted and published, Vasuki is estimated to be slightly longer than titanoboa at maximum, making it the longest snake known, but titanoboa is still estimated to be the heaviest snake known. So they both win the largest snake award, but the real winner is us.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 365: A New Temnospondyl

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

Further reading:

Ancient giant amphibians swam like crocodiles 250 million years ago

Fossil of Giant Triassic Amphibian Unearthed in Brazil

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

Koolasuchus was a weird big-headed boi:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 363: The Dodo and Friends

Thanks to Wilmer and Carson for suggesting we revisit the dodo!

Further reading:

Dodos and spotted green pigeons are descendants of an island-hopping bird

On the possible vernacular name and origin of the extinct Spotted Green Pigeon Caloenus maculata

Giant, fruit-gulping pigeon eaten into extinction on Pacific islands

A taxidermied dodo:

The Nicobar pigeon, happily still alive [photo by Devin Morris – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=110541928]:

The 1823 illustration of the spotted green pigeon:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to revisit a bird that everyone’s heard of but no one has seen alive, because it’s famously extinct. We talked about the dodo way back in episode 19, so it’s definitely time we talked about it again. Thanks to Wilmer and Carson for suggesting it! We’re also going to learn about some of the close relations of the dodo.

The first report of a dodo was in 1598 by Dutch sailors who stopped by the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius is east of Madagascar, which is off the eastern coast of Africa. The last known sighting of a dodo was in 1662, just 64 years later. The dodo went extinct so quickly, and was so little known, that for a couple of centuries afterwards many people assumed it was just a sailor’s story. But there were remains of dodos, and in the 19th century scientists gathered up everything they could find to study the birds. More remains were found on Mauritius.

In the wild, the dodo was a sleek bird that could run quite fast. It may have eaten crabs and other small animals as well as roots, nuts, seeds, and fruit. It was also probably pretty smart. People only thought it was dumb because it didn’t run away from sailors—but it had no predators on Mauritius so never had to worry about anything more dangerous than an occasional egg-stealing crab before.

When humans arrived on Mauritius, they killed and ate dodos and their eggs. What the sailors didn’t eat, the animals they brought with them did, like pigs and rats. It was a stark and clear picture of human-caused extinction, shocking to the Victorian naturalists who studied it.

A lot of the drawings and paintings we have of dodos were made from badly taxidermied birds or from overfed captive birds. At least eleven live dodos were brought to Europe and Asia, some bound for menageries, some intended as pets. The last known captive dodo was sent to Japan in 1647.

The dodo grew over three feet tall, or almost a meter, with brown or gray feathers, a floofy tuft of gray feathers as a tail, big yellow feet, and a weird head. The feathers stopped around the forehead, making it look sort of like it was wearing a hood. Its face was bare and the bill was large, bulbous at the end with a hook, and was black, yellow, and green. The dodo looks, in fact, a lot like what you might expect pigeons to evolve into if pigeons lived on an island with no predators, and that’s exactly what happened.

The dodo’s closest living relation is the Nicobar pigeon, which can grow 16 inches long, or over 40 cm. Like other pigeons, the dodo’s feathers probably had at least some iridescence, but the Nicobar pigeon is extra colorful. Its head is gray with long feathers around its shoulders like a fancy collar, and the rest of its body is metallic blue, green, and bronze with a short white tail. Zoos love to have these pigeons on display because they’re so pretty. It’s a protected animal, but unfortunately it’s still captured for sale on the pet black market or just hunted for food. It only lays one egg a year so it doesn’t reproduce very quickly, and all this combined with habitat loss make it an increasingly threatened bird. Scientists are trying to learn more about it so it can be better protected.

The Nicobar pigeon lives on a number of islands in the South Pacific and it can fly. Sometimes an errant individual is discovered in Australia, often after storms. Imagine going into your back yard one day and seeing a 40-centimeter-long bird whose feathers shine like jewels! The Nicobar pigeon lives in small flocks and eats seeds, fruit, and other plant material.

An even closer relative to the dodo is also the most mysterious. We don’t even know for sure if it’s extinct, although that’s very likely. It’s the spotted green pigeon and we only have one specimen–and we don’t even know where it was collected, just that it was an island somewhere in the South Pacific. There used to be two specimens, but no one knows what happened to the second one.

For a long time researchers weren’t even sure the spotted green pigeon was a distinct species or just a Nicobar pigeon with weird-colored feathers, but in 2014, DNA testing on two of the remaining specimen’s feathers showed it was indeed a separate species. Researchers think the spotted green pigeon, the dodo, and another extinct bird, the Rodrigues solitaire, all descended from an unknown pigeon ancestor that liked to island hop. Sometimes some of those pigeons would decide they liked a particular island and would stay, ultimately evolving into birds more suited to the habitat.

The specimen we have of the spotted green pigeon is 13 inches long, or 32 cm. Its feathers are dark brown with green iridescence and it has long neck feathers like the Nicobar pigeon. It also has little yellowish spots on its wings and a yellow tip to its bill. Researchers think it was probably a fruit-eating bird that lived in treetops.

