Category Archives: invertebrates

Episode 209: Animals Discovered in 2020



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

Further reading:

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

Rare Iridescent Snake Discovered in Vietnam

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

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

New whale(s) just dropped:

A newly discovered pygmy seahorse:

A newly discovered pipefish is extremely red:

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

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

The newly rediscovered devil eyed frog. I love him:

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

This newly discovered snake from Vietnam is iridescent and shiny:

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 205: Sea Scorpions and the Late Ordovician Mass Extinction Event



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

Further reading:

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

Sea scorpions could get really, really big:

A fossil Eurypterus:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 203: Swarms!



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

Further listening:

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

Further reading:

Ladybugs Are Everywhere!

Monarch butterflies gathered in winter:

The painted lady butterfly:

The bogong moth:

The globe skimmer dragonfly:

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

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 201: The African Grey Parrot and More Mantises



This week we’ll learn about a fascinating parrot and some more weird praying mantises! Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

Further watching:

Nova Science Now: Irene Pepperberg and Alex

Alex: Number Comprehension by a Grey Parrot

The Smartest Parrots in the World

Further reading:

Why Do Parrots Talk?

Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

Alex and Irene Pepperberg (photo taken from the “Why do parrots talk?” article above):

Two African grey parrots:

The “mantis man” petroglyph:

The conehead mantis is even weirder than “ordinary” mantis species:

Where does Empusa fasciata begin and the flower end (photo by Mehmet Karaca)?

The beautiful spiny flower mantis:

The ghost mantis looks not like a ghost but a dead leaf:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at two completely unrelated animals, but both are really interesting. Thanks to Page and Viola for the suggestions!

We’ll start with Page’s suggestion, the African gray parrot. We haven’t talked about very many parrots in previous episodes, even though parrots are awesome. The African gray parrot is from Africa, and it’s mostly gray, and it is a parrot. Specifically it’s from what’s called equatorial Africa, which means it lives in the middle of the continent nearest the equator, in rainforests. It has a wingspan of up to 20 inches, or 52 cm, and it has red tail feathers.

The African gray parrot is a popular pet because it’s really good at learning how to talk. It doesn’t just imitate speech, it imitates various noises it hears too. It’s also one of the most intelligent parrots known. Some studies indicate it may have the same cognitive abilities as a five year old child, including the ability to do simple addition. It will also give its treats to other parrots it likes even if it has to go without a treat as a result, and it will share food with other parrots it doesn’t even know.

Despite all the studies about the African grey in captivity, we don’t know much about it in the wild. Like other parrots, it’s a highly social bird. It mostly eats fruit, seeds, and nuts, but will also eat some insects, snails, flowers, and other plant parts. It mates for life and builds its nest in a tree cavity. Both parents help feed the babies. That’s basically all we know.

It’s endangered in the wild due to habitat loss, hunting, and capture for sale as pets, so if you want to adopt an African grey parrot, make sure you buy from a reputable parrot breeder who doesn’t buy wild birds. For every wild parrot that’s sold as a pet, probably a dozen died after being taken from the wild. A good breeder will also only sell healthy birds, and will make sure you understand how to properly take care of a parrot. Since the African grey can live to be up to sixty years old, ideally it will be your buddy for basically the rest of your life, but it will require a lot of interaction and care to stay happy and healthy.

One African grey parrot named Alex was famous for his ability to speak. Animal psychologist Dr. Irene Pepperberg bought Alex at a pet shop in 1977 when he was about one year old, not just because she thought parrots were neat and wanted a pet parrot, but because she wanted to study language ability in parrots.

Pepperberg taught Alex to speak and to perform simple tasks to assess his cognitive abilities. Back then, scientists didn’t realize parrots and other birds were intelligent. They thought an animal needed a specific set of traits to display intelligence, such as a big brain and hands. You know, things that humans and apes have, but most animals don’t. Pepperberg’s studies of Alex and other parrots proved that intelligence isn’t limited to animals that are similar to us.

Alex had a vocabulary of about 100 words, which is average for a parrot, but instead of just mimicking sounds, he seemed to understand what the words meant. He even combined words in new ways. He combined the words banana and cherry into the word banerry to describe an apple. He didn’t know the word for cake, so when someone brought a birthday cake into the lab and he got to taste it, he called it yummy bread. When he saw himself in a mirror for the first time, he said, “What color?” because he didn’t know the word gray. He also asked questions about new items he saw. So not only did he understand what words meant, he actually used them to communicate with humans. As Pepperberg explains, Alex wasn’t super-intelligent or unusual for a parrot. He was just an ordinary parrot, but was trained properly so he could express in words the intelligence that an average parrot uses every day to find food and live in a social environment.

Alex died unexpectedly in 2007 at only 31 years old. I’ve put a link in the show notes to a really lovely Nova Science Now segment about Alex and Dr. Pepperberg, and some other videos of Alex and other parrots. Pepperberg has continued to work with other parrots to continue her studies of language and intelligence in birds.

This is audio of Alex speaking with Pepperberg. You’ll notice that he sounds like a parrot version of her, which is natural since he learned to speak by mimicking her voice, meaning they have the same intonations and pronunciations.

[Alex the parrot speaking with his trainer, Dr. Pepperberg]

Next, Viola wants to learn about praying mantises. We had an episode about them not too long ago, episode 187, but there are more than 2,400 known species, so many that we could have hundreds of praying mantis episodes without running out of new ones to talk about.

Today we’ll start somewhere I bet you didn’t expect, an ancient rock carving from central Iran.

The carving was discovered while archaeologists were surveying the region in 2017 and 2018. I’ll put a picture of it in the show notes, but when you first look at it, you might think it was a drawing of a plant or just a decoration. I’ll try to describe it. There’s a central line that goes up and down like a stick, with three lines crossing the central line and a rounded triangle near the top. The three lines have decorations on each end too. The bottom line curls downward at the ends, the middle line ends in a little circle at each end, and the top line curves up and then down again at the ends. It’s 5 1/2 inches tall, or 14 cm, and a little over four inches across at the widest, or 11 cm. Archaeologists have estimated its age as somewhere between 4,000 years old and 40,000 years old. Hopefully they’ll be able to narrow this age range down further in the future.

The team that found the carving, which is properly called a petroglyph, was actually looking specifically for petroglyphs that represented invertebrates. So instead of thinking, “Oh, that’s just a tree” or “I don’t know what that is, therefore it must just be a random doodle,” the archaeologists thought, “Bingo, we have a six-legged figure with a triangular head and front legs that form hooks. It looks a lot like some kind of praying mantis.”

But while archaeologists might know a lot about petroglyphs, they’re not experts about insects, so the archaeologists asked some entomologists for help. They wanted to know what kind of praying mantis the carving might depict.

The entomologists thought it looked most like a mantis in the genus Empusa, and several species of Empusa live in or near the area, although they’re more common in Africa. So let’s talk about a few Empusa species first.

The conehead mantis is in the genus Empusa and is native to parts of northern Africa and southern Europe. Like most mantises, females are larger than males, and a big female conehead mantis can grow up to four inches long, or 10 cm. The body is thin and sticklike, with long, thin legs, and individuals may be green, brown, or pink to blend in among the shrubs and other low-growing plants where it lives. It eats insects, especially flies. So far this is all pretty normal for a praying mantis. But the conehead mantis has a projection at the back of the head that sticks almost straight up. It’s called a crown extension and it helps camouflage it among sticks and twigs. It also often carries its abdomen so that it curves upward.

Other members of the genus Empusa share these weird characteristics with the conehead mantis. Empusa fasciata lives in parts of western Asia to northeastern Italy and is usually green and pink with lobe-shaped projections on its legs that help it blend in with leaves and flowers. It mostly eats bees and flies, and females spend a lot of time waiting on flowers for a bee to visit. And then you know what it does…CHOMP. The more I learn about insects that live on flowers, the more I sympathize with bees. Everything wants to eat bees. E. fasciata also has a crown extension that makes its head look like a knob on a twig, and it also sometimes carries its abdomen curved sharply upward so that it looks a lot like a little spray of flowers.

Most mantids are well camouflaged. We talked about the orchid mantis in episode 187, which mimics flowers the same way E. fasciata does. But a few mantis species look like they should really stand out instead of blending in, at least to human sensibilities. The spiny flower mantis is white with green or orange stripes on its legs and a circular green, yellow, and black pattern on its wings. When I first saw a photo of it, I honestly thought someone had photoshopped the wing pattern on. But if something threatens a spiny flower mantis, it opens its wings in a threat display, and the swirling circular pattern suddenly looks like two big eyes. It also honestly looks like really nifty modern art. I really like this mantis, and you know I am not fond of insects so that’s saying something. It lives in sub-Saharan Africa and females grow about two inches long, or 5 cm.

Finally, the ghost mantis is really not very well named because it doesn’t look anything like a ghost, unless a ghost looks like a dead leaf. It looks so much like a leaf that it should be called a leaf mantis, but there are actually lots of different species called leaf mantis or dead leaf mantis. This particular one is Phyllocrania paradoxa, and it also grows to about two inches long, or 5 cm. It lives in Africa and most individuals are brown, although some are green or tan depending on the humidity level where it lives. It looks exactly like a dead leaf that’s sort of curled up, except that this leaf has legs and eats moths and flies. It even has a crown extension that looks like the stem of a leaf. Unlike most mantis species, it’s actually pretty timid and less aggressive toward members of its own species. In other words, ghost mantises are less likely to eat each other than most mantis species are.

People keep all these mantises as pets, which I personally think is weird but that’s fine. They’re easier to take care of than parrots are, although you’ll never manage to teach a praying mantis to talk.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 199: Carnivorous Sponges!



Thanks to Lorenzo for this week’s topic, carnivorous sponges! How can a sponge catch and eat animals? What is its connection to the mystery of the Eltanin Antenna? Let’s find out!

Further reading/watching:

New carnivorous harp sponge discovered in deep sea (this has a great video attached)

How Nature’s Deep Sea ‘Antenna’ Puzzled the World

Asbestopluma hypogea, beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The lyre sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The ping-pong tree sponge, also beautiful but deadly if you’re a tiny animal:

The so-called Eltanin antenna:

A better photo of Chondrocladia concrescens, looking less like an antenna and more like a grape stem:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about carnivorous sponges, which is a suggestion from Lorenzo.

