Category Archives: North America

Episode 304: Animals of the Paleogene



Thanks to Pranav for suggesting this week’s topic, animals of the Paleogene, the period after the Cretaceous! Thanks also to Llewelly for suggesting the horned screamer, now one of my favorite birds.

Further watching:

Southern Screamers making noise

Horned Screamers making noise

Further reading:

The Brontotheres

Presbyornis looked a lot like a long-legged goose [art by Smokeybjb – CC BY-SA 3.0]

The southern screamer (left) and horned screamer (right), probably the closest living relation to Presbyornis:

Megacerops was really really big:

All four of these illustrated animals are actually megacerops, showing the variation across individuals of nose horn size:

Uintatherium had a really weird skull and big fangs:

Pezosiren didn’t look much like its dugong and manatee descendants:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at some strange animals of the Paleogene period, a suggestion from Pranav. Pranav also suggested the naked mole-rat that we talked about in episode 301, but I forgot to credit him in that one.

As we talked about in episode 240, about 66 and a half million years ago, a massive asteroid smashed into the earth and caused an extinction event that ended the era of the dinosaurs. The geologic time period immediately after that event is called the Paleogene, and paleontologists study this era to learn how life rebounded after the extinction event. We’re going to learn about a few animals that evolved to fill ecological niches left vacant after dinosaurs went extinct.

These days, mammals fill a whole lot of these ecological niches, so it’s easy to assume that mammals have been successful for the last 66 million years. But while that’s true now, birds were incredibly successful for a long time. Basically for millions of years after the non-avian dinosaurs died out, it was dinosaurs 2.0 as the avian dinosaurs, better known as birds, spread throughout the world and evolved into some amazing organisms.

This included terror birds, which we talked about in episode 202. They lived in South America, except for one species from North America, and evolved really soon after the dinosaurs went extinct, appearing in the fossil record about 60 million years ago. They lasted a long time, too, only going extinct around 2 million years ago.

The earliest known terror bird was about three feet tall, or 91 cm, but its descendants became larger and more fearsome until they were apex predators throughout South America. The biggest species grew up to ten feet tall, or three meters, with a massive beak and sharp claws on its toes. It couldn’t fly but was a fast runner. You would not want a terror bird chasing you.

Lots of other birds evolved throughout the Paleogene, but most of them would look pretty familiar to us today. Paleontologists have found fossils of the ancestors of many modern birds, including penguins, hummingbirds, and parrots, which shows that they were already specialized some 25 or 35 million years ago or even more. In the case of penguins, we have fossils of penguin ancestors dating back to the late Cretaceous, before the extinction event. Those ancient penguins could probably still fly, but it didn’t take too long to evolve to be a fully aquatic bird. The species Waimanu manneringi lived around 62 million years ago in what is now New Zealand. It resembled a loon in a lot of ways, with its legs set well back on its body, and it probably spent much of its time floating on the water between dives. But unlike a loon, it had lost the ability to fly and its wings were already well adapted to act as flippers underwater.

Another bird would have looked familiar at first glance, but really weird when you gave it a second look. Presbyornis lived between about 62 and 55 million years ago in what is now North America, and it lived in flocks around shallow lakes. It was the size of a swan or goose and mostly shaped like a goose, with a fairly chonky body and a long neck. It had a large, broad duckbill that it used to filter small animals and plant material from the water and its feet were webbed…but its legs were really long, more like a heron’s legs.

When the first Presbyornis fossils were found in the 1920s, the scientists thought they’d found ancient flamingos. But when a skull turned up, Presbyornis was classified with ducks and geese. It wasn’t very closely related to modern ducks and geese, though. Researchers now think its closest modern relation is a South American bird called the screamer. Llewelly suggested the horned screamer a long time ago and now that I have learned more about these birds, I love them so much!

The screamer looks sort of like a goose but has long, strong legs and a sharp bill more like a chicken’s. It lives in marshy areas and eats pretty much anything, although it prefers plant material. It has two curved spurs that grow on its wings that it uses to defend its territory from predators or other screamers, and if a spur breaks off, which it does pretty often, it grows back. The screamer mates for life and both parents build the nest together and help take care of the eggs and chicks when they hatch.

The horned screamer has a long, thin structure that grows from its forehead and looks sort of like a horn, although it’s not a horn. It’s wobbly, for one thing, but it’s also not a wattle. It grows throughout the bird’s life and may break off at the end every so often, and it’s basically unlike anything seen in any other bird. Maybe presbyornis had something similar, who knows?

The screamer gets its name from its habit of screaming if it feels threatened or if it just encounters something new or that it doesn’t like. The screaming is actually more of a honking call that sounds like this:

[screamer call]

People sometimes raise screamers with chickens to act as guard birds. It can run fast but it can swim faster, and it can also fly although it doesn’t do so very often. Although it’s distantly related to ducks, its meat is spongy and full of air sacs that help keep it afloat in the water, so people don’t eat it. It is vulnerable to habitat loss, though.

One organism that evolved early in the Paleogene was grass. You know, the plant that a whole lot of animals eat. There are lots and lots of different types of grass, not just the kind we’re used to mowing, and as the Paleogene progressed, it became more and more widespread. But it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, so even though the ancestors of modern grazing animals evolved around the same time, they weren’t grazers yet. The word graze comes from the word grass, but ancient ancestors of horses and other grazing animals were still browsers. They ate all kinds of plants, and didn’t specialize as grazers until grasses really took off and huge grasslands developed in many parts of the world, around 34 million years ago.

Because the Paleogene lasted so long, between about 66 and 23 million years ago, there’s literally no way we can talk about more than a few animals that lived during that time, not in a single 15-minute episode. We’ve also covered a lot of Paleogene animals in previous episodes, like paraceratherium in episode 50, the largest land mammal known. It probably grew up to about 16 feet tall at the shoulder, or 5 meters, and taller if you measured it at the top of its head. Other examples are moeritherium, an ancient elephant relation we talked about in episode 18, the giant ground sloth that we talked about in episode 22, and the ancient whale relation basilosaurus that we talked about in episode 132. Patrons also got a bonus basilosaurid episode this month. But I’m pretty sure we’ve never talked about brontotheres.

Brontotheres first appear in the fossil record around 56 million years ago and they lived until at least 34 million years ago. All animals in the family Brontotheriidae are extinct, but they were closely related to horses. They didn’t look like horses, though; they looked a lot like weird rhinoceroses, although remember that rhinos are also related to horses. They were members of the odd-toed ungulates, along with tapirs and the gigantic Paraceratherium.

Fossil remains of brontotheres have been found in North America, a few parts of eastern Europe, and Asia, although they might have been even more widespread. The earliest species were only about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or about a meter, but later species were much larger. While they looked a lot like rhinos, they didn’t have the kind of keratin hose horns that rhinos have. Instead, some species had a pair of horns made of bone that varied in shape and size depending on species. The horns were on the nose as in rhinos, but were side-by-side.

Brontotheres developed before grasslands became widespread, and instead they were browsers that mostly ate relatively soft vegetation like leaves and fruit. Grass is really tough and animals had to evolve specifically to be able to chew and digest it. In fact, the rise of grasslands as the climate became overall much drier around 34 million years ago is probably what drove the brontotheres to extinction. They lived in semi-tropical forests and probably occupied the same ecological niche that elephants do today. This was before elephants and their relations had evolved to be really big, and brontotheres were the biggest browsing animals of their time.

Brontotheres probably lived in herds or groups of some kind. They were widespread and common enough that they left lots of fossils, so many that they were found relatively often in North America even before people knew what fossils were. The Sioux Nation people were familiar with the bones and called them thunder horses. When they were scientifically described in 1873 by Othniel Marsh, he named them after the Sioux term, since brontotherium means “thunder beast.”

Two of the biggest brontotheres lived at about the same time as each other, around 37 to 34 million years ago. Megacerops lived in North America while Embolotherium lived in Asia, specifically in what is now Mongolia. Megacerops is the same animal that’s sometimes called brontotherium or titanotherium in older articles and books.

Megacerops and Embolotherium were about the same size, and they were huge, although Embolotherium was probably just a bit larger than Megacerops. They stood over 8 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.5 meters, and were more than 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters. This is much larger than any rhinos alive today and as big as some elephants. Their legs would probably have looked more like an elephant’s legs than a rhinoceros’s.

Brontothere nose horns weren’t true horns, since they don’t seem to have been covered with a keratin sheath, but they were formed from protrusions of the nasal bones. They might have been more like ossicones, covered with skin and hair. Megacerops had a pair of nose horns that were much larger in some individuals than others, and scientists hypothesize that males had the larger horns and used them to fight each other.

But this can’t have been the case for embolotherium. It had even bigger nose horns that were fused together in a wedge-shaped plate sometimes referred to as a ram, but they contained empty chambers inside that were a continuation of the nasal cavities. They wouldn’t have been strong enough to bash other embolotheriums with, but they might have acted as resonating chambers, allowing embolotherium to communicate with loud sounds. All individuals had these nose horns, even juveniles, and they were all about the same size, which further suggests that they had a purpose unrelated to fighting.

At about the same time the brontotheres were evolving, another big browsing animal also lived in what are now China and the United States. Two species are known, one in each country, and both stood about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters. It looked sort of like a brontothere in some ways, but very different in other ways, especially its weird skull, and anyway it was already big around 56 million years ago when brontotheres were still small and unspecialized.

Scientists aren’t sure what uintatherium was related to. It’s been placed in its own genus, family, and order, although some other uintatherium relations have been discovered that share its weird traits. Most scientists these days think it was probably an ungulate.

Uintatherium’s skull was extremely strong and thick, which didn’t leave a whole lot of room for brains. But what uintatherium lacked in brainpower, it made up for in sheer defensive ability. It had huge canine teeth that hung down like a sabertooth cat’s fangs, although males had larger fangs than females. Males also had three pairs of ossicones or horns on the top of the skull that pointed upwards. One pair was on the nose, one pair over the eyes, and one pair almost on the back of the skull. They could be as much as 10 inches long, or 25 cm, and paleontologists think that males wrestled with these horns the same way male deer will lock antlers and wrestle.

Uintatherium lived in the same habitat and probably ate more or less the same type of plants that later brontotheres did. They went extinct around the time that brontotheres evolved to be much larger, which suggests that brontotheres may have outcompeted uintatherium.

We’ll finish with one more Paleogene mammal, Pezosiren. It was only described in 2001 from several incomplete specimens discovered in Jamaica in the 1990s, and it lived between 49 and 46 million years ago.

Pezosiren was about the size of a pig, although it had a longer, thicker tail compared to pigs. It wasn’t any kind of pig, though, and in fact it was distantly related to elephants. It was the oldest known ancestor of modern sirenians. Pezosiren is also called the walking siren, because it still had four legs and probably spent at least part of the time on land, although it could swim well. Scientists think it probably swam more like an otter than a sirenian, propelling itself through the water with its hind legs instead of its tail.

