Category Archives: fossils

Episode 283: Crocodylomorphs and Friends



Thanks to Max and Pranav for their suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some crocodylomorphs and a few other ancient non-dinosaur reptiles.

Further reading:

Mammal-like crocodile fossil found in East Africa, scientists report

Ancient crocodiles walked on two legs like dinosaurs

Fossil Footprints Help Uncover the Mysteries of Bipedal Crocodiles

Fossil mystery solved: super-long-necked reptiles lived in the ocean, not on land

Kaprosuchus had TEETH:

Anatosuchus earned its name “duck crocodile”:

Ancient bipedal croc footprints (picture taken from link above):

Tanystropheus had a super long neck:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time to learn about some prehistoric reptiles that aren’t dinosaurs. Most are crocodylomorphs, which Pranav suggested a while back, but not all. Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions this week! Max even made some clay models of two of these animals and sent me pictures, which was amazing! I have some really talented listeners.

Pranav and Max both wanted to know about kaprosuchus, also called the boar crocodile. The boar croc lived around 95 million years ago and probably grew nearly 20 feet long, or 6 meters, although all we know about it right now comes from a single nearly complete fossilized skull. The skull was found in Niger, a country in West Africa, and only described in 2009.

The boar croc gets its name from its teeth. It had lots of teeth, because it was a crocodyliform, although not actually an ancestral crocodile. It was related to modern crocs, though. Three sets of its teeth were especially long and large and projected out of its mouth much farther than ever found in any croc or croc relative, with one pair of teeth so big the upper jaw had little grooves for them to fit into so it could actually close its mouth. The teeth look like boar tusks, especially warthog tusks.

The boar croc also had some other differences from other croc relatives. The tip of its snout is unusually heavy, and some researchers think it might have had a keratin sheath over it. It might have used its heavy snout as a battering ram, possibly to stun prey before grabbing it with its huge teeth. It most likely hunted on land instead of in the water, since its eyes were lower on its head than crocs that hunt in water. Modern crocodiles and their relations mostly have eyes at the top of the head, which allows them to stay submerged except for their eyes. Whether it hunted in water or on land, though, the boar croc definitely killed and ate small dinosaurs, or maybe not so small dinosaurs.

The boar croc also had some horn-like projections on the back of its head. I don’t want to alarm you, because this animal went extinct millions and millions of years ago, but this thing was basically a dragon.

Anatosuchus was another crocodylomorph whose fossils have been found in Niger, but it’s much smaller and weirder than you’d expect. It was a tiny little thing, estimated to grow only a little more than 2 feet long, or 70 cm, and it was lightly built with relatively long legs for a croc relation, although it was still smaller than a cat. Its small teeth curve backwards but its snout has a little pointy projection at the front, although its head is broad and flat so that from above, its snout looks kind of like a duck’s bill. That’s why it’s sometimes called the duck crocodile. It lived around 145 million to 100 million years ago. Researchers think it may have waded in shallow water to catch small animals like fish and frogs, something like a heron.

Around 105 million years ago, another small croc relation lived in what is now Tanzania in East Africa. It was first discovered in 2008 and has been named Pakasuchus, which means cat crocodile. It was even smaller than the duck crocodile, only 20 inches long, or 50 cm, with long legs and a delicate build. The really weird thing, though, is its teeth. Unlike other crocodile relations and in fact unlike reptiles in general, it had teeth that were specialized for different functions. Its teeth looked like they belonged to a mammal. It had sharp teeth at the front of its short jaws and broader teeth in the back of its mouth that it used to chew its food. It was a terrestrial animal that would have been active and fast-moving. It probably ate insects and other small animals, but some researchers think it may have eaten plants.

There were definitely some croc relatives that were herbivorous, like the aetosaurs. Aetosaurs lived a little over 200 million years ago and were a successful group, with fossils found in Europe, India, Africa, and North and South America. They had osteoderms that are really common in the fossil record, so common that they’re used as index fossils to date fossil sites. If you’re not sure how old a layer of rock is, and you find some aetosaur osteoderms, you can be pretty certain you’re looking at the late Triassic. The osteoderms are flattened like big scales, and in fact when they were first discovered, people thought they were actually fish scales. Aetosaurs were probably terrestrial animals and most were either herbivorous or omnivorous, although at least one known species had the kind of teeth that indicate it hunted small animals.

A typical aetosaur had a small head and a bulky body with relatively small front legs but stronger hind legs. Its tail was long and tapering like a modern crocodile’s tail. It had lots of armor in the form of interlocking osteoderms, including armor on its belly and the underside of its tail. It might have looked like it had a carapace something like a weird reptilian armadillo. Depending on its species, our typical aetosaur may have also had spikes or spines on its back sort of like modern crocodiles have.

One species of aetosaur, Desmatosuchus spurensis, had massive shoulder spikes. Desmatosuchus grew almost 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, and was heavily armored, with a spike on each shoulder blade. The spikes curved up and out kind of like a bull’s horns, but instead of pointing forward, they pointed backwards. It also had smaller spikes down its sides, some of which pointed out, some up. The big shoulder spikes could be almost a foot long, or 28 cm.

If you look at Desmatosuchus’s skeleton, it looked like it must have been a dangerous animal, and this would have been true when it comes to worms and plants. Its head was small and ended in a shovel-like snout, probably covered in a keratin sheath like a turtle’s beak. Scientists think it probably used its snout to dig plants up from soft mud along waterways, and it would probably also eat any small animals it found in the mud too. It lived in groups and despite its size and all its spikes, it got eaten a lot by an even bigger reptile, Postosuchus.

Postosuchus wasn’t a dinosaur, and was in fact a crocodylomorph just like the other reptiles we’ve talked about so far, but it sure looked like a dinosaur in a lot of ways. Its front legs were about half the length of and not very strong compared to its hind legs, so it probably walked on its hind legs only. It also had an oversized claw on one of its toes that it probably used to slash at prey, while its big head had a mouth full of big, sharp teeth. In other words, it looked a lot like a theropod dinosaur and lived at about the same time as the first theropods.

Despite not being a dinosaur, Postosuchus was one of the biggest land animals around, growing up to about 23 feet long, or 7 meters, although it probably only stood about 4 feet high, or 1.2 meters. Its remains have only been found in North America.

Other bipedal croc relations have been found in Asia, though, specifically in South Korea where almost 100 beautifully preserved footprints have been found. The tracks are of hind feet only, and from their size, depth, and the length of stride, the animals were probably almost 10 feet long, or 3 meters, and had hind legs the length of an average adult human’s legs. The footprints are almost 9 ½ inches long, or 24 cm.

At first researchers thought the tracks belonged to giant pterosaurs, which were flying reptiles, and that the pterosaurs were walking on their hind legs so their wings would stay out of the mud. But the footprints are so well preserved that it was obvious they belonged to a crocodylomorph once paleontologists examined them closely. In fact, all footprints supposed to belong to pterosaurs walking on their hind legs have turned out to belong to bipedal croc relations. Pterosaurs had to use their wings as front legs when walking on the ground, like bats do but not like birds, and some crocs, which ordinarily walk on four legs, were walking on two. It’s topsy-turvy land!

The tracks in South Korea are dated to a little over 113 million years ago, which is something like 100 million years more recent than Postosuchus. Postosuchus went extinct around 201 million years ago, at the end of the Triassic. By the time the Korean croc relation was walking around, it was the middle of the Cretaceous and dinosaurs ruled the earth. Gondwana was breaking up, the climate was warm worldwide and sea levels were high, mammals were tiny and unimportant, and little birds were flying around along with gigantic pterosaurs like Quetzalcoatlus. Crocodile relations lived in the mid-Cretaceous, sure, but not bipedal ones…or so paleontologists thought.

All we have of these croc relations are their tracks. We don’t have any fossils so we don’t know what they looked like. Hopefully one day some fossils will come to light and paleontologists will be able to match them up with their footprints.

Max specifically asked about Titanoboa, a gigantic extinct snake that lived around 58 million years ago in what is now northern South America. We talked about Titanoboa in episode 197 but I was certain I could find some new information for this episode. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any new studies about Titanoboa published recently, so Max, I’m going to keep it on the suggestions list until I find some interesting new information to share.

Titanoboa is estimated to have grown as much as 42 feet long, or 13 meters, and it probably spent most of its time in the water, eating giant lungfish and other animals. But, to wrap things back around to crocodylomorphs, it probably also ate a croc relation called Cerrejonisuchus. Cerrejonisuchus had a short, narrow snout and probably ate lots of frogs, fish, and other small animals. It grew a little over 7 feet long, or 2.2 meters, which is small but respectable for a crocodile but nowhere near big enough to make Titanoboa think twice about eating it. It wasn’t even the biggest croc relation living in its river habitat. Acherontisuchus grew to an estimated 21 feet long, or almost 6.5 meters. It had a long snout and lots and lots of big teeth, and probably ate the same fish that Titanoboa also liked.

Let’s finish with a non-crocodylomorph ancient reptile, Tanystropheus, and two mysteries associated with it that science solved in 2020. Tanystropheus lived during the mid to late Triassic, around 240 million years ago, and its fossils have been found in parts of Europe, the Middle East, and in China. It grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but literally half its length was its incredibly long neck.

When the first Tanystropheus fossils were discovered in the 19th century, paleontologists didn’t know what it was. There were some long, thin bones associated with the skeleton and they thought those might be elongated finger bones. Tanystropheus was classified as a type of pterosaur. But as more and better fossils were discovered, it was obvious that this animal wasn’t flying anywhere. The finger bones were actually cervical ribs, rod-like structures that helped stabilize the long neck and keep it from bending very far.

Tanystropheus was reclassified as a long-necked reptile, but no one was sure if it lived in water or just around water. Even more confusing, fossils of smaller long-necked reptiles, only about 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters, started being found too. No one was sure if this was a different species or juvenile Tanystropheus specimens.

To solve the first mystery, a research team took CT scans of some complete but crushed Tanystropheus skulls and generated a 3D image, which allowed them to put the pieces together and examine an image of a complete, un-crushed skull.

The skull had nostrils at the top of its snout, indicating that it probably spent a lot of time in the water. Some researchers suggest it was an ambush predator in shallow water, resting on the bottom of the ocean with its long neck raised so its nostrils were just above the surface. When a fish or other animal swam by, it could grab it without needing to move more than its head. Since its body was chonky with short legs, it probably wasn’t a very fast mover.

Next, the team took cross sections of bones from the smaller long-necked reptile and examined them for growth rings. They found a lot of them, indicating that the animals weren’t juvenile Tanystropheus hydroides, they were adults of another species, which has been named Tanystropheus longobardicus. The two species also had differently shaped teeth, which suggests that they were eating different types of food.

Even though Tanystropheus’s neck was really long, it was also much lighter than the rear half of its body, which had strongly muscled hind legs. Some researchers think it swam by kicking its hind legs sort of like a gigantic frog’s. We have some fossilized trackways from a shallow marine environment that show paired prints from hind legs, but no front leg prints, which may be from a small species of Tanystropheus.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Tanystropheus, just as there’s a lot we don’t know about a lot of long-extinct animals. All we know for sure is that they were awesome.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 282: Little Longtailed Birds



Sign up for our mailing list!

Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of our long-tailed birds this week!

Happy birthday to Jasper!! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Fossil of Ancient Long-Tailed Bird Found in China

All adult scissor-tailed flycatchers have long tails:

The long-tailed sylph male is the one with the long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird male has a long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird female has a short tail:

The pin-tailed whydah male has a long tail:

A pin-tailed whydah baby (left) next to a common waxbill baby (right):

Kompsornis longicaudus had a really long tail:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This week is a short episode all about little birds with really long tails. The tails are longer than the episode. Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of the birds we talk about today!

But before we start learning about birds, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Jasper, who has the best name and who will hopefully have the best birthday to go along with it!

