Category Archives: New Zealand

Episode 289: Weird Worms



This week we learn about some weird worms!

Further reading:

Otherworldly Worms with Three Sexes Discovered in Mono Lake

Bizarre sea worm with regenerative butts named after Godzilla’s monstrous nemesis

Underground giant glows in the dark but is rarely seen

Giant Gippsland earthworm (you can listen to one gurgling through its burrow here too)

Further watching:

A giant Gippsland earthworm

Glowing earthworms (photo by Milton Cormier):

This sea worm’s head is on the left, its many “butts” on the right [photo from article linked to above]:

A North Auckland worm [photo from article linked to above]:

A giant beach worm:

Show transcript:

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

This week we continue Invertebrate August with a topic I almost saved for monster month in October. Let’s learn about some weird worms!

We’ll start with a newly discovered worm that’s very tiny, and we’ll work our way up to larger worms.

Mono Lake in California is a salty inland lake that probably started forming after a massive volcanic eruption about 760,000 years ago. The eruption left behind a crater called a caldera that slowly filled with water from rain and several creeks. But there’s no outlet from the lake—no river or even stream that carries water from the lake down to the ocean. As a result, the water stays where it is and over the centuries a lot of salts and other minerals have dissolved into the lake from the surrounding rocks. The water is three times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline.

No fish live in the lake, but some extremophiles do. There’s a type of algae that often turns the water bright green, brine shrimp that eat the algae, some unusual flies that dive into the water encased in bubbles, birds that visit the lake and eat the brine shrimp and flies, and eight species of worms that have only been discovered recently. All the worms are weird, but one of them is really weird. It hasn’t been described yet so at the moment is just going by the name Auanema, since the research team thinks it probably belongs in that genus.

Auanema is microscopic and lives throughout the lake, which is unusual because the lake contains high levels of arsenic. You know, a DEADLY POISON. But the arsenic and the salt and the other factors that make the lake inhospitable to most life don’t bother the worms.

Auanema produces offspring that can have one of three sexes: hermaphrodites that can self-fertilize, and males and females that need each other to fertilize eggs. Researchers think that the males and females of the species help maintain genetic diversity while the hermaphrodites are able to colonize new environments, since they don’t need a mate to reproduce.

When some of the worms were brought to the laboratory for further study, they did just fine in normal lab conditions, without extreme levels of arsenic and so forth. That’s unusual, because generally extremophiles are so well adapted for their extreme environments that they can’t live anywhere else. But Auanema is just fine in a non-harsh environment. Not only that, but the team tested other species in the Auanema genus that aren’t extremophiles and discovered that even though they don’t live in water high in arsenic, they tolerate arsenic just as well as the newly discovered species.

The team’s plan is to sequence Auanema’s genome to see if they can determine the genetic factors that confer such high resistance to arsenic.

Next, we go up in size from a teensy worm to another newly discovered worm, this one only about 4 inches long at most, or 10 cm. It’s a marine polychaete worm that lives inside sea sponges, although we don’t know yet if it’s parasitizing the sponge or if it confers some benefit to the sponge that makes this a symbiotic relationship. The worm was only discovered in 2019 near Japan and described in early 2022 as Ramisyllis kingghidorahi.

Almost all worms known are shaped, well, like worms. They have a mouth at one end, an anus at the other, and in between they’re basically just a tube. Ramisyllis is one of only three worms known that have branched bodies, which is why they’re called branching sea worms. In this case, Ramisyllis has a single head, which stays in the sponge, but its other end branches into multiple tail ends that occasionally break off and swim away. The tails are specialized structures called stolons. When a stolon breaks off, it swims away and releases the eggs or sperm it contains into the water before dying. The worm then regenerates another stolon in its place.

Ramisyllis’s branches are asymmetrical and the worms found so far can have dozens of branches. Its close relation, a species that lives in sponges off the coast of northern Australia, can have up to 100 branches. Researchers suspect that there are a lot more species of branching sea worms that haven’t been discovered yet.

Next, let’s head back to land to learn about a regular-sized earthworm. There are quite a few species across three different earthworm families that exhibit a particular trait, found in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and parts of Africa. A few species have been introduced to parts of Europe too. What’s the trait that links all these earthworms? THEY CAN GLOW IN THE DARK.

Bioluminescent earthworms don’t glow all the time. Most of the time they’re just regular earthworms of various sizes, depending on the species. But if they feel threatened, they exude a special slime that glows blue or green in the dark, or sometimes yellowish like firefly light. The glow is caused by proteins and enzymes in the slime that react chemically with oxygen.

Researchers think that the light may startle predators or even scare them away, since predators that live and hunt underground tend to avoid light. The glow may also signal to predators that the worm could taste bad or contain toxins. The light usually looks dim to human eyes but to an animal with eyes adapted for very low light, it would appear incredibly bright.

One bioluminescent earthworm is called the New Zealand earthworm. It can grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, although it’s only about 10 mm thick at most, and while it’s mostly pink, it has a purplish streak along the top of its body (like a racing stripe).

Like other earthworms, the New Zealand earthworm spends most of its time burrowing through the soil to find decaying organic matter, mostly plant material, and it burrows quite deep, over 16 feet deep, or 5 meters. If a person tried to dig a hole that deep, without special materials to keep the hole from collapsing, it would fall in and squish the person. Dirt and sand are really heavy. The earthworm has the same problem, which it solves by exuding mucus from its body that sticks to the dirt and hardens, forming a lining that keeps the burrow from collapsing. This is a different kind of mucus than the bioluminescent kind, and all earthworms do this. Not only does the burrow lining keep the worm safe from being squished by cave-ins, it also contains a toxin that kills bacteria in the soil that could harm the worm.

Worms that burrow as deep as the New Zealand earthworm does are called subsoil worms, as opposed to topsoil worms that live closer to the surface. Topsoil contains a lot more organic material than subsoil, but it’s also easier for surface predators to reach. That’s why topsoil worms tend to move pretty fast compared to subsoil worms.

The New Zealand earthworm glows bright orange-yellow if it feels threatened, so bright that the Maori people used the worm as bait when fishing since it’s basically the best fish lure ever.

Another New Zealand earthworm is called the North Auckland worm, and while it looks like a regular earthworm that’s mostly pink or greenish, it’s also extremely large. Like, at least four and a half feet long, or 1.4 meters, and potentially much longer. It typically lives deep underground in undisturbed forests, so there aren’t usually very many people around on the rare occasion when heavy rain forces it to the surface. Since earthworms of all kinds absorb oxygen through the skin, instead of having lungs or gills, they can’t survive for long in water and have to surface if their burrow completely floods.

We don’t actually know that much about the North Auckland worm. Like the New Zealand earthworm, it’s a subsoil worm that mostly eats dead plant roots. Some people report that it glows bright yellow, although this hasn’t been studied and it’s not clear if this is a defensive reaction like in the New Zealand earthworm. It’s possible that people get large individual New Zealand earthworms confused with smaller North Auckland worm individuals. Then again, there’s no reason why both worms can’t bioluminesce.

An even bigger worm is the giant beach worm. It’s a polychaete worm, not an earthworm, and like other polychaete worms, including the branching sea worm we talked about earlier, it has a segmented body with setae that look a little like legs, although they’re just bristles. The giant beach worm’s setae help it move around through and over the sand. It hides in a burrow it digs in the sand between the high and low tide marks, but it comes out to eat dead fish and other animals, seaweed, and anything else it can find. It has strong jaws and usually will poke its head out of its burrow just far enough to grab a piece of food. It has a really good sense of smell but can’t see at all.

There are two species of giant beach worm that live in parts of Australia, especially the eastern and southeastern coasts, where people dig them up to use as fish bait. The largest species can grow up to 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, and possibly even longer. There are also two species that live in Central and South America, although we don’t know much about them.

Another huge Australian worm is the endangered Giant Gippsland earthworm that lives in Victoria, Australia. It’s also a subsoil worm and is about 8 inches long, or 20 cm…when it’s first hatched. It can grow almost ten feet long, or 3 meters. It’s mostly bluish-gray but you can tell which end is its head because it’s darker in color, almost purple. It lives beneath grasslands, usually near streams, and is so big that if you happen to be in the right place at the right time on a quiet day and listen closely, you might actually hear one of the giant worms moving around underground. When it moves quickly, its body makes a gurgling sound as it passes through the moist soil in its burrow.

The Giant Gippsland earthworm is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss. It also reproduces slowly and takes as much as five years to reach maturity. Conservationists are working to protect it and its remaining habitat in Gippsland. The city of Korumburra used to have a giant worm festival, but it doesn’t look like that’s been held for a while, which is too bad because there aren’t enough giant worm festivals in the world.

To finish us off, let’s learn what the longest worm ever reliably measured is. It was found on a road in South Africa in 1967 and identified as Microchaetus rappi, or the African giant earthworm. It’s mostly dark greenish-brown in color and it looks like an earthworm, because it is an earthworm. On average, this species typically grows around 6 feet long, or 1.8 meters, which is pretty darn big, but this particular individual was 21 feet long, or 6.7 meters. It’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest worm ever measured. Beat that, other worms. I don’t think you can.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 272: The Waitoreke



Thanks to Sarah L. for buying the podcast two books off our wishlist! This episode was inspired by an entry in one of those books!

A very happy birthday this week to Matthew!

Don’t forget that you can still contribute to our Indiegogo “Tiny Pin Friends” campaign to get a small hard enamel pin of a narwhal, a capybara with a tangerine on its head, and/or a thylacine!

On April 19, 2022, the book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World goes officially on sale in paperback everywhere! (The ebook is already available.) Bookstores in the U.S. can order fully returnable copies at a standard bookstore discount; bookstores outside of the U.S. still get a discount but the copies are non-returnable. The book should be available to order anywhere you usually order books, including Amazon and Bookshop.org!

Further reading:

Rakali/Water-rat–Australia’s “otter”

Additional Sources (because this episode turned out to be really hard to research):

Conway, J., Koseman, C.M., Naish, D. (2013). Cryptozoologicon vol. I, 37-38. Irregular Books.

Ley, Willy. (1987). Exotic Zoology, 291-295. Bonanza. (Original work published 1959)

Pollock, G. A. (1970). The South Island otter: A reassessment. Proceedings (New Zealand Ecological Society), 17, 129–135.

Pollock, G. A. (1974). The South Island otter: An addendum. Proceedings (New Zealand Ecological Society), 21, 57-61.

