Category Archives: Madagascar

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 166: The Domestic Cat



I just adopted two black cats, named Dracula and Poe, so let’s learn about domestic cats! Thanks to RosyWindFox, Nicholas, Richard E., Kim, and an anonymous listener who all made suggestions and contributed to this episode in one way or another!

Further listening:

Weird Dog Breeds – an unlocked Patreon episode

Two beautiful examples of domestic cats (Dracula on left, Poe on right, and it is really hard to photograph a black cat):

The African wildcat, ancestor of the domestic cat:

The blotched tabby (left) and regular tabby (right):

A cat’s toe pads (Poe’s toes, in fact):

The big friendly Maine Coon cat:

The Norwegian forest cat SO FLUFFY:

The surprised-looking Singapura cat:

The hairless sphynx breed (with sweater):

The Madagascar forest cat:

The European wildcat:

This came across my feed today and it seemed appropriate, or inappropriately funny depending on your point of view:

Show transcript:

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

I had a different episode planned for this week, but then I adopted two cats, so this week’s episode is going to be about the domestic cat! It also happens to be a suggestion from RosyWindFox after we got to talking about podcasts and animals. Rosy also kindly sent me some research she had done about cats for a project of her own, which was a great help!

But Rosy isn’t the only listener who contributed to this episode. Nicholas suggested weird cats a while back, Richard E. suggested unusual cat breeds, and Kim suggested an episode about domestic cats as invasive species. And we have another suggestion by a listener who wants to remain anonymous about keeping exotic animals as pets, which I thought would fit in well after we talk about invasive species. We’ll also learn about some mystery cats while we’re at it. So buckle up for this big episode about little cats, and thanks to everyone who sent suggestions!

We don’t want to leave the dog lovers out so before we start talking about cats, back in June of 2019 patrons got an episode about strange dog breeds, also suggested by Nicholas. I’ve unlocked that episode so that anyone can listen. There’s a link in the show notes and you can just click the link and listen in your browser, no Patreon login required.

So, most people are familiar with the domestic cat, usually just called a cat. It’s different from the similar-sized felid called a wildcat because it’s actually domesticated. Even domestic cats that have never lived with a human are still part of a species shaped by domestication, so instead of wild cats, wild domestic cats are called feral cats.

Researchers estimate that the domestic cat developed from a species of African wildcat about 10,000 years ago, or possibly as long as 12,000 years ago. This was around the time that many cultures in the Middle East were developing farming, and farming means you need to store grain. If you store grain, you attract mice and other rodents. And what animals famously like to catch and eat rodents? Cats! Wildcats started hanging around farms and houses to catch rodents, and since the humans didn’t want the rodents, they were fine with the cats. Farms that didn’t have any cats had more rodents eating their stored grain, so it was just a matter of time before humans made the next logical step and started taming wildcats so they could trade cats to people who needed them. Besides, wildcats are pretty animals with sleek fur, and if you’ve ever stood by the tiger exhibit in a zoo and wished you could pet a tiger, you will understand how your distant ancestors felt about wildcats.

The species of wildcat is Felis silvestris lybica, the African wildcat, which lives in northern Africa and Southwest Asia. It’s still alive today and looks so much like a domestic cat that it can be hard to tell the species apart, although the African wildcat has long legs and specific markings. For a long time people thought some populations of domestic cats developed from the European wildcat, which we talked about in episode 52, but modern genetic and behavioral studies suggest that all domestic cats are descended from the African wildcat. All wildcat species are pretty closely related, though, and domestic cats and wildcats can and do sometimes interbreed and produce fertile kittens.

The main difference between the African wildcat and the domestic cat is the wildcat’s color. It’s usually a yellowish-gray with lighter belly, with darker stripes and spots. It also has small ear tufts at the tips of the ears.

If you remember episode 106, where we talked about domestication, you’ll remember that some of the wolves that hung around human camps probably initiated domestication. They saw that humans had a pretty sweet deal going and if they alerted those humans to danger and acted nice otherwise, they’d get food. Well, wildcats probably did the same thing. Yes, humans were loud and clumsy and scary, but humans also sometimes gave you food and petted you.

Over many, many generations, the wildcats evolved into cats that didn’t just tolerate humans, they liked humans. It was harder for cats than it was for dogs, though, since canids already lived in packs that were structured similarly to human groups. This is why many people think that dogs are friendlier than cats, because dogs and humans have so many similarities. But cats have adapted really well to human culture.

Wildcats are mostly solitary animals, only coming together during mating season. But domestic cats will live together along with their human family. I adopted my two cats because they get along so well even though they’re not related.

In the olden days people brought cats with them when they moved the same way they took their dogs. The cats were useful to hunt and kill mice that tried to get into the family’s food. People on ships brought cats along for the same reason, because if rats and mice ate the ship’s food stores, the sailors might go hungry. This helped spread cats around the world. In medieval times, cats were so important to sailors that some areas passed laws that a cat had to be onboard a ship for it to set sail.

Egyptian cats were especially in demand, probably because they were more friendly than other cats. So many people wanted Egyptian cats that Egypt passed laws to stop the sale or trade of cats to foreigners, with the oldest law dating to 1700 BCE. But for the most part, cats weren’t selectively bred the way dogs were. Cats were allowed to have babies with whatever mate they chose, which were sometimes wildcats.

It probably wasn’t until about a thousand years ago that humans started taking a real interest in what cats looked like. Until then most domestic cats probably looked a lot like their wild ancestors. But medieval cat owners started selectively breeding cats for particular colors and patterns, such as the blotched tabby pattern. This is a recessive form of the ordinary tabby pattern, which is usually just thin stripes. The blotched tabby is big swirls of color against a paler background. People in the olden days apparently liked the blotched tabby pattern and bred for it.

The domestication of canids, as you may remember from episode 106, usually comes along with behavioral and physical changes. Many dog breeds have puppy-like faces, with a rounder head and shorter jaws. The ears may stay floppy, the tail may have a curl, and coat patterns may change from their wild ancestors’. But this hasn’t really happened in cats, and some researchers think it’s because the cat wasn’t fully domesticated until around 1,000 years ago when this selective breeding started taking place. But cats do show one really interesting adaptation to domestication that wildcats never show. They meow.

