Category Archives: North America

Episode 260: Danger! Newts!



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Thanks to Enzo for suggesting this week’s topic, newts from least dangerous to most dangerous!

Further reading:

One snake’s prey is another’s poison

The Corsican brook salamander is not toxic (photo by Paola Mazzei, from iNaturalist):

The smooth newt is a little bit toxic (photo by Fred Holmes and taken from this site) – this is a male during breeding season:

The Hong Kong warty newt has an orange-spotted belly and is toxic:

The chonky Spanish ribbed newt will stab you with its own toxin-covered bones (photo by Eduardo José Rodríguez Rodríguez, taken from this site):

Yeah maybe don’t touch the Japanese fire belly newt if you don’t need to:

Warning! Do not eat the California newt:

The safest newt to handle is this toy newt. I really want one:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is a suggestion from Enzo, who wants to learn about newts “from least dangerous to most dangerous.” There are at least 60 species of newt known with more being discovered every year, but I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.

A newt is a type of salamander, specifically a semi-aquatic salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae. All newts are salamanders but not all salamanders are newts. Newts live throughout much of the northern hemisphere, including northern Africa and the Middle East, Eurasia, and North America.

Female newts lay their eggs in freshwater, usually attaching them to vegetation or in little crevices in rocks. A few weeks later, the eggs hatch into larvae with external gills. The larvae are called tadpoles like frog larvae, and they mostly eat algae and tiny insects. They metamorphose over several months just like frogs do when they develop from tadpoles, but where frogs develop their hind legs first, newt tadpoles develop front legs first. The newt tadpole finally absorbs its gills and grows lungs instead, at which point it emerges from the water as an immature newt called an eft. Efts are juvenile newts and live exclusively on land, although like other amphibians they have to keep their skin damp so you’ll usually find them in leaf litter and under rotting logs. Efts that live in North America return to the water when they become full adults, but most newts in other parts of the world stay on land the rest of their lives except during breeding season. Efts and adult newts eat worms, insects and insect larvae, slugs, frog tadpoles, and any other small animals they can catch.

The Corsican brook salamander is a type of newt that lives on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. It grows about five inches long at most, or 13 cm, and is brown or olive-green, sometimes with a mottled pattern of orange or red on its back. It’s an exception to the rule that newts outside of North America usually live their adult lives on land. Not only does the Corsican brook salamander live in freshwater most of the time as an adult, it doesn’t even have working lungs. It spends most of its time in fast-moving streams and rivers in higher elevations, where it absorbs oxygen from the water through its skin.

As Enzo undoubtedly knows, many newts produce toxins. This is why it’s not a good idea to handle a newt, or any other amphibian for that matter, unless you’re absolutely certain it’s a species that’s not toxic. In most cases, a newt’s toxin won’t hurt you if it just touches your skin, but if it gets in a cut or if you have some of the toxin on your finger and then rub your eye or put your finger in your mouth, the toxin can make you really sick. Some newts are even deadly.

The Corsican brook salamander we just talked about is not toxic, so we’ll call it the least dangerous newt. The smooth newt, on the other hand, produces a relatively mild toxin. You’d have to actually eat a bunch of smooth newts to get sick from its toxins, and why are you eating newts at all? Stop that immediately and have a banana instead.

The smooth newt lives throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia. It grows just over 4 inches long, or 11 cm, and most of the time it’s brown with darker spots. The male also has a bright orange stripe on his belly. During breeding season, though, the male develops a wavy crest down his spine and brighter colors. Both males and females move into the water during breeding season, so both males and females develop tail fins on the top and bottom of their tails to help them swim.

The males of many newt species develop brighter colors and crests during breeding season to attract females. In the case of the Hong Kong warty newt, in breeding season the male develops a white stripe on his tail. He attracts the attention of females by wagging his tail in the water, where the white stripe shows up well even in dim light. The Hong Kong warty newt lives in Hong Kong and grows up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm. It’s brown with orange patches on its belly and its skin appears bumpy like the skin of an orange. If it feels threatened, it sometimes rolls onto its back and pretends to be dead, which not only may deter some predators, it shows off the bright orange markings on its belly. This signals to a potential predator that this newt is toxic, and another thing it does when it plays dead is secrete toxins from its skin. In other words, don’t bite this newt or touch it. It’s also a protected species in Hong Kong so you shouldn’t be trying to eat it anyway. Its eggs are toxic too.

Some newts deliver their toxins to potential predators in a way you might not expect. If an animal tries to bite the Spanish ribbed newt, it secretes toxins from special glands on its sides and then pushes the sharp points of its own ribs out through the tubercles where the poison glands are located. The pointed ribs become coated with toxins as they emerge and are sharp enough to stab a predator right in the mouth. The toxin causes severe pain when injected and can even cause death in small animals. The newt itself isn’t injured by this process, which it can do repeatedly whenever it needs to. Newts, like all amphibians, heal extremely quickly.

The Spanish ribbed newt lives in the southern Iberian Peninsula in Europe and Morocco in northern Africa. It’s larger than the newts we’ve talked about so far, growing up to a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s dark gray with rusty-red or orange spots on its sides, one spot per poison gland. It actually spends most of its adult life in the water and especially likes deep, quiet ponds and wells.

Finally, we’ve reached the most dangerous newt in the world. I’m nominating two newts for this honor because they both secrete the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, which we’ve talked about before. It’s the same kind of toxin found in pufferfish and some frogs. The toxin can irritate your skin even if you only touch it, and if a little of the toxin gets into a scratch or cut, it can cause numbness, shortness of breath, and dizziness. If you accidentally swallow any of the toxin, you can die within six hours. There’s no antidote.

Our two most dangerous newts are the Japanese fire belly newt and the California newt. The Japanese fire belly newt grows about 5.5 inches long, or 14 cm, and lives in parts of Japan in ponds, lakes, and ditches. It has pebbly skin and is brown or black with red speckles, but its belly is bright orange or red. The California newt has slightly bumpy gray or gray-brown skin on its back but a bright orange or yellow belly. It can grow up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It lives in parts of California, especially near the coast and in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The reason the California newt has such a potent toxin is that its main predator, the common garter snake, has a great resistance to the toxin. Only the most toxic newts are more likely to survive if a garter snake grabs it, and only the most resistant snakes are more likely to survive eating it. It’s a predator-prey arms race that’s been going on for at least 40 million years, resulting in a newt that is boss fight level toxic to most predators but just barely ahead of the game when it comes to garter snakes. It’s likely that something similar has occurred with the Japanese fire belly newt.

If you live in the areas where these toxic newts also live, be especially careful with your pets. Keep your dog on a leash so you can be sure it doesn’t try to bite or play with one of these newts. Some people actually keep the Japanese fire belly newt as a pet, but obviously if you do this you need to be extremely careful, especially if you have pets or small children. Maybe you should get a toy newt instead.

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 259: Indestructible Animals



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

Further listening:

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

The diabolical ironclad beetle is virtually unsquishable:

Limpet shells:

The business side of a limpet:

Highly magnified limpet teeth:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not exactly easy to run up to the moon and check on the tardigrades, so we don’t know if they survived the crash landing. Studies since then suggest they probably didn’t, but until we can actually land on the moon and send a rover or an astronaut out to check, we don’t know for sure. Tardigrades can survive incredibly cold, dry conditions while dormant. It’s not exactly the experiment researchers intended, but it’s definitely an interesting one.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 252: Mini Rex



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Thanks to Zachary for suggesting this topic! Let’s learn about some sightings of what look like miniature theropod dinosaurs running around in the American Southwest!

Further reading:

All About Birds: Wild Turkey

A collared lizard running (photo by Joe McDonald from this page):

Basilisks running:

A female wild turkey:

A male wild turkey (note the tuft of hair-like feathers sticking forward, called a beard) (picture from this page):

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Zachary for his email a while back that helped shape this episode. Zachary has kept a lot of different kinds of pets, which we had a nice conversation about, and one of the reptiles he’s kept as a pet is in this episode. I’ll reveal which one at the end.

But first, a small correction, maybe. Paul from the awesome podcast Varmints! messaged me to point out that the word spelled A-N-O-L-E is pronounced a-NOLL, not a-NO-lee. I’d looked it up before I recorded so that confused me, so I looked it up again and it turns out that both pronunciations are used in different places and both are correct. So if you’ve always heard it a-NOLL, you’re fine, but now I can’t decide which pronunciation I should use.

This week we’re going to learn about an interesting mystery of the American southwest. Even though non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, occasionally someone spots what they think is a little dinosaur running along on its hind legs. They’re sometimes called mini rexes.

Many reports come from the American southwest, especially Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. For instance, in the late 1960s two teenaged brothers were looking for arrowheads near their home in Dove Creek, Colorado when they were startled by an animal running away from them at high speed. The boys said it looked like a miniature dinosaur, only about 14 inches tall, or 35 centimeters. It was kicking up so much dust as it ran on its hind legs that the boys had trouble making out details. They did note that it seemed to be brown and possibly had a row of spines running down its back, maybe even two rows of spines, similar to an iguana’s. It had long hind legs and shorter front legs that it held out in front of it as it ran.

The animal left behind three-toed footprints that the boys followed until they disappeared into some brush. The boys were familiar with turkey footprints but these were different, with the toes closer together and no rear-pointing toe prints.

In April 1996, in Cortez, Colorado, a woman saw an animal run past her house on its hind legs, seemingly from a nearby pond. It was greenish-gray and stood about 3.5 feet tall, or about a meter. It had a long neck and long, tapering tail. She didn’t notice its front legs but its hind legs had muscular thighs but were thinner below the hock joint.