The only reason we know there were once two specimens of this mystery bird is from a book about birds published in 1783, where the author mentions having seen two specimens. There was also an 1823 book about birds with an illustration of the spotted green pigeon that differs from the known specimen in some details. Researchers think the illustration might have been painted from the now-missing specimen.

There’s more to this mystery, though, because in 2020 an ornithologist studied a 1928 book about Tahiti that mentioned a bird that sounds a lot like the spotted green pigeon. It was even called a pigeon in the book. Since the author of that book had drawn on studies made by her grandfather almost a hundred years before, and since her grandfather had interviewed Tahitians about their history and traditions and they told him about the pigeon, the ornithologist suggested the spotted green pigeon might actually be from Tahiti. Now that scientists have a clue about where to start looking for remains of the bird, we might learn more about it soon.

Also in 2020, a study was published about another pigeon from the Pacific Islands. Fossils of it were found on the island of Tonga, and the scientists determined that the bird probably went extinct soon after humans first arrived on the island 2,850 years ago. The pigeon has been named Tongoenas burleyi. It grew about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its tail. It could fly and probably spent a lot of its time in trees, eating fruit. There are lots of different trees on the island that produce really big fruit, some of it as big as a tennis ball. Scientists think the pigeon was adapted to swallow these huge fruits whole, digest them, and poop out the seeds. The trees still exist but they’re in decline and scientists think it may be because no birds remain on the island that can spread their seeds effectively.

We don’t have any feathers from the newly described pigeon, but it was probably colorful. We do have a lot of bones, because many charred bones have been discovered in cooking pits excavated by archaeologists.

We don’t know yet how or if Tongoenas is related to the dodo. The Pacific islands are home to at least 90 living species of pigeon, and many of them we don’t know much about. There are undoubtedly many more waiting to be discovered by scientists, whether living or extinct.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 361: The New Hominin

Welcome to 2024! Let’s learn about some exciting new discoveries in our own family tree!

Further reading:

476,000-Year-Old Wooden Structure Unearthed in Zambia

Mysterious 300,000-year-old skull could be new species of human, researchers say

Show transcript:

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

It’s time to start the new year off with an episode that has me really excited. I was initially going to include this in the updates episode that usually comes out around summertime, but I just can’t wait. In 2023, scientists discovered what they think might be a new lineage of extinct human ancestors!

We’ll come back to that in a moment, but first I want to highlight another amazing human-relateded discovery from 2023.

And just to let you know, I am going to be using the words “humans” and “people” and “hominins” more or less interchangeably. I try to make it clear when I’m talking about Homo sapiens versus other species of ancient hominin, but these are all our ancestors–in many cases our direct ancestors–so they’re all people as far as I’m concerned.

As you may know, especially if you’ve listened to previous episodes where we’ve discussed ancient human ancestors, the ancestors of all humans evolved in Africa. Specifically, we arose in the southern part of Africa, in areas that had once been dense forest but gradually changed to open woodland and savanna. Because there weren’t very many trees, our far-distant hominin ancestors, the australopiths, no longer needed to be able to climb trees as well as their ape cousins. Instead, they evolved an upright stance and long legs to see over tall grasses, and the stamina to run after the animals they hunted until the animal was exhausted and couldn’t run anymore. Once our ancestors were walking on two legs all the time, their hands were free to carry babies and food and anything else they wanted.

Being fully bipedal meant that women had a harder time giving birth, since the pelvis had to change position to allow them to walk and run, so babies started being born when they were smaller. This meant the babies needed a whole lot more care for a lot longer, which meant that family groups became even more important and complicated. One thing we’ve learned about sociability in animals is that it leads to increased intelligence, and that’s definitely what happened with our long-distant ancestors. As their brains got bigger, they became more creative. They made lots of different types of tools, especially weapons and items that helped them process food, but eventually they also made artwork, baskets, clothing, jewelry, and everything else they needed.

All this took a long time, naturally. We know Australopithecus used stone tools over three million years ago, but we don’t have evidence of human ancestors using fire until a little over 1.5 million years ago. Homo sapiens was once thought to have only evolved around 100,000 years ago, maybe less, but as scientists find more remains and are able to use more sophisticated techniques to study those remains, the date keeps getting pushed back. Currently we’re pretty certain that actual humans, if not the fully modern humans alive today, arose about 300,000 years ago and maybe even earlier. Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus, which arose about two million years ago and went extinct about 100,000 years ago. They were probably the first hominin to use fire, which allowed humans to start migrating longer distances into colder climates. They might also have communicated with language. Basically, Homo erectus was a lot like us but not quite us yet.

The modern-day country of Zambia is in the middle of south-central Africa, and naturally it’s been home to humans and our ancestors for as long as humans have existed. One especially important part of Zambia is also one of its most beautiful places, Kalambo Falls, which is really close to the equally important and beautiful country of Tanzania. Scientists have known that humans of one kind or another have lived around Kalambo Falls for at least 447,000 years, long before Homo sapiens actually evolved.