Let’s start with Elaine’s suggestion, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. I’m embarrassed to admit that Elaine suggested this bird way back in 2020, so it’s about time we talked about it.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher lives in south-central North America during the summer, especially Texas and Oklahoma, and migrates to parts of Mexico and Central America in winter. It’s pale gray with black and white wings and tail, and salmon pink markings on its sides and under its wings. It also has a really long tail. It gets the name scissor-tail because its tail is so long and forked that it’s sort of the shape of an open pair of scissors. The male’s tail is typically longer than the female’s, longer than the rest of its body. The bird is about the size of an average songbird, with a body length of about 5 inches, or 13 centimeters, but with a tail that can increase its overall length to over 14 inches, or 36 cm.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher prefers open areas like pastures and fields, where there’s lots of space but some brush, trees, or fences nearby to perch in. It mostly eats insects, but it will also eat berries, especially in winter. It’s related to kingbirds and pewees and will even hybridize with the western kingbird where their ranges overlap. Its long tail is partly for display, but mostly it helps the bird maneuver in midair as it chases insects, or hover in midair as it looks around for an insect to catch. It especially likes grasshoppers, and when it catches one, it will usually kill it before eating it by smashing it against a tree limb or other perch.

Another little bird with a long tail is the long-tailed sylph, which is a type of hummingbird! It lives on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in northwestern South America, mostly along forest edges, in gardens, grasslands, and other mostly open areas. It migrates to different parts of the mountains at different times of year to follow the flowering of its favorite plants. It’s larger than many species of hummingbird even if you don’t count the tail.

It eats nectar like other hummingbirds do, but also eats tiny insects and spiders. Its bill is black and not very long compared to most of its relations. Sometimes it will jab the tip of its bill straight through the base of a flower to get at the nectar, instead of inserting it into the flower like other hummingbirds do, and while it can hover, sometimes it perches to feed instead.

Both the male and female long-tailed sylph are a beautiful metallic blue and green in color, although the male is brighter and has purplish-brown wings. The female is about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, including her tail, and while the male is about the same size as the female, his tail is really long—up to 4.5 inches long, or 12 cm. His tail is forked like the scissor-tailed flycatcher’s, but unlike the flycatcher, the sylph’s tail makes it harder for the bird to fly. During breeding season the male attracts a mate by flying in a U-shaped pattern that shows off his tail and his flying ability.

The male long-tailed widowbird also attracts a mate with a flying display to show off his long tail. It lives in grasslands in a few parts of Africa, with the biggest population in South Africa. It forages in small flocks looking for seeds, and it also eats the occasional insect or spider. It’s a sparrow-like bird only about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, not counting its tail. The female is mostly brown with darker streaks and has a short tail. The male is black with red and white patches on the shoulders of his wings, called epaulets. His coloring, including the epaulets, is almost identical to that of a totally unrelated bird, the red-winged blackbird of North America, but he has something the blackbird doesn’t: a gigantically long tail.

The male widowbird’s tail is made up of twelve feathers, and about half of them grow up to 20 inches long. That’s nearly two feet long, or half a meter. Like the long-tailed sylph, the long-tailed widowbird’s tail actually makes it harder for him to fly. If it’s raining, he can’t fly at all. Fortunately for him, outside of the breeding season his tail is much shorter. During display flights, he spreads his tail feathers to show them off better and flies very slowly. Males with the longest tails attract the most females.

Similarly, the pin-tailed whydah is another little sparrow-like bird where the male grows a really long tail to attract females. It lives in grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, which just means south of the Sahara Desert. It mostly eats seeds.

During breeding season, the male is a striking pattern of black and white with a bright orangey-red bill and really long tail plumes. He’s about the size of the long-tailed widowbird but his tail grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The female is brown with darker streaks and looks a lot like a sparrow, although it’s not related to sparrows. To impress a female, the pin-tailed whydah will hover in place near her, showing off his long tail plumes and his flying ability.

A lot of whydah species grow long tails. A lot of whydahs are also brood parasites, including this one, meaning that instead of building a nest and taking care of her own eggs, the female sneaks in and lays her eggs in the nest of a different species of bird. Then she flies away, probably whistling to make her seem extra nonchalant, and leaves the other bird to take care of her eggs and the babies when they hatch. She mostly lays her eggs in the nests of various species of finch, and not only do her eggs resemble the finch’s eggs except that they’re bigger, the babies resemble finch babies when they hatch, except they’re bigger.

Specifically, the babies have a really specific gape pattern. When an adult bird approaches its nest, a baby bird will gape its mouth wide to beg for food. This prompts the parent bird to shove some food down into that mouth. The more likely a baby is to be noticed by its parent, the more likely it is to get extra food, so natural selection favors babies with striking patterns and bright colors inside their mouths. Many finches, especially ones called waxbills, have a specific pattern of black and white dots in their mouths that pretty much acts as a food runway. Insert food here. The whydah’s mouth gape pattern mimics the waxbill’s almost exactly. But as I said, the whydah chick is bigger, which means it can push the finch babies out of the way and end up with more food.

The pin-tailed whydah is a common bird and easily tamed, so people sometimes keep it as a pet. This is a problem when it’s brought to places where it isn’t a native bird, because it sometimes escapes or is set free by its owners. If enough of the birds are released in one area, they can become invasive species. This has happened with the pin-tailed whydah in many parts of the world, including parts of Portugal, Singapore, Puerto Rico, and most recently southern California. Since they’re brood parasites, they can negatively impact a lot of other bird species in a very short time. But a study released in 2020 about the California population found that they mostly parasitize the nests of a bird called the scaly-breasted munia, a species of waxbill from southern Asia that’s been introduced to other places, including southern California, where it’s also an invasive species. So I guess it could be worse.

There are lots of other birds with long tails we could talk about, way too many to fit into one episode, but let’s finish with an extinct bird, since that seems to be the theme lately. In May 2020, an ancient bird was described as Kompsornis longicaudus, and it lived 120 million years ago in what is now China. Its name means long-tailed elegant bird. It was bigger than the other birds we’ve talked about today, a little over two feet long, or 70 cm, but a lot of that length was tail.

Kompsornis is only known from a single fossil, but that fossil is amazing. Not only is it almost a complete skeleton, it’s articulated, meaning it was preserved with all the body parts together as they were in life, instead of the bones being jumbled up. That means we know a lot about it, including the fact that unlike other birds of the time, it didn’t appear to have any teeth. It also shows other features seen in modern birds but not always found in ancient birds, including a pronounced keel, which is where wing muscles attach. That indicates it was probably a strong flier. It also had a really long tail, but unlike modern birds its tail was bony like a lizard’s tail although it was covered with feathers.

During their study of Kompsornis, the research team compared it to other birds in the order Jeholornithiformes, which seem to be its closest relations. There were six species known, with Kompsornis making a seventh—except that during the study, the team discovered that one species was a fake! Dalianraptor was also only known from one fossil, and that fossil was of a different bird with the arms of a flightless theropod added in place of its missing wings. Send that fossil to fossil jail!

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 281: The Humpback Whale



Thanks to Clay for suggesting the topic of this week’s episode, the humpback whale!

Happy birthday to Emry!

Further reading:

How humpback whales catch prey with bubble nets

Study: Humpback whales aren’t learning their songs from one another

Stanford researchers observe unexpected flipper flapping in humpback whales

Ancient baleen whales had a mouthful

The humpback’s long, thin flippers help it maneuver:

Humpbacks are active, jumpy whales:

A humpback whale’s big mouth:

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Clay for suggesting this week’s topic, the humpback whale!

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday to Emry! I hope your birthday is so epic that in the future, when people look up birthday in the dictionary, your name is listed there.

I’m amazed we haven’t talked about the humpback whale before because when I was little, it was my favorite whale until I learned about the narwhal. Sorry, humpback, you’re now my second favorite whale.

The humpback is a baleen whale, specifically a rorqual, which is a group of related baleen whales. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the term rorqual before because I find it really hard to pronounce. Rorquals are long, slender whales with throat pleats that allow them to expand their mouths when they gulp water in. We talked about this in episode 211 about the fin whale, which is another rorqual. I’ll quote from that episode to explain again what the throat pleats are.

A baleen whale eats tiny animals that it filters out of the water through its baleen plates, which are keratin structures in its mouth that take the place of teeth. The baleen is tough but thin and hangs down from the upper jaw. It’s white and looks sort of like a bunch of bristles at the end of a broom. The whale opens its mouth wide while lunging forward or downward, which fills its huge mouth with astounding amounts of water. As water enters the mouth, the skin stretches to hold even more, until the grooves completely flatten out.

After the whale fills its mouth with water, it closes its jaws, pushing its enormous tongue up, and forces all that water out through the baleen. Any tiny animals like krill, copepods, small squid, small fish, and so on, get trapped in the baleen. It can then swallow all that food and open its mouth to do it again. This whole operation, from opening its mouth to swallowing its food, only takes six to ten seconds.

The humpback mostly eats tiny crustaceans called krill, and little fish. Since gulp feeding takes a lot of energy, finding a lot of food in a relatively small space is important to the whale. Many little fish that live in schools will form what are called bait balls when they feel threatened, where the fish swim closer together and keep moving around. Any given individual fish has a good chance of avoiding being eaten when behaving this way. Think about last week’s episode, where the spinner shark swims straight up through a bait ball, biting biting biting. It eats some fish, but most are fine. But a big filter feeder like the humpback can gulp a whole lot of fish at once, so it really likes bait balls.

To help maneuver prey animals into a small area, groups of humpbacks sometimes employ a strategy called bubble-net feeding. The whales will dive below the fish or krill and swim in a ring, blowing bubbles the whole time. The bubbles startle the animals, who move away from them. But since the bubbles are all around them, and the whales swim closer and closer together so that the ring of bubbles shrinks, eventually the fish or krill are all clustered in a small space as though they’re caught in a net. Then the whales open their mouths and gulp in lots of food. This is actually a simplified explanation of how bubble-net feeding works, which requires several different types of bubbles and various actions by the whales to make it work right.

The humpback is closely related to the fin whale and the blue whale. In episode 211 we learned that fin and blue whales sometimes interbreed and produce offspring, and in at least one case a marine biologist identified a whale that appeared to be the hybrid of a blue whale and a humpback.

The humpback grows up to 56 feet long, or 17 meters, with females being a little larger than males on average. It’s mostly black in color, with mottled white or gray markings underneath and on its flippers. Its flippers are long and narrow, which allows it to make sharp turns. It also has tubercles on its jaws and the fronts of its flippers which are probably sensory organs of some kind, since they contain nerves attached to a very thin hair in the middle that’s about an inch long at most, or almost 3 cm.

This is a good time to remind you that even though they look very different from other mammals, all whales are mammals. Mammals are warm-blooded animals that produce milk for their babies. Mammals also have hair, unless they don’t have hair, except that the humpback whale does have hairs in its tubercles. So there you go, humpback whales have hair.

Despite its huge size, the humpback is an active whale. It frequently breaches, meaning it rises up out of the water almost its full length, then crashes back down into the water with a huge splash. It also often slaps its flippers or its tail on the surface. Some researchers think these behaviors may have something to do with communication with other whales, or that the whale is trying to get rid of parasites, or that the whale is just having fun.

Humpback whales are famous for their elaborate songs, which are produced by males. The whales breed in winter, and the males start singing as winter gets closer, so the songs must have something to do with mating season. Scientists aren’t sure what, though. Females don’t seem to be very interested in individual males who are singing, but they will sometimes be attracted to a group of singing males. Some researchers suggest that singing might be a general call to attract all whales in the area to the breeding grounds. Then again, sometimes a male will interrupt another male who is singing and the two will fight.

The songs vary and new song elements can spread quickly through a population. Generally, researchers think males hear a new element and incorporate it into their own songs, but results of a study published in 2021 found that similar new song elements often show up in whales that could not have heard other whales sing it. This indicates that instead of copying other songs, each whale modifies his own song individually and sometimes the changes are similar. That’s just one study, though. It’s probable that the way males change their songs depends on many factors, only one of which is hearing and imitating other songs.

The study suggests that the way we think about whale songs might be wrong to start with. Researchers generally think that a whale probably sings for the same reasons that birds sing: to stake out a territory, to advertise to potential mates that it’s healthy enough to spend energy singing, and to warn rivals away. But because whales live in an environment so different from birds, and so different from what we as humans understand, it’s possible that whalesong carries meanings and intentions that we can’t interpret. A different study published in 2019 discovered that male humpbacks sometimes sing in feeding grounds, especially when a population of whales decides to overwinter at their feeding grounds instead of migrating, as sometimes happens.

