Episode 389: Updates 7 and the Lava Bear

It’s our annual updates episode! Thanks to Kelsey and Torin for the extra information about ultraviolet light, and thanks to Caleb for suggesting we learn more about the dingo!

Further reading:

At Least 125 Species of Mammals Glow under Ultraviolet Light, New Study Reveals

DNA has revealed the origin of this giant ‘mystery’ gecko

Bootlace Worm: Earth’s Longest Animal Produces Powerful Toxin

Non-stop flight: 4,200 km transatlantic flight of the Painted Lady butterfly mapped

Gigantopithecus Went Extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 Years Ago, New Study Says

First-Ever Terror Bird Footprints Discovered

Last surviving woolly mammoths were inbred but not doomed to extinction

Australian Dingoes Are Early Offshoot of Modern Breed Dogs, Study Shows

A (badly) stuffed lava bear:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have our annual updates episode, and we’ll also learn about a mystery animal called the lava bear! As usual, a reminder that I don’t try to update everything we’ve ever talked about. That would be impossible. I just pick new information that is especially interesting.

After our episode about animals and ultraviolet light, I got a great email from Kelsey and Torin with some information I didn’t know. I got permission to quote the email, which I think you’ll find really interesting too:

You said humans can’t see UV light, which is true, however humans can detect UV light via neuropsin (a non-visual photoreceptor in the retina). These detectors allow the body to be signaled that it’s time to do things like make sex-steroid hormones, neurotransmitters, etc. (Spending too much time indoors results in non-optimal hormone levels, lowered neurotransmitter production, etc.)

Humans also have melanopsin detectors in the retina and skin. Melanopsin detectors respond to blue light. Artificial light (LEDs, flourescents, etc) after dark entering the eye or shining on the skin is sensed by these proteins as mid-day daylight. This results in an immediate drop in melatonin production when it should be increasing getting closer to bedtime.”

And that’s why you shouldn’t look at your phone at night, which I am super bad about doing.

Our first update is related to ultraviolet light. A study published in October of 2023 examined hundreds of mammals to see if any part of their bodies glowed in ultraviolet light, called fluorescence. More than 125 of them did! It was more common in nocturnal animals that lived on land or in trees, and light-colored fur and skin was more likely to fluoresce than darker fur or skin. The white stripes of a mountain zebra, for example, fluoresce while the black stripes don’t.

The study was only carried out on animals that were already dead, many of them taxidermied. To rule out that the fluorescence had something to do with chemicals used in taxidermy, they also tested specimens that had been flash-frozen after dying, and the results were the same. The study concluded that ultraviolet fluorescence is actually really common in mammals, we just didn’t know because we can’t see it. The glow is typically faint and may appear pink, green, or blue. Some other animals that fluoresce include bats, cats, flying squirrels, wombats, koalas, Tasmanian devils, polar bears, armadillos, red foxes, and even the dwarf spinner dolphin.

In episode 20 we talked about Delcourt’s giant gecko, which is only known from a single museum specimen donated in the 19th century. In 1979 a herpetologist named Alain Delcourt, working in the Marseilles Natural History Museum in France, noticed a big taxidermied lizard in storage and wondered what it was. It wasn’t labeled and he didn’t recognize it, surprising since it was the biggest gecko he’d ever seen—two feet long, or about 60 cm. He sent photos to several reptile experts and they didn’t know what it was either. Finally the specimen was examined and in 1986 it was described as a new species.

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

In June of 2023, Delcourt’s gecko was finally genetically tested and determined to belong to a group of geckos from New Caledonia, an archipelago of islands east of Australia. Many of its close relations are large, although not as large as it is. It’s now been placed into its own genus.

Of course, this means that Delcourt’s gecko isn’t the identity of the kawekaweau, since it isn’t very closely related to the geckos of New Zealand, but it might mean the gecko still survives in remote parts of New Caledonia. It was probably nocturnal and lived in trees, hunting birds, lizards, and other small animals.

We talked about some really big worms in episode 289, but somehow I missed the longest worm of all. It’s called the bootlace worm and is a type of ribbon worm that lives off the coast of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Britain, and it’s one of the longest animals alive. The longest worm we talked about in episode 289 was an African giant earthworm, and one was measured in 1967 as 21 feet long, or 6.7 meters. The bootlace worm is only 5 to 10 mm wide, but it routinely grows between 15 and 50 feet long, or 5 to 15 meters, with one dead specimen that washed ashore in Scotland in 1864 measured as over 180 feet long, or 55 meters.

When it feels threatened, the bootlace worm releases thick mucus. The mucus smells bad to humans but it’s not toxic to us or other mammals, but a recent study revealed that it contains toxins that can kill crustaceans and even some insects.

We talked about the painted lady butterfly in episode 203, which was about insect migrations. The painted lady is a small, pretty butterfly that lives throughout much of the world, even the Arctic, but not South America for some reason. Some populations stay put year-round, but some migrate long distances. One population winters in tropical Africa and travels as far as the Arctic Circle during summer, a distance of 4,500 miles, or 7,200 km, which takes six generations. The butterflies who travel back to Africa fly at high altitude, unlike monarch butterflies that fly quite low to the ground most of the time. Unlike the monarch, painted ladies don’t always migrate every year.

In October of 2013, a researcher in a small country in South America called French Guiana found some painted lady butterflies on the beach. Gerard Talavera was visiting from Spain when he noticed the butterflies, and while he recognized them immediately, he knew they weren’t found in South America. But here they were! There were maybe a few dozen of them and he noticed that they all looked pretty raggedy, as though they’d flown a long way. He captured several to examine more closely.

A genetic study determined that the butterflies weren’t from North America but belonged to the groups found in Africa and Europe. The question was how did they get to South America? Talavera teamed up with scientists from lots of different disciplines to figure out the mystery. Their findings were only published last month, in June 2024.

The butterflies most likely rode a well-known wind current called the Saharan air layer, which blows enough dust from the Sahara to South America that it has an impact on the Amazon River basin. The trip from Africa to South America would have taken the butterflies 5 to 8 days, and they would have been able to glide most of the time, thus conserving energy. Until this study, no one realized the Saharan air layer could transport insects.

We talked about the giant great ape relation Gigantopithecus in episode 348, and only a few months later a new study found that it went extinct 100,000 years earlier than scientists had thought. The study tested the age of the cave soils where Gigantopithecus teeth have been discovered, to see how old it was, and tested the teeth again too. As we talked about in episode 348, Gigantopithecus ate fruit and other plant material, and because it was so big it would have needed a lot of it. It lived in thick forests, but as the overall climate changed around 700,000 years ago, the forest environment changed too. Other great apes living in Asia at the time were able to adapt to these changes, but Gigantopithecus couldn’t find enough food to sustain its population. It went extinct between 295,000 and 215,000 years ago according to the new study, which is actually later than I had in episode 348, where I wrote that it went extinct 350,000 years ago. Where did I get my information? I do not know.

The first footprints of a terror bird were discovered recently in Argentina, dating to 8 million years ago. We talked about terror birds in episode 202. The footprints were made by a medium-sized bird that was walking across a mudflat, and the track is beautifully preserved, which allows scientists to determine lots of new information, such as how fast the bird could run, how its toes would have helped it run or catch prey, and how heavy the bird was. We don’t know what species of terror bird made the tracks, but we know it was a terror bird.

We talked about the extinction of the mammoth in episode 256, especially the last population of mammoths to survive. They lived on Wrangel Island, a mountainous island in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of western Siberia, which was cut off from the mainland about 10,000 years ago when ocean levels rose. Mammoths survived on the island until about 4,000 years ago, which is several hundred years after the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. It’s kind of weird to imagine ancient Egyptians building pyramids, and at the same time, mammoths were quietly living on Wrangel Island, and the Egyptians had no idea what mammoths were. And vice versa.

A 2017 genetic study stated that the last surviving mammoths were highly inbred and prone to multiple genetic issues as a result. But a study released in June of 2024 reevaluated the population’s genetic diversity and made a much different determination. The population did show inbreeding and low genetic diversity, but not to an extent that it would have affected the individuals’ health. The population was stable and healthy right to the end.

In that case, why did the last mammoths go extinct? Humans arrived on the island for the first time around 1700 BCE, but we don’t know if they encountered mammoths or, if they did, if they killed any. There’s no evidence either way. All we know is that whatever happened, it must have been widespread and cataclysmic to kill all several hundred of the mammoths on Wrangel Island.

We talked about the dingo in episode 232, about animals that are only semi-domesticated. That episode came out in 2021, and last year Caleb suggested we learn more about the dingo. I found a really interesting 2022 study that re-evaluated the dingo’s genome and made some interesting discoveries.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans somewhere between 3,500 and 8,500 years ago, and after the thylacine was driven to extinction in the early 20th century, it became the continent’s apex predator. Genetic studies in the past have shown that it’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, but the 2022 study compared the dingo’s genome to that of five modern dog breeds, the oldest known dog breed, the basenji, and the Greenland wolf.