Worthy, T. H., et al. (2006). Miocene mammal reveals a Mesozoic ghost lineage on insular New Zealand, southwest Pacific. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America103(51), 19419–19423. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0605684103

An otter with its telltale bubble chain (Photo by Linda Tanner):

A rakali swimming (photo by Con Boekel, from website linked to above):

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a fascinating mystery animal from New Zealand! Many thanks to Sarah L., who very generously bought me a couple of books off my podcast wishlist, which I tend to forget is even a thing that exists! One of the books is Cryptozoologicon, Volume 1 by John Conway, C.M. Koseman, and Darren Naish, and that’s where I got this week’s topic, the mysterious waitoreke. [why-tore-EH-kee]

This week is also special because the paperback version of our own book, Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, officially goes on sale on April 19, 2022. That’s tomorrow, if you’re listening to this the day the episode goes live. It should be available to order everywhere you ordinarily buy books, throughout the world. The ebook is available too. I’ve mailed all Kickstarter copies so if you haven’t received your copy yet, let me know. There were a few people who never returned the backer survey so I don’t have those addresses to mail books to. If you want a signed copy of the book at this point, or a hardback copy, you’ll need to catch me in person. I’ll be at ConCarolinas over the first weekend of June and I’d love to meet up with you. I’m working on the audiobook now, for those of you waiting for that one. (It’s a slow process, so don’t expect it for at least another month, sorry.)

You know what else is happening this week? A birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Matthew! I hope your birthday is everything you ever hoped for in a birthday, or maybe even more!

New Zealand has almost no native mammal species except for a few bats, some seals and sea lions that live along the coast, and some whales and dolphins that live off the coast. Lots of mammals have been introduced, from dogs to rats, cattle to cats, but there are reports of a small mammal in New Zealand called some version of waitoreke, supposedly a Maori word meaning something like swift-moving water animal. Even the animal’s name is confusing, though. No one’s sure whether the word is genuinely Maori. The animal is also sometimes referred to as the South Island otter, the New Zealand platypus, the New Zealand muskrat, or the New Zealand beaver.

Reports of the animal go back a couple of centuries, basically as soon as Europeans stumbled across the country. One of the earliest reports is from 1861 by Julius von Haast, a geologist who spent many years surveying the geography and geology of New Zealand, and who made a lot of discoveries along the way. The huge, extinct Haast’s eagle is named after him, for instance, since he was the first European scientist to examine its remains. In June of 1861, Haast spotted some tracks in the mud along a riverbank, which he noted looked like an otter’s tracks but smaller. Two shepherds in the area claimed they’d seen the animal and that it was the size of a large rabbit with dark brown fur. Haast seems to be the first person to have used the word waitoreke, but a naturalist named Walter Mantell might have used the word first—it’s not clear.

The Maori people of the South Island also reported seeing the animal. One man even said it had sometimes once been kept as a pet, although he may have actually been referring to the tuatara, a reptile we talked about way back in episode 3. The waitoreke was supposed to be about two feet long, or 61 cm, not counting its bushy tail, brown in color, with short legs, and a head that was something between a dog and cat’s head. It spent most of its time in the water but it also came on land and lived in a burrow.

The problem with these accounts is that they were mainly gathered by Walter Mantell, who was not Maori. He might have misunderstood some details or not recorded them accurately. Most of the details we have come from an interview with a Maori chief whose name Mantell recorded as Tarawhata, although this may have been incorrect. Tarawhata said that there were two types of waitoreke, a water type and a land type. The land type ate lizards, the water type ate fish. He might have been referring to two different animals or he might have been referring to the same animal living in two different habitats.

We don’t even know when Mantell talked to his witnesses except that it had to have been sometime after about 1840 when he first came to New Zealand. We don’t have Mantell’s original notes, either. The details come from a paper presented by Mantell’s father, a zoologist, to the Royal Zoological Society of London in November 1850. For that matter, we don’t have Haast’s original notes about the footprints he spotted in 1861. His account was reported in a book by another geologist, published in German in 1863, with an English version in 1867.

There have been more recent sightings of the waitoreke, though. A fisherman named A.E. Tapper spotted what might have been a waitoreke six times between 1890 and 1921, which he wrote about in 1926 in letters to the Southland Times. He described the animal as a dark mousy brown with a rounded head like a seal’s, about the size of a possum or rabbit. In his account of the last sighting, in 1921 while he was fishing the Waikiwi River near an abandoned bridge, he wrote, “[s]omething…splashed, dived into the water and swam past me upstream, disappearing under some scrub on the other side. It was dusk, the water dark, yet I was close enough to distinguish a dark shadowy form 18 inches, or two feet deep [about 45 to 60 cm]. The wake it made in the water showed it to be of some size, but the strangest part was the noise it made when going through the water and the numerous bubbles that followed in its track. The noise was exactly that made by throwing a handful of…small stones in the water… I went down next day but beyond finding tracks in the mud similar to a rabbit’s but apparently webbed I found no trace.” He also found a hole in the bank several months later after the water level had dropped, meaning the hole had previously been underwater even though it looked like a rabbit burrow.

Unfortunately, while we know exactly where this sighting took place, by 1970 the surrounding marshlands had been drained and cleared for crops, and the river was so polluted that basically nothing lived in it anymore.

In 1957, a woman named Mrs. Linscott saw an animal swim across a big pond, which was connected to the nearby Aparima River. She only saw its head and the front of its body since it vanished into brush at the far end of the pond, but she got a good look at it while it swam. It had a small head with protuberant eyes and round ears, its face was “browny-purple,” and it had whiskers.

In 1968, a man named Bob Thompson was on holiday near the Whakaea River. He got up at dawn one morning and saw an animal emerge from a creek, followed by three young ones who disappeared into some brush. The difference in this case is that Thompson was from Norfolk, England and had lived next to the River Yare, where otters were common at the time. He said these animals were definitely otters.

In 1971, a man named P.J.A. Bradley had returned from an unsuccessful deer hunt near the Hollyford River and was waiting for the boat to take him home when he heard splashing in a quiet inlet nearby. He thought it might be a deer so he approached cautiously. Instead of a deer, he saw an animal playing on the riverbank by repeatedly climbing up and sliding down the mud into the water. He said the animal was dark brown and smooth with a thick tapering tail, short legs, and small head with no noticeable ears. He estimated that it was as much as 3.5 feet long, or 107 cm, including the tail.

All these reports really do sound like otters. We talked about the Eurasian otter in episode 37, about the Dobhar-Chu. It’s a shy, territorial animal that lives in freshwater rivers and lakes, as long as there’s plenty of cover around the edges for it to hide. A big male can grow up to 4.5 feet long, or 1.4 meters, although most are much smaller and females are smaller overall than males. It’s dark brown with a lighter belly, and has a long, slender body, short legs with webbed toes, and a small flattened head with tiny ears. Its tail is thick and tapering. It mostly eats fish, frogs, and various invertebrates like crayfish.

Tapper’s sighting is especially interesting because of the trail of bubbles he reported. This is sometimes called a bubble chain and is a telltale sign that an otter is swimming underwater.

But there’s no evidence, fossil or otherwise, that otters ever lived in New Zealand, or Australia either for that matter. Some species of otter do live in South Asia, but that’s still a long, long way from New Zealand. One theory is that domesticated otters kept as fishing animals were brought to New Zealand by South Asian fishermen who were either lost or blown away from their homes by storms. The problem with this theory is not just that there’s no evidence for it among Maori oral histories, it’s that the fishermen would have had to somehow avoid Australia completely even though it’s a humongous continent they would have to go around to reach New Zealand’s South Island.

There is an unrelated animal in parts of Australia that looks a lot like a small otter, though. That’s the rakali, or water-rat, a semi-aquatic rodent native to Australia, New Guinea, and some nearby islands.

The rakali grows up to about 15 inches long, or 39 cm, not counting its long tail. It has black or dark gray fur with a paler belly, but its tail has a white tip. It has short legs, a small flattened head with small rounded ears, webbed toes on its hind feet, and while its tail is thick for a rodent, it’s thin compared to an otter’s tail. It eats many of the same things that otters eat and is especially good at killing the cane toad, a toxic invasive species in parts of Australia.

But the rakali has never been introduced to New Zealand and has never been seen there. While it does superficially resemble a small otter, it acts very rodent-like in many ways. For instance, it sits up on its haunches to eat and when it’s doing that, it doesn’t look anything like an otter, although it is really cute. It also marks its territory with a scent that smells strongly like cat urine.

Stoats and weasels have been introduced to New Zealand, where they’re invasive species. While they’re much smaller than otters, they do have a similar body shape and both can swim well when they want to. It’s possible that at least some waitoreke sightings are actually sightings of swimming stoats or weasels, although that doesn’t explain all the reports by any means.

Another theory is that the waitoreke isn’t an otter at all but a rare, unknown mammal native to New Zealand. Since New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats, until 2006 researchers generally rejected this theory out of hand. That’s because until 2006, there weren’t even any fossil remains of mammals found on New Zealand.

New Zealand is just a small part of an otherwise submerged continent called Zealandia. Zealandia was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, smooshed up next to what are now Australia and Antarctica. Zealandia separated from its neighbors around 80 million years ago and started slowly sinking into the ocean. Then, about 66 million years ago, the massive asteroid strike we talked about in episode 240 killed off the non-avian dinosaurs.

Afterwards, in most of the world, mammals began to evolve rapidly to fill the vacant ecological niches. But Zealandia didn’t have very many mammals to start with, and by 25 million years ago it was mostly underwater anyway except for the highest mountain peaks that stuck up as islands. At this point, though, the continental plate had stopped sinking and instead was being pushed up slowly by tectonic forces—a process that’s still ongoing.

For a long time, geologists even thought Zealandia might have been completely underwater. It wasn’t surprising that the only animals living on land were birds and bats, since they could have flown there after the land re-emerged. But even as evidence of those mountaintop islands became understood, mammals were still nonexistent in New Zealand’s fossil history.

Then, in 1978, some small, incomplete fossils were discovered near Saint Bathans in the southern part of the South Island. This is a rich area for fossils that date to around 16 to 19 million years ago. There are remains of fish, reptiles, a few bats, and lots of birds, and in 2006, paleontologists studying those fossils found in 1978 announced that they’d identified them as the remains of a terrestrial mammal.

It’s referred to as the Saint Bathans mammal and we know almost nothing about it. We only have two fragments of a lower jaw and one femur. We’re pretty sure it’s not a monotreme but that’s about as far as it goes. It was probably the size of a mouse.

