Category Archives: invertebrates

Episode 235: Deep-Sea Squid



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This week we visit the weirdest squid in the deep sea!

I was a guest on Tim Mendees’s After Hours that’s now up on YouTube! It’s mostly about my writing but we talk about all kinds of stuff, including cephalopods! There is some bad language but it’s not all that bad and it’s mostly toward the end.

Further reading/watching:

Elusive Long-Tailed Squid Captured on Film for First time

See Strange Squid Filmed in the Wild for the First Time (ram’s horn squid)

Multiple observations of Bigfin Squid (Magnapinna sp.) in the Great Australian Bight reveal distribution patterns, morphological characteristics, and rarely seen behaviour

Untangling the Long-Armed Mystery of the Bigfin Squid

Drawing of a long-arm squid and an actual long-arm squid:

Asperoteuthis mangoldae, which really should be called the long-tailed squid:

 

Verany’s long-armed squid, with its tentacles mostly retracted (so not looking very long-armed):

Verany’s long-armed squid with tentacles extended:

Drawing of a paralarval Verany’s long-armed squid:

The ram’s horn squid, floating along doop doop doop:

Drawing of the coiled internal shell of the ram’s horn squid:

A clawed armhook squid mama with her egg cluster:

Bigfin squid!

Another bigfin squid! Good grief look at that!

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, a quick announcement that I was a guest on a YouTube show called After Hours recently! I was there mostly to talk about my writing, but naturally animals came up too, especially cephalopods. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the show. There is a little bad language, but not too bad and it’s more toward the end.

Anyway, in a not-exactly coincidence, this week we’re going to look at some of the weirdest deep-sea squids known. Yes, weirder than the flying squid we talked about in episode 101. We don’t know much about any of them, but they’re definitely not what you expect when you think about squid.

Let’s talk first about Asperoteuthis acanthoderma, the long-arm squid. It’s also sometimes called the thorny whiplash squid because it has little pointy tubercules in its skin and long, whiplike feeding tentacles. It lives in the deep sea and has been found in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, although very rarely. Despite its name, its feeding tentacles are much longer than its arms, although its arms are pretty long too. A squid’s body is generally more or less torpedo-shaped and is called a mantle. It has eight arms and two feeding tentacles that are usually longer than the arms. Many squid species have relatively short arms compared to mantle length.

The feeding tentacles in long-arm squid are very slender and delicate, and they’re easily broken off after the animal dies and has washed around in the water for a while. One intact specimen has been found and measured, though. It had a mantle length of almost a foot and a half long, or 45 cm, but its total length, including the tentacles, was 18 feet, or 5.5 meters. The tentacles were 12 times the mantle length.

Using that ratio, one large specimen found in 2007, which was 6 1/2 feet long, or 2 meters, including both mantle and arms, is estimated to have measured up to 24 feet long when it was alive, or over 7 meters. Most of its length is due to its incredibly long, thin feeding tentacles.

So what does the long-arm squid eat with those long, delicate tentacles? We don’t know. We don’t know most things about the long-arm squid.

Another species of Asperoteuthis is Asperoteuthis mangoldae. So little is known about it that it doesn’t even have an informal name. It was only described in 2007 and has only been found around the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific Ocean. It looks similar to the closely-related long-arm squid but without the incredibly long feeding tentacles. Instead, it has a sort of tail, so I nominate it to be called the long-tailed squid. It was caught on video for the first time in 2019 by a deep-sea rover. You’re going to hear a lot about deep-sea rovers in this episode. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles with embedded video of various squids, which is really interesting to watch.

Asperoteuthis mangoldae is a long, slender squid. I couldn’t find any measurements so it could be that’s just not known right now. The species in this genus have an extension of the mantle, on the side opposite of the arms, that looks like an extra fin but that doesn’t seem to be used as a fin. In the long-tailed squid, this extra fin is as long as its mantle and arms and feeding tentacles all measured together. Most of the time the thin flaps of skin on either side of the so-called tail are extended, making it look like a really long fin, but when the squid feels threatened and needs to flee, it collapses the fin part around the middle section so that it reduces drag in the water. That way the squid can move faster. Researchers speculate that the tail section may make the squid look much larger to potential predators, and possibly may imitate an organism called a siphonophore that has stinging cells.

Another squid called Verany’s long-armed squid is Chiroteuthis veranii. It’s related to the long-arm squid we talked about at the beginning of the episode, but they’re placed in different genera. It lives throughout the world’s oceans, often in the deep sea although not as deep as some of the species we’re talking about today. Unlike most squid, whose arms are all about the same length, two of its arms are much wider and longer than the others.

Like the other long-arm squid, its feeding tentacles are incredibly long and thin. The mantle is quite small, up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, with the legs about the same length as or a little longer than the mantle, but the total length of this squid, including the feeding tentacles, is over four feet, or 130 centimeters. Most of the time the feeding tentacles are retracted, though, so they’re no longer than the arms, and they’re protected by the two largest arms. When the squid sees a tiny fish or crab or other small animal it wants to eat, it can shoot its retracted tentacles out at high speed to catch it. It’s probable that other species of long-armed squid hunt the same way.

A squid’s eggs hatch into an initial form called a paralarva. This is actually the case for other cephalopods too, including octopuses. The paralarvae usually just look like teeny-tiny miniature versions of the adult, but with stubby little arms. In the case of Verany’s long-armed squid, though, the larval squid looks sort of like a little rod. It’s long and thin, mostly transparent, and has a gladius, also called a pen, that sticks out the end of the mantle on the opposite side from the arms. The pen of a squid is named after an ink pen, although the other name, gladius, refers to the shape of a type of ancient Roman sword. It’s a vestigial shell but located inside the squid’s body. The tail of the long-tailed squid we just talked about is given structure by the gladius, so it’s possible that its paralarvae look rod-like, like those of Verany’s long-armed squid.

Speaking of internal shells, the ram’s horn squid has a coiled internal shell. This is unique among all the squid known to be alive today, so the ram’s horn squid is the only living member of its own order and its own family and its own genus. Technically it’s not really considered a squid although it is a closely related cephalopod. It’s small, with a mantle length only about an inch and a half long, or 4.5 centimeters. Its eight arms are quite short and it has two feeding tentacles that are about the same length as its mantle. Its mantle has an outer covering that extends down almost to the squid’s eyes, and it’s big enough that the squid can pull its eyes and legs and tentacles under this covering. The spiral shell resembles that of a nautilus, but it’s inside the squid instead of the nautilus living inside the shell. The shell contains gas that the squid uses to adjust its buoyancy.

For a long time researchers were confused as to how the ram’s horn squid oriented itself in the water. The empty shells from dead squid wash ashore pretty often, and experiments with them show that they want to float with the big end of the shell pointing downward. That confused the researchers, since that would mean the squid floats around with its arms downward too, which means that the photophore on the tail end of its mantle points upward. A photophore is a light-emitting organ, which is common in deep-sea animals. Usually an animal wants its light to point downwards, which means that larger animals looking up toward the surface see a little light sparkling amid the light shining down from the surface instead of seeing a squid-shaped shadow against the surface.

Then, in late 2020, a deep-sea rover exploring the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia got a video of a ram’s horn squid in the water. It was the first time a living one had ever been observed. In the video, the squid is floating with its arms pointing upward, flapping the fins on its mantle to move along in the water. Mystery solved! There’s still a lot we don’t know about the ram’s horn squid, but at least we know it doesn’t swim around upside-down.

Another squid that has only recently been seen alive in the wild from a deep-sea rover is the clawed armhook squid. My brother Richard alerted me to this one in a Twitter thread. The clawed armhook squid lives in the northern Pacific Ocean and has a mantle length of about seven inches, or 18 cm. Its arms are about the same length as its mantle. It gets its name from the female, which has small hooks on her arms to help her keep hold of her egg cluster. She lays about 3,000 eggs in a tube-like cluster that looks sort of like a gray cloth bag that’s open at both ends. Most squid lay their eggs on the sea floor and leave them, usually dying soon after, but the clawed armhook squid holds her egg cluster until the eggs hatch. She makes sure the eggs get enough oxygenated water by pumping water through the middle of the bag. She also swims away from anything that might want to eat her eggs or her, although she can’t swim very fast since she has to use her arms to hold onto the egg cluster. She usually stays in deep water far from shore while the eggs are developing, because there are fewer predators there than in her usual habitat nearer shore. In 2001 a rover spotted a mother squid with her egg cluster at 8,200 feet below the surface, or 2500 meters. That’s more than a mile and a half down, or two and a half kilometers.

Unfortunately for the mother squid, after she lays her eggs, she can’t use her arms for anything except holding and taking care of them, and that includes eating. She just doesn’t eat once she lays her eggs, and while we’re not sure how long it takes for them to hatch, it may be as much as nine months. It’s most likely that she dies after her babies hatch. All the female squids seen with egg clusters have been missing their feeding tentacles, and researchers think the squid may actually bite off her own tentacles so they don’t get in the way of her eggs.

Finally, the family Magnapinnidae, also called bigfin squids, were mysteries for over a century. For a long time they were only known from paralarval and juvenile individuals. Five species are known but there may be more, but no scientist has ever been able to study an adult except through photographs and videos made by deep-sea rovers.

All squid have fins of some kind on the mantle to help it move around. Different species, naturally, have varying sizes and shapes of fins. In the bigfin squid, as you may have guessed, the fins are very big. They look more like wings and can be almost as large as the entire mantle. But that’s not the really weird thing about these squid, although it was the most obvious thing when all we knew about them were young specimens. The arms and tentacles of squid don’t develop to their full length until the squid is an adult. The bigfin squid’s arms and tentacles are very long and they’re also very different from all other squids.

In 2001, a deep-sea rover used by an oil company in the Gulf of Mexico caught video of a large, unusual squid. Fortunately, one of the men operating the rover remotely asked for a copy of the squid video for his girlfriend, who was interested in deep-sea animals. His girlfriend asked around, trying to find out what kind of squid it was, and eventually contacted a squid expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The squid expert is named Mike Vecchione and when he saw the video, he freaked out. He’d never seen anything like this squid before. He says he jumped out of his chair and started yelling in excitement.

Then, once he calmed down, he contacted all his squid expert colleagues, who also freaked out, and eventually they found more footage of the weird squid taken by other oil rig rovers. The workers operating the rovers had no idea that the squid was a scientific mystery so hadn’t thought to contact any scientists. Finally the squid was identified as an adult bigfin.

In 2015, a deep-sea rover in a scientific expedition caught video of two bigfin squid near Australia, and in 2017 it saw three more. It also spotted some juvenile bigfin squid in the same area. Even better, the rover was able to use lasers to get a much more accurate estimate of the squid’s size than ever before. All five were different sizes, so they were probably five different individuals.

The bigfin squid has very thin arms and tentacles, referred to as vermiform. That means worm-shaped, which gives you an idea of how thin we’re talking. The largest bigfin squid measured by the rover in 2015 and 2017 had a mantle length of about 6 inches, or 15 cm, and a fin width of 5.5inches, or 14 cm, but the longest arm or tentacle length was 5.5 feet, or 1.68 meters. Measurements of other bigfin squid suggest it can grow up to 26 feet long, or 8 meters, and maybe even longer.