The results show that the dingo is genetically in between wolves and dogs, an intermediary that shows us what the dog’s journey to domestication may have looked like. The study also discovered something else interesting. Domestic dogs have multiple copies of a gene that controls digestion, which allows them to eat a wide variety of foods. The dingo only has one copy of that gene, which means it can’t digest a lot of foods that other dogs can. Remember, the dingo has spent thousands of years adapting to eat the native animals of Australia. When white settlers arrived, they would kill dingoes because they thought their livestock was in danger from them. The study shows that the dingo has little to no interest in livestock because it would have trouble digesting, for instance, a lamb or calf. The animals most likely to be hurting livestock are domestic dogs that are allowed to run wild.

We’ll finish with a mystery animal called the lava bear. In the early 20th century, starting in 1917, a strange type of bear kept being seen in Oregon in the United States. Its fur was light brown like a grizzly bear’s, but otherwise it looked like a black bear—except for its size, which was very small. The largest was only about 18 inches tall at the back, or 46 cm, and it only weighed about 35 pounds, or 16 kg. That’s the size of an ordinary dog, not even a big dog. Ordinarily, a black bear can stand 3 feet tall at the back, or about 91 cm, and weighs around 175 pounds, or 79 kg, and a big male can be twice that weight and much taller.

The small bear was seen in desert, especially around old lava beds, which is where it gets its name. A shepherd shot one in 1917, thinking it was a bear cub, and when he retrieved the body he was surprised to find it was an adult. He had it taxidermied and photographs of it were published in the newspapers and a hunting magazine, which brought more hunters to the area.

People speculated that the animal might be an unknown species of bear, possibly related to the grizzly or black bear, and maybe even a new species of sun bear, a small bear native to Asia.

Over the next 17 years, many lava bears were killed by hunters and several were captured for exhibition. When scientists finally got a chance to examine one, they discovered that it was just a black bear. Its small size was due to malnutrition, since it lived in a harsh environment without a lot of food, and its light-colored fur was well within the range of fur color for an American black bear. Lava bears are still occasionally sited in the area around Fossil Lake.

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. 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 388: Washington’s Eagle

Further reading:

Audubon’s Bird of Washington: Unraveling the fraud that launched The Birds of America

The Mystery of the Missing John James Audubon Self-Portrait

Washington’s eagle, as painted by Audubon:

The tiny detail in Audubon’s golden eagle painting that is supposed to be a self-portrait:

The golden eagle painting as it was published. Note that there’s no tiny figure in the lower left-hand corner:

Show transcript:

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

This past weekend I was out of town, or to be completely honest I will have been out of town, because I’m getting this episode ready well in advance. Since July 4 was only a few days ago, or will have been only a few days ago, and July 4 is Independence Day in the United States of America, I thought it might be fun to talk about a very American bird, Washington’s eagle.

We talked about it before way back in episode 17, and I updated that information for the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book for its own chapter. When I was researching birds for episode 381 I revisited the topic briefly and realized it’s so interesting that I should just turn it into a full episode.

We only have two known species of eagle in North America, the bald eagle and the North American golden eagle. Both have wingspans that can reach more than 8 feet, or 2.4 meters, and both are relatively common throughout most of North America. But we might have a third eagle, or had one only a few hundred years ago. We might even have a depiction of one by the most famous bird artist in the world, James Audubon.

In February 1814, Audubon was traveling on a boat on the upper Mississippi River when he spotted a big eagle he didn’t recognize. A Canadian fur dealer who was with him said it was a rare eagle that he’d only ever seen around the Great Lakes before, called the great eagle. Audubon was familiar with bald eagles and golden eagles, but he was convinced the “great eagle” was something else.

Audubon made four more sightings over the next few years, including at close range in Kentucky where he was able to watch a pair with a nest and two babies. Two years after that he spotted an adult eagle at a farm near Henderson, Kentucky. Some pigs had just been slaughtered and the eagle was looking for scraps. Audubon shot the bird and took it to a friend who lived nearby, an experienced hunter, and both men examined the body carefully.

According to the notes Audubon made at the time, the bird was a male with a wingspan of 10.2 feet, or just over 3 meters. Since female eagles are generally larger than males, that means this 10-foot wingspan was likely on the smaller side of average for the species. It was dark brown on its upper body, a lighter cinnamon brown underneath, and had a dark bill and yellow legs.

Audubon named the bird Washington’s eagle and used the specimen as a model for a life-sized painting. Audubon was meticulous about details and size, using a double-grid method to make sure his bird paintings were exact. This was long before photography.

So we have a detailed painting and first-hand notes from James Audubon himself about an eagle that…doesn’t appear to exist.

Audubon painted a few birds that went extinct afterwards, including the ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, along with less well-known birds like Bachman’s warbler and the Carolina parakeet. He also made some mistakes. Many people think Washington’s eagle is another mistake and was just an immature bald eagle, which it resembles.

But here’s the problem. Audubon wasn’t always truthful. He painted some birds that he never saw but claimed he did, because another bird illustrator had painted them first. Once he claimed he went hunting with Daniel Boone in Kentucky in 1810, but at that time Boone would have been in his 70s and was living several states away.

Audubon also claimed that he discovered a little bird called Lincoln’s sparrow, but this wasn’t the case. His wife’s transcript of his diary doesn’t match up with the account that Audubon published about the discovery, but magically, when his granddaughter published her version of the diary later, Audubon’s discovery of the sparrow was in it. Historians think his granddaughter changed the diary entry to match up with Audubon’s published claim, and then she burned the original diaries. Further research into Audubon’s published writings have revealed plagiarism, false data, outright lies, and even completely fake species.

Audubon was also patriotic, as evidenced by his naming the eagle after George Washington. His journals and letters are full of praise for Washington, who died in 1799, only fifteen years before Audubon first saw the “great eagle.” There’s always a chance that Audubon wanted to name a bird after his idol, but not just any bird. It had to be majestic and bold, the largest eagle in the world! Maybe he decided to invent one.

Audubon also needed money to continue his work of painting birds, and most of the money came from English nobility. His painting and notes about a gigantic eagle made a real splash, bringing him money and fame for the rest of his life. But no evidence of the eagle’s existence has been discovered in the last 200 years. All we have are one man’s notes, a painting, and some stories of other specimens here and there. What we don’t have are the specimens, not even any feathers.

While we’re talking about one Audubon eagle mystery, let’s learn about another mystery. While Audubon was an incredible painter of birds, he wasn’t all that great at painting people. Only two of his famous bird paintings contain human figures, and one of them is his painting of the golden eagle. The other is a hunter painted in the background of the snowy egret, but Audubon didn’t paint that figure himself. He painted the bird, but hired another artist to paint the background. But this isn’t the case for the golden eagle painting, and that’s where the mystery lies. Even though it’s not technically anything to do with the bird, I know we’re all here for a good mystery too, so let’s talk about this painting.

Most of the time Audubon shot the birds he painted, which isn’t a great thing to do but which was common back then for scientists and collectors to shoot even very rare animals. Few people really understood conservation at the time. In the case of the golden eagle, though, the bird was already so rare in the early 19th century that Audubon couldn’t find one to shoot. He eventually bought one from a museum in 1833—but the bird wasn’t dead. It was injured, and Audubon was so impressed by its beauty that he almost set it free. But he needed to paint the bird, and in order to do that to his own meticulous standard, the bird had to be dead so he could really examine it in detail. So, after wrestling with his conscience, he killed the bird.

He spent the next two weeks drawing, studying, and eventually painting the bird. As soon as he finished, he reportedly had a mental breakdown. Not only had he been painting almost nonstop for years at that point, he really didn’t like killing birds. Plus, in the case of the golden eagle, instead of shooting it from a distance, he had killed it up close in person—as humanely as possible, but he still ended its life, and that bothered him.

The mystery comes from a detail in the painting’s background. The golden eagle is shown in front of a dramatic background of snowy mountains, with a dead snowshoe hare in its talons. But in a tiny detail in the lower left-hand corner, a man is shown crossing a gorge on a fallen tree trunk. Strapped onto the man’s back is a dead golden eagle.

The man is awkwardly rendered, but experts believe it’s a self-portrait of Audubon himself. Some experts believe Audubon included himself with a dead eagle, navigating a perilous climb, to indicate his emotional struggle in killing the bird. But when the painting was eventually included in Audubon’s famous book of bird illustrations, the figure was gone. The gorge with the fallen tree remains, but the little man carrying the dead bird has been painted out.

The question is why. Who made that decision, Audubon himself or the publisher? If Audubon did it, was it because he was embarrassed that he’d included a self-portrait, or was he embarrassed at the poor rendering of his figure, or did he just think it detracted from the painting, or some other reason? If the publisher did it, did he dislike the badly painted little man, or did Audubon ask him to remove the figure, or some other reason? We don’t know, and very likely we’ll never know.

While Audubon reportedly loved birds, it turns out he wasn’t a great human. Besides shooting a whole lot of birds and other animals, sometimes hundreds in a single day, and lying in published scientific papers, he “owned” enslaved people and reportedly made money selling them. (Just saying that sentence makes me so mad. You cannot own people.) In 2023, members of the National Audubon Society called for the group to change its name and drop any mention of Audubon, and when the board of directors said no, a lot of members resigned.