One night in July 2001, a woman and her grown daughter were driving near Yellow Jacket, Colorado when they noticed an animal at the edge of the road. At first the driver thought it was a small deer and slammed on the brakes so she wouldn’t hit it, but when it darted across the road both women were shocked to see what looked like a small dinosaur pass through the headlight beams of the car. They reported it was about 3 feet tall, or 91 centimeters, and that it had no feathers or fur. Its legs were thin and long, while its arms were tiny and held out in front of its body. It had a slender neck, a small head, and a long tapering tail.

The witnesses in both the 1996 sighting and the 2001 sighting noted that the animal they saw ran gracefully. They also all agreed that the animals’ skin appeared smooth.

Lots of dinosaurs used to walk on their hind legs, but the reptiles living today are all four-footed. There are a few lizards that run on their hind legs occasionally, though, and one of them lives in the American southwest. The collared lizard, also called the mountain boomer, will run on its hind legs to escape predators. Females are usually light brown while males have a blue-green body and light brown head. The name collared lizard comes from the two black stripes both males and females show around their necks, with a white stripe in between. During breeding season, in early summer, females also have orange spots along their sides.

The collared lizard can run up to 16 miles an hour, or 26 kilometers per hour, for short bursts on its hind legs. It uses its long tail for balance as it runs, and its hind legs are three times the length of its front legs. This makes it a good jumper too. It mostly eats insects but will occasionally eat berries, small snakes, and even other lizards. It hibernates in winter in rock crevices.

While the teenaged boys probably saw a collared lizard in the 1960s, the other two sightings we just covered sound much different. The collared lizard typically only grows up to 14 inches long, or 35 centimeters, including its long tail.

A few other lizards are known to run on their hind legs, such as the basilisk that lives in rainforests of Central and South America. It’s famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. It’s much larger than the collared lizard, up to 2.5 feet long, or 76 centimeters, including its long tail. It holds its front legs out to its sides when running on its hind legs, and the toes on its hind feet have flaps of skin that help stop it from sinking. It has a crest on its head, and the male also has crests on his back and tail. It can be brown or green in color.

The basilisk is sometimes kept as an exotic pet. In 1981 in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, four boys playing along some railroad tracks saw a green lizard that they thought was a baby dinosaur. It was 2 feet long, or 61 centimeters, and had a crest and an extremely long tail. It ran away on its hind legs but one of the boys, who was 11 years old, managed to catch it. It startled him by squealing and he dropped it again, and this time it got away. It sounds like an escaped pet basilisk.

But let’s go back to our mini rex sightings from 1996 and 2001, the ones of dinosaur-like animals running gracefully on their hind legs with a long neck and long tail. These don’t sound like lizards at all. When lizards run on their hind legs, they don’t look much like how we imagine a tiny raptor dinosaur would look. They appear awkward while running, with their arms sticking out and their heads pointing more or less upward. While all the lizards known that can run on their hind legs have long tails, they all have relatively short necks.

There’s another type of animal that’s closely related to the dinosaurs, though, and every single one walks on its hind legs. That’s right: birds! All the birds alive today are descended from dinosaurs whose front legs evolved for flight. Even flightless birds are well adapted to walk on two legs.

Let’s look at the details of those two sightings again. Both were of animals estimated as about three feet tall or a little taller, or up to about a meter, with long neck, small head, long tapering tail held above the ground, and long, strong legs that were nevertheless thin. Both also appeared smooth. In one of the sightings, the front legs were tiny and held forward; in the other, the witness didn’t notice the front legs.

My suggestion is that in these two sightings, at least, the witnesses saw a particular kind of bird, a wild turkey. That may sound ridiculous if you’re thinking of a male turkey displaying his feathers, but most of the time turkeys don’t look round and poofy. Most of the time, in fact, the wild turkey’s feathers are sleek and its tail is an ordinary-looking long, skinny bird tail instead of a dramatic fan. Its feathers are mostly brown and black, the upper part of its long neck is bare of feathers, as is its small head, and its legs are long and strong but relatively thin. It also typically stands 3 to 3.5 feet tall, or up to about a meter, although some big males can stand over 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters. As for the front legs seen by witnesses in 2001, a full-grown male turkey has a tuft of long, hair-like feathers growing from the middle of his breast, called a beard. It sticks out from the rest of the feathers and might look like tiny arms if you were already convinced you were looking at a dinosaur instead of a bird.

That’s not to say that all mini-rex sightings are of turkeys, of course, but some of them probably are. The wild turkey lives throughout much of the United States, including most of Colorado. Since birds are the closest animals we have to dinosaurs these days, though, that’s still pretty neat.

Finally, the reptile Zachary kept as a pet was the collared lizard. I didn’t want to say so at the beginning and potentially spoil part of the mystery for some people!

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 246: MOTHMAN!



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Don’t forget our Kickstarter! I can’t believe it reached its funding goal THE FIRST DAY!

We’re getting so close to Halloween! This week we’ll learn about Mothman! Is it a moth? Is it a ghostly entity from another world? Is it a bird? (hint: it’s probably a bird)

Sandhill cranes (not mothmen):

A Canada goose (not mothman):

A great bustard (not mothman):

A green heron (definitely not mothman but look at those big cute feets and that telescoping neck):

A barn owl’s eyes reflecting red (photo taken from Frank’s Barn Owls and Mourning Doves, which has lots of lovely pictures):

Barn owls look like strange little people while standing up straight:

Barn owls got legs:

All owls got legs:

Show transcript:

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

This week for monster month, let’s cover a spooky monster with a silly name, mothman! We’ll go over the facts as clearly as possible and see if we can figure out what kind of creature mothman might be.

First, though, a quick reminder that our Kickstarter is still going on if you’re listening to this before Nov. 5, 2021! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to go look at it. We actually reached our funding goal on the very first day, so thank you all so much for backing the project, sharing the project on social media, or just putting up with me spamming you about it all month.

Now, on to mothman.

As far as anyone can tell, it all started in 1966, specifically November 12, outside of Clendenin, West Virginia, in the eastern United States. Five men were digging a grave in a cemetery outside of town when one of them saw something big fly low across the trees and right over their heads. The witness thought it looked like a man with wings, but with red eyes and an estimated wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. This definitely happened, even though it sounds like the opening scene of a scary movie.

That story didn’t come to light until after the next sighting hit the newspapers and caused a lot of excitement. The second sighting took place only three days later near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the McClintic Wildlife Area. Locals call it the TNT area, since explosives were stored there during WWII. The TNT area is about 70 miles, or over 110 km, away from Clendenin, which has led to a lot of people discounting the gravedigger’s sighting. We’ll come back to that later, though.

On Nov. 15, 1966, two young couples decided to go out driving. They were bored and it was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Remember, this was the olden days when there weren’t as many things to do as there are today. You could watch TV, but only if there was something you wanted to watch on one of the three TV stations available in the United States. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater, and so on.

Anyway, Steve Mallette and his wife Mary and their friends Roger Scarberry and his wife Linda went out driving that Tuesday night. Toward midnight, as they drove through the TNT area, their car came over a hill and they saw a huge creature in front of them.

Some 35 years later, in July 2001, Linda gave an interview to the author of the book I used as my main reference for this episode, called Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend. She mentioned details that aren’t in any of the newspaper articles from 1966, or that give a better explanation of what happened than the articles did. There’s always a possibility that after 35 years, her memory wasn’t accurate, so I’m mostly going by the newspaper articles for my information, but she does mention something interesting in that interview.

She says this about the very first sighting of the creature:

We had just topped a hill in the TNT area, and when the headlights of our car hit it, it looked directly at us, as if it was scared. It had one of its wings caught in a guide wire near a section of road close to the power plant, and was pulling on its wings with its hands, trying to free itself. Its hands were really big. It was really scared. We stopped the car and sat still while it was trying to free itself from the wire. We didn’t sit there long, just long enough to scare it, I think. It seemed to think we were going to hurt it. We were all screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But, we couldn’t perform the actual action of leaving the scene. It was like we were hypnotized. It finally got its wing loose from the wire and ran into the power plant. I felt sorry for it.”

In the original reports from 1966, the couples said the creature was 6 or 7 feet tall, or 1.8 to 2.1 meters, with a wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. Its eyes were big and glowed red in the car’s headlights and its wings were white and angel-like. Its body was gray. While it was a clumsy runner, it could fly at an estimated 100 mph, or 161 km/hour.

Let’s stop right here before we talk about what else happened that spooky night. A ten-foot wingspan is big for a bird but not unheard-of. The trumpeter swan, several species of vulture, Andean condor, Marabou stork, two species of pelican, and several species of albatross have wingspans of at least ten feet across. Some of those have wingspans of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters.

The heaviest bird that can still fly is probably the great bustard, which has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, or 2.5 meters. A big male can weigh up to 44 lbs, or 18 kg. Mothman is described as a man-sized creature with wings. Even if it was stick-thin, a person that tall would weigh far too much to get off the ground with a wingspan barely longer than its armspan.

So that’s one thing to keep in mind. Let’s find out what happened next on that cold November night.

After their initial fright, Roger Scarberry, who was driving, naturally decided to get out of the TNT area. He headed back to town. The newspaper articles report that the strange creature followed them for some distance, gliding above their car. All four of the people in the car were frightened, and after about half an hour they decided to go to the police. In her 2001 interview, Linda said,

“We wouldn’t have went to the police, but it kept following us. We saw it sitting in different places as we drove back down Route 62 toward Point Pleasant, and saw it sitting in various places once we got in town, too. It was as if it was letting us know that it could catch up to us, no matter where we went, or how fast we went there. When we first left the TNT area, it was sitting on the sign when we went around the bend and when the headlights hit it, it went straight up into the air, very fast. That’s when it followed us and hit the top of the car two or three times while we were going over one hundred miles per hour down Route 62, toward Point Pleasant. The last place we saw it was sitting on top of the flood wall. It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back. It didn’t seem scared, then. I guess it figured out that we weren’t going to hurt it, so it followed us. We didn’t know what else to do but go to the police station.”

