Category Archives: invertebrates

Episode 259: Indestructible Animals



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Thanks to Nicholas and Emma for their suggestions this week as we learn about some (nearly) indestructible animals!

Further listening:

Patreon episode about Metal Animals (unlocked, no login required)

Further reading:

Even a car can’t kill this beetle. Here’s why

The scaly-foot snail’s shell is made of actual iron – and it’s magnetic

The scaly-foot gastropod (pictures from article linked above):

The diabolical ironclad beetle is virtually unsquishable:

Limpet shells:

The business side of a limpet:

Highly magnified limpet teeth:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some indestructible animals, or at least animals that are incredibly tough. You may be surprised to learn that they’re all invertebrates. It’s a suggestion by Nicholas, and one of the animals Nicholas suggested was also suggested by Emma.

We’ll start with that one, the scaly-foot gastropod, a deep-sea snail. We actually covered this one a few years ago but only in a Patreon episode. I went ahead and unlocked that episode so that anyone can listen to it, since I haven’t done that in a while, so the first part of this episode will sound familiar if you just listened to that one.

The scaly-foot gastropod lives around three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean, about 1 ¾ miles below the surface, or about 2,800 meters. The water around these vents, referred to as black smokers, can be more than 350 degrees Celsius. That’s 660 degrees F, if you even need to know that that’s too hot to live.

The scaly-foot gastropod was discovered in 2001 but not formally described until 2015. The color of its shell varies from almost black to golden to white, depending on which population it’s from, and it grows to almost 2 inches long, or nearly 5 cm. It doesn’t have eyes, and while it does have a small mouth, it doesn’t use it for eating. Instead, the snail contains symbiotic bacteria in a gland in its esophagus. The bacteria convert toxic hydrogen sulfide from the water around the hydrothermal vents into energy the snail uses to live. It’s a process called chemosynthesis. In return, the bacteria get a safe place to live.

The snail’s shell contains an outer layer made of iron sulfides. Not only that, the bottom of the snail’s foot is covered with sclerites, or spiky scales, that are also mineralized with iron sulfides. While the snail can’t pull itself entirely into its shell, if something attacks it, the bottom of its foot is heavily armored and its shell is similarly tough.

Researchers are studying the scaly-foot gastropod’s shell to possibly make a similar composite material for protective gear and other items. The inner layer of the shell is made of a type of calcium carbonate, common in mollusk shells and some corals. The middle layer of the shell is regular snail shell material, organic periostracum, [perry-OSS-trickum] which helps dissipate heat as well as pressure from squeezing attacks, like from crab claws. And the outer layer, of course, is iron sulfides like pyrite and greigite. Oh, and since greigite is magnetic, the snails stick to magnets.

Unfortunately, the scaly-foot gastropod is endangered due to deep-sea mining around its small, fragile habitat. Hopefully conservationists can get laws passed to protect the thermal vents and all the animals that live around them.

The scaly-foot gastropod is the only animal known that incorporates iron sulfide into its skeleton or exoskeleton, although our next indestructible animal, the diabolical ironclad beetle, has iron in its name.

The diabolical ironclad beetle lives in western North America, especially in dry areas. It grows up to an inch long, or 25 mm, and is a dull black or dark gray in color with bumps and ridges that make it look like a piece of tree bark. Since it lives on trees, that’s not a coincidence. It spends most of its time eating fungus that grows on and under tree bark.

Like a lot of beetles, it’s flattened in shape. This helps it slide under tree bark and helps it keep a low profile to avoid predators like birds and lizards. But if a predator does grab it and try to crunch it up to eat, the diabolical ironclad beetle is un-crunchable. Its exoskeleton is so tough that it can withstand being run over by a car. When researchers want to mount a dead beetle to display, they can’t just stick a pin through the exoskeleton. It bends pins, even strong steel ones. They have to get a tiny drill to make a hole in the exoskeleton first.

The beetle’s exoskeleton is so strong because of the way it’s constructed. In a late 2020 article in Nature, a team studying the beetle discovered that the exoskeleton is made up of multiple layers that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each layer contains twisted fibers made of proteins that help distribute weight evenly across the beetle’s body and stop potential cracking. At the same time, the arrangement of the exoskeleton’s sections allows for enough give to make it just flexible enough to keep from cracking under extreme pressure. Of course, this means the beetle can’t fly because its wing covers can’t move, but if it falls from a tree it doesn’t need to worry about hurting itself.

Engineers are studying the beetle to see if they can adapt the same type of structures to make airplanes and cars safer.

Nicholas also suggested the limpet, another mollusk. It’s a type of snail but it doesn’t look like the scaly-foot gastropod or like most other snails. Its shell is shaped like a little cone with ridges that run from the cone’s tip to the bottom, sort of like a tiny ice-cream cone that you don’t want to eat. There are lots of species and while a few live in fresh water, most live in the ocean. The limpets we’re talking about today are those in the family Patellidae.

If you think about a typical snail, whose body is mostly protected by a shell and who moves around on a wide flat part of its body called a foot, you’ll understand how the limpet is a snail even though it looks so different superficially. The conical shell protects the body, and the limpet does indeed move around on a so-called foot, gliding along very slowly on a thin layer of mucus.