I came into this topic really hoping Washington’s eagle was a real bird, and believing that James Audubon was an artist who loved birds and was an honest man who made some mistakes. Now I’ve discovered that Audubon was a liar and a bad person, and that Washington’s eagle was probably just the result of one of his lies. At least we still have golden eagles, bald eagles, and lots of other amazing birds to admire!

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. 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 386: The Greater Siren and the Anhinga

Thanks to Kai and Emily for their suggestions this week!

The greater siren [photo by Kevin Stohlgren, taken from this site]:

The anhinga [photo by Tim from Ithaca – Anhinga, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15526948]:

An anhinga swimming [photo by Wknight94, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two animals, one suggested by Kai and the other suggested by Kai’s mom Emily. It’s so awesome to hear when families like to listen to the podcast together. This episode even includes a mystery animal I bet you’ve never heard of.

Let’s start with Kai’s suggestion, the greater siren. The greater siren is an amphibian, specifically a salamander, but it’s probably not the kind of salamander you’re thinking of. For one thing, it can grow over three feet long, or about a meter, which is pretty darn big for a salamander. It’s dark green or gray in color with tiny yellow or green speckles, and while it has short front legs, those are the only legs it has or needs. It also has external gills which it keeps throughout its life, unlike most salamanders who lose their external gills when they metamorphose into adults.

The greater siren lives primarily in Florida, but it’s also found in coastal wetlands throughout much of the southeastern United States. It’s mostly nocturnal and during the day it hides among water plants or under rocks, and will even burrow into the mud. At night it comes out to find food, which includes crayfish and other crustaceans, insects and spiders, little fish, other amphibians, snails, and even algae. It swallows its food whole, even snails and other mollusks. It poops out the shells and other undigestible pieces.

The grater siren’s body is long but thin, sort of like an eel, with a rounded tail that’s slightly flattened to help it swim. While it does spend its whole life in the water, it has small lungs that allow it to breathe air if it needs to. It can wriggle above ground for short distances if it needs to find a new pond or river, and sometimes it will sun itself on shore. In drought conditions when its water dries up, the greater siren will burrow into the mud and secrete mucus that mixes with dead skin cells to form a sort of cocoon. The cocoon covers everything but the siren’s mouth, so it can still breathe. Then it enters a state of torpor called aestivation, and it can stay in its mud cocoon for a long time, possibly as much as five years, and still be fine once the water returns. It does lose a lot of its body fat and its gills wither away, but it regenerates them quickly once it has water, and will gain weight quickly too once it has food.

In early spring, the female siren lays her eggs in shallow water. The male fertilizes them and takes care of them for the next two months, when they hatch into little bitty sirens that go off on their own right away.

The greater siren has tiny eyes and probably doesn’t see very well. It has a good sense of smell instead, and it can also sense movement and vibrations around it with its lateral line system. This is an organ found in many fish and a lot of larval amphibians, although the greater siren retains it throughout its life. It allows the animal to sense the movement of water in extremely fine detail. The greater siren can probably also sense electrical impulses, which is something that all animals generate when they use their muscles.

If there’s a greater siren, you may be thinking, there must be a lesser siren too. There is, and it’s very similar to the greater siren, just not as big. It only grows about two feet long at most, or 61 cm.

Kai mentioned that the greater siren looks a lot like the axolotl, a critically endangered salamander found only in Mexico. I checked to see if the two salamanders were closely related and was actually surprised to find that they’re not. They’re both salamanders and therefore share the same order, but that’s all. The greater siren and its close relations do share one important trait with the axolotl, though, which is neotony. Neotony is when an adult organism retains juvenile traits, which in the case of the salamander means it retains gills and lives underwater as an adult.

Next, Emily wanted to learn more about a bird called the anhinga. It’s sometimes called the snakebird because it has a long, serpentine neck. But before we learn about the anhinga, let’s learn about a mystery animal from Kentucky. I promise this will make sense in a minute.

In 1993 a man named Barton Nunnelly and his wife were sitting in their back yard in Stanley County, Kentucky. It was a nice day and their house was close to the Ohio River, so as they often did they just relaxed and watched the river. On this particular day, they both noticed a strange animal in the water. It was snake-like with a bill similar to a duck’s, but it obviously wasn’t a duck. It swam with its head and neck above the water, but its body was never visible. It frequently sank into the water, then surfaced elsewhere. The couple watched the animal for half an hour before it disappeared downstream.

For most people, that sighting would just be an interesting story to tell at parties, but Barton Nunnelly was a cryptozoologist. That’s someone who likes to investigate mystery animals, and while it’s a great word, it’s not an official branch of science. Zoologists, biologists, and other scientists study mystery animals all the time as part of their jobs. Nunnelly investigated—and in fact still does investigate, since he’s alive and well—mystery animals that are a lot more mystery than animal, like Bigfoot. He wrote about his sighting of what he thought might be a young freshwater sea serpent in his book Mysterious Kentucky.

Now, with Nunnelly’s sighting in mind, let’s return to the anhinga and learn a little more about this unusual bird. It can grow almost three feet in length, or about 90 cm, with a nearly four-foot wingspan, or 115 cm. A lot of its body length is due to the long neck. The male is black all over with a white tail-tip, while the female looks similar but has a brown head and neck. It looks similar to the double-crested cormorant, a close relation, but it has a longer, sharper bill. It lives throughout much of South and Central America, and is also common around the Gulf of Mexico and parts of the southeastern United States. In North America it usually stays near the coast or around wetlands, but sometimes it’s found farther inland, especially along rivers.

The most interesting feature of the anhinga is the way it hunts. It has big webbed feet and swims extremely well, and it hunts fish, frogs, and other small animals underwater. Unlike other water birds, which have water-repellent oils coating their feathers, as soon as the anhinga gets in the water, its feathers get all wet. This causes it to lose buoyancy and sink, but that’s just fine with the anhinga. It also has dense bones compared to most birds, which helps it stay underwater. The bird swims underwater until it gets close to a fish or other prey animal. Then it stabs the animal with its sharp bill, before bringing it above water to swallow. Often it will swim with its body completely submerged but its head and neck sticking up out of the water.

One interesting fact about the anhinga is that it has no nostrils. It can only breathe through its mouth. It can hold its breath underwater for about four minutes and during that time can travel quite a distance, up to about 100 yards, or 90 meters, completely underwater. In addition to fish and frogs, it will eat crayfish, crabs, insects, water snakes, and lots of other small animals. After it’s done hunting, or if it wants a rest, it will stand in the sun with its wings spread in order to dry its feathers. Cormorants do this too for the same reason.

Now, think back to Barton Nunnelly’s sighting of a duck-billed water serpent. It sounds to me an awful lot like Nunnelly saw an anhinga hunting in the river. It’s a rare visitor that far inland, but not unheard of. Naturally, not everyone knows every single bird in the world, but I feel like if you’re going to write a book about mystery animals, you should do a little research first. But maybe that’s just me.

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. 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 382: Smilodon, the Sabertoothed Cat

Thanks to Luke for suggesting this week’s topic: Smilodon, the saber-toothed cat, AKA the sabertooth tiger!

Further reading:

Did sabertooth tigers purr or roar?

The double-fanged adolescence of saber-toothed cats

We don’t know for sure what Smilodon looked like, but it might have been something like this:

An artist’s rendition of an adolescent Smilodon with doubled fangs [picture from second link above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about an animal suggested by Luke, the sabertooth tiger, also called the sabertooth cat since it wasn’t actually a tiger, also called smilodon after its scientific name. We’ve talked about it before, way back in episode 34, but a lot of new studies have been published since then and we know a lot more about this terrifying-looking animal!

The genus of the saber-toothed cat is Smilodon, so that’s mostly what I’m going to call it in this episode. It’s classified as a member of the family Felidae, which is the same family where you find domestic cats, wildcats, big cats, and lots of extinct animals like the cave lion, but Smilodon wasn’t closely related to what we think of as cats. There were at least three species of saber-tooth cats in the genus Smilodon that we know of, but it had many other similar-looking relatives.

Smilodon is best known from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California, where the remains of hundreds of individuals have been discovered. That’s a big reason why we know so much about Smilodon, especially the species Smilodon fatalis that lived in North America and parts of South America. An even bigger species lived exclusively in South America, while both were probably descended from a smaller species that also lived in South America.

S. fatalis is estimated to have grown up to 39 inches tall at the shoulder, or 99 cm, while S. populator stood at an estimated 47 inches tall, or 119 cm. That’s almost four feet tall. Some full-grown humans are that height! Smilodon was so stocky and heavily muscled that it probably looked more like a bear than a cat. Its had a broad head and jaws that could open much wider than most modern animals, which allowed it to deploy its most deadly weapon, its saber teeth, without its jaw getting in the way.