So, the people in the car initially saw the creature with its wing caught in a guide wire, and when it got its wing free, it ran clumsily into a nearby abandoned building. But Linda says they then saw it as they were driving away from the TNT area, presumably just a few minutes later, and that it was sitting on a sign and flew straight up in the air when the headlights lit it up.

Next, she said the car was going about 100 mph but the creature was flying above it, keeping pace, and even hit the top of the car a few times. No one said they had their head out the window to look up, so how did they know the creature was flying over their car? Presumably they assumed that’s what it was doing because it thumped the roof of their car a few times—but how do they actually know that’s what happened? They heard some thumps and made an assumption because they were scared, but at 100 mph on a back road a car is naturally going to be making a lot of noise and shaking a lot as it goes over uneven pavement. Not to mention that none of the newspaper reports mention that the creature hit the roof of their car.

I don’t think the creature was ever flying above their car. I also think the creature they saw initially was not the same creature they saw fly up from the sign. I especially don’t think the thing they saw repeatedly as they drove to town was the same one as the others. But we’ll come back to that again too in a few minutes.

The story appeared in the papers on Wednesday, November 16 and that evening, half the town went to the TNT area to look for the creature. They spotted it, too. Four people reported seeing a huge bird at 10pm on Wednesday night. The creature stared at them as they sat in their car, then flew away. Reporters also turned up another sighting of a creature with red-reflecting eyes a few hours’ drive away, also on Tuesday night, and the gravedigger’s story from several days before. By Thursday night an estimated 1,000 people arrived at the TNT area to look for the creature.

By the end of November 1966, though, things were quieting down. A November 22 article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch is titled “Mason Bird-Monster Presumed Gone Now.” I’ll read part of the article.

“It was a week ago today that the first sighting was reported of a large red-eyed winged creature in the McClintic area. Since then there have been about 10 or more similar reports.

“The latest report was by four teenaged youths who said they saw a large bird with red eyes fly away from their car at a very high rate of speed. This was 3 a.m. Sunday.”

The article goes on to quote various authorities, including a wildlife biologist who suggested it might be a sandhill crane. It also ends with the suggestion that the sightings may lead to an eventual legend and tourism draw, which is exactly what happened, although it took almost 50 years for it to really gain traction.

The sandhill crane theory is repeated in a lot of newspapers and occasionally crops up today, so let’s learn a little bit about the sandhill crane and see if it makes any sense as a solution.

The sandhill crane is a big bird. A big male can have a wingspan of almost 8 feet, or 2.3 meters. It’s mostly gray in color and since it has long legs, it can stand 4 ½ feet tall, or 135 cm. In the dark, this might look like a man-sized gray creature with angel wings.

But actually, the sandhill crane theory is nonsense and here’s why. First, sandhill cranes don’t migrate through West Virginia. By mid-November the nearest sandhill cranes are in their wintering grounds in Alabama or Florida, where they congregate in wetlands in the thousands, or on their way to those areas from their breeding grounds in Canada. Second, sandhill cranes are not nocturnal. They’re not active at night at all. They also aren’t clumsy on the ground—quite the opposite, since they’re well known for the elegant dances mated pairs perform. Third, the sandhill crane has a long neck, a small head, and a long bill, very different from the description given of Mothman. I’ve seen sandhill cranes and they’re beautiful birds, but there’s nothing spooky about them.

Other birds were suggested as culprits too, including a Canada goose, an Andean condor, and an oversized green heron. The Andean condor has never been seen in North America and isn’t nocturnal anyway, plus it looks like a gigantic vulture, which it is. The Canada goose is a common, well-known bird that has a long neck but short legs, and isn’t nocturnal. The green heron is a small and humble bird with a wingspan barely more than two feet across, or 68 cm. It has long yellow legs with really big feet and a long, heavy bill.

It’s worth noting that none of the newspaper reports mention a bill, although they do stress that the creature had big eyes that glowed red in the light. The head isn’t prominent either, with one newspaper quoting Roger Scarberry as saying the head was “not an outstanding characteristic.”

By the end of November, newspapers had started calling the creature Mothman more and more, and that’s the name that stuck even though it didn’t actually look like a moth. It did look like another animal, though, and the newspapers even picked up on that by the end of December 1966, when a snowy owl was shot in the area.

The snowy owl is also a large bird, mostly snow-white although young birds have black and gray markings. Its eyes are yellow. Its wingspan can be as much as six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It lives throughout the Arctic and nearby regions and is migratory, sometimes traveling long distances to find food. It mostly eats small animals like lemmings although it will also kill birds, including ducks. It’s rare for one to stray as far south as West Virginia, but the bird killed in December 1966 fits the description of a snowy owl. Its wingspan was almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters.

The newspapers declared that the snowy owl was the culprit behind the mothman sightings. Linda doesn’t agree according to her interview, and I actually don’t either. I do think it’s an owl, just not a snowy owl.

I don’t even think mothman was inspired by a very big owl, like a great horned owl. I think it was a much smaller, more common bird. The barn owl is common throughout much of the world, including West Virginia. Its wingspan is 3.5 feet across at most, or just over one meter.

The reason I think that mothman was a barn owl is because the four people in the car saw several of them around midnight, although they assumed they were seeing the same creature over and over. It’s nocturnal, although it’s also sometimes active at dawn and dusk or even in daytime, and it hunts low over the ground listening for the sound of small animals like mice. Because it flies so low, the barn owl is sometimes hit by cars and would certainly be vulnerable to getting a wing caught in the guide wire of a power pole.

The barn owl has a heart-shaped face that is usually white. Its body is pale underneath and gray or brown above. It doesn’t have ear tufts. Its eyes are large and completely black, but they reflect red at night. It also has an inconspicuous beak with a ridge of feathers at its base that can look like the suggestion of a human-like nose. In other words, it can look superficially like it has a human head and face, especially when seen at night in the glare of headlights, but weird and eerie because it doesn’t quite match up with human features.

One thing people usually don’t realize is that owls actually have quite long legs. An owl standing with its legs extended and its body straight genuinely looks like a tiny, creepy person with wings instead of arms. The male barn owl even shows off his legs and his flying ability in a courtship display called the moth flight, where he hovers in front of a female with his legs dangling.

The gravedigger who supposedly saw a manlike creature with wings fly over him only came forward after the story hit the newspapers. People who doubted it was the same creature because it was seen so far away from the TNT area are assuming Mothman was a single entity when it was probably different birds being seen in different places.

If you’re still doubtful, let’s go back to Linda’s interview that we quoted earlier. She says repeatedly that she thought the creature was scared and she also mentions she felt sorry for it. We can infer several things from these statements. First, Linda is obviously a compassionate person who can feel sorry for a creature even when she’s terrified by it. Second, she must be honest because she hasn’t changed her story to make Mothman seem menacing or dangerous. She seems to be reporting exactly what she remembers seeing and feeling. Third, Mothman does not actually seem to be very big.

When you’re scared, especially if it’s dark, anything threatening or out of place seems larger than it really is, especially when you think back on it. Combine that with most people not knowing that an owl has really long legs and not knowing how huge a big bird’s wings really are when they’re unfolded, and that’s the recipe for a monster story.

Linda does specifically say the creature had huge hands that it was using to pull at its wing. My suggestion is that the owl was standing on one leg, which was extended to its full length because it didn’t want to put any more pressure on its wing than it had to. It was either using its other foot to pull at its wing or, more likely to my mind, to try and grab the guide wire to hoist itself up to a better angle. In addition to having very long legs, owls have huge talons, and in the dark that huge talon would have looked like a human-like hand. With one leg on the ground and one leg stretched up toward its wing, Linda naturally assumed it had the ordinary compliment of two legs and two arms in addition to two wings.

Once the creature freed its wing, it didn’t fly away. Its wing was probably hurt and it ran toward the nearest shelter, an abandoned building. The witnesses said it was a clumsy runner, and that’s true of owls too. Their talons are made for grabbing, not walking on.

Then, a few minutes later, the witnesses saw the creature—or something that looked like it—on a sign as they left the TNT area. I don’t know the size of the sign but even if it was a big sign, would a human-sized creature really perch on it? It flew straight up, which also seems unlikely for a creature as heavy as a human six feet tall. Heavy birds can’t fly straight up, but an owl can because it’s actually not very heavy at all. It looks big because owls have such thick, fluffy feathers.

Later, Linda reports seeing the creature—or, again, something that looked like it—sitting on a wall. She says “It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back.” This actually sounds like the way an owl usually sits except of course that an owl doesn’t have arms. Linda thought it had arms so she would have assumed they were wrapped around its legs, which is why she couldn’t see them.

Obviously the people who saw the creature were terrified. That’s a natural reaction to seeing something at night that you can’t identify and think might be dangerous and even supernatural. I don’t think any of the initial witnesses were lying or stupid or drunk, or anything like that. They had a frightening encounter they couldn’t understand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Last year I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a little girl’s voice say, “Oh, hello there!” in the darkness of my bedroom in my locked house with no other people in the house with me. It was absolutely terrifying–but then I woke up better and realized that I’d been dreaming and my cat Dracula was snoring, and as I woke up my brain interpreted the little cat snores as a person talking. That doesn’t mean I was stupid and that doesn’t change the fact that I was really scared even after I realized what happened.

The trouble is that many people, after they’ve had a frightening experience like this, refuse to consider that they might have been wrong about what they saw. They say things like, “I know what I saw!” without taking into account that maybe their brain was doing its best to fill in details so they could better evaluate the potential danger. You brain is hard-wired to give you as much information about danger as possible so you can decide whether to run away or prepare to fight or just laugh and tell your little brother he didn’t actually scare you. If you can’t see details properly because it’s dark and the car’s headlights are making weird shadows, your brain fills in the details based on what you can see (and what you expect to see), and it’s not always correct. If in doubt, your brain assumes the thing you’re seeing is dangerous. That’s how our far-distant ancestors survived when movement in tall grass might actually have been a cave bear and not just the wind.