When a team of archaeologists excavated a sandbar near the falls in 2019, they were surprised to find wooden artifacts. Wood doesn’t usually preserve for very long and the site they were excavating was quite old. In addition to wooden tools, they found two logs that had been shaped and notched to allow them to fit together securely. The researchers thought the logs had once been part of a structure like a walkway that would keep people’s feet out of the mud and water, or possibly the floor of a wooden structure used to store food. It might even have been the floor of a little house.

Wood can be dated with simple tests to find out its age, but the test is only useful for trees that died within the last 50,000 years. Anything older than that is just, you know, older than 50,000 years. The tools and logs tested as older, which the scientists expected. Fortunately there are other ways to date older wood, but the results of those tests were surprising even to the scientists. The tools were at least 324,000 years old, possibly as much as 390,000 years old, but the logs were even older, about 476,000 years old.

Remember, Homo sapiens didn’t even evolve until about 300,000 years ago. That means humans didn’t make those tools or build anything with those shaped logs. Some other hominin did, although we’re not sure who. Even more exciting, close examination of the logs suggests that they may have been subjected to fire at some point. That might mean a natural fire or it might mean that the people who were building with the logs were also using fire as much as two million years before we thought people were using fire.

Obviously scientists are going to look carefully for more clues about who might have shaped these logs and when. Hopefully we’ll learn more soon.

Around the same time that scientists uncovered the wooden items in southern Africa, another discovery was made in 2019, this one in East China. A team found a jaw, skull, and leg bones of a hominin that didn’t match up to any known human ancestor. The bones were dated to 300,000 years ago, at the dawn of Homo sapiens. Other hominins had migrated to eastern Asia long before this, however, including populations of Homo erectus.

The newly discovered bones don’t belong to Homo erectus, though. They don’t belong to Homo sapiens either, or any other known hominin. They represent a completely new hominin, and at the moment scientists don’t know where exactly they fit in our own family tree.

The bones show traits found in modern humans, like a flat face, but lack other uniquely human traits, most notably a chin. Homo sapiens have chins, unlike every other hominin, and no one’s sure why. It might have something to do with speech or maybe early humans with chins were just considered more attractive, and now everyone has a chin.

The mystery hominin is still being studied, but preliminary findings indicate that we might have discovered the ancestor of a very close relation. The bones show some traits also found in Neandertals, our very closest evolutionary cousins, even though they’re extinct. There’s a possibility that this new hominin gave rise to another line of very close human relations, one we don’t have any fossils of yet.

I know there are a lot of excited scientists wanting to learn more about the hominin bones. Hopefully more bones will turn up soon so we can get a better idea of who this distant relative is. It’s a little too early to throw them a welcome home party, but maybe we can start planning it now.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 357: When Scientists Ate Mammoth Meat

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

Don’t eat me bro:

Blue Babe, a steppe bison mummy found in Alaska:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 354: Sheep and Sivatherium

Thanks to Hannah, who suggested sheep as this week’s topic! We’ll also learn about a few other hoofed animals, including the weird giraffe relative, sivatherium.

Further reading:

The American Jacob Sheep Breeders’ Association

What happened with that Sumerian ‘sivathere’ figurine after Colbert’s paper of 1936? Well, a lot.

A Jacob sheep ewe with four horns (pic from JSBA site linked above):

The male four-horned antelope [photo by K. Sharma at this site]:

A modern reconstruction of sivatherium that looks a lot like a giraffe [By Hiuppo – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2872962]:

The rein ring in question (on the left) that might be a siveratherium but might just be a deer:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at an animal suggested by Hannah a long time ago. Hannah suggested we talk about sheep, and I can’t even tell you how many times I almost did this episode but decided to push it back just a little longer. Finally, though, we have the sheep episode we’ve all been waiting for! We’re also going to learn about a strange animal called sivatherium and a mystery surrounding when it went extinct.

The sheep has cloven hooves and is a ruminant related to goats and cattle. It mostly eats grass, and it chews its cud to further break down the plants it eats. It’s one of the oldest domesticated animals in the world, with some experts estimating that it was first domesticated over 13,000 years ago. Mammoths still roamed the earth then. Sheep are especially useful to humans because not only can you eat them, they produce wool.

Wool has incredible insulating properties, as you’ll know if you’ve ever worn a wool sweater in the snow. Even if it gets wet, you stay nice and warm. Even better, you don’t have to kill the sheep to get the wool. The sheep just gets a haircut every year to cut its wool short. Wild sheep don’t grow a lot of wool, though. They mostly have hair like goats. Humans didn’t start selecting for domestic sheep that produced wool until around 8,000 years ago.

Like other animals that were domesticated a very long time ago, including dogs and horses, we’re not sure what the direct ancestor of the domestic sheep is. It seems to be most closely related to the mouflon, which is native to parts of the middle east. The mouflon is reddish-brown with darker and lighter markings and it looks a lot like a goat. Other species of wild sheep live in various parts of the world but aren’t as closely related to the domestic sheep. The bighorn and Dall sheep of western North America are closely related to the snow sheep of eastern Asia and Siberia. The ancestors of all three species spread from eastern Asia into North America during the Pleistocene when sea levels were low and Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia.

