Category Archives: humans

Episode 120: Hybrid Animals



If you’re a subscriber on Patreon, you may recognize some of the information in this episode, but I’ve updated it and added a whole bunch. Thanks to Pranav for the topic suggestion!

A cama, llama/camel hybrid:

A swoose, swan/goose hybrid:

Motty the Asian/African elephant hybrid and his mother:

A zorse, zebra/horse hybrid:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got another listener suggestion. Pranav really really wants me to do an episode about hybrid animals, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I actually already did an episode on the topic back in 2017—but only for Patreon subscribers. It wasn’t my best episode so for various reasons I’d decided not to unlock it. But Pranav really really wants to learn about hybrids! So I’ve taken part of the Patreon episode and added a lot of newer information to it to bring it up to date and make it more interesting.

The term for an animal with parents of different species is hybrid. Crossbreed is also a common term, although technically a crossbred animal is one with parents of the same species but different breeds, like a labradoodle is a crossbreed of a Labrador and a poodle. Both parents are domestic dogs.

A mule, on the other hand, is a hybrid between a horse and a donkey, specifically a mare and a jack, which is what a male donkey is called. The offspring of a stallion and a lady donkey, known as a jenny, is a hinny.

So why can a horse and a donkey breed while, for instance, a possum and a rat can’t? The two species must belong to the same family, and with very few exceptions, they must also belong to the same genus. The genus is indicated in an animal’s scientific name. Equus caballus is a horse and Equus africanus is a donkey, while a Labrador and a poodle are both Canis familiaris, or Canis lupus familiaris depending on who you ask. The Virginia opossum is Didelphis virginiana while the brown rat is Rattus norvegicus. They’re not even slightly related, although superficially they look alike.

If the hybrid’s parents are from species with different numbers of chromosomes, hybrid males will almost always be sterile. You can’t cross two mules to get more mules, for instance, because male mules can’t make babies. Female mules are sometimes fertile but very rarely conceive. Horses have 64 chromosomes while donkeys have 62. Mules end up with 63. Hinnies are much rarer than mules because if the female of a pair of related species has fewer pairs of chromosomes than the male, it’s less likely that any offspring will result.

More closely related species can have fertile offspring. Killer bees, for instance, are hybrids of a European honeybee and an African honeybee. The two are actually subspecies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, so it’s less like creating a hybrid and more like crossing a Labrador and a poodle to get an adorable happy pup with curly hair. It seemed like a really good idea. The result was supposed to be a tropical bee that would produce more honey. What actually happened was killer bees. Which do actually kill people. Hundreds of people, in fact, since they escaped into the wild in 1957 and started spreading throughout the Americas.

When animals hybridize even though they aren’t of the same genus, it’s called an intergeneric hybrid. That’s the case with sheep and goats. While sheep and goats are related on the subfamily level, they belong to separate genuses. Sheep have 54 chromosomes while goats have 60. That’s enough of a difference that most hybrid babies don’t survive long enough to be born alive, but it does happen occasionally. Usually the babies have 57 chromosomes, and sometimes the babies survive and even prove to be fertile when crossed with either a goat or a sheep. So that’s weird.

Just because someone wants to find out what you get when you cross, say, a sheep and a goat, doesn’t mean the sheep and goat in question are willing to make that effort. The less closely related the two animals are, the less interested they are in mating. Occasionally hybrids are produced by artificial insemination, or rarely by genetic manipulation of embryos, although genetic manipulation technically results in a chimera, not a hybrid.

Another intergeneric hybrid is a cross between a male camel and a female llama. In this case it’s accomplished by artificial insemination and has only produced a handful of living babies, called camas. Researchers were hoping to produce a camel-sized animal with a llama’s more cooperative temperament, but camas turn out to act like camels. So basically they’re just camels that aren’t as big or strong as camels.

In the 1970s, Chester Zoo in Cheshire in the UK kept a female Asian elephant and a male African elephant together in the same enclosure. The pair mated but no one thought they could produce a hybrid calf, since Asian elephants and African elephants aren’t that closely related. They’re another pair of animals that don’t share a genus. But a calf named Mottie was born in 1978. Surprise!

Many hybrids resemble one or the other of their parents. Motty was a fascinating blend of both. He had five toenails on his forefeet and four on the hind feet like his mom. African savannah elephants like his dad have four front toenails and three hind toenails. But he had longer legs and bigger ears than an Asian elephant. His trunk was wrinkled like his dad’s, but had only one digit at the tip like his mom’s. African elephants have two digits at the tip of their trunks. Even the shape of Motty’s head and back were a mixture of his parents’ characteristics.

So why would anyone want to cross species to get a hybrid? I mean, you might end up with killer bees.

A lot of times hybrids show what is known as hybrid vigor. This is more common in hybrid plants, but some hybrid animals combine the best features of their parents. Mules, for instance, have more stamina than horses and are stronger than donkeys. A hybrid of a domestic cow and an American bison is called a beefalo, which is bred to produce leaner meat in an animal that is better for the environment than a cow but easier to handle than a bison. But a lot of times, hybrids are the result of human ignorance, such as keeping related animals together without realizing babies might result, or human curiosity. We just want to see what might happen.

Unfortunately, for every healthy mule-like hybrid, there’s an unhealthy, malformed, or stillborn animal from parents who should have never produced offspring. Motty the elephant was premature and died of infection when he was only eleven days old, probably because his immune system was weakened due to his hybridized genetics.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats can all interbreed, but the resulting babies sometimes have unusual health issues. When a male lion and a female tiger breed, the resulting babies are known as ligers, and ligers are enormous. They’re much bigger and heavier than both their parents. This sounds neat, but it happens because of a genetic anomaly that means the animals just grow and grow much faster and longer than a normal tiger or lion cub. This puts stress on the body and can lead to health problems. Ligers can sometimes weigh over 1200 pounds, or over 550 kg, and grow up to 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, bigger than a full-grown tiger or lion. The offspring of a puma and a leopard, often called a pumapard, has the opposite problem, with cubs usually inheriting a form of dwarfism. The cubs are only half the size of the parents.

The savannah cat is now accepted as a domestic cat breed by some organizations, but it was first developed in 1986 by crossing a female domestic cat and a male serval. The serval is a wild cat from Africa with large ears, long legs, and a spotted and striped coat pattern. It’s a little larger than a domestic cat and is sometimes kept as an exotic pet, although it’s not domesticated. The hybrid babies inherited their mother’s domesticated nature and turned out to be mostly sociable with humans, although some are less tame. But while Savannah cats are pretty, the kittens of a serval and domestic cat are often stillborn or premature, and many male offspring are infertile. Savannah cats are also prone to certain health issues, especially heart problems. Some areas have banned savannah cats since they’re not considered fully domesticated.

The more closely related the parents, the more likely a hybrid baby will result, and the more likely it will be healthy. Many wolf-like canids can and do easily hybridize with other wolf-like canids, since they have 78 chromosomes in the same arrangement and are closely related. Offspring are usually fertile. The wolf-like canids include wolves, domestic dogs, coyotes, jackals, and dholes. Where the ranges of these various species overlap in the wild, hybrids are not uncommon. But canids that are less closely related to the wolf-like canids, like foxes and raccoon dogs, can’t and don’t hybridize with their cousins.

Some whales will hybridize in the wild, including the fin whale and the blue whale, which are closely related. Dolphins of different species sometimes hybridize when they’re kept together in captivity, such as the false killer whale and the bottlenose dolphin. The resulting babies don’t usually live very long. Occasionally dolphins also hybridize in the wild too. In 2017 a hybrid baby of a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale, which is actually a species of dolphin, was spotted off the coast of Hawaii. Researchers were able to get a small tissue sample from the young hybrid to DNA test, which confirmed its parentage. The melon-headed whale mother was also spotted with her calf in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

Birds also sometimes hybridize in the wild. This happens occasionally where the range of two closely related species overlap. Since the resulting babies may look very different from both their parents, this makes bird-watching even more challenging. Some warbler species hybridize so often that the hybrid offspring are well-known to birders, such as Brewster’s warbler and Lawrence’s warbler. These two birds are both offspring of a golden-winged warbler and a blue-winged warbler mate, with the appearance different depending on which traits the babies inherit from which parent.