Because Zealandia has been separated from all other landmasses for about 80 million years, the Saint Bathans mammal that lived around 17 million years ago was probably very different from mammals found in other parts of the world. Its descendants probably went extinct in the middle Miocene, around 14 million years ago, when there was a relatively small extinction event throughout the world related to a long period of global cooling. But some people theorize that descendants of the Saint Bathans mammal survived to the present day, a rare and shy semi-aquatic animal that fills the same ecological niche as otters and has evolved to look like otters due to convergent evolution.

It’s not likely, to be honest. It’s even less likely than the theory about lost fishermen with pet otters drifting thousands of miles around Australia to come ashore on New Zealand, and that’s not very likely either.

There are still occasional sightings of the waitoreke. With luck someone will get some good pictures of one soon so we can learn more about what this mysterious animal might be.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 262: Animals Discovered in 2021



It’s the second annual discoveries episode! Lots of animals new to science were described in 2021 so let’s find out about some of them.

Further reading:

First description of a new octopus species without using a scalpel

Marine Biologists Discover New Species of Octopus

Bleating or screaming? Two new, very loud, frog species described in eastern Australia

Meet the freaky fanged frog from the Philippines

New alpine moth solves a 180-year-old mystery

Meet the latest member of Hokie Nation, a newly discovered millipede that lives at Virginia Tech

Fourteen new species of shrew found on Indonesian island

New beautiful, dragon-like species of lizard discovered in the Tropical Andes

Newly discovered whale species—introducing Ramari’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon eueu)!

Scientists describe a new Himalayan snake species found via Instagram

The emperor dumbo octopus (deceased):

The star octopus:

New frog just dropped (that’s actually the robust bleating tree frog, already known):

The slender bleating tree frog:

The screaming tree frog:

The Mindoro fanged frog:

Some frogs do have lil bitty fangs:

The hidden Alpine moth, mystery solver:

The Hokie twisted-claw millipede:

One of 14 new species of shrew:

The snake picture that led to a discovery:

Show transcript:

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

This episode marks our 5th year anniversary! I also finally got the ebook download codes sent to everyone who backed the Kickstarter at that level. The paperback and hardback books will hopefully be ready for me to order by the end of February and I can get them mailed out to backers as soon as humanly possible. Then I’ll focus on the audiobook! A few Kickstarter backers still haven’t responded to the survey, either with their mailing address for a physical book or for names and birthdays for the birthday shout-outs, so if that’s you, please get that information to me!

Anyway, happy birthday to Strange Animals Podcast and let’s learn about some animals new to science in 2021!

It’s easy to think that with all the animals already known, and all the people in the world, surely there aren’t very many new animals that haven’t been discovered yet. But the world is a really big place and parts of it, especially the oceans, have hardly been explored by scientists.

It can be confusing to talk about when an animal was discovered because there are multiple parts to a scientific discovery. The first part is actually finding an animal that the field scientists think might be new to science. Then they have to study the animal and compare it to known animals to determine whether it can be considered a new species or subspecies. Then they ultimately need to publish an official scientific description and give the new animal a scientific name. This process often takes years.

That’s what happened with the emperor dumbo octopus, which was first discovered in 2016. Only one individual was captured by a deep-sea rover and unfortunately it didn’t survive being brought to the surface. Instead of dissecting the body to study the internal organs, because it’s so rare, the research team decided to make a detailed 3D scan of the octopus’s body instead and see if that gave them enough information.

They approached a German medical center that specializes in brain and neurological issues, who agreed to make a scan of the octopus. It turned out that the scan was so detailed and clear that it actually worked better than dissection, plus it was non-invasive so the preserved octopus body is still intact and can be studied by other scientists. Not only that, the scan is available online for other scientists to study without them having to travel to Germany.

The emperor dumbo octopus grows around a foot long, or 30 cm, and has large fins on the sides of its mantle that look like elephant ears. There are 45 species of dumbo octopus known and obviously, more are still being discovered. They’re all deep-sea octopuses. This one was found near the sea floor almost 2.5 miles below the surface, or 4,000 meters. It was described in April of 2021 as Grimpoteuthis imperator.

Oh, and here’s a small correction from the octopus episode from a few years ago. When I was talking about different ways of pluralizing the word octopus, I mispronounced the word octopodes. It’s oc-TOP-uh-deez, not oc-tuh-podes.

Another octopus discovered in 2021 is called the star octopus that has a mantle length up to 7 inches long, or 18 cm. It lives off the southwestern coast of Australia in shallow water and is very common. It’s even caught by a local sustainable fishery. The problem is that it looks very similar to another common octopus, the gloomy octopus. The main difference is that the gloomy octopus is mostly gray or brown with rusty-red on its arms, while the star octopus is more of a yellowy-brown in color. Since individual octopuses show a lot of variation in coloration and pattern, no one noticed the difference until a recent genetic study of gloomy octopuses. The star octopus was described in November 2021 as Octopus djinda, where “djinda” is the word for star in the Nyoongar language of the area.

A study of the bleating tree frog in eastern Australia also led to a new discovery. The bleating tree frog is an incredibly loud little frog, but an analysis of sound recordings revealed that not all the calls were from the same type of frog. In fact, in addition to the bleating tree frog, there are two other really loud frog species in the same area. They look very similar but genetically they’re separate species. The two new species were described in November 2021 as the screaming tree frog and the slender bleating tree frog.

This is what the slender bleating tree frog sounds like:

[frog call]

This is what the screaming tree frog sounds like:

[another frog call]

Another newly discovered frog hiding in plain sight is the Mindoro fanged frog, found on Mindoro Island in the Philippines. It looks identical to the Acanth’s fanged frog on another island but its mating call is slightly different. That prompted scientists to use both acoustic tests of its calls and genetic tests of both frogs to determine that they are indeed separate species.

Lots of insects were discovered last year too. One of those, the hidden alpine moth, ended up solving a 180-year-old scientific mystery that no one even realized was a mystery.

The moth was actually discovered in the 1990s by researchers who were pretty sure it was a new species. It’s a diurnal moth, meaning it’s active during the day, and it lives throughout parts of the Alps. Its wingspan is up to 16mm and it’s mostly brown and silver.

Before they could describe it as a new species and give it a scientific name, the scientists had to make absolutely sure it hadn’t already been named. There are around 5,000 species of moth known to science that live in the Alps, many of them rare. The researchers narrowed it down finally to six little-known species, any one of which might turn out to be the same moth as the one they’d found.

Then they had to find specimens of those six species collected by earlier scientists, which meant hunting through the collections of different museums throughout Europe. Museums never have all their items on display at any given time. There’s always a lot of stuff in storage waiting for further study, and the larger a museum, the more stuff in storage it has. Finding one specific little moth can be difficult.

Finally, though, the scientists got all six of the other moth species together. When they sat down to examine and compare them to their new moth, they got a real surprise.

All six moths were actually the same species of moth, Dichrorampha alpestrana, described in 1843. They’d all been misidentified as new species and given new names over the last century and a half. But the new moth was different and at long last, in July 2021, it was named Dichrorampha velata. And those other six species were stricken from the record! Denied!

You don’t necessarily need to travel to remote places to find an animal new to science. A professor of taxonomy at Virginia Tech, a college in the eastern United States, turned over a rock by the campus’s duck pond and discovered a new species of millipede. It’s about three quarters of an inch long, or 2 cm, and is mostly a dark maroon in color. It’s called the Hokie twisted-claw millipede.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world on the island of Sulawesi, a team of scientists discovered FOURTEEN different species of shrew, all described in one paper at the end of December 2021. Fourteen! It’s the largest number of new mammals described at the same time since 1931. The inventory of shrews living on Sulawesi took about a decade so it’s not like they found them all at once, but it was still confusing trying to figure out what animal belonged to a known species and what animal might belong to a new species. Sulawesi already had 7 known species of shrew and now it has 21 in all.

Shrews are small mammals that mostly eat insects and are most closely related to moles and hedgehogs. Once you add the 14 new species, there are 461 known species of shrew living in the world, and odds are good there are more just waiting to be discovered. Probably not on Sulawesi, though. I think they got them all this time.

In South America, researchers in central Peru found a new species of wood lizard that they were finally able to describe in September 2021 after extensive field studies. It’s called the Feiruz wood lizard and it lives in the tropical Andes in forested areas near the Huallaga River. It’s related to iguanas and has a spiny crest down its neck and the upper part of its back. The females are usually a soft brown or green but males are brighter and vary in color from green to orangey-brown to gray, and males also have spots on their sides.

The Feiruz wood lizard’s habitat is fragmented and increasingly threatened by development, although some of the lizards do live in a national park. Researchers have also found a lot of other animals and plants new to science in the area, so hopefully it can be protected soon.

So far, all the animals we’ve talked about have been small. What about big animals? Well, in October 2021 a new whale was described. Is that big enough for you? It’s not even the same new whale we talked about in last year’s discoveries episode.

The new whale is called Mesoplodon eueu, or Ramari’s beaked whale. It’s been known about for a while but scientists thought it was a population of True’s beaked whale that lives in the Indian Ocean instead of the Atlantic.

When a dead whale washed ashore on the South Island of New Zealand in 2011, it was initially identified as a True’s beaked whale. A Mātauranga Māori whale expert named Ramari Stewart wasn’t so sure, though. She thought it looked different than a True’s beaked whale. She got together with marine biologist Emma Carroll to study the whale and compare it to True’s beaked whale, which took a while since we don’t actually know very much about True’s beaked whale either.

The end result, though, is that the new whale is indeed a new species. It grows around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and probably lives in the open ocean where it dives deeply to find food.

We could go on and on because so many animals were discovered last year, but let’s finish with a fun one from India. In June of 2020, a graduate student named Virender Bhardwaj was stuck at home during lockdowns. He was able to go on walks, so he took pictures of interesting things he saw and posted them online. One day he posted a picture of a common local snake called the kukri snake.

A herpetologist at India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences noticed the picture and immediately suspected it wasn’t a known species of kukri snake. He contacted Bhardwaj to see where he’d found the snake, and by the end of the month Bhardwaj had managed to catch two of them. Genetic analysis was delayed because of the lockdowns, but they described it in December of 2021 as the Churah Valley kukri snake.

The new snake is stripey and grows over a foot long, or 30 cm. It probably mostly eats eggs.

It just goes to show, no matter where you live, you might be the one to find a new species of animal. Learn all you can about your local animals so that if you see one that doesn’t quite match what you expect, you can take pictures and contact an expert. Maybe next year I’ll be talking about your discovery.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism



Many animals have differences between males and females, but some species have EXTREME differences!