Wildcats are usually pretty silent. A wildcat is mostly solitary so it doesn’t need to communicate with pack mates, and it needs to stay quiet so it won’t alert its prey or potential predators. But young cats need to communicate with their mother, which they do by crying and chirping and meowing. Domesticated cats retain this impulse and will talk to humans in the same way that kittens talk to mama cats. Yes, our cats are talking baby talk to us.

If you’re not familiar with the sounds cats make, this is a recording of my cat Poe.

[cat meowing]

Cats don’t just meow and chirp, though. They also purr, as do wildcats and some big cats. We still aren’t sure exactly how cats generate the sound calling purring, but researchers think the cat uses its laryngeal muscles to produce the sound as it breathes in and out. Usually purring denotes relaxation, but a cat may also purr if it’s hurt, stressed, or afraid. Some researchers suggest that the specific frequency of purring vibrations actually promotes the growth of bone and tissue, which helps a cat heal faster if it’s hurt. A cat’s purring is good for people too, acting as a stress reliever.

This is what a purring cat sounds like. This is my cat Dracula purring while I petted him:

[cat purring]

The cat has a rough tongue covered with tiny spines that contain keratin. It uses its tongue to clean and arrange its fur. It has keen hearing, good vision, especially at night, and a good sense of smell. While it can see color, it can’t distinguish between red and green, so if you happen to have red-green color blindness, just reassure yourself that you can see like a cat. The cat can hear into the ultrasonic range, which helps it find rodents which communicate in ultrasound. Some of the noises small kittens make are in the ultrasonic range too, which means most predators can’t hear them but the mama cat can.

If you have a pet cat or have looked closely at a friend’s cat, you’ll know that a cat has whiskers on either side of its nose above its mouth, above its eyes, and some short whiskers on the backs of its legs. All these whiskers are extremely sensitive and help the cat navigate its surroundings in darkness, both by touching things and by reacting to small air currents. You’ll also probably know that a cat’s eyes have slit pupils that react to light. In bright light the pupils contract until they’re practically just a narrow black line. In full darkness they enlarge until the pupils are round, which lets in as much light as possible. Like many nocturnal or largely nocturnal animals, the cat also has a reflective lining in the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum, which reflects light back through the eye and improves night vision even more. This is why a cat’s eyes seem to shine in the dark.

Cats are climbers, with many adaptations that help it climb. Its claws are retractable, especially its front claws. Most of the time the claws remain inside little sheaths in the toe pads, which keeps them from wearing down and means the cat can walk silently without the claws making tapping noises on hard ground. But when the cat needs to climb, or use its claws as weapons, or if it needs extra traction, it basically flexes its toes to extend the claws. The claws grow directly from the toe bones, not out of skin like our own fingernails do. Another adaptation to climbing is the cat’s keen sense of balance. If a cat falls from a height of at least 3 feet, or about a meter, it’s able to twist its body to land right side up, minimizing its chances of getting injured. Researchers used to think that a cat used its tail to twist around as it fell, but it’s something that even cats without tails can do. A tail helps, but it’s not necessary. The cat’s flexible spine and lack of a collarbone are the real reason it works. Not only that, but a cat’s paw pads act as shock absorbers that also help it land safely.

The cat has four toes on the hind feet and five on the front, with the fifth toe acting as a sort of thumb. A cat has a toe pad for each toe, plus a larger pad in the middle that acts as a sort of palm pad. But if you look closely, the cat also has an extra toe pad on its front feet, farther back from the others. Researchers think this extra pad helps give the paws extra traction if the cat needs it, which helps it control how far it skids or doesn’t skid when it jumps. Basically it’s a brake pad.

Let’s look at a few interesting breeds of cat next. The domestic cat doesn’t have big differences between breeds the way dogs do. I mean, think of how different a Chihuahua is compared to a St. Bernard. But there are differences between cat breeds, of course. The Manx cat and a few other breeds have a genetic mutation that results in a short or missing tail, for instance.

The biggest breed of cat is the Maine Coon, which can grow as big as a bobcat or Eurasian lynx, although without being as heavy as those wild felids. The biggest cat ever measured is a Maine Coon named Barivel, who is 3 feet and 11.2 inches long, or 120 cm, from nose to tail. The Maine Coon has a thick, water-repellent coat that helps it survive in cold weather, and it’s well known for being as friendly as a dog. Genetic studies suggest it developed from the Norwegian forest cat, a breed from northern Europe, which itself may have descended from cats carried on Viking ships around a thousand years ago.

The smallest breed that isn’t due to a form of dwarfism is the Singapura, which is a lightly built cat. I can’t find anything definitive about its height, but it only weighs about eight pounds at most, or 3.6 kg, and usually considerably less. It’s beige with brown ticking that makes it look tan and its eyes are large, which makes it look sort of surprised all the time.

There are a few breeds of cat that are hairless, including the Sphynx. Hairlessness is a mutation that crops up in cats very rarely, and the Sphynx breed was only established in the late 1980s after a few decades of breeding for hairlessness, with the initial attempts resulting in cats with a lot of health issues. The current breed is healthier, but because it doesn’t have any hair it gets cold easily. A lot of owners make sure their cats have warm sweaters to wear in cold weather, which is adorable. Sphynx cats can also get sunburned and need to be bathed to remove dirt and oils from their skin. Some people with cat allergies have found that owning a Sphynx cat actually helped them adapt to cats and reduced their allergic reactions, but others have found that they actually react more strongly to Sphynxes than regular cats. This is because people are allergic not to cat hair but to a protein found in cat saliva and skin glands.

Next, let’s look at a mystery cat from Madagascar. Madagascar is a large island off the coast of Africa, home to lemurs and other animals found nowhere else in the world. It doesn’t have any native felids, although people who live on Madagascar do have pet cats. But a scientist named Michelle Sauther, who researches lemurs, kept seeing cats in the forest. They were all tabbies and the locals called them wildcats, but Dr. Sauther wanted to know more about them.

She and her team set up traps for the forest cats. When they trapped a cat, they took photographs, hair and blood samples, and even dental impressions. Then they released the cats back into the wild. Genetic profiles developed from the samples helped solve the mystery of what these cats are. They’re feral cats descended from ship cats that traveled from areas around the Arabian Sea, hundreds and possibly even a thousand years ago. Enough cats jumped ship on Madagascar to develop into a breeding colony that is still around today.