The limpet lives on rocks in the intertidal zone and is famous for being able to stick to a rock incredibly tightly. It has to be able to do so because otherwise it would get washed off its rock by waves, plus it needs to be safe when the tide is out and its rock is above water. The limpet makes a little dimple in the rock that exactly matches its shell, called a home scar, and as the tide goes out the limpet returns to its home scar, seals the edges of its shell tight to the rock, and waits for the water to return. It traps water inside its shell so its gills won’t dry out while it waits. If the rock is too hard for it to grind down to match its shell, it grinds the edges of its shell to match the rock. It makes its home scar by rubbing its shell against one spot in the rock until both are perfectly matched.

The limpet mostly eats algae. It has a tiny mouth above its foot and in the mouth is a teensy tongue-like structure called a radula, which is studded with very hard teeth. It uses the radula to rasp algae off of the rocks. Other snails do this too, but the limpet has much harder teeth than other snails. Much, much harder teeth. In fact, the teeth of some limpet species may be the hardest natural material ever studied.

The teeth are mostly chitin, a hard material that’s common in invertebrates, but the surface is coated with goethite [GO-thite] nanofibers. Goethite is a type of of iron, so while the limpet does have iron teeth, it still doesn’t topple the scaly-foot gastropod as the only animal known with iron in its skeleton. Not only does the goethite help make the teeth incredibly strong, which is good for an animal that is scraping those teeth over rocks constantly, the dense chitin fibers in the teeth make them resistant to cracking.

The limpet replaces its teeth all the time. They grow on a sort of conveyer belt and move forward until the teeth in front, at the business end of the radula, are ready to use. It takes about two days for a new tooth to fully form and move to the end of the radula, where it’s quickly worn down and drops off.

Meanwhile, even though the limpet’s shell doesn’t contain any iron, its shape and the limpet’s strong foot muscles mean that once a limpet is stuck to its rock, it’s incredibly hard to remove it. It just sits there being more or less impervious to predation. Humans eat them, although they have to be cooked thoroughly because they’re tough otherwise, naturally.

Finally, one animal that Nicholas suggested is probably the royalty of indestructible animals, the water bear or tardigrade. Because we talked about it recently, in episode 234, I won’t go over it again. I’ll just leave you with an interesting note that I missed when researching that episode.

In April of 2019, an Israeli spacecraft was launched that had dormant tardigrades onboard as part of an experiment about tardigrades in space. There were no people onboard, fortunately, because the craft actually crashed on the moon instead of landing properly. The ship was destroyed but the case where the tardigrades were stored appears to be intact.

It’s not exactly easy to run up to the moon and check on the tardigrades, so we don’t know if they survived the crash landing. Studies since then suggest they probably didn’t, but until we can actually land on the moon and send a rover or an astronaut out to check, we don’t know for sure. Tardigrades can survive incredibly cold, dry conditions while dormant. It’s not exactly the experiment researchers intended, but it’s definitely an interesting 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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 253: The Sand Striker



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This week let’s learn about a weird marine worm and its extinct ancestor!

Further reading:

Eunice aphroditois is a rainbow, terrifying

The 20-million-year-old lair of an ambush-predatory worm preserved in northeast Taiwan

Here’s the money shot of the sand striker with its jaws open, waiting for an animal to get too close. The stripy things are antennae:

The fossilized burrow with notes:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time 20 million years to learn about an animal that lived on the sea floor, although we’ll start with its modern relation. It’s called the sand striker and new discoveries about it were released in January 2021.

Ichnology is the study of a certain type of trace fossil. We talked about trace fossils in episode 103, but basically a trace fossil is something associated with an organism that isn’t actually a fossilized organism itself, like fossilized footprints and other tracks. Ichnology is specifically the study of trace fossils caused by animals that disturbed the ground in some way, or if you want to get more technical about it, sedimentary disruption. That includes tracks that were preserved but it also includes a lot of burrows. It’s a burrow we’re talking about today.

Because we often don’t know what animal made a burrow, different types of burrows are given their own scientific names. This helps scientists keep them organized and refer to a specific burrow in a way that other scientists can immediately understand. The sand striker’s fossilized burrow is named Pennichnus formosae, but in this case we knew about the animal itself before the burrow.

The sand striker is a type of polychaete worm, and polychaete worms are incredibly successful animals. They’re found in the fossil record since at least the Cambrian Period half a billion years ago and are still common today. They’re also called bristle worms because most species have little bristles made of chitin. Almost all known species live in the oceans but some species are extremophiles. This includes species that live near hydrothermal vents where the water is heated to extreme temperatures by volcanic activity and at least one species found in the deepest part of the ocean that’s ever been explored, Challenger Deep.

A polychaete worm doesn’t look like an earthworm. It has segments with a hard exoskeleton and bristles, and a distinct head with antennae. Some species don’t have eyes at all but some have sophisticated vision and up to eight eyes. Some can swim, some just float around, some crawl along the seafloor, and some burrow in sand and mud. Some eat small animals while others eat algae or plant material, and some have plume-like appendages they use to filter tiny pieces of food from the water. Basically, there are so many species known—over 10,000, with more being discovered almost every year, alive and extinct—that it’s hard to make generalizations about polychaete worms.

Most species of polychaete worm are small. The living species of sand striker generally grows around 4 inches long, or 10 centimeters, and longer. We’ll come back to its size in a minute. Its exoskeleton, or cuticle, is a beautifully iridescent purple. It doesn’t have eyes, instead sensing prey with five antennae. These aren’t like insect antennae but look more like tiny tentacles, packed with chemical receptors that help it find prey.