Pezosiren was probably semi-aquatic, sort of like modern hippos, and already shows some details specific to sirenians, especially its heavy ribs that would help it stay submerged when it wanted to. It ate water plants and probably stayed in shallow coastal water. At different times in the past, Jamaica was connected to the North American mainland or was an island on its own as it is now, or occasionally it was completely submerged. About 46 million years ago it submerged as sea levels rose, and that was the end of Pezosiren as far as we know. But obviously Pezosiren either survived in other areas or had already given rise to an even more aquatic sirenian ancestor, because while Pezosiren is the only sirenian known that could walk, its descendants were well adapted to the water. They survive today as dugongs and manatees.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 303: Weird and Mysterious Animal Sounds



Thanks to Emory for suggesting this week’s topic, mysterious animal sounds!

Further reading/watching:

The Story of Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains

Terrifying Sounds in the Forests of the Great Smoky Mountains

Evidence found of stingrays making noise

This New AI Can Detect the Calls of Animals Swimming in an Ocean of Noise

The wapiti [pic from article linked above]:

The stingray filmed making noise [stills from video linked to above]:

The tawny owl makes some weird sounds:

The fox says all kinds of things:

Show transcript:

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

Emory suggested we do a new episode about strange and mysterious animal sounds a while back, which is one of my favorite topics. The problem is, it’s hard to find good audio clips to share. It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve found some good ones.

In late September 2018, in the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, some hikers recorded a terrifying animal sound. The sound wasn’t a mystery for long, though, because they soon saw the animal making it. Here’s what it sounded like:

[elk bugle]

It’s the bugle of a male elk, which I’m going to call wapiti to avoid confusion. It’s a sound that wasn’t heard in the Smoky Mountains for at least a century. The eastern wapiti was once common throughout eastern North America but was driven to extinction in the late 19th century, although the last wapiti in North Carolina was killed almost a century earlier than that. All North American wapiti almost went extinct by about 1900, and hunters and conservationists worked to get nature preserves set aside to save it and its habitat. Starting in the 1990s, wapiti from western North American subspecies were reintroduced in the southeast, with reintroductions in the Smokies starting in 2001. There are now at least 200 wapiti living in the mountains, probably more. I’ve seen them myself and they’re beautiful animals!

The wapiti is a type of deer. We talked about it way back in episode 30 along with the moose. Various species of wapiti live throughout Europe and Asia as well as North America, although it’s been hunted to extinction in many areas. As we mentioned in episode 30, the name elk is used for the moose in parts of Europe, which causes a lot of confusion, which is why I’ve chosen to call it by its Algonquin name of wapiti.

The wapiti is a really big animal, one of the biggest deer alive today. Only the moose is bigger. It’s closely related to the red deer of Eurasia but is bigger. A male, called a bull, can stand about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters, with an antler spread some four feet wide, or 1.2 meters. Females, called cows, are smaller and don’t grow antlers. Males grow a new set of antlers every year, which they use to wrestle other males in fall during mating season. At the end of mating season the wapiti sheds its antlers.

The bugling sound males make during mating season is extremely loud. The sound tells females that the bull is strong and healthy, and it tells other bulls not to mess with it.

[elk bugle]

Our next sound is from an animal that scientists didn’t realize could even make sounds. There’ve been reports for a long time of stingrays making clicking noises when they were alarmed or distressed, but it hadn’t been documented by experts. A team of scientists recently decided to investigate, with their report released in July of 2022. They filmed stingrays of two different species off the coasts of Indonesia and Australia making clicking sounds as divers approached. They think it may be a sound warning the diver not to get too close. This is what it sounds like:

[Stingray making clicking sounds]

One exciting new technological development is being used to detect underwater sounds and hopefully help identify them. It’s called DeepSqueak, because it was originally developed to record ultrasonic calls made by mice and rats. This is an example of a mouse sound slowed down enough that humans can hear it, specifically a male mouse singing to attract a mate, which we talked about in episode 8:

[mouse song]

But DeepSqueak also works really well to detect sounds made by whales and their relatives, and researchers are currently using it to determine whether offshore wind farms cause problems for whales.

With DeepSqueak and other listening software, it turns out that a lot of animals we thought were silent actually make noise. For instance, this sound:

[Pelochelys bibron]

That’s a grunting sound made by the southern New Guinea giant softshell turtle.

And here’s a caecilian, a type of burrowing reptile that we talked about in episode 82:

[Typhlonectes compressicauda]

Let’s finish with a strange and mysterious sound heard on land. In January and February of 2021, some residents of London, England started hearing a weird sound at night.

[mystery sound]

Because the animal making the sound moved around so much, some people thought it must be a bird. One suggestion is that it was a tawny owl, especially the female tawny owl who makes a chirping sort of sound to answer the male’s hoot. This is what the male and female tawny owl sound like:

[owl sounds]

The tawny owl also sometimes makes an alarm call that sounds like this:

[tawny owl alarm call]

But the sound didn’t really match up with what residents were hearing. Here it is again:

[mystery sound]

Finally someone pointed out that red foxes make a lot of weird sounds, mostly screams and sharp barks, but occasionally this sound:

[fox sound]

That seems to be a pretty good match for what people were hearing in early 2021, although since no one got a look at the animal they heard, we can’t know for sure. So it’s still a mystery.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 302: The Coatimundi and a Mysterious Friend



Thanks to Oceana, Leo, and Alexandra for suggesting the coatimundi this week!

Further reading:

Caught red handed: The mystery of an unusual Panamanian plant’s dispersal

The coatimundi has a long tail and a long nose:

The olingo sitting on a cloud cycad seed pod. Mystery solved!

The olingo in daylight:

My new podcasting studio!

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to talk about an animal suggested by several people. Thanks to Oceana, Leo, and Alexandra for suggesting the coatimundi, also called the coati! We’re also going to learn about a related animal mystery that was the subject of a Patreon episode earlier this year, because it ties in so well.

The coatimundi looks superficially like a type of monkey, or maybe a lemur, but it’s not a primate at all. It belongs to the family Procyonidae, which includes raccoons, kinkajous, and a few others. Procyonids are native to the Americas, and some scientists think they may be very distantly related to canids. Since a lot of Procyonids have bushy ringed tails, at one point the red panda was classified as a relation, but it’s since been reclassified into a family all its own that doesn’t appear to be related.

The coati lives in much of South America, Central America, and southern North America, including Mexico and parts of the American southwest. It’s mostly gray-brown or reddish-brown in color, with some white markings around the eyes and muzzle. Males are much bigger than females on average, but in general the coati isn’t that much bigger than a domestic cat. It has a long, thick tail that sort of resembles a cat’s tail except that it’s even longer in relation to its body. Some coatis have rings around the tail but some don’t. It depends on the species and the individual.

The coati uses its long tail to help it balance in trees, since it does a lot of climbing. Its hind feet can rotate so that they’re backwards, which means it can climb down trees headfirst. Procyonids can all do this, but so can some unrelated animals like weasels, due to convergent evolution. The coati also uses its long tail to keep track of its friends when they’re traveling through long grass. It sticks its tail straight up so that it’s visible above the grass. Since female coatis live in social groups of up to 40 individuals, keeping track of friends is important.

The coatimundi doesn’t worry too much that predators might see its tail sticking up and run over for a coati-sized snack. While jaguars, cougars, large eagles, and a few other predators do eat coatis, for the most part other animals leave them alone. The coati has sharp teeth, sharp claws, and it’s strong and fast for its size. It can be ferocious when it needs to, and of course it has its equally ferocious friends to help out. Plus, the coati is intelligent. In a 2013 study, the female coati’s brain was found to have a very large frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that handles sociability. Male coatis had smaller frontal cortexes, since males spend most of the time by themselves or in small bachelor groups except during mating season. And as we’ve learned when talking about other animals, the more complex an animal’s social structure, the more intelligent it’s likely to be.

The coati’s ears are small and its snout is long and thin and turns slightly upwards, which makes it look a little like a piggy nose. But unlike a pig’s nose, the coati’s is extremely flexible. It uses its nose to root around in leaf litter and dirt to find food. It’s an omnivore that’s happy to eat pretty much anything, from fruit and other plant material, to insects and other invertebrates, including tarantulas, to eggs and small animals. It has a strong sense of smell and clever front paws that help it dig up grubs, termites, and other yummy things. It sleeps with its nose tucked into its belly fur and its long tail wrapped around it.

When a female coati is ready to have babies, called kits, she leaves her group and builds a little nest in a tree. She gives birth there and takes care of her kits alone for about six weeks. At that point the babies can travel well and the whole family rejoins the other females and their offspring. The females take turns babysitting younger kits and watching for danger.

Next, let’s learn about another Procyonid, this one associated with a mystery. But to learn about the mystery we need to start not with an animal, but with a plant. Zamia pseudoparasitica is a type of cycad that only lives in the montane cloud forests in western Panama, in Central America. Even though the cycad is a plant that resembles a palm tree, this particular plant grows in the treetops instead of on the ground.

Because Z. pseudoparasitica is a mouthful, I’m going to call it the cloud cycad.

The cloud cycad has a short trunk without branches, but its leaves are almost 10 feet long, or 3 meters. They look like palm fronds. It grows on other trees, clinging to the branches with its roots, but it doesn’t actually parasitize the tree. That’s why its name is pseudoparasitica: pseudo means false, so it only looks like a parasitic plant growing on a bigger plant.

The cloud cycad starts out by growing upward from a branch as much as 65 feet above the ground, or 20 meters, but as it gets bigger and heavier, it slips down around the branch and hangs upside down. Then its trunk starts bending upward to get more light, so it grows in a sort of U shape.

The term for a plant that lives on other plants without being a parasite is epiphytic. Many epiphytic plants get their nutrients from rain, decomposition of leaves and other organic material near their roots, and other external sources since they don’t have access to soil. They’re often really good at absorbing water quickly too. Spanish moss, some ferns, lichens, and orchids are all good examples, but only one cycad is epiphytic, our cloud cycad.

The cloud cycad produces large yellow or orange seeds in cones, and when the seeds are ripe they have a pungent smell. But here’s the mystery about this strange plant: how do its seeds get dispersed to other trees? The cloud cycad never grows on the ground, and researchers think any seeds that fall to the ground just lie there until something eats them.

An animal has to be helping in some way, possibly by eating the seeds and pooping them out somewhere else. That’s why so many seeds are encased in sweet-tasting tissues. People suspected that fruit bats were the main seed disperser, but no one knew for sure.