In the bigfin squid, the arms and tentacles are the same size. In other squids, the tentacles are usually longer and look different from the arms. The great length of the arms and tentacles of the bigfin squid comes from what’s called a distal filament that grows from the tip of the arm or tentacle. The filaments are sometimes missing, so it’s possible that they’re sometimes damaged and lost or maybe bitten off. The squid seems to use its arms and tentacles the same way instead of using its arms for some things and its tentacles for other things.

The bigfin squid holds its arms and tentacles differently from any other squid, in what’s called a crane pose or elbow pose. It’s not clear from the articles I read, but it seems to be that if you don’t count the distal filaments, the arms and tentacles are not actually all that long in comparison to its mantle. When it’s hunting, the squid holds them out from its body with the extremely long filaments hanging down. It looks like the squid has elbows that way. Squid don’t have elbows because squid, like other cephalopods like octopuses, don’t have any bones. We talked about how octopuses move without bones in episode 142 if you’re interested, and it’s the same for squid.

The bigfin squid can retract the filaments by coiling them up. One researcher said the coiled-up filaments look sort of like an old-fashioned phone cord, which will mean nothing to my younger listeners but the rest of us just thought, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense.” The filaments are sticky and trap tiny animals and particles of food drifting in the water. If you remember way way way back in episode 11 where we talked about the vampire squid, it uses its feeding tentacles the same way, including being able to retract them, but the vampire squid and the bigfin squid are not very closely related at all.

A research sub investigating a WWII shipwreck spotted a bigfin squid 3.7 miles below the surface, or 6,000 meters, which made it the deepest squid ever recorded. Imagine looking out the window of a submarine, assuming they have windows, trying to see details of a shipwreck, and suddenly there’s a massive squid with incredibly long, thin arms looking back at you.

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 234: Sun Bears, Water Bears



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Thanks to Enzo and Lux for their suggestions! Let’s learn about the sun bear and the water bear this week!

Sun bear just chillin:

Sun bears got long tongues:

The water bear, AKA tardigrade, is not actually a bear. For one thing, it has twice the number of legs as bears have:

Show transcript:

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

It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, which means hot weather and sunshine and, if you’re lucky, a trip to the lake or ocean. To celebrate summertime, let’s talk about two animals suggested by Enzo and his sister Lux. They wanted to hear about the sun bear and the water bear. Get it? Sun and water?

Enzo’s suggestion is the sun bear, which we talked about a little bit way back in episode 76, but which is a fascinating animal that deserves a lot more attention.

The sun bear lives in southeast Asia in tropical forests and is most closely related to the black bear. It has silky black fur, although some are gray or reddish, and a roughly U-shaped patch of fur on its chest that varies in color from gold to almost white to reddish-orange. Its muzzle is short and is lighter in color than the rest of its face, usually gray. It has small ears too. It’s the world’s smallest bear, only around three feet long from head to tail, or 150 cm, and four feet tall when standing on its hind legs, or 1.2 meters. Researchers think its chest spot acts as a threat display. When a sun bear stands on its hind legs, the chest spot is really obvious, which may warn potential predators away. Even so, tigers and leopards will attack and eat sun bears.

The sun bear spends a lot of time in trees, more than any other bear. It has long claws that it uses for climbing and to tear open logs to get at insect larvae. It eats a lot of termites and especially loves honey, which it licks from the hive with its long tongue–up to 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit and acorns. It will catch and eat birds and small animals, or sometimes larger animals like deer, but it mostly eats insects and fruit.

The female sun bear makes her den in a hollow tree to give birth. She has one or two cubs at a time, and like other bear cubs they’re born extremely small and with their eyes and ears sealed shut. This is the case with animals like dogs and cats too, but newborn bears are tiny compared to how big the mother bear is. The eyes and ears continue developing after the cub is born, but it’s a few months before it can see and hear properly. A cub remains with its mother for almost three years.

Other than mothers and babies, the sun bear is solitary. Adults don’t typically interact except to mate, although adult sun bears kept in captivity will play together. A 2019 study of sun bears came to a surprising conclusion that they communicate with each other by mimicking facial expressions. This is something humans do all the time, of course, and apes do too. Dogs also mimic facial expressions. Humans, apes, and dogs are all intensely social animals, so researchers have always assumed that the mimicking of facial expressions is important because of that sociability. I mean, that just makes sense. If you see a friend approaching and they have a big smile on their face, naturally you’re going to smile too. But here are these solitary bears with facial communication just as well-developed as in apes. Researchers think it may be a trait that’s so important to mammals as a whole that it develops even in species that don’t spend a lot of time interacting.

The sun bear is threatened by habitat loss and hunting, but it does well in captivity and is popular in zoos. Conservation efforts are in place to protect the sun bear in the wild as well as continue a healthy captive breeding program around the world.

Lux wanted to hear about the water bear, which is also called the tardigrade or the moss piglet. I can’t believe we haven’t covered the tardigrade before—we even have one in our new logo! Patrons may remember parts of this section from a Patreon bonus episode from 2017, but I’ve updated it a lot.

The water bear isn’t a bear at all but a tiny eight-legged animal that barely ever grows larger than 1.5 millimeters. Some species are microscopic. Pictures of the water bear are taken with an electron microscope because otherwise they just look like a teensy little dot.

There are about 1,300 known species of water bear and they all look pretty similar. It looks for all the world like a plump eight-legged stuffed animal made out of couch upholstery. It uses six of its fat little legs for walking and the hind two to cling to the moss and other plant material where it lives. Each leg has four to eight long hooked claws. It has a tubular mouth that looks a little like a pig’s snout or a bear’s snout.

An extremophile is an organism adapted to live in a particular environment that’s considered extreme, like undersea volcanic vents or inside rocks deep below the ocean floor. Tardigrades aren’t technically extremophiles, but they are incredibly tough. Researchers have found tardigrades in environments such as the gloppy ooze at the bottom of the ocean to the icy peaks of the Himalayas. It can survive massive amounts of radiation, dehydration for up to five years, pressures even more intense than at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, temperatures as low as -450 Fahrenheit, or -270 Celsius, heat up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, or 150 Celsius, and even outer space. It’s survived on Earth for at least half a billion years. Mostly, though, it just lives in moss.

One thing to remember is that different species of tardigrade are good at withstanding different extreme environments. Not every tardigrade is able to do everything we just talked about. They’re tough, but they’re not invulnerable. Many species can withstand incredible heat, but only for half an hour or less. Long-term temperature increases, even if only a little warmer than it’s used to, can cause the tardigrade to die.

Most species of tardigrade eat plant material or bacteria, but a few eat smaller species of tardigrade. It has no lungs since it just absorbs air directly into its body by gas exchange. It has a teeny brain, teeny eyes, and teeny sensory bristles on its body. Its legs have no joints. Its tubular mouth contains tube-like structures called stylets that are secreted from glands on either side of the mouth. Every time the tardigrade molts its cuticle, or body covering, it loses the stylets too and has to regrow them. In some species, the only time the tardigrade poops is when it molts. The poop is left behind in the molted cuticle.

The tardigrade’s success is largely due to its ability to suspend its metabolism, during which time the water in its body is replaced with a type of protein that protects its cells from damage. It retracts its legs and rearranges its internal organs so it can curl up into a teeny barrel shape, at which point it’s called a tun. It needs a moist environment, and if its environment dries out too much, the water bear will automatically go into this suspended state, called cryptobiosis.

The tardigrade’s DNA gets fractured during dehydration but it’s incredibly successful at repairing its DNA upon rehydration, which explains a big part of its success. In 2016, Japanese researchers sequenced the genome of the species of tardigrade that best resists radiation. In the process, they discovered a new protein in the tardigrade’s genome, which they named DSUP, short for damage suppressor. Even more interesting, when cultured human cells were given the ability to create DSUP, after exposure to X-rays, they showed half the DNA damage that non-DSUP cells showed.

Tests in 2007 and 2011 that exposed tardigrades to outer space led to some speculation that tardigrades might actually be from outer space, and that they, or organisms that gave rise to them, might have hitched a ride on a comet or some other heavenly body and ended up on earth. But this isn’t actually the case, since genetic studies show that tardigrades fit neatly into what we know of animal development and evolution.

The tardigrade is probably most closely related to arthropods, like insects and spiders. Their closest relatives were probably lobopodians, extinct wormlike organisms with stubby legs. The famous Hallucigenia creature is a lobopodian, which we talked about in episode 69 about the Cambrian explosion. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the tardigrade’s ancestry, since we have so few fossilized water bears, but many researchers think their oldest ancestors were probably much bigger than the microscopic or nearly microscopic living animals. In other words, maybe once there were water bears you could pick up and hug. Well, they probably weren’t that big, but I like to imagine it. I think that if you hugged a water bear too hard, it would make this noise: [little prrrt sound]

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, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 229: Blue Ghosts and Vanishing Sharks



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I got to meet some listeners this week to see the synchronous fireflies, so thanks to Shannon, Diana, Derek, and Autumn for hanging out with me! This week we’ll learn about a different kind of lightning bug as well as a shark mystery!

Derek’s photography, Enchanting Ectotherms

Further reading:

A shark mystery millions of years in the making

I suspect this is a doctored image but it’s gorgeous so here it is anyway, supposedly some blue ghost fireflies:

This is a real photo, no photoshop, taken by Derek Wheaton during our trip. The long line of light in the middle is a blue ghost moving with its light on during a long exposure:

A synchronous firefly on Derek’s hand (photo by Derek Wheaton):

A tiny blue ghost firefly on Derek’s hand (photo by Derek Wheaton):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. It’s been an amazing week for me because I got to take some people to see our local synchronous fireflies! The fireflies put on a brilliant show for us and the weather was perfect, and it was so much fun to meet Shannon and Diana! Then, two nights later, I also took Derek and Autumn out to see the fireflies. In between, I started research on the blue ghost firefly, since I had originally thought it was just another name for the synchronous firefly, but it’s not. So this week we’re going to learn about the blue ghost firefly, along with some interesting breaking news about a shark mystery.

The blue ghost firefly only lives in parts of the eastern and central United States. In most places it’s rare, but like the synchronous fireflies that all flash together, the blue ghost fireflies are actually pretty common in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The reason why people don’t see them more often is that these days, most people don’t spend much time in the woods at night.

Like other fireflies, the blue ghost lives in forests with deep leaf litter where there’s a lot of moisture in the ground. The female lays her eggs in the leaf litter and when the eggs hatch, the larval fireflies eat tiny insects and other invertebrates like snails.

The blue ghost firefly is different from other firefly species in several ways. First, it doesn’t flash. The male stays lighted up for around a minute at a time while he flies low over the ground watching for a female to light up too. Its glow also appears bluish-white to human eyes, at least in the distance and when it’s really dark out. Up close, it looks yellow-green like other firefly lights. Researchers think it only looks blue because of the way human eyes perceive color in low light.

In the daytime, blue ghost fireflies don’t look like much. They’re small, around 7 mm long, and males are all brown. The females don’t have wings, and in fact they never metamorphose into the adult form and still look like larvae as adults. The female crawls to the end of a twig or blade of grass and glows to attract a mate.

When I was doing my research to learn about blue ghost fireflies, I kept seeing articles comparing its size to a grain of rice. I looked up the average size of a grain of rice, and that’s where I got 7 mm. I didn’t think too much about it.

When Shannon, Diana, and I were watching the synchronous fireflies, we noticed some fireflies that didn’t flash, just stayed glowing while they drifted along low over the forest floor. After I started researching blue ghost fireflies, I realized that was what had seen! So I was especially excited to go back out with Derek and Autumn and confirm it.