Occasionally a domestic chicken will mate with a wild pheasant and produce babies, since chickens and pheasants are related. Very rarely, a swan and goose will mate and produce babies, although the babies don’t usually survive very long. One swan-goose hybrid that did survive was hatched in 2004 in Dorset in the UK, with a mute swan mother and a domestic goose father. The baby was referred to as a swoose and it was the only of the offspring to survive. It looks like a goose but with a longer, more swan-like neck and head.

If you’ve listened to episode 25, part one of the humans episode, you’ll recall that human DNA contains traces of DNA from our extinct cousins, including Neandertals. If Neandertals were still around, we could undoubtedly produce hybrids with them. But what about our living cousins, the other great apes? Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, but could a human produce a hybrid with a chimp? It’s possible but very unlikely. We belong to different genuses and have different numbers of chromosomes, not to mention the enormous ethical issues involved.

Let’s finish up with my favorite hybrid animal, the zebroid. This is a term for any hybrid where one parent is a zebra and the other parent is a horse, a donkey, or a pony, which also leads to the terms zorse, zedonk, and zony. These all crack me up, especially zedonk.

Zebroids are usually at least partially striped, frequently on the legs and neck but sometimes all over. The mane may stand up like a zebra’s or fall over the neck like a horse’s. The zebroid is adorable because of the stripes, but it’s also ornery and can be aggressive. There goes my dream of having a stripy horse.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 064: Updates and the Nandi Bear



It’s update week! I call myself out for some mistakes, then catch us all up on new information about topics we’ve covered in the past. Then we’ll learn about the Nandi bear, a mystery animal that is probably not actually a bear.

Check out Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast on Podbean!

Check out the Zeng This! pop culture podcast while you’re at it!

A new species of Bird of Paradise:

Buša cattle:

Further reading/watching:

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/vogelkop-superb-bird-of-paradise-05924.html

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to dig into some updates to previous episodes! Don’t worry, it’ll be interesting. We’re also going to look at a mystery animal we haven’t examined before.

First, though, a big shout-out to Sir Finn Hayes, a long-time listener who has started his own podcast! It’s called Finn’s Natural History, although now I see it’s been renamed Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast, and you can find it on Podbean. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The great thing is, Finn is just ten years old but he and his younger sister Lila are already dropping knowledge on us about animals and plants and other things they find interesting. So give their podcast a listen because I bet you’ll like it as much as I do.

Before we get into the updates, let me call myself out on a few glaring mistakes in past episodes. In episode four, I called my own podcast by the wrong name. Instead of Strange Animals, I said Strange Beasties, which is my Twitter handle. In episode 29, I said Loch Ness was 50 miles above sea level instead of 50 feet, a pretty big difference. In episode 15 I called Zenger of the Zeng This! podcast Zengus, which is just unforgiveable because I really like that podcast and you’d think I could remember the cohost’s name. There’s a link to the Zeng This! podcast in the show notes. It’s a family-friendly, cheerful show about comics, movies, video games, and lots of other fun pop culture stuff.

If you ever hear me state something in the podcast that you know isn’t true, definitely let me know. I’ll look into it and issue a correction when appropriate. As they say on the Varmints Podcast, I am not an animal expert. I do my best, but sometimes I get things wrong. For instance, in episode 60, I said sirenians like dugongs and manatees have tails in place of hind legs like seals do, but sirenian tails actually developed from tails, not hind legs. Pinniped tails developed from hind legs and have flipper-like feet.

Anyway, here are some updates to topics we’ve covered in past episodes. It isn’t all-inclusive, mostly just stuff I’ve stumbled across while researching other animals.

In episode 47 about strange horses, I talked a lot about Przewalski’s horse. I was really hoping never to have to attempt that pronunciation again, but here we are. A new phylogenetic study published in February of 2018 determined that Przewalski’s horse isn’t a truly wild horse. Its ancestors were wild, but Przewalski’s horse is essentially a feral domestic horse. Its ancestors were probably domesticated around 5,500 years ago by the Botai people who lived in what is now northern Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s horse we have now is a descendant of those domestic horses that escaped back into the wild long after its ancestors had died out. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important animal anymore, though. It’s been wild much longer than mustangs and other feral horses and tells us a lot about how truly wild horse ancestors looked and acted. Not only that, its wild ancestor is probably a different species or subspecies of the European wild horse, which was the ancestor of most other domestic horses. The next step for the team of researchers that conducted this study is figuring out more about the ancestors of domestic horses.

The mystery cattle episode also has an update. I didn’t mention Buša cattle in that episode, but I just learned something interesting about it. The Buša is a rare breed of domestic cow that developed in southeastern Europe. It’s a small, hardy animal well adapted to mountainous terrain, and it turns out that it’s the most genetically diverse breed of cattle out of sixty studied. The research team is working to help conserve the breed so that that genetic diversity isn’t lost.

Right after episode 61, where we talked about birds of paradise, researchers announced a new species of bird of paradise! The bird was already known to scientists, but they thought it was just a subspecies of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. But new video footage of a unique mating dance helped researchers determine that this wasn’t just a subspecies, it was different enough to be its own species. It’s called the Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise, and the Superb Bird of Paradise is now called the Greater Superb Bird of Paradise to help differentiate the two species. I’ll put a link in the show notes to an article that has the video embedded if you want to watch it. It’s pretty neat.

In episode 25 we learned about Neandertals, and I said we didn’t have much evidence of them being especially creative by human standards. That was the case when I did my research last summer, but things have definitely changed. In February 2018 archaeologists studying cave paintings in Spain announced that paintings in at least three caves were made by Neandertals and not humans. The paintings have been dated to over 64,000 years old, which is 20,000 years before humans showed up in the area. The precise dating is due to a new and much more accurate dating technique called the uranium-thorium method, which measures the tiny deposits that build up on the paintings. So Neandertals might have been a lot more creative than we’ve assumed. Researchers are now looking at other cave art and artefacts like jewelry and sculptures to consider whether some might also have been made by Neandertals.

New studies about human migration out of Africa have also been published since our humans episode. Human fossils and stone tools found in what is now a desert in Saudi Arabia have been dated to 90,000 years ago, when the area was lush grassland surrounding a lake. Until this finding, researchers thought humans had not settled the area until many thousands of years later.

I think it was episode 27, Creatures of the Deeps, where I mentioned the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition. Well, in only two weeks that expedition discovered more than a dozen new species of crustacean, including a crab with red eyes and fuzzy spines, collected over 12,000 animals to study, and learned a whole lot about what’s down there.

One thing I forgot to mention in episode 11 is that the vampire bat’s fangs stay sharp because they lack enamel. Enamel is a thin but very hard mineral coating found on the teeth of most mammals. It protects the teeth and makes them stronger. But vampire bats don’t chew hard foods like bones or seeds, and not having enamel means that their teeth are softer. I tried to find out more about this, like whether the bat does something specific to keep its teeth sharp, like filing them with tiny tooth files, but didn’t have any luck. On the other hand, I did learn that baby bats are born bottom-first instead of head-first, because this keeps their wings from getting tangled in the birthing canal.

Many thanks to Simon, who has sent me links to several excellent articles I would have missed otherwise. One is about the controversy about sea sponges and comb jellies, and which one was the ancestor of all other animals. We covered the topic in episode 41. Mere weeks after that episode went live, a new study suggests that sponges win the fight. Hurrah for sponges!