Smilodon’s saber teeth were as much as 11 inches long, or 28 cm, although S. fatalis typically had teeth around 8 inches long, or 20 cm. Big as they were, the saber teeth were also relatively delicate. A young Smilodon didn’t start growing its big teeth until it was about a year old, and even then it had to learn how to use them so they wouldn’t break. Luckily for adolescent smilodons, they didn’t lose their baby fangs until they were fully grown.

Most mammals only grow two sets of teeth in our lifetimes. The first set is usually called baby teeth or milk teeth. As the baby grows up, its adult teeth start growing in one at a time. The adult tooth pushes at the baby tooth until it gets loose and either comes out on its own or, in the case of me in second grade, I asked to go to the bathroom and then spent half an hour twisting at a loose baby tooth until it finally came out, along with some blood. But I got a quarter that night from the tooth fairy. (Kids, maybe don’t do that.)

In the case of a young smilodon’s saber teeth, they grew in just next to the baby fangs. Instead of pushing the baby fangs out, the new teeth grew alongside them and even had a groove for the baby teeth to fit into. When scientists first discovered preserved jaws with these double fangs, they thought it was a fluke, that sometimes the new teeth came in wrong and didn’t push the old teeth out. That happens in humans sometimes too and then you have to go to the dentist to get the old baby teeth taken out. But paleontologists kept finding these double toothed jaws, and only in adolescent smilodons.

Finally a team of scientists studied the teeth carefully and made a surprising discovery. The baby fang stayed in place next to the saber tooth until the animal was about two and a half years old, at which time the baby fang finally fell out. In early 2024 the team published their study, which concluded that these double teeth acted sort of like a set of training wheels. Training wheels on a bicycle keep a new rider from tipping over sideways, and the doubled fangs kept the saber teeth from getting bent sideways until they broke. By the time the baby fang fell out, the smilodon had lots of experience hunting properly and no longer needed training wheels.

Smilodon legs are relatively short, which suggests it didn’t do a lot of running after prey. It was probably an ambush hunter and may have hunted in groups, sort of like lions do today. Some scientists think that instead of big groups, smilodon lived in small family groups of a mated pair and their offspring, which they took care of for several years. There’s even some evidence that adult animals with debilitating injuries or congenital issues that meant they couldn’t hunt were taken care of by other adults.

Smilodon ate large animals like ground sloths, horses, deer, camelids, and glyptodonts. It went extinct about 11,000 years ago, the same time that a lot of its prey went extinct too. We don’t know what color it was, but modern cats that hunt in forested areas generally have spots while cats that hunt in open areas generally have plain coats. Since smilodon lived in a variety of habitats, from forests to deserts, its coat pattern and coloration may have varied from region to region. It also had a short tail like a bobcat instead of a long tail like most modern cats.

Let’s finish with one last important detail about smilodon. Did it purr or did it roar? Remember that modern cats can either do one or the other, not both. A tiger can’t purr, while a wildcat can’t roar. In modern cats, the difference appears to be due to the number of hyoid bones in the throat. Humans have a single hyoid bone, which anchors the larynx in place, but cats have a whole row of them. Cats that can roar have seven of these tiny bones, while cats that can purr have nine of them.

Smilodon had seven hyoid bones. Therefore, scientists assumed, smilodon could roar but not purr. But a study from 2023 suggests it’s not that simple. The hyoid bones in purring cats are shaped differently from those in roaring cats. Smilodon only had seven hyoid bones, but some of them were shaped like really big purring hyoid bones, big even for the animal’s large size. Scientists aren’t sure if that means smilodon was able to purr in a deep register, if it could roar instead but with a really deep voice compared to modern cats, or if it made some other sound that we can’t even guess at.

In other words, I’m sorry, we don’t know if smilodon roared or purred, and we probably won’t know for sure until someone invents a time machine. Personally, I like to think that smilodon could purr and roar, and that it could also meow, but in a really deep voice. MEOW.

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. 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 381: Out of Place Birds

Thanks to Richard from NC, Pranav, and Alexandra for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

ABA Rare Bird Alert

One Reason Migrating Birds Get Lost Is Out of This World

Inside the Amazing Cross-Continent Saga of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle

A Vagrant European Robin Is Drawing Huge Crowds in China

Bird migration: When vagrants become pioneers

A red-cockaded woodpecker:

Steller’s Sea Eagle making a couple of bald eagles look small:

Steller’s sea eagle:

A whole lot of birders showed up to see a European robin that showed up in the Beijing Zoo [photo from the fourth article linked above]:

A robin:

Mandarin ducks:

Richard’s pipit [photo by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23214345]:

Show transcript:

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

We’re talking about some birds again this week, with a slightly mysterious twist. These are birds that have shown up in places where they shouldn’t be, sometimes way way far from home! Thanks to Richard from NC for inspiring this episode and suggesting one of the birds we’re going to talk about, and thanks to Pranav for suggesting we cover more out of place animals.

Last week we talked about some woodpeckers, and I said I thought there was another listener who had suggested the topic. Well, that was Alexandra! Let’s start today’s episode talking about the red-cockaded woodpecker, another bird Alexandra suggested.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is native to the coastal southeastern United States, where it lives in pine forests. It’s increasingly threatened by habitat loss since the pine forests get smaller every year, and not only does it need old-growth pine forests to survive, it also needs some of the trees to be affected by red heart fungus. The fungus softens the interior wood, which is otherwise very hard, and allows a woodpecker to excavate nesting holes in various trees that can be quite large. The female lays her eggs in the best nesting hole and she and her mate raise the babies together, helped by any of their children from previous nests who don’t have a mate of their own yet. When they don’t have babies, during the day the birds forage together, but at night they each hide in their own little nesting hole to sleep.

It’s a small bird that doesn’t migrate, which is why Beth Miller, a birder in Muskegon, Michigan, couldn’t identify it when she spotted it on July 1, 2022 in some pine trees near a golf course. She took lots of photos and a recording of its calls, which she posted in a birding group to ask for help. She knew the bird had to be a rare visitor of some kind, but when it was identified as a red-cockaded woodpecker, she and nine birder friends went back to the golf course to look for it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find the bird again. It was the first time a red-cockaded woodpecker had ever been identified in Michigan, although individual birds do sometimes wander widely.

While bird migration isn’t fully understood, many birds use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way to new territories and back again later in the year. Humans can’t sense magnetic fields but birds can, and being able to sense Earth’s magnetic field helps birds navigate even at night or during weather that keeps them from being able to see landmarks.

But sometimes birds get lost, especially young birds who have never migrated before or a bird that gets caught in storm winds that blow it far off course. If a bird shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range, birdwatchers refer to it as a vagrant, and some birders will travel great distances to see vagrant birds.

One interesting note is that birds navigating by the earth’s magnetic field can get confused if the magnetic field is disrupted by geomagnetic storms, including solar flares, sunspots, and coronal mass ejections. Very recently as this episode goes live, the aurora has been occasionally visible across much of the world. The aurora is caused by charged particles from the sun reaching Earth’s atmosphere, causing a colorful glow or shimmer in the night sky, and it’s usually only visible at or near the poles. This month it was visible in places far away from the poles. Fortunately, a really strong geomagnetic storm like the ones this month can actually make it easier for birds to migrate. Instead of getting a scrambled sense of the earth’s magnetic field, a strong geomagnetic storm can temporarily knock out a bird’s ability to sense the magnetic field at all, and that means it uses landmarks, the position of the stars and sun, and other methods to find its way.

Sometimes a bird just flies the wrong way, like the Steller’s sea eagle that showed up in Alaska at the end of August 2020. Steller’s sea eagle is native to the coast of northeastern Asia and is increasingly threatened due to habitat loss, pollution, climate change, poaching, and overfishing, a real problem if you’re an eagle that eats a whole lot of fish. Only about 4,000 of the birds remain in the wild. It’s a huge eagle, one of the biggest in the world, with a big female having a wingspan over 8 feet across, or almost 2.5 meters. Some unverified reports indicate birds with a wingspan over 9 feet across, or 2.8 meters. It has a huge yellow bill and feet, and is black and white in color. It’s related to the bald eagle but is larger and heavier, and its head is black instead of white.

To an eagle as big as Steller’s sea eagle, the distance between the eastern coast of Russia and the western coast of Alaska is very small, so it’s not all that unusual for birders to see one in Alaska. The difference in 2020 is that the bird was far inland, not on the coast. Then, several months later, a Steller’s sea eagle was reported in Texas. Texas! Very far away from Alaska and the northeastern Asian coast.

No one could definitively say if the Texas bird was the same one seen in Alaska, but a few weeks before there had been a massive storm that could have blown the eagle to San Antonio. It was the first time a wild Steller’s sea eagle had been spotted in Texas.

But the bird wasn’t done traveling. In late June 2021, a ranger in eastern Canada spotted the sea eagle. It was seen by multiple birders and photographers, some of whom got pictures good enough to compare to the Alaska photos from the year before, and it was the same bird! A few months later it was spotted in Nova Scotia, Canada, and in mid-December 2021 it arrived in southern Massachusetts in the United States for a few days. By the end of 2021 it was in Maine.