Dr. Sauther is studying the effects of the feral cats on local animals, because cats can cause a lot of damage as introduced predators. Cats are efficient hunters of small animals, especially rodents like mice, but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and basically any animal they can catch.

That brings us to the issues caused by feral and pet cats around the world. When people bring cats to parts of the world where cats have never before been, the cats can cause rapid extinctions of small animals. On islands the situation is even worse because an animal’s population may be low to start with and the animal can’t just move to a different area to get away from the cats.

The problem is that people often don’t take care of their cats the way they should. Many people don’t get their cats neutered, which means they have kittens that the owner doesn’t want. Instead of finding good homes for the kittens, the owner will just let the kittens grow up wild outside. Soon there’s a colony of feral cats in the area that have to hunt to survive, and local animals are under much more than ordinary pressure of predation. If the local population of small animals declines because of cats, local predators that also depend on those small animals will decline too, causing a cascade effect that can ruin a local ecosystem.

But it always irritates me when people start acting like cats are horrible animals and people who let their cats outside are horrible people who don’t care about their pets or about wild animals. First of all, cats are cats, and cats are predators. No one can change that. And some cats just cannot be happy inside. My last cat, named Jekyll, had been a stray before I adopted him and he was never happy inside. I tried to make him an inside cat but every time I opened the door to leave he would streak outside, no matter how careful I was. Sometimes I couldn’t get him to come back in. And yes, sometimes he brought me dead or dying birds or animals, including an injured baby bunny once, which always made me feel awful. And after a few years, he was hit by a car and killed.

The safest place for a cat is inside your home, with food and water and a litter box you keep clean. A cat should never be allowed to roam freely, especially at night. Cats are tough animals but they’re also small. Many larger animals see them as prey, not to mention the dangers of cars and contracting diseases from other cats. If your cat isn’t happy being inside all the time, try to limit its outside time to when you can be outside with it, to protect both it and any animals around. Make sure it wears a collar with a bell, too—that’s not a perfect solution, because some cats will learn to walk so carefully that the bell won’t ring, but it will help.

Because of people who don’t neuter their cats and just let them roam around, cats and cat owners have a bad reputation among conservationists. Try to understand that the people who talk about how many birds are killed by cats every year aren’t blaming you specifically, although sometimes it feels that way, I know. They’re blaming the irresponsible cat owners and taking their frustration out on all cat owners.

It’s a complicated issue and as you can tell, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that cats are horrible for local wild animal populations. On the other hand, the people who are loudest and angriest about cats killing birds and other animals don’t think twice about driving a car. One figure I found estimates that a million animals are killed by cars every single day in the United States alone, but then again, cats kill even more animals every day. But most of those animals are killed by feral cats, not pet cats. All we can do is be responsible cat owners and do our best to protect both our pets and the wild animals that live near us.

My newly adopted cats are both definitely inside cats. If a mouse comes into the house they can do their job, but otherwise they’re just going to be pouncing on toy mice.

So that leads us to our final topic suggestion, about the ethics of keeping exotic animals as pets. If this seems a little out there for an episode about domestic cats, remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that domestic cats were wildcats, and that they’re still so closely related to wildcats that wildcats and domestic cats can interbreed. Wildcats and domestic cats still look a whole lot alike too. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to scoop up a wildcat and take it home as a pet. But that’s what some people do.

There’s a TV show out now called Tiger King that people are talking about. I haven’t seen it because I just don’t watch TV, but it sounds pretty horrible. From what I gather, the tigers and other animals aren’t properly taken care of and the people who own the animals aren’t very nice. Generally, the kind of people who want an exotic pet are not the kind of people who bother to learn how to properly take care of it. They figure a tiger is just a big cat and they know how to take care of a cat, but that’s not the case at all.

Even if you get a wild animal as a baby and raise it the same way you would a kitten or puppy, it’s still wild. That means that no matter how sweet it was as a baby, once it’s grown, it considers its own needs first and yours second, if at all. It doesn’t consider itself part of the family group and can be unpredictable and dangerous, no matter how well you think you know its personality. In 2011 a mountain lion kept as a pet in Texas grabbed a four-year-old boy through the bars of its cage and mauled him. Fortunately the boy was okay, but the mountain lion was killed by animal control officers, who had already cited the owner for not providing a bigger cage with smaller gaps between bars. It also turned out that the mountain lion’s owner didn’t have a permit to keep it.

Even smaller felids can be dangerous. Many people keep servals as exotic pets, because they look and act a lot like domestic cats but are exotically spotted. The serval lives in parts of Africa and is a little larger than the domestic cat, with long legs and a small head. We’ve talked about the serval before in episode 52. In late 2019 a man in Ohio apparently let his pet serval out to wander the neighborhood, and it attacked one of his neighbor’s dogs. Again, the serval was killed and the owner fined. In both those examples, the animal wasn’t properly taken care of and ended up being killed, which is sad. It’s always the exotic pet that is miserable, often unhealthy, and usually killed when it does something wrong.

So no, I don’t think anyone should keep a wild animal as a pet. If you just really really love wild animals and want to work with them directly, there are lots of appropriate ways you can do it. You can become a zookeeper or exotic animal veterinarian, a scientist or conservationist who studies wild animals, or a photographer who specializes in photographing animals in the wild. All those suggestions are better for you and for the animals than trying to keep a wild animal as a pet.

This is already a really long episode, but let’s finish up with another mystery so I don’t finish the episode by lecturing everyone. You may remember from episode 52 that we talked about the European wildcat that still lives in Europe and Scotland. The Scottish wildcat is critically endangered, with probably no more than around four hundred animals living in Scotland. But there have been reports going back centuries of a wildcat living in Ireland.

The European wildcat did once live in Ireland, but it died out around 3,000 years ago. It’s also been extinct in England since the 1860s. But reports dating to at least the early 19th century in various parts of Ireland indicate that many people saw and even killed large wildcats—but they didn’t look like the European wildcat. They looked more like the African wildcat.