When I got Lorenzo’s email, I thought “oh, neat” and added carnivorous sponges to the giant, complicated list I keep of topic suggestions from listeners and my Aunt Janice, and also animals I want to learn more about. When I noticed carnivorous sponges on the list the other day, I thought, “Wait, sponges are filter feeders. Are there even any carnivorous ones?”

The answer is yes! Most sponges are filter feeders, sure, but there’s a family of sponges that are actually carnivorous. Caldorhizidae is the family, and it’s made up of deep-sea sponges that have only been discovered recently. We know there are lots more species out there because scientists have seen them during deep-sea rover expeditions without being able to study them closely.

We talked about sponges way back in episode 41, with some mentions of them in episodes 64 and 168 too, but only the filter feeder kind. Let’s first learn how a filter feeder sponge eats, specifically members of the class Demosponge, since that’s the class that the family Caldorhizidae belongs to.

Sponges have been around for more than half a billion years, since the Cambrian period and possibly before, and they’re still going strong. Early on, sponges evolved a simple but effective body plan and just stuck to it. Of course there are lots and lots and lots of different species with different shapes and sizes, but they almost all work the same way.

Most have a skeleton, but not the kind of skeleton that you think of as an actual skeleton. They don’t have bones. The skeleton is usually made of calcium carbonate and forms a sort of dense net that’s covered with soft body tissues. The tissues are often further strengthened with small pointy structures called spicules. If you’ve ever played a game called jacks, where you bounce a ball and pick up little metal pieces between each bounce, spicules sort of resemble jacks.

The sponge has lots of open pores in the outside of its body, which generally just resembles a sack or sometimes a tube. One end of the sack is attached to the bottom of the ocean, or a rock or something. The pores are lined with cells that each have a teensy structure called a flagellum, which is sort of like a tiny tail. The sponge pumps water through the pores by beating those flagella. Water flows into the sponge’s tissues, which are made up of lots of tiny connected chambers. Cells in the walls of these chambers filter out particles of food from the water, much of it microscopic, and release any waste material. The sponge doesn’t have a stomach or any kind of digestive tract, though. The cells process the food individually and pass on any extra nutrients to adjoining cells.

Obviously, this body plan is really effective for filter feeding, not so effective for chasing and killing small animals to eat. The sponge you may have in your kitchen is probably synthetic or manufactured from a sponge gourd, not an actual bath sponge animal, but it’s arranged the same way. Go look at that sponge, or just imagine it, and then compare it mentally to, say, a tiger. Very different.

But in 2007, an underwater rover captured something on film that astounded researchers. The rover was investigating some undersea caves in the Mediterranean, where a tiny sponge known as Asbestopluma hypogea lives. The sponge only grows about half an inch long, or 1.5 cm, and everyone assumed it was just a regular old sponge. You know, a filter feeder. It did have an unusual structure of filaments covered with hook-like spicules, but until 2007 no one realized those spicules were actually hooks and used to snag tiny animals like copepods, nematodes, and even brittle stars. Then they saw it on film and freaked out! Well, they probably freaked out. I like to think they did.

But wait, you are probably saying, or at least thinking, sponges don’t even have a digestive system! How do they eat the animals they catch?

It works like this. When a tiny animal floats or swims past and gets snagged by the hooked spicules, which by the way is a passive process, the sponge starts growing a membrane that envelops the animal within a few hours. The membrane is made up of specialized cells that contain beneficial bacteria, and the bacteria help digest the animal so that the cells can absorb the nutrients. The process can take up to ten days. It’s similar in some ways to how carnivorous plants digest animals, as we talked about in episode 129.

One interesting thing is that while A. hypogea is a deep-sea sponge, it’s also found in shallow underwater caves. Further research has suggested that underwater caves may shelter other animals that are usually deep-sea dwellers. One cave where the sponge is found is only 16 feet below the surface, or five meters, whereas it lives around 2,300 feet deep, or 700 meters, in open ocean. Since its discovery in both the caves and in deeper parts of the Mediterranean, it’s been classified as a protected species and parts of the Mediterranean where it lives have also been protected.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the harp sponge was discovered off the coast of northern California. The harp sponge lives up to 11,500 feet below the surface, or 3,500 m, and it gets its name because of its shape. Like a harp, which has strings stretched down from an arched frame, the harp sponge has a structure called a vane that consists of a horizontal branch with straight, thin branches growing up from it in a row. The harp sponge can have up to six vanes, and where they connect in the middle the sponge has root-like filaments that anchor it to the sea floor. It’s no wonder that people used to think sponges were plants.

The vanes of the harp sponge are covered with hooked spicules like the grabby half of Velcro, but pointier. At the top of the vertical branches, little balls of sperm form and are released into the water to fertilize the eggs of other harp sponges. The sponge also has egg development areas about halfway up the vertical branches, which have tiny filaments to help it catch sperm released by other sponges. When it catches sperm, the cells of the filament fuse with it and use it to fertilize the nearest eggs. You can see both the sperm packets and the egg development areas in a picture in the show notes, and both look like little bulbs.

I should mention that all these carnivorous sponges are incredibly pretty.

The harp sponge can grow up to almost 15 inches across, or 37 cm, which is pretty big for a sponge.

The ping-pong tree sponge is another newly discovered carnivorous sponge, and arguably it has the best name. It can grow up to 20 inches tall, or 50 cm, but most of its height comes from its central stalk that anchors it to the sea floor. At the top of the stalk, smaller stems branch out and at the end of the stalks, little bulbs around 3 to 5 mm in diameter grow like grapes on a grape stem. The bulbs resemble little ping-pong balls (also known as table tennis, but ping-pong is funnier and refers to the sound the little hollow ball makes as it bounces from a paddle and off the table).

We don’t know much at all about the ping-pong tree sponge. It’s been found off the coast of South America near Easter Island, around 8,800 feet deep, or 2,700 meters. So far it seems to live in areas where the sea floor is made up largely of hardened lava.

We’ll finish with a mystery related to carnivorous sponges! In 1964 a research ship called the USNS Eltanin was photographing the sea floor in the Antarctic, and on August 29th it took a photograph of something weird off the coast of Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the very southern tip of South America except for a few islands, and is considered the point where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. That’s an arbitrary distinction made by humans since obviously the world’s oceans are connected everywhere, but it’s useful for telling people where you found a weird thing in the water. The picture was taken at a depth of almost two and a half miles, or 3,904 meters.

The picture shows what looks like a stick growing straight up from the ocean floor, with cross-shaped pieces of equal lengths sticking straight out to the sides, and a little bulb at the very top. It looks for all the world like a weird radio antenna, and it’s actually been called the Eltanin antenna.

The picture appeared in a newspaper article later that year, 1964, and drew the attention of UFO enthusiasts. By 1968 many people thought the picture showed a piece of machinery left by alien visitors for unknown but probably sinister purposes, although why they left the machinery at the bottom of the ocean, no one could say. Other people thought the antenna had been planted by the Soviets for likewise unknown but probably sinister purposes, ditto no idea why it was at the bottom of the ocean. Other people pooh-poohed all that and said it was probably just something that had fallen off a ship and lodged upright in the mud.

Instead, it turns out that the so-called antenna is probably actually a carnivorous sponge, Chondrocladia concrescens, known to science since 1880 although no one knew it was carnivorous back then. Disappointingly, better pictures of the sponge show that it looks more like a grape stem than an antenna. These days even diehard UFO researchers acknowledge that the Eltanin antenna was just a sponge, although a pretty neat one. Mystery solved!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 192: Ghostly Animals



Let’s start off October with a spooky episode about some ghost animals–real ones, and some ghost stories featuring animals!

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway! Details here.

Further reading:

Lolo the Ghost Snake

Barn Related Ghost Stories

What big teef you have, ghost bat:

Nom nom little ghost bat got some mealworms (also, clearly this rehabilitation worker has THE BEST JOB EVER):

Ghost snake!

This is where the ghost snake lives. This photo and the one above were both taken by Sara Ruane (find a link to the article and photos in the “further reading” section):

The ghost crab is hard to see against the sand but it can see you:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally October, which means it’s monster month on the podcast! Let’s jump right in with an episode about three animals with the word ghost in their name, and some spooky ghost stories that feature animals. (Don’t worry, they won’t be too spooky. I don’t want to scare myself.)

First up is my personal favorite, the ghost bat. That’s, like, twice the Halloween fun in one animal! Not only that, it’s a member of a family of bats called false vampires, and is sometimes called the Australian false vampire bat. I am just, I can’t, this bat is too perfect and I have died.

The ghost bat lives in parts of northern Australia and is actually pretty big for a microbat. Its wingspan is almost 20 inches wide, or 50 cm. Its color is pale gray, sometimes almost white, while babies are darker gray. It has large, long ears and a nose leaf that helps it echolocate, and it’s nocturnal like most microbats. While it doesn’t have a tail, it does have sharp teeth and a strong jaw to help it eat even the bones of small animals.

Most microbats eat insects, but the ghost bat prefers vertebrates like frogs, mice, snakes, lizards, birds, even other species of bat. It hunts by dropping down on its prey, most of which live on the ground. It folds its wings around its prey and bites it in the neck to kill it, which makes it even better as a Halloween bat. I love this bat. It eats almost all of the body of its prey, including fur, bones, teeth, and even small feathers in the case of birds. Sometimes it eats its prey immediately, but sometimes it carries it to a small cave to eat, separate from its roosting area, referred to as a midden since the floor is littered with the remains of past meals. If you’re not familiar with the word midden, it just means a trash heap. Researchers love finding a ghost bat’s midden because they can find out exactly what animals the bat has eaten lately.

Female ghost bats roost in groups during the late spring to have their babies, usually in caves or abandoned mines. A female gives birth to a single baby, and she carries it around until it’s big enough to learn how to fly on its own, in about seven weeks. Once it can fly, it accompanies its mother on hunting trips until it’s fully weaned several months later. A mother bat has two pairs of teats, one pair near her armpits that produces milk for her baby to drink, and one pair near her legs that doesn’t produce milk. The teats near her legs act as little handholds for her baby to help it keep a good grip on her, especially when it’s very young.

The ghost bat is vulnerable to many of the usual concerns, including habitat loss and introduced predators, but it also has an unusual issue with an introduced plant and a type of fencing. The ghost bat doesn’t fly very high most of the time, since it’s usually hunting for small animals that live on the ground or birds roosting in bushes. As a result, its wings frequently get snagged on the spines of a thorny plant called lantana, and on barbed wire fencing. The spines or barbs tear the wings’ delicate patagia, often so badly that the bat can’t fly and starves to death. Since there are only an estimated 8,000 of the bats left in the wild, this is especially bad.