The male sheep is called a ram and grows horns that curl in a spiral pattern, while the female sheep is called a ewe. Some ewes have small horns, some don’t. This is the case for both wild and domestic sheep. Sheep use their horns as defensive weapons, butting potential predators who get too close, and they also butt each other. Rams in particular fight each other to establish dominance, although ewes do too.

But some breeds of domestic sheep are what is called polycerate, which means multi-horned. That means a sheep may have more than two horns, typically up to six. Many years ago I kept a few Jacob sheep, which are a polycerate breed, and in a Patreon episode from 2018 I went into really too much detail about this particular breed of sheep. I will cut that short here.

The Jacob is a hardy, small sheep with tough hooves, and it’s white with black spots. Ideally, a Jacob sheep will have four or six well-balanced horns. In a six-horned sheep, the upper pair branch upward, the middle pair curl like an ordinary ram’s horns, and the lower pair branch downwards. Sometimes a sheep will have three or five horns, or will start out with four horns but as they grow, two will merge so it looks like they have a single horn on one side. Sometimes a ram’s horns will grow so large that the blood supply is choked off for the lower pair, which will die and stop growing. Breeding a pair of six-horned Jacob sheep doesn’t guarantee that the babies will have more than two horns, though. It’s still a recessive trait.

Sheep, goats, cattle, and some antelopes are all bovids. Polyceratism appears to be a bovid trait. It’s caused by a mutation where the horn core divides during the animal’s development.

Occasionally, a sheep of non-polycerate breed, or a goat, or even a cow, is born with multiple horns. The blue wildebeest is also occasionally born with multiple horns. Sometimes an animal grows a lot of horns, like eight, but usually it’s three, four, five, or six.

Another animal with more than two horns is the four-horned antelope that lives in India and Nepal. Its horns are quite small, just a pair of tiny points on the forehead with a pair of longer points behind them. The antelope itself is also small, not much more than two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm. Its coat is reddish or yellowish-brown with white underparts, and a black stripe down the front of the legs. The longer horns grow up to about five inches long, or 12 cm, but the front horns are no longer than two inches, or five cm.

The four-horned antelope is shy and solitary, and lives in open forests near water. Since it’s so small, it frequently hides in tall grasses. Sometimes a four-horned antelope’s front two horns are just bumps covered with fur, which makes them look like ossicones although they’re still actually horns.

That brings us to the other group of animals with multiple horns, although they’re not actually horns. I mentioned ossicones in the tallest animals episode, about giraffes. They’re made of ossified cartilage instead of bone, and are covered in skin and fur instead of a keratin sheath. Antlers are actually very similar to ossicones in many ways. A deer’s antlers grow from a base that is similar to an ossicone, and as they grow, the antlers are covered with tissue called velvet that later dries and is scraped off by the deer to show off the bony antlers. Unlike horns, which are always unbranched, the ossicones of some extinct animals can look like antlers.

We talked about sivatherium in episode 256, about mammoths. It was an ancestor of modern giraffes that lived in Africa and India around a million years ago. It stood around 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or just over two meters, but had a relatively long neck that made it almost 10 feet tall in total, or about three meters. It had two pairs of ossicones, one pair over its eyes and another between its ears. Like the four-horned antelope, the front pair were smaller than the rear pair, but the rear pair was broad and had a single branch.

Sivatherium was once believed to be closely related to elephants, and reconstructions of it often made it look like a moose with a short trunk. But modern understanding of its anatomy suggests it looked like a heavily built giraffe with shorter legs and neck, sort of like the giraffe’s closest living relative, the okapi.

One interesting thing about Sivatherium is how recently it may have been alive. Some researchers think it may have been around only 8,000 years ago. There’s rock art in India and the Sahara that does seem to show a long-necked animal with horns that isn’t a giraffe. The art has been dated to around 15,000 years ago. But the big controversy is a figurine discovered in 1928.

That’s when a copper rein ring was found in Iraq and dated to about 2800 BCE. A rein ring was part of the harness to a four-wheeled chariot, with two holes to thread the reins through to keep them from tangling. Above the rings was a little decorative figure of an animal. This particular rein ring’s figure shows an animal with short horns above the eyes and branching horn-like structures farther back, between the ears. When it was originally discovered, scientists thought the figure represented a type of fallow deer found in the area, with the ends of the antlers broken off. But one researcher, Edwin Colbert, pointed out that no deer known has four antlers and the figure clearly has two little bumps over its eyes that are separate from the branched antler or horn-like structures farther back. In 1936 he published his conclusion that the animal wasn’t a deer at all but sivatherium, and a lot of scientists agreed.

That would mean sivatherium might have been alive less than 5,000 years ago. Part of the issue is that sivatherium’s branched ossicones weren’t very big in comparison to its head, while the fallow deer’s antlers are proportionally quite large. The figurine has structures that match sivatherium’s ossicones more than a deer’s antlers. But in 1977, two little pieces of copper were found in a storage box where they’d been since the original discovery of the rein ring. The pieces fit exactly onto the ends of the figure’s horns, showing that the horns are much bigger than originally thought.