The sand striker lives in warm coastal waters and spends most of its time hidden in a burrow in the sand. It’s especially common around coral reefs. While it will eat plant material like seaweed, it’s mostly an ambush hunter.

At night the sand striker remains in its burrow but pokes its head out with its scissor-like mandibles open. When the chemical receptors in its antennae detect a fish or other animal approaching, it snaps its mandibles on it and pulls it back into its burrow. Its mandibles are so strong and sharp that sometimes it will cut its prey in half and then, of course, it pulls both halves into its burrow to eat. If the prey turns out to be large, the sand striker injects it with venom that not only stuns and kills it, it starts the digestive process so the sand striker can eat it more easily. It does all this so quickly that it can even catch fish and octopuses. The mandibles are at the end of a feeding apparatus called a pharynx, which it can retract into its body.

If a person tries to handle a sand striker, they can indeed get bitten. The sand striker’s mandibles are sharp enough to inflict a bad bite, and if it injects venom it can make the bite even more painful. Not only that, the sand striker’s body is covered with tiny bristles that can also inflict stings, with a venom strong enough that it can cause nerve damage in a human that results in permanent numbness where the person touched it. Don’t pet a sand striker.

Remember how I said the sand striker grows 4 inches or longer? That’s actually the low end of its size. The average sand striker is about 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, but it can sometimes grow 3 feet long, or 92 centimeters, or even more. Sometimes a lot more.

In January 2009, someone noticed something in a float along the side of a mooring raft in Seto Fishing Harbor in Japan. The mooring raft had been in place for 13 years at that point and no one knew that a sand striker had moved into one of the floats. It had a nice safe home to use as a burrow. Sand strikers grow quickly and this one was living in a more or less ideal situation, so it just grew and grew until when it was found, it was just shy of 10 feet long, or 3 meters. Even so, it was still only about an inch thick, or 25 millimeters.

There are unverified reports of even longer sand strikers, some up to 50 feet long, or 15 meters. Look, seriously, do not pet it. Since sand strikers spend most of the time in burrows, it’s rare to get a good look at a full-length individual in the wild and we don’t know how long they can really get.

In case you’d forgotten, though, we started the episode talking about a fossilized burrow. In a fossil bed in northeast Taiwan, a team of paleontologists uncovered hundreds of strange burrows dating to about 20 million years ago. The burrows were L-shaped and as much as 6.5 feet long, or 2 meters, and about an inch across, or 2.5 centimeters. Even more confusingly, the fossilized sediment showed feather-like shapes in the upper section of the burrows.

The team of scientists studying the burrows had no idea what the feather-like structures were. The burrows were mysterious from start to finish anyway, since they were so much larger than most burrows in the seafloor.

They decided to do something unusual to solve some of the mysteries. They reached out not only to marine biologists but to marine photographers and aquarium keepers to get their insights. And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the fossilized burrows most closely match those of the sand striker.

They even found out what the feather-shaped structures were. When a sand striker grabs a fish or other prey and drags it into its burrow, a lot of time it’s still alive, at least at first. Its struggles to get away can cause the sides of the burrow to shift. The sediment can’t collapse all the way because the worm lines it with mucus, so the partial collapsing and shifting results in feathery shapes.

These fossilized burrows are the first trace fossils known to be made by a marine ambush predator, which is pretty awesome. It’s even more awesome that some modern sand strikers are using the same type of burrows over 20 million years later.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 251: Modern Mimics and HIREC



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This week let’s look at some animals that have evolved rapidly to adapt to human-caused environmental pressures. Thanks to Otto and Pranav for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Long-term changes of plumage between urban and rural populations of white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

A light-colored peppered moth (left) and darker-colored peppered moths (right):

Soot is hard to clean off buildings and other items (image from this page):

A white-crowned sparrow in the California countryside:

A (deceased museum specimen being photographed) white-crowned sparrow from the city of San Francisco, CA (taken from the study linked above):

A decorator crab that has attached bits of plastic and other trash to its body (image from this page):

The hermit crab sometimes uses trash instead of shells to hide in:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two listener suggestions. Otto suggested we learn about camouflage that mimics modern things, and Pranav suggested animals that show rapid evolution due to humans.

We’ve talked about animals that use camouflage in lots of episodes, especially episode 191, Masters of Disguise. If you want to learn more about camouflage itself, that’s a good one to listen to. In addition, rapid evolution due to humans is a hot area of research right now. It even has its own scientific term, human-induced rapid evolutionary change, often shortened to the acronym HIREC.

Let’s start this episode with the story of a humble moth, because it’s a classic example of both HIREC and modern camouflage.

The peppered moth lives throughout much of the northern hemisphere. Its wingspan is a little over 2 inches across, or about 6 centimeters, and its caterpillar looks just like a little twig. Not only that, the caterpillar can change its coloring to match the twigs of the tree it’s on. But it’s not the caterpillars we’re talking about today.

The peppered moth gets its name from the coloring of its wings, which are white with black speckles, like pepper spilled on a plate. The pattern of speckles is unique to each individual, with some moths having more pepper speckles than others. Some moths have so many speckles that they look gray. But in the 19th century, geneticists studying moths in England noticed that the peppered moth seemed to be changing color as a species. Specifically, some of the peppered moths were completely black.

Black peppered moths had never been documented before 1811. They were still rare in the mid-19th century, but by 1900 almost all of the peppered moths in cities in England were black. Scientists noticed this and tried to figure out what was going on.