The ghost bat has good hearing, naturally, but it also has good eyesight. It uses a combination of hearing, vision, and echolocation to navigate and find prey. It also makes some sounds within the hearing range of humans. This is what a ghost bat sounds like:

[ghost bat chattering]

That bat sounds adorable and not spooky at all. So let’s bump up the spooky factor with our first ghost story.

This one comes from one of my favorite books, The Telltale Lilac Bush by Ruth Ann Musick, which we talked about in episode 91, about spooky owls. It’s a collection of ghost stories collected by folklorists in West Virginia. This story is called “A Loyal Dog.”

“Many years ago a small boy saw a little dog floating down the river on a log. He swam out, rescued the dog, and took it home with him. After this, the boy and the dog were together at all times. The dog lived for almost twenty years, and when it died, the young man was very sad to see his good friend go.

“Sometime later the young man was walking through a field, when all at once he was pulled down by something behind him. This gave him quite a start, but when he looked around, he saw, just in front of him, a great crack in the ground. Had he not been stopped, he would probably have fallen into it and been killed.

“What saved him, he did not know. There was nothing around that could have knocked him down or that he could have stumbled over. When he examined his clothing, however, there were the marks of a dog’s teeth on his coat, and clinging to the coat some dog hair—the same color as his old dog’s.”

Next let’s talk about the ghost snake, which lives in Madagascar. Not only is it called the ghost snake, it’s a member of a group of nocturnal or crepuscular snakes called cat-eyed snakes. The cat-eyed snakes are relatively small, slender, and have large eyes with slit pupils like cats have.

The ghost snake gets its name because it’s pale gray in color, almost white, with a darker gray pattern, and because it’s elusive and hard to find. Researchers only discovered it in 2014. A team of researchers were hiking through a national park in the pouring rain hoping to find species of snake that had never had their DNA tested. The goal was to collect genetic samples to study later. After 17 miles, or 25 km, of hiking through rugged terrain in the rain, they spotted a pale snake on the path. Fortunately they were able to catch it, and genetic analysis later showed that it was indeed a new species.

We know very little about the ghost snake since it’s so hard to find. It lives in rocky areas, which is probably why it’s pale gray, since the rocks are too. The rocks are uneven pointy limestone formations known locally as tsingy, which translates to “rock you can’t walk on barefoot.” The snake doesn’t have fangs, but it does have toxins in its saliva and a pair of enlarged teeth in the rear of the mouth. We don’t know what it eats yet, but the other cat-eyed snakes in Madagascar are general predators who eat pretty much any small animal they can catch, including frogs and toads, lizards, and rodents. Other cat-eyed snakes also sometimes act like constrictors to help kill prey.

A mysterious pale snake is definitely spooky, but I have a story that’s even spookier. It’s from a 1913 book called Animal Ghosts by Elliott O’Donnell and the story is called “The Phantom Pigs of the Chiltern Hills.”

“A good many years ago there was a story current of an extraordinary haunting by a herd of pigs. The chief authority on the subject was a farmer, who was an eye-witness of the phenomena. I will call him Mr. B.

“Mr. B., as a boy, lived in a small house called the Moat Grange, which was situated in a very lonely spot near four cross-roads, connecting four towns.

“The house, deriving its name from the fact that a moat surrounded it, stood near the meeting point of the four roads, which was the site of a gibbet, the bodies of the criminals being buried in the moat.

“Well, the B——s had not been living long on the farm, before they were awakened one night by hearing the most dreadful noises, partly human and partly animal, seemingly proceeding from a neighbouring spinney, and on going to a long front window overlooking the cross-roads, they saw a number of spotted creatures like pigs, screaming, fighting and tearing up the soil on the site of the criminals’ cemetery.

“The sight was so unexpected and alarming that the B——s were appalled, and Mr. B. was about to strike a light on the tinder-box, when the most diabolical white face was pressed against the outside of the window-pane and stared in at them.

“The children shrieked with terror, and Mrs. B., falling on her knees, began to pray, whereupon the face at the window vanished, and the herd of pigs, ceasing their disturbance, tore frantically down one of the high roads, and disappeared from view.

“Similar phenomena were seen and heard so frequently afterwards, that the B——s eventually had to leave the farm, and subsequent enquiries led to their learning that the place had long borne the reputation of being haunted, the ghosts being supposed to be the earth-bound spirits of the executed criminals.”

Our last ghostly animal is the ghost crab. There are many species of ghost crab that live all over the world, especially on tropical and subtropical beaches, including the one I’m familiar with, the Atlantic ghost crab. It’s typically a fairly small crab. The Atlantic ghost crab only grows around 2 inches across, or 5 cm, not counting its legs, while some species may be twice that size.

Its body is squarish and thick, which gives it a boxy appearance, and it has long, club-shaped eyestalks that can swivel so it can see all around it. One of its claws is always larger than the other. It digs a burrow in the sand or mud to stay in during the day, but at night it comes out and scavenges along the beach to find food. It will eat small animals if it can catch them, including insects and smaller crabs, but it also eats dead animals, rotting plants, and anything else it can find. It’s a fast runner and can zoom around on the beach at up to 10 mph, or 16 km/h.

The ghost crab gets its name from its coloration, just like the other ghost animals in this episode. Most species are white, pale gray, or pale yellow, basically the color of the sand where it lives. But it’s able to change colors to match its surroundings. This change usually takes several weeks because it has to adjust the concentration of pigments in its cells. This is useful since beaches can change color over time too.

The ghost crab is semi-terrestrial. It can’t live underwater without drowning, but it also has to keep its gills wet with seawater or it dies. This is sort of the worst of both worlds if you ask me, but it works for the crab. Generally, damp sand is wet enough to keep its gills wet, and its legs also have tiny hairlike structures that help wick moisture from the sand up to its gills.

A female ghost crab will usually join a male she likes in his burrow to mate. She carries her eggs around under her body, keeping them wet by going into the water frequently. When they’re ready to hatch, she releases them into the surf, where the larvae live until they metamorphose into little bitty young crabs that then live on land.

Surprisingly, the ghost crab makes several different sounds. It can rub the ridges on its claws together, drum on the ground with its claws, and make a weird bubbling sound. Until recently scientists weren’t sure how it made this last sound, but new research reveals that it’s made by a comblike structure in the crab’s digestive system called a gastric mill that helps grind up food. It rubs the comb of the gastric mill against another structure called a medial tooth to produce the sound. The crab uses the noises it makes to intimidate potential predators, including raccoons, and making a sound with its digestive system leaves its claws free to pinch if it needs to.

This is what the ghost crab sounds like:

[ghost crab sound]

We’ll finish up with a final spooky ghost story, or actually several short ones. I found an old but fun thread on a horse forum where people were talking about their haunting experiences in and around barns. I’ve chosen a few to read here, but if you want to go read the whole thread, I’ll link to it in the show notes.

The first comes from someone who calls themself Saidapal:

“My old mare (28 years old) and my young gelding (6 years old) were best of friends since the day he arrived at my farm when he was one. Sadly I had to have the mare put down last year. Every day for the first 2 weeks after she passed the gelding would come out of his stall and go straight to hers just like he had been doing for years to wait for her to join him. Broke my heart and still does when I think about it.

“When she had been gone for about 2-3 months I started seeing shadows out of the corner of my eyes and hearing her joints pop so I knew it was her LOL, and always the gelding would be somewhere in the vicinity. After a day or two I dreamed about her, and in the dream she was young and beautiful again. The very next morning the gelding came out of his stall and went straight to hers just like he used to. It was the last time he ever did that and I haven’t seen her since.

“I swear she had come to say goodbye to both of us.”

The next story is by Darken:

“I’ve had a number of things happen in my barn. I’ve had my collar lifted up and tugged from behind. I’ve had what felt like the nose of a big dog go into the palm of my hand, so much so that I turned around expecting to see my neighbor’s German Shepard there. And the best one was when I was walking out to the barn one night in the dark and saw the ghost of a horse run left to right between me and the barn door. Since I was looking down as I was walking, I just missed seeing its head, but I clearly saw its neck, flying mane, back, croup and flagging tail. I could see nothing below its knees, and it ran about 2 feet off the ground. The edges of it were solid white, but towards the center it was so transparent, I could see the stripes of the barn door thru it.”

And our last story is by Watermark Farm:

“Years ago I boarded at a barn where all the horses spooked badly at a certain corner near the entrance to the arena. It was a real problem and several people had been dumped badly in this corner. A boarder had a pet psychic out to work with her horse. The psychic knew nothing about this spooky spot but said ‘He hates that corner, the one with the dead pig. The dead pig thinks it’s funny to run out and scare the horses.’”

Happy Halloween!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. Don’t forget to contact me if you want to enter the book giveaway which is going on through October 31, 2020! Details are on the website.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 191: Masters of Disguise!



Thanks to Nicholas and Pranav for their suggestions which led to this episode about animals that are especially good at disguising themselves!

If you’d like to listen to the original Patreon episode about animal mimics, it’s unlocked and you can listen to it on your browser!

Don’t forget to contact me in some way (email, comment, message me on Twitter or FB, etc.) if you want to enter the book giveaway! Deadline is Oct. 31, 2020.

Further watching:

An octopus changing color while asleep, possibly due to her dreams

Crows mobbing an owl!

Baby cinereous mourner and the toxic caterpillar it’s imitating:

The beautiful wood nymph is a moth that looks just like bird poop when it sits on a leaf, but not when it has its wings spread:

The leafy seadragon, just hanging out looking like seaweed:

This pygmy owl isn’t looking at you, those are false eyespots on the back of its head:

Is it a ladybug? NO IT’S A COCKROACH! Prosoplecta looks just like a (bad-tasting) ladybug:

The mimic octopus:

A flower crab spider with lunch:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s look at some masters of disguise. This is a suggestion from Nicholas, but we’ll also learn about how octopuses and other animals change colors, which is a suggestion from Pranav. Both these suggestions are really old ones, so I’m sorry I took so long to get to them. A couple of years ago we had a Patreon episode about animal mimics, so I’ll be incorporating parts of that episode into this one, but if you want to listen to the original Patreon animal mimics episode, it’s unlocked so anyone can listen to it. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes.