That doesn’t explain everything, though. The figure still has those extra little horns over its eyes, and while the branched horns look like deer antlers, they still don’t look like fallow deer antlers. Some researchers point out that sivatherium had a lot of variation in the size and shape of its ossicones, too.

Ultimately there’s not enough evidence either way of whether the figurine depicts a deer or sivatherium. If sivatherium did live as recently as a few thousand years ago, hopefully remains of it will be found soon. Until we know for sure, you can still be glad that the giraffe is alive, because it’s just as amazing as its extinct relation.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 348: Australopithecus and Gigantopithecus

Thanks to Anbo for suggesting Australopithecus! We’ll also learn about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot!

Further reading:

Ancient human relative, Australopithecus sediba, ‘walked like a human, but climbed like an ape’

Human shoulders and elbows first evolved as brakes for climbing apes

You Won’t Believe What Porcupines Eat

Past tropical forest changes drove megafauna and hominin extinctions

An Australopithecus skeleton [photo by Emőke Dénes – kindly granted by the author, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78612761]:

Show transcript:

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

It’s officially monster month, also known as October, so let’s jump right in with a topic suggested by Anbo! Anbo wanted to learn about Australopithecus, and while we’re at it we’re going to talk about Gigantopithecus and Bigfoot. On our spookiness rating scale of one to five bats, where one bat means it’s not a very spooky episode and five bats means it’s really spooky, this one is going to fall at about two bats, and only because we talk a little bit about the Yeti and Bigfoot at the end.

In 1924 in South Africa, the partial skull of a young primate was discovered. Primates include monkeys and apes along with humans, our very own family tree. This particular fossil was over a million years old and had features that suggested it was an early human ancestor, or otherwise very closely related to humans.

The fossil was named Australopithecus, which means “southern ape.” Since 1924 we’ve discovered more remains, enough that currently, seven species of Australopithecus are recognized. The oldest dates to a bit over 4 million years old and was discovered in eastern Africa.

Australopithecus was probably pretty short compared to most modern humans, although they were probably about the size of modern chimpanzees. A big male might have stood about 4 ½ feet tall, or 1.5 meters. They were bipedal, meaning they would have stood and walked upright all the time. That’s the biggest hint that they were closely related to humans. Other great apes can walk upright if they want, but only humans and our closest ancestors are fully bipedal.

In 2008 a palaeoanthropologist named Lee Rogers Berger took his nine-year-old son Matthew to Malapa Cave in South Africa. Dr. Berger was leading an excavation of the cave and Matthew wanted to see it. While he was there, Matthew noticed something that even his father had overlooked. It turned out to be a collarbone belonging to an Australopithecus boy who lived almost 2 million years ago. Later, Dr Berger’s team uncovered more of the skeleton and determined that the remains belonged to a new species of Australopithecus, which they named Australopithecus sediba. More remains of this species were discovered later, including a beautifully preserved lower back. That discovery was important because it allowed scientists to determine that this species of Australopithecus had already evolved the inward curve in the lower back that humans still have, which helps us walk on two legs more easily. That was a surprise, since A. sediba also still shows features that indicate they could still climb trees like a great ape.

It’s possible that Australopithecus, along with other species of early humans, climbed trees at night to stay safe from predators. In the morning, they climbed down to spend the day mostly on the ground. One study published only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live suggests that the flexible shoulders and elbows that humans share with our great ape cousins originally evolved to help apes climb down from trees safely. Monkeys don’t share our flexible shoulder and elbow joints because they’re much lighter weight than a human or ape, and don’t need as much flexibility to keep from falling while climbing down. Apes and hominins like humans can raise our arms straight up over our heads, and we can straighten our arms out completely flat. Australopithecus could do the same. The study suggests that when another human ancestor, Homo erectus, figured out how to use fire, they stopped needing to climb trees so often. They evolved broader shoulders that allowed them to throw spears and other weapons much more accurately.

Australopithecus probably mostly ate fruit and other plant materials like vegetables and nuts, along with small animals that they could catch fairly easily. This is similar to the diet of many great apes today. The big controversy, though, is whether Australopithecus made and used tools. Their hands would have been more like the hands of a bonobo or chimpanzee, which have a lot of dexterity, but not the really high-level dexterity of modern humans and our closest ancestors. Stone tools have been found in the same areas where Australopithecus fossils have been found, but we don’t have any definitive proof that they made or used the tools. There were other early hominins living in the area who might have made the tools instead.

We also don’t really know what Australopithecus looked like. Some scientists think they had a lot of body hair that would have made them look more like apes than early humans, while some scientists think they had already started losing a lot of body hair and would have looked more human-like as a result.

There’s no question these days that Australopithecus was an early human ancestor. We don’t have very many remains, but we do have several skulls and some nearly complete skeletons, which tells us a lot about how our distant ancestor lived. But we know a lot less about a fossil ape that lived as recently as 350,000 years ago, and it’s become confused with modern stories of Bigfoot.

Gigantopithecus first appears in the fossil record about 2 million years ago. It lived in what is now southern China, although it was probably also present in other parts of Asia. It was first discovered in 1935 when an anthropologist identified two teeth as belonging to an unknown species of ape, and since then scientists have found over a thousand teeth and four jawbones, more properly called mandibles.