What, precisely, a whale’s song means to other whales is something that only the whales know for sure. This is what a humpback song sounds like:

[humpback song]

Humpbacks make other sounds other than songs, though. Mothers and calves need to communicate so that the calves get the care they need and don’t stray too far away, but since any sounds could attract predators, they have to communicate very quietly. They make little grunting sounds to each other.

The main predator of the humpback whale is the orca, which will attack and kill calves and sometimes even adults. As a result, the humpback really does not like orcas. Humpbacks will sometimes protect seals and other animals from orca attacks.

Humpbacks migrate from their summer habitats in either the Antarctic or the Arctic, depending on what hemisphere they live in, to their winter breeding grounds in tropical waters. Then they return to colder waters in summer where there’s more food, since krill is a cold-water species. These migrations can be as long as 5,000 miles, or 8,000 kilometers. Unlike some animals that migrate in huge herds, humpbacks mostly travel in small groups that are often widely spaced.

The humpback was almost driven to extinction by commercial whaling, but after it was declared a protected species, its numbers have increased. It still has the same human-caused dangers that many other marine animals face, including habitat loss and water pollution, climate change, drowning after being entangled in nets, and noise pollution that can keep whales from communicating.

There’s always a lot we don’t know about any given species of whale, since whales are hard to study. For instance, a 2017 study discovered that humpbacks sometimes swim in a way never documented in whales before. Whales swim by flexing their massively powerful tails, and use their flippers to maneuver. Think of the tail as the engine of a car and the flippers as the power steering system. The humpback’s flippers are uniquely shaped, which as we mentioned earlier means it can maneuver skillfully, turning much more quickly than a great big whale would otherwise be able to turn. But in video studies of whales in the wild, very rarely a whale would flap its flippers like a bird flapping its wings—or, more accurately, like a seal or sea lion swimming with its flippers. The researchers who analyzed the videos suggest that the flapping is used for accelerating quickly, and because it takes a lot of energy, the whales don’t do it often. The researchers also think the humpback may be the only whale species that can accelerate using the motion of its flippers, since other whales have much smaller flippers relative to their size.

As far as we know, baleen whales don’t use sonar the way toothed whales do. Their songs and sounds are for communication, not navigation. But while humpbacks mostly hunt for food near the surface of the water where there’s plenty of light, they do occasionally dive deeper and hunt for food near the bottom. They especially like an eel-like fish called the sand lance, which spends a lot of time buried in the sand on the sea floor. In 2014, a study of humpbacks diving to find these fish indicated that when a whale dives alone, it remains silent, but when it dives to hunt with some friends, they communicate with a sound described as a tick-tock. Not the app, just a sound like the ticking of a clock. Sometimes more humpbacks come to join the whales when they hear their tick-tock sounds. But we still don’t know how the whales find the fish in the first place, since there’s no light for them to hunt by. It’s possible they can detect the fish’s chemical signature in the water when they’re close enough to one.

Baleen whales don’t have teeth, although when a baby whale is developing in its mother’s womb it does grow teeth. But at some point during its development, these embryonic teeth are reabsorbed and baleen plates form instead.

The extinct ancestors of modern baleen whales still had teeth. One genus was called Aetiocetus, which lived between about 34 and 23 million years ago in the north Pacific Ocean. It probably wasn’t directly related to modern whales, since baleen whales do actually appear in the fossil record before Aetiocetus. It was a small whale that probably only grew about 11 feet long, or 3.5 meters, although some species might have grown twice that length. The first Aetiocetus fossils were discovered in the 1960s and it was initially described as a toothed whale, since it had teeth.

But not everyone agreed. Aetiocetus showed some adaptations to filter feeding seen in modern baleen whales. For instance, its lower jaw bones weren’t fused at the chin end as they are in toothed whales. Modern baleen whales don’t have connected lower jaw bones, and in fact they have a sensory organ at that spot that scientists think helps the whale keep from engulfing too much water and hurting itself.

Recently, a team of scientists examined a CT image of a skull of Aetiocetus weltoni and discovered something surprising. Baleen is made of keratin, and keratin is only preserved in fossils very rarely, but in baleen whale fossils, the upper jawbones do show grooves where the baleen once connected. These grooves were present in the Aetiocetus skull, even though it also had teeth.

Researchers think Aetiocetus may have used its teeth to filter larger fish from the water the way some animals like crab-eater seals do today. Its teeth interlocked, which would allow it to trap fish in its mouth while pushing water out between its teeth. Its baleen probably helped catch smaller fish and other animals. The baleen was far enough away from the teeth that the whale would have still been able to bite at fish and other prey without accidentally biting its own baleen. But, as the researchers mention in their 2021 paper, Aetiocetus had a really crowded mouth.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 280: Lesser-Known Sharks



Thanks to Tobey and Janice this week for their suggestions of lesser-known sharks!

Further reading/watching:

CREATURE FEATURE: The Spinner Shark [this site has a great video of spinner sharks spinning up out of the water!]

Acanthorhachis, a new genus of shark from the Carboniferous (Westfalian) of Yorkshire, England

150 Year Old Fossil Mystery Solved [note: it is not actually solved]

The cartoon-eyed spurdog shark:

The spinner shark spinning out of the water:

The spinner shark not spinning (photo by Andy Murch):

A Listracanthus spine:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about three sharks you may have never heard of before! The first was suggested by my aunt Janice and the second by listener Tobey. The third is a mystery from the fossil record.

You may have heard about the findings of a study published in November of 2021, with headlines like “Venomous sharks invade the Thames!” My aunt Janice sent me a link to an article like this. Nobody is invading anything, though. The sharks belong where they are. It was their absence for decades that was a problem, and the study discovered that they’re back.

The Thames is a big river in southern England that empties into the North Sea near London. Because it flows through such a huge city, it’s pretty badly polluted despite attempts in the last few decades to clean it up. It was so polluted by the 1950s, in fact, that it was declared biologically dead. But after a lot of effort by conservationists, fish and other animals have moved back into the river and lots of birds now visit it too. It also doesn’t smell as bad as it used to. One of the fish now found again in the Thames is a small shark called the spurdog, or spiny dogfish.

The spurdog lives in many parts of the world, mostly in shallow water just off the coast, although it’s been found in deep water too. A big female can grow almost three feet long, or 85 cm, while males are smaller. It’s a bottom dweller that eats whatever animals it finds on the sea floor, including crabs, sea cucumbers, and shrimp, and it will also eat jellyfish, squid, and fish when it can catch them. It’s even been known to hunt in packs.

It’s gray-brown in color with little white spots, and it has large eyes that kind of look like the eyes of a cartoon shark. It also has a spine in front of each of its two dorsal fins, which can inject venom into potential predators. The venom isn’t deadly to humans but would definitely hurt, so please don’t try to pet a spurdog shark. If the shark feels threatened, it curls its body around into a sort of shark donut shape, which allows it to jab its spines into whatever is trying to grab it.

The spurdog used to be really common, and was an important food for many people. But so many of them were and are caught to be ground into fertilizer or used in pet food that they’re now considered vulnerable worldwide and critically endangered around Europe, where their numbers have dropped by 95% in the last few decades. It’s now a protected species in many areas.

The female spurdog retains her fertilized eggs in her body like a lot of sharks do. The eggs hatch inside her and the babies develop further before she gives birth to them and they swim off on their own. It takes up to two years before a pup is ready to be born, and females don’t reach maturity until they’re around 16 years old, so it’s going to take a long time for the species to bounce back from nearly being wiped out. Fortunately, the spurdog can live almost 70 years and possibly longer, if it’s not killed and ground up to fertilize someone’s lawn. The sharks like to give birth in shallow water around the mouths of rivers, where the water is well oxygenated and there’s lots of small food for their babies to eat, which is why they’ve moved back into the Thames.

Next, Tobey suggested we talk about the spinner shark. It’s much bigger than the spurdog, sometimes growing as much as 10 feet long, or 3 meters. It lives in warm, shallow coastal water throughout much of the world. It has a pointy snout and is brown-gray with black tips on its tail and fins, and in fact it looks so much like the blacktip shark that it can be hard to tell the two species apart unless you get a really good look. It and the blacktip shark also share a unique feeding strategy that gives the spinner shark its name.

The shark eats a lot of fish, especially small fish that live in schools. When the spinner shark comes across a school of fish, it swims beneath it, then upward quickly through the school. As it swims it spins around and around like an American football, but unlike a football it bites and swallows fish as it goes. It can move so fast that it often shoots right out of the water, still spinning, up to 20 feet, or 6 meters, before falling back into the ocean. The blacktip shark sometimes does this too, but the spinner shark is an expert at this maneuver.

There’s a link in the show notes to a page where you can watch a video of spinner sharks spinning out of the water and flopping back down. It’s amazing and hilarious. Tobey mentioned that the spinner shark is an acrobatic shark, and it certainly is! It’s like a ballet dancer or figure skater, but with a lot more teeth. And fewer legs.

Because spinner sharks mainly eat fish, along with cephalopods, they almost never attack humans because they don’t consider humans to be food. Humans consider the spinner shark food, though, and they’re listed as vulnerable due to overhunting and habitat loss.

We’ll finish with a mystery shark. I’ve had Listracanthus on my ideas list for a couple of years, hoping that new information would come to light, but let’s go ahead and talk about it now. It’s too awesome to wait any longer.

We know very little about Listracanthus even though it was around for at least 75 million years, since it’s an early shark or shark relative with a cartilaginous skeleton. Cartilage doesn’t fossilize very well compared to bone, so we don’t have much of an idea of what the shark looked like. What we do have are spines that grew all over the fish and that probably made it look like it was covered with bristles or even weird feathers. The spines are a type of denticle that could be up to 4 inches long, or 10 cm. They weren’t just spines, though. They were spines that had smaller spines growing from their sides, sort of like a feather has a main shaft with smaller shafts growing from the sides.

The spines are fairly common in the fossil record from parts of North America, dating from about 326 million years ago to about 251 million years ago. Listracanthus was closely related to another spiny shark-like fish, Acanthorhachis, whose spines have been found in parts of Europe and who lived around 310 million years ago, but whose spines are less than 3 inches long at most, or 7 cm.

Some researchers think the spines were only present on parts of the shark, maybe just the head or down the back, but others think the sharks were covered with the spines. Many times, lots and lots of the spines are found together and probably belong to a single individual whose body didn’t fossilize, only its spines. Some researchers even think that the flattened denticles from a shark or shark relation called Petrodus, which is found in the same areas at the same times as Listracanthus, might actually be Listracanthus belly denticles.

The spines probably pointed backwards toward the tail, which would reduce drag as the fish swam, and they might have been for display or for protection from predators, or of course both. The main parts of the spine were also hollow and there’s evidence there were capillaries inside, so they might have had a chemosensory or electrosensory function too.

Modern sharks have denticles that make their skin rough, sort of like sandpaper. One modern shark, the sandy dogfish, Scyliorhinus canicula, which is common in shallow water off the coasts of western Europe and northern Africa, and in the Mediterranean, has especially rough denticles on its tail. They aren’t precisely spines, but they’re more than just little rough patches. The sandy dogfish is a small, slender shark that barely grows more than about three feet long, or about a meter, and it eats anything it can catch. Young dogfish especially like small crustaceans, and sometimes they catch an animal that’s too big to swallow whole. In that case, the shark sticks the animal on the denticles near its tail, which anchors it in place so it can tear bite-sized pieces off. Some other sharks do this too, so it’s possible that Listracanthus and its relations may have used its spines for similar behavior.

We don’t know much about these sharks because all we have are their spines. Only one probable specimen has been found, by a paleontologist named Rainer Zangerl. Dr. Zangerl found the remains of an eel-like shark in Indiana that was covered in spines, but unfortunately as the rock dried out after being uncovered, the fossil literally disintegrated into dust.