Most animals are camouflaged to some degree so that they blend in with their surroundings, which is also called cryptic coloration. Think about sparrows as an example. Most sparrows are sort of brownish with streaks of black or white, which helps hide them in the grass and bushes where they forage. Disruptive coloration is a type of camouflage that breaks up the outlines of an animal’s body, making it hard for another animal to recognize it against the background. Many animals have black eye streaks or face masks that help hide the eyes, which in turn helps hide where their head is.

But some animals take camouflage to the extreme! Let’s learn about some of these masters of disguise.

We’ll start with a bird. There’s a bird that lives in parts of South America called the cinereous mourner that as an adult is a pretty ordinary-looking songbird. It’s gray with cinnamon wing bars and an orange spot on each side. It mostly lives in the tropics. In 2012, researchers in the area found a cinereous mourner nest with newly hatched chicks. The chicks were orangey-yellow with dark speckles and had long feather barbs tipped with white. While the researchers were measuring the chicks and making observations, they noticed something odd. The chicks started moving their heads back and forth slowly. If you’ve ever seen a caterpillar moving its head back and forth, you’d recognize the chicks’ movements. And, as it happens, in the same areas of South America, there’s a large toxic caterpillar that’s fluffy and orange with black and white speckles.

It’s rare that a bird will mimic an insect, but mimicry in general is common in nature. We’ve talked about some animal mimics in earlier episodes, including the orchid mantis in episode 187 that looks so much like a flower that butterflies sometimes land on it…and then get eaten. Stick insects, also known as phasmids, which we talked about in episode 93, look like sticks. Sometimes the name just fits, you know? Some species of moth actually look like bird poop.

Wait, what? Yes indeed, some moths look just like bird poop. The beautiful wood nymph (that’s its full name; I mean, it is beautiful, but it’s actually called the beautiful wood nymph) is a lovely little moth that lives in eastern North America. It has a wingspan of 1.8 inches, or 4.6 cm, and its wings are quite lovely. The front wings are mostly white with brown along the edges and a few brown and yellow spots, while the rear wings are a soft yellow-brown with a narrow brown edge. It has furry legs that are white with black tips. But when the moth folds its wings to rest, suddenly those pretty markings make it look exactly like a bird dropping. It even stretches out its front legs so they resemble a little splatter on the edge of the poop.

But it’s not just insects that mimic other things. We’ve talked about frogfish before in episode 165. It has frills and protuberances that make it look like plants, rocks, or coral, depending on the species. The leafy seadragon, which is related to seahorses and pipefish, has protrusions all over its body that look just like seaweed leaves. It lives off the coast of southern and western Australia and grows over nine inches long, or 24 cm, and it moves quite slowly so that it looks like a piece of drifting seaweed. Not only are the protuberances leaf-shaped, they’re green with little dark spots, or sometimes brown, while the body can be green or yellowish or brown like the stem of a piece of seaweed.

Many animals have false eyespots, which can serve different purposes. Sometimes, as in the eyed click beetle we talked about in episode 186, the false eye spots are intended to make it look much larger and therefore more dangerous than it really is. Sometimes an animal’s false eyespots are intended to draw attention away from the animal’s head. A lot of butterflies have false eyespots on their wings that draw attention away from the head so that a predator will attack the wings, which allows the butterfly to escape. Some fish have eyespots near the tail that can make a predator assume that the fish is going to move in the opposite direction when startled.

Even some species of birds have false eyespots, including many species of pygmy owl. The Northern pygmy owl is barely bigger than a songbird, just six inches tall, or 15 cm. It lives in parts of western North America, usually in forests although it also likes wetlands. It’s mostly gray or brown with white streaks and speckles, but it has two black spots on the back of its head, fringed with white, that look like eyes. Predators approaching from behind think they’ve been spotted and are being stared at.

But some larger birds of prey have false eyespots too, including the American kestrel and northern hawk owl. What’s going on with that?

You’ve probably seen or heard birds mobbing potential predators. For instance, where I live mockingbirds will mob crows, while crows will mob hawks. The mobbing birds make a specific type of angry screaming call while divebombing the predator, often in groups. They mostly aim for the bird’s face, especially its eyes, in an attempt to drive it away. This happens most often in spring and summer when birds are protecting their nests. Researchers think the false eyespots that some birds of prey have help deflect some of the attacks from other birds. The mobbing birds may aim for the false eyespots instead of the real eyes. Despite its small size, the northern pygmy owl will eat other birds, and it’s also a diurnal owl, meaning it’s most active during the day, and it does sometimes get mobbed by other birds.

Sometimes, instead of blending in to its surroundings, an animal’s appearance jumps out in a way that you’d think would make it easy to find and eat. But like the cinereous mourner chicks mimicking toxic caterpillars, something in the mimic’s appearance makes predators hesitate.

A genus of cockroaches from the Philippines, Prosoplecta, have evolved to look like ladybugs, because ladybugs are inedible to many predators. But cockroaches don’t look anything like ladybugs, so the modifications these roaches have evolved are extreme. Their hind wings are actually folded up and rolled under their carapace in a way that has been found in no other insect in the world. The roach’s carapace is orangey-red with black spots, just like a ladybug.

In the case of a lot of milkweed butterfly species, including the monarch butterfly, which are all toxic and which are not related to each other, researchers couldn’t figure out at first why they all look pretty much alike. Then a zoologist named Fritz Müller suggested that because all the butterflies are toxic and all the butterflies look alike, predators who eat one and get sick will afterwards avoid all the butterflies instead of sampling each variety. That’s called Mullerian mimicry.

A lot of insects have evolved to look like bees, wasps, or other insects with powerful stings. The harmless milksnake has similar coloring to the deadly coral snake. And when the mimic octopus feels threatened, it can change color and even its body shape to look like a more dangerous animal, such as a sea snake.

And that brings us to the octopus. How do octopuses change color? Is it the same in chameleons or is that a different process? Let’s find out and then we’ll come back to the mimic octopus.

We’ve talked about the octopus in many episodes, including episodes 100, 142, and 174, but while I’ve mentioned their ability to change color before, I’ve never really gone into detail. Octopuses, along with other cephalopods like squid, have specialized cells called chromatophores in their skin. A chromatophore consists of a sac filled with pigment and a nerve, and each chromatophore is surrounded by tiny muscles. When an octopus wants to change colors, its nervous system activates the tiny muscles around the correct chromatophores. That is, some chromatophores contain yellow pigment, some contain red or brown. Because the color change is controlled by the nervous system and muscles, it happens incredibly quickly, in just milliseconds.

But that’s not all, because some species of octopus also have other cells called iridophores and leucophores. Iridophores are layers of extremely thin cells that can reflect light of certain wavelengths, which results in iridescent patches of color on the skin. While the octopus can control these reflections, it takes a little longer, several seconds or sometimes several minutes.

Leucophores are cells that scatter light, sort of like a mirrored surface, which doesn’t sound very helpful except when you remember how light changes as it penetrates the water. Near the surface, with full spectrum light from sunshine, the leucophores just appear like little white spots. But water scatters and absorbs the longer wavelengths of light more quickly than the shorter wavelengths. We’ve talked about this before here and there, mostly when talking about deep-sea animals.

To make it a little simpler, think of a rainbow. A rainbow is caused when there are a lot of water droplets in the air. Light shines through the droplets and is scattered, and the colors are always in the same pattern. Red will always be on the top of the rainbow because it has the longest wavelength, while violet, or purple, will always be on the bottom because it has the shortest wavelength. The same thing happens when sunlight shines into the water, but it doesn’t form a rainbow that we can see. Red light is absorbed by the water first, which is why so many deep-sea animals are unable to perceive the color red. There’s no reason for them to see it, so there’s no need for the body to put effort into growing receptors for that color.

Blue, by the way, penetrates water the deepest. That’s why clear, deep water looks blue. Solid particles in the water also affect how light scatters, so it can get complicated. But to get back to an octopus with leucophores, the leucophores reflect the color of the light that shines on them. So if an octopus is deeper in the water and the light shining on it is mostly in the green and blue spectrum, the leucophores will reflect green and blue, helping make the octopus look sort of invisible.

But wait, it gets even more complicated, because some octopuses can also change the texture of the skin. Sometimes that just means it can make its skin bumpy to help it blend in with rocks or coral, but some species can change the shape of the skin more drastically.

We still don’t fully understand how cephalopods know what colors they should change to. While octopuses mostly have good eyesight, at least some species are colorblind. But they can still match the background colors exactly. Some preliminary research into cuttlefish skin appears to show that the cuttlefish has a type of photosensor in the skin that allows it to sense light wavelengths and brightness without needing to use its eyes. Basically the skin acts like its own eye. This is getting weirder and weirder, but that happens when we talk about cephalopods because they are peculiar and fascinating animals. In 2019, marine biologists released footage of a captive octopus changing colors in her sleep. Some researchers think she may have been dreaming, and her dream prompted the color changes.

Let’s get back to the mimic octopus now that we’ve learned the basics of how octopuses change color. The mimic octopus lives throughout much of the Indo-Pacific, especially around Indonesia, and has an armspan of about two feet across, or 60 cm. It generally lives in shallow, murky water, where it forages for small crustaceans and occasionally catches small fish. It’s usually light brown with darker brown stripes, but it’s good at changing both its color and its shape to mimic other animals.

So far, researchers have documented it mimicking 15 other animals, including a sea snake where it hides all but two of its legs, a lion fish where it holds its legs out to look like spines, jellyfish, sting rays, frogfish, starfish, sponges, tube-worms, flatfish, and even a crab. It actually imitates a crab in order to approach other crabs, which it then grabs and eats. So obviously it’s not using its mimicry ability randomly. It will imitate a sea snake if it feels threatened by an animal that is eaten by sea snakes, for instance. And it was only discovered in 1998 and hasn’t been studied very well yet.

Unfortunately, the mimic octopus is rare to start with and threatened by pollution and habitat loss. Once it was discovered, people immediately wanted to own them. But the mimic octopus doesn’t do well in captivity, usually dying within weeks or even days. Even octopus experts have trouble keeping them alive for very long. One expert reported that the mimic octopus is incredibly shy and spends most of its time hiding deep under the sand. It’s mostly active at night and doesn’t like bright light. It’s incredibly sensitive to temperature changes, water quality, and even the type of salt used in saltwater aquariums, and most importantly, he reported that in captivity, it doesn’t do any imitating.