The problem is that we don’t have any other Gigantopithecus bones. We don’t have a skull or any parts of the body. All we have are a few mandibles and lots and lots of teeth. The reason we have so many teeth is because Gigantopithecus had massive molars, the biggest of any known species of ape, with a protective layer of enamel that was as much as 6 mm thick. Some of the teeth were almost an inch across, or 22 mm. A lot of the remaining bones were probably eaten by porcupines, and in fact the mandibles discovered show evidence of being gnawed on. This sounds bizarre, but porcupines are well-known to eat old bones along with the shed antlers of deer, which supplies them with important nutrients. The teeth were too hard for the porcupines to eat.

We know that Gigantopithecus was a big ape just from the size of its mandible, but without any other bones we can only guess at how big it really was. It was potentially much bigger and taller than even the biggest gorilla, but maybe it had a great big jaw but short legs and it just sat around and ate plants all the time. We just don’t know.

What we do know is that its massive jaw and teeth were adapted for eating fibrous plant material, not meat. The thick enamel would help protect the teeth from grit and dirt, which suggested it ate tubers and roots that would have had a lot of dirt on them, although its diet was probably more varied. Scientists have even discovered traces of seeds from fruits belonging to the fig family stuck in some of the fossilized teeth, and evidence of tooth cavities that would have resulted from eating a lot of fruit long before toothpaste was invented.

Many scientists thought at first that Gigantopithecus was a human ancestor, but one that grew to gigantic size. It was even thought to be a close relation to Australopithecus. Other scientists argued that Gigantopithecus was more closely related to modern great apes like the orangutan. The debate on where Gigantopithecus should be classified in the ape and human family tree happened to overlap with another debate about a giant ape-like creature, the Yeti of Asia and the Bigfoot of North America.

We talked about the Yeti way back in episode 35, our very first monster month episode in 2017. Expeditions by European explorers to summit Mount Everest, which is on the border between China and Nepal, started in 1921. That first expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot at an elevation of 20,000 feet, or 6,100 meters. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, with the front and rear tracks overlapping, which only looked human-like after the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote in a London Times article that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man, but he also made it clear that this was just a superstition. But journalists loved the idea of a mysterious wild man living on Mount Everest. One journalist in particular, Henry Newman, interviewed the guides and specifically asked them about the creature. He wrote a sensational account of the wild man, but he mistranslated their term for it as the abominable snowman.

The word Yeti comes from a Sherpa term yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. But the peoples who live in and around the Himalayas belong to different cultures and speak a lot of different languages. There are lots of stories about the hairy wild man of the mountains, and lots of different words to describe the creature of those stories. And the idea of the Yeti that has become popular in Europe and North America doesn’t match up with the local stories. Locals describe the Yeti as brown, black, or even reddish in color, not white, and it doesn’t always have human-like characteristics. Sometimes it’s described as bear-like, panther-like, or just a general monster.

The abominable snowman, or Yeti, became popular in newspaper articles after the 1921 Mount Everest expedition, and it continued to be a topic of interest as expeditions kept attempting to summit the mountain. It wasn’t until May 26, 1953 that the first humans reached the tippy-top of Mount Everest, the New Zealand explorer Edmund Hillary and the Nepali Sherpa climber Tenzing Norgay. Many other successful expeditions followed, including some that were mounted specifically to search for the Yeti.

In the meantime, across the planet in North America, a Canadian schoolteacher and government agent named John W. Burns was collecting reports of hairy wild men and giants from the native peoples in British Columbia. He’s the one who coined the term Sasquatch in 1929. In the 1930s, a man in Washington state in the U.S, which is close to British Columbia, Canada, carved some giant feet out of wood and made tracks with them in a national forest to scare people, leading to a whole spate of big human-like tracks being faked in California and other places. But it wasn’t until 1982 that the hoaxes started to be revealed as the perpetrators got old and decided to clear up the mystery.

But in the 1920s and later, the popularity of the abominable snowman in popular media, giant gorillas like King Kong in the movies, the Yeti expeditions in the Himalayas, the mysterious giant footprints on the west coast of North America, and John Burns’s articles about the Sasquatch all combined to make Bigfoot, a catchall term for any giant human-like monster, a modern legend. People who believed that Bigfoot was a real creature started looking for evidence of its existence beyond footprints and reports of sightings. In 1960, a zoologist writing about a photograph of supposed Yeti tracks taken in 1951 suggested that the Yeti might be related to Gigantopithecus.

On the surface this actually makes sense. The Yeti, AKA the abominable snowman, is reported in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. The mountain range started forming 40 to 50 million years ago when the Indian tectonic plate crashed into the Eurasian plate very slowly, pushing its way under the Eurasian plate and scrunching the land up into massively huge mountains. It’s still moving, by the way, and the Himalayas get about 5 mm taller every year. The eastern section of the Himalayas isn’t that far from where Gigantopithecus remains have been found in China, and we also know that at many times in the earth’s recent past, eastern Asia and western North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. Humans and many animals crossed Beringia to reach North America, so why not Gigantopithecus or its descendants? That would explain why Bigfoot is so big, since in 1957 one scientist estimated that Gigantopithecus might have stood up to 12 feet tall, or 3.7 meters.