Simon also sent me an article about the platypus, which we learned about in episode 45. There’s a lot of weirdness about the platypus, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that platypus milk contains a unique protein so potently antibacterial that it could lead to the development of powerful new antibiotics. Researchers think the antibacterial properties are present in platypus milk because as you may remember, monotremes don’t have teats, just milk patches, and the babies lick the milk up. That means the milk is exposed to bacteria from the environment, so the protein helps keep platypus babies from getting sick.

Simon also suggests that in our mystery bears episode, I forgot a very important one, the Nandi bear! So this sounds like the perfect time to learn about the Nandi bear.

I had heard of the Nandi bear, but I had it confused with the drop bear, an Australian urban myth that’s used primarily to tease tourists and small children. But the Nandi bear is a story from Africa, and it might be based on a real animal.

It has a number of names in Africa and sightings have come from various parts of the continent, but especially Kenya, where it’s frequently called the chemosit. There are lots of stories about what it looks like and how it acts. Generally, it’s supposed to be a ferocious nocturnal animal that sometimes attacks humans on moonless nights, especially children. Some stories say it eats the person’s brain and leaves the rest of the body. That’s creepy. Also, just going to point this out, it’s extremely unlikely. Its shaggy coat is supposed to be dark brown, reddish, or black, and sometimes it will stand on its hind legs. When it’s standing on all four legs, it’s between three and six feet tall, or one to almost two meters. Its head is said to be bear-like in shape. Sometimes it’s described as looking like a hyena, sometimes as a baboon, sometimes as a bear-like animal. Its front legs are often described as powerful.

The first known sighting by someone who actually wrote down their account is from the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, published in 1912. I have a copy and I’m just going to read you the pertinent information. The account is by Geoffrey Williams. The Nandi expedition Williams mentions took place in 1905 and 1906, and while it sounds like it was just a bunch of people exploring, it was actually a military action by the British colonial rulers who killed over 1,100 members of the Nandi tribe in East Africa after they basically said, hey, stop taking our land and resources and people. During the campaign, livestock belonging to the Nandi were killed or stolen, villages and food stores burned, and the people who weren’t killed were forced to live on reservations. Anyway, here’s what Geoffrey Williams had to say about the Nandi bear, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so important than it did before I learned all that:

“Several years ago I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and, of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped on the edge of the Escarpment near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast. There was a thick mist, and my cousin and I were walking on ahead of the safari with one boy when, just as we drew near to the slopes of the hill, the mist cleared away suddenly and my cousin called out ‘What is that?’ Looking in the direction to which he pointed I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches not more than 30 yards away. Its attidue was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high. It is extremely hard to estimate height in a case of this kind; but it seemed to both of us that it was very nearly, if not quite, as tall as we were. Before we had time to do anything it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter. The grass had all been burnt off some weeks earlier and so the animal was clearly visible.

“I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us. It is in this position that I see it most clearly in my mind’s eye. In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare. This distinction was very definite indeed and was the first thing that struck us both. The head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear, as indeed was the whole animal. I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable. The colour was dark and left us both with the impression that it was more or less of a brindle, like a wildebeeste, but this may have been the effect of light.”

A couple of years later, in the same journal, a man saddled with the name Blayney Percival wrote about the Nandi bear. He said, “The stories vary to a very large extent, but the following points seem to agree. The animal is of fairly large size, it stands on its hind legs at times, is nocturnal, very fierce, kills man or animals.” Percival thought the differing stories referred to different animals, known or unknown. He wrote, “An example of a weird animal was the beast described to me in the Sotik country; the name I forget, but the description was very similar to that of the chimiset. Fair size—my pointer dog being given as about its size; stood on hind legs; was very savage. Careful inquiries and a picture of the ratel settled the matter, then out came the information that it was light on the back and dark below, points that would have settled it at once.” The ratel, of course, is the honey badger.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his seminal work On the Track of Unknown Animals that the Nandi bear was probably based on more than one animal. Like Percival, he thought the different accounts were just too different. He thought at least some sightings were of honey badgers, while some were probably hyenas.

So if at least some accounts of the Nandi bear are of an unknown animal, what kind of animal might it be? Is it a bear? Do bears even live in Africa?

Africa has no bears now, but bear fossils at least three million years old have been found in South Africa and Ethiopia. Agriotherium africanum probably went extinct due to increased competition when big cats evolved to be fast, efficient hunters.

So it’s not likely that the Nandi bear is an actual bear. It’s also not likely it’s an ape of some kind, since apes are universally diurnal and the Nandi bear is described as nocturnal. Cryptozoologists have suggested all sorts of animals as a possible solution, but this episode is already getting kind of long so I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m just going to offer my own suggestion, which I have yet to see anywhere else, probably because it’s a bit farfetched. But hey, you never know.

The family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae are extinct now, as far as we know, but they lived throughout much of the world until about two million years ago. They’re known as bear-dogs and were originally thought to be related to bears, but are now considered more closely related to canids, possibly even the ancestors of canids. They are similar but not related to the dog-bears, Hemicyoninae, which are related to bears but which went extinct about 5 million years ago. Someone needs to sort out this bear-dog/dog-bear naming confusion.

Anyway, Amphicyonids lived in Africa, although we don’t have a whole lot of their fossils. The most recent Amphicyonid fossils we have date to about five million years ago and are of dog-sized animals that ate meat and lived in what are now Ethiopia and Kenya. Generally, Amphicyonids were doglike in overall shape but with a heavier bear-like build. They probably had plantigrade feet like bears rather than running on relatively small dog-like paws—basically, canids walk on their toes while bears walk on flat feet like humans. They were probably solitary animals and some researchers think they went extinct mainly because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment and therefore different prey species, and couldn’t compete with smarter, faster pack hunting carnivores.

Maybe a species of Amphicyonid persisted in parts of Africa until recently, rarely seen but definitely feared for its ferocity. Probably not, because five million years is a long time to squeak by in an area with plenty of well-established carnivores. But maybe.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 036: Patagonian giants, Yowie, and Bunyip (Bigfoot part 2)



Part two of the Bigfoot episode sort of got away from me. We start with giants of Patagonia and end up, inexplicably, with seals in Australia. But it’s a fun ride along the way, where we learn about real giants in Patagonia, folkloric giants in Patagonia, the Yowie of Australia, and the Bunyip of Australia. And Southern elephant seals.

Some map giants:

Yowie candy, because it’s getting close to Halloween:

A drawing of the bunyip geoglyph:

A map showing where the geoglyph was located. Old maps are neat:

The southern elephant seal. Look at that magnificent snoot!

Further reading:

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

What to make of the Yowie?” By Darren Naish

“Buckley’s Bunyip” by Paul Michael Donovan, in The Journal of Cryptozoology, Vol. 4 (Dec 2016)

Further listening:

The Folklore Podcast December 15 2016 episode “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed

Show transcript:

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

We’re one week closer to Halloween and deep in monster lore. Last week we learned about the Yeti. This week we’re going to learn about bigfoot-type legends from other parts of the world—specifically, Patagonia and Australia.

Patagonia isn’t a country but a region at the southern tip of South America. Part of it is in Chile, part in Argentina. It includes the Andes Mountains, and the southern end is only 600 miles from Antarctica. People have lived in the area for at least 13,000 years and there are many different indigenous cultures still living there today.

Much of South America was originally populated by the little-known Clovis People, who migrated into the Americas from Asia once the glaciers retreated from Alaska. The Clovis People are supposed to have arrived around 13,000 years ago, but archaeologists have dated some non-Clovis sites in both North and South America to much earlier than that. One theory is that an earlier human migration reached South America by sea from the South Pacific, although this is controversial. DNA studies of First Nations people suggest that there may have been an earlier migration from Asia into North America, possibly 20,000 years ago, before the Clovis People arrived.