Derek works for a nonprofit that breeds endangered fish for conservation projects, which is awesome, but he’s also a photographer, so he brought his camera to try and get pictures and video of the fireflies. His photographs are amazing so if you want to see them I’ve linked to his Facebook page, EnchantingEctotherms, in the show notes. He does a lot of snorkeling so a lot of the animals he photographs are fish or other water animals like turtles and snakes, and he gives information about them in his posts.

Anyway, he wanted to get close-up pictures of a synchronous firefly and a blue ghost firefly, so we all spent some time trying to catch one of each—gently, of course, and without leaving the trail. We didn’t want to hurt ourselves in the dark or disturb the fireflies’ habitat. Derek caught a synchronous firefly first, and it looks like an ordinary firefly that I’m used to, the common eastern firefly, which grows to about 14 mm long. That’s half an inch long. Then, eventually, he also caught a blue ghost. It was so small that at first we thought he might have caught some other beetle by accident, until we looked more closely and saw the telltale head shape of a lightning bug. I took a photo myself and put it in the show notes so you can see just how small it is.

From my own observation, the blue ghosts are much dimmer than other fireflies, which makes sense since they’re so much smaller. The light does look faintly blue-white in the distance, but when it’s closer to you it looks like an ordinary firefly’s light. They do indeed fly very low to the ground while lit up, but they’re also cautious. We had trouble catching one because when we got too close, the firefly would fly down to the ground and put his light out.

Naturally, after photographing our lightning bugs we let them go again. I’m happy to report that the synchronous fireflies have expanded their range a lot since I first stumbled across them about ten years ago, and the blue ghosts seem reasonably common too. They live in a protected area of our local watershed so they’ll be safe and sound forever, hopefully.

This is good, because blue ghosts in particular are vulnerable to habitat loss. Since the female can’t fly, she can’t travel far to lay her eggs. During mating season, some state and national parks in the southern Appalachians close some trails to protect the blue ghost and other fireflies, especially from light pollution from flashlights.

The synchronous fireflies and blue ghosts are only active for a few weeks in June, which is their mating season. We’ll probably be just about at the end of this year’s display by the time you hear this, but if you’re going to be in East Tennessee and want to go out and see them with me next summer, just let me know. As we talked about in episode 180, they only live a few minutes’ walk away from a small parking lot but no one but me seems to know about them.

Next, let’s learn about a shark mystery that’s 19 million years old but that scientists only learned about recently. This month, June of 2021, a team of researchers published results of a shark study in the journal Science. The team had decided to graph the number and diversity of shark species known from the fossil record so they’d have a baseline to compare modern shark diversity to. But they discovered something really surprising.

Nineteen million years ago, there were over ten times as many sharks in the oceans as there are today. They were an important part of the ocean’s ecosystems, especially in the open ocean. And then…they disappear from the fossil record. Over 90% of the world’s sharks died, with shark diversity decreasing by more than 70%. Not only that, sharks never fully recovered from whatever happened.

So what did happen? We don’t know yet. There was a small extinction event called the Middle Miocene extinction peak five million years after the sharks vanished, which researchers think was due to global cooling leading to climate change. The cooling period was caused by a lot of factors, but a big cause was changes in ocean currents and air currents as the continents moved into new positions. Before that, though, the world was comfortably warm for millions of years and the shark population was overall quite stable. Researchers have found no reason why sharks suddenly started dying in such huge numbers, especially in the open ocean instead of in coastal waters.

The leader of the study, Elizabeth Sibert, says that there might have been a climate event of some kind that was disastrous to sharks but that was over relatively quickly, leaving very little evidence behind except for the fossil remains of way more sharks than usual and a lack of sharks afterwards.

Other scientific teams have already started studying the open ocean ecosystem from 19 million years ago and earlier for clues as to what happened, whether other animals were affected, and why sharks never regained their supremacy in the world’s oceans afterwards. That’s how science works: someone makes a discovery and that inspires lots of new studies, which lead to more discoveries. When we do learn more about the great shark die-off of the Miocene, I will keep you posted.

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, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 226: Brood X Cicadas



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It’s the 2021 brood of 17-year cicadas! Thanks to Enzo (and several others) who suggested it!

Further listening:

Varmints! Podcast – “Cicadas”

Our local Brood X cicada (photo by me!):

The holes that cicadas emerged from (photo also by me):

Discarded cicada shells. My work keys and Homestar Runner keychain for scale:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about cicadas, specifically the 17-year cicadas that you may have heard about in the news or in your own back yard, depending on where you live. Thanks to the several people who suggested the topic on Twitter, with special thanks to Enzo who emailed me about it.

I actually wasn’t going to do a cicadas episode because we already talked about cicadas way back in episode 28. We didn’t go into too much detail in that one, but Varmints! podcast did a great in-depth show about cicadas recently so I’ve been referring people to them, and check the show notes for a link if you don’t already listen to Varmints. Besides, I hadn’t heard any of the cicadas myself so I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Then I returned to work after taking some time off to take care of my cat Poe, who by the way is doing really well now and thanks for all the well wishes! The second I got out of my car, I heard them. The cicadas. Now, we get cicadas every year where I live in East Tennessee, so the sound is familiar to me and I actually like it. I find it soothing and the quintessential sound of summer. But this was something else. At only 8am the trees along the edge of campus were filled with what I can only describe as a high-pitched roar.

I went out at lunch and the sound was even louder. I got some audio, so here’s what a whole bunch of cicadas sound like when they’re calling at once.

[cicada sounds]

I also got pictures, which you can see in the show notes.

The cicadas emerging in such numbers this year are 17-year cicadas. They spend almost all of those 17 years as nymphs underground, where they eat sap from the roots of trees and other plants. At the end of the 17 years, when the soil is warm enough, they emerge from the ground and molt into their final form, the full-grown adult cicada!

The adult cicadas have wings but aren’t very good fliers. I can definitely attest to that because when I was taking pictures of them, I kept having to dodge as cicadas flew from bush to tree and either didn’t see me standing there or thought I was a weird tree or maybe just couldn’t maneuver well enough to avoid me. They’re pretty big insects, up to two inches long, or five cm, with gray or black bodies and orangey-red legs and eyes. The wings have pale orange veins.

The first cicadas to emerge are mostly males, in such numbers that predators get too full to care when the females emerge a few days later. That way more females survive to lay eggs. At first the cicadas that emerge still look like nymphs, but within about an hour they molt their exoskeleton and emerge as full adults with wings. They’re pale in color until the new exoskeleton hardens and the wings expand to full size, which takes a few days.

This, of course, leaves behind a cicada shell, which is the shed exoskeleton. When I was very small, I was terrified of cicada shells even though they’re just empty and perfectly harmless. They look scary because of those big pointy legs and big round eyes. You can frequently find cicada shells still stuck to tree bark, and it’s okay to pick them up and collect them if you like. The cicada doesn’t need it anymore. You can see the slit along the back of the shell where the cicada climbed out.

The emerged cicadas climb or fly into trees where the males start singing. Males produce their loud songs with a structure called a tymbal organ in their abdomen. The abdomen is mostly hollow, which helps amplify the rapid clicking of a pair of circular membranes. The clicking is so fast, up to 480 times a second, that humans hear it as a continuous buzzing noise and not individual clicks. Some cicada songs are louder than 120 decibels, which is the same decibel level as a chainsaw.

A reminder: this is what they sound like:

[more cicada sounds]

A female finds a male by listening to his song. After a pair mates, the female makes little cuts in twigs at the end of a tree branch, usually new-growth twigs because they’re softer. She lays her eggs in the cuts, then soon dies and falls to the ground.

Within a few weeks, all the adult cicadas have died. But around eight weeks later, the eggs hatch. The new nymphs are teensy, only a few millimeters long. They drop to the ground and burrow into the soil up to a foot deep, or 30 cm. There they stay for the next 17 years, growing larger very slowly until it’s time to emerge.

The current big group of cicadas consists of three species that look very similar. It’s called brood ten although I agree with Varmints who think it should be brood X because the Roman numeral ten is an X and every time I see it, I read it as Brood X. There are plenty of other cicadas, though, including some that emerge every 13 years instead of 17 years, and some that emerge every year or every few years.

Cicadas have been around for some 4 million years and most species live in tropical areas. Brood X is only found in the middle to northern areas of the eastern United States. It used to be even more widespread, but habitat loss has reduced its range considerably. Every time a forest is bulldozed to build a lot of houses, the nymphs underground either die outright or emerge later to find no trees to protect them and their eggs. Brood eleven went extinct in the 1950s, so even though there are millions of cicadas now, there may come a summer when no Brood X nymphs survive to emerge 17 years later.

The sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of big loud insects in a short amount of time can be alarming, but cicadas are completely harmless to people, pets and other animals, and plants. They don’t eat as adults and they only make noise for a few weeks. They also don’t live everywhere. Even on the college campus where I work, the cicadas are only present in certain places. On the edge of the parking lot they’re everywhere. If I walk down to the far end of the duck pond, nothing. So if you happen to have Brood X cicadas in your yard or on your street, just remind yourself that that makes your home special and they’ll all shut up soon.

Of course, depending on where you live, in three years the enormous brood 19, called the great southern brood, will emerge throughout the southeastern United States, along with the smaller but just as loud brood 8, called the Northern Illinois Brood. But that gives you three years to buy a good pair of earplugs.

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 221: Arachnids in the Antarctic!



Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion. There may not technically be spiders in the Antarctic, but there are mites.

A nunatak (note the size of the research vehicles at the bottom left):

I don’t have any pictures of the Antarctic mites, so here are some red velvet mites, although they’re giants compared to their Antarctic cousins:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to have a short episode, because I get my second Covid-19 vaccine on the Thursday before this episode goes live and I want to have the episode all finished before then. That way if I feel bad afterwards I can rest. Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion!

Back in episode 90, about some mystery spiders, I mentioned that spiders live everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Well, guess what. Ella sent me some links about spiders that live in…Antarctica!

Antarctica is a landmass at the South Pole, specifically a continent about twice the size of Australia. It looks bigger than it really is because ice projects out from the land and is only supported by water, called an ice shelf. It’s not a little bit of ice, either. It’s over a mile thick, or nearly 2 km. The ice is called the Antarctic ice sheet and it covers 98% of the continent. The only places not covered in ice are some rock outcroppings and a few valleys, called dry valleys because they basically get no precipitation, not even snow and certainly not rain. Researchers estimate that it hasn’t rained in these dry valleys in almost two million years. There are no plants, just gravel. There are no animals but some bacterial life that live inside rocks and under at least one glacier. Scientists have used these dry valleys to test equipment designed for Mars. This is not a hospitable land. Everything that lives in Antarctica is considered an extremophile.

That doesn’t mean there’s no life in Antarctica, though, just that it’s only found in a few places, mostly along the coast or on nearby islands. Emperor penguins and Adelie penguins, several species of seal, and some sea birds live at least part of their lives in and around Antarctica, as do some whales. There are lichens, algae, and a few low-growing plants like liverwort and moss. And there are some invertebrates, although not very many and not large at all. The largest is a flightless midge that only grows 6 mm long. But what we’re interested in today are mites found only in Antarctica.