In late 2019, a team of young scientists decided to get to the bottom of the mystery. They climbed trees and placed cameras pointing at cloud cycads to see what animals visited them. This was hard work, as you can probably imagine, because those trees are really big; but finally they got the cameras set up. Then, in early 2020, right before Panama went into lockdown due to Covid-19, they had to go back and climb the same trees to retrieve the cameras. Then they had to download the photographs from each and go through them.

Lots of animals were caught on camera, including seven species of mammal. Monkeys, kinkajous, and opossums all gave the seed cones a sniff or two, but only one animal actually collected the seeds. And that animal was the olingo!

The northern olingo is a Procyonid, and is probably the coatimundi’s closest relation. It’s gray-brown in color with a rounded face and short muzzle, small round ears that are low on its head, and claws that help it climb around in trees. It’s mostly nocturnal and mostly eats fruit, and it spends most of its time in the treetops. It’s a slender animal that grows about 20 inches long, or 50 cm, not counting its tail, which is about as long as its body and which it uses for balance. If you look closely, its tail has very faint rings of dark and light fur.

We don’t know a whole lot about the olingo, but we now know it probably eats the seeds of the cloud cycad because it’s been caught on camera grabbing up to four of the seeds at a time and carrying them off.

The scientists still have a lot of work to do to find out more about how the olingo helps disperse the cloud cycad’s seeds, assuming it actually does. The team thinks the olingo might cache seeds like some squirrels do, hiding them in various places around its treetop territory until it’s hungry. If so, in at least some cases, just like with squirrels, some of the seeds are forgotten and germinate to grow new plants.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 300: The Loveland Frog



Here it is, our 300th episode! Which just happens to fall on Halloween! We have a spooooooky episode for sure this time, a full five out of five ghosts on our spookiness scale. Beware!!

Don’t forget to order your copy of Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie, available wherever you buy books!

Check out the great podcast Bring Birds Back. They were kind enough to run a promo for us in the middle of their Halloween episode so I’ve returned the favor.

Further reading:

‘Loveland Frogman’ Spotted Again?

The Loveland Frogman Is Back!!! Beware.

Officer who shot ‘Loveland Frogman’ in 1972 says story is a hoax

Close Encounter at Kelly (PDF)

A picture from the 2016 sighting:

“Jim” the frogman cosplayer (from the second article linked to above):

The 27 March 1972 Cincinnati Post article, titled “Loveland monster” by Si Cornell (p.7):

A really big iguana:

The 1955 sighting, drawn in 1956 by the witness’s interviewer:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally Halloween, and it’s also our 300th episode! Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever made 300 of anything before. To celebrate, this episode is going to be our most Halloween-y yet, a solid five out of five ghosts on our spookiness scale. Beware, muahahaha!

As usual in our Halloween episodes, we have a little bit of housekeeping before we start. The Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book is still available everywhere you order books. I have six or seven copies of the paperback if you want to buy a signed copy directly from me. Just drop me an email if you’re interested.

This past year has been extremely busy for me. Apart from the podcast, I also sold my house and moved to an apartment, went to a lot of conventions to sell books, and worked on my fiction writing. I self-published a novella this summer called Royal Red, which is about dragons, but it’s not appropriate for younger readers so I won’t link to it. Everything I’ve done this year has been positive ultimately, but it was incredibly stressful at the time. Now that things are settling down, I’ve had time to think about what I want to do in the future.

I love making Strange Animals Podcast, but it’s also taking up more and more of my time. I have a lot of hobbies and interests outside of podcasting, which I haven’t had time to do very much in the last few years. I need to pull back and regain time for myself. But don’t worry, we’ll still have an episode every week! The episodes will just be shorter on average. Hopefully you won’t even notice the change.

Feel free to continue sending in your suggestions and feedback. I know I’m really backed up on suggestions and hope to get to a bunch of them in the next few months. If you worry that I never got your suggestion, you can send it again! Also, if you want a sticker, send me your mailing address and I’ll mail you one. That’s true all the time, not just right now.

Thanks to everyone for supporting the podcast over the last 300 episodes! Let’s aim for another 300. Also, stick around to the very end of the episode to hear a promo from a great podcast called Bring Birds Back. I think you’ll really like the show.

Now, it’s time to learn about the LOVELAND FROG. Which does not sound spooky, but believe me, it is.

The story doesn’t start in 2016, but that’s where we’re going to start. In early August 2016, a young man named Sam Jacobs was playing Pokemon Go with his girlfriend in Loveland, Ohio. They were near Lake Isabella when Sam noticed a big frog in the water. It was getting dark at this point and all Sam could see was the frog’s eyes reflecting light and its head and back above the water. It was so big that he took pictures and even video, but then the frog stood up out of the water and walked around on its hind legs, the size of a human.

But that wasn’t the first time someone had seen a giant frog-man in the area. In 1972 it was seen twice, both times by policemen.

On March 3, 1972, a policeman named Ray Shockey was driving along Riverside Road at about one in the morning. This was just outside Loveland, Ohio, and as the road’s name implies, the road followed along the Little Miami River. Officer Shockey saw what he initially thought was a dog in the road, but as he came closer, the animal stood up on its hind legs. He said it was about four feet tall, or 1.2 meters, with a face that looked like a frog’s or a lizard’s. Its skin looked leathery but textured. The creature stared at the car for a moment, then jumped over a guard rail and down toward the river.

Shockey was shocked, naturally, and hurried to the station. He told another officer on duty about what he’d seen, Mark Matthews, and the two returned to the spot where Shockey had encountered the creature. They found what looked like scrape marks on the ground leading down to the river, but nothing else.

A few weeks later, Mark Matthews saw the creature himself. He was driving along the river when he saw what he thought was a dead animal on the road. He stopped to move it off the road when it sat up, hurried to the guard rail and climbed over it. Officer Matthews shot at the creature but either missed, or the animal wasn’t hurt badly enough to stop.

But this still isn’t the first time the creature was sighted. We have to go back to 1955 for the first sighting of the creature now known as the Loveland frog or the Loveland frogman. There are various versions of the story but in general, in May of 1955, a businessman named Robert Hunnicott was driving along the Little Miami River at about 3:30 in the morning and saw three strange creatures standing on their hind legs. He was so shocked that he stopped his car to get a better look.

The creatures were no more than 4 feet tall, or 1.2 meters, and had gray leathery skin and faces like frogs. Instead of hair, the skin on their heads was deeply wrinkled. He also noticed they had webbed hands and feet. As Hunnicott stared, one of the figures raised a wand over its head and sparks shot out of it. At this point Hunnicott decided it was time to go, and he drove away quickly.

So, you have to admit, this is a truly spooky event. It may be the spookiest thing we’ve ever discussed on this podcast. But things aren’t all that they seem, so let’s revisit all three stories and learn a little more.

If you read the Wikipedia entry for the Loveland frog, at least as of late October 2022, under the “Popular culture” heading it discusses the 2016 sighting and finishes “It was later revealed to be a local student from Archbishop Moeller High School in a homemade frog costume.” This statement cites as its source a November 13, 2020 article written by a student for the Moeller Crusader, the high school’s newspaper.

But if you actually read the article, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, you’ll notice that it’s meant to be funny. For instance, this paragraph, which purports to be a quote from a student called Jim:

“‘I’ve been obsessed with the Loveland frog since I was a little boy,’ said Jim. ‘He’s like my idol. I dress up as him and go to the tunnel and hop around a few times a week. I sometimes make little chocolates shaped as flies and I’ll eat them while I hop around. And no, I don’t think it’s weird.’”

This actually made me laugh. But nowhere in the article does it state that “Jim” was in the lake in 2016 while Sam Jacobs and his girlfriend were playing Pokemon Go. If Jim was an Archbishop Moeller High School student in November 2020 when the article was published, he would not have been a high school student in August 2016 unless he had to stay in high school for five years instead of the usual four. Either that or he started wearing his costume around in middle school but was only seen once until the article ran in 2020. Also, in the pictures accompanying the article, the frog costume is just an oversized head made of plush fur, not the sort of thing you’d want to wear into a lake and not matching the size of the creature photographed in 2016. Anyway, as I said, the article is clearly meant to be funny, not factual.

In other words, while Wikipedia is a perfectly good source of general knowledge on a topic, make sure you double-check the references cited for accuracy, and don’t use Wikipedia as your only source.

All that aside, it’s a good possibility that the 2016 sighting was a hoax. The pictures and video are grainy since it was dark out, so basically all you can see is what seems to be a dark green or gray human-like figure standing in the water about waist-deep. The glow of its eyes is so bright they look like LED lights instead of the normal eyeshine of a nocturnal or crepuscular animal. The lights also appear to be white. White eyeshine is generally only found in fish, while frogs generally have green eyeshine. Of course, the Loveland frog isn’t actually a frog, and if it is something new to science it could potentially have any color of eyeshine. But such bright white eyeshine is more likely to be due to an artificial light source causing the glow, not the reflection of light.

Let’s go back to the 1972 sightings next. The initial sighting made by Ray Shockey happened in early March. Loveland is a community on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and according to online weather history archives, the temperature dipped down to 24 degrees Fahrenheit that night, or -4 Celsius. The following day, Saturday, the temperature only reached 39 F, or 4 C.

It was also windy, which would make it feel even colder.

The Cincinnati Post newspaper reported on the sighting in a March 27, 1972 article. The article takes a humorous tone but it does have some solid reporting, so I’m going to quote a lot of it.

Patrolman Ray Shockey, 23, was cruising along the river late at night when he saw ‘an animal two to three feet tall with dark green or blackish scaly skin.’ The thing ducked over the bank into the river.

Ten days ago, Patrolman Mark Matthews, 21, was driving home from duty along the same road at 6 a.m. Near Loveland’s city limits, a good quarter mile from the first sighting but still close to the river, he saw ‘the same type of creature’ and was able to partially swing his headlights on it.

Matthews said the irritated monster ‘stuck its tongue out at me…it was forked like a serpent’s.’ He fired three shots, apparently missing, and the monster skedaddled towards the water. He estimated the thing as two to four feet high.”

Now we have some real details! The article ends with a quote from a local zookeeper, who noted that the sketch the two officers had made from their reports resembled The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a monster movie that had only been released the year before.

The forked tongue is a telling detail, because there’s a particular animal that mostly fits the creature’s description that does have a noticeable forked tongue. That’s the monitor lizard, and we’ve talked about various monitors in lots of past episodes. Monitor lizards are popular pets in the United States and can easily grow three or four feet long, or 91 to 122 cm. The monitor’s snout is relatively blunt and can look frog-like, although it’s at the end of a relatively long neck. It also has a long tail, so while some details fit the sightings, it’s not a perfect match.

Besides, the monitor lizard is a reptile, and therefore cold-blooded, or ectothermic, meaning its internal body temperature depends on the temperature outside. It can’t function well in cold temperatures and will die if it gets too cold. The same is true of frogs and other amphibians, for that matter, many of which hibernate in burrows, crevices in rocks or logs, and other places protected from freezing temperatures.