Since then the eagle appears to divide its time between Maine in the northeastern United States and Newfoundland, Canada, not too far away.

Richard from NC suggested that sightings of Steller’s sea eagle might explain the mystery of Washington’s eagle. I go into detail about Washington’s eagle in the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. There is a rare color morph of Steller’s sea eagle that is almost all black, which matches Audubon’s painting of Washington’s eagle, but Steller’s sea eagle always has a yellow bill, not a dark one as Audubon painted. Still, it’s a very interesting theory that matches a lot better than the theory that Washington’s eagle is just a big juvenile bald eagle.

Eagles are spectacular birds, but even an ordinary bird turns into a celebrity when it shows up somewhere far outside of its normal range. That’s what happened to a European robin at the beginning of 2019. We talked about the European robin back in episode 333. It’s a common bird throughout much of Europe and parts of Asia, but it’s only been documented in Beijing, China three times. The third time was when one showed up in the Beijing Zoo in 2019, at least 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km, away from its usual range. Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby in China, and hundreds of birders showed up at the zoo not to see the animals it has on display but to see a little robin that someone in England would barely glance at.

A few months before that, on the other side of the planet, a Mandarin duck showed up in Central Park in New York City. Birders showed up soon after to look at it. The Mandarin duck is a beautiful bird related to the wood duck native to North America, but it’s native to China and other parts of east Asia. The male has a red bill, rusty red face with white markings, and purplish feathers on his sides, while the female is softer and more muted in color. Both males and females have a purplish crest and the male also has a reddish crest on both of his wings that sticks up like a sail when his wings are folded.

In other words, the male in particular is a spectacular duck, and the duck that showed up at Central Park was a male in full breeding plumage, looking his best. Since Mandarin ducks are so attractive and increasingly threatened in the wild, many zoos and private owners keep them, and the Central Park duck did have a band on his leg that indicates he might have been an escaped bird. But no one ever claimed him and in March of 2019 he flew off for good.

Vagrant birds show up in weird places all the time, especially in spring and fall when most migratory birds are on the move. Sometimes a vagrant bird returns to the mistaken area in following years, brings its mate and offspring, and essentially founds a new migratory route. This is what scientists think has happened with several species of songbird that breed in Siberia and migrate to southeast Asia for the winter.

Richard’s pipit is a medium-sized songbird with long legs, a long tail, and a relatively long bill. It’s mainly brown and black, with lighter underparts. It looks like a stretched-out sparrow. It migrates to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and a few other parts of central Asia to nest during the summer, and flies back to India and other parts of southeast Asia to spend the winter. But a small population flies west instead of south and spends the winter in Spain, Italy, and surrounding areas instead of in India.

For a long time scientists thought the birds seen in Europe were just lost. They’re still quite rare in Europe compared to their high population in Asia. Then a team of scientists caught 81 of the birds, installed leg-bands on all of them and GPS loggers on seven of them, and released them again. The birds migrated north to breed, then returned to Europe instead of Asia to spend the winter, where some were caught again and their leg-bands recorded. So just remember that when a bird shows up where it’s not expected, it might not be as lost as people think.

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. 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 380: Woodpeckers

Thanks to Joel and Mary for suggesting some really interesting woodpeckers this week!

Further watching:

Rare woodpecker thought extinct spotted in Ohio

The green woodpecker really likes to eat ants [picture by Remyymer – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65008314]:

The white-headed woodpecker looks like its face got splashed with paint:

The red-headed woodpecker has the prettiest shade of red [picture by colleen – originally posted to Flickr as Red Headed Woodpecker, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6639146]:

The acorn woodpecker looks like it got its face splashed with white paint and then dipped its beak in black paint [picture by Charles J. Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography.co.uk, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136903489]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about a type of bird that several people have suggested, the woodpecker! Thanks to Joel and Mary for their suggestions, and I could swear someone else suggested woodpeckers a while back. If that was you, thank you and I’m sorry I didn’t write it down!

It’s funny that we haven’t talked about woodpeckers very often, because they are definitely strange animals. How many animals use their head to hammer holes in wood? The woodpecker has a strong, heavy bill that it uses to drill holes in trees to find hidden insects and other invertebrates. A lot of insects dig little burrows in wood, and the woodpecker hammers away at the wood until it exposes the burrow. Then it has to get the insect or grub out of the burrow without it getting away, so it has a long, sticky tongue with barbs at the end. It can stick its tongue into the burrow and use it to drag the insect out and eat it.

When I say woodpeckers have long tongues, I mean their tongues are way longer than you think. The woodpecker’s skull contains a special cavity that wraps all the way around the brain and back down to the right nostril, and this cavity is where the main part of the tongue is when the woodpecker isn’t actually using it. It also helps cushion the brain and keep it from moving too much while the woodpecker is pecking. The skull itself is lined with spongy bone to soften impacts too.

The woodpecker also has a lot of other adaptations to using its entire head like a hammer. To protect its eyes from debris and pressure damage, it has a thick membrane that it uses to cover the eye, like built-in safety goggles. It has tiny, tough feathers that protect the nostrils from debris, and its nostrils are usually very small and thin too. Even its skin is thicker than that of most birds.

Woodpeckers have weird feet too. Almost all species have four toes, two that point forward, two that point backward. This arrangement is called zygodactyly, and it’s a trait also found in parrots and some other birds, and in chameleons. It allows the woodpecker to climb trees and branches securely and easily. The woodpecker also has a relatively short tail with stiff feathers that it uses to prop itself up against a tree trunk while hammering.

The woodpecker doesn’t just use its hammering ability to find food. It also hammers to communicate with other woodpeckers, the same way other birds use song. Each species has its own pattern of drumming, and the sound can attract a mate or tell rivals that this territory is already taken. When it’s communicating, the woodpecker will drum on different surfaces than when it’s just looking for food. This might be a hollow tree that amplifies the sound, or even an artificial surface. The first time I observed this as a birdwatcher was when I noticed a red-breasted woodpecker hammering repeatedly on a metal light post.

Woodpeckers do make ordinary sounds, though. Mary suggested the European green woodpecker and pointed out that its old name is yaffle, which mimics its call. This is what the green woodpecker sounds like:

[green woodpecker call]

Birders still refer to the sound as yaffling, which is the funniest word I’ve said all day.

The green woodpecker is native to much of Europe and parts of Asia. It has a bright red head and a black mask on its face, and its body is mostly an olive green color with a yellow rump patch. It’s a large bird, with a wingspan up to 20 inches across, or 51 cm. It especially likes to eat ants and spends most of its time on the ground looking for them. When it finds an ant nest, it will use its bill to open the nest up and then it licks up all the yummy ants and larvae with its long sticky tongue. As an example of how long a woodpecker’s tongue is, the green woodpecker has a tongue 4 inches long, or 10 cm, while its entire body is 14 inches long, or 36 cm.

Unlike most woodpeckers, the green woodpecker doesn’t do a lot of drumming or woodpecking. When it does, it’s mostly on very soft or rotten wood, and it’s probably not looking for food but excavating a nest hole to lay eggs in. Its favorite habitat is open woodland, since it can nest and hide in the trees but find lots of ants on the ground.

Joel suggested we learn about the white-headed woodpecker. I’d never heard of that one before, probably because it only lives in mountainous pine forests in parts of the Pacific northwest of Canada and the United States. It’s a glossy black in color with a mostly white head and a streak of bright white on its wings. Males have a red head patch too. It mostly eats pine seeds, which are found in pine cones. The seeds are quite large and the white-headed woodpecker is relatively small, only about 9 inches long, or 23 cm.

It will take a pine seed, wedge it into a crevice in a tree, and break it into bite-sized pieces by hammering it. It also eats insects, but it mainly finds them under the bark of trees, and it will sometimes peck little holes into tree trunks and eat the sap that oozes out. Unlike pretty much every woodpecker known, the white-headed woodpecker’s tongue isn’t especially long, probably because it doesn’t need a long tongue to find pine seeds.

This is what the white-headed woodpecker sounds like:

[white-headed woodpecker call]

One of my favorite birds is the red-headed woodpecker, which has a vibrantly red head and a black and white body that almost looks checkered. It’s native to North America and lives year-round in much of the eastern and central United States, but for some reason it took me years as a birdwatcher before I saw one for the first time. I didn’t know just how beautiful it really is until I saw one in person. Red is my favorite color, and the red-headed woodpecker’s red head is my exact favorite shade of red.

The red-headed woodpecker is about the size of the white-headed woodpecker, or a little larger. It eats lots of insects but will also eat seeds, berries and other fruit, and even the eggs of other birds. It sometimes catches insects on the wing. It’s also one of only a few species of woodpecker that stores food, hiding it in crevices in trees or under the shingles of people’s houses. Occasionally when it catches too many grasshoppers to eat, it will wedge the living grasshoppers in crevices so tightly that the insect is stuck there until the bird comes back when it’s hungry. That’s disturbing.