Pollution is what was going on. The industrial revolution was in full swing, but all those factories and trains and even ordinary houses were burning coal. Burning coal results in soot that’s carried on smoke and settles on everything. If you have a coal fire in your house, your walls and furniture are going to end up dark with soot. My aunt and uncle renovated a house from the late 19th century and had a lot of trouble cleaning soot from the walls and woodwork, even the old curtains that had been in the house. Similarly, when I lived briefly near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there were still a lot of brick and stone buildings that were black from soot, but one beautiful old church had recently been cleaned and it turned out that the stone it was built from was pale gray, not black.

It wasn’t coal soot getting on the moths, though. It was coal soot on the trees where the moths spent most of their time. Most tree trunks are gray, but with all that coal soot in the air, the trees were coated with it and were much darker gray or even black. A light-colored moth that settled on a black tree branch showed up to predators, but a black moth on the same branch was camouflaged. The black moths survived more often to lay eggs while the white or gray moths didn’t, passing on the genetic likelihood that their babies would grow up to be dark-colored instead of light-colored.

It wasn’t just peppered moths that this happened to, either. More than 100 species of moth were documented to be dark gray or black during this time when they were ordinarily much lighter in color. Scientists call this industrial melanism.

Soot is made up of tiny particles that work their way into the crevices of wood and stone and everything else they come in contact with. You can’t just wipe or rinse it off. It’s acidic too and will kill plants, especially lichens that grow on trees, and it even eats away at stone and brick. It’s dangerous to breathe because the tiny particles lodge in your lungs and eventually stop you from being able to absorb oxygen as efficiently. If you’ve heard of the infamous London smog from the olden days, a big contributor to the smog was coal smoke. In 1952 a five-day smog event in London killed an estimated 12,000 people. That led directly to the Clean Air Act of 1956, and these days London doesn’t have that kind of deadly smog anymore.

Once factories and homes switched to electricity, natural gas, or other alternatives to burning coal, and trains switched to diesel fuel, trees stopped being coated with soot. Older trees that had survived were still dark, but young ones grew up with normal colored trunks and branches. Gradually, the black moths became less and less numerous compared to light-colored moths.

Cities in general result in rapid evolution of animals, including how they camouflage themselves. A study published in May of 2021 found that some birds living in cities are developing different colored feathers. Specifically, white-crowned sparrows living in San Francisco, California have much duller, darker feathers on their backs than white-crowned sparrows living outside of the city. Other studies have found that birds in cities sing much louder and at a higher pitch than birds in the countryside, since they have to compete with traffic and other noise.

A Swiss study on the effects of light on ermine moths indicated that while moths who developed from caterpillars collected from the countryside showed a normal attraction to light, moths from caterpillars collected in the city ignored the light. Since moths often die when they collide with electric lights, the city moths who survived to lay eggs were the ones who didn’t fly into a hot lightbulb.

Another study compared the genomes of white-footed mice that live in various parks in New York City with white-footed mice that live in state parks well outside of the city. The mice in city parks showed a lot less genetic diversity, naturally, since those mice are isolated populations. Mice can’t take cabs to visit mice in other parks, much less leave the city for a vacation. But the city mice showed another surprising difference. Their digestive systems have adapted to a much different diet than their country cousins. Some researchers suggest that the city mice may eat more junk food, which people throw away and the mice find, while other researchers think it’s just a difference in the kinds of insects and plants available in city parks for the mice to eat. Either way, it’s a distinct genetic difference that shows how the city mice are evolving to adapt to their urban environments.

Another example is a type of reptile called the crested anole. It’s related to the iguana and is native to the Americas. There are lots of species and subspecies of anole, many of which live on islands and show distinct adaptations to various habitats. The crested anole lives in Puerto Rico and on some nearby islands and grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm, not counting its long tail. The male is more brightly colored than the female, usually green or brown with darker spots. It’s not related to the chameleon but it is able to change color. It eats small animals, including insects, worms, even other anoles. Anoles are really interesting animals that deserve their own episode one day, so let’s just talk about how the crested anole that lives in cities has adapted to urban life.

One thing the crested anole is known for is its ability to climb right up tree trunks and even perch head-down in a tree. Its toe pads have microscopic scales and hairs that help them adhere to smooth surfaces, something like a gecko’s toes. But there’s a big difference in a tree trunk, no matter how smooth it is, and a pane of glass. Anoles in cities can climb up and down windows and painted walls. Researchers examined the toe pads of city crested anoles and compared them to the toe pads of crested anoles who lived in the countryside. They found that the city anoles had larger toes with more scales, and they even had longer legs. The research team also raced anoles along various surfaces and filmed them in slow motion to study how they were able to maneuver, which sounds like a great day at work.

The crested anoles have only lived in cities for a few decades, so their differences from country anoles evolved very quickly. But not all species of anole can adapt as well and as rapidly as the crested anoles have. Other city anole species don’t show differences from their country cousins.

Human-induced rapid evolutionary change isn’t restricted to cities. Trophy hunters who target the biggest animals with the biggest horns or antlers and leave smaller individuals alone have resulted in only smaller males with smaller horns or antlers surviving to breed. Many populations of bighorn sheep now actually only have small horns. Similarly, elephants have been killed for their tusks for long enough that many elephants are being born without tusks, because tuskless elephants are the ones that survive to breed. Entire populations of some fish species are smaller overall after many generations of being caught with nets, because only the individuals who are small enough to escape the nets survive to breed.