It was warmer when Matthews spotted the creature on March 17, 1972, although still not much above freezing. The high temperature that day was 48 F, or almost 9 C, but at 6am it was probably colder. That’s still really cold for a reptile or amphibian to be out and about in the dark.

But that’s not all, because in 2016, after Sam Jacobs and his girlfriend saw the Loveland frog, Mark Matthews contacted the Cincinnati news station WCPO and his story had changed a lot in the 44 years since his own sighting. Even the spelling of his name had changed, with Matthews spelled with one T instead of two, but the 2-T spelling might have been a mistake in the original reports from 1972.

In his 2016 interview, Matthews now said he “was driving on Kemper Road near the boot factory when he saw something run across the road. However, it wasn’t walking upright and didn’t climb over the guardrail as the urban legend of the Frogman goes. The creature crawled under the guardrail. […] ‘I know no one would believe me, so I shot it,’ he said.

“Mathews recovered the creature’s body and put it in his trunk to show Shockey. He said Shockey said it was the creature he had seen, too. It was a large iguana about 3 or 3.5 feet long, Mathews said. The animal was missing its tail, which is why he didn’t immediately recognize it.

“Mathews said he figured the iguana had been someone’s pet and then either got loose or was released when it grew too large. He also theorized that the cold-blooded animal had been living near the pipes that released water that was used for cooling the ovens in the boot factory as a way to stay warm in the cold March weather.”

A big male iguana can get quite large, up to 6 feet long including the tail, or 1.8 meters, and they’re also popular pets. The iguana has a shorter neck than a monitor lizard and a blunt muzzle that could be considered froglike. However, it also has a long tail, a dewlap under the throat, and a row of little spikes down the spine. All these details are distinctive and not reported in the initial reports. It does have a forked tongue, but it’s not noticeable unless you get a good look at it from up close. If Matthews had killed the animal and examined it, he might have seen the tongue and gave that detail to a reporter in 1972, but why didn’t he also mention the spikes and dewlap? If he was trying to protect his fellow officer from ridicule by backing up his story, he didn’t need to stick to details he really saw. He could have made up anything, but instead he just said that the animal stuck a forked tongue at him and ran toward the water.

Besides, it seems awfully convenient that Mark Matthews’s iguana was missing a tail, which would have made it look more froglike, and was active on two nights, one of them below freezing. Iguanas are not nocturnal. It’s also convenient that although he supposedly had the dead animal in his patrol car, he didn’t take any pictures or show anyone except Shockey, who had already died by the time Matthews made his 2016 claim. I don’t think Mark Matthews killed an iguana or anything else that night.

One suggestion is that the animal might have been a mammal with a bad case of mange, which made its skin look like textured leather and made it hard to recognize. But with so few concrete details, no physical evidence, and a witness who changed his story considerably, we can’t even make a guess.

Finally, going back to the 1955 sighting is even more difficult. The best documentation of what happened appears in a publication called Close Encounter at Kelly and Others of 1955, published in 1978 by the Center for UFO Studies. The bulk of the publication is concerned with what’s now called the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter that happened in Kentucky. I won’t get into the details here because it could and probably one day will be an episode all to itself, but it happened in late August 1955. Part two of Close Encounter at Kelly talks about other strange occurrences that happened not too far away or too long before or after the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. According to that publication, the story originally appeared in a September 2, 1955 zine called the CRIFO Orbit, where CRIFO stands for “Civilian Research, Interplanetary Flying Objects.” The editor, Leonard Stringfield, recounts the original article:

“…We should like to cite a case involving a prominent businessman, living in Loveland. Occurring several weeks ago, this person…saw four ‘strange little men about three feet tall’ under a certain bridge. He reported the bizarre affair to the police and we understand that an armed guard was placed there.”

Already we see a lot of discrepancies from the story as it’s usually told these days, but it gets even more complicated and weird. Following that article in the CRIFO Orbit, Stringfield met with another UFO enthusiast who had some corrections to the story. The businessman, he said, was actually a young volunteer policeman. Stringfield went to the chief of police to find out more. He learned the witness’s name, although he only gives his initials, C.F., and that he was 19 years old in either late June or early July 1955 when his sighting took place.

“The witness, C.F., was driving a Civil Defense truck at the time and as he was crossing a bridge in the Loveland area (there is one vehicular bridge into Loveland over the Little Miami River from Clermont County), he noticed four small figures on the river bank beneath the bridge. A terrible smell hung over the area. C.F. immediately drove to police headquarters in Loveland and reported the incident.”

Stringfield next went to talk to C.F., who didn’t really want to discuss his sighting since he’d been laughed at by too many people about it, but he did say that he’d seen “four more-or-less human-looking little men about three feet high,” and that he’d only seen them for about ten seconds. Since this interview took place within a year of the sighting, it’s probably as good as we can get now.

But things get even more complicated, because the very next chapter in the Close Encounter at Kelly publication is titled “The Hunnicutt Encounter at Branch Hill.” Now we have the name seen online attached to the businessman, Robert Hunnicutt, and the date May 25, 1955. Stringfield learned about this sighting from the police chief when they were discussing the other sighting.

The police chief was woken at about four in the morning by someone pounding on his front door. It was Robert Hunnicutt, a short-order cook in a Loveland restaurant, and he looked like he’d seen a ghost. He “told the police chief that while he was driving northeast through Branch Hill (in Symmes Township) on the Madeira-Loveland Pike, he had seen a group of ‘strange little men’ along the side of the road with ‘their backs to the bushes.’ Curious, he had stopped the car and gotten out. …[T]he witness claimed he had seen ‘fire coming out of their hands,’ and that a ‘terrible odor’ permeated the place. When Hunnicutt realized he was looking at something quite out of the ordinary he became frightened; jumping back into his car, he had driven directly to the police chief’s home.”

The chief of police knew Hunnicutt and while he believed the man had had a real fright, he didn’t believe the story as Hunnicutt told it. He also mentioned that Hunnicutt didn’t smell as though he’d been drinking alcohol. The police chief drove out to the spot Hunnicutt described and drove around looking for the creatures, without luck.

You better believe that Stringfield didn’t let this opportunity pass him by. He interviewed Robert Hunnicutt on September 1, 1956.

Hunnicutt said he was out at 3:30am on the night of the sighting because he was driving home from work, and he was driving down a slight hill when his headlights lit up three figures in the grass on the right-hand side of the road. He thought they were people kneeling in the grass for some reason, which is why he stopped his car.

“The figures were short, about three and a half feet in height, and they stood in a roughly triangular position facing the opposite side of the road. […] The forward figure held his arms a foot or so above his head and it appeared to Hunnicutt as though he were holding a rod, or a chain, in this upraised position. […] Sparks, blue-white in color and two or three at a time, were seen jumping back and forth from one hand to the other, just above or below the ‘rod.’ It was Hunnicutt’s impression that the beings were concentrating on some spot directly across the road, although he could see nothing unusual in the woods to the west of the Pike.

“As Hunnicutt got out of the left side of his car, the forward figure lowered his arms and near his feet appeared to release whatever he had been holding. To the witness, ‘it looked as if he tied it around his ankles.’ Then, as Hunnicutt stood by the left side of the car, all three figures simultaneously turned slightly toward their left so that they now faced the witness. Motionless, and without sound or change of expression, they stared directly at him. In the car lights Hunnicutt was able to observe a number of details.

“This most extraordinary trio was made up of three humanoid figures of a greyish color—approximately the same shade of grey for their heads as for their ‘garments.’ ‘Fairly ugly’ were the words Hunnicutt used to describe them. A large, straight mouth, without any apparent lip muscles, crossed nearly the entire lower portion of their faces—an effect which reminded the witness of a frog. The nose was indistinct, with no unusual feature that the witness could discern. The eyes seemed to be more or less normal, except that no eyebrows could be seen. The pate was bald and appeared to have rolls of fat running horizontally across the top, rather like the corregated [sic] effect of a doll’s painted-on hair—except that there was no difference in color.

“The most remarkable feature was the upper torso: the chest was decidedly lopsided. On the right side it swelled out in an unusually large bulge that began under the armpit and extended down to the waist, giving the figures a markedly asymmetrical appearance. The arms seemed to be of uneven length, the right being longer than the left, as though to accommodate this unusual feature. […] Hunnicutt saw nothing unusual about the hands, although he could not say how many fingers they had. […] He could see no feet, but the figures stood in six-inch high grass.”

Hunnicutt described the creatures’ movements as graceful, and he only noticed the smell when he got back into his car and drove off. He described it as “a combination of ‘fresh-cut alfalfa, with a slight trace of almonds,’” which sounds wonderful to me. He also said that a few months later, possibly July or August, he was driving the same stretch of road with his girlfriend and they both noticed the same smell. He stopped, but they didn’t see anything unusual.

After that, the publication goes on to talk about various UFO sightings in the area, so that’s all we have of first-hand accounts of the Loveland frogman.

It’s obvious that people have conflated the two different 1955 sightings, mixing them up so that some retellings repeat information from the original CRIFO Orbit report and others include more information from the Close Encounter at Kelly publication.

Were the creatures aliens, as Stringfield thought? Talking about potential aliens is beyond the scope of this podcast, but I will point out that organisms that evolved on a different planet are unlikely to look anything like humans or other tetrapods. Tetrapods are animals with four limbs of one kind or another, which includes mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians on Earth, and apparently also includes most aliens as seen in popular culture. But even on Earth, not every living thing has four limbs—in fact, most things don’t. Just think about jellyfish, octopuses, starfish, spiders, flies, centipedes, slugs, and trees.

But don’t forget about C.F.’s short report about what he saw. We don’t know when his sighting took place but it was probably during the day. All he saw was “four small figures on the river bank beneath the bridge” as he drove over the bridge, along with a terrible smell. He didn’t describe the smell, but most terrible smells near a road are rotting roadkill…and roadkilled animals attract a specific type of bird: vultures. Both turkey vultures and black vultures are common throughout Ohio and surrounding areas, and both are extremely large birds. C.F. didn’t get a good look and was also looking down at them from the bridge as he drove over. Four vultures sitting around a dead animal might easily look like four small human-like figures from a distance, especially when seen at such a strange angle.

As for Hunnicutt’s sighting, remember that it came only a few months after C.F.’s. Both C.F. and Hunnicutt knew the chief of police, so it’s also possible they had other acquaintances in common. C.F. had stopped talking about his sighting after he’d been laughed at by others who didn’t believe him, but it’s possible that Hunnicutt had heard the story. And remember, people see what they expect to see. If Hunnicutt was driving home after a tiring day at work, he might even have fallen asleep, his car drifted to a stop, and he dreamed he met the same weird creatures that C.F. saw.