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

The huia female (bottom) had a beak very different from the male (top):

The eclectus parrot male (left) looks totally different from the female (right):

The triplewart seadevil, an anglerfish. On the drawing, you can see the male labeled in very small letters:

The female argonaut, also called the paper nautilus, makes a delicate see-through shell:

The male argonaut has no shell and is much smaller than the female (photo by Ryo Minemizu):

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

The female green spoonworm. Male not pictured because he’s only a few millimeters long:

Show transcript:

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

I still have a lot of listener suggestions to get to, and don’t worry, I’ve got them all on the list. But I have other topics I want to cover first, like this week’s subject of extreme sexual dimorphism!

Sexual dimorphism is when the male of a species looks much different from the female. Not all animals show sexual dimorphism and most that do have relatively small differences. A lot of male birds are more brightly colored than females, for instance. The peacock is probably the most spectacular example, with the males having a brightly colored, iridescent fan of a tail to show off for the hens, which are mostly brown and gray, although they do have iridescent green neck feathers too.

But eclectus parrot males and females don’t even look like the same bird. The male is mostly green while the female is mostly red and purple. In fact, the first scientists to see them thought they were different species.

Males of some species are larger than females, while females of some species are larger than males. In the case of the elephant seal, the males are much larger than females. We talked about the northern elephant seal briefly last week, but only how big the male is. A male southern elephant seal can grow up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and can weigh up to 8,800 pounds, or 4,000 kg. The female usually only grows to about half that length and weight. The difference in this case is because males are fiercely territorial and fight each other, so a big male has an advantage over other males and reproduces more often. But the female doesn’t fight, so her smaller size means she doesn’t need to eat as much.

Another major size difference happens in spiders, but in this case the female is far larger than the male in many species. For instance, the body of the female western black widow spider, which lives throughout western North America, is about half an inch in length, or 16 mm, although of course that doesn’t count the legs. But the male is only half this length at most. Not only that, the male is skinny where the female has a large rounded abdomen, and the male is brown with pale markings, while the female is glossy black with a red hourglass marking on her abdomen. Female western widows can be dangerous since their venom is strong enough to kill many animals, although usually their bite is only painful and not deadly to humans and other mammals. But while the male does have venom, he can only inject a tiny amount with a bite so isn’t considered very dangerous in comparison.

The reason many male spiders are so much smaller than females is that the females of some species of spider will eat the male after or even during mating if she’s hungry. The smaller the male is, the less of a meal he would be and the less likely the female will bother to eat him. In the case of the western black widow, the male prefers to mate with females who are in good condition. In other words, he doesn’t want to spend time with a hungry female.

If you remember episode 139, about skunks and other stinky animals, we talked about the woodhoopoe and mentioned the bill differences between males and females. The male woodhoopoe has a longer, more curved bill than the female because males and females eat a slightly different diet of insects so they won’t compete for the same food sources.

But a bird called the huia took beak differences to the extreme. The huia lived in New Zealand, although it officially went extinct in 1907. It was a wattlebird, which gets its name from the brightly colored patch of skin on either side of the face, called wattles. In the case of the huia, the wattles were orange, while the feathers over most of the body were glossy black. It also had a strip of white at the tip of the long tail. The male’s beak was fairly long and pointy, although it also curved down slightly. But the female’s beak was much longer and more slender, curving downward in an arc.

The huia lived in forests in New Zealand, where it ate insects, especially beetle grubs that live in rotting logs. People used to think that a mated pair worked together to get at grubs and other insects. The male would use his shorter, stouter bill to break away pieces of rotting wood until the grub’s tunnel was exposed, and then the female would use her longer, more slender bill to fish the grub out of the tunnel. But actual observations of the huia before it went extinct indicate that it actually didn’t do this. Like the woodhoopoe, males and females preyed on different kinds of insects. The male did break open rotting wood with its beak in a way that’s very different from woodpeckers, though. Instead of hammering at the wood, it would wedge its bill into a crevice of the wood and open its beak, and the muscles and other structures it used to do so were so strong that it could easily break pieces of wood off. This action is known as gaping and other birds do it too, but the huia was probably better at it than any other bird known.

The huia went extinct partly due to habitat loss as European settlers cleared forests to make way for farming, and partly due to overhunting. Museums wanted stuffed huias for display, and the feathers were in demand to decorate hats. And as a result, we don’t have any huias left.

Sometimes the size difference between males and females reaches extreme proportions. We’ve talked about the anglerfish several times in different episodes, and it’s a good example. It’s a deep-sea fish with a bioluminescent lure on its head that it uses to attract prey. Different species grow to different sizes, but let’s just talk about one this time, the triplewart seadevil.

The triplewart seadevil is found throughout much of the world’s oceans, preferably in medium deep water but sometimes in shallow water and sometimes as deep as 13,000 feet, or 4000 meters. The female grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s black in color, although young fish are brown. Its body is covered with short spines and it has a lure on its head like other anglerfish. The lure is called an illicium, and it’s a highly modified dorsal spine that the fish can move around, including extending and retracting it. At the end of the illicium is a little bulb that contains bioluminescent bacteria. Whatever animals are attracted to the glowing illicium, the fish gulps down with its great big mouth.

But that’s the female triplewart seadevil. The male is tiny, only 30 mm long at the most. The male doesn’t have an illicium; instead, his jaws and teeth are specialized for one thing: to bite onto the female and never let go. When a male finds a female, he chooses a spot on her underside to latch on, and once he does, his mouth and one side of his body actually fuse to the female’s body. Their circulatory and digestive systems fuse too. Before the male finds a female, he has great big eyes, but once he fuses with a female his eyes degenerate because he no longer needs them. He’s fully dependent on the female, and in return she always has a male around to fertilize her eggs. But this attachment is actually pretty rare, because it’s hard for deep-sea fish to find each other.

Another sea creature where the females are much larger and very different from the males is the argonaut, or paper nautilus. The argonaut is an octopus that lives in the open ocean in tropical and subtropical waters. Instead of living on the bottom of the ocean, though, the paper nautilus lives near the surface, and while the female looks superficially similar to a nautilus, it’s only distantly related.

The female argonaut generally grows to about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, although the shell she makes can be up to a foot across, or 30 cm. In contrast, males are barely half an inch long, or 13 mm. The female’s eight arms are long because she uses them to catch prey, with two of her arms being larger than the others. She grabs small animals like sea slugs, crustaceans, and small fish and bites it with her beak, and like other octopuses she can inject venom at that point too. But the male has tiny little short arms except for one, which is slightly larger.

Like other cephalopods, the male uses one of his arms to transfer sperm to the female so she can fertilize her eggs. In most cephalopods that means an actual little packet of sperm that the male places inside the female’s mantle for her to use later. But in the argonaut, the male’s larger modified arm is called a hectocotylus, and it has little grooves that hold sperm. The male inserts the hectocotylus into the female’s mantle, then detaches it and leaves the arm inside her. Then he leaves and regrows the arm, as far as researchers know. We don’t actually know for sure since it’s never been observed, but octopuses do have the ability to regenerate lost arms. The female usually keeps the hectocotylus and sometimes ends up with several.

At that point the female creates a shell by secreting calcite from the tips of her two larger arms. The shell is delicate, papery, and white, and it resembles the shell of the ammonite, which we talked about in episode 86. The female lays her eggs inside the shell, then squeezes inside too, although she can come and go as she likes.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the argonaut, but we know more than we used to. In the olden days people thought the female used her two larger arms as sails at the surface of the water. Eventually scientists figured out that was wrong, but they were still confused as to why there only seemed to be female argonauts. They didn’t know that the males were so small and so different, and in fact when early researchers found hectocotyluses inside the females, they assumed they were parasitic worms of some kind. Eventually they worked that part out too.

But still, for a very long time researchers thought the argonaut’s shell was just for protecting the eggs, but it turns out that the female uses the shell as a flotation device. She can control how much air the shell contains, which allows her to control how close to the surface she stays. In a 2010 study of argonauts rescued from fishing nets and released into a harbor, if the shell doesn’t contain enough air, the argonaut will jet to the surface and stick the top of its shell above the water. The shell has small openings at this point so air can get in, and once the argonaut decides it’s enough, she seals the holes by covering them with two of her arms. Then she jets downward again until she’s deep enough below the surface that the pressure compresses the air inside the shell and cancels out the weight of the shell. This means the argonaut won’t bob to the surface but she also won’t sink, and instead she can just swim normally by shooting water from her funnel like other octopuses.

A species of cichlid fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, Lamprologus callipterus, also differs in size due to a shell, but not like the argonaut. Instead, the male is much larger than the female. The male can be up to five inches long, or nearly 13 cm, while the female is less than two inches long, or 4 ½ cm. The females lay their eggs in shells, but not shells they make. The shells come from snails, so the male needs to be larger so he can pick up and carry a big empty shell. The female, though, still needs to be small enough to fit inside the shell.

A moth called the rusty tussock moth is also sexually dimorphic. Its caterpillar grows around 1 to 1.5 inches long, or 3 to 4 cm, with females being a little larger than male caterpillars but otherwise very similar. But after the caterpillars pupate, they’re much different. The male moth has orangey or reddish-brown wings and a wingspan of about 1.5 inches, or almost 4 cm. The female doesn’t have wings at all. She emerges from her cocoon and perches next to it, and releases pheromones that attract a male. After the female mates, she lays her eggs on her old cocoon and dies, as does the male.

Let’s finish up with an animal you may never have heard of, the green spoonworm. It’s a marine worm that lives throughout much of the Mediterranean and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. It lives on the sea floor in shallow water, partly buried in gravel and sand. The female grows up to about six inches long, or 15 cm, and sort of looks like a mostly deflated dark green balloon, although it may also look kind of lumpy. It also has a feeding proboscis that it can extend several feet, or about a meter.

As a larva, the green spoonworm floats around in the water, but whether it becomes male or female depends on where it settles. If it lands on the seafloor it transforms into a female and starts secreting a toxin called bonellin. Bonellin is what gives the green spoonworm its dark green color. The bonellin is mostly concentrated in the feeding proboscis and allows the spoonworm to paralyze and kill the tiny animals it eats.

But if the larva happens to land on a female green spoonworm, contact with the bonellin causes it to become a male. And the male is only a few mm long, doesn’t produce bonellin, and can’t even survive on its own. The female sucks the male into her body through the feeding proboscis, but instead of digesting him, he lives inside her and fertilizes her eggs. In return she provides him with all the nutrients he needs. A female may have more than one male living inside her, making sure that her eggs will always be fertilized.