In other words, after a scary experience is over and you’re thinking back about what happened, ask yourself if it’s more likely that you saw a flying man with wings and red eyes, or if you saw an owl and your brain added other details to convince you to run just in case you were in danger.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 244: The Wampus Cat



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It’s the beginning of MONSTER MONTH! This episode’s not very spooky unless you’re outside at night and hear a terrifying scream! To be fair, that would be spooky even if you don’t know anything about the wampus cat.

THE KICKSTARTER GOES LIVE IN JUST TWO DAYS!!

Further watching:

The Growling, Ferocious, Diurnal Kitty Cat: The Jaguarundi

Further reading:

My original article about the wampus cat will appear in Flying Snake #21. You can order it and back issues here and here.

The cougar:

A jaguar with her black jaguar cub (picture by Alma Leaper):

The jaguarundi looks kind of like an otter:

Jaguarundis come in different solid colors, including black or nearly black:

Show transcript:

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

It’s October at last! Yes, that best of all months, MONSTER MONTH!

This episode started out as an article I wrote for the magazine Flying Snake, which is an awesome little magazine that you might like. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to order a copy.

Also, in only TWO DAYS we’re kicking off our Kickstarter to fund the Strange Animals Podcast book! It’s done and now I just need to pay the people who are going to make the cover and do the interior design to make it look great! The Kickstarter will go live on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 and will run through Friday, November 5, 2021, which gives you lots of time to decide if you want to back the project. On Wednesday I’ll be releasing a bonus episode to remind you that the Kickstarter has begun, explain exactly how Kickstarter works in case you’re not sure, and share a chapter from the audio version of the book about a mystery animal we’ve never covered before. If you want to look at the Kickstarter page now, though, there’s a link in the show notes so you can look at it and even set it so that Kickstarter will send you an email when the campaign starts. There’s an early-bird special that will only be available on the first day of the campaign, just saying.

But right now, let’s kickstart monster month with an episode about the wampus cat! The wampus cat, or just wampus, has appeared in folklore throughout North America for over a hundred years and probably much longer, especially in mountainous areas in the eastern portion of the continent.

The term actually comes from the word catawampus, probably related to the phrase catty corner. Both words mean “something that’s askew or turned diagonally,” but catawampus was also once used in the southeastern United States to describe any strange creature lurking in the forest. It was a short step from catawampus to wampus cat, possibly also influenced by the word catamount, used for the cougar and other large cats native to North America.

Whatever the origins of the word, the wampus cat was usually considered to be a real animal. Some people probably used the term as a synonym for catamount, but many people firmly believed the wampus was a different animal from the cougar, bobcat, or lynx. It was usually supposed to be a type of big cat, although not necessarily.

The word wampus also once referred to a dress-like garment resembling a knee-length smock worn over leggings, also called a wampus coat. The first newspaper use of wampus referring to an animal doesn’t appear until the very end of the 19th century. A Missouri paper wrote in May 1899:

They knew immediately the source of the hair-raising scream. The “wampus” was after them. They could see it; it was a big black thing with long hair and large feet.

What may be a follow-up to that story, from a different Missouri newspaper, appeared in November 1899 and was headlined “THE WAMPUS IS DEAD.”

Many described it as gray wolf, but others refused to believe such an animal was here and lightly spoke of the wampus. It frequented the dark woods at day time, coming forth at night and roaming around, uttering a strange cry. Woe unto the traveler overtaken by darkness, for the night was made hideous by the shrill cry. […]

On last Sunday night George Jolliff secreted himself in a tree south of his house and about 7 o’clock saw the long-sought monster, accompanied by several dogs, approaching; on seeing his dog, which was tied beneath the tree, they come under the tree and Mr. Jolliff fired, severely wounding the animal. Hastily climbing down, he fired again and this stopped the monster in his tracks. […]

It measured 6 feet 7 inches in length and 2 feet 4 inches in height; some say it is a female wolf, others a cross between the dog and wolf species. It is dark brown tinged with red and black.

This sounds like a coyote or red wolf, especially considering that it was accompanied by dogs. The size of the animal in metric is 2 meters long, presumably including the tail, and 73 cm tall. The height is accurate for a coyote or red wolf but is much longer than even a gray wolf. It’s possible the animal had an unusually long tail or there was a little exaggeration going on. Whatever the animal was, dogs, coyotes, and wolves don’t make a screaming sound, so this wasn’t the same animal that kept frightening people with its shrill cries.

By the beginning of the 1900s, the wampus as an animal had completely overtaken the use of the word as an article of clothing. The first baseball team named the Wampus Cats, from Texas, appears in 1908, which argues that the term wampus cat had been in common use for some time. The surge of articles about the wampus also suggests the term had made its way from local use into the popular culture. By the 1910s, any unidentified animal is referred to as a wampus, from a striped rodent-like animal to an exhibit in a traveling menagerie, which unfortunately wasn’t described. Humorous articles claiming to answer the question of “what is the wampus?” appear alongside humorous poetry about the wampus. Well, it supposed to be humorous but it’s not actually funny. More sports teams named the Wampus Cats also appear in the 1910s, along with a cheer squad in Oklahoma called the Wampus Kittens—although interestingly, the Wampus Kittens were cheering the Wildcats.

By the 1920s, newspaper reports of the wampus cat were routine. Its description varies and most reports are light on definite details. Here are some examples of descriptions.

November 1897 (near Clarksville, Tennessee): “Mr. Gaisser was within ten feet of the strange animal and describes it as being about six feet in length [that’s 1.8 meters], of a ferocious appearance, having long claws and looking as though it could attack and dispatch a man as easily as a hog. […] What kind of an animal it is Mr. Gaisser cannot say. It has the appearance of being either a jaguar, mountain lion or a catamount.”

November 1918 (near Vestal, Tennessee, a community in south Knoxville): “It looked very much like a leopard. It was a short haired animal, with a slick, glossy coat. It was white and gray spotted, and had a long tail, with a bushy end.”

December 1921 (in Howell County, Missouri): “Drake says it was a long lanky animal, had spots on it. Then Bill Webb saw the ‘wampus cat.’ It was in the day time. Bill says it was running and disappeared in a second. It was built like a tiger and light yellow in color, he reports.”

January 1926 (near the Spring Creek community of Crenshaw County, Alabama): “The animal has been seen by a number of people, and apparently either is a panther or a monster wildcat from the recesses of Patsalega swamp. The beast is described as being of the size of a large shepherd dog, dark of hue and shaggy of coat. It steps from eighteen to twenty inches while walking, and when running it covers the ground in huge leaps of from six to ten feet. It has long claws, and leaves a footprint measuring two and one-half inches in width.” That’s about 6.5 centimeters, which is not a very big pawprint for a big cat; a cougar’s print would be up to four inches across, or 10 centimeters.

By the 1940s, newspaper mentions of the wampus as an animal diminish, taken over by sports teams with the name. By the 1960s wampus cat articles are mostly space-filling pieces talking about traditions among local oldtimers, usually with a humorous tone although again, they’re not actually funny, and fewer sports teams carry the name. By the 2000s, when reporters were doing their research online, any mention of a wampus cat is accompanied by the bogus Cherokee story about a woman who could turn into a wildcat, and usually also claim that “wampus” is a Cherokee word.

Even though the term wampus fell out of favor slowly after its peak in the late 1920s, reports of cat-like animals were still appearing in newspapers. They just didn’t get called wampus cats. A search for “strange animals” on Newspapers.com will bring up dozens of reports. Here are a few from the 1950s and 60s.

January 1951 (Pennsylvania): “Sent to hunt a strange animal reportedly sighted in the Noxen-Harveys Lake area, three bloodhounds today were themselves the objects of an extensive search in that region. Meanwhile, other reports of ‘strange’ animals came from the Hazleton area. The three bloodhounds…began trailing the animal, variously described as a bobcat, lynx, or mountain lion….”

February 1955 (South Carolina): “A resident…reported today he had seen the animal yesterday and described it as being black and having long hair and a long bushy tail. Mr. Findley said he heard weird sounds about 10 o’clock last night and went out with a light and gun, but neither saw nor heard anything more. He said the sounds were similar to a huge cat.”

July 1962 (Cherrytree Township, Pennsylvania): “According to Mr. Black, the large animal jumped from the limb of an oak tree on his farm and fled into the cover of a nearby game preserve. […] He pointed out the marks on the ground where the animal landed and inspected claw marks on the tree. […] Asked to compare its size with that of a large dog, the farmer said it was considerably larger and tawney coated.”

February 1963 (near Roan Mountain in the Cherokee National Forest, south of Elizabethton, Tennessee): “It has a track larger than a big dog, and is black in color. A real shiny black. Most of the dogs refuse to track or bay this strange animal and those with nerve enough to get close to the animal wish they hadn’t. Mr. Birchfield had one dog that was real brave and ventured close, but the poor dog was carried home by Birchfield with broken bones.”

September 1965 (Fairview, North Carolina): “The ‘animal,’ described as dark in [color], resembling a cat but much larger, was first seen when the Thomasville-Lexington reservoir was under construction in the late 1950’s. […] It has been reported that the cries sound ‘like cats fighting, then ending with the sound of a bob-white bird.’”

I only stop in 1965 because otherwise this episode would be about two hours long and very repetitive.

Reports still occur today, posted online. In a May 2018 comment on an article about wampus cats, someone named Greg Brashear writes “I saw what the old farmers in my area in north central Ky. [Kentucky] call a ‘wompus cat’. […] It was bigger than a bobcat but smaller than a cougar with yellow eyes and a [disproportionately] long tail and it was solid black.”