Then again, I wasn’t there and it’s not fair for me to look back on a secondhand account from 67 years ago and decide that the witness dreamed it all. So we’ll just have to admit that the Loveland frog-man as seen in 1955, 1972, and 2016…might have been something truly strange after all.

Happy Halloween!

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 299: Entombed in Stone!



This week’s episode rates one out of five ghosts on the spookiness scale. It’s not too spooky unless the thought of being ENTOMBED IN STONE creeps you out! Which it might, if you are a frog.

Further reading:

A Tenacious Pterodactyl

Further watching:

“One Froggy Evening”

A frog supposedly found mummified in a stone:

The Texas horned lizard kind of looks like a pointy toad with a tail:

Show transcript:

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

We’re getting really close to Halloween and our 300th episode, and it’s going to be a spooky one! This week, though, I rate this episode as one ghost out of five on our spookiness scale, meaning it’s not very spooky at all…unless you’re a frog!

Most of us know this story. A worker helping to demolish a building finds a mysterious box hidden in the building’s cornerstone. He opens the box and discovers a living frog—a frog that can sing and dance! But only when no one else is looking!

That’s the classic Looney Tunes cartoon “One Froggy Evening,” and while it’s really funny, it’s also based on many stories about frogs, toads, and other animals supposedly discovered entombed but alive, or only recently dead, in clay, bricks, tree trunks, coal, and even rocks.

For example, in 1782, the American politician and naturalist Benjamin Franklin was living in France, and while he was there he heard about some workmen in a quarry who had found some living toads encased in stone. I’ll quote from Franklin’s writing:

“At Passy, near Paris, April 6th, 1782, being with M. de Chaumont, viewing his quarry, he mentioned to me, that the workmen had found a living toad shut up in the stone. On questioning one of them, he told us, they had found four in different cells which had no communication; that they were very lively and active when set at liberty; that there was in each cell some loose, soft, yellowish earth, which appeared to be very moist. We asked, if he could show us the parts of the stone that formed the cells. He said, No; for they were thrown among the rest of what was dug out, and he knew not where to find them. We asked, if there appeared any opening by which the animal could enter. He said, No. […] We asked, if he could show us the toads. He said, he had thrown two of them up on a higher part of the quarry, but knew not what became of the others.

“He then came up to the place where he had thrown the two, and, finding them, he took them by the foot, and threw them up to us, upon the ground where we stood. One of them was quite dead, and appeared very lean; the other was plump and still living. The part of the rock where they were found, is at least fifteen feet below its surface, and is a kind of limestone. A part of it is filled with ancient seashells, and other marine substances. If these animals have remained in this confinement since the formation of the rock, they are probably some thousands of years old.”

Since limestone generally takes about a million years to form, and requires considerable pressure and lots of chemical reactions to do so, we can be certain that the toads were not in the limestone for all that long. But limestone is porous, and the mention of damp yellow earth inside the capsules of stone suggests that there were significant fissures in the stones where the toads were found. Limestone dissolves in water, although it takes a long time. That’s how caves form. Maybe over many years, tiny cracks and holes had formed in the limestone, large enough for some well developed tadpoles or young toads to end up in the holes, maybe during a rainstorm or flood.

Then again, the whole thing might have been a mistake. The toads might not have actually been inside the stones, only nearby when the stones were broken open. The workers might have thought they were inside. Or it might just have been a hoax made up by a bored quarry worker.

Stories of animals found encased in stone or other impossible conditions go back hundreds of years, in many parts of the world, but for some reason they got really popular around the mid-19th century in England. Suddenly people were finding toads and other animals in all sorts of weird places, or said they had. The Rev. Robert Taylor of St. Hilda’s Church, Hartlepool, for instance, exhibited a toad and the stone it was found in, with the chamber inside the stone being exactly the size and shape of the toad before it was broken open and freed in April 1865. But a geologist who examined the stone found obvious chisel marks where it had been hollowed out and shaped to look like the toad had been inside.

It wasn’t just toads found in rocks, of course, although those were the most popular. A mouse was supposedly found in a rock in 1803, three salamanders of a presumed extinct species were supposedly found in a rock sometime before 1818, and a horned toad was supposedly found in a building cornerstone in 1928. The horned toad is actually a lizard, in this case a Texas horned lizard that lives in various parts of the south-central United States and northeastern Mexico.

The Texas horned lizard does actually resemble a toad in some ways. Its body is broad and rounded and its face has a blunt, froglike snout. A big female grows about 5 inches long, or almost 13 cm, not counting its tail, while males are smaller. It’s covered with little pointy scales, and if it feels threatened, it will puff up its body so that the scales stick out even more. It also has true horns on its head, little spikes that are formed by projections of its skull.

The Texas horned lizard eats insects, especially a type of red ant called the harvester ant. The harvester ant is venomous but the horned lizard 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.

The horned lizard supposedly found in a cornerstone of a building was nicknamed Ol’ Rip after Rip Van Winkle, the main character in a short story by Washington Irving who fell asleep and woke up 20 years later. Ol’ Rip the Texas horned lizard was supposedly placed into the hollow cornerstone brick as part of a time capsule when the Eastland County Courthouse was being built in 1897.

In 1928, the courthouse was torn down and a newspaper reporter advertised the opening of the time capsule, including the story about the horned lizard. Sure enough, a live horned lizard was removed from the cornerstone when it was opened, which by the way was the inspiration for the “One Froggy Evening” cartoon.

Ol’ Rip became a celebrity and was displayed all over the United States, and the Texas horned lizard became such a popular pet that the population declined severely, since people went out and caught them to sell as pets. Since the horned lizard eats a lot of insects that damage crops, its decline in numbers actually led to farmers losing money to insect damage. The Texas horned lizard is still endangered, for that matter, and is now a protected species that isn’t allowed to be kept as a pet. Ol’ Rip died less than a year after he was supposedly discovered in the cornerstone.

Even at the time, a lot of people were skeptical that Ol’ Rip had really been in the cornerstone brick for 31 years. It’s much more likely that one of the officials presiding over the time capsule’s opening brought a horned lizard with him and pretended to find it in the brick.

For one thing, the Texas horned lizard needs bright sunshine to survive. Its body can only produce vitamin D when it gets a lot of sunshine, and without vitamin D it will eventually die. It spends a lot of time sunbathing and while it does dig a burrow to sleep in at night, as soon as the sun’s out in the morning, the lizard comes out to bask in the sunshine. A Texas horned lizard trapped in a brick without food, water, air, or sunshine wouldn’t survive long.

The weirdest animal ever supposed to have been found in a stone was reported in the Illustrated London News in 1856. According to the article, during the construction of a railway tunnel in France, a huge block of stone was dislodged with dynamite. The workers were breaking it into smaller pieces when they exposed a chamber inside the rock. A creature emerged that looked something like an enormous bat, but was obviously not a bat. It had a long neck, sharp teeth in its mouth, four long legs with long claws on its talons, and its front and hind legs were connected with flying membranes. It was black with bare skin.

The animal shook its wings but promptly dropped dead, and was sent to a naturalist who identified it as Pterodactylus anas, which had died 64 million years before. Its wingspan was measured as 10 feet, 7 inches across, or 3 meters, 22 cm.

There is no species of pterodactyl named Pterodactylus anas, but anas is Latin for duck. The word for duck in French is canard, which in English means something more like “a hoax or tall tale.”

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 297: Dinosaur Mummies



This week we have a two-ghost rating for our episode about dinosaur mummies! It’s a little spooky because we talk about mummies, but it’s mostly an episode about dinosaurs, which are not spooky.

Further reading:

The lost Tarbosaurus mummy

Dinosaur Mummy Found with Fossilized Skin and Soft Tissues

Dakota the Dinomummy: Millenniums in the Making

Spectacularly Detailed Armored Dinosaur “Mummy” Makes Its Debut

Was a Dinosaur Mummy Dubbed ‘Appalachiosaurus’ Found in Tennessee?

An Edmontosaurus mummy found in 1908:

A 3D model of Dakota’s skin [photo from third link above]:

The Nodosaurid ankylosaur mummy:

Show transcript:

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

It’s monster month and this week we’ve got a monster from ancient times—really ancient times. We’re talking about mummies today, DINOSAUR mummies! On our spooky scale, this one rates two ghosts out of five since we do talk about mummies, but it’s not too spooky because we mostly talk about dinosaurs!

A dinosaur named Tarbosaurus lived around 70 million years ago in what is now Mongolia. It was probably closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex and would have looked very similar, with a big strong body but teeny-tiny front legs. Its front legs were even smaller than T. rex’s in relation to its body. It grew up to about 33 feet long, or 10 meters, and probably stood about 10 feet high at the hip, or 3 meters, and its big head had a big mouth full of really big teeth. It probably killed and ate hadrosaurs, sauropods, and other big dinosaurs. Some scientists think it was so closely related to T. rex that it should be classified as another species in the genus Tyrannosaurus.

We have quite a few Tarbosaurus fossils, including some very well-preserved skulls, so we know quite a bit about it. It had a good sense of smell and good hearing, but its vision wasn’t all that great. Some paleontologists think it might have been nocturnal. We’ve also found lots of bones of big dinosaurs with bite marks from teeth the size and shape of Tarbosaurus’s.

In 1991, though, a team of scientists found something even more incredible. They found a partial skeleton of a Tarbosaurus with lots of skin impressions. In short, they’d sort of found a mummified dinosaur. (It’s not really a mummy.)

The mummy consisted of the back end of the dinosaur, including the pelvis, tail, and hind legs. It had fallen onto sandy sediment that was especially fine-grained, so when the sediment transformed into sandstone over many millennia, it retained an exceptionally clear impression of the skin, including every small pebbly scale.

The expedition members took pictures and measurements, but they didn’t collect the specimen. Another expedition returned to the area to do so in 1993, but by then the specimen was gone. It was probably stolen by fossil poachers, who probably didn’t even realize the skin impressions were far more valuable than the bones and may have destroyed them while removing the skeleton.

The lost Tarbosaurus specimen is called a fossilized mummy since a dead animal’s skeleton with skin is sort of like a mummy. When the soft tissues of a dead animal or person are preserved in some way that causes them to stop decaying, that’s considered a mummy, and there are a lot of causes.

The most famous mummies, of course, are from ancient Egypt. It was important in Egyptian culture at the time to preserve a dead person’s body, and dead animals were also mummified sometimes, especially cats. The body was treated with salt and spices that helped dry the tissues and preserve them from bacteria, and once it was fully dehydrated the body was wrapped in linen bandages, covered with a natural waterproofing material made from plant resins, and placed in a wooden coffin. Sometimes the coffin was then put into a stone sarcophagus to keep it extra safe.