There are lots more animals that show extreme sexual dimorphism, of course, but that at least gives you an idea of how different animals evolve to fit different environmental pressures. Weird as they seem to us, to the animals in question, it’s just normal–and it’s our appearance and how we do things that would seem weird to them. Perspective is everything.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. 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 and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 093: Insects Large and Small, mostly large



Many thanks this week to listeners Bob, Nicholas, and Damian, who all suggested insects of one kind or another! So this week is an insect extravaganza, or at least we learn about some gigantic insects, the rarest insect in the world, and a tiny ant.

The Lord Howe Island phasmid:

The longest insect in the world:

The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly:

The Hercules beetle with random frog. Onward, my steed!

Further reading:

An article about phasmid eggs

Show transcript:

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

I’ve received a bunch of excellent topic suggestions this year and I’m getting behind on addressing them, so the next few weeks will mostly be listener suggestions. This week we’re going to look at a topic several listeners have suggested…insects.

Now, you know insects are not my favorite, but they are definitely interesting. So thanks to listeners Bob, Nicholas, and Damian, we’re going to learn about various horrifying, I mean fascinating, insects!

We’ll start with some very small insects. I could probably do a whole episode just about ants, and maybe one day I will, but right now let’s look at a type of ant suggested by Bob. Bob lives in California and mentioned that the type of ant common in that part of the United States is the Argentine ant. It’s native to South America, specifically lowlands around the Paraná River, but it’s spread to many other parts of the world.

The Argentine ant is only about 2 to 3 mm long and are brownish in color. The queen ants are about twice the size of the worker ants, and each colony has many queens, unlike other ant species that may only have one queen per colony. Queen ants are the only ones that lay eggs. Worker ants find food and bring it back to the colony, tend the queen and her eggs, and dig the shallow nest where the colony lives.

Argentine ants are omnivorous, eating pretty much anything, and are definitely pests. They get into people’s kitchens to find food and will even make nests inside houses. Because a colony has more than one queen, the colonies are hard to eradicate. They also displace native ant species, which can impact the entire ecosystem since other animals that depend on native ants as their primary food won’t be able to find enough to eat. Argentine ants also cause problems for farmers, partly because they eat the larvae of pollinating insects, partly because they tend aphids for the honeydew that aphids secrete. Aphids are a pest to many crops, and the last thing farmers want is more aphids around—but Argentine ants want all the aphids they can get.

Researchers have found out something really unusual about Argentine ants. The ants that still live in their native habitat are genetically diverse and territorial, with different colonies fighting each other for nesting sites and hunting grounds. This keeps the population under control naturally. But outside of its native habitat, all the Argentine ants in the world are so genetically similar that in many cases, ants from different colonies act as though they were from the same colony. They don’t fight for territory, and instead act like a supercolony that can stretch for hundreds of miles, killing off or displacing native ants and other insect species.

But in some parts of North America, the Argentine ant is facing an ant species that may end up beating it at its own game. The Asian needle ant has started taking territory from the Argentine ant, helped by its resistance to cold weather. Both species of ant become less active in winter, but the Asian needle ant starts reproducing and foraging much earlier in the spring than the Argentine ant. This gives it a head start every year. Plus, the Asian needle ant is aggressive and has a venomous sting. Unfortunately, the Asian needle ant is just as bad an invasive species as the Argentine ant, driving out native ant species—and, in fact, it’s worse because some people are allergic to its sting.

Now let’s go from tiny ants to an insect I was terrified of as a kid, the stick insect, also called walking sticks or phasmids. I like the word phasmid. I don’t know why the idea of a stick insect was so scary to kid me, except that I liked to climb trees and I think I thought one day I’d climb a tree and discover that some of those sticks were not actually part of the tree. Nicholas suggests the Lord Howe Island phasmid in particular, which isn’t just a stick insect, it’s the rarest insect in the world. AND it’s enormous! In fact, it’s sometimes called the land lobster or tree lobster.

The Lord Howe Island phasmid can grow eight inches long, or 20 cm, and can weigh a full ounce, or 25 grams. Males are smaller than females. It has a round head with short antennae, sort of like a cricket, but its body is long and heavy with big legs. It’s black in color with no wings. It’s thicker than most stick insects and doesn’t so much resemble a stick as a cricket on steroids. I’m looking at a picture right now of someone holding one on the palm of their hand, and the insect is literally longer than their palm and almost as long as their palm and fingers. Put it down. Don’t touch it.

These days the Lord Howe Island phasmid lives in one place. That place is not Lord Howe Island off the coast of Australia. That’s where it used to live, and it was so common and so large that fishermen used it as bait. But rats and mice invaded the island in 1918, and by 1920 they’d eaten all the phasmids, which were declared extinct in 1960. But in 1964, someone found a dead phasmid on Ball’s Pyramid, a volcanic islet 12 miles, or 20 km, away from Lord Howe Island.

Ball’s Pyramid is what’s known as a volcanic stack, the eroded remnant of a volcano which is part of the submerged continent of Zealandia. It’s basically a cliff rising straight up out of the ocean. It’s the tallest volcanic stack in the world, 1,844 feet high, or 562 meters, 3,600 feet long, or 1,100 meters, and 980 feet wide, or 300 meters. It’s surrounded by rough seas and barely submerged rocks, and there’s pretty much nothing on it, so not very many people have ever tried to land on the islet. A group of mountain climbers scaled it in 1965 and again in 1979, but in 1982 access to the islet was restricted. It’s now part of the Lord Howe Island Marine Park.

During the successful climbs of Ball’s Pyramid, and a few unsuccessful climbs, dead phasmids were photographed but no live ones found. In 2001, a couple of entomologists landed to make a survey of the islet, primarily to determine whether the Lord Howe Island phasmid was alive on the island or actually extinct. They were pretty sure it was extinct. They found some Melaleuca howeana shrubs growing in a few cracks in the rock, and incidentally that’s a subspecies of tea tree that only grows on Ball’s Pyramid and Lord Howe Island. It grows up to ten feet tall, or 4 meters, and almost as wide. And in one of the shrubs they found 24 live Lord Howe Island phasmids.

Since then, eggs have been collected from the wild and relocated to a captive breeding program, which has been successful so far. Hopefully Lord Howe Island phasmids will be rereleased onto Lord Howe Island, once the rats and mice are eradicated.

Researchers think the Lord Howe Island phasmid was able to survive in such low numbers because females are able to reproduce without being fertilized by males, called parthenogenesis. Researchers have compared DNA taken from the Ball’s Pyramid insects to museum specimens gathered from Lord Howe Island prior to 1920 and determined that they are the same species.

The term phasmid, of course, refers to an order of insects that are mostly camouflaged to look like twigs or leaves, and it contains the longest insects in the world. And that’s good, because listener Damian wants to know about the biggest insects alive today.

The longest insect is Phryganistria chinensis Zhao, a stick insect only discovered in 2014 by researcher Zhao Li of the Insect Museum of West China. Locals in the mountains had told him about a massively long phasmid and he finally tracked one down. He brought it back alive to the museum, where it laid six eggs. Can you possibly imagine how excited he must have been by those eggs? When they hatched, the smallest of the babies was 26 centimeters long, or over ten inches. The adult female measured 62.4 cm, or just over two feet long. HOLY CRAP. TWO FEET LONG. That’s more of a walking branch than a walking stick. Not only that, its legs are almost as long as its body.

Since then, the babies have grown up and one of them, another female, is now the longest living insect ever measured, at 64 cm, or 25 inches. So you know what this means. It means there are some of them in the wild that are probably even longer.

Before the discovery of Zhao’s phasmid, the longest insect known was called Chan’s megastick, which was 22.3 inches long, or 56.7 cm. It was discovered in 2008 in Borneo in Southeast Asia, and only six specimens have ever been found. That means it too probably has even longer individuals living in the wild.

Many stick insects lay eggs that look like seeds. For a long time researchers weren’t sure why. After all, birds eat seeds. Why would an insect lay eggs that might attract hungry birds? But it turns out that the eggs contain a deposit of fat that attracts seed-eating ants, and the ants carry the eggs back to their nest and bury them. The eggs are then safe from birds, parasitic wasps, and other predators. We have come full circle back to ants, notice? Not only that, but researchers in Japan tested whether the protective coating on some seed-mimicking phasmid eggs would protect the eggs if they were eaten by birds. Sure enough, when they fed the eggs to the brown-eared bulbul, a bird known to eat phasmids, a few of the eggs survived and hatched. So it’s likely that phasmid eggs resemble seeds to attract ants but it’s okay if they also attract birds—in fact, it might even be a good thing since the birds would spread the eggs to new areas. Special thanks to Nicholas, who sent me links to several articles about stick insects, including the article about phasmid eggs. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to read the article, because it’s really interesting.

So the longest insects are phasmids, but what is the heaviest insect alive? That would be the Little Barrier Island giant weta from New Zealand, also called the wetapunga, which has weighed in at 72 grams, or over 2 ½ ounces. That’s heavier than some songbirds and mice. The wetapunga is basically an enormous cricket and somewhat resembles a gigantic, rather elongated version of one of my least favorite bugs, the cave cricket. It’s that same sort of sickly orangey tan color. If you look at it from the right angle it looks kind of like a lobster, which I also don’t like. Not only can the wetapunga be really heavy, it’s also long—not stick insect long, but a respectable four inches or so long, or 10 cm, and even longer if you count the stretched-out legs.

It eats plants and is mostly nocturnal.

Like the Lord Howe Island phasmid, the wetapunga is vulnerable to introduced predators. It only survives in the wild on Little Barrier Island, and is now the subject of a successful captive breeding program. It’s been around for 190 million years so it would be a shame to let it go extinct now.

The insect with the biggest wingspan is a butterfly called Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, which can have a wingspan almost a foot across, or over 25 cm. Its body is just over 3 inches long, or 8 cm. The female is larger than the male and has brown wings with pretty white and yellow markings. The male looks much different, with iridescent blue-green wings and a bright yellow abdomen. The butterfly is a strong flyer that spends a lot of time flying much higher that typical butterflies do. Males court females with a spectacular aerial dance.

The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing lives in eastern Papua New Guinea in a coastal rainforest, a habitat that is only about 40 square miles total, or 100 square km. Not only is it threatened by habitat loss due to palm oil plantations, which are absolutely insidious and seriously, you should stop buying products that use palm oil, but a volcanic eruption in the 1950s destroyed part of its habitat too. It’s protected and no one is supposed to buy, sell, or trade individuals, live or dead. Hopefully conservationists can work out a way to breed the butterfly in captivity.