The cougar (also called a mountain lion, puma, painter, catamount, or panther) was once common throughout most of the Americas but was hunted to extinction in much of the eastern United States around the early to mid-20th century. It’s a big animal, able to kill deer, with a big male weighing as much as 100 kg [220 lb]. It can leap enormous distances—up to 40 feet while running, or 12 meters, up to 18 feet straight up into a tree, or 5 1/2 meters—and can sprint up to 50 mph, or 80 km/hour. It doesn’t roar but instead produces an unearthly scream. It can also purr.

This is what a cougar sounds like:

[cougar scream]

There’s no doubt that at least some wampus cat reports were cougars. Cougar sightings have continued in the eastern United States and Canada through the present day. Young male cougars travel widely to establish a territory, so most modern sightings in the southeast are probably of young males who have traveled from populations in the west. There’s evidence that many more cougars have started moving into the northeastern United States and Canada and may have even established breeding populations.

The cougar varies in color from tawny to reddish and is occasionally greyish-white. Occasionally a leucistic individual (meaning white or partially white) is caught on camera traps, but there has never been a confirmed sighting of a melanistic cougar (meaning black). It’s likely that sightings of wampus cats described as yellow or gray and white are actually cougar sightings.

Another North American cat, the jaguar, is sometimes black in color. Jaguars are fairly common in South America but much less common in Central and North America. North American jaguars are also much smaller than South American populations, only about half the size of a cougar. The jaguar strongly resembles the leopard, with rosette-like black spots on a tawny or yellowish background. Melanistic jaguars are usually called black panthers and are rare in the North American population.

By 1960 the jaguar was almost completely extirpated in the United States (that means driven to extinction in a particular area), but a population remains in northern Mexico and occasionally one roams across the border into Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. It prefers heavily forested areas near water.

It’s possible, though very unlikely, that a young male black panther could roam as far as the eastern United States and contribute to wampus cat sightings. On the other hand, the jaguar doesn’t fit wampus cat descriptions very well either. The jaguar roars instead of screaming like the cougar, and its smaller stature and extreme shyness make it unlikely to venture close to humans.

This is what a jaguar sounds like:

[jaguar sounds]

There is a third possibility, assuming the wampus cat isn’t an animal new to science. The jaguarundi is also native to the Americas, including most of South and Central America through northern Mexico. It’s related to the cougar and is solid colored, without spots, with a coat that can be black, gray-brown, or reddish. It’s only about twice the size of a domestic cat but looks much different.

The jaguarundi’s body is long and its legs are relatively short in proportion, which means it has a somewhat otter-like gait when it runs. Its rounded face has small round ears, also resembling an otter. Its tail is long, thick, and bushy. It lives in forests, rainforests, open areas (as long as there’s brush to hide in), deserts, and mountains across a wide range, but it’s not very well studied.

The jaguarundi used to be found in the United States, although its former range is unclear. Confirmed and/or credible sightings have been reported in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, and especially Florida, including roadkill animals. It mostly eats small animals like rodents, rabbits, birds, lizards, and fish. It’s mostly nocturnal but is somewhat active during the day as well. It has at least 13 different calls, including whistles, growls, screams, and chattering and chirping.

This is what a jaguarundi sounds like. I apologize for the music in the background; there’s not a lot of jaguarundi calls to choose from online and I had to grab this audio from a National Geographic video. There’s a link in the show notes to the original if you’d like to watch the whole thing:

[jaguarundi sound]

It’s interesting to compare the jaguarundi’s variety of calls to some of the wampus cat sightings. While the jaguarundi isn’t a large animal and can’t kill pigs and dogs, as is frequently reported for the wampus cat, it’s a vocal animal and can and does kill domestic poultry. Brashear’s 2018 comment about a black cat with a disproportionately long tail sounds like a potential jaguarundi, although he described it as bigger than a bobcat when the bobcat is typically larger (although not as long, especially if you include the tail). The 1965 report of a dark-colored cat whose screams ended with a bird-like call also sounds like the jaguarundi. The bobwhite referred to in that sighting makes a two-tone whistle that sounds like this:

[bobwhite call]

It’s exciting to think that many wampus cat sightings might be of the jaguarundi, especially since sightings continue to the present day. Fortunately, the jaguarundi is a protected species in the United States and throughout most of its range. It would be great if these interesting wild cats were found to have established breeding populations in the less populated areas of North America.

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.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 243: Bats and Rats



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

Let’s pre-game Halloween and monster month with an episode about some Halloween-y bats and rats! Thanks to Connor for the suggestion!

Further reading:

Meet Myotis nimaensis

Hyorhinomys stuempkei: New Genus, Species of Shrew Rat Discovered in Indonesia

Fish-eating Myotis

The orange-furred bat is Halloween colored!

The hog-nosed rat has a little piggy nose and VAMPIRE FANGS:

The fish-eating bat has humongous clawed feet:

The crested rat does not look poisonous but it is:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re getting ready for October by talking about a bat suggested by Connor, along with another type of bat and two rats. It’s the bats and rats episode ushering us into Monster Month with style!

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book goes live in just over a week! I know, it hasn’t even started yet and I’m already shouting all about it, but I’m excited! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to click through and bookmark that page.

Also, I have a correction from our recent squirrel episode. Nicholas wrote to let me know that vitiligo isn’t actually a genetic condition, although some people are genetically slightly more likely to develop it. I think that’s what caused my confusion. Vitiligo can be caused by a number of things, but it’s still true that you can’t catch it from someone. I’ll include a more in-depth correction in next year’s updates episode.

Okay, let’s start this episode off with Connor’s suggestion. Connor told me about a newly discovered bat called Myotis nimbaensis, and it’s not just any old bat. It’s a Halloween bat! Its body is orange and its wing membranes are black. It’s called the orange-furred bat and it lives in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea in West Africa.

The orange-furred bat was only discovered in 2018, when a team of scientists was exploring abandoned mine shafts in the mountains, looking for the critically endangered Lamotte’s roundleaf bat. The team was surveying the bats in cooperation with a mining company and conservation groups, because they needed to know where the bats were so the old mine shafts could be repaired before they fell in and squished all the bats.

Then one of the team saw a bat no one recognized. It was orange and fluffy with big ears and tiny black dot eyes, and its wings were black. They sent a picture of the bat to an expert named Nancy Simmons, and Dr. Simmons knew immediately that it was something out of the ordinary. Sure enough, it’s a species unknown to science. The team described the bat in 2021.

Next, let’s talk about a rat. It was also discovered recently, in this case in 2013 and described in 2015. It’s usually called the hog-nosed rat. It lives in a single part of a single small island in South Asia, specifically in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. This is one of the same places where the babirusa lives, if you remember episode 218.

The hog-nosed rat is a rodent but it’s not actually that closely related to other rats and mice. It’s even been assigned to its own genus. It’s a soft brown-gray on its back and white underneath, with big ears, a very long tail, and a pink nose that does actually look a lot like a little piggy nose. Its eyes are small but its incisors are extremely long and sharp. In fact, they look like vampire fangs!

In 2013, a team of scientists was studying rodents living in the area. To do this they would put special traps out at night and check them in the morning. This isn’t a regular rat trap that kills rats, of course, but a box that keeps the rodent safe inside so it can be examined before being released again. One day they checked a trap and inside was a rodent no one recognized. Surprise rat!

So, what does the hog-nosed rat eat with those vicious fangs? Earthworms and beetle grubs! Terrifying, I know.

Next, let’s learn about another bat, Myotis vivesi. It’s called the fish-eating bat or the Mexican fishing bat. It lives around the Gulf of California on the west coast of North America, mostly on small islands. It’s brown on top, white or cream-colored underneath, and it has big ears because it’s a bat. Almost all bats have big ears.

Fish eating is unusual in bats, and marine fish eating is even more unusual. Only one other species of bat, the fisherman bat of Central and South America, catches marine fish regularly, but the two species belong to completely different families. The Mexican fishing bat’s closest relatives don’t eat fish at all.

Because it lives exclusively around the ocean and feeds mostly on fish and crustaceans, although it will occasionally eat insects and algae, the Mexican fishing bat has other unusual adaptations. It drinks seawater instead of fresh water, for one thing. During the day it hides in crevices in rocks, sometimes in cliffs but more often in the rocky ground. It actually wriggles its way about three feet underground, or a meter, where it’s dark and cool.

Why are we talking about this particular bat in our pre-October episode? Because it has humongous feet with long, pointy claws. The bat itself is only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm, but its feet are almost an inch long, or 2.5 cm. It uses its big feet to snag tiny fish out of the water.

We’ll finish with another rodent, the maned rat, or African crested rat. It doesn’t actually look much like a rat, since its tail is furry and it has a short, blunt muzzle sort of like a porcupine’s face. It’s mostly gray and black with white-tipped hairs that make it look frosty, and it has a crest of longer hairs along its back. It also has white stripes along its sides. It grows about 14 inches long, or 36 cm, not counting its thick, furry tail.

The crested rat mostly eats plants, especially fruit and leaves, but will sometimes eat insects and meat too. Its stomach is divided into multiple chambers and is more like a ruminant’s stomach than a rodent’s, which allows it to use a form of foregut fermentation to digest plant material more efficiently.

Also, the African crested rat is POISONOUS.

The crested rat chews on the bark of the poison arrow tree, which contains toxins that can kill most animals. The crested rat isn’t affected by the toxins, though. After it chews the bark, it licks the long hairs of its crest, which are unusually absorbent. The hairs absorb the poison-filled spit so that any animal that tries to take a bite of African crested rat gets sick or even dies. It probably also tastes terrible but that’s just a guess.

The poison arrow tree is a type of milkweed, and most plants in this family contain toxins. North American milkweed plants are the ones that monarch butterfly caterpillars eat, and the caterpillars absorb toxins from the milkweed that keep birds and other animals from eating them. Researchers aren’t sure how the crested rat keeps from getting sick from the toxins, but one theory is that its stomach contains specialized bacteria that break down the toxins.