Other cultures across the world have practiced mummification too, and sometimes mummification happens naturally. This mostly happens in deserts and other dry areas, or in places where it’s very cold and the body freezes before it can decay, then dries out slowly. Sometimes a body is preserved after it’s buried, when the soil of the grave or the conditions in an underground crypt are just right, although bodies found in bogs are mummified too since bogs lack oxygen and that stops the decay of soft tissues.

Another dinosaur mummy was found in 1910 in the western United States, in Wyoming. It’s an Edmontosaurus specimen that’s remarkably well preserved and nearly complete, including skin impressions and even the horny beak. Initially the scientists who studied the animal thought the stomach contents had been preserved too, but more modern studies have concluded that the plant material was probably deposited in the body cavity after death. The dinosaur died near water and flooding may have washed plants into the partially decomposed carcass. There was even a little fish among the plant material, which was probably already dead when it was washed into the body cavity.

Edmontosaurus lived in what is now North America around 67 million years ago, surviving right up to the extinction event that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. It’s one of many species of hadrosaurid, which are often called duck-billed dinosaurs. It could grow up to 39 feet long, or 12 meters, and possibly larger, and it was relatively common throughout its range. It probably walked on all fours most of the time but could stand or walk on its hind legs only, when it wanted to. It ate plants and may have migrated long distances to find food. It probably lived in groups.

The skin impressions of the 1910 specimen were impressive, but it isn’t the only edmontosaurus mummy ever found. We have several, in fact. The earliest was found in 1908, known as specimen AMNH 5060, and it was discovered by a man named Charles Sternberg and his three sons, who all three became paleontologists later in life. They were hoping to find a good triceratops skull to sell to a museum, but they found something even better when one of the sons realized the dinosaur they were uncovering was wrapped in skin impressions.

AMNH 5060 had died in an area that was very dry, so instead of rotting away, all the moisture in the body dried out and the skin remained stretched across the bones. It was essentially a natural mummy at that point. Then, as in the 1910 specimen, flooding probably covered the dead animal with sediment that preserved it in fine detail. Not only is the skeleton mostly intact, it’s also articulated so that the fossilized body parts are in the same places they were when the animal died, instead of having been scattered around after death.

More edmontosaurus mummies were found later, too, but it wasn’t until 2006 when the most important find so far was discovered in North Dakota, part of the United States. It isn’t just skin impressions we have from this specimen, which is nicknamed Dakota. We have actual fossilized skin and muscles and tendons, along with bones.

Dakota was discovered by Tyler Lyson on his uncle’s ranch when he was still in high school. He knew the dinosaur was there but he didn’t realize how important the find was until five years later when he was a paleontology student. The specimen was excavated in 2006 and was identified as an adolescent edmontosaurus that died about 67 million years ago. It was recently given a new 3D scan and results will hopefully be published soon, letting us all know if there are any fossilized organs inside the body.

Because so much of the soft tissues were preserved in place, we know a lot about how edmontosaurus looked when it was alive. For instance, the intervertebral discs that act as little shock absorbers between vertebrae are still in place, which means we know exactly how long Dakota was when it was alive, about 40 feet long, or 12 meters. Because so many of its tendons and muscles are preserved, scientists can calculate how fast it could run. Dakota could probably run 28 mph, or 45 km/hour. We even have a clue about Dakota’s pattern, if not its coloration. Differences in scale size and texture suggest that the dinosaur might have had stripes on at least part of its body.

Edmontosaurus fossils aren’t the only dinosaur mummies, though. In 2011, an amazing ankylosaur fossil was discovered in a Canadian mine. Ankylosaurs had short legs and wide bodies covered in armor, and while some had club-like tails, Nodosaurids had regular tails but spikes on their backs that pointed sideways. The Canadian ankylosaur mummy is a nodosaurid.

Researchers think the dinosaur was probably caught in a flash flood, which swept it out to sea. It probably swam as long as it could, but its armored body made it heavy and it eventually drowned. Its body sank into the bottom sediment, which protected it from decay, scavengers, weathering, and other things that might have destroyed it. 110 million years later, an equipment operator fortunately noticed how weird the rock was that he’d just uncovered, and the world now has an amazing idea of what a living ankylosaur looked like.

The animal’s armored plates from the front of its body, some skin, and even its stomach contents are beautifully preserved, and the body is still articulated. It looks like it lay down to sleep and turned to stone. Some chemical pigments called melanosomes were discovered during study of the skin, which suggests that its skin was probably reddish-brown in color with a lighter-colored belly. It had massive spikes on its shoulders and along the sides of its neck, along with the smaller osteoderms that made up its armor on the rest of its body.

We know it mostly ate ferns because that was mostly what was in its stomach when it died. There was also some charcoal in its stomach, and researchers think it was probably eating ferns that had grown in an area where a wildfire had been recently. The ferns are so well preserved that scientists can determine their stage of growth, which means the dinosaur probably died in early to mid-summer.

Another dinosaur mummy is a Brachylophosaurus nicknamed Leonardo. Leonardo was found in July 2000 and wasn’t full grown when it died, only maybe three or four years old. Its skin and some of its internal organs are fossilized, and 3D scans have allowed scientists to learn a lot about it.

Brachylophosaurus was a hadrosaurid that lived around 80 million years ago in North America, and it could grow up to around 36 feet long, or 11 meters. It may have lived and migrated in groups. It had a flat crest on its head and a frill down the back, although some individuals had big crests and some had small ones. Paleontologists think big crests might have been a trait found only in males or only in females, we’re not sure which.

It ate plants, and we know from studies of Leonardo’s fossilized digestive system that it had eaten a lot of ferns right before it died, as well as leaves and other material from ancient relatives of conifers and magnolias. It also had worms. That’s right, even the parasites in Leonardo’s digestive system were fossilized. They were needle-like bristly worms who left more than 200 tiny burrows in the digestive lining, fossilized for eternity. Leonardo also had an internal pouch in its neck that was similar to a modern bird’s crop, where food was stored immediately after swallowing and where the digestive process may have started.

We’ll finish by talking about a story from April 2022, which discusses a dinosaur mummy found in my own state of Tennessee. The dinosaur was called Appalachiosaurus and was at least 77 million years old, and its skin and even some of its internal organs were reportedly intact—so much so that DNA was able to be extracted from them. The problem is that this particular story was posted to Facebook on April 1, also known as April Fool’s Day, and yes, it was a hoax. But Appalachiosaurus is a real species of dinosaur, a theropod that grew at least 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters, and probably quite a bit longer since the most complete specimen found so far is a juvenile. We don’t know a lot about Appalachiosaurus since only a few partial remains have ever been discovered. It would be fantastic if a fossilized mummy of one really did turn up one day.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 291: The Ediacaran Biota



This week let’s find out what lived before the Cambrian explosion!

A very happy birthday to Isaac!

Further reading:

Some of Earth’s first animals–including a mysterious, alien-looking creature–are spilling out of Canadian rocks

Say Hello to Dickinsonia, the Animal Kingdom’s Newest (and Oldest) Member

Charnia looks like a leaf or feather:

Kimberella looks like a lost earring:

Dickinsonia looks like one of those astronaut footprints on the moon:

Spriggina looks like a centipede no a trilobite no a polychaete worm no a

Glide reflection is hard to describe unless you look at pictures:

Trilobozoans look like the Manx flag or a cloverleaf roll:

Cochleatina looked like a snail:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the last week of August 2022, so let’s close out invertebrate August with a whole slew of mystery fossils, all invertebrates.

But first, we have a birthday shoutout! A humongous happy birthday to Isaac! Whatever your favorite thing is, I hope it happens on your birthday, unless your favorite thing is a kaiju attack.

We’ve talked about the Cambrian explosion before, especially in episode 69 about some of the Burgess shale animals. “Cambrian explosion” is the term for a time starting around 540 million years ago, when diverse and often bizarre-looking animals suddenly appear in the fossil record. But we haven’t talked much about what lived before the Cambrian explosion, so let’s talk specifically about the Ediacaran (eedee-ACK-eron) biota!

I was halfway through researching this episode when I remembered I’d done a Patreon episode about it in 2021. Patrons may recognize that I used part of the Patreon episode in this one. You’d think that would save me time but surprise, it did not.

The word Ediacara comes from a range of hills in South Australia, where in 1946 a geologist noticed what he thought were fossilized impressions of jellyfish in the rocks. At the time the rocks were dated to the early Cambrian period, and this was long before the Cambrian explosion was recognized as a thing at all, much less such an important thing. But since then, geologists and paleontologists have reevaluated the hills and determined that they’re much older than the Cambrian, dating to between 635 to 539 million years ago. That’s as much as 100 million years before the Cambrian. The Ediacaran period was formally designated in 2004 to mark this entire period of time, although fossils of Ediacaran animals generally start appearing about 580 million years ago.

Here’s something interesting, by the way. During the Ediacaran period, every day was only 22 hours long instead of 24, and there were about 400 days in a year instead of 365. The moon was closer to the earth too. And life on earth was still sorting out the details.

Fossils from the Ediacaran period have been discovered in other places besides Australia, including Namibia in southern Africa, Newfoundland in eastern Canada, England, northwestern Russia, and southern China. Once the first well-preserved fossils started being found, in Newfoundland in 1967, paleontologists started to really take notice, because they turned out to be extremely weird. The fossils, not the paleontologists.

Many organisms that lived during this time lived on, in, or under microbial mats on the sea floor or at the bottoms of rivers. Microbial mats are colonies of microorganisms like bacteria that grow on surfaces that are either submerged or just tend to stay damp. Microbial mats are still around today, usually growing in extreme environments like hot springs and hypersaline lakes. But 580 million years ago, they were everywhere.

One problem with the Ediacaran biota, and I should explain that biota just means all the animals and plants that live in a particular place, is that it’s not always clear if a fossil is actually an animal. Many Ediacaran fossils look sort of plant-like. At this stage, the blurry line between animals and plants was even more blurry than it is now, with the added confusion that sometimes non-organic materials can resemble fossils, and vice versa.

For instance, the fossil Charnia, named after Charnwood Forest in England where it was first discovered. In 1957, a boy named Roger, who was rock-climbing in the forest, found a fossil that looked like a leaf or feather. He took a rubbing of the fossil and showed his father, who showed it to a geologist. The year before, in 1956, a 15-year-old girl named Tina saw the same fossil and told her teacher, who said those rocks dated to before the Cambrian and no animals lived before the Cambrian, so obviously what she’d found wasn’t a fossil.

Tina’s teacher was wrong about that, of course, although he was correct that the rocks dated to before the Cambrian, specifically to about 560 million years ago. But while Charnia looks like a leaf, it’s not a plant. This was about 200 million years before plants evolved leaves, and anyway Charnia lived in water too deep for plants to survive. It anchored itself to the sea floor on one end while the rest of the body stuck up into the water, and some specimens have been found that were over two feet long, or 66 cm. Some researchers think it was a filter feeder, but we have very little evidence one way or another.