The most obvious difference between the European and the African wildcat is the tail. The African wildcat’s tail looks like a domestic cat’s tail, relatively thin at the end with a slightly pointed tip. The European wildcat’s tail fluffs out at the end instead of tapering. At least one expert from the 19th century proclaimed that the wildcat sightings in Ireland were actually of hybrids of domestic cats and European wildcats. But remember, the European wildcat had gone extinct in Ireland some 3,000 years before. Besides, these animals were reportedly larger and heavier than domestic cats, and feral cats are usually relatively small.

These large cats are still occasionally spotted in Ireland, with a flurry of sightings as recently as 2002. It’s possible people are just mistaking unusually large feral cats for wildcats, but there’s always the possibility that European wildcats still survive in Ireland, but have hybridized with domestic cats so much that its descendants resemble the African wildcat more than the European wildcat. So if you are a mouse who lives in Ireland, watch out.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 135: Smallest of the Large



This week we’re looking at some very small animals–but not animals that we think of as small. Join us for a horrendously cute episode!

Further reading:

The Echinoblog

Further listening:

Animals to the Max episode #75: The Sea Panda (vaquita)

Varmints! episode #49: Hippos

Further watching:

An adorable baby pygmy hippo

The Barbados threadsnake will protecc your fingertip:

Parvulastra will decorate your thumbnail:

Berthe’s mouse lemur will defend this twig:

The bumblebee bat will eat any bugs that come near your finger:

The vaquita, tiny critically endangered porpoise:

The long-tailed planigale is going to steal this ring and wear it as a belt:

He höwl:

A pygmy hippo and its mother will sample this grass:

This Virgin Islands dwarf gecko will spend this dime if it can just pick it up:

Show transcript:

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

I talk a lot about biggest animals on this podcast, so maybe it’s time to look at the very smallest animals. I don’t mean algae or bacteria or things like that, I mean the smallest species of animals that aren’t usually considered especially small.

We’ll start with the smolest snek, the Barbados threadsnake. It only lives on a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Barbados. The very largest individual ever measured was only 4.09 inches long, or 10.4 cm, but most are under four inches long. But it’s an extremely thin snake, not much thicker than a spaghetti noodle.

The Barbados threadsnake mostly eats termites and ant larvae. It spends most of its time in leaf litter or under rocks, hunting for food. The female only lays one single egg, but the baby is relatively large, about half the mother’s length when it hatches.

That’s so cute. Why are small things so cute?

Remember the starfish episode where we talked about the largest starfish? Well, what’s the smallest starfish? That would be Parvulastra parvivipara, which is smaller than a fingernail decoration sticker. It grows to about ten millimeters across and is orangey-yellow in color. It lives on the coast of Tasmania in rock pools between low and high tide, called intertidal rock pools.

If you remember the Mangrove killifish from a few episodes ago, you’ll remember how killifish females are hermaphrodites that produce both eggs and sperm, and usually self-fertilize their eggs to produce tiny clones of themselves. Well, Parvulastra does that too, although like the killifish it probably doesn’t always self-fertilize its eggs. But then it does something interesting for a starfish. Instead of releasing its eggs into the water to develop by themselves, Parvulastra keeps the eggs inside its body. And instead of the eggs hatching into larvae, they hatch into impossibly tiny miniature baby starfish, which the parent keeps inside its body until the baby is big enough to survive safely on its own.

But what do the baby starfish eat while they’re still inside the mother? Well, they eat their SIBLINGS. The larger babies eat the smaller ones, and eventually leave through one of the openings in the parent’s body wall, called gonopores. Researchers theorize that one of the reasons the babies leave the parent is to escape being eaten by its siblings. And yes, occasionally a baby grows so big that it won’t fit through the gonopores. So it just goes on living inside the parent.

Next, let’s look at the smallest primate. The primate order includes humans, apes, monkeys, and a lot of other animals, including lemurs. And the very smallest one is Berthe’s mouse lemur. Its body is only 3.6 inches long on average, or 9.2 cm, with a tail that more than doubles its length. Its fur is yellowish and brownish-red.

Berthe’s mouse lemur was only discovered in 1992. It lives in one tiny area of western Madagascar, where it lives in trees, which means it’s vulnerable to the deforestation going on all over Madagascar and is considered endangered.

It mostly eats insects, but also fruit, flowers, and small animals of various kinds. Its habitat overlaps with another small primate, the gray mouse lemur, but they avoid each other. Madagascar has 24 known mouse lemur species and they all seem to get along well by avoiding each other and eating slightly different diets. Researchers discover new species all the time, including three in 2016.

Last October we had an episode about bats, specifically macrobats that have wingspans as broad as eagles’. But the smallest bat is called the bumblebee bat. It’s also called Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, but bumblebee bat is way cuter. It’s a microbat that lives in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, and like other microbats it uses echolocation to find and catch flying insects. Its body is only about an inch long, or maybe 30 millimeters, although it has a respectable wingspan of about 6 ½ inches, or 17 cm. It’s reddish-brown in color with a little pig-like snoot, and it only weighs two grams. That’s just a tad more than a single Pringle chip weighs.

Because the bumblebee bat is so rare and lives in such remote areas, we don’t know a whole lot about it. It was only discovered in 1974 and is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, since it’s only been found in 35 caves in Thailand and 8 in Myanmar, and those are often disturbed by people entering them. The land around the caves is burned every year to clear brush for farming, which affects the bats too.

The bumblebee bat roosts in caves during the day and most of the night, only flying out at dawn and dusk to catch insects. It rarely flies more than about a kilometer from its cave, or a little over half a mile, but it does migrate from one cave to another seasonally. Females give birth to one tiny baby a year. Oh my gosh, tiny baby bats.

So what about whales and dolphins? You know, some of the biggest animals in Earth’s history? Well, the vaquita is a species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California, and it only grows about four and a half feet long, or 1.4 meters. Like other porpoises, it uses echolocation to navigate and catch its prey. It eats small fish, squid, crustaceans, and other small animals.

The vaquita is usually solitary and spends very little time at the surface of the water, so it’s hard to spot and not a lot is known about it. It mostly lives in shallow water and it especially likes lagoons with murky water, properly called turbid water, since it attracts more small animals.