If an African crested rat feels threatened, it will raise its crest of long hairs. The crest actually parts down the middle of the back, exposing the white section of the hair and warning predators away.

In case you’re too scared by this poisonous fuzzy rodent, you can relax knowing that the African crested rat is a sociable animal that makes purring sounds while it grooms its family members. Just don’t lick it.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 241: Weird and Wonderful Squirrels



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Our pre-launch Kickstarter page! You can see what the book cover will look like!

Thanks to Liesbet and Enzo for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about squirrels!

Further reading:

Project Squirrel

Interspecies Breeding Is Responsible for Some Squirrels’ Black Coloring

The Indian giant squirrel, without filter (left) and with filter (right):

Some variable squirrels (see lots more at iNaturalist):

The Eastern gray squirrel:

The Eurasian red squirrel:

The fox squirrel:

White Eastern gray squirrels (photos taken from the White and Albino Squirrel Research Initiative):

A white variable squirrel spotted in Thailand (picture found here):

The African pygmy squirrel:

The least pygmy squirrel of Asia:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally the squirrel episode! Both Liesbet and Enzo have suggested squirrels as a topic, and Enzo specifically asked about white squirrels, hybrid squirrels, and squirrels in danger. We’re going to cover all those, and also a few squirrel mysteries!

First, though, a quick note to say that the Kickstarter campaign for the Strange Animals Podcast book is definitely going to happen NEXT MONTH! It’ll go live in early October 2021. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when so you can go pre-order a copy of the book if you want, and in fact I think I’ll do a bonus episode the first day of the Kickstarter. If you want to get an email to remind you when the campaign launches, there’s a link in the show notes to the pre-launch page where you can request an email notification on launch. You can also see what the book cover will look like! Now, on to the squirrels.

The animal we generally just call a squirrel is specifically a tree squirrel, as opposed to ground squirrels. Tree squirrels are arboreal, which means they live in trees, although they spend plenty of time on the ground too. Squirrels mostly eat nuts and seeds, including acorns and the seeds inside pine cones, but will also eat berries, flowers and buds, tree bark and sap, fungus, and sometimes insects, bird eggs, and even baby birds. Squirrels are rodents and are active in the daytime.

Squirrels can be helpful to trees even though they eat tree nuts, because most species bury nuts to dig up and eat later. The squirrel doesn’t always remember where it hid all its nuts, and in spring the buried nuts sprout and grow into new trees. Some species also hide nuts in caches, often in holes in trees.

A squirrel sleeps in a nest made of dead leaves and sticks it builds in the branches of a tree. The nest is called a drey and it’s lined on the inside with moss, grass, and other soft, warm material. A mother squirrel will line the nest with some of her fur right before her babies are born, so the nest is especially soft and warm. Some species also nest in old woodpecker holes. In winter when it’s cold, several squirrels may share the same drey to stay warm, but squirrels are usually solitary. They don’t hibernate, but like most of us, they sleep more in winter and are less active.

Most people know what a squirrel looks like, because it’s such a common animal throughout most of the world. Some squirrel species get used to humans and often live in people’s yards and in city parks. A tree squirrel has a long, fluffy tail, a long, slender body, relatively short legs, small ears, and large eyes. It’s usually gray or brown and sometimes has spots or stripes.

Some tree squirrels look different from the squirrels you may be used to, depending on where you live. Squirrels of the genus Ratufa are called giant squirrels and they’re the size of domestic cats. They live in parts of Asia, especially southeast Asia. The Indian giant squirrel lives in India, and not only is it especially big, up to 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its long tail, it’s brightly colored. Different individuals and subspecies can have different shades of fur, although the belly and front legs are usually cream-colored. The rest of the body can be tan, dark brown, black, cream-colored, rusty-red, or even a dark maroon color. You may have seen pictures online of brightly colored giant squirrels, and while those are real pictures of real animals, the photographer used a filter that enhances the colors to make them look even brighter than they really are.

The Indian giant squirrel and its close relations eat fruit, nuts, flowers, and other plant material, and hardly ever come down from the tall trees where they live.

Another colorful squirrel is the variable squirrel, which also lives in southeast Asia. It’s on the small side for a tree squirrel, less than 9 inches long at most, or 22 cm, not counting the tail. There are over a dozen subspecies that vary in color and pattern, and some researchers think there may be enough differences that it’s actually more than one species of closely related squirrel. It’s a member of a genus called “beautiful squirrels,” because so many species in the genus have pretty markings. Some variable squirrels are white underneath and red-brown above, with little pointed ears outlined in white, and a reddish tail. Some are glossy black with red markings. Others can be gray, black, orangey-red, reddish-brown, brown, or white with various patterns and markings. It’s so pretty that it’s been introduced in places like Japan, Singapore, Italy, and the Philippines, where it can be an invasive species.

The eastern gray squirrel of eastern North America has also been introduced to other areas where it’s become an invasive species. It was introduced to the UK in 1876 and because it’s a large, aggressive species, the native Eurasian red squirrel has been driven almost to extinction in Britain. It’s still doing fine in the rest of its range, though. Habitat loss is also a factor in the red squirrel’s declining numbers, but the gray squirrel certainly isn’t helping.

The gray squirrel also carries a disease called the squirrel parapoxvirus that causes squirrelpox. Don’t worry, only squirrels can catch it. The gray squirrel is mostly immune to the disease, but the red squirrel isn’t. If an infected gray squirrel is bitten by a mosquito that then bites a red squirrel, the red squirrel can catch squirrelpox from the mosquito bite.

The red squirrel is a reddish-brown in color with tufts on its ears, and in winter it grows a thick undercoat to keep it warm. It also generally looks more gray in winter. Some populations of red squirrel in parts of Europe are black, or nearly black, although it still has a white belly. The red squirrel only grows up to about 9 inches long, or 23 cm, much smaller than the eastern gray squirrel, which can grow up to 12 inches long, or 30 cm. Those lengths don’t include the tail. The red squirrel generally prefers fir trees while the gray squirrel prefers deciduous trees, especially oaks, but the gray squirrel will steal food from the red squirrel no matter what kind of food it is.

In its native range in eastern North America, the eastern gray squirrel often lives alongside other species of squirrel. In 1997 an evolutionary behavioral ecologist named Joel Brown noticed that there are two species of squirrel that live in Chicago, Illinois, a large city in the middle of the gray squirrel’s range. The gray squirrel shares the city with the fox squirrel, which is about the same size and looks very similar to the gray squirrel but is more of a rusty-red color. Dr. Brown noticed that the gray squirrel mostly lives in wealthy neighborhoods while the fox squirrel mostly lives in neighborhoods where people don’t have as much money, and he wanted to figure out why.

Dr. Brown started Project Squirrel to study the mystery. The program teaches people how to tell the difference between the two species so they can report what kind of squirrels they see and where they see them. Right away he started noticing patterns. Fox squirrels live in areas where there are more predators, including feral and free-roaming dogs and cats, urban foxes and coyotes, and hawks. Gray squirrels prefer areas where there aren’t as many predators. Dr. Brown thinks it’s because the fox squirrels are bolder and on average a little larger than gray squirrels, which tend to be more shy. He even noticed a change in his own neighborhood when gray squirrels started becoming more numerous, a shift that happened right after a local leash law went into effect, meaning that fewer pets were running loose.

Project Squirrel has since expanded. There’s an app and everything if you want to take part as a citizen scientist and help solve squirrel mysteries.

Another small squirrel mystery is white squirrels. In August of 2021, just last month as this episode goes live, we had a Q&A episode where we talked about the black squirrels Connor was seeing in Michigan. Those black squirrels turned out to be melanistic eastern gray squirrels. Are white squirrels albino animals or is there something else going on?

Albinism is due to a genetic anomaly that causes an individual to lack pigment. That means its fur or hair is pure white and its skin looks pink because the lack of pigment means its blood shows through and makes it look pink. Its eyes will look red or pink for the same reason, although in some animals the eyes are pale blue instead. Humans with albinism have pale blue eyes.

But most white squirrels have dark eyes and may appear pale brown or gray instead of pure white. Instead of albinism, these squirrels are leucistic. Leucism is related to albinism but instead of a lack of pigment, a leucistic animal has reduced pigment. Sometimes the reduced pigment happens all over the body, sometimes in patches. A leucistic animal often has ordinary colored eyes and skin but pale or white fur. In some domestic species of animal, leucism is bred for or happens frequently in a population, like piebald horses and cows with white spots. It’s a common enough condition that I’ve actually seen leucistic birds while birdwatching. Humans can sometimes show a type of leucism called vitiligo that usually develops in adults, where patches of skin lose their pigment over time. It’s most noticeable on people with dark skin but it also happens to people with light skin. You can’t catch vitiligo from someone else; it’s just a genetic anomaly. Unfortunately, sometimes people who develop the condition get treated badly by others, because people are often afraid of things they don’t understand. Now you know what it is and you can share that knowledge when you need to.

In squirrels, individuals with white fur are usually in more danger from predators. Everything likes to eat squirrels, which is why most squirrel species are gray or reddish-brown as camouflage against tree trunks and branches. A white squirrel shows up like a flashing sign saying, “Snacktime!” As a result, squirrels with white fur are rare to start with and usually don’t live long enough to pass their genes along to the next generation—but in some places, they’re much more common.

In many towns in the United States and Canada, white squirrels are not just common, most squirrels are white. Some towns have white squirrel festivals as a way to promote local pride and bring tourists to the area. Why do some places have white squirrels while most don’t, and why are all the white squirrel populations in North America?

It’s all back to the eastern gray squirrel again. Most squirrel species don’t have a gene that can cause leucism, but the eastern gray squirrel does. Other squirrel species can be albinistic since that’s a genetic anomaly that can happen in any animal, but it’s the eastern gray squirrel that shows leucism most commonly. The closely related fox squirrel also sometimes exhibits leucism.