In August of 2019, a fossil hunter posted on an online forum for fossil enthusiasts to say he’d found a Listracanthus specimen. He posted pictures, although since the fossil hasn’t been prepared it isn’t much to look at. It’s just an undulating bump down a piece of shale that kind of looks like a dead snake. Fortunately, the man in question, who goes by RCFossils, knew instantly what he’d found. He also knew better than to try to clean it up himself. Instead, he’s been working on trying to find a professional interested in taking the project on. In May of 2022 he posted again to say he’d managed to get an X-ray of the fossil, which shows a backbone but no sign of a skull. He’s having trouble finding anyone who has the time and interest in studying the fossil, but hopefully he’ll find someone soon and we’ll all learn more about this mysterious pointy shark.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 279: Mean Piggies



Thanks to Molly for suggesting andrewsarchus and entelodont, our mean “piggies” we learn about this week!

Further reading:

Andrewsarchus, “Superb Skull of a Gigantic Beast”

Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman

Further listening:

The Folklore Podcast

Andrewsarchus (taken from article linked above):

Andrewsarchus’s skull. I’m not sure who the guy holding it is, but I like to think his name is Andrew:

Entelodont:

Show transcript:

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

I’m getting really backed up on listener suggestions, so over the next few months I plan to cover as many of them as possible. We’ll start with two suggestions by Molly, who wanted to learn about Andrewsarchus and the related Entelodont. We talked about entelodonts briefly back in episode 116, and if you remember that episode, you may remember that entelodonts are sometimes referred to as the terminator pig or the hell pig. So yes, we are going to learn about some mean piggies this week, with a bonus fun mystery piggy at the end.

Andrewsarchus mongoliensis lived in what is now central Asia about 42 million years ago. It’s only known from a single skull found in 1923 in Inner Mongolia, which is part of China these days. The skull has a long snout and is big and wide, over 2.5 feet long, or 83 cm. It has huge, strong teeth that look ferocious.

When the skull was first found, some paleontologists on the team thought it was from a huge wolf-like carnivore. But others weren’t so sure. They thought it was the skull of a pig relative, and pigs are omnivores. Without more fossil remains, we can’t know for sure what Andrewsarchus’s body looked like, but these days scientists mostly think it was closely related to entelodonts.

Despite being called the terminator pig, entelodonts weren’t very closely related to pigs, although they and Andrewsarchus are in the order Artiodactyla. That’s the order that includes all even-toed hoofed mammals and their close relations, including pigs, but also including hippos and whales. Hippos and whales are actually pretty closely related, and entelodonts and Andrewsarchus were more closely related to hippos than to pigs.

Daeodon [DIE-oh-don] was the biggest entelodont known, and it may have stood up to 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or just over 2 meters. It lived in North America, but there was another species from Eurasia, Paraentelodon intermedium, that was probably close to the same size. Both lived about 22 million years ago.

Entelodonts had big, wide skulls with flared cheekbones and knob-like bony protrusions, so its head may have looked something like a warthog’s head. It also had cloven hooves. We don’t know if Andrewsarchus had hooves since we haven’t found anything but that one huge skull. The larger species of Entelodont had a humped shoulder something like a bison for the attachment of strong neck muscles to support the head’s weight, and Andrewsarchus probably had this too. The rest of the body was much more lightly built, with short, slender legs and a skinny little tail.

Even though Entelodont teeth are fearsome-looking, and at least some species of Entelodont were probably active hunters, they’re considered omnivores and Andrewsarchus probably was too. In fact, because Andrewsarchus was found on what was once a beach along the ocean, some researchers think it might have used its big forward-pointing front teeth to dig shellfish out of the sand. Most likely it ate pretty much anything it could find or catch, including shellfish, turtles, and other small animals, carrion, and plant material like fruit, nuts, and roots.

The teeth of some entelodont species show wear marks that indicate it probably bit through bones pretty frequently, possibly while scavenging already dead animals but possibly also when killing prey. One fossil skull of a herbivorous artiodactyl that lived in North America was found with an entelodont incisor embedded in it.

On the other hand, we have a set of fossil tracks in Nebraska, in the United States, that shows the behavior of what may have been an entelodont called Archaeotherium. Archaeotherium lived around 30 million years ago and grew up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters, although most specimens found were closer to 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. The fossil tracks are from three animals: a type of rhinoceros, a predator of some kind, possibly the hyena-like Hyaenodon, and a species of Archaeotherium. The rhinoceros tracks show that it was walking along, then suddenly took off at a run. The Hyaenodon tracks are nearby and possibly indicate pursuit of the rhino, or it might have just happened to be nearby and frightened the rhino. The Archaeotherium tracks, meanwhile, zigzag back and forth. What on earth is going on with that?

Entelodonts had a very good sense of smell, much like pigs do, and walking in a zigzag pattern would allow Archaeotherium to smell things more efficiently. Some researchers suggest it might have been keeping an eye on the rhino hunt, and that if the Hyaenodon managed to bring down its prey, Archaeotherium might have decided to chase Hyaenodon away from its kill. It might also have been waiting for one or both animals to become tired, and then it could attack. Then again, it might just have been looking for some yummy fruit to eat. While some places online will tell you Archaeotherium was hunting the rhino, that’s not what the tracks indicate.

Entelodonts could open their mouths really, really wide. If you’ve ever seen a hippo with its humongous mouth open, that’s what we’re talking about here. Male hippos sometimes fight by jaw-wrestling each other, and researchers think entelodonts might have done something similar. A lot of entelodont skulls show healed puncture wounds in places consistent with jaw-wrestling. The knobby protrusions on its skull might have been an adaptation to this behavior, with thickened skin over them to keep a rival’s teeth from biting too deeply. This is the case with some pigs with similar skull protrusions, which we talked about in episode 128. The head bite wounds are only seen in adult animals, and younger animals didn’t have the massive cheek and jaw muscles seen in adults.

The big question is whether Andrewsarchus was actually an entelodont or just closely related to the entelodonts. That’s the same thing paleontologists have been discussing for the last century. Until we find more Andrewsarchus fossils, though, there’s only so much we can determine about the animal, including how similar it was to the entelodonts. For instance, while entelodonts did have cloven hooves, the two halves of the hoof could spread apart like fingers, which is similar to the way camel feet are structured. This would have helped it walk on soft ground, like sand or mud. If Andrewsarchus turns out to have similar feet, it was probably an entelodont.

Finding more Andrewsarchus remains will allow us to get a good idea of how big it could grow, too. Estimates based on the same proportions seen in entelodonts suggest it might have stood about 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters.

As we’ve established, entelodonts and Andrewsarchus weren’t actually pigs, although they probably looked a lot like weird oversized warthogs with some features seen in wild boars. There’s no evidence they had a pig-like snout, called a nasal disk, which is flattened at the end. Entelodonts had nostrils on the sides of the snout, something like a horse’s nostrils.

But let’s finish with an actual pig, the mystery of the sewer pig. I got this information from a fantastic book called Dark Folklore by Mark and Tracey Norman, and I read the book because I listen to The Folklore Podcast, which is by folklorist Mark Norman, although I think Tracey Norman helps out with it too. I’ll just quote from the book, and definitely check the show notes for a link if you want to order your own copy.

“Foreshadowing the 1980s panic about baby alligators being taken home as pets and subsequently flushed down the toilet into the sewer system of New York, 1859 London was overtaken by a panic about the Sewer Pigs of Hampstead.

“The sewer pigs were thought to be a monstrous porcine family living entirely below ground in the London sewer system, and even featured in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. A sow had apparently become trapped, it was said, and had given birth to a litter of piglets, the entire family living off the rubbish that accumulated in the sewers and producing litter after litter. The population lived in fear of these terrible creatures escaping from the sewer system and running riot throughout London.

“Obviously, there is nothing within a sewer system that would sustain a pig, let alone a number of them. The fear connected to this particular urban legend is disease and it arose after the hot summer of 1858 caused a devastating outbreak of typhoid and cholera in the city. Unsurprisingly, there has never been any evidence of pigs in London’s sewers, monstrous, lost or otherwise.”

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 277: Rewilding Scotland



This week is Caitie Sith and Dave’s episode! They want to learn about animals reintroduced to Scotland, especially the Highland wildcat!

The Scottish (or Highland) wildcat:

The Eurasian lynx:

The Eurasian beaver (with babies!):

The white-tailed eagle:

Reindeer in Scotland:

The pine marten:

Show transcript:

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

This week is Caitie Sith and Dave’s episode, where we’ll learn about the re-wilding of Scotland! Re-wilding is the process of restoring an ecosystem to its natural state, basically reversing habitat loss. Most of the time there’s a lot more to it than just reintroducing native animals, but sometimes that’s all that’s required.

Scotland is a part of the island of Great Britain, north of England. People have lived there since the last glaciers melted at the end of the Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene and a few thousand years after the glaciers melted, Scotland was connected to Europe by a lot of marshy land where today there’s ocean, and naturally many animals lived in Scotland that were also found in Europe at the time. Some of the ice age megafauna that lived in Scotland included the woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, bison, aurochs, wild boar, saiga antelope, giant deer, red deer, reindeer, moose, wild horse, beaver, walrus, Polar bear, brown bear, lynx, wolf, Arctic fox, and cave lion. Many fossil and subfossil remains of Pleistocene animals were destroyed by the formation and movement of thick glacier ice, which scoured the land down to bedrock in many places, so those are only the animals we know for sure lived in Scotland.

But Scotland wasn’t covered by glaciers all the time. The Pleistocene wasn’t a single ice age but a series of cold events interspersed with warming trends. During these interglacial periods, which lasted some 10- to 15,000 years at a time, animals would move to Scotland from other places or become more numerous than before. Then the climate would start cooling again, glaciers would slowly form over many years, and animals would move to areas where there was more food. This happened repeatedly over a period of more than 2.5 million years.

In other words, while we have some fossils of Pleistocene animals that once lived in Scotland, we don’t have nearly as many as have been found in England, Ireland, and Wales. But what we do know is that Scotland was once teeming with all kinds of animals we’d never associate with the country today, like cave lions and Polar bears!

Much of the ice age megafauna went extinct around 12,000 years ago when the last glaciers melted and the climate started warming. Cold-adapted animals couldn’t always survive in a warmer climate, not to mention that as the climate changed, the types of plants available to eat changed too. Some animals migrated away or went extinct, while some were able to stay in Scotland successfully. This included the red deer, reindeer, wild boar, walrus, brown bear, and lynx.

If you’re wondering why that list is full of animals that don’t actually live in Scotland these days, like the brown bear and lynx, it’s because humans hunted many of the native Scottish animals to extinction. Others went extinct due to habitat loss or competition with introduced animals. Many surviving species are endangered today for the same reasons.

For example, the Scottish wildcat, also called the Highland wildcat. We talked about it briefly in episode 52 way back in early 2018. One of the animals that migrated to Scotland after the Pleistocene, but before sea levels rose and cut the British Isles off from Europe, was the European wildcat. The Scottish population has been separated from the European population for at least 7,000 years, and some researchers think it should be classified as a subspecies of European wildcat.

The Scottish wildcat is a little larger than a domestic cat and is always tabby striped. It has a bushy tail with a black tip, a striped face and legs, never any white markings, and is usually dark in color with black paws. It’s a solitary animal that mostly lives in woodlands, where it eats mice, voles, and other rodents, rabbits, and birds. It used to be common throughout much of the British Isles, but these days it’s only found in parts of Scotland.

You’d think people would be excited to have a genuine wildcat living in their country, since wildcats are pretty awesome and eat animals that can damage crops. But for some reason, until recently people thought these wildcats were pests and would shoot them on sight. Some people thought the wildcats were killing game birds, which is rare, or that they were dangerous, which isn’t true. At the same time, the people shooting wildcats were letting their domestic cats roam freely, which has caused an even bigger problem to wildcats than getting shot at.

Like other wildcat species, the Scottish wildcat can and will cross-breed with domestic cats. The resulting kittens are fertile, meaning they can have babies with either wildcats or domestic cats. Kittens are great, of course, but domestic cats are a different species from wildcats. Hybrid cats are less suited to live in the wild, but too wild to be good pets, and if too many domestic cats breed with wildcats, soon there won’t be any real wildcats left. Not only that, domestic cats carry diseases that wildcats can catch.

The Scottish wildcat is a protected species these days, with conservation efforts in place to keep the wildcats and their habitat as safe as possible. One important step is to encourage people to get their domestic cats neutered. This is healthier for pet cats anyway and will help keep tomcats from spraying and fighting, and of course it stops them from having kittens with wildcats.