The first Europeans to visit Patagonia were Magellan and his crew on their voyage around the world. They spent the winter in Patagonia in 1520, and Magellan is the one who named the area. Specifically, he named its people Patagons, and reported that they were giants.

Antonio Pigafetta was one of only 18 survivors of the expedition. When he got home, he wrote about his adventures. He described the Patagons as nine to twelve feet tall, or 2 and three-quarters to over 3 and a half meters tall.

Soon everyone in Europe knew Patagonia was the land of giants. Maps of the region included illustrations of bearded men nearly twice as tall as the explorers greeting them. It would be easy to dismiss the accounts of giants as inventions to sell a few books, except that other explorers were reporting the same thing.

A priest from a Spanish expedition reported that in 1525 he saw native men who were 13 spans tall, or 9 feet, or 2.75 meters. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake visited Patagonia, and later his chaplain reported seeing giants 5 cubits tall, or 7 ½ feet, or 2.3 meters. In 1579 another Spanish expedition started a short-lived settlement in the Strait of Magellan, which ended up being renamed Port Famine, and maybe they wouldn’t have starved if they hadn’t started off by killing one of the giant locals. According to the expedition leader, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, it took ten men to capture the native. Only one settler survived the bitter winters and lack of provisions. He was rescued by an Englishman, Sir Thomas Cavendish, who didn’t see any giants but did see footprints he reported as 18” long, or almost 46 centimeters.

The reports of giants continued, in 1591, 1599, 1614, 1641, and so on well into the 18th century. In 1615 two men dug up some stone cairns and underneath found human skeletons they said were ten or eleven feet long, or a bit over 3 meters. In 1642 Dutch admiral Henry Brewer reported more 18” footsteps in Tierra del Fuego.

All this sounds definitive. But other expeditions didn’t report seeing giants, including those from 1535, 1540, a land exploration from 1557 to 1559, 1618, another land expedition from 1623 to 1624, 1670, and so on. Tellingly, after a 1741 shipwreck on the southern Chilean coast, a survivor, John Bulkeley, claimed he encountered gigantic men in the area—but Thomas Pascoe, a member of the same fleet, disagreed. He said the people in the area were average-sized—and, incidentally, not wild cannibals as Bulkeley claimed. Pascoe called them “harmless, civil, and inoffensive.”

So what’s going on? Are all these people, hundreds of sailors, soldiers, priests, and even naturalists, from different eras and nations, all liars?

In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis, apparently fed up with the conflicting reports about giants, sailed to Patagonia with a measuring rod. There he measured some very tall people, for sure, but not giants. The tallest man he measured was 6 feet 7 inches, or 2.01 meters, with several others only an inch or two shorter. But, he reported, most were between 5 feet 10 inches and six feet tall, or 1.78 to 1.83 meters. And their feet, he mentioned, were quite small.

Several subsequent European measuring expeditions revealed the same proportions among the Tehuelche, a large and varied group of nomadic people who lived throughout Patagonia. The Tehuelche were among the tallest people in the world. Since the average height of a northern European in the 16th century was 5’ 6” or 1.67 meters, and the average height of a southern European was only 5 feet or 1.5 meters, a group of people whose average height was 6’1” or 1.86 meters would seem like giants. The rest was likely due to exaggeration.

The Tehuelche were almost completely destroyed in the late 19th century, and those who survived warfare and introduced diseases were mostly absorbed into other groups. Only about 6,000 Tehuelche remain scattered across South America.

But were the Tehuelche the only so-called giants in Patagonia? Various Europeans reported another group called the Tiremenen or the Caucauhue, who were not just tall, but stout and muscular mountain people last seen around the 1700s. They were supposedly bigger than the Tehuelche, warlike and dangerous. According to various stories, the Tehuelche finally killed the last of them after a fierce battle. Survivors of the battle took refuge in a cave, where the Tehuelche lit fires and asphyxiated them with thick smoke.

So far, all these giants are people, not furry Bigfoots. But there are plenty of stories from various indigenous groups of wild men and monsters in Patagonia, especially in the forests and mountains. According to the Alakuf, the Mwono was a snow man that lived among the glaciers and high mountains and left tracks in the snow. Over a thousand miles north, or 2,000 km, the Mapuche told a similar story. The Carcancho were hairy solitary men who lived in the mountains. They could stand almost 7 feet tall, or over 2 meters, and left large footprints in the snow. The Mapuche also believed that a giant with fiery red hair and beard, called a Trauko, lived along the Collón Curá River.

While the Mapuche people have lived in what is now Chile and Argentina for some 2500 years, they differ genetically from other indigenous peoples of Patagonia. When they moved into Patagonia, they conquered and absorbed many other tribes, and it’s possible many of their stories of the olden days come from those tribes. They say that giant animals once lived in the area but that their ancestors killed most of them, along with the evil giants that once lived there too. It’s hard not to speculate that the giant animals were megafauna like giant ground sloths. But all the people who migrated to the Americas were humans—no Neandertals or other of our relations made it there as far as we know—and until humans arrived, there were no members of the ape family in the Americas.

So what about other primates? Researchers aren’t sure how monkeys made it to South America, but they’ve been there for some 37 million years. They lived first in the Amazon basin and spread slowly throughout South and Central America. But there are no species of monkey in Patagonia and there hasn’t been for millions of years. The few species of monkey that had spread into Patagonia had already gone extinct long before our first human ancestor started walking upright, so it’s not likely that the first human settlers of Patagonia encountered monkeys. Of course, you never know what fossils might come to light in the future, and there are scattered stories about tribes of men with tails in Patagonia.

In his marvelous book The Monsters of Patagonia, author Austin Whittall suggests that the Patagonian wild man legends, as well as other story elements, may be connected to Australian Aboriginal legends. If the original settlers of Patagonia did arrive by sea from Austronesia, which is by no means established, they would have adapted their stories to their new home. Whittall also suggests that one story in particular may be related to Homo erectus, our direct human ancestor who probably went extinct when humans began competing with them for resources. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines probably did encounter Homo erectus. Maybe that was the source of the Yowie legend.

I probably don’t need to point out that this is fringey, fringey stuff. But it’s fun to think about.

The Yowie in Australian Aboriginal lore is a man-like monster that’s seven or even as much as 12 feet tall, or around 2 to 3 and a half meters. It has big feet, although some stories say its feet are backwards so people tracking it are actually going the wrong way. Sometimes the Yowie is said to have long white hair. Modern interpretations of the Yowie are a lot like the Sasquatch, with brown or reddish hair all over and arms that hang to its knees.

Many older accounts by European settlers refer to this creature by various other names, including wood devil, Australian gorilla, and Yahoo. I don’t know if Yahoo was an attempt at pronouncing an unfamiliar Aboriginal word or if 19th century pop culture was still drawing on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In Swift’s story, yahoos are brutish but human-like creatures much despised by the narrator, who prefers the company of the intelligent horses that treat the yahoos as servants. Oh, the satire was subtle back in 1726.

These days, the Yowie is as firmly entrenched in Australian culture as Sasquatch is in North American culture. Yowies sell chocolates and toys, appear in cartoons, and like Sasquatch hunters, Yowie hunters run around in the Australian bush and make plaster casts of big footprints.

Let me tell you something important about plaster. It’s a terrible way to make casts of footprints or anything else. Not only does it produce tiny ridges along its edges as it dries, which have been interpreted as dermal ridges of bigfoot feet, it also generates heat as it dries, which has the potential to alter the prints it’s supposed to be faithfully representing. These days, field scientists use dental stone or latex to take casts. Plaster is cheap and readily available, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Anyway, the earliest colonial reports of the Yowie are from around the early 19th century. European settlers sometimes treated the Yowie as a real animal that had yet to be discovered, sometimes as an amusing Aboriginal superstition. Reported Yowie sightings were relatively uncommon until the 1970s. At that point, cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy, whom I disparaged in episode 32 for being secretive about his findings and data, started showing up in the Australian media with big plaster casts of what he claimed were Yowie tracks.