We talked about mites in episode 186 when we learned about the red velvet mite. Mites are arachnids, although they’re not technically spiders, but frankly we’re just quibbling at this point. It has eight legs and is in the class Arachnida, so I say there are spiders in Antarctica. Or close enough.

There are 30 species of mite in Antarctica. They mostly live on islands throughout the Antarctic peninsula, which sticks out from one side of the continent like a tail pointing at the very tip of South America. All the mites eat moss, algae, and decomposing lichens. They’re also teeny-tiny, less than a millimeter long.

One type of mite is found on the mainland of East Antarctica instead of just on islands. It’s called Maudheimia and it only lives on big rock outcroppings that stick up through the ice. These rocks are called nunataks and are covered with lichens. But nunataks are far apart, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, and the mites are so tiny they’re just about microscopic. How did they get from one nunatak to the next?

To find out, we have to learn some history about Antarctica. It hasn’t always been at the South Pole. It was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, and 500 million years ago it was right smack on the equator. You know, tropical. As the centuries passed and the continents continued their slow, constant dance around the Earth, Gondwana drifted southward and broke apart. Antarctica was still connected to Australia on one side and South America on the other, and was still subtropical. Then it broke off from Australia around 40 million years ago, drifted farther southward, and ultimately, about 25 million years ago, separated from South America. Ever since it’s been isolated at the South Pole, and by 15 million years ago it was ice-covered.

Fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient animals have been discovered in Antarctica, but it’s hard to find fossils and excavate them when the ground is under a mile of ice. The animals and plants that once lived in Antarctica went extinct gradually as its climate became less and less hospitable, and most of the remaining holdouts went extinct when the ice age began and the continent’s climate was even colder and harsher than it is now.

But one animal remains, toughing it out on rock outcroppings where the temperature can drop to -31 degrees Fahrenheit, or -35 Celsius. Maudheimia, the brave little mite.

Maudheimia was probably common throughout Antarctica’s mountains before the big freeze happened, and would have already been well adapted to the cold of high elevations. As the continent grew colder and colder, the little mite adapted even more. The fluids in its body contain an organic antifreeze agent so it doesn’t freeze solid. As the ice covered more of its home, it migrated, in its tiny way, to the rocks that stayed ice-free and allowed lichen to survive too. It’s reasonably common despite its restricted habitat, which is good because the female Maudheimia only lays one egg every year or two. There are four species known.

Maudheimia probably isn’t the only animal that survived Antarctica’s ice age, though. Species of springtail only found in Antarctica live alongside Maudheimia, and there are tardigrades and tiny nematode worms around too. All these were probably around long before the end of the ice age around 12,000 years ago.

There may be other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals we haven’t discovered yet. The Antarctic is the only place in the world that humans have never colonized, although a small number of people live in scientific outposts while conducting research of various kinds. There’s a lot we don’t know about the continent.

For instance, there are at least 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lakes form between the bedrock and the ice sheet, like a little bubble of water. Iceland, Greenland, and Canada have some too. They’re hard to study, naturally, because it requires drilling through over a mile of ice to get a water sample. So far researchers have discovered extremophile microbes in these lakes, but so few samples have been taken that we certainly don’t know everything that’s down there. Most of the lakes occasionally overflow into nearby subglacial lakes, but at least some appear to have been isolated under the ice for potentially millions of years. They may contain bacteria and other microbial life that are radically different from modern species.

There’s one other place that we know has a subglacial lake, discovered in 2018. It’s on the planet Mars. I wonder if there’s anything living in that one.

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 215: The Cutest Invertebrates



Thanks to Lorenzo and Page for suggestions used in this week’s episode, and a belated thanks to Ethan for last week’s episode! Let’s learn about some of the cutest invertebrates out there!

Further reading:

Photosynthesis-like process found in insects

Mystery of the Venezuelan Poodle Moth

Further viewing:

Dr. Arthur Anker’s photos from his Venezuela trip, including the poodle moth

The pea aphid, red morph and regular green

So many ladybugs:

The sea bunny is a real animal, but it’s not a real bunny:

A larval sea bunny is SO TINY that fingertip looks like it’s the size of a BUILDING:

The bobtail squid not hiding (left) and hiding (right):

The bobtail squid is SO CUTE I MIGHT DIE:

The Venezuelan poodle moth:

Not a Venezuelan poodle moth–it’s a female muslin moth from Eurasia:

Not a Venezuelan poodle moth–it’s a silkworm moth from Asia:

The dot-lined white moth:

Show transcript:

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

This week I promised we’d cover a cute, happy animal to make up for last week’s extinction event episode, but instead of mammals let’s look at some cute invertebrates! One of them is even a mystery animal. Thanks to Page and Lorenzo for suggesting two of the animals we’re going to cover today!

We’ll start with Lorenzo’s suggestion, the pea aphid. Years and years ago I spent a slow day at work making a list of cute foods with a coworker, and peas were at the top of the list. Blueberries were second and I don’t remember the rest of the list. Generally, cuteness depended on how small the food was and how round. Aphids are really small and peas are round, so the pea aphid has to be adorable.

The pea aphid, however, is not round. It’s shaped sort of like a tiny pale-green teardrop with long legs, long antennae, and teeny black dots for eyes. It’s actually kind of big for an aphid, not that that’s saying much since it only grows 4 mm long at most. It’s called the pea aphid because it likes to live on pea plants, although it’s also happy on plants related to peas, such as beans, clover, and alfalfa. Cute as it is, farmers and gardeners do not like the pea aphid because it eats the sap of the plants it lives on, which can weaken the plant and can spread plant diseases.

During most of the year, all pea aphids are females. Each adult produces eggs that don’t need to be fertilized to hatch, but instead of laying her eggs like most insects, they develop inside her and she gives birth to live babies, all of them female. An aphid can have up to 12 babies a day, called nymphs, and the nymphs grow up in about a week or a little longer. Then they too start having babies. Even though lots of other insects and other animals eat aphids, as you can see, they will always be numerous.

As the summer turns to fall and the days become shorter, some of the baby aphids are born with wings. Some are also born male, and sometimes the males also have wings, although they might not have mouths. These males and winged females mate and the females fly off to lay their eggs on clover and alfalfa plants, assuming they aren’t already on clover or alfalfa plants. The eggs don’t hatch until spring, and all the resulting nymphs are female.

Sometimes winged females are born if the plants where the aphids live get too crowded. The winged females can fly away and find new plants.

If you’ve ever had a garden, you’re probably familiar with aphids. They spend most of the time on the undersides of leaves, drinking sap through specialized mouthparts called stylets. You may also have noticed that when you try to smush the aphids, all of them immediately drop to the ground. This protects them not just from being smooshed by a gardener’s thumb, but from being eaten along with the leaves when a deer or other animal browses on the plants where they live.

Sometimes, instead of being leaf green, pea aphids are a pale reddish color. This is called the red morph. Red morph pea aphids are more likely to live on certain plants while the ordinary green pea aphids are more likely to live on others, although many times you can find both varieties on a single plant.

The red coloration of red morph pea aphids is due to larger quantities of a chemical called carotenoid [kerOTenoid] in its body. All pea aphids contain carotenoids, though, and it’s not just used for coloration. Research suggests that the carotenoids absorb sunlight and produce energy that the aphid can use. It’s a limited form of photosynthesis—you know, that thing that only plants do.

Not only that, the pea aphid produces the carotenoids in its body. Every other animal that needs carotenoids absorbs them from plants it eats, with the possible exception of a type of mite. The genetic sequence that allows the pea aphid to make its own carotenoids originally came from fungi. Somehow the aphid captured the genetic material from fungi, probably after eating it, and passed those genes down to its descendants. This is called lateral gene transfer and scientists aren’t sure exactly how it works or how common it is.

Pea aphids also contain beneficial bacteria that produce nutrients it needs that it doesn’t get from the sap it eats. The aphids can’t live without the bacteria, and the bacteria can’t survive outside of the aphids.

Even though the pea aphid is really common just about everywhere these days, it’s actually an invasive species in most places. It’s native to temperate parts of Eurasia but has spread to the rest of the world on cultivated plants. For small infestations of aphids, some people release certain species of ladybugs into their gardens, because many ladybugs love eating aphids.

Ladybugs, of course, are another cute invertebrate, specifically a family of beetles. They’re also small and round, although not as small as aphids. A typical ladybug grows about 10 mm long at most. Depending on the species, a ladybug can be red, orange, yellow, or brown, usually with black spots but sometimes with black stripes, or it may be mostly black with red or yellow spots. Most eat tiny insects and other animals, but some species eat plant material.

The ladybug’s bright coloring warns birds and other predators that it contains a toxin that makes it taste nasty. This even affects humans. I mean, obviously don’t eat ladybugs, but sometimes if there are ladybugs on grapes used to make wine, and the ladybugs end up crushed along with the grapes in a wine press, the whole batch of wine will end up tasting bad. It’s called ladybird taint so winemakers try to make sure any ladybugs are removed from the grapes before they’re crushed.

In many cultures around the world, ladybugs are supposed to bring good luck. In some places, if you see a ladybug you should make a wish. We’ve talked about ladybugs before, most recently in episode 203, so let’s move on to our next cute invertebrate.

This one lives in the ocean. It’s called the sea bunny or sea rabbit, a type of nudribranch [noodi-bronk] that lives along the coastline of the Indian Ocean, especially in tropical waters. Nudibranchs are a type of mollusk that are sometimes called sea slugs. Many are brightly colored with beautiful patterns. Compared to some, the sea bunny is a little on the plain side. It’s white, yellow, or rarely green, with tiny brown or black speckles. It looks fuzzy because it’s covered in little protuberances that it uses to sense the world around it, as well as longer, thinner fibers called spicules. It also has two larger black-tipped protuberances that look for all the world like little bunny ears, although they’re actually chemoreceptors called rhinophores. It really is amazing how much the sea bunny actually resembles a little white bunny with dark speckles, which would make it cute right there, because bunnies are cute, but it’s also really small. It barely grows an inch long, or 2.5 cm.

Like other nudibranchs, the sea bunny is a hermaphrodite, which means it produces both eggs and sperm, although it can’t fertilize its own eggs. When it finds a potential mate, they both perform a little courtship dance to decide if they like each other. After mating, both lay strings of eggs in a spiral pattern. The eggs hatch into larvae that are free-swimming, although the adults crawl along the ocean floor looking for small animals to eat. Some nudibranch larvae have small coiled shells like snails, which they shed when they metamorphose into an adult, but the sea bunny hatches into a teeny-tiny miniature sea bunny.

Cute as it is, don’t pet a sea bunny! It’s toxic! One of the things that sea bunnies especially like to eat are sponges, and many sponges contain toxins. The sea bunny absorbs these toxins to protect it from predators. Even its eggs are toxic.

Next we’ll talk about another intensely cute marine animal, the bobtail squid. It’s only a few inches long, or up to 8 cm at most, with a rounded mantle and short little arms. Small and round, the hallmarks of cuteness. It’s also sometimes called the dumpling squid, which is extra cute and potentially delicious. Basically, it’s no longer than your thumb and smaller around than a golf ball.

The bobtail squid lives along the coast of the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and it’s not just one species. It’s an entire order containing around 70 species. The oceans are full of adorable little squids.