Another felid that once lived in Scotland is the Eurasian lynx. It still lives in parts of Asia and Europe, but it went extinct in Scotland several hundred years ago, mainly due to deforestation and hunting for its fur. It’s about 28 inches tall at the shoulder, or 70 cm, and is a heavily built animal with thick spotted fur and a short bobtail. The tip of its tail is black although the rest of the animal is mostly tan or brown with darker brown spots, and it has long black tufts of fur on the tips of its ears. It’s slightly bigger than the related Canadian lynx.

Conservationists have wanted to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to Scotland for years. Since the lynx is threatened in the rest of its range by habitat loss and hunting, reintroducing it to its former range in Scotland would help it and the ecosystem in general. With no large predators to keep their numbers in check, the population of roe deer in Scotland is too high to be healthy, and the lynx loves to eat roe deer.

Some people worry that if the lynx is reintroduced to Scotland, it will be dangerous to humans and livestock. But the lynx is a shy, solitary animal that avoids humans as much as possible. There are enough roe deer alone to sustain a population of over 400 lynxes in the wilder parts of Scotland, especially in the Highlands. The lynx also spends almost all of its time in forests and doesn’t like open pastures. It’s been successfully reintroduced to its former range in other countries, with a nice side effect being increased tourism to national parks where it’s now found.

Scotland also used to have beavers, which were hunted to extinction in the 16th or 17th century. Then, in 2009, the Eurasian beaver was reintroduced to parts of Scotland and is doing great! There are more than 1,000 beavers living in Scotland now. Beavers are considered a keystone species, a term we haven’t really examined on the podcast before, but it means that an animal is so important to an ecosystem that if it goes extinct in an area, the ecosystem sort of falls apart and many other animals go locally extinct soon after.

Beaver ponds create a winter habitat for many types of fish, and beaver dams don’t stop fish like salmon that migrate upriver to spawn. The dams help reduce flooding, improve water quality, and create cover for lots of fish and other animals.

Naturally, though, some people complain about the beavers, because there will always be someone who complains about anything. Some people think beavers eat fish and will eat up all the fish that humans want to catch. Beavers actually don’t eat fish at all, they only eat plant material. Some people think beavers carry the giardia parasite, which causes a bacterial infection sometimes called beaver fever that’s spread in water, but giardia is actually mostly spread by domestic dogs. Some people complain that beavers fell trees and build ponds, and both these things are true. But the beaver is just doing what it’s supposed to do, and as we just learned, this tree felling and pond-making are good for the environment—unlike humans, who chop down lots of trees and make artificial ponds when landscaping, while simultaneously draining wetlands, which doesn’t help the local environment at all. Besides, the beavers are cute and attract tourists who want to get pictures of them, which is also good for the local economy. Everybody wins when there are beavers around, is what I’m trying to say.

The beavers reintroduced in 2009 aren’t the only beavers in Scotland. In 2001, people started seeing them around the river Tay—but no one knew where they came from. Well, presumably someone knew, because the beavers didn’t get there without help. If this reminds you of episode 48, where we talked about some mystery beavers that appeared in Devon, England, the Devon beavers showed up in 2013, twelve years after the Scottish mystery beavers. At first the Scottish government planned to capture the Tayside beavers and keep them in captivity, but the beavers are still there and doing very well.

It’s great that over a thousand beavers live in Scotland now, but that’s actually not very many. Still, it’s a whole lot better than the number of Eurasian beavers about 150 years ago, when researchers think there may have been as few as 300 individuals alive in the whole world.

Another animal that once lived in Scotland, was hunted to extinction, and then mysteriously reappeared recently is the wild boar. They first appeared in the 1990s and by now there are thousands of them in Scotland. It’s possible they escaped from farms, where they’re sometimes raised for meat like domestic pigs. While they’re a native species, they don’t have any predators in Scotland and are causing a lot of damage as they become more numerous. The wild boar’s natural predator is the wolf, and the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1743. Lynxes will also kill wild boar piglets.

Some birds have been reintroduced to Scotland too. The white-tailed eagle is a type of sea eagle, closely related to the bald eagle of North America although it’s slightly larger than the bald eagle. The biggest ever reliably measured was a specimen from Greenland with a wingspan of 8 feet 4 inches across, or 2.53 meters, just a smidge larger than the largest bald eagle wingspan known. It’s mostly brown and gray with a yellow bill and feet, and a white tail. It lives around water and eats a lot of fish, but it also eats lots of carrion, gulls and other birds, and occasionally small mammals like rabbits. It always lives near water but it prefers wooded areas, especially lowlands and forested islands.

The white-tailed eagle went extinct throughout Britain in the early 20th century when people decided they wanted all those fish the eagle eats for themselves. Never mind that even a thousand eagles couldn’t eat as many fish that a single commercial fishing boat catches in a day. People also decided that eagles killed lambs, even though this is extremely rare. White-tailed eagles would much rather eat fish and seagulls than lamb. The last white-tailed eagles in Scotland were shot and killed in 1916.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, white-tailed eagles were also killed throughout the rest of their range and were especially vulnerable to the chemical called DDT. DDT was a popular pesticide developed in the 1950s and used to kill insects on crops and gardens. But DDT is dangerous, because like other pesticides it doesn’t just do its job and evaporate. It stays in the environment and ends up in the bodies of animals, including people. It’s especially bad for birds that eat a lot of fish, since a lot of pesticides end up in the water, and it causes their eggshells to become so thin and weak that the eggs break when the mother tries to keep them warm. This is the same thing that almost drove the bald eagle to extinction in North America. By the time DDT use was banned in many countries and the white-tailed eagle was declared a protected species, it was almost too late.

Conservation efforts have helped stop the white-tailed eagle from going extinct and its numbers are slowly growing. Starting in 1975, young eagles were brought from Norway to Scotland, where they were successfully reintroduced in the inner Hebrides islands and have now expanded to other parts of Scotland. Some people still complain about the eagles and sometimes shoot or poison them even though it’s illegal, but most people are happy to have them around, especially birdwatchers.

Scotland even has some reindeer these days. Reindeer probably lived in Scotland until around the 12th century, and in 1952 a Swiss herdsman thought they should still be there. He brought a small herd to the Cairngorm mountains, which is now a national park. The reindeer are semi-domesticated but roam free, and they attract tourists who hope to catch a glimpse of them.

At the same time that many native animals have gone extinct, lots of non-native animals have been introduced to Scotland, including wallabies, American mink, gray squirrels, various species of crayfish, and many more. Conservationists are working to minimize the damage these introduced species cause. Many invasive species were animals kept as pets that either escaped or were released into the wild. We talked about the invasive eastern gray squirrel versus the native red squirrel in episode 241, for instance. People released gray squirrels into parks in England because they were so cute, and a hundred years later, the gray squirrels are taking over in many places. They’re increasingly common in Scotland, although Scotland has a small predator called the pine marten that loves to eat squirrels.

The pine marten is a type of mustelid, or weasel relative, that’s common throughout much of Europe and Asia. It grows about two and a half feet long, or 75 cm, including its bushy tail. It mostly lives in wooded areas and spends a lot of its time in trees, hunting squirrels and other small animals like frogs, insects, and birds. It will also eat carrion, bird eggs, and sometimes fruit. It’s mostly brown with a cream-colored throat. It even has partially retractable claws like a cat to help it climb trees, although it’s not related to the cat.

The pine marten is especially good at catching squirrels, and it tends to target the gray squirrel because it’s easier to catch. The red squirrel is more cautious. Where there are pine martens, there are fewer or no gray squirrels. The problem is, the pine marten is considered a pest that kills game birds, so some people shoot or poison it even though it’s a protected species. Then those same people complain about all the gray squirrels around. The pine marten is doing well in many parts of Scotland, though, and has even expanded its range slightly in the last few years.

Scotland is a beautiful country known for its wild and rugged countryside. It wouldn’t take much to rewild it properly, a process that’s well underway with keystone species like beavers already re-established in many places. The main problem is people who don’t understand that a healthy ecosystem requires predators. Without lynxes, wolves, bears, and other large predators, animals like roe deer and wild boar become so numerous that they can’t find enough to eat and either starve or destroy crops and gardens.

Fortunately, many more people in Scotland do understand the importance of building healthy ecosystems. After all, they’re naturally proud of where they live and want to make it even better.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 276: Hominins and Art



It’s Nicholas’s episode this week, and Nicholas wants to learn more about hominins, the ancestors and cousins of modern humans!

Happy birthday to Autumn! I hope you have a great birthday!

Further listening:

Humans Part One

Further reading:

Were Neanderthals the Earliest Cave Artists?

Neanderthals Built Mysterious Stone Circles

DNA reveals first look at enigmatic human relative

What does it mean to have Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA?

Hand and footprint art dates to mid-Ice Age

Risky food-finding strategy could be the key to human success

A stone circle in a cave was probably built by Neandertals:

A deer bone with carving on it probably made by Neandertals:

Some cave paintings probably made by Neandertals:

Show transcript:

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

This week is Nicholas’s episode! Nicholas wanted an updated episode about hominins, our ancient ancestors or species closely related to modern humans. The last time we talked about hominins was way back in episodes 25 and 26, so it’s definitely time to revisit the topic.

But first, a big birthday shout-out to Autumn! Happy birthday, Autumn, and I hope you have the best birthday so far!

If you haven’t listened to episode 25 in a while, or ever, I recommend you go back and give it a listen if you want background information about how humans evolved and our closest extinct relatives, Neandertals and Denisovans. I’ve transcribed that episode finally, so you can read the episode instead of listen to it if you prefer. There’s a link in the show notes.

Results of a study published in January 2022 in the journal Nature has finally dated the oldest known Homo sapiens remains found so far. The remains were found in Ethiopia in the 1960s but the volcanic ash found over them was too fine-grained to date with any certainty. Finally, though, the eruption has been determined to come from a volcano almost 250 miles, or 400 km, away from the remains. The Shala eruption was enormous and took place 230,000 years ago, so since the remains were found below the ash, the person had to have lived at least 230,000 years ago too.

We’re still learning more about humans and our closest relations because new hominin fossils are being found and studied all the time. But the fossil record doesn’t tell the whole story. Only a small percentage of bones ever fossilize, and of those, only a tiny fraction are ever found by scientists. But technological advances in genetic testing means that scientists can now extract DNA from the soil. All animals shed fragments of DNA all the time, from skin cells and hairs to poop. A study published in 2021 was able to isolate Neandertal DNA from sediments in three different caves. The DNA matched the known fossils found at the sites and gave more information besides. Instead of being restricted to a single individual whose bones were found and tested, genetic testing of sediments gives genetic information about lots of individuals. In the case of a cave in northern Spain, where lots of stone tools have been found but only a single Neandertal toe bone, it turns out that two different populations of Neandertal had lived in the cave over 100,000 years ago.

In episode 25, I mentioned that Neandertals didn’t seem to make things the way humans do, especially art. Some researchers even suggest that they couldn’t think symbolically the way humans do. But in the five years or so since that episode, we’ve learned a lot more about Neandertals–and they seem to have been pretty artistic after all.

The main problem is that historically, whenever scientists found rock art or carvings from prehistoric times, they assumed humans made it. We might be a little biased. Some art originally thought to be made by humans is now thought to have been made by Neandertals. Most of it is found in caves. Remains of animals are often found in caves because the cave protects them from weather and other factors that can destroy them, and the same is true for archaeological remains.

In 1990, a team of cavers dug into a narrow collapsed cave entrance and entered Bruniquel Cave in southwest France that no human—in fact, no animal from the surface world—had entered since the entrance collapsed during the Pleistocene. That was at least 24,000 years ago and probably much, much longer.

The cavers found the bones of long-extinct Pleistocene megafauna near the entrance, including cave bears. But it wasn’t until they reached a chamber deeper inside the cave that they made a stupendous discovery.

The chamber held a big stone circle made of broken-off pieces of stalactite and stalagmite and other rock formations. The pieces are all about the same size and are arranged in a circle almost 22 feet across, or 6.7 meters. There’s a smaller semicircle in the chamber too and heaps of more stone pieces. Some of the stones show signs of fires being lit on top of them, and a piece of burnt bone from a bear or other large animal was found near the semicircle.