The problem with the Yowie is that Australia, even less so than Patagonia, has never been home to any animal that stands upright the way humans do. Most of Australia’s large mammals are marsupials so they aren’t even remotely related to apes.

It’s possible that the Aboriginal tales of the Yowie are old, old memories of Homo erectus or other human relatives, as I suggested about the Patagonian wild men. But it’s also possible that the Yowie is a monster of human imagination. Cultures from around the world have stories of big people and little people who sometimes help, sometimes cause mischief, or are sometimes just plain menacing. It seems to be a human trait to people the landscape with giants and dwarves.

The more research I do about any cryptid, as opposed to animals we know exist or used to exist, the more I realize cryptozoology is actually about people. It’s the study not so much of unknown animals, it’s the study of how humans interact with the unknown. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I trace a fascinating story back to its primary source and discover it’s not as mysterious as later versions of the event make it out to be. But sometimes I come across something so purely human that I don’t even care that the mystery has evaporated.

So let me tell you about the Bunyip. This is another Australian monster, one that sometimes gets confused with the Yowie in popular culture, or sometimes gets lumped in with lake monsters. I learned about this from an article by Paul Michael Donovan in the 2016 Journal of Cryptozoology, called “Buckley’s Bunyip.” Shortly after I read the article, I happened to listen to the “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed” episode of the Folklore Podcast. That episode was an interview with none other than Paul Michael Donovan about the same material his article covered, so if you want more information, check the show notes for a link to that episode.

The bunyip is supposed to be a monster that attacks and eats people who come too near the waterholes or lagoons where it lives. Descriptions vary, but it’s sometimes said to be gray and covered with feathers, with a peculiar two-tone bellow that it uses to warn people away. By about the 1850s the word bunyip had been adopted into Australian English as a term meaning something like humbug or poser.

There was an Aboriginal sacred site near Ararat, Victoria where the outline of a bunyip was carved into the ground and the turf removed from within the figure. Every year the local indigenous people would gather to re-carve the figure so it wouldn’t become overgrown, because it symbolized an important event. At that spot, two brothers had been attacked by a bunyip. It killed one of the men and the other speared the bunyip and killed it. When he brought his family and others back to retrieve his brother’s body, they traced around the bunyip.

The bunyip carving is long gone, since eventually the last Aborigine who was part of the ritual died sometime in the 1850s and the site was fenced off for cattle grazing. But we have a drawing of the geoglyph from 1867. A copy of it is in the show notes. It’s generally taken to be a two-legged sea serpent type monster with a small head and a relatively short, thick tail. Some people think it represents a bird like an emu.

But if you turn it around, with the small head being the end of a tail, and the blunt tail being a head, suddenly it makes sense. It’s the shape of a seal.

The Southern elephant seal lives around the Antarctic, but it is a rare visitor to Australia. It’s also enormous, twice the size of a walrus, six or seven times heavier than a Polar bear. The males can grow over 20 feet long, or over six meters, while females are typically about half that length. The male also has an inflatable proboscis with which it makes horrible roaring sounds. This is a clip of what it sounds like, although these calls are from Northern elephant seals, which are much smaller than Southern elephant seals. Still pretty darn big, though.

[seals honking]

The elephant seal is also an aggressive carnivore. If an elephant seal strayed inland up a river or stream, which does sometimes happen, the Aboriginal people of the area would definitely take notice of the monster.

So the bunyip is, in the end, a true monster. And the bunyip’s story is a deeply human one. A man’s brother died. His family mourned, and commemorated the event with a carving that withstood who knows how many years. Oh, and the carving’s size? It was about eight meters long. That’s 26 feet.

I’m not entirely sure how I ended up talking about seals when we started out talking about giants of Patagonia. But hey, the southern elephant seal lives in Patagonia too.

I could easily do two or three more episodes about bigfoots around the world, but I’m ready for something else. Next week we’ll learn about a four-footed monster from Ireland, a Halloween story if I ever heard one since it starts with a gravestone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 035: The Yeti (Bigfoot part 1)



It’s October, MONSTER MONTH! We’re starting it off right with an episode about the Yeti! I literally could have made this episode an hour long without even touching on half the information out there, but no one wants to listen to me talk for that long. If you’re intrigued and want to hear more about our big furry friend from the Himalayas, check out the fine podcasts listed below.

The Himalayas, in map form:

A Himalayan brown bear (tongue blep alert!):

A bear standing up (this is a brown bear from Alaska but I like the picture. Bears stand up a lot):

Recommended listening:

Museum of Natural Mystery – episode 14: “Backtracking with Bigfoot” – highly recommended for information about North American bigfoot/Sasquatch lore and history. It’s family friendly and not very long. I heart it.

MonsterTalk – episode 116 “Yetipalooza” – lots of Yeti information and some terrible, terrible puns

Strange Matters Podcast – “Legendary Humanoid Creatures” – a good overview of a lot of different bigfoot type monsters, including the Yeti

Hidden Creatures Podcast – Episode Six A “Yearning for the Yeti’s Discovery” and Episode Six B “The Yeti…Again” – lots of info on the Yeti

All of the above should be family friendly, with possible mild language.

Resources/further reading:

The Historical Bigfoot by Chad Arment

Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

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

It’s October and that means monsters. Let’s jump right in with one of the biggest stars of cryptozoology, bigfoot!

As part of my research for this episode, I listened to other podcasts that have covered bigfoot and his kin. One of those was the Museum of Natural Mystery’s episode 14, Backtracking with Bigfoot. I was more than a little dismayed when I listened to that one, because it’s exactly what I had hoped to do with this episode. In fact, while Museum of Natural Mystery covers other topics than just animals, when they do focus on animals they scratch the same itch I created Strange Animals podcast to scratch. If I’d discovered them earlier, the podcast you’re listening to now would probably be about music or something, not animals.

There’s a link to Backtracking with Bigfoot in the show notes and I highly recommend you go listen to it. It focuses mainly on the Bigfoot phenomenon in North America, from Sasquatch to skunk apes. Rather than cover the same ground, my focus here is going to be on bigfoot legends from other parts of the world. There’s so much fascinating information out there that I had to break the episode into two parts. This week we’re looking at the yeti.

But first, some background. There are a couple of starting places for the modern concept of bigfoot. In 1921, the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, the front and rear tracks overlapping and the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man.

At about the same time, the 1920s, British Columbian schoolteacher John W. Burns was collecting reports of Native encounters with giant wild people. He coined the term Sasquatch by anglicizing a couple of different words from several different Native dialects.

Burns published his stories in magazines. Howard-Bury talked to reporters about his Everest expedition. The idea of bigfoot took shape and took off in the public imagination. It merged with giant apes and ape-men in popular culture, like King Kong in 1933 and the movie Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932, both of which were huge hits.

Before this, from the early 19th century to around the 1940s, newspaper reports that would today be called bigfoot sightings were attributed to wild men or occasionally to escaped gorillas or other apes. Some were hoaxes, some seem to concern real humans living outside of society, and some are probably misidentifications of bears and other real animals. Very few suggest the wild man in question was a creature unknown to science. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any legit sightings of an actual bigfoot mixed in, just that bigfoot wasn’t yet a common concept.

But by 1967, year of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, the notion of bigfoot as a huge, hairy, upright ape was firmly planted in western culture. Most of us know a fair amount about North American Sasquatches just from popular culture. ‘Squatch-hunters on TV stumble around in the woods at night, which by the way I never understood since apes are not nocturnal. Bigfoot appears in TV commercials, movies, and is the subject of documentaries that are all pretty much identical. But most of us are less familiar with the Yeti.