The biggest beetle alive today is probably the Hercules beetle, which lives in the rainforests of Central and South America. It’s only longer than the titan beetle that lives in the Amazon rainforest because of its long rhinoceros-like horns, which push its length to 7 inches, or 17 cm. A male uses his horns to fight by grabbing another male with his horns and throwing him. The male Hercules beetle is black with yellowish or yellow-green wing cases. Females are usually all black and don’t have horns. Hercules beetle larvae are humongous and weigh a whopping 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. So technically the Hercules beetle larva is the heaviest insect, but I’ve disqualified it because it’s not fully grown and anyway, it eats rotting wood. I wouldn’t be surprised if half its weight is just all the rotten wood it’s eaten. The adult beetles eat fruit.

So what about extinct insects? Were there ever insects even bigger than the ones alive today? The answer, as you may already know, is a big loud YES. Back in the early Permian era, around 290 million years ago, two species of flying insect called a griffinfly, which resembled a dragonfly, had a wingspan of almost two feet across, or 71 cm, and a body length of 17 inches, or 43 cm. Researchers estimate they may have weighed as much as a pound, or 450 grams.

If you were brave enough to listen to the spiders episode a few weeks ago, you may remember that spiders, and insects, can’t grow too big or they literally can’t get enough oxygen to function. So how did a huge active flying insect of that size manage?

One theory is that the atmosphere in the Permian contained more oxygen than the current level, which made it easier for insects to get the oxygen they needed. Air today is made of about 21% oxygen, with the other 80% made up of other gases, mostly nitrogen, but in the early Permian oxygen content was around 30%, although that was down from a peak of 35% only ten million years before. By the late Permian oxygen content had plunged to 16% and even reached as low as 12% at the beginning of the Triassic, killing off many animals and fragmenting populations of the ones that survived. Because the oxygen content was so low, animals could only survive at or near sea level. Even the lowest mountains were deadly because the air at higher elevations naturally contains less oxygen. Researchers estimate that breathing air with only 12% oxygen at sea level would be like breathing air at 17,400 feet, or 5,300 meters. Humans can’t survive at elevations above about 19,500 feet, or 5,950 meters. The reduction of oxygen in the atmosphere led to a massive extinction event called the Great Dying, where 90% of all marine life and almost 75% of all life on land went extinct around 251 million years ago.

Researchers aren’t sure what caused the de-oxygenation of the atmosphere, but it’s possible the massive volcanic activity near the end of the Permian played a part by releasing carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere. The rock record during the Permian shows the results in stark detail: limestone in the older rock strata that’s full of fossils and the fossilized burrows of little animals that lived in the soft mud at the bottom of shallow oceans. Then there’s a mineralized layer of rock full of pyrite, which forms in low atmospheric conditions. Above this are bands of clay full of minerals from volcanic eruptions but with no fossils present. Above that are mudstone layers where fossils finally start appearing again in small numbers as life rebounded after the extinction event.

I’ve sort of gotten away from huge insects here, so I’ll finish by pointing out that clearly the phasmids of today aren’t having any issues with growing really big. So, you know, watch out where you put your hands when you’re climbing trees.

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 032: Some New Zealand birds



This week’s episode is about several New Zealand birds, from the still-living kiwi to the mmmmmaybe extinct moa! Note: I’m going to start putting a full transcript of each episode in the show notes for those who would like to know what words I’m mispronouncing and for those who may have hearing issues. Transcripts will be below the pictures.

A kiwi:

Superman has fought everything.

The controversial blurry “moa” picture taken by Freaney. Probably not a moa.

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, apologies for my voice. About the time I finally got over the cough I picked up at WorldCon in Finland, I went to DragonCon in Atlanta and got a big juicy cold. Hopefully I don’t sound too gross. My traveling for the year is over so I’m looking forward to having time to really dig into some fun topics for the podcast. In particular, I’m going to be covering some of the creepier strange animals in October, because Halloween is the best. And yes, Bigfoot is going to make an appearance.

This week’s episode is about some amazing birds from New Zealand. We learned about the takahe way back in episode seven, a big silly-looking flightless bird that was once thought extinct until its rediscovery in the middle of the last century. This week we’ll look at some other birds, some of them happily alive, some that are definitely extinct. At least, we’re pretty sure they are.

New Zealand wasn’t settled by humans until the late 13th century, only about 750 years ago. That’s mind-blowing until you take a look at a globe. New Zealand isn’t just a hop skip and jump away from Australia, it’s 900 miles away over open ocean. It’s 600 miles away from the Pacific Islands. That’s a long, long trip to make in a small boat, especially when you’re not sure if there’s any land out that way. But sometime between the years 1250 to 1300, people from eastern Polynesia discovered this new land. They liked it and stayed, and their descendants are now known as the Maori.

I know we’ve been talking about tectonic plates in a number of episodes recently. I haven’t done it on purpose—it’s just part of learning how and why different animals developed in different places. It’s definitely relevant when it comes to New Zealand.

New Zealand is just a little part of an otherwise submerged continent called Zealandia, or sometimes Tasmantis, which I actually prefer. Tasmantis. If Zealandia weren’t mostly under the ocean, it would be about half the size of Australia. Around 90 million years ago Zealandia, Australia, and Antarctica were all part of the supercontinent Gondwana. As Gondwana broke up, Zealandia separated from Antarctica and Australia around 80 million years ago, then slowly sank into the ocean.

After Zealandia separated from Gondwana, a cataclysmic event, probably a humongous meteor strike, led to the extinction of some 85% of the animals on earth. In most of the world, mammals began to evolve like crazy to fill the vacant ecological niches after the dinosaurs died off. But Zealandia didn’t have very many mammals to start with, and by 25 million years ago it was mostly underwater anyway except for the peaks of New Zealand, which were being pushed up slowly by tectonic forces—a process that’s still ongoing.

When travelers from Polynesia first landed on New Zealand, the only mammals on the islands were three species of bat. But there were birds in abundance, from enormous moas and eagles to tiny kiwi. Almost every ecological niche was filled by a bird.

Europeans first visited New Zealand in 1642. It didn’t go well and no one came back until 1769, and after that things got messy and lots of people died from war and introduced diseases. Around the mid-19th century Europeans started moving to New Zealand. Between them, the Maori, and introduced mammals like rats and dogs, a whole lot of birds went extinct.

I just want you to know that it took me hours and hours and hours to research all that stuff about Zealandia. Hopefully I got it right. I’m ready to talk about birds now.

Let’s start with a bird that is so unique to New Zealand that you’ll sometimes hear people call New Zealanders kiwis. There are five species of kiwi, all of them rare and protected. They’re round brown poofs of birds with long legs and long bills, and they eat worms, insects, seeds, fruit, frogs, and other things like that. They prefer to live in forests and usually mate for life, and can live for 50 years.

The kiwi has a lot of unusual characteristics. It’s flightless but has wings less than an inch long hidden under its feathers. Each wing has a tiny claw at its tip that doesn’t seem to have a use. The kiwi has no tail. Unlike every other bird out there, its nostrils are at the tip of its bill. The kiwi has a good sense of smell and may detect worms and other underground prey by smell, which should make you pause and wonder what earthworms smell like. The kiwi also has sensory pits at the tip of its bill that helps it detect vibrations, though, so it’s possible its good sense of smell is less important than researchers previously thought. When a kiwi detects its prey, it stabs its bill into the ground to catch it, which frequently leads to the kiwi later having to snort dirt out of its nostrils. Evolution does what it can, folks, but it’s not perfect.

Since it can’t fly and doesn’t need flight feathers, the kiwi’s feathers are hair-like and downy. But most curious of all is its egg. The kiwi is about the size of a chicken, but its egg is six times the size of a chicken egg and can weigh an entire pound. It’s so big that the female can’t even eat the last few days before she lays the egg. There’s no room in her body for food.

After the female lays her egg, the male incubates it. That huge egg has a huge yolk to feed the baby inside, so when the baby kiwi hatches, it’s ready to go. After a few days it leaves the nest and starts foraging, usually with its dad alongside for the first few weeks. It takes several years for it to grow to adult size.

The kiwi is territorial and will fight other kiwis that stray into its territory. Only its mate and its own offspring are allowed in its territory. It has powerful legs with claws that can inflict quite a bit of damage, and it can run faster than a human.

Scientists used to think the kiwi was closely related to moas, which we’ll talk about in a minute, but DNA studies have determined that its closest relative is the extinct elephant bird of Madagascar—and the elephant bird is the topic for a future episode.

The Maori describe a huge black swan called a Pouwa that lived in the Chatham Islands, but it had already gone extinct by the time Europeans arrived in the area in the late 1700s. Until recently researchers thought it was just the Australian black swan, either a population that lived in New Zealand or the occasional individual that flies across the Tasman Sea. Australian black swans were introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s.

But a recent study of DNA from fossilized swan remains from New Zealand show that it wasn’t the same bird as the Australian black swan but a related species. Around one or two million years ago Australian black swans lived in New Zealand and evolved into a separate species, heavier than the Australian birds with longer legs and shorter wings. It might have been a poor or reluctant flier and might have been on its way to evolving into flightlessness before it was eaten into extinction by the Maori.

The big name in extinct birds of New Zealand is the moa. Nine species of moa are recognized today, although in the past researchers thought there were a lot more. It turns out that female moas of some species were much larger than the males, so much so that scientists once thought they were looking at two different species. Moas were big flightless birds that in shape resembled big flightless birds from other parts of the world, known as ratites, which includes ostriches. Until DNA testing most researchers thought moas were closely related to the ratites of Australia, emus and cassowaries. But no, they are most closely related to a group of birds from Mexico, Central America, and South America collectively called tinamous. Tinamous are a type of ratite, but they can fly. They’re all fairly small and somewhat resemble quail and other game birds that spend a lot of time foraging on the ground.

Moas, however, are big. They are really big. Originally scientists mounted their skeletons so that the neck stuck more or less straight up, but now we know that they held their necks more like ostriches, with a gentle S-shaped curve. Even so, females of the biggest species, the South Island Giant Moa, stood around six and a half feet high at the back. That doesn’t even count the neck. With the neck outstretched, a big female moa could probably reach leaves twelve feet off the ground.