Chameleons are also famous for their ability to change color and pattern, but not every species can do so. The ones who can use a very different process for color changing compared to octopuses. The chameleon has a layer of skin that contains pigments with a layer beneath that contains crystals of guanine, a reflective molecule that’s used in cosmetics to make things look shimmery, like nail polish. The chameleon can move the crystals to change the way light reflects off them, which affects the color, especially when combined with the pigments in the upper layer of skin. The color change takes about 20 seconds and different species are able to change into different colors and patterns.

Not all mimics use appearance. A number of moths are toxic to bats, but it’s no use evolving bright colors to advertise their toxicity to predators who use echolocation to hunt. Instead, the moths generate high-pitched clicks that the bats hear, recognize, and avoid. And naturally, some non-toxic moths also generate the same sounds to mimic the toxic moths.

Let’s finish with a tiny spider that also changes color. It’s called the white crab spider or the goldenrod crab spider or the banana crab spider, or just the flower spider. It’s a small, common spider that lives throughout the northern hemisphere. You’ve probably seen a few of them in your time, probably when you’re leaning down to sniff a flower. It hangs out on flowers and can be white or yellow in color. A big female can be 10 mm long, not counting her legs, while males are barely half that size. They’re called crab spiders because they often run sideways like a crab. The flower spider doesn’t build a web. Instead, it just sits on a flower.

The male flower spider climbs around from flower to flower, looking for a mate. The female generally stays put on a particular flower until it fades, and then she’ll find a new one. If she moves from a yellow flower to a white one, or vice versa, she can change color to match, but it’s not a quick process. It takes at least ten days and sometimes up to 25 days to change from white to yellow, since the spider has to secrete yellow pigment into its cells, while changing from yellow to white usually takes less than a week. If she’s on a flower that is another color, she’ll usually remain white. Only the female can change color, and some females may have small red or pink markings that don’t change color. The male is usually yellow or off-white in color.

The flower spider is so well camouflaged that it can be hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. It eats butterflies and moths, bees, and other insects that visit the flowers. Males will also eat pollen. Its venom is especially toxic to bees, although it’s harmless to humans. It really likes to eat bumblebees. Its first pair of legs are longest and curve forward to make it easier for the spider to grab a bumblebee and sink its fangs into it. Meanwhile, the bumblebee has black and yellow stripes to advertise to potential predators that it will sting, but that doesn’t help it when it comes to the little crab spider. Danger in the bee world!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Don’t forget to contact me if you want to enter the book giveaway contest, which will run through October 31, 2020! If you want to enter, just let me know by any means you like.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 187: The Praying Mantis and the Cockroach



We finish off Invertebrate August in style, with great suggestions from Rosy and Kim!

Also, I was a guest on The Flopcast last week if you want to hear me talking about DragonCon and birding with my friend Kevin! Also, he actually has a few pictures of me if you want to know what I look like (I hate having my picture taken).

Further Reading:

Why Do Mantids Only Have One Ear?

Secrets of the orchid mantis revealed

In this new praying mantis group, gender dictates disguise

Male (left) and female (right) Hondurantemna chespiritoi (photos from article linked to just above):

The female Hondurantemna chespiritoi showing her leaf-like wings:

An orchid mantis:

Vespamantoida wherleyi looks like a wasp:

A Neotropical bark mantis, hiding in plain sight:

The Indian domino cockroach is actually kind of cute:

A hissing cockroach GET IT OFF YOUR HAND OMG WHY ARE YOU TOUCHING IT:

Show Transcript:

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

It’s the last week of Invertebrate August, but what a wild ride it’s been. We’ll round out the month with a few more listener suggestions, so thanks to Kim and Rosy for some awesome topics!

Before we get started, though, last week I was a guest on The Flopcast, a hilarious and family-friendly podcast about geeky stuff like old cartoons and TV shows and music from when you were a kid, unless you’re a kid now in which case music from before you were born. I talked with the host Kevin about DragonCon, so if you are interested in hearing me talk about something besides animals, I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can go listen!

But now, on to the invertebrates! First, let’s learn about the mantis, also called the praying mantis, which is Rosy’s suggestion. If you play Animal Crossing you’ll be familiar with the orchid mantis, but there are lots of species. Lots. Like, almost 2,500 species. They live throughout much of the world but are most common in tropical areas.

All mantises have elongated bodies, enlarged forelegs used for catching and holding prey, and a triangular head with big eyes. The mantis walks on its two rear pairs of legs but holds its big front legs up to use as weapons. Most species have wings and can fly, some don’t, but they are all predators. Most are ambush predators who wait for an insect or other small animal to come near, then grab it with their spiny front legs. Mantises have good vision since they primarily hunt by sight. They’re also most active during the day.

The mantis will eat, in no particular order, insects, frogs and other amphibians, lizards, snakes, small turtles, mice, small birds, spiders, other mantises, and fish. That’s right, fish. In 2017 a team researching insects in India observed a mantis catching guppies in a rooftop garden pond. To reach the guppies, it walked across the water-lilies growing on the water. The scientists observed the mantis catch and eat nine guppies over the course of several nights, and surprisingly, it hunted them in the evening and night when mantises aren’t usually active.

Mantises can and will catch and eat hummingbirds by climbing onto hummingbird feeders or into flowering bushes, and when a hummingbird comes to feed, chomp! So basically, mantises will eat anything they can catch, and they can catch a lot of things.

The eyesight of mantises is interesting, and scientists are discovering more about it all the time. A study published in 2018 reports that the stereo vision, also called 3D vision, that mantises have is very different from that in humans. Whereas human vision is in 3D all the time, the mantis’s stereo vision only kicks in when there’s movement nearby. At that point the mantis has sharp details of exactly where potential prey is, since that’s what’s most important to it. The mantis is also the only insect known to have stereo vision at all.

The mantis doesn’t have any kind of hearing organ on its head and for a long time entomologists thought it was deaf. But it turns out that the mantis does have a type of ear that’s specialized for one thing. It’s not on the head, though. Many species of mantis have a single ear, or what’s called an auditory thoracic organ, in what is sort of their chest, just in front of the middle pair of legs. Technically the organ is split in two, but it acts as a single ear. The reason they have this organ is to detect bats. That’s right, bats. The ear can hear in the ultrasonic range. Some mantis species will fly to find new territory, especially males, and they do this mostly at night to avoid birds. But then they have to avoid bats. When a flying mantis hears a bat’s echolocation calls, it will go into a dramatic dive to avoid it, sometimes just plummeting to the ground.

Most mantises have evolved camouflage to hide from both predators and prey. Some look like leaves, like a newly discovered species from the Honduras and Mexico. Hondurantemna chespiritoi lives in forests and demonstrates sexual dimorphism, where the males and females look very different. The male is light brown with darker and lighter spots, and basically looks sort of like a bundle of sticks. He’s about two inches long, or 5 cm. The female is twice his size and bright green, with forewings that resemble leaves—so much so that the wings have spots that look like blemishes on a leaf and veins that resemble veins in a leaf. The wings are also big enough to hide the body.

Flower mantises, including the orchid mantis, are camouflaged to look like flowers. You probably guessed that from the name. The orchid mantis lives in tropical forests in parts of southeast Asia and is rare and beautiful. It looks so much like a flower that butterflies will land on it thinking it’s actually a flower, at which point—you know. CHOMP. It’s white and pink with heart-shaped lobes on its legs that resemble flower petals, and it mostly eats butterflies and bees. But scientists have determined that despite its name, the orchid mantis isn’t actually trying to specifically mimic an orchid. It doesn’t perfectly resemble any particular type of flower, but seems to have evolved to look like a general flower of the kind that insects just like.

Another newly discovered mantis species, Vespamantoida wherleyi, mimics a wasp. It was discovered in Peru near the Amazon River in 2013, and is bright orangey red in color with black markings and long antennae. Not only does it look like a wasp, it even walks and acts like a wasp. Since wasps are famous for their stinging abilities, many predators avoid them.

Other mantis species are camouflaged to look like tree bark, like the 19 new species of mantis described a few years ago that live in Central and South America. They’re called Neotropical bark mantises and unlike most mantis species, they actively pursue prey. They’re extremely fast runners as a result. They have flattened bodies and are mottled to look like pieces of bark, including imitation patches of moss and lichen. Another bark mantis group lives in Australia.

New species of mantis are discovered frequently, and some entomologists think only about half of the species alive today have actually been described scientifically. Many species that are described have barely been studied. So if you were thinking of going into entomology, praying mantises are a hot field.

The smallest species of mantis is Bolbe pygmea, which only grows to about 10 mm long. It lives in Australia. The largest species is probably the Chinese mantis, which grows almost 4.5 inches long, or 11 cm. It’s native to China and other parts of Asia, but has been introduced into North America.

The female mantis lays her eggs inside a ball of froth that then hardens to make a protective shell called an ootheca [oh-a-THEK-a]. Depending on the species, the ootheca may be attached to a tree or other plant, or may just lie on the ground. In some species, the female guards her eggs by standing over the ootheca and attacking anything that comes too close. Baby mantises are called nymphs.

At least one species of mantis doesn’t have any males, just females. The females produce eggs that hatch even though they’ve never been fertilized, which is called parthenogenesis. A few other species of mantis can reproduce parthenogenetically if they can’t find a male.

That brings us to the one thing that most people know about the praying mantis, that the female cannibalizes the male after or even during mating. This does happen in some species, but not always. It tends to happen more when the female is hungry or poorly nourished, but males are typically cautious about approaching a hungry female. But yes, sometimes the female does just bite the male’s head off, literally, while the pair is in the process of mating.

The praying mantis gets its name because of the way it holds its front legs up. It sort of looks like someone saying a prayer. In this case, the prayer is probably, “Please let me find a big juicy bug to eat.”

The mantis is closely related to the cockroach, which is perfect because Kim suggested roaches as a topic! There are even more cockroach species than there are mantis species, which is saying a lot—at least 4,600 known. Of those, only about 30 are ones that want to live in your house and only six of those 30 are major pests.

A few cockroach species are actually pretty, like the Indian domino cockroach from southern India. It’s a rounded insect that lives in leaf litter in forests and eats decomposing plant material. It grows about 1.5 inches long, or 3.5 cm, although males are smaller. It’s black with seven big white spots.

Generally, though, cockroaches are nothing special to look at. Most species are plain brown with a small head, a flattened body, and wings, although not all species can fly. Most are omnivorous and nocturnal, and many are social insects that live in colonies. They’re also extremely tough. They can go a month without eating at all and some species can even survive up to 45 minutes without air.