The bobtail squid has a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria, much like the pea aphid and its beneficial bacteria, but in the bobtail squid’s case, the bacteria don’t provide nutrients, they provide light. The bacteria are bioluminescent and help the squid hide from predators. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, how does it help the squid hide to be lit up from within like a tiny squid-shaped lamp?” but that just proves that you’re a land animal and not a water animal. If you’re a big fish on the hunt for yummy bobtail squid to eat, you’re probably hiding in deep water where the squid can’t see you in the darkness, looking up for the telltale shadowy outline of a squid against the surface of the water. Day or night, the water’s surface is much brighter than the water underneath it because it’s reflecting sun, moon, or starlight, but if the squid is glowing faintly, instead of showing up as a dark shape against the brighter surface, it blends in. The light only shines downward and the squid adjusts it to be brighter or dimmer to match the amount of light shining on the water.

The bobtail squid is mostly nocturnal and will hide in the sand during the day or if it feels threatened, using its arms to pull sand over its body. All squids have large eyes, but the bobtail squid’s eyes are especially large in comparison to its small body, which makes it even cuter. It eats small animals and especially likes shrimp. It can also change colors to blend in with its surroundings and communicate with other squid.

Let’s finish with Page’s suggestion, the Venezuelan poodle moth. I was going to start the episode with this one because it’s so fuzzy and cute, but when I started research I realized that there’s a mystery associated with this insect. I like to end episodes with a mystery if I can. I want to keep everyone guessing.

In late 2008 and early 2009, a zoologist named Arthur Anker was in southeastern Venezuela in South America, and photographed a fuzzy white moth he found. He didn’t know what it was so he labeled it as a poodle moth when he posted the picture online. I’ve put a link in the show notes to all the photos he posted from his trip, including the poodle moth, and they’re absolutely gorgeous. He has a lot of moth photos but the poodle moth was the one that went viral in 2012.

There are other cute, fuzzy moths that sometimes get called poodle moths, such as the silkworm moth. Silkworm moths are native to Asia and are one of the few domesticated insects in the world, together with the honeybee. If you’ve ever had a silk shirt, that silk probably came from the domestic silkworm, which has been raised for at least 5,000 years in China and other places.

Silk comes from the cocoons the silkworm moth larva spins. Each cocoon can contain up to a mile of silk fiber, or 1.6 km, in one long, thin thread. The problem is, to harvest the silk properly, you have to kill the silkworm inside, usually by throwing the cocoon into boiling water. If the silkworm is allowed to mature, it releases enzymes to break down the silk so it can get out of the cocoon, and that weakens any fabric made from the silk. You can get silk made from cocoons of silkworms that weren’t killed, though, sometimes collected from wild moths.

Domestic silkworm moths have been bred so that they don’t produce pigments, since that means the silk won’t have any pigments either and can be dyed more easily. Domestic silkworms differ from their wild relatives in other ways too. Their cocoons are bigger, they no longer have any fear of predators, and they can no longer fly because their wings are too small for their bodies. The moth is covered in short white hairs that make it look fuzzy and cute, with black eyes. The larvae eat the leaves of the white mulberry tree or related trees, but adult moths don’t eat at all and don’t even have functional mouths.

So the silkworm moth is definitely a cute invertebrate, but what’s going on with the Venezuelan poodle moth? What’s the big mystery?

Well, no one knows what species it is. Some people have even accused Dr. Anker of making it up completely. Considering how many thousands of moths live in Venezuela, and how many new moth species are discovered every year, it’s likely that the poodle moth is new to science. The trouble is that no one has seen it since. Anker wasn’t on a collecting trip and he didn’t realize the poodle moth might be something new to science, so he just took a picture of it and left it alone.

The best guess by entomologists who’ve examined the picture is that the poodle moth is a member of the genus Artace, possibly a close relation of the dot-lined white moth. The dot-lined white moth is white and fuzzy with tiny black dots on its wings. It mostly lives in the southeastern United States but there have been sightings in Colombia, which is a country in South America just west of Venezuela.

There are other fuzzy white moths in the world that are known to science, including the muslin moth that’s equally small and cute. Female muslin moths are white and fuzzy with some gray or brownish-gray speckles on the wings, while male muslin moths are dark gray and fuzzy with black speckles on the wings. They live mostly in Eurasia.

Hopefully soon a scientist can find and capture a Venezuelan poodle moth and solve the mystery once and for all. Hopefully that scientist will also take lots of pictures so we can verify that it’s just as cute as it looks in its first picture.

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 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 213: More Honeybees, But Stingless



Thanks to Nicholas for this week’s suggestion! Let’s learn about the Australian stingless bee and its relatives!

Listen to BewilderBeasts if you want more fun, family-friendly animal facts!

Further reading/watching:

Australian Stingless Bees

Women Work to Save Native Bees of Mexico (I really recommend the short video embedded on this page! It’s utterly charming!)

House of the Royal Lady Bee: Maya revive native bees and ancient beekeeping

A Maya beekeeper’s hut and some Central/South American stingless bees (pictures from the last link, above):

Stingless bees build their combs in a spiral shape:

An Australian stingless bee collecting nectar and pollen:

Show transcript:

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

Last year Nicholas emailed me with a correction to episode 183 and a suggestion. In that episode I said that only honeybees make honey, but Nicholas pointed out that the Australian stingless bee also makes honey. In fact, he keeps some of these bees himself! So let’s learn about Tetragonula carbonaria and its close relations, as well as some other interesting bee information!

Stingless bees don’t just live in Australia. Different species live in parts of Australia, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Most produce honey, although not very much of it compared to the European honeybee. They don’t sting but some species will bite.

Stingless bees are much smaller than European honeybees. Some look more like a flying ant than a bee unless you look closely. A stingless bee worker only grows around 4 mm long, while a European honeybee worker grows about 15 mm long. Different species have different markings, but Tetragonula carbonaria, which is sometimes called the sugarbag bee, is black all over.

Stingless bees have a lot in common with honeybees, which makes sense because they’re closely related. The stingless bee lives in a social colony with a caste structure of the queen who stays home and lays eggs, male drones that mate with new queens, and infertile female workers. Young worker bees keep the hive clean and take care of the brood, or developing larvae, while older worker bees are the ones who fly out and forage for pollen and nectar. While stingless bees only have one queen laying eggs at any given time, some species will have a few backup queens in case of an emergency. These backup queens don’t produce eggs because they only mate with the drones if the reigning queen dies.

In a few species of stingless bee, there’s actually another caste in addition to the ordinary queen, drone, and worker. It’s the soldier caste. Soldier bee larvae get extra food, and they grow to be larger and stronger than other bees to help them guard the colony, especially the hive entrance. Before the stingless bee soldier castes were discovered, no one realized that any bees ever had soldiers, although some ant and termite species have them.

The stingless bee builds a nest in tree cavities, preferably in the tops of large trees because that keeps the hive warm and protected. It’s a tropical bee so it needs to stay warm. If any insect or other small animal gets into the hive, the bees can’t sting it because as their name implies, they don’t have working stingers. Instead, they swarm the intruder and attempt to smother it with anything they can find, including wax, resin, and mud.

The stingless bee builds honeycombs, but they’re spiral shaped. They’re made from beeswax mixed with resin that the worker bees collect from certain plants. The combs can be yellow like ordinary honeycombs, or they can be black, brown, or reddish. The word honeycomb isn’t actually accurate because it’s not where the bees store honey. The honey is stored in large chambers in the nest called honeypots. The combs are properly called brood combs because they’re used for baby bees. Worker bees fill the cells about three-quarters full of honey and pollen and the queen lays one egg in each cell. The workers then cap the cell. When the egg hatches, the bee larva has plenty of nutritious honey and pollen to eat. Once the larva has metamorphosed into an adult bee, it chews a hole through the cell’s cap and emerges.

If you’re wondering whether you can eat the honey of the sugarbag bee, yes! It’s runnier than ordinary honey but it smells wonderful and according to Nicholas, it has a tangy citrusy flavor. It sounds really good. Stingless bees don’t produce nearly as much honey as European honeybees, though, which makes sense since honeybees have been selectively bred over centuries to produce more honey than the hive could possibly need. The beekeeper takes the extra to eat, but naturally leaves plenty for the hive to live on.

People in Australia only started keeping stingless bees around the early 1980s, but it’s growing more and more popular. Since the bees are native to Australia, they’re much better for the environment than the European honeybee. They’re also incredibly good at pollinating crops, and if the weather’s warm enough, they’ll happily pollinate year round. A lot of people who keep stingless bees don’t even bother to harvest the honey, just use the bees as pollinators and as weird pets.

Before European honeybees became popular all over the world, many cultures kept stingless bees. This includes the ancient Maya, who kept stingless bees for their honey and wax. There was even a god associated with the bees, and the bees themselves were called “royal lady bees.” They look like tiny honeybees with striped abdomens, but their eyes are blue. It’s a forest bee that will pollinate flowers growing at the tops of tall trees as well as low-growing flowers, which is good for the environment and helps the native trees in particular.

Some modern Maya still keep stingless bees, but so few traditional beekeepers are left that the stingless bees in the Yucatan are endangered. Fortunately, a women’s collective in the area has started teaching local women how to keep the bees. The new beekeepers can sell honey on the gourmet market for extra money, and the bees have help competing with introduced European honeybees. It’s also a source of local pride to have royal lady bees around again.

When a stingless bee worker finds flowers producing a lot of nectar, she marks the area with pheromones. Other bees from her nest detect the pheromones and arrive to help harvest all the nectar and pollen. Pheromones are chemicals that correspond to scents, and although humans can’t detect them, bees have a really sensitive sense of smell. Their sense of smell is so good, in fact, that people in Croatia have trained European honeybees to find a particular scent for a surprising purpose.

Croatia is a country near Italy on the Adriatic Sea, and while it’s an independent country now, its independence only came after a whole lot of fighting. During the war, soldiers hid landmines all over the country and now, decades later, no one remembers where they are. There may be as many as 90,000 mines in the country, and they’re still deadly if a person or animal steps on one.

Obviously, Croatia needs to disarm the landmines—but finding them is the hard part. That’s where the bees come in.

The bees in question are ordinary European honeybees. Scientists train the bees by mixing nectar with tiny traces of the chemical signature of TNT. The bees quickly learn to associate TNT with food, and the scientists follow the bees with drones to see where they go.

I learned about these bomb-sniffing bees from a podcast called BewilderBeasts, which I highly recommend. There’s a promo for it at the end of this episode and I’ll put a link in the show notes. BewilderBeasts’s logo and their first episode both feature the bomb-sniffing bees.

Let’s finish with some interesting folklore associated with honeybees. Many bee-keeping cultures across the world have a superstition that you have to tell the bees about important events in the family. In English it’s literally called “telling the bees.” If you don’t, the bees may swarm and leave you. Some cultures especially stress that the bees must be told about the death of the beekeeper, and that they need to be invited to the funeral too or at least given cake or wine from the service afterwards.

This particular superstition ties into the association with bees and honey with the afterlife. In ancient Egypt and many other cultures across Asia and Europe, honey was a funerary gift for the dead, and tombs were sometimes decorated with images of bees and beehives. Honey isn’t just good to eat, it’s been used as a medicine for millennia and as an ingredient in skin cream and other cosmetics, so it has always been valuable. Every single bee-keeping culture in the world—literally every single one—gives religious significance to honey to some degree or another.

Humans all agree: honey is good, bees are good, and bee-keeping is worth the effort.

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 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 209: Animals Discovered in 2020



Here’s a 2020 retrospective episode that looks at the bright side of the year! Thanks to Page for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals discovered in 2020 (mostly).