The cavers alerted local scientists, who came to investigate. At first they thought the structures had been built by early humans. They took samples for testing, and that’s when they got another shock. The burnt bone, the fire residue, and the minerals growing over both revealed an age long before 40,000 years ago, which is when humans first moved into the area. The stone circle was built 176,000 years ago. And the only hominin known to live in Europe that long ago was the Neandertal.

We don’t know what Neandertals used the stone circles for. It might have been a living space, but it might have been religious in nature instead. Either way, it shows that even that long ago, Neandertals had full control over fire to the point that they could make light sources to find their way deep into a cave, and had the curiosity to want to explore deeper into a cave than they really needed to go for shelter.

There are lots of other examples of Neandertal art and intelligence found in Europe. For instance, paintings in a cave in Spain have been dated to at least 65,000 years ago. Remember, humans didn’t reach Europe until about 40,000 years ago. The paintings are made of red mineral pigment, including elaborate rows of dots, geometric figures, and occasionally animal figures and hand stencils. Other caves in the area also have similar rock art dating to Neandertal times.

In a cave in Germany, researchers found a piece of deer bone dated to 51,000 years ago that has a carved pattern in it. The carving is too elaborate to be simple butcher marks, but again, humans hadn’t yet moved into Europe 51,000 years ago. The bone actually comes from the leg of a giant deer, once called the Irish elk, that we talked about way back in episode 4. In another cave in Gibraltar, cross-hatched patterns carved in the rock have been dated to more than 39,000 years ago and are associated with artifacts made by Neandertals.

Archaeologists have also found a lot of toe bones from eagles that are etched with cut marks, found in various sites throughout southern Europe. They think Neanderthals in this area wore eagle talons as jewelry, and most likely feathers too.

There’s still controversy when it comes to Neandertals and art. Some researchers think Neandertals only used art after they saw humans making it. Some think the art isn’t art at all but something else, like accidental marks left by other activities. Some think the dating methods used to determine the age of paintings is flawed.

Another criticism is that we don’t actually know that Neandertals made the art; we just know it probably couldn’t have been humans. But there were other human relations living at the same time.

One of those is the Denisovan people, named for Denisova Cave in the mountains of Siberia. Hominins didn’t ordinarily live in caves, but sometimes they did. This seems to be the case in Denisova Cave, where evidence of human habitation, Neandertal habitation, and habitation by another hominin goes back some 180,000 years.

Researchers knew about humans and Neandertals living in the cave, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they realized a third hominin had lived there at various times. The Denisovan people were closely related to both Neandertals and humans and probably looked a lot like Neandertals, with a robust build and big teeth. We still don’t know a whole lot about them, but they lived in parts of what is now Asia and possibly nearby areas, and they might not have gone extinct until about the same time that Neandertals did, around 30,000 years ago.

We talked about the Denisovans in episode 25, but since then new remains have been discovered in other caves. The most exciting is a partial jawbone with two teeth that was found by a Buddhist monk in a cave on the Tibetan plateau in 1980, but not studied until much later. It was identified as a Denisovan mandible in 2019 and dated to 160,000 years ago.

Genetic testing of Denisovan remains indicate that Denisovans and Neandertals were probably more closely related to each other than to humans, although all three species were very closely related. Since there are so few Denisovan remains known, we don’t have a very good idea yet of where they lived and what they were like. We do have genetic markers that indicate the Denisovans had dark skin, brown hair, and brown eyes, while Neandertals, like humans, were more varied in skin, hair, and eye color.

Geneticists have identified traces of Denisovan DNA in some populations of modern humans, including in Asia, New Guinea and surrounding areas, and Australia. This is a reminder that even though some human populations contain DNA traces from our extinct cousins, all humans are thoroughly human. Those bits and bobs of ancient DNA are too small to be significant.

We do have what seems to be art made by Denisovans, although not everyone agrees that it was intended to be art in the way we think of it. It was found in the Tibetan Plateau and we now know that Denisovans lived in the area, although when it was found in 1998 we didn’t even know Denisovans existed. The art was found near hot springs and dated to as much as 226 thousand years ago, although it might have been closer to 169 thousand years ago. Either way, it was well before modern humans are known to have lived in the area. The art consists of footprints and hand prints pressed into the mud, probably by two individuals. The artists pressed their hands, feet, fingers, thumbs, and in one case a forearm into the mud around the hot springs, making patterns. But the thing is, these prints are small even by human standards. Researchers are pretty sure they were made by children, so while it’s certainly possible the children were creating art, they also might just have been messing around having fun in the mud. But the fact that they were making patterns points to an artistic intelligence. Puppies play and may stomp their feet in mud, but they don’t get interested in making patterns of their footprints in the mud. Human children do.

There’s still at least one other hominin that lived at the same time as Neandertals, Denisovans, and humans. We only know about that hominin because researchers have identified their DNA in genetic studies of Denisovans, which means they interbred. It’s a ghost lineage that no one guessed existed until genetic studies of Denisovans and Neandertals were completed in the early 2010s. It might turn out to be a known hominin such as Homo erectus but it might be a completely unknown species.

Of course we have lots of information about art made by ancient humans. It’s been found throughout the world. No one’s in any doubt that our prehistoric ancestors were just as intelligent and artistic as humans who live today, they just didn’t have the technology we have. I can go to an art supply store and buy paints in any color I want, assuming I don’t just want to paint digitally, but in prehistoric times human artists had to make their own paints from the things they found in nature. This included minerals like red ochre and yellow ochre, umber, calcite, hematite, iron oxide, and lots more. They used burnt bones and charcoal for black. These minerals are all still used to make modern oil paints (used in art, not for painting a room or a house), with names like bone black and lime white.

Many minerals have to be processed before they can be used as pigments. Ochre, for instance, has to be heated to 850 degrees Fahrenheit, or 750 Celsius, to change into the rich red-orange that ancient artists especially liked. After processing, the pigments were ground into powder, then mixed with various substances to make a paste. These substances included fat, blood, spit, plant oils, tree sap, water, bone marrow, and even urine.

Ancient artists used their fingers to paint, but they also used twigs, brushes made from animal hair, and mats of lichen. Sometimes they blew pigment onto a surface with their breath, first putting the paint into a hollow tube and then blowing into the tube to spray paint. This is the same way airbrushes work, but no one gets light-headed using an airbrush because a machine is doing the blowing air part. If the artist was working in a cave, they also needed a light source, specifically fire, so they could see what they were doing. It’s all a lot of work.

Aside from all the details involved in getting ready to paint, making art takes one other really important commodity: time. Great apes spend most of their time finding food and eating it. How did ancient humans find time to paint without starving?

A study released in early 2022 points out that hominins developed a much different strategy for getting food than our more distant ape relations. Apes mostly eat plant material, especially fruit, which is nutritious but takes a lot to fulfill the calorie needs of an adult. Early hominins were hunter-gatherers, meaning they both hunted animals and gathered plant material to eat. But because hominins are intensely social and share food, we could take risks that other animals can’t. A group of ancient humans could go out to hunt something big knowing that even if they failed, when they got home they wouldn’t go hungry. Other people would have been gathering food all day and would share. But if the hunters got lucky and brought home a big animal like a deer, everyone had lots and lots of high calorie food to go around. With food available to everyone, people could take time to do things that didn’t directly relate to finding food, like art.

Not only that, another study published in 2019 discovered that some early hominins had already figured out how to preserve food several hundred thousand years ago. The food in question was bone marrow, which is found inside bones and which is extremely nutritious. Researchers have always assumed hominins would crack the bones of animals they killed to get at the marrow as soon as possible. But deer bones found in a cave near Tel Aviv, Israel were stored unbroken, with the skin still on. Researchers determined that the bones were kept in the cave for up to nine weeks before being broken open. By keeping the skin on the bones and storing them in the cave, where the temperature was cool, the marrow stayed fresh. That way there was always something nutritious to eat in the cupboard, so to speak.

Art doesn’t have to be paintings or carvings. Ancient humans were probably using plant fibers to make things more than 34,000 years ago. The fibers are from wild flax plants, and flax is still used today to make linen fabric. Fragments of flax fibers were found in a cave in the Republic of Georgia (which is a country, not the American state of Georgia) where other human artifacts were found. Since flax isn’t edible, at least not by humans, researchers think the fiber might have been used to make thread, rope, baskets, and possibly even cloth. You know, clothing.

One thing to remember is that humans, Neandertals, and Denisovans were so closely related that they could and did interbreed and produce fertile offspring. That means not only were our extinct cousins very similar to us physically, they were probably pretty similar to us mentally too. It would be more surprising if they didn’t produce art that represented symbolic thinking, since it’s such an important part of the human experience.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 272: The Waitoreke



Thanks to Sarah L. for buying the podcast two books off our wishlist! This episode was inspired by an entry in one of those books!

A very happy birthday this week to Matthew!

Don’t forget that you can still contribute to our Indiegogo “Tiny Pin Friends” campaign to get a small hard enamel pin of a narwhal, a capybara with a tangerine on its head, and/or a thylacine!

On April 19, 2022, the book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World goes officially on sale in paperback everywhere! (The ebook is already available.) Bookstores in the U.S. can order fully returnable copies at a standard bookstore discount; bookstores outside of the U.S. still get a discount but the copies are non-returnable. The book should be available to order anywhere you usually order books, including Amazon and Bookshop.org!

Further reading:

Rakali/Water-rat–Australia’s “otter”

Additional Sources (because this episode turned out to be really hard to research):

Conway, J., Koseman, C.M., Naish, D. (2013). Cryptozoologicon vol. I, 37-38. Irregular Books.

Ley, Willy. (1987). Exotic Zoology, 291-295. Bonanza. (Original work published 1959)

Pollock, G. A. (1970). The South Island otter: A reassessment. Proceedings (New Zealand Ecological Society), 17, 129–135.

Pollock, G. A. (1974). The South Island otter: An addendum. Proceedings (New Zealand Ecological Society), 21, 57-61.

Worthy, T. H., et al. (2006). Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America103(51), 19419–19423. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0605684103

An otter with its telltale bubble chain (Photo by Linda Tanner):

A rakali swimming (photo by Con Boekel, from website linked to above):

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a fascinating mystery animal from New Zealand! Many thanks to Sarah L., who very generously bought me a couple of books off my podcast wishlist, which I tend to forget is even a thing that exists! One of the books is Cryptozoologicon, Volume 1 by John Conway, C.M. Koseman, and Darren Naish, and that’s where I got this week’s topic, the mysterious waitoreke. [why-tore-EH-kee]

This week is also special because the paperback version of our own book, Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, officially goes on sale on April 19, 2022. That’s tomorrow, if you’re listening to this the day the episode goes live. It should be available to order everywhere you ordinarily buy books, throughout the world. The ebook is available too. I’ve mailed all Kickstarter copies so if you haven’t received your copy yet, let me know. There were a few people who never returned the backer survey so I don’t have those addresses to mail books to. If you want a signed copy of the book at this point, or a hardback copy, you’ll need to catch me in person. I’ll be at ConCarolinas over the first weekend of June and I’d love to meet up with you. I’m working on the audiobook now, for those of you waiting for that one. (It’s a slow process, so don’t expect it for at least another month, sorry.)

You know what else is happening this week? A birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Matthew! I hope your birthday is everything you ever hoped for in a birthday, or maybe even more!

New Zealand has almost no native mammal species except for a few bats, some seals and sea lions that live along the coast, and some whales and dolphins that live off the coast. Lots of mammals have been introduced, from dogs to rats, cattle to cats, but there are reports of a small mammal in New Zealand called some version of waitoreke, supposedly a Maori word meaning something like swift-moving water animal. Even the animal’s name is confusing, though. No one’s sure whether the word is genuinely Maori. The animal is also sometimes referred to as the South Island otter, the New Zealand platypus, the New Zealand muskrat, or the New Zealand beaver.