Cockroach pests will eat human food, pet food, leather, shed hairs, skin flakes they find in dirty clothes, paper, glue, and book bindings. They can spread diseases like salmonella, although fortunately it’s not very common. Cockroach feces can cause asthmatic reactions in some people, though, and can make your home smell bad.

Cockroaches can also become resistant to pesticides. One effective way to rid your home of roaches is to release a whole bunch of praying mantis nymphs inside. The nymphs will eat each other as well as cockroach nymphs, and once the surviving mantises are adults they will happily eat up all the full-grown and young roaches they can find. Of course then you’ve got mantises in your house, but mantises don’t spread diseases that humans can catch, and of course you can name them and treat them as pets. Some people keep mantises as pets anyway.

Speaking of which, some people keep the Indian domino cockroach as a pet. Some other people keep the hissing cockroach as a pet. The hissing cockroach is native to Madagascar and mostly lives in rotting logs, where it eats rotting plant material. There are actually 20 known species and they differ from other cockroaches because they don’t have wings. Also, they make horrible noises. The hissing is a method of communication and includes different hisses to warn other roaches when a predator approaches, or to establish dominance, or to attract a mate. The largest species can grow up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm.

This is what a hissing cockroach sounds like.

[hissing cockroach]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 186: Velvet Animals



This week’s episode is about some invertebrates who look like they’re made of velvet! Thanks to Rosy and Simon for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Red Velvet Mite

Chigger Bites

Structure and pigment make the eyed elater’s eyespots black

The red velvet mite looks like a tiny red velvet cake but is NOT CAKE, NOT A SPIDER, NOT A SPIDER CAKE:

GIANT RED VELVET MITE:

Regular sized red velvet mites on a fingertip and one parasitizing a daddy long legs spider:

An eastern velvet ant female (it’s actually a wasp, not an ant):

Velvet worms on hands:

A blue velvet worm!

Look at its teeny mouf!

An eyed click beetle DO YOU SEE THE EYES(pots):

The velvet asity (maybe you notice that it’s uh not an invertebrate):

Show transcript:

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

As we continue invertebrate August, we’ve got a nicely themed episode this week, velvet invertebrates! Thanks to Simon and Rosy for their suggestions!

First, let’s talk about Rosy’s suggestion, the red velvet mite. It sounds delicious, but only because it makes me think of red velvet cake. But the red velvet mite is an arachnid, related to spiders and scorpions–but it’s not actually a spider.

In English, the word mite, spelled m-i-t-e, means a tiny thing, and mites are tiny. Most are under a millimeter long. Scientists actually group mites into two kinds, parasitic mites that are closely related to ticks, and velvet mites that are closely related to chiggers. Chiggers, my least favorite. All the many species of velvet mite and chigger are in the order Trombidiformes.

You know what? Let’s talk briefly about chiggers, because there’s a lot of bad information about them out there. The chigger lives in vegetation, especially tall weeds and shrubs. Various species live throughout the world but it’s more common in warm, humid areas. In some places it’s called a harvest mite or scrub-itch mite.

The chigger is only parasitic as a larva. The larvae only have six legs, compared to adults that have eight. A larva waits on a blade of grass or a leaf for an animal to brush past it, and when it does, the larva grabs on. The longer you stay in one place, for instance when you’re blackberry picking, the more likely it is that a chigger will crawl onto you. It’s very nearly microscopic so you can’t look for chiggers and pick them off the way you can ticks. Like velvet mites, they’re red in color but generally paler than actual velvet mites.

A chigger bite causes intense itching, swelling, redness, and takes sometimes several weeks to heal, especially if you scratch it. It also gets infected easily. Many people believe that the chigger actually burrows into the skin. The chigger does eat skin cells from the layers of skin below the outer layer, but they don’t actually have mouthparts that can bite that deeply. They certainly can’t burrow into the skin. What they do instead is give the skin a little bite and inject digestive enzymes into the wound. The enzymes break down the skin cells they touch, and also harden the tissues around the wound. The chigger slurps up the liquefied skin cells and injects more enzymes, which seep down deeper into the skin, until basically what it’s created is a tube of hardened skin cells that reaches the lower layers of skin. The tube is called a stylosome, in case you were wondering. All this takes several days, so the best way to treat chigger bites before they get bad is to take a hot shower as soon as possible after you’ve been blackberry picking or whatever, and scrub well, especially around places where your clothing was tight. You also need to wash your clothes in hot, soapy water to kill any chiggers still on them.

The best way to deal with chiggers is to wear a good insect repellent and make sure to apply it all the way from your feet up, paying special attention to ankles, the backs of your knees, and around your waist and stomach.

Okay, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk about actual red velvet mites that don’t bite and that you can see. The red velvet mite is covered with short, dense hairlike structures that may act as sensors to help the mite find its way around in the dark or underground. The hairs are orangey-red, although some species may have white spots. Adults have eight legs like spiders do, but each pair of legs grows from a different part of the cephalothorax instead of from the same place like in spiders. Adult red velvet mites generally eat insect larvae and eggs. But the red velvet mite larvae are parasites—but not chigger-type parasites. They don’t bother people or pets, and in fact they only parasitize invertebrates like insects and spiders. A red velvet mite larva will grab onto certain types of insect like grasshoppers or beetles, or some spiders like daddy long-legs. It rides around on the insect and sucks its hemolymph like eensy-beensy insect ticks.

To attract a female, the male red velvet mite leaves droplets of sperm on twigs and grass in a little area and spins an intricate trail of silk leading to the droplets. The female examines the silk trail and if she finds it well-made, she’ll gather up some of the sperm to fertilize her eggs. But if another male comes across the trail, he’ll tear it up. The female lays her eggs in the soil.

There are thousands of species of velvet mite throughout the world, with many more undoubtedly yet to be discovered. Most are teensy, but there are some bigger species called giant red velvet mites.

There are actually two totally different mites called by that name. The first one lives in southwestern North America in dry areas, and includes several species in the genus Dinothrombium. The adults eat ants and termites. Like other mites, people are most likely to see them walking around on outside walls or patios or deck railings, usually lots of them in one area and often after summer rain. That’s why they’re sometimes called rain bugs. But while most velvet mites are just little moving red dots, the giant red velvet mite can grow up to 12 mm, which is almost half an inch long. In the mite world, that really is giant.

The other species called the giant red velvet mite lives in parts of northern India in dry areas, Trombidium grandissumum, and it can grow up to two cm long, or over ¾ of an inch. Like most other red velvet mites, it mostly lives underground and eats insect larvae, many of which are harmful to crops.

So why are red velvet mites so red? Surely that would make them easier for predators to see. Well, the red velvet mite contains compounds that make them taste bad and may be toxic, so the bright red color advertises that to predators.

The red velvet mite will curl its legs in to make itself smaller if it feels threatened, which is oddly sweet. Be safe, little mites.

Next, let’s learn about the velvet ant. It’s not an ant at all but a wasp, although wasps and ants are closely related. The female has no wings although the male does, but the male doesn’t have a stinger while the female does. Sometimes it’s called the cow killer ant because its sting is so painful that people think it could practically kill a cow. It can’t kill a cow. Or a person, for that matter, but one species of velvet ant was scored for how painful its sting was and it ranks right up there with bullet ants.

Like the red velvet mite, there are thousands of species of velvet ant that live throughout the world. The females and usually the males have plush-looking hairs, some species with orange or red hairs, some with other colors and patterns like black and white. In the case of the velvet ant, the bright coloration is to warn potential predators that this is a dangerous wasp and they should steer clear! It’s also a tough insect with a thick exoskeleton.

The biggest species of velvet ant is the eastern velvet ant, which lives in the eastern United States. It can grow almost two centimeters long, or three-quarters of an inch, and is orangey-red with a black stripe on its abdomen and black legs.

If you remember way back to episode 28, about crawdads and cicadas, we talked briefly about a huge wasp called the cicada killer. The cicada killer can grow up to two inches long, or 5 cm, which is simply enormous when one gets into your house and you worry it’s going to just move in and complain that the furniture is too small. Anyway, the cicada killer does something horrible to the cicada. The female stings a cicada, which paralyzes it but doesn’t kill it. Then it carries the cicada to its burrow and lays an egg on it. When the egg hatches a day or two later, the larva eats the still-living cicada.

Well, I bring this up because velvet ants do the same thing to cicada killers! Comeuppance in the insect world! The female velvet ant searches for cicada killer burrows, and when it finds one with a larva inside, eating a cicada, it lays an egg on the larva. The egg hatches and the velvet ant larva promptly eats the cicada killer larva which is in turn eating the cicada. This is a way different circle of life than they talked about in the Lion King.

Next, let’s talk about a different kind of invertebrate, the velvet worm. It’s not a worm and it’s also not fuzzy like the animals we’ve talked about so far, but its body does have a soft, velvety texture. There are about 180 species known in two families. It lives in tropical areas in Central and South America, the Caribbean, parts of Africa and Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, but we know it used to be more widespread because we’ve found velvet worms in Baltic amber from what is now northern Europe. It has a soft, segmented body that’s covered with a very thin layer of chitin with tiny overlapping scales. This makes the velvet worm look velvety and acts as a water repellent so the body won’t dry out, but it also needs plenty of humidity in its environment to survive.

At first glance, the velvet worm looks like a caterpillar. It has a caterpillar’s stumpy bumps of legs and a long soft-looking body like a caterpillar. Various species grow to various sizes, but the largest is only about eight inches long, or 20 cm, and most are much shorter. Different species are different colors, from brown or reddish to blue, white, or even bright green like a caterpillar. But it’s not related to any animal that goes through a caterpillar-like stage of life. Scientists aren’t even completely sure what the velvet worm is actually most closely related to. It shares features with some of the strange animals that evolved during the Cambrian, and currently many researchers think it’s a descendant of a group of Cambrian animals called lobopodians, a group which includes Hallucigenia. You may remember Hallucigenia from episode 69.

Some beautifully preserved fossil ancestors of velvet worms have been found in a Canadian fossil bed dated to 425 million years ago. While modern velvet worms live exclusively on land, its 425 million years old ancestors lived in shallow coastal water.

These days, velvet worms are uncommon animals that mostly live in leaf litter or under rotting logs or similar places. Two species even live in caves. It’s mostly nocturnal, although it will come out during the day in rainy weather. During the day, or when it’s too dry or cold for its liking, it will rest in tiny crevices in its habitat. That may be just a deep crack in the earth or a rock, a tunnel originally dug by termites, or a little hidden spot inside a rotting log. It’s eaten by a lot of animals, including birds, insects, spiders, rodents, and snakes, so it’s good at hiding.