Further reading:

Watch This Giant, Eerie, String-Like Sea Creature Hunt for Food in the Indian Ocean

Rare Iridescent Snake Discovered in Vietnam

An intrusive killer scorpion points the way to six new species in Sri Lanka

What may be the longest (colony) animal in the world, a newly discovered siphonophore:

New whale(s) just dropped:

A newly discovered pygmy seahorse:

A newly discovered pipefish is extremely red:

So tiny, so newly discovered, Jonah’s mouse lemur:

The Popa langur looks surprised to learn that it’s now considered a new species of monkey:

The newly rediscovered devil eyed frog. I love him:

The newly discovered Lilliputian frog looks big in this picture but is about the size of one of your fingernails:

This newly discovered snake from Vietnam is iridescent and shiny:

A new giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka and now lives in our nightmares:

The Gollum snakehead was technically discovered in 2019 but we’re going to let that slide:

Show transcript:

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

Very recently, Page suggested the topic “animals discovered in 2020.” Since I was already thinking of doing something like this, I went ahead and bumped his suggestion to the top of the list and here we go!

You’d think that with so many people in the world, there wouldn’t be too many more new animals to discover, especially not big ones. But new scientific discoveries happen all the time! Many are for small organisms, of course, like frogs and insects, but there are still unknown large animals out there. In fact, 503 new animals were officially discovered in 2020. Every single one is so amazing that I had a hard time deciding which ones to highlight. In most cases we don’t know much about these new animals since studying an animal in the wild takes time, but finding the animal in the first place is a good start.

Many of the newly discovered species live in the ocean, especially the deep sea. In April of 2020, a deep-sea expedition off the coast of western Australia spotted several dozen animals new to science, including what may be the longest organism ever recorded. It’s a type of siphonophore, which isn’t precisely a single animal the way that, say, a blue whale is. It’s a colony of tiny animals, called zooids, all clones although they perform different functions so the whole colony can thrive. Some zooids help the colony swim, while others have tiny tentacles that grab prey, and others digest the food and disperse the nutrients to the zooids around it. Many siphonophores emit bioluminescent light to attract prey.

Some siphonophores are small but some can grow quite large. The Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like a floating jellyfish, and which we talked about way back in episode 16, is actually a type of siphonophore. Its stinging tentacles can be 100 feet long, or 30 m. Other siphonophores are long, transparent, gelatinous strings that float through the depths of the sea, snagging tiny animals with their tiny tentacles, and that’s the kind this newly discovered siphonophore is.

The new siphonophore was spotted at a depth of about 2,000 feet, or 625 meters, and was floating in a spiral shape. The scientists estimated that the spiral was about 49 feet in diameter, or 15 meters, and that the outer ring alone was probably 154 feet long, or 47 meters. The entire organism might have measured 390 feet long, or almost 119 meters. It’s been placed into the genus Apolemia although it hasn’t been formally described yet.

Another 2020 discovery off the coast of Australia was an entire coral reef a third of a mile tall, or 500 meters, and almost a mile across, or 1.5 km. It’s part of the Great Barrier Reef but isn’t near the other reefs. A scientific team mapping the seafloor in the area discovered the reef and undoubtedly did a lot of celebrating. I mean, it’s not every day that you find an entirely new coral reef. They were able to 3D map the reef for study and take video too. Best of all, it’s a healthy reef with lots of other animal life living around it.

Another big animal discovered in 2020 is one Patreon subscribers already know about, because we started out the year with an episode all about it. It’s a new whale! In 2018 scientists recording audio of animal life around Mexico’s San Benito Islands in the Pacific Ocean heard a whale call they didn’t recognize. They thought it probably belonged to a type of beaked whale, probably a little-known species called Perrin’s beaked whale.

In late 2020 a team went back to the area specifically to look for Perrin’s beaked whales. They did see three beaked whales and got audio, video, and photographs of them, but they weren’t Perrin’s beaked whales. The whale specialists on the expedition didn’t know what these whales were. They don’t match any species of known cetacean and appear to be a species new to science.

And speaking of new species of whale, guess what. Don’t say chicken butt. You can say whale butt, though, because the discovery of another new whale species was just announced. This one’s a 2021 discovery but there’s no way I was going to wait until next year to talk about it. It lives in the Gulf of Mexico and can grow over 41 feet long, or more than 12 meters. It’s a baleen whale, not a beaked whale, and it was hiding in plain sight. It looks a lot like the Bryde’s whale and was long thought to be a subspecies, but new genetic testing shows that it’s much different. It’s been named Rice’s whale, and unfortunately it’s extremely rare. There may only be around 100 individuals alive. It’s mostly threatened by pollution, especially oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and by collisions with ships. Hopefully now that scientists know more about it, it can be further protected.

Let’s move on from new gigantic animal discoveries to a much, much smaller one. A new pygmy seahorse was discovered off the coast of South Africa in May 2020. It’s brownish-yellow with pinkish and white markings and is only 20 mm long at most. A dive instructor who had seen the fish but didn’t know what it was told researchers about it and they organized a team to look for it. Its closest known relation lives in southeast Asia almost 5,000 miles away, or 8,000 km. Like other seahorses, it lives in shallow water and uses its flexible tail to hang onto underwater plants, but the area where it lives is full of huge waves rolling in from the ocean. It’s called the Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse after the bay where it was discovered, and officially named Hippocampus nalu. “Nalu” means “here it is” in the local Zulu and Xhosa languages, and it also happens to mean “surging surf” in Hawaiian, and it also happens to be the middle name of the dive instructor who spotted the fish, Savannah Nalu Olivier. Sometimes fate just says “this is the right name.”

A new species of pipefish, which is closely related to the seahorse, was also described in 2020, Stigmatopora harastii. It lives off the coast of New South Wales, Australia and can grow up to 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. It was first spotted by scuba divers in 2002. These divers know their fish. It lives among a type of red algae and is the same color red for camouflage. It’s surprising how long it took for scientists to discover it, because it’s not exactly hard to confuse with anything else. Except, you know, algae.

Not all newly discovered animals live in the ocean. In August of 2020 researchers discovered a new mouse lemur in Madagascar. We talked about a different type of mouse lemur in episode 135, that one discovered in 1992 and only growing to 3.6 inches long, or 9 cm, not counting its long tail. The newly discovered Jonah’s mouse lemur is only a little bigger than that. Mouse lemurs are the smallest members of the primate family. They’re also super cute but endangered due to habitat loss.

Another primate discovered in 2020 is one that researchers already knew about for more than a hundred years, but no one realized it was its own species, just like Rice’s whale. In 2020, genetic analysis finally determined that the Popa langur is a new species. It’s a beautiful fuzzy gray monkey with bright white markings around its eyes like spectacles. It lives on an extinct volcano in Myanmar and is critically endangered, with only an estimated 250 individuals left in the wild.

A 2020 expedition to the Bolivian Andes in South America led to the discovery of twenty new species of plant and animal, plus a few re-discoveries of animals that were thought to be extinct. The rediscoveries include a species of satyr butterfly not seen for 98 years, and a frog seen only once before, twenty years ago. The frog is called the devil-eyed frog because of its coloring. It’s purplish or brownish black with red eyes and only grows about an inch long, or 29 mm.

Another frog the team found is one of the smallest frogs in the world. It’s been identified as a frog in the genus Noblella and it only grows about ten mm long. As one article I read pointed out, that’s the size of an aspirin. It’s a mottled brown and black and it lives in tunnels it digs in the leaf litter and moss on the forest floor. It’s being referred to as the Lilliputian frog because of its small size.

In the summer of 2019, a team of scientists surveying the karst forests in northern Vietnam spotted an unusual snake. It was so unusual, in fact, that they knew it had to be new to science. It was dark in color but its small scales shone an iridescent purplish, and it was about 18 inches long, or almost 46 cm. It belongs to a genus referred to as odd-scaled snakes, and we don’t know much about them because they’re so hard to find. They mostly burrow underground or under leaf litter on the forest floor. The new species was described in late 2020.

A new species of giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka in 2020. It lives in the forests of Yala National Park and is nocturnal. The female is jet black while the male has reddish-brown legs, and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or a little over 10 cm. It’s called the Yala giant scorpion after the park and is the sixth new scorpion species discovered in the park.

One thing I should mention is that all these scientific expeditions to various countries are almost always undertaken by both local scientists and experts from other places. Any finds are studied by the whole group, resulting papers are written with all members contributing, and any specimens collected will usually end up displayed or stored in a local museum or university. The local scientists get to collaborate with colleagues they might never have met before, while the visiting scientists get the opportunity to learn about local animals from the people who know them best, who also happen to know the best places to eat. Everybody wins!

Let’s finish with an astonishing fish that was technically discovered in 2018 and described in 2019, but was further studied in 2020 and found to be even more extraordinary than anyone had guessed. In 2018, after a bad flood, a man living in the village of Oorakam in Kerala, South India, spotted a fish in a rice paddy. He’d never seen a fish like it before and posted a picture of it on social media. A fish expert saw the picture, realized it was something new, and sent a team to Oorakam to retrieve it before it died or something ate it. It turned out to be a new type of snakehead fish.

There are lots of snakehead species that live in rivers and streams throughout parts of Africa and Asia. But this snakehead, which has been named the Gollum snakehead, lives underground. Specifically, it lives in an aquifer. An aquifer is a layer of water that occurs underground naturally. When rain soaks into the ground, some of it is absorbed by plant roots, some seeps out into streams, and some evaporates into the air; but some of it soaks deeper into the ground. It collects in gravel or sand or fractured rocks, or in porous rocks like sandstone. Sometimes an aquifer carves underground streams through rock, creating caves that no human has ever seen or could ever see, since there’s no entrance to the surface large enough for a person to get through. In this case, the heavy rain and floods in Oorakam had washed the fish out of the aquifer and into the rice paddy.

The Gollum snakehead resembles an eel in shape and grows abound four inches long, or 10 cm. Unlike fish adapted for life in caves, though, it has both eyes and pigment, and is a pale reddish-brown in color. This may indicate that it doesn’t necessarily spend all of its life underground. Aquifers frequently connect to springs, streams, and other aboveground waterways, so the Gollum snakehead may spend part of its life aboveground and part below ground.

When it was first described, the researchers placed the fish in its own genus, but further study in 2020 has revealed that the fish is so different from other snakeheads that it doesn’t just need its own genus, it needs its own family. Members of the newly created family are referred to as dragonfish.

Other snakeheads can breathe air with a structure known as a suprabranchial organ, which acts sort of like a lung, located in the head above the gills. Not only does the Gollum snakehead not have this organ, there’s no sign that it ever had the organ. That suggests that other snakeheads developed the organ later and that the Gollum snakehead is a more basal species. It also has a small swim bladder compared to other snakeheads.

Researchers think that the dragonfish family may have separated from other snakehead species as much as 130 million years ago, before the supercontinent of Gondwana began breaking up into smaller landmasses. One of the chunks that separated from Gondwana probably contained the ancestor of the Gollum snakehead, and that chunk eventually collided very slowly with Asia and became what we now call India.

The Gollum snakehead isn’t the only thing that lives in the aquifer, of course. Lots of other species do too, but it’s almost impossible to study them because they live underground with only tiny openings to the surface. The only time we can study the animals that live there is when they’re washed out of the aquifers by heavy rain. It turns out, in fact, that there’s a second species of dragonfish in the aquifer, closely related to the Gollum snakehead, with a single specimen found after rain.