Some people still think Gigantopithecus was a cousin of Australopithecus, that it walked upright but was huge, and that its descendants are still around today, hiding in remote areas and only glimpsed occasionally. But people who believe such an idea are stuck in the past, because in the last 60 years we’ve learned a whole lot more about Gigantopithecus.

These days, more sophisticated study of Gigantopithecus fossils have allowed scientists to classify it as a great ape ancestor, not an early human. Gigantopithecus was probably most closely related to modern orangutans, in fact, and may have shared a lot of traits with orangutans. It probably could walk upright if it wanted to, but it wasn’t fully bipedal the way humans and human ancestors are. One theory prevalent in 2017 when we talked about the Yeti before was that Gigantopithecus mostly ate bamboo and might have gone extinct when the giant panda started competing with its food sources. This theory has already fallen out of favor, though, and we know that Gigantopithecus was eating a much more varied diet than just bamboo.

We also know that Gigantopithecus lived in tropical broadleaf forests common throughout southern Asia at the time. About a million years ago, though, many of these forests became grasslands. Gigantopithecus probably went extinct as a direct result of its forest home vanishing. It just couldn’t find enough food and shelter on open grasslands, and even though it held on for hundreds of thousands of years, by about 350,000 years ago it had gone extinct. Around 100,000 years ago the forests started reclaiming much of these grasslands, but by then it was too late for Gigantopithecus. Meanwhile, the oldest evidence we have of the land bridge Beringia joining Asia and North America was 70,000 years ago.

There is no evidence that any Gigantopithecus descendant survived to populate the Himalayas or migrated into North America. For that matter, there’s no evidence that Bigfoot actually exists. If a live or dead Bigfoot is discovered and studied by scientists, that would definitely change a lot of things, and would be really, really exciting. But even if that happened, I’m pretty sure we’d find that Bigfoot wasn’t related to Gigantopithecus. Whether it would be related to Australopithecus and us humans is another thing, and that would be pretty awesome. But first, we have to find evidence that isn’t just some footprints in the mud or snow.

Some Bigfoot enthusiasts suggest that the reason we haven’t found any Bigfoot remains is the same reason why we don’t have Gigantopithecus bones, because porcupines eat them. But while porcupines do eat old dry bones they find, they don’t eat fresh bones and they don’t eat all the bones they find. For any bone to fossilize is rare, so the more bones that are around, the more likely that one or more of them will end up preserved as fossils. Bones of modern animals are much easier to find, porcupines or no, but we don’t have any Bigfoot bones. We don’t even have any Bigfoot teeth, which porcupines don’t eat.

Porcupines can be blamed for a lot of things, like chewing on people’s cars and houses, but you can’t blame them for eating up all the evidence for Bigfoot.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 346: The Rhinoceros!

Thanks to Mia for suggesting the black rhino this week! We’ll also learn about other rhinos and their relations, including a mystery rhino.

Further reading:

Photos suggest rhino horns have shrunk over past century

The Blue Rhinoceros – In Quest of the Keitloa

A rhino with a very small third horn:

Some rhinos have really big second horns [photo by David Clode and taken from this site]:

The “blue rhinoceros,” or keitloa, as illustrated in the mid-19th century:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about an animal I can’t believe we haven’t covered before. Thanks to Mia for suggesting the rhinoceros, specifically the black rhino! We’ll also learn about a mystery rhino.

We’ve talked about elephants lots of times, hippos quite a few times, and giraffes a couple of times, but pretty much the only episodes where we discussed a rhinoceros were 5 and 256. Episode 256 was mostly about mammoths, although we talked very briefly about the woolly rhinoceros, while episode 5 was about the unicorn and didn’t actually specifically talk about the rhino. So after almost 350 episodes of this podcast, one of the most amazing animals alive is one we literally haven’t learned about! Let’s fix that now.

Most people are pretty familiar with what a rhinoceros looks like. Basically, it’s a big, heavy animal with relatively short legs, a big head that it carries low to the ground like a bison, and at least one horn that grows on its nose. It’s usually gray or gray-brown in color with very little hair, and its skin is tough. It eats plants.

The rhinoceros isn’t related to the elephant or the hippopotamus. It’s actually most closely related to the horse and the tapir, which are odd-toed ungulates. The rhino has three toes on each foot, with a little hoof-like nail covering the front of each toe, but the bottom of the rhino’s foot is a big pad similar to the bottom of an elephant’s foot.

The rhino’s nose horn isn’t technically a horn because it doesn’t have a bony core. It’s made of long fibers of keratin all stuck together, and keratin is the same protein that forms fingernails and hair. That makes it even weirder that some people think a rhinoceros horn is medicine. It’s literally the same protein as fingernails, and no one thinks of fingernails are medicine. The use of rhinoceros horn as medicine isn’t even all that old. Ancient people didn’t think it was medicine, but some modern people do, and they’ll pay a whole lot of money for part of a rhino horn to grind up and eat. Seriously, they might as well be eating ground-up fingernails. (That’s gross.)