I tried hard to find more examples of animals that camouflage themselves to blend in to human-made items like roads. I’m sure this is happening throughout much of the world, but I couldn’t find any scientific studies about it. If any of you are thinking of going into biology, that might be an interesting field of study. But I did find one other example.

Self-decoration is a type of camouflage I don’t think we’ve talked about before. It’s where an animal decorates its body with items that help it blend in with its surroundings. Some caterpillars will stick little bits of lichen or other plant pieces to their bodies to help them hide, and some invertebrates of various kinds actually pile their own poop on their back as a disguise.

A group of crabs called decorator crabs will stick plants, sponges, and other items to their backs, and different species have preferences as to what items they use. Some species prefer stinging or toxic decorations, such as certain sea anemones which they basically pick up and plant on their backs. Researchers think the sea anemones actually benefit from being used as camouflage, because crabs are messy eaters and the anemones can catch and eat pieces of food that float away from the crab’s mouthparts. A decorator crab’s carapace is often rough in texture with tiny hooks to help things stick to it like Velcro.

Some decorator crabs don’t seek out particular decorations but just make use of whatever small items they find in their local environment. In the past few decades, scientists, divers, and other people who find crabs interesting have noticed more and more decorator crabs using little pieces of trash as decoration. This includes fragments of plastic and pieces of fishing nets.

This is similar to what’s happening with hermit crabs, which we talked about in episode 182. In many places hermit crabs are using trash like bottle caps instead of shells since there’s so much trash on beaches these days. This is your reminder to pick up any trash you find on the beach, but be careful not to cut yourself and also make sure you’re picking up actual trash and not a camouflaged crab.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 248: The Giant Jellyfish Revisited



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We’re down to the last few days to back our Kickstarter!

We’ve got a slightly different type of episode this week. Follow along as I try to find out more about the giant jellyfish that nearly sank a ship!

Further reading:

Kraken: Monster of the Deep

A lion’s mane jellyfish:

A giant squid:

The first photo ever taken of a giant squid:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is behind us and we’re all now ready to head into winter, if we live in the northern hemisphere, or summer, if we live in the southern hemisphere. This week’s episode is a little different, but hopefully you’ll like it.

Before we get into this week’s topic, let me give you the very last Kickstarter update, I promise! From here on out you’ll only get updates through the Kickstarter page if you backed the project. If you’re listening to this episode within a day or two of its release on November 1, 2021, you still have time to back the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book! The campaign ends on Nov. 5, but at 12:03 am eastern time, and one of the many things I’ve learned about running a Kickstarter is maybe don’t launch the project at midnight because then it ends at midnight. Remember that if we reach 100 backers before the end, I’ll release a second bonus episode from the audiobook. I’m really late getting this episode done so it’s actually Halloween as I record this, and we currently have 67 backers, which is amazing! Remember, we have a $1 tier if you just want to pitch a dollar in.

That reminds me, after the campaign is over I’m going to update the first bonus episode and take out the ten minutes of Kickstarter talk that starts it. Thanks again to everyone who’s backed the project. I’m blown away by everyone’s support! If you want a copy of the book but not right now, it’ll be available to buy from your regular book-buying places but only after all the Kickstarter backer rewards are sent.

As it happens, this week’s episode is connected with the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. Specifically, I decided to add a chapter about the giant jellyfish we talked about in episode 16, but to do that I needed to do a lot more research.

That story has actually bothered me for a long time. When I first started the podcast, I wasn’t always as diligent in my research as I am now. If a story came from a source I trusted or had enough realistic-sounding details, I’d assume it was accurate. This story met both criteria but whenever I thought about it, something felt off. So I was glad to dig in and find out more.

This episode is about the research process I went through, which will give you a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how I approach each episode. We’ll also learn about a couple of other weird events where a ship or boat was seemingly attacked by a sea monster.

Let’s start with the story as I reported it in episode 16. I think you will appreciate how much better our audio quality is these days. Here it is:

“In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.”

My first step was to find where I got that story. I was pretty sure it was from Karl Shuker’s blog but when I looked, it wasn’t there. I checked his books that I own and it wasn’t there either. A quick internet search turned up the story in a lot of places with more or less identical wording, but no one said where they’d found the story—except one site, which referenced a book called Mysteries and Monsters of the Sea.

I looked it up and discovered it was a 1998 book, also published as Mysteries of the Deep, made up of articles from FATE Magazine. One of those articles is titled “Giant Jellyfish” and is by Karl Shuker.

The story appeared in the March 1994 issue of FATE, so my next step was to find the article. Karl Shuker is a zoologist who writes a lot about mystery animals, and he’s very good about sharing his sources.

FATE Magazine is still around and isn’t giving its old issues away for free. Then, in one of those amazing, wonderful coincidences, I found an ebay auction for that very issue that had nice clear photographs of several pages to show how good a condition it was in. One of those pages just happened to be the one I needed. I grabbed a screenshot and enlarged it so I could read the text. Shuker writes, “One of the most dramatic cases on record was documented by James Sweeney in Sea Monsters (1977), and took place in January 1973.”

Bingo! Now I just had to find a copy of that book. I found a used copy online that wasn’t very expensive and ordered it, but a little more searching online led me to a digitized version that I was able to access by logging in to the Internet Archive.

I found the story on pages 73-76. It has lots of details that should be easily corroborated, although unfortunately there isn’t a specific date. My next step was my newspapers.com account to see how the event was reported at the time.