All moas were plant-eaters. Some ate leaves and fruit, others were adapted to digest tougher plant material like twigs, moss, and bark. Unlike other flightless birds, they didn’t have wings at all, not even for display, not even vestigial wings. They just flat-out didn’t have forelimbs. They did have strong legs although they probably couldn’t run very fast, unlike other flightless birds like ostriches. After all, moas didn’t need to run to escape predators. They only had one predator, and that was one they couldn’t outrun: Haast’s eagle.

Haast’s was the biggest eagle that ever lived, although its wings were comparatively short—only around 10 feet wide for big females, closer to 8 ½ feet wide for big males and more average-sized females. Since much of its hunting range was forested, its shorter wings probably helped it maneuver. It had a long tail too. But it had enormous talons with claws over four inches long, and its bill was similarly big. In fact, its talons were so big that its scientific name, Harpagornis moorei, means Moore’s grappling hook bird.

The Haast’s eagle’s prey was the moa, and when moas went extinct after overhunting, the Haast’s eagle went extinct soon after since it just didn’t have anything to eat. It did apparently try to adapt its hunting habits, though. Maori legends tell of the Pouakai, an enormous bird that would sometimes kill humans.

It’s pretty certain that Haast’s eagle is extinct. If it was still around, ranchers would spot it picking off sheep and calves. But the moa is something else. Moa sightings pop up pretty frequently in remote areas of New Zealand.

One of the smallest species of moa, Megalapteryx, also called the upland moa, may have survived on the south island until the mid-19th century. The upland moa was three or four feet tall including the head and neck, and was completely covered with feathers except for its bill and feet, since it lived in the mountainous areas of New Zealand’s south island where the climate was cool. It laid one or two blue-green eggs a year and the male took care of the babies.

Its accepted date of extinction is around the year 1500, but there have been numerous sightings since then. In 1880, Alice McKenzie, who was then seven years old, saw a three-foot-tall bird with blue feathers, dark green scaled legs, and three claws on each foot. She ran to get her father, but when they returned the bird had gone, although it had left big tracks in the sandy soil. She saw the same bird again in 1889.

The problem with this sighting is that the upland moa had feathered legs, and as far as we know no moas had blue plumage. We have plenty of upland moa feathers, which are grey, black and white. We even have mummified upland moa remains. Not only did Alice describe her bird as blue, she specifically noted it was the blue of a pukeko, which has vibrant plumage that varies from navy blue to violet. This wasn’t a grayish-blue bird. Alice herself thought, later in life, that she might have seen a takahe, which is also blue, but after the takahe was rediscovered she went to view some and was disappointed. They have red legs and she knew her bird’s legs were green.

But that’s not the only sighting. In addition to the sporadic accounts of big birds seen in the distance, in 1993 three men hiking in the Craigieburn Range saw what they described as a red-brown and gray moa some six feet high, including its neck. It ran off when it saw them, but one of the men, Paddy Freaney, ran after it and managed to get a photograph. He also got a few pictures of its footprints where it had stepped in a stream and then on a rock.

The picture is frustrating, to say the least. It’s so out of focus that it could be anything. However, I agree with one of the experts who have examined the photo, palaeoecologist Richard Holdaway, who says the figure’s neck is too thick for a moa. He thinks the picture is probably of a red deer. As far as I can find, Freaney’s photos of the footprints haven’t been released.

In 2007, a pair of cryptozoologists searching for moas in the hill country of the North Island spotted 35 footprints and what appeared to be a nest that they claimed were made by a group of moas, possibly a lesser moa. But considering that the pair of cryptozoologists are Rex and Heather Gilroy, who are notorious for being secretive, vague in their claims of evidence, and somewhat paranoid about their findings, I don’t expect them to show up with a live moa anytime soon. No other moa sightings or even rumors of moas living in the area have ever been uncovered.

It’s easy to dismiss this account, and the others, as wishful thinking, misidentification, and in some cases maybe outright hoaxes. Australian emus are raised in some areas of New Zealand and sometimes escape from captivity, too, which confuses the issue, since emus are big flightless birds that could easily be mistaken for moas at a distance. But there is something that makes me hopeful that the moa might still be around, especially one of the smaller species.

New Zealand’s south island is much less populated than its north island. Alice McKenzie’s sighting in 1880 was on her family’s farm near Milford Sound, which is now part of Fiordland National Park. This is a big nature reserve in the southwest corner of the south island, with rugged terrain and very few tracks passable to even offroad vehicles. The park includes the Murchison Mountains, which is where the takahe was rediscovered in 1948 after being thought extinct. So it’s entirely possible that a small species of moa might be hiding in the area. Maybe one day someone will get a really good picture—or better yet, a hiker or park ranger might come across a newly dead moa carcass and can bring it back for study.

We do have some subfossil moa remains that aren’t just skeletons and feathers. Dessicated body parts turn up occasionally, which has helped with DNA testing and our knowledge of what the living birds looked like. The moa is a good candidate for de-extinction by genetic cloning, and it would be really neat to have moas for sure running around in New Zealand again, so scientists can get right on that as far as I’m concerned.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 020: The Shoebill and Geckos



We’ve reached the big two-oh! Episode 20 catches us up on listener suggestions.

Crossover University podcast wants to know about geckos and Bearly Ready Broadcast wants to know about the shoe-billed stork! Your wish is my command! Also those are some neato animals.

Behold the majestic shoebill!

12/10 would pet softly:

Pterodactyl-y:

Adorable crested gecko, aka eyelash gecko:

Alain Delcourt and stuffed giant gecko. I bet they both hate this picture:

Further reading:

A page all about the shoebill

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two more listener suggestions. The hosts of Crossover University suggested geckos as a topic because they have a leopard gecko named Lockheed, after the X-Men character, as their podcast mascot. The hosts of Barely Ready podcast want to hear about the shoe billed stork. I’m not sure if they have a pet shoebill as a mascot. Both are awesome fun pop culture podcasts. I’ll put links in the show notes so you can check them out.

The shoebill is commonly called the shoe-billed stork. Originally researchers thought it was related to storks, but DNA analysis shows that it’s actually more closely related to pelicans. I was going to go into details of the confusion about where the bird fits in the avian family tree, but basically it’s just two groups of scientists shouting back and forth, “Storks!” and “Pelicans!” Probably not that interesting to most people.

The shoebill is a big bird, four or even five feet high, mostly due to its long legs. Its wingspan can be almost nine feet. It lives in swampy areas in east central Africa and its toes are really long, which distributes its weight over a large surface so it can stand on floating vegetation without sinking even though it doesn’t have webs between its toes. Its feathers are slate gray and it has a little floofy tuft on the back of its head. But the most memorable part of its appearance is its bill. It’s a great big heavy bill with a hook on the end. It looks like the shoebill could kill crocodiles with that thing, and guess what?

Well, okay, not full-grown crocs, but it will eat baby crocodiles. It also eats lizards, snakes, frogs, small birds and mammals when it can catch them, and lots of fish. It especially likes lungfish and will dig in the mud with its bill to find them.

The shoebill has a reputation as kind of an idiot bird. It spends most of its time creeping up on its prey very, very slowly, but when it attacks, a lot of times it just throws itself at its prey like a maniac. Since the shoebill prefers to live in papyrus and reed swamps, it frequently ends up flailing around in the water, covered in rotten vegetation and mud, with a catfish or whatever swinging from its massive beak. But hey, it works for the shoebill.

The shoebill occasionally does something that is really rare in birds. It sometimes uses its wings to push itself upright after it lunges after prey. This may not sound unusual, but birds almost never use their wings like forelegs or arms.

The shoebill doesn’t like to fly very far, but it certainly can fly and it looks really impressive when it does. In fact, it’s possible that flying shoebills are responsible for the occasional report of living pterodactyls in Africa.

That brings us to the kongamato, a flying cryptid reported from east central Africa and generally identified by cryptozoologists as a type of living pterodactyl. Pterosaurs died out more than 60 million years ago, but that doesn’t stop people from seeing them from time to time. Most likely the sightings are misidentifications of known birds, especially big wading birds like the shoebill. When I was a kid I used to pretend great blue herons flying overhead were pterodactyls.

In 1923, Frank H. Melland published a book called In Witch-Bound Africa, a title that tells you a lot about Mr. Melland. Maybe his publisher made up the title. Anyway, according to Melland, the kongamato was a big reddish or black lizard with batlike wings and a long beak with teeth, which was supposed to overturn boats. The natives, Melland reported gravely, were terrified of it. When shown pictures of animals, he said local people always pointed at the pterodactyl and said it was the kongamato. It was supposed to live along rivers.

Sporadic reports of the kongamato, or at least of pterosaur-like animals, trickled into the press throughout the 1940s and 50s, but no photos have ever been taken and no remains found. Writer Dale Drinnon says that the kongamato was originally reported as a water monster. He suggests that a big stingray of some kind may be the boat-tipping culprit. Since all the information I can find online about the kongamato leads back to Melland’s 1923 book, I’m definitely skeptical about assigning any kind of possible identity to the animal. But I don’t think it’s a pterodactyl.

Shoebills don’t make a lot of noise ordinarily, but they do clatter their bills like pelicans_

Here’s what that sounds like, and then we’ll go on to learn about geckos.

[shoebill clattering bill]

Geckos are gorgeous lizards, ranging in size from about half an inch to over two feet long depending on species. They’re the lizards that can walk up walls and even across ceilings. For a long time scientists weren’t sure how the gecko stuck to surfaces, but recent studies show that most geckos’ toe pads are covered with tiny bristles that actually make the toes into adhesive devices. The gecko doesn’t even have to be alive for it to stick to surfaces. Dead geckos hang on just as securely. The gecko has to be alive to release its hold on the surface, though, helped by a fatty lubricant secreted by the toes that helps the gecko move its foot instead of it being stuck to one place for the rest of its life. Not all geckos have adhesive toe pads. It depends on the species.

Geckos are also the lizards that lick their eyeballs.

Some species can glide using flaps of skin that help keep them aloft when they jump from somewhere high up. Many gecko species have the ability to drop their tails when threatened. The tail detaches from the body and thrashes around while the now-tailless gecko beats feet to safety. The tail will usually grow back, but it’s just a little stumpy tail that can’t be lost a second time.

There is a type of gecko that can lose more than its tail if something tries to grab it. There are a number of fish-scaled geckos that can lose their scales, which are big. If an animal tries to bite a fish-scaled gecko, it’s likely to get a mouthful of scales while the gecko runs off. The scales grow back eventually and can be lost again. A newly-discovered variety of fish-scaled gecko is so good at dropping its scales and growing them back quickly that researchers have trouble catching them without ending up with a bunch of nude and irritated geckos.