Unfortunately, the vaquita is critically endangered, mostly because it often gets trapped in illegal gillnets and drowns. The gillnets are set to catch a different critically endangered animal, a fish called the totoaba. The totoaba is larger than the vaquita and is caught for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in China and is exported on the black market. The vaquita’s total population may be no more than ten animals at this point, fifteen at the most, and the illegal gillnets are still drowning them, so it may be extinct within a few years. A captive breeding plan was tried in 2017, but porpoises don’t do well in captivity and the individuals the group caught all died. Hope isn’t lost, though, because vaquita females are still having healthy babies, and there are conservation groups patrolling the part of the Gulf of California where they live to remove gill nets and chase off fishing boats trying to set more of the nets.

If you want to learn a little more about the vaquita and how to help it, episode 75 of Corbin Maxey’s excellent podcast Animals to the Max is an interview with a vaquita expert. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Next, let’s talk about an animal that is not in danger of extinction. Please! The long-tailed planigale is doing just fine, a common marsupial from Australia. So, if it’s a marsupial, it must be pretty big—like kangaroos and wallabies. Right? Nope, the long-tailed planigale is the size of a mouse, which it somewhat resembles. It even has a long tail that’s bare of fur. It grows to 2 ½ inches long not counting its tail, or 6.5 cm. It’s brown with longer hind legs than forelegs so it often sits up like a tiny squirrel. Its nose is pointed and it has little round mouse-like ears. But it has a weird skull.

The long-tailed planigale’s skull is flattened—in fact, it’s no more than 4 mm top to bottom. This helps it squeeze into cracks in the dry ground, where it hunts insects and other small animals, and hides from predators.

The pygmy hippopotamus is a real animal, which I did not know until recently. It grows about half the height of the common hippo and only weighs about a quarter as much. It’s just over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 100 cm. It’s black or brown in color and spends most of its time in shallow water, usually rivers. It’s sometimes seen resting in burrows along river banks, but no one’s sure if it digs these burrows or makes use of burrows dug by other animals. It comes out of the water at night to find food. Its nostrils and eyes are smaller than the common hippo’s.

Unlike the common hippo, the pygmy hippo lives in deep forests and as a result, mostly eats ferns, fruit, and various leaves. Common hippos eat more grass and water plants. The pygmy hippo seems to be less aggressive than the common hippo, but it also shares some behaviors with its larger cousins. For instance, the pooping thing. If you haven’t listened to the Varmints! Episode about hippos, you owe it to yourself to do so because it’s hilarious. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that one too. While the hippo poops, it wags its little tail really fast to spread the poop out across a larger distance.

Also like the common hippo, the pygmy hippo secretes a reddish substance that looks like blood. It’s actually called hipposudoric acid, which researchers thinks acts as a sunscreen and an antiseptic. Hippos have delicate skin with almost no hair, so its skin dries out and cracks when it’s out of water too long.

The pygmy hippo is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching, but fortunately it breeds successfully in zoos and lives a long time, up to about 55 years in captivity. For some reason females are much more likely to be born in captivity, so when a male baby is born it’s a big deal for the captive breeding program. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a video where you can watch a baby pygmy hippo named Sapo and his mother. He’s adorable.

Finally, let’s finish where we started, with another reptile. The smallest lizard is a gecko, although there are a lot of small geckos out there and it’s a toss-up which one is actually smallest on average. Let’s go with the Virgin Islands dwarf gecko, which lives on three of the British Virgin Islands. It’s closely related to the other contender for smallest reptile, the dwarf sphaero from Puerto Rico, which is a nearby island, but while that gecko is just a shade shorter on average, it’s much heavier.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko is only 18 mm long not counting its tail, and it weighs .15 grams. A paperclip weighs more than this gecko. It’s brown with darker speckles and a yellow stripe behind the eyes. Females are usually slightly larger than males. Like other geckos, it can lose its tail once and regrow a little stump of a tail.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko lives in dry forests and especially likes rocky hills, where it spends a lot of its time hunting for tiny animals under rocks. We don’t know a whole lot about it, but it does seem to be rare and only lives in a few places, so it’s considered endangered. In 2011 some rich guy decided he was going to release a bunch of lemurs from Madagascar onto Moskito Island, one of the islands where the dwarf gecko lives. Every conservationist ever told him oh NO you don’t, rich man, what is your problem? Those lemurs will destroy the island’s delicate ecosystem, drive the dwarf gecko and many other species to extinction, and then die because the habitat is all wrong for lemurs. So Mr. Rich Man said fine, whatever, I’ll take my lemurs and go home. And he did, and the dwarf gecko was saved.

Look, if you have so much money that you’re making plans to move lemurs halfway across the world because you think it’s a good idea, I can help take some of that money off your hands.

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.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 077: The Tratratratra, Lemur of Mystery!



I swear I didn’t make up the word tratratratra! It’s a real word for an animal that was probably real, although it may be extinct now. Let’s learn about this Lemur of Mystery and some of its friends!

A mouse lemur:

An indri:

King Julian:

Further reading:

Lemur News

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at an animal with a name I swear I’m not making up, the tratratratra. Seriously, it’s a real name. The animal itself…well, we’re not exactly sure.

Tratratratra is the name of an animal that was supposedly common in Madagascar when the Malagasy people settled there around 2000 years ago. It was described as a lemur about the size of a calf with a human face but hands more like a monkey’s. Supposedly it still lives on Madagascar in remote, hard-to-reach areas.

Madagascar is a big island off the coast of East Africa, with smaller islands around it. It has been isolated from both Africa and Asia for 88 million years, so many of its plants and animals are found nowhere else on earth. Lemurs are one example. There are over 100 known species and subspecies of lemur on Madagascar, but lemurs are found nowhere else in the world. Even more species of lemur have gone extinct since humans settled on the island, including one that might be the tratratratra.

First of all, what’s a lemur? If you’ve seen the movie Madagascar, you have a pretty good idea of what a lemur looks like, although you may overestimate the amount of dancing they do.

Technically the lemur is a primate, although it doesn’t look much like other primates at first glance. Different species can look radically different, of course, but in general they’re long-bodied animals with long tails and monkey-like hands and feet with nails instead of claws. They’re mostly social animals who eat plants and fruit, although some eat insects, arthropods, and other small animals. Most lemur societies are female-led. All are endangered due to habitat loss, poaching, and the illegal pet trade.