This is where I came up against a blank wall. There was nothing in any of the hundreds of digitized newspaper archives available. I searched for the name of the ship, the Kuranda. I searched for the name of the captain, Langley Smith. I couldn’t find a single mention of either, never mind an encounter with a gigantic jellyfish.

It wasn’t looking good for the story, but I had one more clue. The account starts out in Sweeney’s book:

One of the strangest, and probably best documented, sea monster stories to be found anywhere is recorded in the Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives, State Library, Melbourne, Australia. Written testimony submitted by the officer of the watch and others tells clearly what happened to the steamer Kuranda.”

Melbourne is in Victoria, so after some searching online for the archives mentioned in the book and not finding them, I used the Ask a Librarian feature on the State Library Victoria website. I got a response only a few hours later asking for a little more information, which I supplied. I gave the gist of the story, including the details of the ship’s name, the captain’s name, and so forth, and I even gave the link to the digitized version of Sweeney’s book.

A few days later I got a response from a librarian named Jane. I’ll break it down for you.

Jane discovered there were two ships named Kuranda. One was broken up in 1936, the other wrecked in 1969.

In 1973, when this story was supposed to have taken place, there was no longer a colonial secretary in any Australian state. Therefore there is no Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives from 1973 or after.

And there are no records of a Langley Smith who is a ship’s captain.

At this point I decided, reluctantly, that the story is probably fiction. I actually dug around looking at the table of contents of various 1970s magazines that might have published a fictional story about the giant jellyfish and claimed or implied it was real. I even thought about finding Sweeney’s email and just asking him if he remembered where he learned about this story. Sadly, it turns out that he died in 2019.

According to his obituary, Sweeney worked as a forest ranger for most of his life and was also a voracious reader. I don’t want to believe that a forest ranger who likes to read could possibly stretch the truth so I assume he read about the giant jellyfish somewhere, thought it was a true story, and added it to his book. This was long before the internet so he couldn’t just look stuff up online like I’m doing.

Just to make sure, though, let’s take a look at something else Sweeney mentions in his book. He writes, “Perhaps those aboard Kuranda were luckier than they realized. For the Times of London carried a story somewhat similar. Unfortunately, it ended in absolute horror.”

Back I went to newspapers.com, and by the way, a big thanks to the podcast’s Patreon supporters whose contributions allow me to subscribe. The Times isn’t listed on the site, which mostly focuses on American newspapers, but when I did a search for the name of the ship given in Sweeney’s book, the steamer Strathowen, during the 1870s when he reported it occurred, I got lots of hits.

Here’s an excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal of Dublin, Ireland from July 2, 1874.

“The octopus is likely to lose none of its popularity in the Brighton Aquarium, if we are to believe a strange story which comes from India. The master of the screw steamer Strathowen, on his way to Madras, observed a little schooner lying becalmed, and between him and her what he at first thought to be a bank of weed. The mass was perfectly quiet, but after a time began to move towards the schooner. Suddenly it struck her, and sunk her to the bottom. The master of the Strathowen put about, dropped boats, and saved five men from the sunken ship. James Floyd, the master, was rescued, and he tells his story in the most circumstantial fashion. The Pearl schooner, 150 tons, was bound from the Mauritius to Rangoon. On the 10th of May about five in the evening he observed a great mass rising slowly out of the sea. It remained stationary, and looked like the back of a huge whale. In a hapless moment he took his rifle and hit the monster, which began to lash about furiously. … All the men were then ordered up, and knives and hatchets and cutlasses were grasped, and all awaited the advent of the terrible stranger. The narrator proceeds: ‘We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length, and just as thick. The wake or train might have been 100 feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel, and she heeled over. In another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts…. [T]he brute holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam ends.” The general opinion amongst the sailors is that the big bank of sea-weed was an octopus, but we dare say a little confirmation of the story would be welcomed by us all whether naturalists or not.”

This is actually a brief and measured account of the story that appeared in the Times and which later hit the American papers. The longer account reads very much like fiction. The Dublin paper’s tone of interested skepticism matches what I feel, but the story does corroborate what Sweeney wrote in his book about sea monsters, so at least Sweeney wasn’t making stuff up.

I found a 2019 article in Skeptical Inquirer that did all the research about the octopus or squid sinking the Pearl. According to the author, there’s no record of a ship named the Strathowen or a captain named James Floyd. The author also points out that Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was published in 1869, only five years before, and included an attack on the submarine by giant cephalopods.

Before you get too discouraged, though, the Skeptical Inquirer article also talks about a giant squid attacking a small boat, and that one actually happened.

In October 1873 in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, two fishermen and a boy were crossing the bay in a rowboat and noticed something floating in the water. As they neared it, it grabbed the boat with two tentacles and pulled so hard that the boat started to take on water. Luckily there was a hatchet in the boat, and the boy grabbed it and chopped off the tentacles. Later he sold the longer tentacle to a minister who lived nearby and who was interested in squid, which were often referred to as devil-fish back then. The minister, Moses Harvey, wrote about it later and reported that the partial tentacle was as thick as a man’s wrist and measured 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters.

Only a few weeks later Harvey bought a giant squid that had been tangled in a fishing net and hauled ashore. He arranged to get a photograph of it because he knew a lot of people wouldn’t believe how big it was otherwise, and his photo was the very first one taken of a giant squid. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first photographs of a living giant squid were taken.