There are more than 1,600 species of gecko throughout the warmer areas of the world and more are discovered all the time. There are so many that it’s easy to lose track of some of them. The crested gecko is a handsome little lizard, usually orangey or yellowish in color, with a broad head, tiny claws, and tiny spines that run along its shoulders and above its eyes. The spines above its eyes give it its other name, the eyelash gecko. It was discovered in 1866 in New Caledonia, a group of islands east of Australia, but after a few decades it appeared that the species had gone extinct. Then, in 1994, a German herpetologist out looking for specimens after a tropical storm found a single crested gecko. It turns out that the geckos had been just fine all along. Captive-bred crested geckos are now sold as pets.

Similarly, in 1877 a British naturalist in India discovered the Jeypore ground gecko under a rock. It’s a beautiful lizard, orangey or brown with chocolate brown blotches. But after that first sighting, no one saw the gecko again until a team went looking for it in 2010. They found it, too. Unfortunately, it’s not doing as well as the crested gecko. It’s only found in two small areas that together amount to barely eight square miles, and those areas are in danger of being destroyed due to development and mining. Conservationists are working to increase awareness of the gecko so hopefully its remaining habitat can be protected.

Most geckos are pretty small—no bigger than the length of your hand or thereabouts. But Delcourt’s giant gecko is a whole lot bigger, some two feet long. Unlike the other geckos I’ve talked about, Delcourt’s giant gecko really is extinct—at least, as far as we know. And until 1986, researchers didn’t know it had ever existed. In 1979 a herpetologist named Alain Delcourt, working in the Marseilles Natural History Museum in France, noticed a big taxidermied lizard in storage and wondered what it was. It wasn’t labeled and he didn’t recognize it, surprising since it was brown with red longitudinal stripes and the biggest gecko he’d ever seen. He sent photos to several reptile experts and they didn’t know what it was either. Finally the specimen was examined and in 1986 it was described as a new species.

No one knew anything about the stuffed specimen, including where it was caught. At first researchers thought it might be from New Caledonia since a lot of the museum’s other specimens were collected from the Pacific Islands. None of the specimens donated between 1833 and 1869 had any documentation, so it seemed probable the giant gecko was donated during that time and probably collected not long before.

Finally, researchers decided it was probably native to New Zealand. Not only does it resemble some smaller gecko species found there, the Maori people in New Zealand have local lore about a big lizard called the kawekaweau. The legends were known to Europeans as early as 1777 when Captain Cook interviewed the Maori and collected stories about the kawekaweau. In 1873 a Maori chief told a visiting biologist that he had killed a kawekaweau in 1870, and described it as “about two feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red.” That was the last known sighting of the gecko and the last anyone in the scientific community thought about it until the stuffed specimen caught Delcourt’s attention.

I really like this story. It warms my skeptical cryptozoologist’s cold cold heart. Unlike accounts of the kongamato, it has everything a good cryptozoological mystery should have: the remains of an unknown animal, good scientific and historical work, and the support of a scientific hypothesis by local reports. The only way it could be a better story is if Delcourt’s giant gecko aka the kawekaweau was found alive and well in remote areas of New Zealand. It’s not likely, but there are a few reported sightings, so maybe one day a lucky herpetologist will make the discovery of a lifetime.

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, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a PAYtreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 007: Strange Birds



This week we look at three strange birds: a red-tailed Canadian raven that may or may not exist, the pied-billed grebe that definitely does, and New Zealand’s takahē.

A common raven. No red markings:

Here’s the Cryptodominion page with the red-tailed raven report.

Here’s Karl Shuker’s post about the red-tailed raven.

Precious smol baby pied-billed grebes riding on their mom or dad’s back:

The takahē, hooray!

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode we’ll look at three unusual birds, because birds are awesome. This is a re-record to improve audio quality and bring some information up to date.

It may be a tall tale, but a big red-tailed raven supposedly living in remote areas of British Columbia, Canada sounds oddly plausible. Loggers report that there’s a particular valley where huge ravens exist. They’re bigger than golden eagles but otherwise look like ordinary ravens except for their tails, which are reddish. They’re also nearly flightless. The loggers say the birds can be dangerous and will tear up campsites.

The only known raven found in Canada is the common raven. It’s much bigger and heavier than the crow, over two feet long, or 61 cm, including the tail, with a wingspan of over four feet, or 1.2 meters. The golden eagle, in contrast, can have a wingspan of nearly eight feet, or 2.4 meters, although the body length is not much more that of a raven’s.

The common raven is an intelligent, curious bird, black all over with a purplish sheen in the right light. It’s omnivorous and is happy to eat roadkill, food scraps found in unsecured garbage cans, and the eggs and hatchlings of other birds.

So could there be an unknown raven in British Columbia? I dug around online to see if I could find more details. In fact, I checked Allaboutbirds.com first since that’s a really good resource about North American birds. I wanted to see if there are any corvid species in North America that have red markings, but there aren’t. The only corvid in the world with red markings is the blue magpie, which has a rusty red head and wings. It’s a lovely bird, but it lives in Sri Lanka, and anyway its tail is blue.

I couldn’t find much online at all about the red-tailed raven story. It first appeared in 2012 or shortly before on a site called Cryptodominion. I’ll read the entry in its entirety, since it’s very short.

“British Columbian giant raven (Interior of B.C. NA): A piece of local folklore, the bush mechanics who worked in the interior of B.C. claim that here is a valley, rich in timber, which is populated by enormous raverns bigger than golden eagles. They say these ravens are dangerous animals, very opportunistic, and will not hesitate to tear someones camp apart. they are nearly flightless, and have much red in their tail plumage. These are obviously a specialized species of raven which developed in the isolation of this valley. However, if any introduced predators like dogs or cats make it there these ravens might become threatened.”

I learned about this story from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, Shukernature. He says that in 2012 a French reader emailed him asking him if he’d seen the entry and if he knew anything about the bird. He had never heard of the story before. Also in 2012, “The Corvid Enthusiast” posted about the Cryptodominion entry on an unexplained mysteries forum, asking if anyone in British Columbia had heard the story. One person did indicate they’d heard of it but gave no details, so I’m a bit skeptical of that reply. Responses from a few people from British Columbia indicate that the area is too populated and well explored to have any isolated valleys.

British Columbia is an enormous region, from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains, from Vancouver’s mild climate to a northern border with the Yukon. The original entry says the valley is found in the interior of the British Columbia, which I take to mean as not coastal or on an island. I have absolutely no doubt there are pockets of wilderness in B.C. where any number of mystery birds might live.

So do I believe the red-tailed raven is a real bird? No. I think someone planted that story to see how far it would go. But if anyone wants to fund a birding expedition to British Columbia to look for the raven, I am standing by with my binoculars in one hand and my passport in the other.

Our second bird also lives in North America, although it’s just as common in South America and shows up occasionally in Europe and other places. The pied-billed grebe, also called a dabchick, isn’t an especially strange bird, but I’m including it just because I love it. I see them frequently while birding, especially in winter, and they’re so small and brownish-yellow that I frequently mistake them for ducklings at first glance.

They’re about a foot long from bill to tail, or 30 cm, but they sit so low in the water they look smaller. Actually they don’t even really have a tail. They just have some tufty feathers on their hind end.

Grebes aren’t ducks, although they do spend most of their time on the water. They don’t have webbed toes like ducks do. Instead, they have lobed toes but you probably won’t ever see them because grebes don’t like to get out of the water. Their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they don’t balance well while walking. If they have to, they’ll fly, but again, they’d rather just stay on the water. Some populations migrate, especially if they live where ponds freeze in winter, but populations in more temperate climates stay year-round.

They prefer freshwater ponds and small lakes with plenty of cover, like cattails, reeds, and other vegetation. They’re diving waterfowl, which means they spend a lot of time underwater, catching fish, frogs, insects, and crustaceans like crawdads, which they crush with their blunt bills. They also eat their own feathers. That sounds weird, but it’s actually something all grebes do. They even feed feathers to their babies. The feathers help keep pieces of bone or shell from traveling from the stomach to the intestines. Instead, the feathers and hard pieces of non-food form pellets which the bird horks up safely.

Baby grebes are the smallest of the small. They can’t swim right away like ducklings can, which you’d think would be a problem since grebes build floating nests on vegetation. But (you’ll love this) they ride around on their parents’ backs for a few weeks until they learn to swim on their own.

Oh, and the most interesting thing about the pied-billed grebe? It can sink. The first time I saw this happen, I really didn’t believe my eyes. I was birding along the edge of a slow-moving river, looked down at the water through the trees, and saw two tiny duck-like birds which promptly vanished into the water as though they’d been abducted by a submerged alien. One second they were there, the next they were literally just gone. The pied-billed grebe does this by trapping water in its feathers, which gives it incredible control over how far down it sinks and may also reduce drag while it swims underwater.

Now let’s talk about another bird, this one halfway around the world, definitely real, and completely flightless. The takahe was a chicken-sized bird with a greenish back, iridescent purple head and neck, and heavy red bill and legs. It lived in New Zealand’s swamps and grasslands. The white settlers introduced red deer, cats, ferrets, stoats, hunting for sport, and all the usual things. In 1898 four birds were caught…and that’s the last anyone saw of the takahe.

Of course there were rumors that the birds survived. There always are. But as with so many other animals driven to extinction by habitat loss, hunting, and introduced animals, hope for a surviving population of takahe gets smaller every year.

Wait a minute.

I’ve just been handed a piece of paper by my research assistant, who I just now invented. It says here that the takahe was discovered alive and well in the Murchison Mountains on November 20, 1948!

The takahe now lives in the Murchison Mountains and on five small islands, chosen as habitats because they’re free from predators. The birds mate for life and breed slowly, but they can live up to 25 years in captivity. They mostly eats seeds, insects, and the tender parts of grass stems, but one bird was caught eating a duckling. I like to imagine it wore a really guilty expression while chowing down.

Takahe chicks are fuzzy and gray with yellowish legs. The adults are about 20 inches tall, or 50 cm.

For a long time it wasn’t clear if the birds would even survive. In 1981 there were only 118 known individuals. The population now stands at over 400 with a careful breeding program in place to keep the species as genetically diverse as possible. When I first put together this episode in spring of 2017, there were only just over 300 takahes, so that’s a big improvement in only three years.

There’s not a lot more to say about the takahe. I’m just really happy that sometimes there are persistent rumors about an extinct species’ survival because it really has survived. Stay strong, takahe. Eat ducklings if you have to.

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Thanks for listening!