So, next time you’re outside, think about what might be under the ground you’re walking on. You might be walking above an aquifer with strange unknown animals swimming around in it, animals which may never be seen by humans.

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, or just want a sticker, 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 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 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event



Happy new year! This week we’ll learn about the oldest mass extinction event, some 450 million years ago, and also sea scorpions.

Further reading:

Coming up for air: Extinct sea scorpions could breathe out of water, fossil detective unveils

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

Hello, 2021, please be better than 2020 was. I’ve got lots of fun, interesting episodes planned for this year, but let’s start the year off right with an episode about, uh, a major extinction event. Specifically it’s the Late Ordovician mass extinction, which occurred around 450 million years ago. This is the first of a series of episodes about extinction events I have planned for this year, which I hope you’ll find interesting. We’ll also learn about an animal called the sea scorpion.

If you’ve listened to episode 69, about the Cambrian explosion, you may remember that the fossil record shows that around 540 million years ago life on earth evolved from simple organisms into much more complicated ones. This happened relatively quickly in geologic terms, about 15 to 25 million years for life to go from microbial mats, simple worms, and single-celled animals to fantastical creatures with shells and spikes and novel ways of feeding as animals adapted to fit new ecological niches.

But what happened after that? A series of extinction events, that’s what.

The first extinction event researchers can identify from the fossil record is called the End-Botomian extinction event, which happened around 510 million years ago in two phases. We’re not sure what caused the extinctions, but the main theory is that a series of massive volcanic eruptions caused climate changes that led to acidification of the oceans and a resulting loss of oxygen from the water. This was followed by another extinction event around 500 million years ago. All told, during these ten million years or so, about 40% of all species of animal went extinct.

But remember, all we have to work with is the fossil record. Researchers know how old particular rock strata are, strata being the term for layers, so when they find a fossil embedded in a rock they know roughly how long ago it lived. Only a small percentage of animals that ever live end up fossilized, and only a small percentage of fossils are ever found by humans, and only a small percentage of fossils found by humans get studied by experts. So while scientists do their best, they’re working with a limited amount of data to determine what happened half a billion years ago. It’s like trying to determine the rise and fall of empires from a series of random photographs.

But when older rocks show a whole lot of fossils of various kinds, and then slightly younger rocks show way fewer or no fossils, researchers can be pretty sure that something catastrophic happened to kill off a lot of animal life in a relatively short amount of time. If they find the same changes in rocks of the same age in different parts of the world, the catastrophe was probably worldwide and serious enough to impact life on Earth for thousands or even millions of years. That’s what happened in the late Ordovician.

Around 460 million years ago, about the time that life was getting back to normal after the last extinction event, glaciers started to form across the land. Most of the continents at this time were smushed together into a supercontinent called Gondwana, which was mostly in the southern hemisphere. Much of the rest of the Earth was one big ocean, and it was hot and tropical just about everywhere. But that changed when temperatures dropped drastically. Glaciers formed, sea levels fell, and some 60% of all life on Earth went extinct, all possibly within about one million years.

We don’t know why, but we do have some clues and some theories. We know there was a major meteor event around 467 million years ago, which can be pinpointed because of the craters and specific minerals and bits of meteorites found that can only come from meteors hitting the earth. The impacts kicked dust into the atmosphere that then reflected sunlight back into space, causing less light to reach the earth.

Another cause might have just been a cyclical movement of the Earth in space. As you hopefully know, Earth rotates on its axis in a 24 hour period, giving us day and night, and at the same time it’s moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun in a 12-month period, which of course is a year. The sun and the other planets and everything else in our solar system are also moving in space in a larger orbit, and there are other even larger orbits that our solar system is part of within our galaxy, which is moving too. With all this movement all the time, it’s not surprising that Earth’s climate is affected in very long cycles, together with the effects of the moon’s gravitational pull making the Earth’s orbit just slightly wobbly. A combination of events, including where the Earth was in its orbit, might have caused the Earth to cool just enough that it set off an ice age. If this happened at about the same time that the meteor event also caused the Earth to cool a little, that would explain why the onset of glaciation happened so quickly in geological terms.

Whatever the cause or causes, it had serious repercussions. The cooling climate and drop in ocean levels as ice formed caused rapid extinctions of animals that lived in shallow water and were adapted to tropical climates.

But the extinction event was a one-two punch. The cold didn’t kill off every animal, of course, and those that remained evolved to take advantage of ecological niches that were suddenly empty. This is always how life manages after an extinction event. But these new species were adapted to the cold. And then, almost as suddenly as they formed, the glaciers melted.

Sea levels rose dramatically. The Earth warmed again, although not to its former levels. As the glaciers melted, cold fresh water flowed into the ocean and may have caused deep ocean water to rise to the surface, a process called upwelling. The deep ocean water brought nutrients with it that then spread across the ocean’s surface, and this would have set off a massive microbial bloom.

Microbial blooms sometimes happen today in small areas of the ocean or in lakes, especially in places where fertilizers make it into the water. Algae or bacteria that feed on certain nutrients suddenly have a whole lot of food, and they reproduce as fast as possible to take advantage of it. But the microbes use up oxygen, so much of it that the water can become depleted. This leads to massive die-offs of fish and other animals. But these modern microbial blooms are relatively small. The ones 450-odd million years ago might have been worldwide. As the glaciers melted they exposed more land, which meant more nutrients flowing into the ocean, feeding the microbial blooms that continued to deplete oxygen from the ocean.

The result was a severe lack of oxygen in the water that would have driven more species to extinction. Some researchers think it took three million years for the oceans to recover.

There are many other possible causes for the Late Ordovician mass extinction, although right now the cooling and then warming of the earth seems to be the most widely accepted among scientists. But whatever the causes, the results were dramatic. Entire families of animal went extinct, probably around 100 of them, and many others were affected. Some 70% of trilobite species went extinct, for instance.

The Late Ordovician mass extinction marks the end of the Ordovician era and the beginning of the Silurian around 443 million years ago. Remember that these names for eras are just the way that geologists and other scientists can indicate the age of an event or rock or fossil. It’s not like trilobites and brachiopods had little calendars and on one particular day that calendar said “Extinction” and everyone died. It was a gradual process, no matter how fast it occurred in geologic terms. If you had a time machine and could travel back to 450 million years ago, whatever day you arrived, the world would just look normal. You’d have to observe for at least hundreds of years to understand that the Earth was in the process of an extinction event.

You’ll be glad to know that the Silurian lasted almost 25 million years and was nice and quiet geologically. Life rebounded after the extinctions, as it always does, and more animals and plants adapted to live on land. Fish evolved rapidly during this time, developing bony skeletons and jaws. The Earth was comfortably warm but stormy, since the warm water and massive oceans would have spawned hurricanes that make the ones today look puny. But for the most part life was good in the Silurian.

The ocean was populated with lots of animals, including early fish, trilobites, crinoids, corals, leeches, and shelled animals called brachiopods as well as the more familiar mollusks. Sea levels were high and the land was mostly flat. There weren’t many mountains. So around Gondwana were lots of islands that were barely higher than the water level.

In the shallow oceans around what is now North America, an arthropod called the eurypterid was incredibly common, with some 250 species known. Many of them persisted until about 250 million years ago and they lived throughout the world. Eurypterids are often called sea scorpions, but they didn’t look much like modern scorpions. The typical Eurypterid looked a lot like the modern horseshoe crab, but with a longer segmented body and tail. But even though it looked sort of like a horseshoe crab, it may have been more closely related to modern scorpions.

The earliest sea scorpion known was Pentecopterus, which has been found in the fossil record in rocks dated to about 467 million years ago. It grew up to five feet 7 inches long, or 1.7 meters. One interesting thing to note is that it lived in a particular round basin some three miles across, or a bit over 5 km, in what is now Iowa in the United States. Researchers think it was actually a crater from a meteor impact near the ocean’s shore, and that the water in it was probably brackish. Remember how there was a major meteor event 467 million years ago? Pentecopterus was probably living in a crater made by one of those pieces of meteorite. It would have been the apex predator in that small environment, eating anything it could catch with its crablike legs. Later sea scorpions developed a pair of crab-like pincers at the front, along with a flattened tail that sometimes had a pointed barb at the end.

Eurypterids lived in the water. While some grew less than an inch long, or a few cm, some grew quite large. One species of Jaekelopterus could grow 8 ½ feet long, or 2.6 meters. That doesn’t even include the claws at the front that could extend at least another 18 inches, or 45 cm. It was probably a freshwater animal, and despite its size it was streamlined and lightweight, so it would have been an active predator. We even have fossilized fish bones that show puncture wounds that might have been made by its claws. Some eurypterids weren’t very good swimmers, though, and probably spent more time walking along the bottom of the shallow ocean.

So between Jaekelopterus in fresh water and the earliest known sea scorpion, Pentecopterus, in possibly brackish water, it’s obvious that from the very beginning the sea scorpion could adapt to various environments that other animals couldn’t. This adaptability is probably why the sea scorpion survived the extinction event that killed off so many other animals, and it continued to thrive for hundreds of millions of years afterwards.

Not only that, one fossil takes its adaptability a step farther. A geology professor named James Lamsdell heard about a strange eurypterid found in France that had been in a Scottish museum for 30 years. He arranged to have the fossil imaged with a CT scanner, which revealed its gills. And to Lamsdell’s surprise, the gills contained structures found in modern scorpions and spiders, which keep the gill plates from collapsing when it’s out of water. These structures have been retained in modern arachnids from their marine ancestors, and finding them in a eurypterid was shocking. It means that particular eurypterid could spend time on land. Lamsdell and his team think it came out of the water to lay its eggs, either in sheltered pools or in wet sand.

Eurypterids died out eventually, but their cousins, modern scorpions, are doing just fine after surviving many other extinction events. So try to be more like a scorpion, because obviously they’re doing something right.

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 a rating and review on Apple Podcasts 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 203: Swarms!



Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for their suggestions! Let’s learn about some insects that migrate and swarm!

Further listening:

The Animal Migrations Patreon episode (it’s unlocked so anyone can listen)

Further reading:

Ladybugs Are Everywhere!

Monarch butterflies gathered in winter:

The painted lady butterfly:

The bogong moth:

The globe skimmer dragonfly:

Ladybugs spend the winter in bunches, sometimes in your house:

A stink bug, one of many potentially in your house:

This person is not afraid of locusts even though I would be freaking out:

A field in Australia being eaten by locusts (the brown part):

Show transcript:

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

Let’s learn about some insects this week, but not just any old insects. Let’s learn about insects that swarm. Thanks to Nicholas and Juergen for suggestions that led to this episode!

Nicholas suggested long-distance migrators ages ago, and I did do an episode about migration for a Patreon episode. I’ve unlocked that episode so anyone can listen to it, with a link in the show notes. I’ve also used some of the information in that episode for this one, specifically the part about monarch butterflies.

In fact, let’s start with the monarch butterfly. The monarch is a good-sized butterfly, with orange and black wings with white spots along the edges and a wingspan of up to four inches, or 10 cm. It lives in many parts of the world, but only the North American subspecies of monarch migrates.