Because rhino horns are so valuable, people will kill rhinos just to saw their horns off to sell. That’s the main reason why most species of rhino are so critically endangered, even though they’re protected animals. Sometimes conservationists will sedate a wild rhino and saw its horn off, so that poachers won’t bother to kill it. A 2022 study determined that the overall size of rhino horns has shrunk over the last century, probably for the same reason that many elephants now have overall smaller tusks. Poachers are more likely to kill animals with big horns, which means animals with smaller horns are more likely to survive long enough to breed.

The species of rhinoceros alive today are native to Africa and Asia, but it used to be an animal found throughout Eurasia and North America. It’s one of the biggest animals alive today, but in the past, some rhinos were even bigger. We’ve talked about Elasmotherium before, which lived in parts of Eurasia as recently as 39,000 years ago. It had long legs and could probably gallop like a horse, but it was the size of a mammoth. It also probably had a single horn that grew in the middle of its forehead, which is why it’s sometimes called the Siberian unicorn.

We’ve also talked about Paraceratherium before. It was one of the biggest land mammals that ever lived, and while it didn’t have a horn, it was a type of rhinoceros. It lived in Eurasia between about 34 and 23 million years ago, and it probably stood about 16 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5 meters. The tallest giraffe ever measured was 19 feet tall, or 5.88 meters, at the top of its head. Paraceratherium had a long neck, possibly as much as eight feet long, or 2.5 meters, but it would have held its neck more or less horizontal most of the time. It spent its time eating leaves off of trees that most animals couldn’t reach, and when it raised its head to grab a particularly tasty leaf, it was definitely taller than the tallest giraffe, and taller than any other mammal known.

While rhinos are famous for their horns, not every rhinoceros ancestor had a horn. But because rhino horns are made of keratin and not bone, we don’t always know if an extinct species had a horn. Most of the time the horns rotted away without being preserved. We do know that some ancient rhinos had a pair of nose horns that grew side by side, that some had a single nose horn or forehead horn, that some had both a nose horn and a forehead horn, and that some definitely had no horns at all.

The rhinos alive today have either one or two horns. The Indian rhinoceros has one horn on its nose, and the closely related Javan rhino also only has one horn. The Sumatran rhino has two horns, as do the white rhino and the black rhino. Sometimes an individual rhino will develop an extra horn that grows behind the other horn or horns and is usually very small. This is extremely rare and seems to be due to a genetic anomaly. There are even reports of rhinos that have four horns, all in a row, but the extra ones, again, are very small.

Mia specifically wanted to learn about the black rhino. It and the white rhino are native to Africa. You might think that the white rhino is pale gray and the black rhino is dark gray, but that’s actually not the case. They’re both sort of a medium gray in color and they’re very closely related. It’s possible that the word “white” actually comes from the Dutch word for “wide,” referring to the animal’s wide mouth. The black rhino has a more pointed lip that looks a little bit like a beak.

One interesting thing about the black and white rhinos is that neither species has teeth in the front of its mouth. It uses its lips to grab plants instead of its front teeth, and then it uses its big molars to chew the plants. The white rhino mostly eats grass while the black rhino eats leaves and other plant material.

A big male black rhino can stand over 5 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.75 meters, and is up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It can weigh as much as 4,000 lbs, or 1,800 kg. This sounds huge and it is, but it’s actually smaller than the white rhino, which is the biggest rhino alive today. A big male white rhino can stand over 6 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2 meters, can be 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and can weigh up to 5,300 lbs, or 2,400 kg. These are really really big animals. Nothing much messes with the rhino because it’s so big and heavy, its skin is so tough, and it can do a lot of damage with its horn if it wants to. The rhino doesn’t see very well, but it has good hearing and a good sense of smell.

The nose horn is always the bigger one in species that have two horns, and in the black rhino it can grow quite long. One nose horn was measured as being over 4 1/2 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are only about 20 inches long, or 50 cm. The rear horn, which grows roughly over the eyes, is about half the length of the front horn, and is sometimes no more than a little bump. But some black rhinos found in South Africa have a rear horn that’s at least as long as the front horn, and sometimes longer, and that brings us to our mystery rhino.

A rhino with this trait is referred to as a keitloa, a word taken from the Tswana language spoken in the area. In the 19th century, the keitloa was referred to by European colonizers as the blue rhinoceros. The blue rhino wasn’t blue, but it was considered quite rare and different from the ordinary black rhino. It was supposed to be bigger and and even more solitary than the black rhino.

Until 1881, many scientists thought the keitloa was a separate species of rhino from the black rhino, which it otherwise resembled. In 1881, though, a study of black rhinos and blue rhinos determined that they were the same species. A century later, in 1987, scientists found that black rhinos with better access to water grew larger horns than black rhinos living in dryer areas.

There are a number of subspecies of black rhino recognized by scientists, some of them still alive today and some driven recently to extinction. Some people still think that the keitloa may be a separate subspecies of black rhino. That’s one of many reasons why it’s so important to protect all rhinoceroses and their habitats, so we can learn more about these amazing animals.

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

Thanks for listening!