But when the velvet worm is out hunting, it is fearsome to its prey. It mostly eats small invertebrates like insects, worms, spiders, and snails, but it can kill animals its own size or even a little larger. And it doesn’t need to eat very often, maybe once a week or even just once a month.

The velvet worm has a pair of retractable antennae that act as feelers that the velvet worm uses to very lightly touch potential prey to see whether it wants to attack. It will sneak up on an animal and use these feelers to touch it so lightly that the animal has no idea the velvet worm is there or is touching it. If that doesn’t creep you out completely, you haven’t read the spooky horror stories I’ve read, that’s all I can say. At the base of the antennae the velvet worm has a pair of eyes, although some species don’t have eyes at all.

The velvet worm’s mouth contains a sharp pair of mandibles, but these are actually inside the mouth, sort of like teeth although they’re nothing like teeth, rather than external mandibles like those of insects. But it’s behind the mouth where things get really interesting, because that’s where the slime is secreted. The velvet worm has a pair of slime glands in its body that generate and hold extremely sticky slime. The velvet worm squirts it from two tiny openings on the sides of its head to form a sort of net that ensnares its prey. If the prey is large or strong, the velvet worm may squirt more slime at its legs to keep it immobilized.

The slime immediately starts to dry and harden, and as it dries it contracts. Then the velvet worm bites the animal and injects digestive saliva into the wound that liquefies the tissues it comes in contact with. Sort of like a chigger. While it’s waiting for the saliva to do its work, the velvet worm eats up the slime it discharged, because it’s made of proteins and takes several weeks to regenerate. Then the velvet worm clamps its mouth over the wound and slurps up the liquefied insides of its prey, which by the way is very dead by this point.

But the really amazing thing is that some species of velvet worm are social. It lives in family groups that hunt together, led by a dominant female. She eats first, then the other females, then the males, then any young. Females are usually larger than males.

Velvet worms have been well studied and I could go on and on about them. I might return to them eventually and give them their own episode. But let’s go on now to our last velvet animal, the velvet asity.

Simon suggested the velvet asity of Madagascar when we were talking on twitter about an insect called the eyed elater, or eyed click beetle, which lives in forests in North and Central America. It’s a slender beetle that grows about 2.5 inches long, or 4.5 cm. The larvae are sometimes called wireworms because they’re so long and skinny. They eat the grubs of other beetles that live in rotting wood, but it’s not known what the adults eat, if anything.

Like other click beetles, if it feels threatened, the eyed click beetle can suddenly launch itself away with its click mechanism. This is a spine underneath its thorax that fits into a groove between its legs. If the insect is threatened, it flexes its body to release the spine, which snaps against whatever surface the beetle is touching and catapults it sometimes several inches away.

The eyed click beetle is black and mottled gray to blend in with tree bark, but it has two large eye spots that are probably meant to frighten predators away. The eye spots are black outlined with white, and the black part contains cone-shaped microtubules made of modified setae that contain the pigment melanin. Between the pigment and the shape of the hairs and the way they’re aligned, the eyespots absorb 96.1% of light that hits them. This makes them look much larger and more conspicuous to potential predators.

Quite a few insects and some other animals have developed similar coloring that will absorb light, often called super-black. And that brings us to the velvet asity, the male of which is almost all super-black as an adult except for bright lime green wattles above the eyes.

Uh, and this is where I have to admit I made a mistake. I often take quick notes about animals people recommend, especially if the recommendation comes from a Twitter conversation that’s easily lost. Later on I transfer my notes to the big ideas spreadsheet. Well, this time I made a note that said “Velvet asity of Madagascar, Simon replied with this to a twitter post about the eyed elater, with specialized hairs in the eyespots that deaden reflection.” That’s literally what’s in my notes, and I listed it under the invertebrates tab because I forgot what the velvet asity is and just assumed it was another insect like the eyed click beetle.

But the velvet asity isn’t an invertebrate, which I only discovered after I’d started researching the other velvet animals in this episode. It’s a bird. But what a bird it is! It’s a little round bird with a very short tail, short wings, and amazing coloration! While the female is a streaky olive color, the male’s breeding plumage is striking.

The super-black coloring of the male velvet asity deadens reflections and makes its green eyebrows look even brighter, which attracts females. The velvet asity lives in the rainforests of Madagascar and mostly eats fruit, but it will also eat nectar and some insects. During breeding season, males gather in small groups called leks to show off for females with a mating dance that involves him flipping all the way around the branch he’s standing on. The female weaves a pear-shaped nest that hangs from a branch and is camouflaged because she uses materials like strips of bark, leaves, and moss to make it. She also takes care of the eggs and chicks by herself. All the male does is show off, but you can hardly blame him. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, velvet asity.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 185: Ice Worms, Army Ants, and Other Strange Invertebrates!



Let’s learn about some weird insects this week! Thanks to Llewelly for suggesting army ants!

Further reading:

If you’re interested in the magazine Flying Snake, I recommend it! You can order online or print issues by emailing the editor, Richard Muirhead, at the address on the website, and there’s a collection of the first five issues on Amazon here (in the U.S.) or here (UK)!

The magnificent, tiny ice worm! The dark speckles in the snow (left) are dozens of ice worms, and the ones on the right are shown next to a penny for scale. Teeny!

ARMY ANTS! WATCH OUT. These are soldier ants from various species:

The Appalachian tiger swallowtail (dark version of the female on the right):

Tiger swallowtails compared:

The giant whip scorpion. Not baby:

Jerusalem cricket. Also not baby but more baby than whip scorpion:

PEOPLE. GET THOSE HORRIBLE THINGS OFF YOUR HANDS.

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about a number of strange and interesting invertebrates as part of Invertebrate August. Thanks to Llewelly for a great suggestion, and we also have a mystery invertebrate that I learned about from the awesome magazine Flying Snake. Flying Snake is a small UK magazine about strange animals and weird things that happen around the world. It’s a lot of fun and I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to learn more about it. It’s been published for years and years but I only just learned about it a few months ago, and promptly ordered paper copies of all the issues, but they’re also available online and the first five issues are collected into a book.

So, let’s start with an invertebrate I only just learned about, and which I was so fascinated by I wanted to tell you all about it immediately! It’s called the ice worm, and it’s so weird that it sounds like something totally made up! But not only is it real, there are at least 77 species that live in northern North America, specifically parts of Alaska, Washington state, Oregon, and British Columbia.

The ice worm is related to the earthworm, and in fact it looks like a dark-colored, tiny earthworm if you look closely. It’s usually black or dark brown. It likes the cold—in fact, it requires a temperature of around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero Celsius, to survive. You know, freezing. But the ice worm doesn’t freeze. In fact, if it gets much warmer than freezing, it will die. Some species live in snow and among the gravel in streambeds, and some actually live in glaciers. Ice worms can survive and thrive in such cold conditions because their body contains proteins that act as a natural antifreeze. It navigates through densely packed ice crystals with the help of tiny bristles called setae [see-tee] that help it grip the crystals. Earthworms have setae too to help them move through soil.

During the day, the ice worm hides in snow or ice to avoid the sun, and comes to the surface from the late afternoon through morning. It will also come to the surface on cloudy or foggy days. It eats pollen that gets trapped in snow and algae that is specialized to live in snow and ice, as well as bacteria and other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals and plant material. In turn, lots of birds eat ice worms. Birds also occasionally carry ice worms from one glacier or mountaintop to another by accident, which is how ice worms have spread to different areas.

The glacier ice worm can grow to 15 mm long and is only half a mm thick, basically just a little thread of a worm. It only lives in glaciers. You’d think that in such an extreme environment there would only be small pockets of glacier ice worms, but researchers in 2002 estimated that the Suiattle [soo-attle] Glacier in Washington state contained 7 billion ice worms. That’s Billion with a B on one single glacier. Other ice worm species can grow longer than the glacier ice worm, including Harriman’s ice worm that can grow nearly 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, and is 2.5 mm thick.

There are tall tales about ice worms that can grow 50 feet long, or 15 meters, but those are just stories. An ice worm that big wouldn’t be able to find enough to eat.

Next, let’s talk about a type of ant. Llewelly suggested the army ant a long time ago, and recently I got an email from Ivy whose list of favorite animals includes the army ant!

The army ant lives in parts of Africa, South America, and Asia, and although there are some 200 species in different subfamilies, recent research suggests that many of them are descended from the same species that lived in the supercontinent Gondwana more than 100 million years ago.

Army ants don’t dig permanent nests like other ants. Instead they make temporary camps, usually in a tree trunk or sometimes in a burrow the ants dig. But these camps aren’t anything like ordinary ant nests. Often they’re formed from the bodies of worker ants, who link their legs together to make a living wall. The walls form tubes that make up chambers and passages of the nest, and inside the nest the queen lays her eggs. There are also chambers where food is stored. But the nest isn’t permanent. At most, the army ant only stays in one place for a few weeks, after the larvae pupate. The colony feeds the food stores to the queen, who lays a new batch of eggs timed to hatch when the new ants emerge from their cocoons. At that point, the colony breaks camp and enters the nomadic phase of behavior until the newly hatched batch of larvae are ready to pupate.

What do they do with the larvae while they wander? Workers carry them around. As in other ant species and the honeybees we talked about recently, an army ant colony is divided into different types of ant. There’s a single queen ant, seasonally hatched males with wings who fly off as soon as they’re grown, and many worker ants. But army ants have another caste, the soldier ant. These are much larger than the worker ants and have big heads and strong, sharp mandibles. Some species of army ant forage primarily on the ground while some hunt through treetops and some underground, but they generally hunt in large, well-organized columns with soldier ants on the outside as guards. In many species, the worker ants are further divided into castes that are specialized for specific tasks.

The queen ant is an egg-laying machine. Queens of some species can lay up to 4 million eggs every month. The queen is wingless, but a new queen doesn’t need to leave the colony the way other ant species do. Instead, when new queens emerge from their cocoons as adults, the colony splits and two new colonies form from the old one, each with one of the new queens. Usually more than two queens hatch, but only two survive.