Another bird that caches food is the acorn woodpecker, which lives in parts of southwestern North America down through Central America. It’s mostly black with white patches on the face and black and white streaks underneath. Males have a red patch on the back of the head too. As you probably guessed from its name, it eats a lot of acorns along with insects, fruit, and tree sap. Because acorns are seasonal foods, only available in the fall, the acorn woodpecker stores acorns to eat later in the year. It hides the acorns in holes and crevices, often pecking little holes in a tree specifically for storage, but as the acorns dry out they take up less space. The bird spends a lot of time throughout the year moving its acorns to better hiding spaces.

The acorn woodpecker lives in small flocks of up to about a dozen or 15 birds. All birds in the flock help raise any babies, and in years where there aren’t very many acorns, only a few of the females in the group will lay eggs. In years where there are lots of acorns, all of the females will usually lay eggs. They all lay their eggs in the same nesting cavity and the babies are raised together.

So why do so many woodpeckers have such bright colors and markings? Many are black and white, often with red or yellow markings on the head or neck. They look conspicuous to us, but the black and white patterning blends in with the pattern of light and shadow under trees. The bright spots of color help attract mates, since a bird with brightly colored feathers shows other birds that they’re healthy. In many species, only the male has a red patch, or the female’s red patch may be smaller than the male’s.

Way back in episode 9 we talked about the ivory-billed woodpecker and some of its close relations. The ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct but possible sightings and audio recordings indicate it may still be alive in remote areas of the southeastern United States. Most recently, video footage of a bird spotted in Ohio has the controversy starting up again. I’ve linked to the video in the show notes. The bird in the video is probably just the very similar-looking pileated woodpecker, but the light isn’t good so it’s hard to tell for sure. It’s just barely possible it might actually be an ivory-billed woodpecker. Let’s hope it is an ivory-billed.

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. 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 379: Animals That Inspired Pokemon

Thanks to Pranav, Isaac, and an anonymous listener for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some animals that inspired three Pokemon.

Sandshrew:

Possible Sandshrew inspirations:

Drowzee:

Possible Drowzee inspiration:

Fennekin:

Undoubted Fennekin inspiration:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to do something slightly different. At least two people and probably a lot more have suggested that we talk about some animals that were the inspiration for Pokemon, so I picked three that you might not know about. Thanks to Pranav and Isaac for their suggestions, and if you suggested the same topic at some point and I didn’t write it down, thank you too! Thanks also to an anonymous listener who suggested three of the animals we’ll talk about in this episode. I didn’t intend to cover three animals suggested by the same listener but it worked out that way, which is kind of neat.

Some of you may not be familiar with what Pokemon are. The word is a shortened version of the term “pocket monsters,” and it started as a video game where players catch various monsters and store them in little round cages called pokeballs. A lot of Pokemon are so cute you can’t really call them monsters, but they all have different abilities and can evolve into even more powerful versions with enough training. My only real experience with Pokemon is the game Pokemon Go that came out in 2016, although I don’t play it anymore, but the franchise has had multiple games, including a trading card game that is still really popular, TV shows, movies, and of course lots of toys.

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out what animal inspired a Pokemon. Rhyhorn obviously looks like a rhinoceros, Magikarp looks like a goldfish, and so on. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Let’s start with Sandshrew.

Sandshrew is a sandy-brown color on its back with a lighter belly and muzzle, and prominent claws. Its tail is big and its ears are small. It’s covered with armor plates, and in some versions of Sandshrew, most notably the Pokemon TV show, it can curl up into a ball. What does that remind you of?

Some of you just said “armadillo” and others of you just said “pangolin.” Both were suggested a while back by an anonymous listener. The two animals aren’t related but they do share some physical similarities, like armored bodies and the ability to curl up into a ball to make their armor even more effective.

We talked about the pangolin in episode 65, about animals that eat ants. The pangolin is related to anteaters, and is sometimes even called the scaly anteater, but it’s not closely related to the armadillo. Their similarities are mainly due to convergent evolution.

The pangolin is a mammal, but it’s covered in scales except for its belly and face. The scales are made of keratin, the same protein that makes up fingernails, hair, hooves, and other hard parts in mammals. When it’s threatened, it rolls up into a ball with its tail over its face, and the sharp-edged, overlapping scales protect it from being bitten or clawed. It has a long, thick tail, short, strong legs with claws, a small head, and very small ears. Its muzzle is long with a nose pad at the end, it has a long sticky tongue, and it has no teeth. It’s nocturnal and lives in burrows, and it uses its big front claws to dig into termite mounds and ant colonies. It has poor vision but a good sense of smell. It’s a good fit for Sandshrew and some species are even the same color as Sandshrew. It lives in southern Asia and much of sub-Sahara Africa, and all species are critically endangered.

Meanwhile, the armadillo is also a mammal that’s covered in armor except for its belly, but its armor is much different from the pangolin’s scales. The armor is made up of bands of hardened, bone-like skin covered with scutes, which are tiny flattened knobs of keratin. Ordinary skin connects the bands so that the animal can move around more easily. Some species roll up when threatened, but others rarely do. Instead they just run into the most thorny, prickly plants they can find. The armadillo’s armor protects it from being hurt by the thorns. Like the pangolin, it has sharp claws and can dig well to get at termites and other invertebrates, and like the pangolin it has poor eyesight but a good sense of smell. Its ears are small, its legs are short, and its tail is long but not as thick as the pangolin’s. Most species are grayish, pinkish, or brownish. It looks less like Sandshrew than the pangolin does, but it might have contributed to Sandshrew’s appearance and habits.

The armadillo lives in the Americas, mostly in South America but also Central and parts of North America. Many species are endangered.

Whichever animal you think inspired Sandshrew, I think we can agree that Sandshrew doesn’t have anything to do with actual shrews.

Our next Pokemon is Drowzee. Drowzee is a chonky, strong-looking monster who looks like it’s wearing gray pants but otherwise has ochre yellow skin. Its nose is drawn out into a short proboscis like a miniature elephant trunk, and it has three pointy toes on its hands and what look like cloven hooves on its feet. It doesn’t have a tail.

Drowzee is inspired by the tapir, probably the Asian tapir. The other tapirs alive today live in South and Central America, but the Asian tapir lives in lowland rainforests in parts of south Asia. It’s mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It’s also the largest species of tapir alive today, standing more than 3 and a half feet tall at the back, or 110 cm. Like other tapirs, it spends a lot of time in water, eating plants and staying cool.

The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk called a proboscis. It uses its proboscis to gather plants, and it can even use it as a snorkel when it’s underwater.

The Asian tapir isn’t a perfect match for Drowzee, but its two-part coloration and short proboscis are pretty close. As far as I know, the Asian tapir doesn’t make you fall asleep and then eat your dreams like Drowzee is supposed to do, but that’s an aspect of a monster in Japanese folklore. The baku is supposed to eat nightmares and traditionally it’s often described as being black and white like a panda, but often with tapir-like traits.

Our last Pokemon today is Fennekin, who is based on the fennec fox, also a suggestion by an anonymous listener. Fennekin is yellow-brown in color with white on its face, a red-orange tip to its tail and red-orange tufts in its gigantic ears.

The fennec fox lives in northern Africa and parts of Asia. Its fur is a pale sandy color with a black tip to the tail. Its eyes are dark and its ears are large. It stands only about 8 inches tall at the shoulder, or 20 cm, but its ears can be six inches long, or 15 cm. It eats rodents, birds and their eggs, insects, and other small animals, as well as fruit. It can jump really far, some four feet in one bound, or 120 cm. Because it lives in desert areas, it rarely needs to drink water. It gets most of its water through the food it eats, and researchers think it may also lap dew that gathers in the burrow where it spends the day.

Fennekin is a fire Pokemon, appropriate since it’s based on a desert animal. It’s also extra adorable, and so is the fennec fox.

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. 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 376: The Horned Lizard AKA Horny Toad

Thanks to Khalil for suggesting the horny toad, also called the horned lizard or horned toad!

Further reading:

The Case of the Lost Lizard

The Texas horned lizard:

Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum)

The rock horned lizard [photo taken from article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a reptile suggested by Khalil, who is Leo’s friend, so a big shout-out to both. Khalil wants to learn about the horny toad, also called the horned toad or horned lizard.

We talked about it briefly back in episode 299. The horny toad is actually a lizard that lives in various parts of North America, especially western North America, from Canada down through much of the United States and into Mexico. The largest species is the Texas horned lizard, with a big female growing about 5 inches long, or almost 13 cm, not counting its tail.

The horny toad does actually resemble a toad in some ways. Its body is broad and rounded and its face has a blunt, froglike snout. Its tail is quite short. It’s also kind of sluggish and spends a lot of time just sitting in the sun, relying on its mottled coloration to camouflage it. If it feels threatened, it will actually just freeze and hope the predator doesn’t notice it. It’s covered with little pointy scales, and if a predator does approach, it will puff up its body so that the scales stick out even more and it looks larger. It also has true horns on its head, little spikes that are formed by projections of its skull, and if a predator tries to bite it, the horny toad will jerk its head up to stab its horns into the predator’s mouth.