While we tend to think of apes and monkeys when we hear the word primate, the primate order contains many other types of animal. Lemurs belong to the Strepsirrhini suborder, which includes bushbabies, pottos, and lorises. Apes and monkeys belong to the Haplorhini suborder, along with tarsiers. Researchers think that the ancestors of lemurs migrated to Madagascar from Africa about 50 million years ago on rafts of vegetation. This sounds ridiculous since Madagascar is more than 300 miles, or 500 km, away from Africa at its closest point, and the prevailing winds and ocean currents push floating logs and other vegetation away from the island. But 60 million years ago the currents flowed the other way. By 20 million years ago, continental drift had pushed Africa and Madagascar farther north so that the currents changed to what they are now, which helped isolate the island even further.

The smallest lemur species is the mouse lemur, which is only 11 inches long including its tail, or 27 cm. The largest is the indri, which is a black and white animal with long legs but no tail, which grows to almost 2 ½ feet long, or 72 cm. In other words, even the biggest lemur alive today isn’t all that big. But that didn’t used to be the case.

When humans first settled on the island, there were three kinds of giant lemurs. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Monkey lemurs went extinct around 1500 years ago and probably spent most of their time on the ground. They weren’t huge, probably not any bigger than the indri. We don’t have very many monkey lemur remains so we don’t know much about it, but researchers think it primarily ate seeds, although it might have also eaten grass and leaves. Its limbs were short and powerful with short hands and feet. It had a heavy skull with big molars for grinding plant material. It probably went extinct mostly due to competition with introduced livestock like pigs.

Koala lemurs were bigger than the indri, up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and went extinct around 1000 years ago. Incidentally, one thousand years ago there was a terrible drought in Madagascar that caused crops to fail, lakes to dry up, and wildfires to start, and which contributed to many species going extinct. Anyway, the koala lemur was shaped more like a koala than a lemur. It lived its whole life in treetops, eating leaves, and it had some weird features for a primate. Its eyes were on the sides of its head like a rabbit’s or a horse’s, instead of in the front of its head like all other primates. Its snout was long and tapered, but it had a big nasal area that probably indicates an enlarged upper lip, maybe even partially prehensile, that helped it gather leaves. It was also heavier than all other lemurs, and some of the remains we have show evidence that they were butchered by humans to eat.

Finally, sloth lemurs probably ate plants, fruit, and nuts, and some species may have hung from branches the way sloths do. Instead of big claws for climbing, sloth lemurs had long fingers. There were a number of species, so let’s look at a few of them. Don’t worry, we’re getting closer and closer to the tratratratra.

Archaeoindris was the biggest lemur that we know of. It was the size of a gorilla, maybe even a little bigger, which would make it one of the largest primates that ever lived. Its skull was large and heavy, and it probably ate leaves. It may have occasionally climbed trees but probably spent most of its time on the ground. We don’t have any hand or feet bones so we don’t know if it had adaptations for climbing trees or for walking on the ground. It was already rare when humans first came to Madagascar and went extinct shortly afterwards.

Now we’re up to Palaeopropithecus ingens, and this may be our tratratratra. It wasn’t as big as Archaeoindris but it was still much bigger and heavier than the modern indri. It ate leaves, nuts, and seeds and probably spent a lot of time in the trees. Its arms and legs were powerful and it had long fingers and toes, which it used to hang from branches like a sloth. It had other adaptations, like curved arm and leg bones, that shows it was adept at climbing on, hanging from, and brachiating through tree branches. Even the hands were curved, so that the fingers were more like hooks. But it probably wasn’t a very fast mover, so was easily hunted by humans and would have provided a lot of meat.

According to Admiral Etienne de Flacourt in his 1658 history of Madagascar, the tratratratra is “a large animal like a calf of two years old, with a round head and the face of a man: the fore feet are like a monkey (or ape), and the hind feet also. It has curly or frizzy hair, a short tail and ears like those of a man. It resembles the ‘tanacht’ described by Ambroise Paré. It can be seen near the pond of the Lipomami tribe and in that region is where it can be found. It is a highly solitary animal, the people of that country have a great fear of it and flee from it as it also does from them.”

I got that quote from an article in Volume 15 of Lemur News, from 2010. I’ll put a link in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in lemurs, because it has lots of interesting information.

Palaeopropithecus ingens probably had a short tail like the still-living indri, which is a close relative. It probably also had rounded ears like the indri. And like the indri also, it may have had wavy or curly hair.

The tratratratra’s name probably came from its call, which might have been an alarm bark or a chattering sound. Many local lemur names do come from the animals’ calls. Some researchers consider the tratratratra’s name to be a fossil sound, and one of the very few we have.

We don’t know exactly when Palaeopropithecus went extinct. It might have been as recently as four hundred years ago, maybe even more recently. There have only been a few modern-day sightings of an animal that might be the tratratratra. A French forester in the 1930s saw what he claimed was a gorilla-like lemur with a human-like face, four feet tall, but that’s about it. So whatever the tratratratra might be, it’s probably extinct by now. But maybe it’s hanging on in the forested hills north of Tulear, where the last fragments of Madagascar’s original forests remain.

There is an interesting Malagasy tradition reported in 2003 about an ogre with the face of a human, which was helpless on smooth rocks. Since Palaeopropithecus was so well adapted to living in trees, like modern sloths it probably couldn’t walk on the ground very well. So even if the tratratratra is extinct, its memory lives on in modern culture.

The tratratratra isn’t the only mystery lemur in Madagascar. The kidoky is supposed to be a big lemur with dark fur but a couple of white spots on its face. It has a rounded face, a loud whooping call, and spends at least part of the time on the ground. When it runs, its gait is more like a baboon’s than a lemur’s.

Some people think the kidoky might be one of the giant lemur species that are supposedly extinct. Zoologist Karl Shuker suggests Archaeolemur or Hadropithecus as possible identities, both of which spent a lot of time on the ground. In fact, they resemble baboons in so many ways that they’re both known as baboon lemurs. But Hadropithecus went extinct around 1200 years ago and Archaeolemur around 800 years ago, as far as we know. But an ethnographic survey published in 1998 reports one native villager who saw a kidoky in 1952 at close range.