One common animal found in Australia and Russia is called Kimberella, which lived around 555 million years ago and might have been related to modern mollusks or to gastropods like slugs. It might have looked kind of like a slug, at least superficially. It grew up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm, 3 inches wide, or 7 cm, and an inch and a half high, or 4 cm, which was actually quite large for most animals that lived back then. It was shaped roughly like an oval, with one thin end that stuck out, potentially showing where its front end was, although it didn’t have a head the way we think of it today. The upper surface of its body was protected by a shell, but not the type of shell you’d find on the seashore today. This was a flexible, non-mineralized shell, basically just thick, toughened tissue with what may be mineralized nodules called sclerites embedded in it. All around its body was a frill that might have acted as a gill. The underside of Kimberella was a flat foot like that of a slug.

We know Kimberella lived on microbial mats on the sea floor, and it might have had a feeding structure similar to a radula. That’s because it’s often found associated with little scratches on its microbial mat that resemble the scratches made by a radula when a slug or related animal is feeding on a surface. The radula is a tongue-like organ studded with hard, sharp structures that the animal uses to scrape tiny food particles from a surface.

Kimberella displays bilateralism, meaning it’s the same side to side. That’s the case with a lot of modern animals, including all vertebrates and a lot of invertebrates too, like insects and arachnids. But other Ediacarans showed radically different body plans. Charnia, for instance, exhibits glide reflection, where both sides are the same as in bilateralism, but the sides aren’t exactly opposite each other. If you walk along a beach and make footprints in the sand, your trail of footprints actually demonstrates glide reflection. If you stand on the sand and jump forward with both feet together, your footprints demonstrate bilateralism since the prints are side by side. (This is confusing to describe, sorry.) Pretty much the only living animals with this body pattern are some sea pens, which get their name because they resemble old-fashioned quill pens. Many sea pens look like plants, and for a long time researchers thought Charnia might be an ancient relation to the sea pen. These days most researchers are less certain about the relationship.

A similar-looking animal that lived around the same time as Charnia was Dickinsonia. It looks sort of like a leaf too, but a more broad oval-shaped leaf instead of a long thin one like Charnia. It’s also not a leaf. Some are only a few millimeters long, but some are over 4 1/2 feet long, or 1.4 meters.

Dickinsonia may be related to modern placozoans, a simple squishy creature only about one millimeter across. It travels very slowly across the sea floor and absorbs nutrients from whatever organic materials it encounters. But we don’t know if Dickinsonia was like that or if it was something radically different. Until a few years ago a lot of paleontologists thought Dickinsonia might be some kind of early plant or algae. Then, in 2016, a graduate student discovered some Dickinsonia fossils that were so well preserved that researchers were able to identify molecular information from them. They found cholesteroids in the preserved cells, and since only animals produce cholesteroids, Dickinsonia was definitely an animal. But that’s still about all we know about it so far.

Spriggina is another animal that at first glance looks like a leaf or feather. Then it sort of resembles a trilobite, or a segmented worm, or a possible relation to Dickinsonia. It looks like all sorts of animals but doesn’t really fit with anything known. It grew up to two inches long, or 5 cm, and had what’s referred to as a head shield although we don’t know for sure if it was actually its head. The head shield might have had eyes and might have had some kind of antennae, and some fossils seem to show a round mouth in the middle of the head, but it’s hard to tell. The rest of its body was segmented in rings. What Spriggina didn’t have was legs, or at least none of the fossils found so far show any kind of legs. Some species of Spriggina show a glide reflection body plan, while others appear to show a more ordinary bilateral body plan.

Three Ediacaran animals have such a weird body plan that they’ve been placed in their own phylum, Trilobozoa, meaning three-lobed animals. They show tri-radial symmetry, meaning that they have three sections that are identical radiating out from the center. They lived on microbial mats and were only about 40 mm across at most, which is about an inch and a half. Tribrachidium was roughly round in shape although its relations looked more like tiny cloverleaf rolls. Cloverleaf rolls are made by putting three little round pieces of dough together and baking them so that the roll has three lobes, although Trilobozoans probably didn’t taste as good. Also, Trilobozoans were covered with little grooves from center to edge and had three curved ridges, one on each lobe. The ridges were originally interpreted as arms or tentacles, but they seem to have just been ridges. Researchers think the little grooves directed water over the body’s surface and the ridges acted as tiny dams that slowed the water down just enough that particles of food carried in the water would fall onto the body so that the animal could absorb the nutrients, although we don’t know how that worked.

Many other Ediacaran animals had radial symmetry like modern echinoderms and jellyfish, including the ancestors of jellyfish. Some Ediacaran animals even had shells of various kinds, and they’re generally referred to as small shelly fossils. They were rarely more than a few millimeters across at most and are sometimes found mixed in with microbial mats. Cochleatina, for instance, is less than a millimeter across and all we know about it is that it had a ribbon-like spiral shell like a really simple snail’s shell. It wasn’t a snail, though. We don’t even know if it was an animal. It might have been some kind of algae or it might have been something else. Unlike most small shelly fossils, Cochleatina survived into the Cambrian period.

We’re also not sure why most Ediacaran organisms went extinct at the beginning of the Cambrian, but it’s probable that most were outcompeted by newly evolved animals. There may also have been a change in the chemical makeup of the ocean and atmosphere that caused an extinction event of old forms and allowed the rapid expansion of new animal forms that we call the Cambrian explosion.

We can also learn a lot about what we don’t find in the Ediacaran rocks. Pre-Cambrian animals didn’t appear to burrow into the sea floor, or at least we haven’t found any burrows, just tracks on the surface. Most Ediacaran animals also didn’t have armored bodies or claws or so forth. Researchers think that predation was actually pretty rare back then, with most animals acting as passive filter feeders to gather nutrients from the water, or they ate the microbial mats. It wasn’t until the Cambrian explosion that we see evidence that some animals evolved to kill and eat other animals exclusively.

With every new Ediacaran fossil that’s found and studied, we learn more about this long-ago time when multi-cellular life was brand new.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 288: Mystery Invertebrates



Thanks to Joel for suggesting this week’s topic!

Happy birthday to Fern this week!

Further reading:

Small, rare crayfish thought extinct is rediscovered in cave in Huntsville city limits

Hundreds of three-eyed ‘dinosaur shrimp’ emerge after Arizona monsoon

An invertebrate mystery track in South Africa

The case of the mysterious holes in the sea floor

Contemplating the Con Rit

The Shelton Cave crayfish, rediscovered:

The three-eyed “tadpole shrimp” or “dinosaur shrimp,” triops [photo from article linked above]:

A leech track in South Africa [photo from article linked above]:

A track, or at least a series of holes, discovered in the deep seafloor [photos from article linked above]:

Show transcript:

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

Thanks to Joel who suggested we do an episode about mystery invertebrates! It took me a while, but I think you’re really going to like this episode. Some of the mysteries are solved and some are not, but they’re all fun.

Before we get to the mystery animals, though, we have a birthday shout-out! A great big happy birthday to Fern! I hope you have your favorite type of birthday cake or other treat and get to enjoy it with your loved ones.

Our first mystery starts in a cave near Huntsville, Alabama in the southern United States, which is in North America. Shelta Cave is a relatively small cave system, only about 2,500 feet long, or 760 meters. That’s about half a mile. It’s a nature preserve now but in the early 1900s it was used as an underground dance hall with a bar and everything.

Biologist John Cooper studied the cave’s aquatic ecosystem in the 1960s when he was doing his dissertation work. His wife Martha helped him since they were both active cavers. At the time, the cave ecosystem was incredibly diverse, including three species of crayfish. One was called the Shelta Cave crayfish, which was only a few inches long, or about 5 cm, mostly translucent or white since it didn’t have any pigment in its body, and with long, thin pincers.

It was rarer than the cave’s other two crayfish species, and unlike them it had only ever been found in Shelta Cave. From 1963 to 1975, only 115 individuals had been confirmed in repeated studies of the cave’s ecosystem.

Then, in the 1970s, several things happened that caused a serious decline in the diversity of life in the cave.

The first was development of the land around the cave into subdivisions, which meant that more pesticides were used on lawns and flower beds, which made its way into the groundwater that entered the cave. It also meant more people discovering the cave and going in to explore, which was disturbing a population of gray bats who also lived in the cave. To help the bats and keep people out, the park service put a gate over the entrance, but the initial gate’s design wasn’t a very good one. It kept people out but it also made it harder for the bats to go in and out, and eventually the bats gave up and moved out of the cave completely. This really impacted the cave’s ecosystem, since bats bring a lot of nutrients into a cave with their droppings and the occasional bat who dies and falls to the cave floor.

The gate has since been replaced with a much more bat-friendly one, but studies afterwards showed that a lot of the animals found in the cave had become rare. The Shelta Cave crayfish had disappeared completely. One was spotted in 1988 but after that, nothing, and the biologists studying the cave worried that it had gone extinct.

Then, in 2019, a team of scientists and students surveying life in the cave spotted a little white crayfish with long, thin pincers in the water. The team leader dived down and scooped it up with his net to examine more closely. The crayfish turned out to be a female Shelta Cave crayfish with eggs, which made everyone excited, and after taking a tiny tissue sample for DNA testing, and lots of photographs, they released her back into the water. The following year they found a second Shelta Cave crayfish.

The Shelta Cave crayfish is so little known that we don’t even know what it eats or how it survives in the same environment with two larger crayfish species. Biologist Dr. Matthew Niemiller is continuing Dr. Cooper’s initial studies of the cave and will hopefully be able to learn more about the crayfish and its environment.

Next let’s travel from a cool, damp, flooded cave in Alabama to northern Arizona. Arizona is in the western United States and this particular part of the state has desert-like conditions most of the year. Almost a thousand years ago, people built what is now called Wupatki Pueblo, a 100-room building with a ballcourt out front and a big community room. It was basically a really nice apartment building. Wupatki means “tall house” in the Hopi language, and while the pueblo people who built it are long gone, Wupatki is still an important place for the Hopi and other Native American tribes in the area. It’s also a national monument that has been studied and restored by archaeologists and is open to the public.

In late July 2021, torrential rain fell over the area, so much rain that it pooled into a shallow temporary lake around Wupatki, including flooding the ballcourt. The ballcourt is 105 feet across, or 32 meters, and surrounded by a low wall. One day while the ballcourt was still flooded, a tourist came up to the lead ranger, Lauren Carter. The visitor said there were tadpoles in the ballcourt.