Horny toads mainly eat a type of red ant called the harvester ant. The harvester ant is venomous but the horny toad is resistant to the venom and is specialized to eat lots and lots of the ants. Its esophagus produces lots of mucus when it’s eating, which collects around the ants and stops them from being able to bite before they die.

Because it eats so many venomous ants, many scientists think the horny toad stores some of the toxins in its body, especially in its blood. Its blood tastes especially bad to canids like coyotes that are common in the areas where it lives. But it does the horny toad no good to have bad-tasting blood if a predator has to bite it to find out, so the horny toad has a way to give a predator a sample of its blood in the weirdest way you can imagine.

If a horny toad is cornered by a predator and can’t run away, and puffing up isn’t helping deter the predator, the lizard has one last trick up its sleeve. It increases the blood pressure in its head by restricting some of the blood vessels carrying blood back to the heart, and when the blood pressure increases enough, it causes tiny blood vessels around the eyelids to rupture. It doesn’t just release blood, it squirts blood up to five feet away, or 1.5 meters. As if that wasn’t metal enough, the horny toad can aim this stream of blood, and it aims it right at the predator’s eyes.

Imagine for a moment that you are a hungry coyote. You’re young and don’t know that horny toads taste bad, you just know you’ve found this plump-looking lizard that doesn’t move very fast. It keeps puffing up and looking spiky, but you’re hungry so you keep charging in to try and grab it with your teeth in a way that won’t hurt your tongue on those spikes. Then, suddenly, your eyes are full of lizard blood that stings and makes it hard to see, and the blood drips down into your mouth and it tastes TERRIBLE. It doesn’t matter how hungry you are, this fat little lizard is definitely off the menu. Meanwhile, the horny toad is fine.

Scientists aren’t sure if every species of horny toad can squirt blood. Some species probably can’t, while some do it very seldom. It also doesn’t help against some predators, like birds, who don’t have a great sense of taste and aren’t affected by the toxins in the horny toad’s blood.

The horny toad relies on the harvester ant for most of its specialized diet, although it does eat other insects too. It can’t survive without eating harvester ants. The problem is, the harvester ant is in decline after fire ants were introduced to North America from South America. The horny toad doesn’t eat fire ants, and the fire ants out-compete the local harvester ants, leaving the horny toad with less and less food.

Humans really don’t like fire ants, which can cause damage to homes when they dig their huge underground nests, and which inflict really painful bites. When people try to get rid of fire ants, sometimes the treatments also kill harvester ants. Incidentally, some animals that really love to eat fire ants include armadillos, black widow spiders, wolf spiders, and bobwhites.

The Texas horned lizard lives throughout a fairly large range, so although its numbers are in decline along with its ant food, it’s still doing okay for now. But not every horny toad is so lucky.

The rock horned lizard, also called Ditmars’ horned lizard, is only found in one small part of Sonora in northern Mexico. It was first discovered by science in 1891, when an archaeological expedition caught one. The lizard was described in 1906 but by then it hadn’t actually been seen in the wild since 1897, when two more were caught by a man who donated them to the New York Zoological Park. Those were the only three specimens that had ever been collected. Herpetologists worried that the rock horned lizard had gone extinct.

The main issue was that no one was exactly sure where those three specimens had been collected and no one knew exactly where the 1891 expedition had traveled. The man who caught the two lizards in 1897 didn’t say exactly where he’d caught them, just that it was in northern Sonora. But what a scientist named Vincent Roth realized when researching the lizard is that the three preserved specimens probably still contained undigested and partially digested food in their bodies, and that if the insects the lizards had eaten could be identified, it could give an important clue as to where the lizards had lived.

Dr. Roth requested that the gut contents be removed from the 1891 specimen for study, and also from one of the 1897 specimens. The third specimen had been taxidermied and the guts discarded. Dr. Roth cleaned the gut contents with alcohol and examined them microscopically, and found the remains of 14 insects, the seeds of three different species of grass, and some pebbles. All this happened in 1970, so instead of emailing a bunch of experts for help, Dr. Roth had to write physical letters to specialists throughout the world for help identifying the insects.

The specialists were happy to help, and they determined that the pebbles and grass seeds would have been eaten by accident when the lizard slurped up ants carrying them. The lizards had the remains of several different ants in their digestive tracts, including harvester ants, along with weevils, jumping spiders, grasshoppers, and other insects. These were identified, including some rare ones only ever found in certain areas of Sonora. Even the grass seeds and the pebbles were identified.

It all pointed to a particular mountain range in northern Sonora, and an expedition was arranged by Dr. Roth to search for the lizard. But they didn’t find it! They made plans to return, but asked the local people to keep an eye out for a specific type of horned lizard. In 1971 a report came of a rock horned lizard discovered by a local, followed soon by a few others. The lizard was safe, although it’s rare. Scientists had just been looking in the wrong place for it.

Since the rock horned lizard is only a few inches long and blends in so well with its surroundings, it’s no wonder it was hard to find. Fortunately it’s been rediscovered so that scientists can study it and keep it safe. The next step is to keep the harvester ants safe so that all the horny toads have plenty of yummy ants to eat.

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. 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 368: The Bison

Thanks to Jason for suggesting this week’s topic, the bison!

Further reading:

New research documents domestic cattle genetics in modern bison herds

Higgs Bison: Mysterious Hybrid of Bison and Cattle Hidden in Ice Age Cave Art

A cave painting of steppe bison and other animals:

An American bison [photo by Kim Acker, taken from this site]:

Some European bison [photo by Pryndak Vasyl, taken from this site]:

The bison sound in this episode came from this site.

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about the bison, a suggestion from Jason. There are two species of bison alive today, the American bison and the European bison. Both are sometimes called buffalo while the European bison is sometimes called the wisent. I’m mostly going to call it the wisent too in this episode so I only have to say the word bison 5,000 times instead of 10,000.

Bison are herd animals that can congregate in huge numbers, but these big herds are made up of numerous smaller groups. The smaller groups are made up of a lead female, called a cow, who is usually older, other cows, and all their offspring, called calves. Males, called bulls, live in small bachelor groups. The American bison mostly eats grass while the European bison eats a wider selection of plants in addition to grass.

The bison is a big animal with horns, a shaggy dark brown coat, and a humped shoulder. The American bison’s shoulder is especially humped, which allows for the attachment of strong neck muscles. This allows the animal to clear snow from the ground by swinging its head side to side. The European bison’s hump isn’t as pronounced and it carries its head higher. The bison looks slow and clumsy, but it can actually run up to 35 mph, or 55 km/hour, can swim well, and can jump obstacles that are 5 feet tall, or 1.5 meters.

The American bison can stand over six and a half feet high at the shoulder, or 2 meters, while the European bison stands almost 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters. This is massively huge! Bison are definitely ice age megafauna that once lived alongside mammoths and woolly rhinos, so we’re lucky they’re still around. Both species almost went extinct in recent times and were only saved by a coordinated effort by early conservationists.

The American bison in particular has a sad story. Before European colonizers arrived, bison were widespread throughout North America. Bison live in herds that migrate sometimes long distances to find food, and many of the North American tribes were also migratory to follow the herds, because the bison was an important part of their diet and they also used its hide and other body parts to make items they needed. The colonizers knew that, and they knew that by killing off the bison, the people who depended on bison to live would starve to death. Since bison were also considered sacred, the emotional and societal impact of colonizers killing the animals was also considerable.

In the 19th century, colonizers killed an estimated 50 million bison. A lot of them weren’t even used for anything. People would shoot as many bison as possible from trains and just leave the bodies to rot, and this practice was actually encouraged by the railroads, who advertised these “hunting” trips. The United States government also encouraged the mass killing of bison and even had soldiers go out to kill as many bison as possible. Bison that escaped the coordinated slaughter often caught diseases spread by domestic cattle, and the increased plowing and fencing of prairie land reduced the food available to bison. By 1900, the number of American bison in the world was probably only about 300.

As early as the 1860s people started to sound the alarm about the bison’s impending extinction. Some ranchers kept bison, partly as meat animals and partly to just help stop them from all dying out. The Yellowstone National Park had been established in 1872, and 25 bison survived there, although many others were poached by hunters. Members of various Plains tribes, who had been forced onto reservations by the United States government so the government could give their land to colonizers, collected as many bison as they could to keep them safe.

These days the American bison is out of immediate danger, although its numbers are still very low. Because there were so few bison when conservation efforts started, the genetic diversity is also low. Bison will also hybridize with domestic cattle and the resulting female calves are fertile, so the main goal of modern conservationists is to genetically test herds to determine which bison have a larger percentage of cattle genes, and mainly only breed the ones that have the least. A 2022 study determined that there is no population of American bison alive today that doesn’t have at least a small percentage of cattle genes. Cattle are domesticated animals, and it’s never a good thing when a wild animal ends up with the DNA of a domestic counterpart. Bison need their wildness in order to survive and stay safe.