The English-speaking world first learned about the Yeti after a 1921 expedition to Mount Everest. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the expedition members recognized that a line of huge human-like prints they spotted in the snow above 20,000 feet probably belonged to wolves or some other four-legged animal. The forepaw and hind paw prints overlapped, making a double track of what looked like long, relatively narrow footprints. Then the snow partially melted, obscuring the details and enlarging the prints. Colonel Howard-Bury, the expedition leader, was very clear about this in the London Times in October 1921, and dismissed as superstition the Sherpas’ statement that the tracks belonged to a hairy wild man.

Maybe all that was true, but if you’re a journalist hoping to sell papers, which story are you going to run with? After the expedition returned to India, journalist Henry Newman interviewed the porters and published a sensational account of their stories. He translated their name for the wild man, Metoh kangmi, as “abominable snowman.” Maybe you’ve heard of it.

As it turns out, Metoh kangmi means something closer to man-bear. In fact, it means man-bear, man-bear, because both mi-te and kangmi mean the same thing.

The peoples who live in and around the Himalayas speak a lot of different languages. They also have a lot of different names for what we call the Yeti. Yeti is a corruption of a Sherpa term, yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. Other terms translate to wild man, cattle bear, brown bear, and white bear. I’m going to refer to all these creatures as the Yeti for convenience sake.

While the pop culture version of the Yeti is a white bigfoot striding through the snow, actual sightings of Yetis are of brown, black, or even reddish creatures. Local Yeti lore throughout the Himalayas doesn’t describe a specifically upright apeman or even a particularly human-like monster, either. To locals, yetis are fairly amorphous, and when they are described, they tend to have bear-like or even big-cat-like characteristics.

As an example, here’s a quote from one of the earliest Yeti reports, from 1889. I’m taking the quote from the book Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Links to all the books I used in my research are in the show notes, of course. Anyway, the quote itself comes from a book called Among the Himalayas by Laurence A. Waddell:

“Some large footprints in the snow led across our track, and away up to higher peaks. These are alleged to be the trail of the hairy wild men who are believed to live amongst the eternal snows, along with the mythical white lions, whose roar is reputed to be heard during storms. The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved itself into something that somebody heard tell of.”

Waddell goes on to declare that the wild man was nothing more than a bear, then says that the people of the area are just superstitious ignoramuses.

I dislike that most descriptions and discussions about Yetis are filtered through European experiences, and that the older reports especially have a high-handed tone that ruffles my feathers—not just racist, but classist as well. Brown people and poor people are not stupid, and what someone from one culture dismisses as a superstition may be a deeply held religious belief in another culture. Moreover, as anthropologist John Napier wrote in 1973, the superstitious sherpas that white explorers sneer at may actually have been having a sly joke at their employers’ expense—that or they’re just being polite and telling their employers what they think they want to hear. Or both, heck. People are complicated.

But consider what has happened when Europeans eager to discover the “truth” of the Yeti encounter Buddhist monks with Yeti relics. In 1959 Tom Slick, a rich Texas oilman who liked to indulge his hobby of bigfoot hunting—we met him in the giant salamander episode, you may remember—funded an expedition to Nepal to hunt for the Yeti. This was his fourth Yeti hunt, and some historians suspect he and many other explorers in the area had CIA connections. This was during the cold war, remember. But Slick’s interest in the Yeti was genuine, and during his 1958 expedition he had tried to buy a mummified Yeti hand from a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, Nepal. The hand, along with a Yeti scalp, was a sacred relic and definitely not for sale. So in 1959 Slick arranged for explorer Peter Byrne to go back to the monastery and steal a finger from the hand. Supposedly Byrne replaced the missing finger with a human finger he had brought with him. Where on earth do you even get a human finger? Anyway, as Byrne reports, to get the finger out of Nepal he gave it to the actor Jimmy Stewart, who was one of the expedition’s backers. Stewart’s wife Gloria smuggled the Yeti finger out of the country in her lingerie case. It was later analyzed and found to be a human finger.

Everything about this story is horrible. First of all, it is not cool to steal sacred relics. Second, it’s not cool to swap out human body parts to cover your theft. And third, you know what they did with the stolen Yeti finger that turned out to be human? They lost it, that’s what they did. For decades no one knew where it had gone. Fortunately, it was rediscovered in a London museum in 2008, and DNA analysis confirmed it was human. The BBC interviewed Byrne in 2011 and his story had changed somewhat about his acquisition of the finger. He now says he paid the monastery for it. Mmhm. Sure. Someone stole the rest of the hand from the monastery in the 1990s, along with a yeti skull-cap.

Other Yeti remains have been analyzed more ethically. Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who first summited Everest, and zoologist Marlon Perkins mounted an expedition in 1960 through ‘61, and went back to the Pangboche monastery to examine their relics. But this time, no one stole anything. In fact, the expedition paid for some repairs to the monastery, and paid for a village elder to accompany a Yeti scalp they were allowed to borrow, which they sent to be analyzed. They also raised money to construct schools and medical clinics in remote villages, among other good works.

The Yeti scalp, and others like it, turned out to be made from the shoulder skin of a goat-like wild animal called a serow. In fact, the Hillary-Perkins expedition was able to make its own Yeti scalps with serow skins dried over a conical wooden mold. It sent its homemade scalps with the borrowed scalp for analysis without telling the lab that some were not authentic. The results came back that all the scalps were made from the same type of animal skin.

In 1986 mountaineer Reinhold Messner had a terrifying encounter with an unknown animal. I’m going to quote it at length because it’s pretty awesome. It’s from his book My Quest for the Yeti, but I have taken the quote again from Abominable Science.

“Making my way through some ash-colored juniper bushes, I suddenly heard an eerie sound—a whistling noise, similar to the warning call mountain goats make. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the outline of an upright figure dart between the trees to the edge of the clearing, where low-growing thickets covered the steep slope. The figure hurried on, silent and hunched forward, disappearing behind a tree only to reappear again against the moonlight. It stopped for a moment and turned to look at me. Again I heard the whistle, more of an angry hiss, and for a heartbeat I saw eyes and teeth. The creature towered menacingly, its face a gray shadow, its body a black outline. Covered with hair, it stood upright on two short legs and had powerful arms that hung down almost to its knees. I guessed it to be over seven feet tall. Its body looked much heavier than that of a man of that size, but it moved with such agility and power toward the edge of the escarpment that I was both startled and relieved. Most I was stunned. No human would have been able to run like that in the middle of the night. It stopped again beyond the trees by the low-growing thickets, as if to catch its breath, and stood motionless in the moonlit night without looking back.”

Messner finishes the sighting by saying it rushed up the slope out of sight on all fours. Messner fled to the nearest village.

After that he spent the next ten years searching for more information on the Yeti. He examined Yeti remains in various monasteries and in all cases found they were either taxidermied creations made from various known animals, or the pelts of bears. In 1997 in the peaks of the Nanga Partains, he and his guide Rozi Ali saw what the locals called a dremo. That’s a Tibetan word commonly used for both the yeti and the Himalayan brown bear. Here’s his description:

“One afternoon, after a long trek, we encountered another dremo. He fled when he saw us, but then seemed to stop and rest in a hollow. I approached the spot from behind some ridges so that he wouldn’t pick up my scent. Rozi Ali followed me. When I began to climb down to where the animal was sleeping in the grass, Rozi Ali tried to stop me. I broke free from his grasp and came within twenty yards of the animal, where I took some good pictures. Rozi Ali, crouching some way back, begged me to make a run for it. He was sweating with fear.

“The animal woke up and looked at me in the way a startled child would a stranger. It was a young brown bear.”