We talked about the giant squid in episode 74 and we talked about some other types of huge squid in episode 235. I’m willing to bet that there are even larger squid living their quiet squid lives in the depths of the ocean, just as there are probably jellyfish larger than any human has ever seen. Let’s just hope they leave ships and boats alone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month. This month’s Patreon episode is about two hikers in the Pyrenees Mountains who heard a ferocious, terrifying roar out of the darkness near their camp.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 247: Shapeshifters



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Happy Halloween! Let’s learn about some shapeshifters of folklore, including the werewolf and kitsune (thanks to Joel, Pranav, and Emma!), and a real-life shapeshifter.

Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Further reading:

Folklore and Mythology

Breeding Butterflies

Further listening:

MonsterTalk (note: sometimes there’s adult language or really scary themes)

Sandman Stories Presents podcast

A death’s head hawkmoth, looking spooky:

A death’s head hawkmoth caterpillar, not looking spooky at all:

Show transcript:

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

It’s Halloween week and that means we need to talk about a truly spooky monster! Both Joel and Pranav suggested the werewolf a while back and Emily suggested the kitsune [kee-tsoo-neh], so let’s learn about shapeshifters and were-animals of all kinds. “Wer” is an Old English word that just means “man,” and just to get confusing, the word “man” used to refer to any person. The word “wif” referred to a woman, with wifman actually meaning woman. From those words we get the modern uses of wife, woman, and man, while “wer” is obsolete except in werewolf.

Let me derail myself from talking about language by reminding you about our Kickstarter! It ends pretty soon, on November 5, 2021, so if you’ve been thinking about backing the project this would be a great time. It’s to help me publish a book all about mystery animals, called Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World. The book has a foreword by Blake Smith of MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters, and if you don’t already listen to that podcast, it’s a whole lot of fun and informative too. Thanks to everyone who has already backed the project!

Now, Happy Halloween and on to the spookiness!

The important first question we need to answer is if werewolves really exist.

No. They do not exist outside of folklore and fiction, and I’ll explain why later so you don’t ever have to worry about werewolves or any other shapeshifters. But first, let’s learn what werewolves and kitsunes are.

Werewolves are supposed to be people who can turn into wolves. Depending on the story, this can happen when the person wants to turn into a wolf or it can happen during the full moon whether the person wants to be a wolf or not. Sometimes the person has a magical wolfskin or some other item that they put on in order to transform. Sometimes they have to cast a magic spell, but sometimes it’s a curse that someone else has inflicted on them. Some stories say that the only way to kill a werewolf is by shooting it through the heart with a silver bullet, especially one that’s been blessed by a priest.

The werewolf is mainly from European folklore, where for many centuries all werewolves were also supposed to be witches. Until about the 18th century in some areas, if someone accused you of being a werewolf, you could be put on trial as a witch. Lots of people were convicted of witchcraft and killed during waves of witch-hunts in various parts of Europe. Most of the people accused were women, especially elderly women, especially women who were widowed or single, especially women who owned land that someone else wanted. Hmm.

The kitsune is a creature of Asian folklore, especially from Japan, that’s basically a fox that can work magic. It’s sometimes said that all foxes can turn into humans if they want, especially older foxes. The older and more powerful a kitsune is, the more tails it’s supposed to have, up to nine. Kitsunes sometimes play tricks on people but they can also act as guardians and friends.

About the same time that old ladies were being accused of being werewolves in Europe, though, around the 15th to the 18th centuries, something similar happened in Japan. People were much more superstitious during this time and thought the kitsune was a dangerous goblin-like creature that could possess people and make them act like animals. These days the kitsune is back to being considered mostly a friendly trickster.

Werewolves weren’t the only shapeshifters in the folklore of Europe, although they were the most common. A German story collected in 1879 is about someone who could transform into a fox using an item called a strap.

“In the village of Dodow near Wittenburg there lived an old woman who possessed a fox strap. With its help she could transform herself into a fox, and thus her table never lacked for geese, ducks, and all kinds of poultry.

“Her grandchild knew about it, and one day when the schoolmaster was talking about magic in the school, the child told about the fox strap, and the next day brought it to school.

“The schoolmaster took it into his hand and unintentionally approached his head with it. Suddenly he was standing before the children, transformed into a fox. They broke out with a deafening noise. This so frightened the little schoolmaster that he jumped out the window with a single leap.

“He ran to the hill that lay near the village and there built himself a den.

“One day a great hunt was organized, and our fox was among those pursued by the huntsmen. A bullet hit him, and suddenly a schoolmaster was lying there before the bewildered huntsman. The bullet had struck the fox strap and ripped it apart.”

Witches were also supposed to be able to transform themselves into hares, cats, dogs, even geese in European folklore. In other parts of the world, though, folklore is full of people who can turn into different animals, and the animals are always ones local to the area. In various parts of Africa there are stories of people who transform into hyenas, leopards, and lions, while in various coastal areas of the world there are stories of seals, orcas, dolphins, and other water animals that can transform into people or which are humans in disguise.

The nagual is a story from many places in Mesoamerica, dating back to the ancient Aztecs and Olmecs and other people who lived in what is now Mexico and parts of Central and South America. The nagual was supposed to be someone who could shapeshift into a jaguar. Some people today still believe in the nagual the same way some people still believe in werewolves, and like many other shapeshifters it’s often connected with witches. Modern nagual stories are about witches who can transform into various animals at night, including owls, bats, turkeys, pumas, and even wolves. In some stories they’re thieves and murderers, while in other stories they help people.