There are two living subspecies of American bison, the wood bison and the plains bison. I’m happy to report that the scientific name of the plains bison is Bison bison bison. The wood bison mainly lives in Canada, where it’s classified as threatened.

As for the European bison, or wisent, it was once common throughout much of Europe and Asia. As the human population increased after the ice age, the wisent’s numbers decreased until it was mostly restricted to a few areas of Russia, Transylvania, Poland, and Lithuania. Even as early as the 16th century, people were aware it was endangered. Local rulers declared it a protected animal in most of its range.

During World War I, German troops occupying Poland killed hundreds of wisents, and as the troops retreated at the end of the war, they shot as many of the bison as they could find and left them to rot. Only nine individuals remained alive and by 1921 they had died too. By 1927, the very last wisent in the wild was killed by a poacher.

But 12 animals remained, kept in various zoos. In 1923 a preservation society was set up, modeled after the one in the United States that had helped save the American bison from extinction. Poland in particular worked hard to increase the wisent’s numbers and re-introduce it to its forest home, although its efforts were interrupted by World War II. These days the wisent is out of danger of extinction, although like the American bison its numbers are still relatively low.

American and European bison are related and can crossbreed, but they’re not as closely related genetically as was once thought. Genetic studies are ongoing, but it appears that the wisent is most closely related to domestic cattle while the American bison is most closely related to the yak.

We recently talked about the steppe bison in episode 357, which is about mammoth meat. The steppe bison is an ancestor of the American bison and lived throughout Europe and Asia across to North America, during the Pleistocene when Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. It only went extinct around 3,000 years ago. It had much larger horns than modern bison, with a horn spread of almost seven feet across, or over 2 meters.

About 17,000 years ago, in a cave in what is now France, an ancient artist picked up a stick of charcoal and made a drawing of a bison alongside many other bison drawings made by many artists over the years. According to a study published in 2016, there are two different types of bison depicted in the cave. One type is the steppe bison, but the other is distinctly different. After a genetics study of bison in Europe, researchers made a surprising discovery. The second type of bison depicted in the cave is actually a hybrid animal. Hybrids come about when two species of closely related animals interbreed. The more closely related the species are, the more likely they are to interbreed where their territories overlap, and the more likely that the offspring will be fertile. This is exactly what happened toward the end of the Pleistocene, when climate change made it harder for the steppe bison to survive. Instead, a hybrid of steppe bison and the aurochs, the wild ancestor of the domestic cow, not only became common throughout much of Europe, eventually the hybrid species was so numerous that it became a distinct species of its own.

This hybrid bison had small horns and a smaller hump than the steppe bison, although it was still a really big animal. Eventually it gave rise to the modern European bison while the steppe bison gave rise to the antique bison, which itself is the direct ancestor of the American bison. So many bison!

This is what a bison sounds like, specifically an American bison recorded in Yellowstone National Park:

[bison sound]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. 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 357: When Scientists Ate Mammoth Meat

This week we’re going to talk about stories of scientists, explorers, and other modern people eating meat from long-dead extinct animals. Did it ever really happen?

Check out the great new podcast Herbarium of the Bizarre! I highly recommend it even though they don’t eat any mammoth meat.

Further reading:

Was frozen mammoth or giant ground sloth served for dinner at The Explorers Club?

Study Proves the Explorers Club Didn’t Really Eat Mammoth at 1950s New York Dinner

Company Serves World’s First ‘Mammoth’ Meatball, but Nobody Is Allowed to Eat It

Don’t eat me bro:

Blue Babe, a steppe bison mummy found in Alaska:

Show transcript:

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

We’ve talked about mammoths and other ice age megafauna plenty of times before, but this week we’re going to learn something specific and really weird about these animals, although it’s more accurate to say we’re going to learn how weird humans are.

You may have heard this story before, or something similar to this story. A group of scientists in Siberia or Alaska have unearthed a mammoth carcass that’s been frozen in permafrost for at least 25,000 years. It’s in such good shape that the meat looks as fresh as a fancy restaurant steak that’s ready to go on the grill. At the end of a long day of using pickaxes to dig the mammoth out of ground frozen as solid as rock, the scientists are so hungry that when someone suggests they actually grill some mammoth meat, they all think it’s a good idea. The meat turns out to taste as good as it looks. Everyone has a big steak dinner, even the camp dogs, and when the expedition ends they not only have a mammoth to put on display in their museum, they have a great story to tell about a meal no human has eaten for thousands of years.

You may even have come across an event that inspired this particular story. The incredibly well preserved 44,000 year old Berezovsky mammoth was discovered in Russia in 1900 and excavated in 1901, and it’s now on display in the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg. Rumors persisted for years that the expedition members ate some of the mammoth meat, but while we don’t know exactly what happened, definitely no one actually sat down to have a yummy meal of mammoth steak.

It turns out that the meat did look appetizing when thawed, but stank like old roadkill. The expedition erected a big tent over the dig site as they excavated the carcass, which was a slow process in 1901, and the smell became so bad that the expedition members had to take frequent breaks and leave the tent for fresh air.

Apparently the scientists got drunk one night and dared each other to try a bite of the meat, but even after they practically covered it in pepper to disguise the taste, no one could force any down. One man might have managed to eat a single bite, but reports vary. They fed the meat to the camp dogs instead, who were just fine. Dogs and wolves have short, fast digestive tracts and can tolerate eating foods that would make humans very sick.

But that’s not the only story of modern humans eating meat from frozen mammoth carcasses. It supposedly happened on January 13, 1951 at the Roosevelt Hotel’s grand ballroom in New York City. A group called the Explorers Club met for their annual fancy dinner that evening, and as always, the menu contained lots of exotic foods. The main course has gone down in history as being slices of mammoth meat from a 250,000-year-old carcass found in Alaska.

That’s where things get confusing, though, because supposedly the main course was megatherium meat found in Alaska. Megatherium was a giant ground sloth that hasn’t ever been found frozen in permafrost at all, certainly not in Alaska. It lived in South America. However, the Christian Science Monitor magazine thought megatherium was another word for mammoth and reported that the group was served mammoth meat.

Some of the Explorers Club members genuinely thought they were dining on megatherium. Some may have thought it was mammoth. The club’s press release just said “prehistoric meat,” which doesn’t sound very appetizing.

An Explorers Club member who couldn’t attend the dinner asked that his portion be saved for him in a bottle of formaldehyde that he provided. This was done, and the promoter himself, Wendell Phillips Dodge, better known as Mae West’s one-time film agent, filled out the supplied specimen card as “megatherium meat.” The club member put his bottled meat on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked.

There the bottle stayed until 2001, when it ended up at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 2014, a couple of Yale students ran DNA tests on the meat.

As you may have already guessed, the meat wasn’t from a mammoth or a giant ground sloth. It’s meat from the decidedly not extinct green sea turtle, although the green sea turtle is endangered and protected these days, so don’t eat it. Since green sea turtle soup was also served at the meal, it’s probable that the leftover turtle meat was called megatherium meat as a sort of joke. Dodge even published a statement after the dinner that he’d discovered how to turn green sea turtle into giant sloth meat. But by then the story of mammoth meat being served at the dinner had already passed into history.

But while we don’t know if anyone in modern times has eaten frozen mammoth meat, we do know for certain that a group of scientists did eat the meat of a mummified steppe bison that died around 36,000 years ago.

The bison was discovered in 1979 in Alaska and was nicknamed Blue Babe, both from the folktales of the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyon and his pet, Babe the Blue Ox, and because the mummy was coated in crystals of vivianite, which turns blue when exposed to oxygen. Eventually Blue Babe was taxidermied and put on display in the University of Alaska Museum at Fairbanks.

At some point, the team in charge of the specimen decided to try some of its meat in a stew, which from all accounts turned out okay and didn’t make anyone sick. The scientists examined the meat carefully before deciding to cook and eat it, and decided that it was basically freezer-burned but not actually rotten.

Dale Guthrie was part of the Blue Babe excavation team. I’ll quote the relevant paragraph from page 29 of her booklet Blue Babe. The Bjorn Kjurten mentioned in the quote is the man who helped preserve the mummy, and he was also the guy who interviewed one of the Russian scientists who tried to eat mammoth meat with pepper.

“To celebrate Eirich’s work and the new Blue Babe, we decided to cook a bison stew. A marvelous bit of luck had brought Bjorn Kjurten to Fairbanks for guest lectures, and we invited other friends who were game enough to try the stew. Spring was underway. With a good burgundy to brave the rather muddy tone of the dish, we toasted the past and present in the long evening twilight, a taste of the Pleistocene with friends who shared and added to it with their talents and imagination. It was a special evening.”

Guthrie reported that the meat wasn’t very good, but that anything is edible if you use enough onions.

In March of 2023, a company that produces lab-grown meat for human consumption made a giant meatball grown from mammoth DNA. They displayed it as a way to advertise the possibilities of lab-grown meat, but because this particular meat hasn’t been tested to make sure it’s safe for people to eat, no one was allowed to eat it. But maybe in the future, you’ll be able to order a mammoth steak from your local restaurant. Let me know what it tastes like.

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. 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!