He also says they saw another dremo later, while in Kashmir, and it was “running away on two legs. From a distance it looked uncannily like a wild man”. But it too was a brown bear.

Messner concluded, not unreasonably, that the Yeti was a bear. Many others agree. As it happens, I agree too, and I wonder if a bear that walks upright like a person is perhaps considered to have supernatural traits. After all, Messner found it eerie even when he knew what he was seeing. That might explain the overlap between terms for yeti and terms for bears, and would also explain why so many words translated as yeti actually mean man-bear. But I’d be delighted if a strange upright animal lives in the remote parts of the world, even if that strange animal just turns out to be a new species of bear.

In 2014, geneticists from Oxford University analyzed hair samples from a Himalayan bear and determined that the DNA was similar to that of a 40,000 year old polar bear. But a new analysis in 2015 by geneticists from the Smithsonian and the University of Kansas was a lot less exciting, determining that the hair belonged to a native brown bear after all—but probably to a rare, endangered subspecies of brown bear that lives in parts of the Himalayas, sometimes called the Tibetan blue bear. It’s not blue, by the way. It’s brown. I don’t know why it’s called a blue bear.

The Himalayan brown bear usually lives above the timber line in the mountains and like other bears is omnivorous. That means it eats both plants and meat. It especially likes to eat marmots, a chubby rodent related to squirrels that looks a lot like a prairie dog.

Many cryptozoologists think the Yeti and other bigfoot-type creatures must be either an unknown offshoot of the human family, like a Neandertal, or another unknown great ape that has developed an upright stance, such as a descendant of Gigantopithecus. They even propose that different types of bigfoots are different species of upright ape, all unknown to science.

I do think there are a lot of unknown animals out there, but I’m definitely skeptical that somehow we’ve overlooked multiple living species of giant apes, and not only that, that we haven’t even found fossil or subfossil remains of any of them. Gigantopithecus, by the way, is RIGHT out as a possibility. It was huge, sure, and an ape, sure, but it disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago and ate mostly bamboo. Some researchers think it died out due to competition with pandas, in fact. It was related to orangutans and probably looked more like a big gorilla than a human, and would not stand upright. Remember that among all mammals, humans are the only ones who have developed true bipedalism, and we’ve sacrificed a lot in exchange. For instance, we have weak backs, childbirth is much more difficult, and we frequently die from falling off our own feet and cracking our heads, despite our massively thickened skulls. Other apes would not have developed bipedalism unless they faced the same intense evolutionary pressures that our ancestors did millions of years ago. But we have found no evidence whatsoever that other apes developed bipedalism.

So what about the Yeti being the descendants of Neandertals or other close human relatives? That’s a stronger argument, but if you’ve listened to episode 25 about our close cousins, you’ll remember that they were wearing jewelry and making tools before disappearing from the fossil record only around 30,000 years ago. They didn’t have fur and wouldn’t have been walking around in the snow with bare feet. Our cousins basically looked and acted a whole lot like we do. Remember also that the ancestors of humans and our close relations have been painting our bare skins with ochre and other minerals for 300,000 years for social reasons. We’re not going to go back to sprouting thick fur coats and wandering the mountains in solitude, not without many millions of years of selective evolutionary pressures. But bears are already big hairy solitary animals, and bears can and do walk upright for stretches, especially younger animals.

I could talk about the Yeti for the next hour and still not cover all the material available, so if you’re a Yeti enthusiast who’s sputtering about me skipping all the best evidence, there are a ton of excellent podcasts who’ve covered the topic in much more detail and come up with much different conclusions than I have. I’ve included links to a bunch of them in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in digging a lot deeper into the Yeti’s history.

Next week we’ll be visiting other remote areas of the world to look at more obscure bigfoot-type legends, from Australia’s bunyip and yowie to the giants of Patagonia. Until then, remember to sample the candy you bought to give out on Halloween, to make sure you made good choices. It’s okay if you have to get more later.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 026: Humans Part Two



Part two of our humans episode is about a couple of our more distant cousins, the Flores little people (Homo floresiensis) and Homo naledi, with side trips to think about Rumpelstiltskin, trolls, and the Ebu gogo.

Homo floresiensis skull compared to a human skull. We are bigheaded monsters in comparison. Also, we got chins.

Homo naledi’s skull. I stole that picture from Wits University homepage because I really liked the quote and it turns out it’s too small really to read. Oh well.

Some of our cousins. Homo erectus in the middle is our direct ancestor. So is Lucy, an Australopithecus, although she lived much longer ago.

Show transcript

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

This week is part two of our humans episode. Last week we learned how modern humans evolved and about two of our close cousins, Neandertals and Denisovans. This week, we’re going to walk on the weirder side of the hominin world.

Before we get started, this episode should go live on July 31, 2017, one week before I fly to Helsinki, Finland for WorldCon 75! Don’t worry, I’ve got episodes scheduled to run normally until I get home. If you’re going to be in Finland between August 8 and August 17, let me know so we can meet up. On Thursday, August 10 and 4pm I’ll be on a panel in room 207 about how to start a podcast, so check it out if you’re attending the convention. I’ll also be in Oslo during the day on August 7 and have two birding trips planned with lunch in between, and I’d love you to join me if you’re in Oslo that day too. Then, two weeks after I return from Finland, I’ll be attending DragonCon over Labor Day weekend. blah blah blah this is old news

Now, let’s learn about some of our stranger distant cousins!

In 2003, a team of archaeologists, some from Australia and some from Indonesia, were in Indonesia to look for evidence of prehistoric human settlement. They were hoping to learn more about when humans first migrated from Asia to Australia. One of the places they searched was Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores. They found hominin remains all right, but they were odd.

The first skeleton they discovered was remarkably small, only a bit more than three and a half feet tall [106 cm] although it wasn’t a child’s skeleton. That skeleton was mostly complete, including the skull, and appears to be that of a woman around 30 years old. She’s been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores, or just Flo to her friends. Officially, she’s LB1, the type specimen for a new species of hominin, Homo floresiensis.

But until very recently, that statement was super controversial. In fact, there’s hardly anything about the Flores remains that aren’t controversial.

At first researchers thought the remains were not very old, maybe only twelve or thirteen thousand years old, or 18,000 at the most. Stone tools were found in the same sediment layer where Flo was discovered, as were animal bones. The tools were small, clearly intended for hands about the size of Flo’s, which argued right off the bat that she was part of a small-statured species and wasn’t an aberrant individual.

The following year, 2004, the team returned to the cave and found more skeletal remains, none very complete, but they were all about Flo’s size. Researchers theorized that the people had evolved from a population of Homo erectus that had arrived on the island more than three quarters of a million years before, and that they had become smaller as a type of island dwarfism. A volcanic eruption 12,000 before had likely killed them all off, along with the pygmy elephants they hunted.

But as more research was conducted, the date of the skeletons kept getting pushed back: from 18,000 years old to 95,000 years old to 150,000 years old to 190,000 years old. Dating remains in the cave is difficult, because it’s been subject to flooding and partial flooding over the centuries. Currently, the skeletal remains are thought to date to 60,000 years ago and the stone tools to around 50,000 years ago.

When news of the finds was released, the press response was enthusiastic, to say the least. The skeletons were dubbed Hobbits for their small size, which made the Tolkien estate’s head explode, and practically every few weeks it seems there was another article about whether there were small people still living quietly on the island of Flores, yet to be discovered.

And, of course, there were lots of indignant scientists who were apparently personally angry that the skeletons were considered a new species of hominin instead of regular old Homo sapiens. Part of the issue was that only one skull has ever been found. It’s definitely small, and the other skeletal remains are all correspondingly small, and the stone tools are all correspondingly small, and the skull shows a number of important differences from that of a normal human. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a subspecies of Homo sapiens, and of course that needs to be investigated. But some of the arguments got surprisingly ugly. There were even accusations that the entire find was faked. One person even suggested that the skull’s teeth showed evidence of modern dental work.