The tokandia is another mystery lemur, this one even bigger than the kidoky—as big as a bear. Not that they have bears in Madagascar. It’s supposed to live mostly on the ground but sometimes it would jump up into trees. It didn’t look like a human but its calls sounded like they were made with a human voice. Again, Shuker suggests it might be a koala lemur, specifically Megaladapis edwardsi—you know, the one that could grow five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

The kalanoro is a more human-like creature from folklore, usually described as a small person who steals food. Some stories say it lives in the water. If it’s based on a real animal and isn’t just the Malagasy version of little folk common throughout the world’s cultures, it might be based on a type of lemur.

One last note. In the quote earlier about the tratratratra, de Flacourt mentions an animal called the tanacht. Is it another type of lemur? Is there no end to lemur mysteries?

It’s not a lemur, no. A French priest called Father André Thévet wrote about the tanacht in 1575, but he said it lived in India. It was supposedly the size and roughly the shape of a tiger, but it didn’t have a tail, and it did have the face and hands of a human with a snub nose. It might have been a species of Asian colobine monkey such as the pig-tailed langur, which can have orangey or golden fur and only has a short tail, or it might have been a stump-tailed macaque, which has pale brown fur and no tail. But neither of those monkeys are anywhere near as big as a tiger, so who knows what the tanacht might actually be?

But for now, I’m primated out, so check back next week for an episode that’s not about primates!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 051: The Carolina Parakeet and the Elephant Bird



This week’s episode is about the Carolina parakeet, a cheerful, pretty bird that was once common in the central and eastern United States but which has been extinct for a century. Thanks to Maureen for the suggestion! I’ve paired it with the elephant bird, a gigantic extinct bird that we don’t know much about except for its enormous eggs.

The Carolina parakeet, deceased:

An ex-parrot next to an ex-passenger pigeon:

A still from the 1937? Nelson video:

The 2014 mystery parakeet photo:

An elephant bird, an elephant bird egg, and Sir David Attenborough (right):

Further Reading/Watching:

Here’s a close evaluation of the Nelson video taken in the late 1930s, supposedly in the Okefenokee Swamp.

I can’t get the Nelson video to embed properly, so here’s a link to it. You’ll need to scroll down to the bottom of the page for a decent-sized version that will play.

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about two birds, one small and one really big, and both extinct. Probably.

First, let’s learn about the Carolina parakeet, a suggestion by listener Maureen. It was a type of small parrot that was common throughout a big part of the United States, as far west as Nebraska and parts of Colorado and as far north as New York, and as far south as Florida and around the Gulf of Mexico. It had a yellow and orange head and a green body with some yellow markings, and was about the size of a mourning dove or a passenger pigeon.

This story of extinction mirrors that of the passenger pigeon in many ways. The Carolina parakeet lived in forests and swamps in big, noisy flocks and ate fruit and seeds. But when European settlers moved in, turning forests into farmland and shooting birds that were considered pests, its numbers started to decline. In addition, the bird was frequently captured for sale in the pet trade and hunted for its feathers, which were used to decorate hats. Part of the reason it was so easy to kill was that if a wounded bird’s cries were heard by other Carolina parakeets—and they probably would hear it, since these birds were loud, with calls carrying up to two miles—the whole flock would come flying out to help the wounded bird.

By 1860 the Carolina parakeet was rare anywhere except the swamps of central Florida, and by 1904 it was extinct in the wild. The last captive bird died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918, which was not only the same zoo where the last passenger pigeon died in 1914, it was the same cage. It was declared extinct in 1939.

We don’t know a lot about the Carolina parakeet even though it survived into the 20th century because no one made any particular study of the bird. John Audubon painted it and made some notes, and we have a lot of skins, skeletons, and some stuffed specimens, but that’s about it. There were two subspecies, one that lived to the east of the Appalachian mountain range, and one that lived to the west, that went extinct sooner than the eastern subspecies and was more bluish-green than green.

One interesting thing that Audubon noted is that cats that killed and ate Carolina parakeets died. The bird ate a lot of cockleburs, and the cocklebur’s seed is poisonous—so much so that livestock die from eating them. If you listened to episode 31, venomous animals, you may remember the Africa spur-winged goose that eats toxic blister beetles, collects the toxin in its tissues, and is therefore poisonous to eat. It’s probable that the Carolina parakeet did the same with cocklebur toxins.

Sightings of the bird in the wild occurred through the 1920s and 30s. A whole flock of some 30 birds was spotted in Florida in 1920, and in 1926 three nesting pairs were seen in Okeechobee County, Florida by the Curator of Birds at Florida University, Charles Doe. Doe was so excited to find these supposedly extinct birds that he ROBBED ALL THREE PAIRS OF THEIR EGGS. Because that man was an idiot and he will go down in history as an idiot. Charles E. Doe, Idiot, it probably says on his tombstone. His egg-shaped tombstone, probably.

In the mid-1930s ornithologist Alexander Sprunt Jr collected a number of sightings of Carolina parakeets in the Santee Swamp in South Carolina. Numerous trained bird wardens and ornithologists saw the birds, but it didn’t matter. In 1938 the Santee River was dammed and a power plant built, which radically changed the area ecosystem, and much of the surrounding forest was cut down and the swampland drained during the construction process. No one has reported any parakeet sightings since then.

Of course, the southeast still has lots of swampland, some of it all but impenetrable. The Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Florida is close to half a million acres, or more than 1700 square kilometers, and most of that area has been a national wildlife refuge since 1974. In 1937 or a little after, someone shot about 50 seconds of color film footage of three green birds in the Okefenokee. The footage is usually attributed to a man named Oren, or Orsen, Stemville.

In the early 1950s an Audubon lecturer named Dee Jay Nelson bought an old film camera from a boat operator in the Okefenokee Swamp. The box it came in contained eight rolls of processed 16mm film, but Nelson didn’t actually view those rolls for about 15 years. One roll contained footage of alligators and toads native to the Okefenokee, and in between those was some strange footage of three green birds.