Some towns have high populations of white squirrels because people think they’re neat. If the white squirrels are in a protected area, like a city park or a college campus, there are fewer predators to start with. People who like the squirrels will leave food out for them and make sure no one hurts them, and as a result the squirrels survive to have babies. Since leucism is a genetic condition, the babies of white squirrels are more likely to be white too.

Remember the variable squirrel we talked about earlier in the episode? Some of them exhibit leucism too, usually a pale brown-white all over with dark eyes.

One thing I learned about black squirrels after last month’s Q&A episode is that some black squirrels are hybrids of eastern gray and fox squirrels. The two species are closely related and often live in the same areas, so it’s not surprising that they sometimes interbreed. Hybrid babies may inherit a genetic variant found in fox squirrels that gives them darker fur. Some researchers think that all gray squirrels with black fur may have inherited the gene for black fur color from fox squirrels in their ancestry.

For the most part, though, tree squirrels don’t hybridize very often, probably because in most places, only one species predominates in any given area. Grey squirrels and Eurasian red squirrels belong to different genera and subfamilies, so aren’t very closely related although their habitats sometimes overlap.

Enzo specifically asked about squirrels in danger, and I’m happy to report that most squirrel species are actually doing just fine. Squirrels are adaptable and can learn to live around humans. As long as they have trees to live in and enough food to support a population, they’re okay. The main danger most squirrels face is habitat loss, especially logging and clear-cutting of forests to build houses or businesses.

A subspecies of fox squirrel called the Delmarva fox squirrel was put on the endangered species list in 1967. It’s native to areas of northeastern North America. It’s about the size of the eastern gray squirrel, which it resembles since it’s gray with a white belly, although it’s usually a more silvery gray in color. By 1967 its population had declined by 90% from habitat loss and overhunting. A conservation plan put in place in 1979 focused on protecting the squirrel’s remaining habitat, restoring its habitat wherever possible, and monitoring the population carefully. The program was such a success that in 2015, the Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the endangered species list. It’s yet another reminder that protecting an animal’s habitat is just as important as protecting the animal itself. The Delmarva fox squirrel now only lives on the eastern coasts of Maryland and Virginia, a much smaller range than before, so continued conservation efforts are in place to keep it safe and healthy.

Let’s finish with the smallest tree squirrel known, the African pygmy squirrel. It lives in tropical rainforests in parts of western and central Africa. It only grows 5.5 inches long, or 14 cm, and that includes its tail! That’s the size of a mouse. We don’t actually know a whole lot about the African pygmy squirrel, but we do know that it’s an omnivore. This is unusual for squirrels, even though most squirrel species will eat the occasional insect or bird egg. The African pygmy squirrel eats insects regularly as well as fruit, bark, and other plant materials. Unlike most squirrels, it doesn’t store food.

The African pygmy squirrel is the same size as the least pygmy squirrel that lives on three islands in southeast Asia. We know even less about the least pygmy squirrel than we do the African pygmy squirrel…or I guess you could say we know the least about the least pygmy squirrel.

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

Thanks for listening!


BONUS Q&A Episode!



It’s our bonus question and answer episode, which turned out to be ridiculously long but hopefully interesting!

Further listening/watching:

The Axolotl Song

~~~Buy my books!~~~

Whiskers used to have two eyes and a nose. In the background, Dracula (left) and Poe (right):

Black squirrel!

King cobra!

Pufferfish, puffed:

Dog nose:

Show transcript:

Welcome to the bonus Q&A episode of Strange Animals Podcast! I’m your host, Kate Shaw, and this is a little extra episode where I answer listener questions. So let’s jump right into it.

To start us off, Simon and Thia wanted to know how I first became interested in animals. I really don’t know! When I was little, I didn’t want to play with dolls, I wanted to play with my stuffed animals. I actually have a toy cat named Whiskers who I’ve had since I was four. Whiskers is older than all my teeth! I especially loved horses as a kid and since my family couldn’t afford to buy me a horse, I took riding lessons and read everything I could find about horses, fiction and nonfiction. All that reading about horses led to reading about other animals, and the more I read, the more interested I became in animals of all kinds.

Next, Melissa of the awesome podcast Bewilderbeasts asked, “What was the fact or episode that really slapped you out of left field, like, ‘I didn’t see that coming AT ALL’?”

OH MY GOSH, how many times has that happened to me? The most astounding fact I can think of isn’t actually about an animal at all but about trees. While I was researching the Temnospondyl episode, which had a related Patreon episode that ran at about the same time, I came across the fact that when trees first developed, nothing could break down the tough compound called lignin that hardens a tree’s cells to make wood and bark. When a tree died, its trunk just stayed where it fell forever, and this happened for at least 50 million years and possibly 100 million years. 100 million years of tree trunks just lying all over the ground! You wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere! You’d have to climb over hundreds of millions of fallen tree trunks, although naturally as the years passed the older ones would get buried deeper and deeper in the earth. But there would always be more!

This blew my mind, and later I came back to it, determined to do more research and make sure it was accurate. I did a whole lot of research, because it just didn’t seem possible, and that information ended up in episode 214.

As for an animal that blew my mind, I still have trouble believing ice worms are real. They’re worms that live in snow and ice! We covered them last August in episode 185 and I’m still reeling.

Next, Llewelly asks what my favorite extinct animal is, or animals. Why would you make me choose? This is so hard. Okay, fine, I’ll narrow it down to hoofed Pleistocene megafauna like the giant deer and elasmotherium and so many other animals with weird horns and ossicones and things like that. What really gets me is that they lived so recently! Many of them only died out 11,000 years ago, and some were probably around much more recently in a few isolated areas. It also really reminds me to appreciate the megafauna that’s still around. We live at the same time as giraffes!

Next, Richard E. asked, “Does your job involve the study of animals and/or is the pod something that you really wanted to do?” Tracie also asked what my background is, if I’m a professor or zookeeper or something similar. Helenka also asked my background and how I got interested in strange animals.

I’m kind of embarrassed that I never have pointed out that I’m not an animal expert, to steal a phrase from the awesome podcast Varmints! I actually work as a test proctor, AKA invigilator, in a large community college, so my work doesn’t have anything to do with animals. My background is in elementary education although I didn’t teach long. Basically I got my K-8 teaching certification and M.Ed., did some substitute teaching afterwards, and ended up getting my current job instead of taking a teaching position. I still love teaching, so when I decided I wanted to start a podcast, I knew it would be nonfiction. My undergraduate degree is in English literature, and I took so many history courses that I minored in history almost by accident, so I’m really good at research and can write an essay about any topic in the world in very little time. I didn’t know it when I was in college, which was long before podcasts existed anyway, but I have the perfect background for creating a nonfiction podcast.

Liesbet has three questions about the podcast: what inspired me to start it, what motivates me to keep going without missing any episodes, and what I enjoy most about it. I’m so pleased that someone noticed I’ve never missed a single episode! Not that it would be the end of the world if I did, of course, but if I did, I’d feel bad thinking about people who were looking forward to listening to the new episode and were disappointed when there wasn’t one.

Here is the raw, honest truth about why I started Strange Animals Podcast. It was several things combined and the whole story is kind of dumb. First, my friend Kevin makes a great pop culture podcast called The Flopcast, and after I’d listened to it for a while I thought, “Hey, that sounds like fun. I think I’ll start a podcast.” About the same time, I was listening to a back episode of a podcast I will not name, and it gave some misinformation about the Irish elk, specifically the outdated theory that it went extinct because its antlers were too big. I mentioned that in episode 4 and how I kept thinking about it and got kind of angry that a large, influential podcast hadn’t bothered to do enough research about an animal that lots of people are interested in. I decided I could do better and that my podcast would be about animals. Also at the same time, I was trying to find a good podcast about mystery animals that was well researched and didn’t skate off into speculation too much. I couldn’t find one that satisfied me, so I had to make one myself.

I wasn’t exactly sure what my focus would be when I first started the podcast. You can kind of tell when you listen to the first six months or so of the podcast that I was trying out new things and figuring out what worked best and what I liked best. I’m still figuring that out, for that matter.

It’s hard to decide what I like best about making the podcast. I like the whole process, except maybe not the frustrating parts of recording and editing. I think my favorite part has to be when I uncover information I find really exciting. I get to share that information with everyone who listens! It’s fantastic!

Next, let’s get into some questions about animals.

Pranav asked if I would explain how poisons work, which is a great question and also just a tiny bit alarming. No one eat anything Pranav cooks for you unless he’s eating some too. Actually, of course, he’s just wanting to learn more about poisonous animals, and I’ll talk about venomous animals too.

A poisonous animal contains toxins somewhere in its body, like the hooded pitohui bird that we talked about in episode 222 that has poisonous feathers. The poison stops other animals from trying to eat it. In the case of the hooded pitohui, its poison causes your skin to burn when you touch it, so an animal that tries to bite it will have a burning mouth. If it actually eats any of the poison, the animal can die. Many amphibians secrete toxins through their skin, like the poison dart frog, and many other animals concentrate toxins in their muscles or internal organs.

A venomous animal has toxins that it can inject into a wound to hurt or kill another animal. Some snakes can inject venom with special fangs, but some amphibians have pointed ribs that are sharp enough to stab a potential predator. The ribs will project through the amphibian’s sides through tiny spots that are filled with toxins. The toxins coat the points of the ribs, and if the predator tries to bite down, it gets those toxins stabbed right into its mouth. Some fish have spines that are coated in toxins, and of course many insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates have stingers that inject toxins.

Generally, a poisonous animal absorbs toxins from a food it eats, often a toxic insect, and instead of getting sick, it uses those toxins to protect it from predators. A venomous animal usually produces its own toxins in its body, especially animals that use venom to kill or disable prey. It costs energy for the animal to make venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it. That’s why snakes will sometimes give what are called dry bites in self-defense, where it bites but doesn’t inject any venom. It’s hoping that the pain of the bite itself will make a potential predator retreat without the snake needing to use venom.

Different toxins have different effects, naturally, and animals produce so many different kinds of toxins that we could talk about it all day and not even cover them all. Instead, let’s quickly discuss two animals, one venomous and one poisonous.

Our venomous example is the king cobra. It can grow over 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and lives in southern Asia. It mostly eats other snakes and some lizards. Its venom contains numerous toxins that do different horrible things. The neurotoxins in its venom affect the central nervous system, which can cause all sorts of issues like dizziness, pain, blurred vision, sleepiness, and even paralysis. Other toxins in the venom are called cardiotoxic because they affect the heart, making it weak so that circulation of blood slows down. If a king cobra bites you and injects venom, you can die within 30 minutes as the venom basically just shuts your body down, one process at a time. If your heart stops or your diaphragm becomes paralyzed so you can’t breathe, that’s it for you. Fortunately, in ordinary situations the king cobra is shy and avoids people, so if you don’t bother it, it won’t bite you.

Our poisonous example is the pufferfish. Some species of pufferfish are incredibly poisonous. You may have heard about fugu, which is considered a delicacy even though it’s so poisonous that in Japan and some other countries, chefs have to be specially trained and licensed to prepare the fish to eat. The part of the fish that’s considered tastiest is also the part that’s most poisonous, the liver. It contains tetrodotoxin, which is a neurotoxin that stops your nerves from sending the tiny electrical signals that allow them to move. If you’re poisoned with tetrodotoxin, you start to feel dizzy and sick, then you start having difficulty speaking and moving, then you have trouble breathing, and then, ultimately, you’re paralyzed and can’t breathe, at which point you die. Since the toxin doesn’t affect your brain, you remain completely aware of what’s happening to you but there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no antidote. Fortunately, you have the option of not eating fugu. Also, it turns out that the pufferfish’s poison comes from a type of bacteria, so fish raised in careful conditions in captivity aren’t poisonous.

Most poisonous and venomous animals are harmless to humans!

Next, Connor wrote and said, “I recently moved to Michigan from West Virginia and noticed a lot of black squirrels around. Are they a different species/sub-species or just melanistic individuals?”

I looked into this and sure enough, Michigan and other areas around the Great Lakes are known for a large population of black squirrels. I’ve never seen a black squirrel but now that I’ve looked at pictures of them, they are awesome and I wish I had some in my yard.

The eastern gray squirrel is the most common species of squirrel in eastern North America, and a black morph of that species and other squirrel species is not that unusual. The color difference is due to a small mutation in the gene that controls how much pigment the squirrel’s fur contains. Connor is right that the coloration is due to melanistic individuals.

But that doesn’t explain why there are so many black squirrels in Michigan and surrounding areas. No one’s completely sure why that is. In other animals, including the gray wolf and the leopard, melanistic individuals are more common in areas where there’s thick vegetation that blocks a lot of sunlight. A dark-colored wolf or leopard is better camouflaged in the shadows, which allows it to sneak up on prey. But the squirrel isn’t a predator, and black squirrels don’t seem to be any more common in heavily forested areas compared to more park-like areas.

One suggestion is that black squirrels find it easier to stay warm in cold weather, because dark fur absorbs more heat than gray fur. This actually does seem to have some basis in fact. Black squirrels are much more common in northern areas, including parts of Canada where the eastern gray squirrel ordinarily doesn’t live. Black squirrels are correspondingly rare in more southern areas where winters are mild, which explains why I’ve never seen one. Then again, the fox squirrel is also common in eastern North America, often living in the same areas where eastern gray squirrels live, and they also have a black morph, but black fox squirrels mostly live in the southeast. So it’s a mystery.

Black squirrels are the same as ordinary colored squirrels. They just look different. That reminds me that I have an episode about squirrels planned for some time later this year, especially unusual squirrels.

Next, Anna has a question about dogs. She says, “We have a dog named Sadie, who is a beagle mix. She is much more aware of the sounds and smells around us and often howls and barks at things that we can’t see. How do dogs have such a strong sense of smell and good hearing?”

The wild ancestors of dogs were wolves. Wolves are generally nocturnal, and as a result, dogs have sensitive hearing and smell to find prey when it’s dark. A dog can hear in the ultrasonic range, which refers to sounds higher than human hearing. Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 hertz, while dogs can hear sounds up to 50,000 hertz. A dog also has a lot of muscles in its ears that allow it to turn its outer ear to find sounds. While some dog breeds have lapped-over ears, wolves and many dog breeds have pricked-up ears that act as little satellite dishes to gather up as many sounds as possible. If you cup your hands behind your ears, you can get a sense of how this helps. A dog also has a relatively large ear canal, which is the inside part of the ear. A large ear canal allows more sound vibrations in. Cats actually have even better hearing than dogs, but cats don’t have nearly the same ability to smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is incredible. Humans have about six million olfactory receptors in our noses. That sounds like a lot, but a dog has over 200 million olfactory receptors! It can also process all those smells incredibly well in its brain, so that with training a dog can detect unbelievably faint smells. That’s why dogs are used to sniff out dangerous items like bombs and illegal drugs, or find people who are buried in rubble after an earthquake or other disaster, or track down people who are lost. Dogs can even learn to detect the smell of some diseases, including cancer, malaria, and tuberculosis.

A dog’s nose is much different from a human nose. If you have a dog, or can borrow a friend’s dog, sit down and take a look at their nose. Ha ha, the dog just licked you in the face! That’s hilarious! The dog’s nose has nostrils in the front but if you look carefully, you’ll see that the nostril openings continue along the sides of its nose, in a little slit. There’s also a little fold of tissue inside the nose. The tissue separates the air into two streams. One stream goes into the lungs, but the other gets circulated into the nose to come in contact with all those olfactory receptors. Then, when the dog breathes out, the air goes out the side slits instead of out the main nostrils, so it doesn’t push any odors out of the nose. A dog’s nose works best when it’s damp, which is why a healthy dog has a wet nose.

When you hear a sound, you can usually tell which direction it’s coming from by turning your head, because the sound will be slightly louder in one ear than the other and your brain can make sense of this difference. Dogs can tell which direction a smell is coming from because its brain can tell which nostril is picking up more of the smell.

A dog’s sense of smell is so acute, and so important to the animal, that a dog that loses its vision can often do just fine. It can smell its way around. Naturally, some dog breeds have a better sense of smell than others, and some individuals are better at smelling than others too.

Don’t feel bad about your sense of smell, though. Humans may not be as good at smelling as dogs are, but we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to faint odors. The next time you take a walk, pay attention to what you’re smelling and I bet you’ll notice a lot more scents than you realize.

Next, Helenka also wanted to know about my writing. Thank you so much for asking! Now I can plug my books and also tell you how the strange animals podcast book is coming along!

I mostly write fantasy fiction. I have a steampunk adventure book available called Skytown, and a related collection of short stories about the same characters from the book, which is called Skyway. Sometimes I get the titles confused because they’re really similar, but Skytown is called that because there’s a city in the book that can only be reached by air, which in this fantasy world is mostly airships. The main characters are two young women named Jo and Lizzy, friends who are airship pirates. It’s a lot of fun, and the short story collection actually tells how Jo and Lizzy met and what they did together right up to the start of the novel. If that sounds interesting, I’d love it if you could pick up a copy of one or both books. They’re published by small independent publishers, who don’t make a lot of money and have trouble getting books into physical stores. There’s a link in the show notes.

Okay, so now I get to tell you all about the Strange Animals Podcast book! I’ve been working on it all year and it’s getting really close to being done. The title is Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, and most of the material is taken directly from mystery animal episodes from the last four-plus years, BUT I’ve made sure to update the chapters as much as possible and I’ve added some new chapters.

I’ve decided to self-publish the book, so I’m planning a Kickstarter to cover the costs of hiring a cover artist and things like that. I’d like to run the Kickstarter in October, which would give me time to get it published hopefully in time for the holidays in case people want to order copies to give as gifts. We’ll see how that goes, though. There’s a ton of work that goes into running a successful Kickstarter, and although I don’t need a whole lot of funding for the book, it still worries me that maybe no one will be interested and it won’t meet its funding goal and I’ll have to pay for everything out of pocket. I’m already kind of broke this year from paying about $5,000 to the emergency vet to save my cat Poe’s life, but honestly, if the choice is between having Poe running around and playing or self-publishing a book, I will choose Poe every single time.

Anyway, one way or another I’ll make sure the Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie book is available to buy before the podcast’s fifth year anniversary in February 2022!

Finally, this wasn’t sent in as a question but I thought it would be a nice way to finish off the episode. In a really nice review, a listener who I think is named Meg said “I think she’s southern like me but not sure.” Yes, I am southern, although I don’t have much of an accent. I was born in Georgia and grew up in East Tennessee, where I live now.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions! We’ll probably have another Q&A episode eventually, maybe next year, so feel free to send me your questions! I think I got everyone’s questions answered this time, but if I missed yours, definitely let me know. The best way to get in touch with me is through email, strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com.

To finish us off, Richard from NC wanted me to play the Axolotl song. I won’t play the whole thing, because it’s kind of long, but here’s a clip and there’s a link in the show notes. It’s by an animator and musician called Joel Veitch. I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since Richard sent me the link, so now you will too. Also, I promise I’ll make a whole episode about the axolotl soon.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 229: Blue Ghosts and Vanishing Sharks



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

Derek’s photography, Enchanting Ectotherms

Further reading:

A shark mystery millions of years in the making

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

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way, and don’t forget to join our mailing list. There’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 226: Brood X Cicadas



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

Further listening:

Varmints! Podcast – “Cicadas”

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

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

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

[cicada sounds]

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

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

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

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

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

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

A reminder: this is what they sound like:

[more cicada sounds]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!