Amid all this, two unfortunate things happened. First, in December 2004 an Indonesian paleoanthropologist named Teuku Jacob removed almost all the bones from Jakarta’s National Research Centre of Archaeology for his own personal study for three months. When he returned them, two leg bones were missing, two jaw bones were badly damaged, and a pelvis was smashed. Then, not long after, Indonesia closed access to Liang Bua cave without explanation, although the archeological community suspected it was due to Jacob’s influence, and didn’t reopen it until 2007 after Jacob died.

It’s important to note that Jacob was a proponent of the theory that the remains found in Liang Bua cave were microcephalic individuals of the prehistoric local population, not a new hominin species at all. He also had a history of keeping Indonesian fossils from being studied unless he specifically approved of the research.

At any rate, since then, repeated studies of the LB1 skull have suggested that Homo floresiensis is a separate species of hominin and not a Homo sapiens with evidence of pathology, whether microcephaly or another disease, or a population with a genetic abnormality. There’s still plenty of research needed, of course, and hopefully some more skulls will be found. But it seems clear that Homo floresiensis isn’t just a weird subspecies of Homo sapiens.

One of the more common theories in the last few years was that Homo floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus, although Homo erectus was a lot bigger and more human-like than the Flores little people. But results of a study released just a few months ago show that Homo floresiensis shared a common ancestor with Homo habilis around 1.75 million years ago. Homo floresiensis may have evolved before migrating out of Africa, or their ancestor migrated and evolved into Homo floresiensis. Either way, they spread as far as Indonesia before dying out around 50,000 years ago.

Other hominin remains have since been found on the island. Part of a jaw and teeth were found at Mata Menge on the island of Flores, some 50 miles away from the cave. It’s around 700,000 years old and is a bit smaller than the same bones in the later skeletons. Researchers think it’s an older form of Homo floresiensis.

Possibly not coincidentally, modern humans arrived on the island about 50,000 years ago, maybe earlier, bringing with them the arts of fire, painting, making jewelry from animal bones, and killing all of our genetic cousins.

We don’t know if humans deliberately killed the Homo floresiensis people or if they just outcompeted them. It does seem pretty certain that the two hominin species coexisted on the island for at least a while. It’s even possible that knowledge of the strange small people of the island has persisted in folk tales told by the Nage people of Flores. Stories about the ebu gogo have been documented for centuries. They were supposed to be little hairy people around three feet tall [one meter], with broad faces and big mouths. They were fast runners with their own language and would eat anything, frequently swallowing it whole. In some stories they sometimes kidnapped human children to make the children teach them how to cook, although the children always outwitted the ebu gogo.

Supposedly, at some point, tired of their children being kidnapped and their food being stolen, villagers gave the ebu gogo palm fibers so they could make clothes. The ebu gogo took the fibers to their cave, and the villagers threw a torch in after them. The fiber went up in flames and killed all of the ebu gogo.

Until the discovery of Homo floresiensis, anthropologists assumed the stories were about macaque monkeys. But there’s a genuine possibility that the ebu gogo tales are memories of Homo floresiensis. It’s not just cryptozoologists and bigfoot enthusiasts making the connection between the ebu gogo and Homo floresiensis. Articles and editorials have appeared in journals such as Nature, Scientific American, and Anthropology Today. At least, they did back when archeologists thought Flo was only about 12,000 years old.

But we still don’t know for certain when Homo floresiensis went extinct. There may be remains that are much more recent than 50,000 years ago. Locals mostly say there are no ebu gogo left but that they were still around about a century ago. I don’t know how long historical elements can persist in an oral tradition without becoming distorted. As we discussed in episode 17, about Thunderbird, oral history is easily lost if the culture is disrupted by invasion, disease, war, or other major episodes. But some stories are tougher than others, and those that are less history and more entertainment—although they may contain warnings too—can be very, very old.

Researchers have traced some traditional folktales, like Rumpelstiltskin, back some 4,000 or even 6,000 years, although not without controversy. But while Rumpelstiltskin is usually described as a small person, no one’s suggesting that story is about real events. It’s the juxtaposition of the Flores discoveries of small skeletons and the oral tradition or small people living on the island that got researchers excited. And as it happens, there is an oral tradition many miles and many cultures away from Flores that might be something similar.

Old Norse stories about trolls date back thousands of years. The trolls vary in appearance and sometimes have a lot of overlap with other monsters, but generally are described as big and strong, not very smart, often placid unless provoked, and usually evil, or at least godless. Sometimes they capture humans who outwit them to escape. In one story, a man named Esbern Snare wanted to marry a woman, but her father would only agree to the marriage if Esbern would build a church. Esbern struck a deal with a troll, who said he would build the church—on one condition. If Esbern couldn’t guess the troll’s name by the time the church was built, the troll would demand as his payment Esbern’s heart and eyes.

Esbern agreed, but he failed to trick the troll into telling him his name. On the final day, in despair Esbern threw himself down on the bank of a river, where he overheard the troll’s wife singing to her baby:

“Hush, hush, baby mine,

Tomorrow comes Finn, father thine,

To bring you Esbern’s heart and eyes

To play with, so now hush your cries.”

Esbern rushed back to the church and greeted Finn the troll by name. In some version of the story, Finn is so furious that he leaves the church incomplete in some way, usually a missing pillar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Rumpelstiltskin story, that’s a variant. Oh, and Esbern Snare was a real person who lived in the twelfth century, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually strike any deals with trolls.

But I do wonder if some elements of troll folklore might be derived from memories of Neandertal people. I’m not the first to suggest this, although it is a pretty fringey theory. And in the end, we just don’t have any way to know. But it is interesting to think about.

As you may remember from part one of the humans episode, Homo sapiens evolved roughly 200,000 years ago. But around the same time, or a little earlier, another cousin in our family tree was living in southern Africa. Remains of Homo naledi were only discovered in 2013 by some cavers. Partial skeletons from at least 15 individuals were recovered in one field season, but due to narrow cave passages, the field work had to be done by people of small stature who weren’t claustrophobic, mostly women.

Homo naledi is a mixture of primitive and advanced features. Primitive in this case means more like our ape ancestors, and advanced means more like modern humans. Homo naledi had long legs and feet that looked just like ours, but also had a small brain and fingers that are much more curved than ours—not characteristics that would look out of place a few million years ago, but surprising to discover in our family tree at about the same time that modern humans were evolving.

On the other hand (with curved fingers), evolution doesn’t have an end goal. Homo sapiens is not the pinnacle of creation to which all other living beings aspire. We’re just another animal, just another great ape. If Homo naledi was successful in their environment with a small brain, that’s all that matters from an evolutionary standpoint.

There are lots of remains left in the cave, so many in fact that some researchers are convinced they didn’t get there by accident. It’s possible that the cave was used as a burial pit, maybe even over the course of centuries. Bodies may have been dropped in a deep shaft and were then moved by periodic flooding to the remote chamber where they were found, or they may have been carried to the cave depths and left there.

Homo naledi wasn’t a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, but they were definitely a kind of human—no matter how small their brains may have been.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 025: Humans Part I (Neanderthals and Denisovans)



This week is our first two-parter ever! I don’t intend to do that often but there was just too much to go over for one episode. This week we’ll talk about humans: where we come from, how we evolved, and who our closest cousins are–Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Some young humans. Humans can do many surprising things, including surfing, making stained glass, and repairing helicopters. Most humans like the color blue and enjoy listening to music.

The bracelet found with Denisovan bones in a Siberian cave. Humans didn’t make or wear this lovely thing, Denisovan people did.

Further reading:

How to Think Like a Neandertal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

Show transcript:

need to transcribe it, sorry