Reports of the animal go back a couple of centuries, basically as soon as Europeans stumbled across the country. One of the earliest reports is from 1861 by Julius von Haast, a geologist who spent many years surveying the geography and geology of New Zealand, and who made a lot of discoveries along the way. The huge, extinct Haast’s eagle is named after him, for instance, since he was the first European scientist to examine its remains. In June of 1861, Haast spotted some tracks in the mud along a riverbank, which he noted looked like an otter’s tracks but smaller. Two shepherds in the area claimed they’d seen the animal and that it was the size of a large rabbit with dark brown fur. Haast seems to be the first person to have used the word waitoreke, but a naturalist named Walter Mantell might have used the word first—it’s not clear.

The Maori people of the South Island also reported seeing the animal. One man even said it had sometimes once been kept as a pet, although he may have actually been referring to the tuatara, a reptile we talked about way back in episode 3. The waitoreke was supposed to be about two feet long, or 61 cm, not counting its bushy tail, brown in color, with short legs, and a head that was something between a dog and cat’s head. It spent most of its time in the water but it also came on land and lived in a burrow.

The problem with these accounts is that they were mainly gathered by Walter Mantell, who was not Maori. He might have misunderstood some details or not recorded them accurately. Most of the details we have come from an interview with a Maori chief whose name Mantell recorded as Tarawhata, although this may have been incorrect. Tarawhata said that there were two types of waitoreke, a water type and a land type. The land type ate lizards, the water type ate fish. He might have been referring to two different animals or he might have been referring to the same animal living in two different habitats.

We don’t even know when Mantell talked to his witnesses except that it had to have been sometime after about 1840 when he first came to New Zealand. We don’t have Mantell’s original notes, either. The details come from a paper presented by Mantell’s father, a zoologist, to the Royal Zoological Society of London in November 1850. For that matter, we don’t have Haast’s original notes about the footprints he spotted in 1861. His account was reported in a book by another geologist, published in German in 1863, with an English version in 1867.

There have been more recent sightings of the waitoreke, though. A fisherman named A.E. Tapper spotted what might have been a waitoreke six times between 1890 and 1921, which he wrote about in 1926 in letters to the Southland Times. He described the animal as a dark mousy brown with a rounded head like a seal’s, about the size of a possum or rabbit. In his account of the last sighting, in 1921 while he was fishing the Waikiwi River near an abandoned bridge, he wrote, “[s]omething…splashed, dived into the water and swam past me upstream, disappearing under some scrub on the other side. It was dusk, the water dark, yet I was close enough to distinguish a dark shadowy form 18 inches, or two feet deep [about 45 to 60 cm]. The wake it made in the water showed it to be of some size, but the strangest part was the noise it made when going through the water and the numerous bubbles that followed in its track. The noise was exactly that made by throwing a handful of…small stones in the water… I went down next day but beyond finding tracks in the mud similar to a rabbit’s but apparently webbed I found no trace.” He also found a hole in the bank several months later after the water level had dropped, meaning the hole had previously been underwater even though it looked like a rabbit burrow.

Unfortunately, while we know exactly where this sighting took place, by 1970 the surrounding marshlands had been drained and cleared for crops, and the river was so polluted that basically nothing lived in it anymore.

In 1957, a woman named Mrs. Linscott saw an animal swim across a big pond, which was connected to the nearby Aparima River. She only saw its head and the front of its body since it vanished into brush at the far end of the pond, but she got a good look at it while it swam. It had a small head with protuberant eyes and round ears, its face was “browny-purple,” and it had whiskers.

In 1968, a man named Bob Thompson was on holiday near the Whakaea River. He got up at dawn one morning and saw an animal emerge from a creek, followed by three young ones who disappeared into some brush. The difference in this case is that Thompson was from Norfolk, England and had lived next to the River Yare, where otters were common at the time. He said these animals were definitely otters.

In 1971, a man named P.J.A. Bradley had returned from an unsuccessful deer hunt near the Hollyford River and was waiting for the boat to take him home when he heard splashing in a quiet inlet nearby. He thought it might be a deer so he approached cautiously. Instead of a deer, he saw an animal playing on the riverbank by repeatedly climbing up and sliding down the mud into the water. He said the animal was dark brown and smooth with a thick tapering tail, short legs, and small head with no noticeable ears. He estimated that it was as much as 3.5 feet long, or 107 cm, including the tail.

All these reports really do sound like otters. We talked about the Eurasian otter in episode 37, about the Dobhar-Chu. It’s a shy, territorial animal that lives in freshwater rivers and lakes, as long as there’s plenty of cover around the edges for it to hide. A big male can grow up to 4.5 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are much smaller and females are smaller overall than males. It’s dark brown with a lighter belly, and has a long, slender body, short legs with webbed toes, and a small flattened head with tiny ears. Its tail is thick and tapering. It mostly eats fish, frogs, and various invertebrates like crayfish.

Tapper’s sighting is especially interesting because of the trail of bubbles he reported. This is sometimes called a bubble chain and is a telltale sign that an otter is swimming underwater.

But there’s no evidence, fossil or otherwise, that otters ever lived in New Zealand, or Australia either for that matter. Some species of otter do live in South Asia, but that’s still a long, long way from New Zealand. One theory is that domesticated otters kept as fishing animals were brought to New Zealand by South Asian fishermen who were either lost or blown away from their homes by storms. The problem with this theory is not just that there’s no evidence for it among Maori oral histories, it’s that the fishermen would have had to somehow avoid Australia completely even though it’s a humongous continent they would have to go around to reach New Zealand’s South Island.

There is an unrelated animal in parts of Australia that looks a lot like a small otter, though. That’s the rakali, or water-rat, a semi-aquatic rodent native to Australia, New Guinea, and some nearby islands.

The rakali grows up to about 15 inches long, or 39 cm, not counting its long tail. It has black or dark gray fur with a paler belly, but its tail has a white tip. It has short legs, a small flattened head with small rounded ears, webbed toes on its hind feet, and while its tail is thick for a rodent, it’s thin compared to an otter’s tail. It eats many of the same things that otters eat and is especially good at killing the cane toad, a toxic invasive species in parts of Australia.

But the rakali has never been introduced to New Zealand and has never been seen there. While it does superficially resemble a small otter, it acts very rodent-like in many ways. For instance, it sits up on its haunches to eat and when it’s doing that, it doesn’t look anything like an otter, although it is really cute. It also marks its territory with a scent that smells strongly like cat urine.

Stoats and weasels have been introduced to New Zealand, where they’re invasive species. While they’re much smaller than otters, they do have a similar body shape and both can swim well when they want to. It’s possible that at least some waitoreke sightings are actually sightings of swimming stoats or weasels, although that doesn’t explain all the reports by any means.

Another theory is that the waitoreke isn’t an otter at all but a rare, unknown mammal native to New Zealand. Since New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats, until 2006 researchers generally rejected this theory out of hand. That’s because until 2006, there weren’t even any fossil remains of mammals found on New Zealand.

New Zealand is just a small part of an otherwise submerged continent called Zealandia. Zealandia was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, smooshed up next to what are now Australia and Antarctica. Zealandia separated from its neighbors around 80 million years ago and started slowly sinking into the ocean. Then, about 66 million years ago, the massive asteroid strike we talked about in episode 240 killed off the non-avian dinosaurs.

Afterwards, in most of the world, mammals began to evolve rapidly to fill the vacant ecological niches. But Zealandia didn’t have very many mammals to start with, and by 25 million years ago it was mostly underwater anyway except for the highest mountain peaks that stuck up as islands. At this point, though, the continental plate had stopped sinking and instead was being pushed up slowly by tectonic forces—a process that’s still ongoing.

For a long time, geologists even thought Zealandia might have been completely underwater. It wasn’t surprising that the only animals living on land were birds and bats, since they could have flown there after the land re-emerged. But even as evidence of those mountaintop islands became understood, mammals were still nonexistent in New Zealand’s fossil history.

Then, in 1978, some small, incomplete fossils were discovered near Saint Bathans in the southern part of the South Island. This is a rich area for fossils that date to around 16 to 19 million years ago. There are remains of fish, reptiles, a few bats, and lots of birds, and in 2006, paleontologists studying those fossils found in 1978 announced that they’d identified them as the remains of a terrestrial mammal.

It’s referred to as the Saint Bathans mammal and we know almost nothing about it. We only have two fragments of a lower jaw and one femur. We’re pretty sure it’s not a monotreme but that’s about as far as it goes. It was probably the size of a mouse.

Because Zealandia has been separated from all other landmasses for about 80 million years, the Saint Bathans mammal that lived around 17 million years ago was probably very different from mammals found in other parts of the world. Its descendants probably went extinct in the middle Miocene, around 14 million years ago, when there was a relatively small extinction event throughout the world related to a long period of global cooling. But some people theorize that descendants of the Saint Bathans mammal survived to the present day, a rare and shy semi-aquatic animal that fills the same ecological niche as otters and has evolved to look like otters due to convergent evolution.

It’s not likely, to be honest. It’s even less likely than the theory about lost fishermen with pet otters drifting thousands of miles around Australia to come ashore on New Zealand, and that’s not very likely either.

There are still occasional sightings of the waitoreke. With luck someone will get some good pictures of one soon so we can learn more about what this mysterious animal might be.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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 267: The Mystery Sauropod



Show transcript:

Hi. If you’re hearing this, it means I’m sick or something else has happened that has kept me from making a new episode this week. This was a Patreon bonus episode from mid-August 2019. I think it’s a good one. If you’re a Patreon subscriber, I’m sorry you don’t have a new episode to listen to this time. Hopefully I’ll be feeling better soon and we can get back to learning about lots of strange animals.

Welcome to the Patreon bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast for mid-August, 2019!

While I was doing research for the paleontology mistakes and frauds episodes, I came across the discovery of what might have been the biggest land animal that ever lived. But while I wanted to include it in one episode or the other, it wasn’t clear that it was either a mistake or a fraud. It might in fact have been a real discovery, now lost.

In late 1877 or early 1878, a man named Oramel Lucas was digging up dinosaur bones for the famous paleontologist Edward Cope. Cope was one of the men we talked about in the paleontological mistakes episode, the bitter enemy of Othniel Marsh. Lucas directed a team of workers digging for fossils in a number of sites near Garden Park in Colorado, and around the summer of 1878 he shipped the fossils he’d found to Marsh. Among them was a partial neural arch of a sauropod.

The neural arch is the top part of a vertebra, in this case probably one near the hip. Sauropods, of course, are the biggest land animals known. Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus are all sauropods. Sauropods had long necks that were probably mostly held horizontally as the animal cropped low-growing plants and shrubs, and extremely long tails held off the ground. Their legs were column-like, something like enormous elephant legs, to support the massively heavy body.

We know what Diplodocus looked like because we have lots of Diplodocus fossils and can reconstruct the entire skeleton, but for most other sauropods we still only have partial skeletons. The body size and shape of other sauropods are conjecture based on what we know about Diplodocus. In some cases we only have a few bones, or in the case of Cope’s 1878 sauropod, a single partial bone.

Cope examined the neural arch, sketched it and made notes, and published a formal description of it later in 1878. He named it Amphicoelias [Am-fi-sil-i-as] fragillimus.

The largest species of Diplodocus, D. hallorum, was about 108 feet long, or 33 meters, measuring from its stretched-out head to the tip of its tail. Estimates of fragillimus from Cope’s measurement of the single neural arch suggest that its tail alone might be longer than Diplodocus’s whole body.

Cope measured fragillimus’s partial neural arch as 1.5 meters tall, or almost five feet. That’s only the part that remained. It was broken and weathered, but the entire vertebra may have been as large as 2.7 meters high, or 8.85 feet. From that measurement, and considering that fragillimus was seemingly related to Diplodocus, even the most conservative estimate of fragillimus’s overall size is 40 meters long, or 131 feet, and could be as long as 60 meters, or 197 feet. This is far larger than even Seismosaurus, which is estimated to have grown 33.5 meters long, or 110 feet, and which is considered the largest land animal known.

So why isn’t fragillimus considered the largest land animal known? Mainly because we no longer have the fossil to study. It’s completely gone with no indication of where it might be or what happened to it. And that has led to some people thinking that it either never existed in the first place, or that Cope measured it wrong.

One argument is that Cope wrote down the measurements wrong and that the neural arch wasn’t nearly as large as Cope’s notes indicate. But Lucas, who collected the fossil, always made his own measurements and these match up with what Cope reported. Lucas and Cope both remarked on the size of the fossil, which was far larger than any they had ever found.