Roger Tory Peterson, a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union, got a copy of the film and presented it to the society for analysis in 1969. There was no consensus as to whether the birds were feral pet parakeets of some kind or Carolina parakeets. Peterson misplaced his copy of the film and when Nelson was contacted by the society in 1979, he said he had lost the original. But in 2005 the copy turned up in Peterson’s effects after he died. At that point the Ornithologists’ Union analyzed the film again and concluded that not only are the birds not Carolina parakeets, they appear to have been artificially colored to look like Carolina parakeets. In other words, it was a hoax—and not even a very good one. It’s possible that only one of the birds was even real; the others were probably taxidermied birds or models. Nelson’s story about how he found the footage is fishy anyway. In the 1960s Nelson was a screen-tour lecturer from Montana, so he may have shot the footage himself to illustrate some project that never got off the ground.

The 2005 analysis of the footage was thorough. The society even brought in botanists to find out what kind of tree is shown in the film, but they were unable to identify it and said that the Spanish moss draped on the branches appears to have been placed there instead of growing there naturally. I’ll put a link in the show notes to the society’s close notation of the footage, practically frame by frame. The film is archived with the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, and I’ll include a link to the video too.

The problem with sightings is that the green parakeet, a species native to Central America as far north as the southern tip of Texas, and the red-masked parakeet from Ecuador and Peru, look similar to the Carolina parakeet and have been pets in the United States for a long time, as have many other parrot species. In Florida in particular, escaped parrots sometimes survive and band together in breeding colonies, and by the 1920s had already begun to do so. So if the Nelson footage isn’t a hoax, it might be mistaken identity.

While I’m pretty nearly certain that the Carolina parakeet really is extinct, if it still manages to hang on in the depths of the Okefenokee swamp or elsewhere, anyone who’s observed it might assume they’ve only seen a red-masked parakeet or something.

On April 1, 2009 someone posted an article that looked like a press release from Cornell University about the discovery of a population of Carolina Parakeet in northern Honduras. It was an April fool’s joke, but it was so convincing that people still claim it’s real. I really hate April fool’s, by the way.

In January 2014, someone posted an interesting picture to a bird forum, saying her son took the picture at their home in southern Georgia in 2010 and asking what kind of parrot it was. The bird’s a dead ringer for a Carolina parakeet sitting in an apple tree. The poster deleted the thread later, upset at being accused of posting a hoaxed picture. This being the internet, no one can agree on whether the picture is real or shopped. It looks real to me, but while it might be a young yellow-headed Amazon parrot, the red cheeks aren’t a yellow-headed trait. So it’s a mystery.

From this small, brightly colored bird we go to a gigantic one. The elephant bird stood about ten feet tall head to toe, or 3 m, and while it looks superficially like an ostrich, it was more closely related to the tiny kiwi of New Zealand. But the elephant bird only lived in Madagascar.

It’s possible that stories about the roc, an eagle so big it could pick up elephants, were actually garbled stories about the elephant bird. That’s where the name elephant bird comes from, incidentally. The real life elephant bird probably became the fabled roc not from sightings of the bird but from its eggs. The eggs were enormous, the largest bird egg known and possibly the largest egg ever known, some over a foot long or about 34 cm, and big enough to hold over two gallons of liquid, or seven and a half liters. We’re getting close to watermelon sized here.

In 1930, in the southernmost point of Western Australia, two boys were playing along the beach and discovered a gigantic egg buried in a sand dune. They took it home, where no one had any idea what bird might have laid it. It was twice the size of an ostrich egg. Eventually it was given to the Western Australia Museum, and in 1962 a naturalist examined it and identified it as the egg of an elephant bird. Another elephant bird egg was found in western Australia by three children in 1992. But what were they doing in Australia? Elephant birds can’t fly, were never native to Australia or anywhere else except Madagascar, and anyway by 1930 they were certainly extinct.

Well, eggs can float, especially in saltwater and especially if the embryo inside has died, as would happen if the egg was washed out of its nest and into cold water. The elephant bird liked to lay its eggs in sand along the beach or rivers. Sometimes they would be washed out to sea. People who found elephant bird eggs without knowing what kind of enormous bird they would hatch into would naturally tell stories about them, like the roc. And even now, when there are no elephant birds around to lay new eggs, intact eggs are still occasionally found. The shells of elephant bird eggs were as much as 4 mm thick, which doesn’t sound like much but is way thicker than any other egg shell. That’s over an eighth of an inch thick.

So these were big, tough eggs that weren’t easily destroyed. Moreover, the egg found in Australia in 1992 was dated to 2,000 years old and was found in deposits of sand that had been laid down a few thousand years ago too. Both eggs had been in place for millennia until those meddling kids dug them up.

In 1974 a King Penguin egg was found floating near the beach very near where the 1930 elephant bird egg was found, having drifted some 1200 miles, or 2,000 km, in only a matter of weeks. In 1991 another King Penguin egg was found in the same region. This one was covered in barnacles and algae, but both were easily removed without damaging the egg. And in the early 1990s, a man working on a dredge in the Timor Sea, which is part of the Indian Ocean, spotted an ostrich egg in the water and retrieved it. It was so heavily weighted down with algae that it wasn’t bobbing along at the surface, but it was still floating under the surface and was intact. Any barnacles that had grown on the elephant bird eggs would have been sandblasted off by wind once the eggs were beached. The 1930 egg had one surface polished smooth from exposure to wind.

The elephant bird ate plants, probably nuts and fruit. Some researchers think the fruit of some rare species of palm trees on Madagascar were eaten and dispersed by the elephant bird. It had muscular legs like an ostrich but was so heavy, it probably couldn’t run very fast.

We’re not sure when the elephant bird went extinct. Some egg shells have been dated to about 1,000 years ago and that seems to be the latest signs of elephant birds. But as late as the 17th century native people from Madagascar were adamant that it still lived in hard-to-travel swamps.

We do have a pretty good idea of why the elephant bird went extinct, though. The eggshells were used as buckets and bowls, and archaeological studies have found plenty of charred shells in cooking fires. One elephant bird egg could feed an entire family. The adult birds were also hunted and eaten. Not only that, when European settlers decided they’d like to live in Madagascar now, thanks very much, you native people can just shift over and give us all the good land, deforestation and overhunting combined to finish off the elephant bird forever.

Like other recently extinct animals, the elephant bird is a good candidate for de-extinction once cloning technology is perfected. But if we do get the elephant bird back, we have to promise not to eat all its eggs.

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

Thanks for listening!