Every autumn, monarch butterflies living in North America, where they breed, head south to winter in the mountains of central Mexico, a trip that can be as long as 3,000 miles, or 4,800 km. They spend the winter in oyamel fir trees, millions of butterflies in the branches. When spring arrives, the butterflies head north again, but they don’t get all the way back to their original range. If they’re lucky, they reach Texas, where they mate and lay eggs on milkweed plants before dying. The caterpillars hatch, eat up the milkweed, spin cocoons, and emerge transformed into new butterflies that continue the flight north, deeper into North America. But those butterflies don’t make it all the way to their parents’ home range either. They too stop to mate, lay eggs, and die. It can take four or five generations for monarch butterflies to reach Canada and other distant parts of North America, and by that time it’s autumn again. The butterflies fly back to Mexico.

Butterflies heading north live out their entire life cycle in only five or six weeks, but the butterflies that return to Mexico live up to eight months. Researchers think the northward migration follows the blooming of milkweed plants. Milkweed contains toxins that make the monarchs poisonous to a lot of animals, but some birds and a lot of insects will eat the caterpillars. Some populations of North American monarchs overwinter in California, Arizona, or Florida instead of Mexico.

The North American monarch is declining in numbers, probably mostly due to the decline of milkweed. The best way to help the butterfly is to plant milkweed in any area you don’t want to mow very often.

While the monarch migration is astounding, it’s not the only butterfly that migrates. A small, pretty butterfly called the painted lady lives throughout much of the world, even the Arctic, but not South America for some reason. Some populations stay put year-round, but some migrate long distances. One population winters in tropical Africa and travels as far as the Arctic Circle during summer, a distance of 4,500 miles, or 7,200 km, which takes six generations. The butterflies who travel back to Africa fly at high altitude, unlike monarch butterflies that fly quite low to the ground most of the time. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies like many kinds of flowers, not just one plant, and they don’t always migrate every year.

In Australia, some populations of the bogong moth migrate some 600 miles, or 965 km. It’s a dark brown moth with a wingspan of up to two inches across, or 5 cm, and naturally enough, it migrates at night. Unlike the butterflies we’ve talked about, the migration doesn’t take successive generations. In spring the moths fly from the lowlands into the mountains, where they spend the summer mostly hiding in caves and other dark places. The bogong moth actually breeds and lays eggs in winter, because it doesn’t like hot weather.

Birds and some other animals depend on the moth migration for food, when they can eat a lot of big fat moths and get lots of protein. Some Aboriginal tribes of southeastern Australia also used to follow the migration into the mountains, where they would gather lots of moths from caves and roast them. Apparently they taste like nuts.

But the insect that migrates farthest is a species of dragonfly. The globe skimmer, also called the wandering glider or winged wanderer, lives in much of the world, but not in Europe. Researchers think it can’t cross the Sahara to reach Europe, but it can cross the Himalayas. It’s the highest-flying dragonfly known as a result. Even though it’s a small dragonfly, less than two inches long, or 4.5 cm, it has big wings, with a wingspan of almost three and a half inches, or 8 and a half cm. Its abdomen is usually yellow, although males are sometimes more reddish. It’s a strong, fast flier and that’s a good thing, because an individual dragonfly may fly as far as 3,700 miles, or 6,000 km, during migration.

Different populations migrate to different areas, naturally, but scientists have compared the genetic profiles of globe skimmers from different parts of the world and discovered that they’re all extremely similar. This can only happen if the dragonflies from different continents are breeding with each other, which suggests that they’re traveling even farther than we already know. The globe skimmer crosses the Indian Ocean between Asia and Africa, and it shows up on incredibly remote islands, so obviously it’s able to cross vast distances without too much trouble.

The reason the globe skimmer migrates is that it needs fresh water to lay its eggs in. Many parts of the world have well-defined rainy seasons and dry seasons, and the globe skimmer wants to stay where it’s rainy. As it travels, it meets up with other dragonflies, mates, and lays eggs as it goes. The eggs develop quickly and the larvae mature within a few weeks, and immediately join the migration.

The reason the globe skimmer is able to migrate is because of its big wings and flying style. Its wings are broad as well as long, which allows it to ride the wind like a surfer riding a wave. It can glide long distances without needing to move its wings, which saves a lot of energy.

But most insects don’t exactly migrate, or at least they only travel relatively short distances to find a place to winter. The ladybug, for instance.

Juergen emailed me a few months ago about meeting one ladybug outside, then going inside to find a bajillion ladybugs. This happens a lot in autumn and it’s amazing how such a pretty little insect can suddenly seem horrifying when there are hundreds or even thousands of them in your home. It happens because many species of ladybug gather together to spend the winter in a sheltered area. Usually the sheltered area is a forest floor or a rock with lots of crannies for them to hide in. But sometimes it’s your house.

The outside of a light-colored house reflects heat from the sun, which is good for your house but which also attracts ladybugs. When a ladybug finds a nice place to spend the winter, it releases pheromones that attract other ladybugs, and before you know it, your house is ladybug central. Even if you bring in an exterminator to get rid of the bugs, the pheromones remain and will continue to attract ladybugs for years. All you can do is make sure ladybugs can’t get into your house by sealing up every little crack and gap. If the ladybugs do remain, a lot of them will probably die because most houses are too dry for them in winter. The ones that do survive will leave in spring, and at least they don’t eat anything while they’re hibernating. Ladybugs eat aphids and other plant pests during warmer months, so they’re helpful to gardeners and farmers. There are special traps you can get that attract ladybugs and hold them inside until you take them out and release them.

Another insect, commonly called the stinkbug for the nasty odor it releases if it feels threatened, also called the shield bug for its shape, also sometimes comes into houses to spend the winter, sometimes in huge numbers. The most common species in North America these days is the brown marmorated stinkbug, which is a mottled brown with small black and white markings to help it blend in with tree bark. It can grow up to three-quarters of an inch long, or two cm, and is big and heavy and a very clumsy flyer.

The brown marmorated stinkbug is an invasive species from Asia that arrived in North America in the 1990s and has spread throughout the continent, especially the eastern United States. It eats plants and can destroy fruit crops and other crops like beans and tomatoes. So unlike the ladybug, it’s not a beneficial insect to humans. But despite its bad smell, it’s not dangerous to humans or pets. The stinkbug will often appear in your house in fall but also in spring, when it emerges from its little hiding spot in your house and tries to find its way outside.

Finally, let’s look at an infamous swarming insect, the locust. Locusts are responsible for untold thousands of humans dying of starvation when clouds of them sweep through a location, eat up every scrap of food they can find, and move on when all the food is gone. But what are locusts, and why do they do this?

The locust is a type of grasshopper. Specifically, it’s one of several species of short-horned grasshoppers. Ordinarily the grasshoppers are no different from other grasshoppers. But occasionally there’s a drought where a population of the grasshoppers live, and after the drought is over and the plants that died back start to grow really fast, the grasshoppers change.

First, the grasshoppers start to breed much more than usual. When those eggs hatch, the nymphs, which is what baby grasshoppers are called, stay together in groups instead of dispersing and start moving together. They don’t have wings until they grow up so they just hop together and meet up with more and more nymphs. Once they metamorphose into adult grasshoppers, they’re called locusts although they’re still the same grasshoppers as before, just with different behaviors. Some species also look a little different during swarming seasons, often larger than usual and sometimes with different coloration or markings.

Many of these species of grasshopper are large, up to four and a half inches long, or 11 cm, with large wings that make them strong fliers. The swarms can fly up to 93 miles a day, or 150 km, and land when they find a lot of food, which may be crops planted by humans. After the swarm has eaten everything it can find, it moves on to find more. It also leaves behind lots of eggs that soon hatch into new grasshopper nymphs that eat anything that’s started growing again.

If you’re wondering how even a whole bunch of grasshoppers can cause people to starve to death, you don’t have an idea yet of the size of the swarms. Locust swarms can contain tens of billions of grasshoppers. That’s billion with a B. An individual swarm can easily cover more than 100 square miles, or 260 square km, and when they land, they will literally eat every growing plant down to the ground, every single leaf, every single blade of grass, everything. Not only is there nothing left of crops when a locust swarm has come through, there’s no grass or leaves for animals to eat.

The largest locust swarm that we know of was seen in 1875 in the western United States. The swarm covered an estimated 198,000 square miles, or 510,000 square km. That’s larger than the entire state of California. There may have been over 12 trillion individual grasshoppers in that swarm.

This was the Rocky Mountain locust, which was adapted to the prairies of North America. As white settlers pushed west and planted crops where there had formerly only been prairie grass and other prairie plants, the farmers were repeatedly visited by locusts that ate not just their crops, but everything else they could find. The locusts ate leather, wool, wood, and there are even reports of locusts eating the clothes people were actually wearing. There were so many locusts that they couldn’t be avoided. They would get into houses and eat up food in the pantries, along with blankets and clothing. People tried everything they could think of to destroy the locusts, from setting entire fields on fire to building horse-drawn bulldozers that smashed the locusts flat. But nothing helped. There were too many of them.

But as the years passed and more and more prairie was converted to fields or pastures for cattle, and more cities and towns grew up in the west, the Rocky Mountain locust started to decline in numbers. In 2014 it was declared extinct, but by then no one had seen a Rocky Mountain locust since 1902. It’s possible they’re still around in small numbers, but a combination of habitat loss and active eradication of the insect probably drove it to extinction. Another species of North American grasshopper, the high plains locust, is rare these days and almost never swarms, with the last big swarm reported in the 1930s.

But there are plenty of other locusts throughout the world, reported throughout recorded history, including the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and ancient Chinese. Plagues of locusts feature in the Quran and the Bible. The most well known species are the desert locust, which lives in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, and the migratory locust, which lives in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, although it’s quite rare in Europe these days.

Not all locust swarms are enormous, of course, but even a small swarm can destroy local farms and pastures. In the days before easy communication and travel, this could mean people starved in one village even if the next village over was fine. Researchers estimate that a locust swarm that’s only one square kilometer in size, which is less than half a square mile, or about 250 acres, can eat as much as 35,000 people in a single day. WHOA, I did not realize when I wrote that that it would make it sound like the locusts were eating people. Locusts don’t eat people, they don’t hurt you, but the locusts eat as much food as 35,000 people do. That’s what I meant.

The thought of locust swarms is scary, but fortunately it doesn’t happen every year or even every decade. But it does still happen. In 1988, locusts swarming in Africa crossed the Atlantic Ocean and arrived in South America. This year, 2020, started out with desert locusts swarming in parts of north and east Africa in January, spreading into parts of Asia by May. In November, some localized swarms of locusts were spotted in parts of Australia after heavy rains, especially in west and northwest Victoria.

These days, though, people have the advantage of early warning. Locust swarms can be tracked by satellite and drones, people whose crops are eaten up can have food shipped in to help keep anyone from starving, and there are pesticides that can kill a lot of locusts in a short amount of time. But a new experimental biological control has been working really well. The dried spores of a fungus that kills grasshoppers are sprayed on the ground where locusts are laying eggs, since grasshoppers lay their eggs in soil or sand. The fungus kills the grasshoppers and stays on the ground to kill the ones that hatch or arrive later. Best of all, unlike chemical pesticides, the fungus doesn’t kill other insects.

And don’t forget, of course, that the locust is edible. Cultures throughout much of the world traditionally ate locusts and they’re still considered delicacies in many places. They’re also more nutritious than meat from mammals like cattle. Besides, if locusts arrive and eat all your food, it’s just smart to eat the locusts that ate your food. You gotta get that food back somehow.

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 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!