Oddly, Cope’s nemesis Marsh inadvertently vouches for him by the things Marsh didn’t do. We know that Marsh kept tabs on Cope, including even paying people to spy on his fossil excavations. Marsh was also always ready to pounce on any of Cope’s mistakes and make them a big deal. But Marsh never said anything about the neural arch not being a real find, and never questioned Cope’s measurements of it.

Cope never mentioned what happened to the fossil. It wasn’t until 1921 that two researchers pointed out that it was missing from the Cope Collection. So what happened to it?

Most researchers suspect it just crumbled away. The fossil formed in a type of rock called mudstone, which fractures easily into little irregular cubes. In fact, Cope gave the sauropod the name fragillimus because the fossil appeared so fragile—not because of the mudstone per se, but because so much of the fossil had already weathered away and as a result it looked too delicate to be part of such a large animal.

These days paleontologists treat fossils with various preservatives to harden them, but that practice didn’t start until 1880, several years after the neural arch was found. Cope only made one drawing of it, which wasn’t his usual practice. It’s possible the fossil was so delicate at that point that just turning it over to draw the other side caused it to fall apart. Many researchers suspect that Cope or one of his assistants eventually discarded it after it crumbled into a pile of mudstone blocks.

Obviously, if we don’t have the fossil Cope examined, maybe we should go looking for more fossils that Cope’s workers might have missed. Cope did mention a femur located near the neural arch that may have been another fragillimus bone, but it’s not clear if the femur was actually collected. We have Cope’s journal entry where he sketched the dig sites Lucas was working, a rough map that shows at least seven sites. But it’s been a century and a half since then and most of the sites have been lost. In 1994 a team tried to relocate the site where Lucas found the neural arch, but without luck. It’s also possible that any remaining fossils have weathered away completely. In the dig sites that have been found, the mudstone has mostly weathered away down to the underlying sandstone.

Researchers have been able to estimate a probable age for fragillimus from Cope’s notes about the stratigraphy where the neural arch was found. Fragillimus probably lived in the late Jurassic, roughly 150 million years ago. This matches up with the age of other enormously large sauropods. But if fragillimus really was so much larger than the others, how did it live? Would an animal that size actually be able to support its weight, feed itself, and function overall? Wouldn’t it overheat in the sun or starve due to not finding enough food to power its colossal body?

Researchers think that sauropods grew to such enormous sizes because their food was nutritionally lacking. That doesn’t make sense until you realize that when a herbivore’s food is poor, the longer it can keep the plant material in its digestive system, the more nutrients it can extract from it. Sauropods were probably hindgut fermenters like all modern herbivorous reptiles and a lot of birds. The best way to keep lots of plant material in the digestive system is to be really big and have a really big digestive tract. This is the case with many herbivores today, like elephants, rhinos, and horses. Other benefits come from being extremely large, too, such as being larger than potential predators.

Sauropods generally lived in semiarid savannas. Grass hadn’t evolved yet, so researchers think the main groundcover plant was ferns, which sauropods probably ate in bulk. There would also have been shrubs, small trees, and some areas with much taller trees. It’s possible that sauropods spent most of the day among the trees, sleeping in the shade, and came out at night to do most of their grazing.

Cope also found fossils from another sauropod that he named Amphicoelias altus. In fact, he described both Amphicoelias species in the same paper. Some researchers have therefore suspected that the two species were actually the same. A. altus is estimated to grow about the same size as Diplodocus, about 82 feet long, or 25 meters.

But in 2018, a paleontologist named Kenneth Carpenter examined Cope’s information on fragillimus and came to some interesting conclusions. He reclassified it from the family Diplodocidae to the family Rebbachisauridae and renamed it Maraapunisaurus fragillimus. As a result, the estimates of its size have changed. Carpenter suggests that it was much smaller, about 99 feet long, or 30 meters, but that Cope’s measurements were correct. Sauropods of this family just have larger vertebrae than Diplodocidae.

The only difficulty with fragillimus being a member of the Rebbachisauridae is that this group of sauropods isn’t known to have lived in North America, just Europe and South America. But the fossil record is incomplete and every find requires researchers to adjust what we know about where dinosaurs lived and how widespread a particular species or family was.

Hopefully, eventually more and better remains of fragillimus will turn up soon. Then we can work out exactly how big it really was.

Thanks for your support, and thanks for listening! The next episode in the main feed will be about an unusual small fish and an extinct pig relative called the unicorn pig. Basically both those animals should have gone in other episodes but I messed up and forgot to add them to strangest small fish and the weird pigs episodes, but they’re both really neat and I wanted to share them.

https://www.patreon.com/rss/strangeanimalspodcast?auth=eb94e995bdf4bc11930eeda8bc5b4a3e


Episode 265: Penguins!



Thanks to Page for suggesting we talk about penguins this week!

A big birthday shout-out to EllieHorseLover this week too!

Further reading:

March of the penguins (in Norway)

Rare Yellow Penguin Bewilders Scientists

Giant Waikato penguin: school kids discover new species

An ordinary king penguin with the rare “yellow” king penguin spotted in early 2021 (photo by Yves Adams, taken from article linked above):

Show transcript:

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

I was looking over the ideas list recently and noticed that Page had suggested we cover a specific bird way back in 2020! It’s about time we get to it, so thanks to Page we’re going to learn about penguins this week, including a penguin mystery.

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to EllieHorseLover, whose birthday comes right before next week’s episode comes out. Have a fantastic birthday, Ellie, and I agree with you about horses. They are awesome and so are you.

Also, a quick correction from last week’s episode about Dolly the dinosaur. If you listened to episode 264 the day it came out, you heard the incorrect version, but I was able to correct it and upload the new version late that day. Many thanks to Llewelly, who pointed out that Dolly hasn’t actually been identified as a Diplodocus, just as a sauropod in the family Diplodocidae. Paleontologists are still studying the fossil and probably will be for some time. Also, I said that sauropods aren’t related to birds but that’s not the case. Sauropods share a common ancestor with birds and that’s why they both have the same kind of unusual respiratory system.

So, speaking of birds, it’s time to learn about penguins! We’ve talked about penguins twice before, but not recently at all. It’s about time we really dug into the topic.

Penguins live in the southern hemisphere, including Antarctica. The only exception is the Galapagos penguin, which we talked about in episode 99, which lives just north of the equator. Penguins are considered aquatic birds because they’re so well adapted to swimming and they spend most of their time in the ocean finding food. Instead of wings, their front limbs are flippers that they use to maneuver in the water. They’re incredibly streamlined too, with a smooth, dense coat of feathers to help keep them warm in cold water without slowing them down.

One of the ways a penguin keeps from freezing in the bitterly cold winters of Antarctica and in cold water is by a trick of anatomy that most other animals don’t have. The artery that supplies blood to the flippers crosses over the veins that return blood from the flippers deeper into the body. The arterial blood is warm since it’s been through the body’s core, but the blood that has just traveled through the flippers has lost a lot of heat. Because the veins and the arteries cross several times, the cold venal blood is warmed by the warm arterial blood where the blood vessels touch, which means the blood returning into the body’s core is warm enough that it doesn’t chill the body.

Penguins groom their feathers carefully to keep them clean and spread oil over them. The oil and the feathers’ nanostructures keep them from icing over when a penguin gets out of the water in sub-zero temperatures. The feathers are not only super-hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, their structure acts as an anti-adhesive. That means ice can’t stick to the feathers no matter how cold it is. In 2016 researchers created a nanofiber membrane that repels water and ice with the same nanostructures found in penguin feathers. It could eventually be used to ice-proof electrical wires and airplane wings.

Penguin feathers also trap a thin layer of air, which helps the penguin stay buoyant in the water and helps keep its skin warm and dry.

While a penguin is awkward on land, it’s fast and agile in the water. It mostly eats small fish, squid and other cephalopods, krill and other crustaceans, and other small animals, and it can dive deeply to find food. The emperor penguin is the deepest diver, with the deepest recorded dive being over 1,800 feet, or 565 meters. The gentoo penguin has been recorded swimming 22 mph underwater, or 36 km/hour.

Penguins are famous for being mostly black and white, but in 2010, a study of an extinct early penguin revealed that it looked much different. The fossil was found in Peru and is incredibly detailed. The flipper shape is clear, proving that even 36 million years ago penguins were already fully aquatic. Even some of the feathers are preserved, allowing researchers to reconstruct the bird’s coloration from melanosomes in the fossilized feathers. They show that instead of black and white, the extinct penguin was reddish-brown and gray. The bird was also one of the biggest penguins known, up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Another species of extinct penguin was discovered in 2006 in New Zealand by a group of school children on a field trip. The New Zealand penguin lived between about 28 and 34 million years ago and while it wasn’t as big as the Peru fossil penguin, it had longer legs that made it about 4.5 feet tall, or 1.4 meters. It was described as a new species in September of 2021 and somehow I missed that one when I was researching the 2021 discoveries episode.

The smallest penguin alive today is the fairy penguin, which only grows 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the southern coasts of Australia and Chile, and all around New Zealand’s coasts. It’s also called the little blue penguin because its head is gray-blue. The largest penguin is the emperor penguin, which lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm.

The king penguin looks like a slightly smaller version of the emperor penguin, which makes sense because they’re closely related. It can stand over 3 feet tall, or 100 cm. Its numbers are in decline due to climate change that has caused some of the small fish and squid the penguins eat to move away from the penguin’s nesting grounds. Large-scale commercial fishing has also reduced the number of fish available to penguins. As a result, the penguins have a hard time finding enough food for themselves and their babies. King penguins are protected, though, and conservation efforts are in place to stop commercial fishing near their nesting grounds. A ban on commercial fishing around Robben Island in South Africa, where the endangered African penguin nests, increased the survival of chicks by 18%, so hopefully the same will be true for the king penguin.

In early 2021, a Belgian wildlife photographer named Yves Adams was leading a group of photographers on an island where king penguins live. They spotted a group of the penguins swimming nearby when Adams noticed that one of the penguins seemed really pale. It was yellowish-white instead of black and white, although it did have the yellow markings on its head and breast that other king penguins have. It and the other penguins came ashore and Adams got lots of pictures of it. Ornithologists who have studied the pictures aren’t sure what kind of genetic anomaly has caused the penguin’s coloration, but with luck scientists will be able to find it again and take a genetic sample.

The king penguin is also the subject of a small penguin mystery, but the mystery starts with the great auk. As we talked about in episode 78, the name penguin was originally used for a bird also called the great auk or gairfowl, which lived in the northern hemisphere. It was common throughout its range until people decided to start killing them by the thousands for their feathers and meat. By 1844, the last pair of great auks were killed. The great auk was a black and white aquatic bird that looked a lot like a penguin due to convergent evolution.

The story goes that in the late 1930s people started seeing great auks on the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway. Since this was 70 years after the great auk officially went extinct, the reports caused a flurry of excitement.

While a small, scattered population of great auks probably did persist for years or even decades after their official extinction, once an expedition investigated the Lofoten Islands they discovered not auks but penguins. Specifically, a small group of king penguins. How did the penguins get there from their natural range in various sub-Antarctic islands on the other side of the world?

Some reports say whalers captured some penguins as pets and later released them, but it actually appears that the introduction of nine king penguins to two islands off the coast of Norway was done by the Nature Protection Society, backed by the Norwegian government, in 1936. The penguins were still there until at least 1944, with the last sighting coming from 1954.

These weren’t the only penguins released in the islands. In 1938 the Norwegian government released around 60 other penguins from various species onto the islands. The goal was to establish penguin breeding colonies in Norwegian waters in a confused attempt to claim the Antarctic for Norwegian whaling. The real mystery is why they thought that would work.

Very occasionally, a stray penguin is found in the northern hemisphere with no idea how it got there. In the past, people assumed the penguin got lost and swam the wrong way or got pushed away from its homeland by storms, but these days biologists think these lost penguins were transported by fishing boats. Sometimes a penguin will get tangled in a fishing net and hauled aboard by accident, and the fishers will untangle it and keep it as a pet for a while before setting it free. It would be better if the penguin was set free immediately so it could return to its home, but it’s better than being killed. Just ask the penguin.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. 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!