When males emerge from their cocoons, they immediately fly off and search for another colony. But a male can’t just land and mate with a queen. He has to get through her guards, and they decide whether they like him or not. If they find him adequate, they bite his wings off and bring him to the queen. After he mates, he dies. This sounds like the plot of a weird science fiction novel from the 1960s. If a colony’s queen dies, the worker ants may join another colony.

Let’s talk specifically about the Dorylus genus of army ants for a few minutes, which live in Africa and Asia. Dorylus army ants live in simply enormous colonies. When the colony goes foraging, there may be 15 million ants marching in a dense column, and they can eat half a million animals every single day.

That’s why the army ant is so feared. The column of ants is made up of worker ants in the middle with the much larger soldier ants along the edges. The columns don’t move very quickly, but the ants attack, kill, and eat any living animal they encounter that can’t run away. This includes insects, spiders, scorpions, and lots of worms, but also eggs and baby birds, other baby animals, frogs and toads, and even larger animals. What isn’t eaten on the spot is carried back to the camp to feed larvae and the queen.

Army ants are also beneficial to the ecosystem and to humans specifically in many ways. A column of army ants that marches through a village will eat so many insects that they act like a really high quality exterminating service for homes and gardens. They also scare insects and other animals that flee from the ant columns, and a lot of animals benefit from the general chaos. Birds of many species will follow army ants in flocks, grabbing insects as they flee the ants. Some birds even make special calls to alert others that army ants are on the move, so that everybody gets a chance for easy food. Even more animal species will follow the column to clean up what they leave behind, including partially eaten carcasses, animals that were killed but rejected as food, and even the feces of the birds that follow the ants.

And, of course, a lot of animals just eat the army ants. Chimpanzees make different types of tools to help them safely harvest army ants. Most commonly, a chimp will use a stick it’s modified to the right length and shape, referred to as an ant-dipping probe. It will put one end of the stick down in the column of army ants and wait until ants start climbing up the stick. When there are enough ants on the stick, it will remove the stick and eat the ants off of it. It’s an ant-kebob!

If you’re wondering why the chimps aren’t attacked by the ants, or why the ants don’t figure out they’re climbing a stick to nowhere, Dorylus army ants, like most army ant species, are all blind. They communicate by releasing pheromones, which are chemicals with specific signatures that other ants can sense, something like smells. Some species that mostly live aboveground have re-evolved sight to a limited degree.

The mandibles of Dorylus army ant soldiers are so strong, and the ant is so tenacious about holding on, that people in some East African tribes traditionally use them to stitch up wounds. The soldier ant is held so that it bites with one mandible on each side of a wound, holding the edges of skin together. Then the person severs the ant’s body from its head, killing it—but the jaws are so strong that they will continue to stay in place for several days while the wound heals.

In Central and South America, the army ant genus Eciton [ess-ih-tahn] is very similar to Dorylus. Some species can cross obstacles like streams by building a living bridge out of individuals to allow the rest of the column to cross.

Whew, okay, I should probably have made the army ant its own episode, because there’s so much cool research about it that I could just go on forever. But let’s move on to a much different insect next, a butterfly that lives in the eastern United States, especially in the Appalachian Mountains. This is the Appalachian tiger swallowtail, which has yellow wings with black stripes and a black border, and a black body. Some females have all-black wings with orange spots. When the genetic makeup of the butterfly was examined, it turns out that the species originated as a hybrid of the Eastern tiger swallowtail and the Canadian tiger swallowtail. This kind of hybridization is rare in the wild. The Appalachian tiger swallowtail lives in the mountains, usually in high elevations, and while its range overlaps with both parent species, it almost never hybridizes with either. It has inherited the Canadian butterfly’s tolerance for cold but is twice its size. Researchers estimate that the hybridization occurred around 100,000 years ago.

I learned that interesting fact about the Appalachian tiger swallowtails from the May 2018 Flying Snake issue, and let’s go ahead and learn about a mystery invertebrate I also read about in that issue of Flying Snake.

The mystery is from The Desert Magazine, which was published between 1937 and 1985. It was a monthly magazine that focused on the southwestern United States, with article titles like “Rock Hunter in the Sawange Range” and “Ghost City of the White Hills.” Both those headlines are from the January 1947 issue, which is also where the first mention of the Baby of the Desert shows up in the letters section. Flying Snake excerpts the relevant letters from that issue and a few later issues, but I got curious and found the originals online.

I’ll quote part of the original letter because it’s really weird and interesting:

“Gentlemen: Would like to ask if there is such a thing as a very poisonous desert resident called ‘Baby of the Desert,’ so named because of the resemblance of its face to that of a human baby. Whether this so-called ‘Baby of the Desert’ is supposed to be insect, reptile or rodent, I could not find out. …[I]t was considerably smaller than the Gila monster.”

The letter was signed William M. Weldon from South Pasadena, California.

The editor responded, “The question of the Baby of the Desert, Baby-face, or Niño de la Tierra, as it is variously called, came up for discussion on the Letters page of the magazine two years ago. A reader sent in a description of the fearsome beast as it had been pictured to him and asked for confirmation from someone who had seen it.”

Because of the mention of another letter asking about the Baby of the Desert, two years before, I went through the letters sections of all the 1945 issues to find the original. I couldn’t find it in 1945, but I did find a nice letter from James Mayberry in California, who found a desert tortoise with blue paint on its shell. He thought someone had brought the tortoise back from a visit to the desert. James named the tortoise Mojave but knew it needed to go home, so he sent it to the Desert Magazine. I’m delighted to say that the editor took it out to a lonely desert hill where there were other tortoises and let Mojave go. Tortoises live a long time so Mojave might still be stumping around out there, the blue paint on his shell faded in the sun.

Then I went back through the 1944 issues and found the letter in the July issue. It was from Albert Lloyd of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who wrote, “Perhaps some reader can supply authentic information about a small denizen of the deserts and mesas of the Southwest, which the Mexicans call Niño de la Tierra, or Child of the Earth. During four years of roaming around New Mexico and Arizona I was never fortunate enough to see one. But I have talked with several who claim to have seen it. They describe it as a doll-like animal, about three or four inches in length, walking on all fours, with head and face like that of an infant. They claim it will not attack you unless molested and that its bite is more deadly than a rattlesnake’s.”

The editor of the Desert Magazine suggested that the Baby of the Desert was an insect. “[I]t appears that the Baby-face is actually our old friend the yellow and black striped Jerusalem cricket or Sand-cricket, who is nocturnal and usually found under boards or stones.”

But responses in the letters section in following issues, February and April 1947, don’t agree. S.G. Chamberlin of San Fernando, California wrote, “Some years ago…we uncovered what we first thought to be a Jerusalem Cricket. The coloring was the same and it was a little more than two inches long. Later in the day a ranch hand brought us a Jerusalem Cricket and then we noticed quite a difference in the bodies and heads of the two insects. The round face of the first one did attract our attention although we didn’t think of a baby at the time. The ranch foreman placed them in different bottles to show them to a man in the Farm Bureau office who was versed in such things. He reported back that the first insect was called Vinegarones or Sun Spider and supposed to be harmless.

“At the ranch we were told that on the Mexican border there was a similar insect that is supposed to be poisonous.”

And Coila Harris of South Laguna, California wrote, “I was interested in the recent letters about ‘Baby Face.’ This is not the Jerusalem cricket or potato bug, as many believe, but could be mistaken for one of these insects. Baby-face lives down Mexico way. When we were living in El Paso, one of the weird looking bugs was found under our house. It had a body of a large Tarantula, the head was white as a bleached bone and looked like a bald headed baby, a dreadful thing. I was told at the time that Mexicans consider them so poisonous, that if bitten on the finger by one, they chop off the finger.”

Unfortunately for me, the second I saw the mention of a vinegarone, I had a good idea of what this animal might be. And I really don’t want to look at pictures of vinegaroons.

I do try very hard not to be biased against gross-looking insects, because for one thing, they aren’t hurting me and gross is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “ooh gross” is the other person’s “Oh, that is so neat!” Spiders don’t bother me and as long as I don’t have to look closely at an invertebrate’s mouthparts and things, I’m usually okay. But I get a big case of the nopes when it comes to the vinegaroon.

The vinegaroon is an arachnid, related to spiders and scorpions. It sort of looks like a mixture of the two, although there are lots of species and they vary quite a lot. It’s also called the whip scorpion. The name vinegaroon comes from the acidic liquid it squirts from the base of its whip-like tail if it feels threatened, which smells like vinegar. It lives in tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas and Asia, with one species known from Africa. Most species prefer dark, humid areas and live in burrows in rotting wood or under rocks and leaf litter, but the giant whip scorpion lives in more arid areas in the southwestern United States and Mexico.

The giant whip scorpion grows to around 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, not counting the long whip-like tail. Like all vinegaroons, it eats insects, slugs, and other small animals. But no one could look at it and think “baby.” It has big claw-like pedipalps in addition to six walking legs and a pair of front legs that are extremely long and thin, that it uses to feel around with. It has eyes—in fact, like spiders it has eight eyes—but it doesn’t see very well and mostly navigates by touch. It’s dark brown or black with some lighter brown markings on its abdomen.

The Jerusalem cricket looks superficially similar to the vinegaroon although it’s not an arachnid. It’s also not a cricket, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Jerusalem since it’s native to the western United States and Mexico. In fact, it’s related to the weta of New Zealand. It lives in the same sort of places that vinegaroons like, burrowing in moist soil and rotting wood, but it mostly eats decaying plant material although it will sometimes eat small insects. It can bite, although it’s not venomous or poisonous, but it can give off a horrible smell if it’s disturbed. It’s yellowish to dark reddish-brown with a black-striped abdomen and a rounded head. It also does not look anything like a baby.

BUT, while it’s known by a couple of Navajo names that translate to variations on “red skull bug,” in Spanish it’s called cara de niño, which means child’s face, or niño de la tierra.

So I think the Desert Magazine editor was right. The Baby of the Desert is the Jerusalem cricket. But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the Jerusalem cricket is sometimes confused with the giant whip scorpion. They’re both large nocturnal creatures with a similar body shape and coloring, that live in the same areas and occupy the same habitat. And they’re both horrifically creepy-looking. You know what? I bet you anything that “Baby of the Desert” and “baby-face” are ironic names. BAD BABY.

The Jerusalem cricket doesn’t have any kind of hearing organs akin to ears but it can sense vibrations. Instead of chirping, it drums its abdomen on the ground to attract a mate. This is what the drumming sounds like.

[Jerusalem cricket drumming]

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Thanks for listening!