Of course, not all folktales about shapeshifters are spooky. Sometimes they’re just meant to be funny, like this story from India.

Once there was a boy who herded buffaloes, and he noticed that at noon every day a dog would visit some nearby pools of water in a little valley. One day he hid to watch the dog. To his surprise, when the dog reached the water, it took its skin off and out stepped a beautiful young woman! She bathed in the pool, then put her dog-skin back on and left. The boy followed her to see what house she went to, then went back to watching his buffaloes.

Later that year the boy’s parents decided it was time for him to marry and began to look for a wife for him. But he told them he wanted a dog as his wife and even had a particular dog picked out. Everyone laughed at him, but he was determined to marry the dog and so his parents agreed.

The wedding took place and that night the new bridegroom pretended to fall asleep, and when the dog got up he watched to see what she would do. She took her dog-skin off and started to leave the house, but the groom jumped up and threw the dog-skin on the fire, where it burned up. His wife remained in her human form and they lived happily ever after.

Here’s another story, this one from Korea and published in 1911. Once a very poor old couple lived on the edge of a town, where they grew just enough rice to keep from starving. The old man caught fish to sell for extra money, but one day when he went to the lake, it was almost dried up and all the fish were gone. In the middle of the lake was a giant frog.

The old man shouted at the frog, “How dare you drink up the lake and eat up all the fish!” But the frog said, “You’ll thank me for it one day. Take me home and let me live in your house, and you’ll see how lucky you’ll be.”

The old man didn’t know what to do. Without the water from the lake, his rice would die, and without the fish from the lake, he had nothing to sell. He took the giant frog home.

The old man and his wife gave the frog the best room in their small house and the best food they had. In return, the frog turned out to be a very pleasant lodger and would talk and laugh with the couple long into the night, telling stories and singing songs.

After a week, the frog said he needed to take a wife, but she had to be beautiful and of noble birth. The old man went to the town’s magistrate, whose youngest daughter was the most beautiful woman in the land, and explained that a giant frog would like to marry the magistrate’s daughter.

The magistrate laughed at first, but when he realized the old man was serious, he ordered him to be beaten. But immediately, hail began to fall from the sky—first tiny hailstones, then bigger and bigger ones. The magistrate hastily changed his mind and said his daughter could marry the frog, and the hail stopped.

In this time and place, a bride went to her wedding with her eyes closed and painted over with wax so she couldn’t see her husband until after the ceremony. Imagine the bride’s horror, after the wax was removed and she took her first look at her new husband, when she discovered he was a giant frog! The bride was furious, but the frog said, “You’ll be glad you married me. Will you take these scissors and loosen the skin of my back? It’s too tight and hurts me.”

The bride was so angry that she took the scissors and cut the frog’s skin open all the way down his back. Then, to her astonishment, he wriggled right out of his skin and out stepped a handsome prince wearing fine silk clothes. He had been enchanted and the spell could only be broken when he married a human woman. He and his wife lived happily ever after, and the poor old couple who had helped him were given all the riches they desired and lived in a palace to the end of their days.

I could keep going forever, because there are a whole lot of stories about shapeshifters from around the world. If you want more folktales, I recommend the podcast “Sandman Stories Presents.” Each episode is another folktale. It’s really interesting and the host’s voice is soothing if you need a podcast to help you fall asleep.

Outside of folklore and mythology, shapeshifters aren’t real. To understand why, we have to look at a very different animal, the butterfly—or, since this is a Halloween episode and most moths are nocturnal, the moth. Let’s learn about an especially Halloween-y moth, the African death’s-head hawkmoth. It gets its name from a pattern on its back that looks sort of like a human skull. Its upper wings are black and its lower wings are usually yellowy-orange. Its wingspan is as much as 5 inches across, or 13 cm. It lives in parts of Africa and migrates to Europe for the summer.

The deaths-head hawkmoth caterpillar can grow up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm, and has a curved horn-like structure basically on its butt. After it hatches, it spends the next month or two eating leaves, especially the leaves of potato and tomato plants. During this time it will go through five stages of development, called instars, where it sheds its skin and grows larger. Finally, the caterpillar burrows into the ground and forms a little nesting chamber in the dirt. For the next few weeks it just sits in the chamber while moisture evaporates from its body and it forms a hard shell-like structure called a pupa.

Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a moth by breaking down its own body with digestive juices. The resulting goo of undifferentiated cells reforms into a moth body, a process that takes weeks. Finally the newly formed moth emerges from the shell of its pupa and from the ground, climbs onto a leaf or twig, and hangs there for a little while as its wings uncrumple and extend to their full size.

The transformation of a moth or butterfly, or other insects that go through the same process, is astounding and not fully understood. What we do know is that it takes massive amounts of energy. A caterpillar eats all the time in order to store up energy to metamorphose into a moth or butterfly. If there was an easier way, for instance if a caterpillar just had to cast a magic spell or put on a mothskin coat to transform, they would do it the easy way. But they don’t, because this is the most efficient way to transform from one body to another that nature has developed. It takes weeks, it’s messy and dangerous because the animal is helpless the whole time, and it only happens once in an insect’s lifetime.

So that’s that. Werewolf movies are a lot of fun to watch, especially this time of year, but you don’t have to lie awake at night afterwards worried that a werewolf is going to bite 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 for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 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!