There are toads in the area that live in burrows and only come out during the wet season when there’s rain, and Carter thought the tadpoles might be from the toads. She went to investigate, saw what looked like tadpoles swimming around, and scooped one up in her hands to take a closer look. But the tadpoles were definitely not larval toads. In fact, they kind of looked like teensy horseshoe crabs, with a rounded shield over the front of the body and a segmented abdomen and tail sticking out from behind, with two long, thin spines at the very end that are called caudal extensions. It had two pairs of antennae and lots of small legs underneath, some adapted for swimming. The largest of the creatures were about two inches long, or 5 cm.

What on earth were they, and where did they come from? This area is basically a desert. Carter stared at the weird little things and remembered hearing about something similar when she worked at the Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona. She looked the animal up and discovered what it was.

It’s called Triops and is in the order Notostraca. Notostracans are small crustaceans shaped sort of like tadpoles, which is why it’s sometimes called the tadpole shrimp, but it’s not a shrimp. It has two eyes on the top of its head visible through its flattened, smooth carapace. Species in the genus Triops also have a so-called third eye between the two ordinary eyes, although it’s a very simple eye that probably only detects light and dark. Many crustaceans have these third eyes in their larval forms but very few retain them into adulthood.

Notostracans have been around for about 365 million years, and haven’t changed much in the last 250 million years. It’s an omnivore that mostly lives on the bottom of freshwater pools and shallow lakes, often temporary ones like the flooded ballcourt, although some species live in brackish water and saline pools, or permanent waterways like peat bogs.

Triops eggs are able to tolerate high temperatures and dry conditions, with the eggs remaining viable for years or even decades in the sediment of dried-up ponds. When enough water collects, the eggs hatch and within 24 hours are miniature versions of the adult Triops. They grow up quickly, lay lots of eggs, and die within a few months or when the water dries up again.

Triops eggs are even sold as aquarium pets, since they’re so unusual looking and are easy to care for. They basically eat anything. They especially like mosquito larvae, so if you see some in your local pond or other waterway, give them a tiny high-five.

In 1996, some workers near Indianapolis, Indiana were servicing a tank full of chemical byproducts from making plastic auto parts when they noticed movement in the toxic goo. They investigated and saw several squid-like creatures swimming around. They were red-brown and about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, including their arms or tentacles, but were only about an inch wide, or 2.5 cm.

The workers managed to capture one and put it in a jar, which they stuck in the break room refrigerator. By the time someone in management arranged to have it examined by a scientist, the jar had been thrown out. If you’ve ever tried to keep food in a break room fridge, you’ll know that there’s always someone who will throw out everything in the fridge that isn’t theirs, no matter whether it’s labeled or brand new or not. I have had my day’s lunch thrown out that had only been in the fridge a few hours. Anyway, when the tank was cleaned out the following year, no one found any creatures in it at all.

This sounds really interesting, but there’s precious little information to go on. The story appeared in a few newspapers but we have no names of the people who reportedly saw the creatures, no follow-up information. It has all the hallmarks of a hoax or urban legend. The creatures’ size also seems quite large for extremophiles in a small, closed environment. What would they find to eat to get so big?

Next let’s talk about some mysterious tracks made by invertebrates, as far as we know. We’ll start with a track on land that was a mystery at first, but was solved. A man in the Kruger National Park in South Africa named Rudi Hulshof came across a weird track in the sandy dirt that he didn’t recognize. It was maybe 10 mm wide and kind of looked like a series of connected rectangles, as though a tiny person was moving a tiny cardboard box by rolling it over and over, but there weren’t any footprints, just the body track.

Curious, Hulshof followed the track to find what had made it, and finally discovered the culprit. It was a leech! Most leeches live in water, whether it’s the ocean, a pond or swamp, a river, or just flooded ground. Most species are parasitic worms that attach to other animals with suckers, then pierce the animal’s skin and suck its blood. The leech stays on the animal until it’s full, then drops off. Some leeches are terrestrial, but it appears that this one was a freshwater leech that had attached to an animal passing through the water, then dropped off onto land. It had crawled as far as it could trying to find a better environment, but when Hulshof found it it was dead, so it had not had a good day.

The leech moves on land by stretching the front of its body forward, then dragging its tail end up in a bunch kind of like a worm (it is a kind of worm), so that’s why its track was so unusual-looking. It’s a good thing Hulshof found the leech before something ate it, or else he’d probably still be wondering what had made that track.

We have photographs of other tracks that are still mysterious. You may have heard about one that’s been in the news lately. This one was found by a deep-sea rover in July 2022, more than a mile and a half deep, or 2500 meters, in the north Atlantic Ocean.

The track may or may not actually be a track, although it looks like one at first glance. It consists of a line of little holes in the seafloor, one after the other, although they’re not all the same distance apart. The rover saw them on two separate dives in different locations, so it wasn’t just one track, but although the scientists operating the rover remotely tried to look into the holes, they couldn’t get a good enough view. It does look like there’s sediment piled up next to the holes, so researchers think something might actually be digging the holes, either digging down from the surface to find food hidden in the sediment, or digging up from inside the sediment to find food in the water. The rover did manage to get a sample of sediment from next to one of the holes and a water sample from just above it, and eventually those samples will be tested for possible environmental DNA that might help solve the mystery.

This wasn’t the first time these holes have been seen in the area, though. An expedition in 2004 saw them and hypothesized that the holes are made by an invertebrate with a feeding appendage of some kind that it uses to dig for food. Not only that, we have similar-looking fossil holes in rocks formed from deep marine sediments millions of years ago.

Other deep-sea tracks have a known cause, and humans are responsible. In the 1970s and 1980s, ships with deep-sea dredging equipment traveled through parts of the Pacific Ocean, testing the ocean floor to see whether the minerals in and beneath the sediment were valuable for mining. A few years ago scientists revisited the same areas to see how the ecosystems impacted by test mining had responded.

The answer is, not well. Even after 40 years or so since the deep-sea mining equipment sampled the sea floor, the marks remain. The deep sea is a fragile ecosystem to start with, and any disturbance takes a long, long time to recover—possibly thousands of years. So while the holes discovered in 2022 were almost certainly made by an animal or animals, they might be quite old.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal we’ve talked about before, but a really long time ago—way back in episode 6. It’s definitely time to revisit it.

In 1883 when he was 18 years old, a Vietnamese man named Tran Van Con had seen the body of an enormous creature washed up on shore at Hongay in Vietnam. Van Con said it was probably 60 feet long, or 18 meters, but less than three wide wide, or 90 cm. It had dark brown plates on its back with long spines sticking out from them to either side, and the segment at its tail end had two more spines pointing straight back. It didn’t have a head, which had presumably already rotted off, or something bit it off before the animal washed ashore. It had been dead for a long time considering the smell. In fact, it smelled so terrible that locals finally towed it out to sea to get rid of it. It sank and that was the last anyone ever saw of it. The locals referred to it as a con rit, which means “millipede,” since the armor plates made it look like the segmented body of an immense millipede.

Lots of people have made suggestions as to what the con rit could be, but nothing really fits. It was the length of a whale, but it doesn’t sound like any kind of whale known. The armored plates supposedly rang like metal when hit with a stick. Even if this was an exaggeration, it probably meant the armor plates were really hard, not just the skin of a dead whale that had hardened in the sun. It also implies that the plates had empty space under them, allowing them to echo when hit. Zoologist Dr. Karl Shuker suggests that the plates might have been the exoskeleton of a crustacean of some kind, which makes a lot more sense than a whale, but the sheer size of the carcass is far larger than any crustacean, or even any arthropod, ever known.

There’s also some doubt that the story is accurate. It might even be a hoax. We only know about the con rit at all because the director of Indochina’s Oceanographic and Fisheries service, Dr. A. Krempf, talked to Tran Van Con about it in 1921. That was 38 years after Van Con said he saw the creature, so he might have misremembered details. Not only that, Krempf translated the story from Vietnamese, and there’s no way of knowing how accurate his translation was.

The con rit is also a monster from Vietnamese folktales, a sort of sea serpent that had lots of feet. It was supposed to attack fishing boats to eat the sailors, until a king caught it and chopped it up into pieces. A local mountain was supposedly formed from its head, and the other pieces of its body turned into the unusual stones found on a nearby island.

There’s always the possibility that Tran Van Con actually told Krempf this folktale, but that Krempf misunderstood and thought he was telling him something he actually witnessed. Then again, there are eight reports from ships in the area between 1893 and 1915 of creatures that might have been a con rit. One account from 1899 was a sighting of a creature estimated as being 135 feet long, or 41 meters, which was rowing itself along at the surface by means of multiple fins along its sides.

Whatever the con rit was, there haven’t been any sightings since 1915. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a population of incredibly long invertebrates living in the deep ocean in southeast Asia. If it does exist, maybe one day a deep-sea rover will spot one. Maybe it dug those little holes, who knows?

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 284: Billy Possum and Teddy Bear



Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions this week, where we learn the story behind two cuddly toys and the animals that inspired them!

The cartoon that inspired the toy:

My own teddy bear:

An American black bear (not William Taft although yes, there is a resemblance, including a willingness to eat entire possums in one sitting):

William Taft:

A Virginia opossum:

A possum with babies!

Stop trying to make Billy Possum a thing:

Admittedly it was pretty cute:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two cuddly animals, one of which you’ve definitely heard of, the other you might not have. Oh wait, you’ve heard of both animals for sure—but you might not have heard about the toys based on the animals. Thanks to Pranav and Zachary for their suggestions.

The president of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century was Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909. He was sometimes called Teddy instead of Theodore, although he didn’t actually like the nickname. Roosevelt is widely considered to have been a very good president, as well as an interesting and sometimes eccentric man, but his main contribution to history as far as most people are concerned is the teddy bear.

Roosevelt was an active man who spent a lot of time horseback riding, playing tennis, hiking, swimming, boxing, and lots of other things. He also liked to read, spoke several languages, and wrote poetry—and he was an avid hunter and would travel the world to kill things. That’s what he was doing in November 1902, when the governor of Mississippi invited him on a bear hunting trip.

The hunting party killed several bears that day, but Roosevelt hadn’t shot anything. Some of the president’s attendants decided to help things along, and they chased a bear down with hounds until it was exhausted, beat it until it was almost dead, and tied it to a tree. I know, this is awful. I’m sorry. Then they said, “Hey, Mr. President, we found you a bear to shoot.”

Not only did Roosevelt refuse to kill the bear, he was angry at the people who had treated it so badly. He requested that the poor animal be shot to put it out of its misery, since by that point it was already dying from its treatment.

Because Roosevelt was the president, everything he did made its way into the newspapers, including this event. A political cartoonist used the bear hunt in a cartoon, only instead of an adult bear he made the bear a cute little cub. This inspired an inventor named Morris Michtom and his wife Rose to make a little bear cub doll to sell at their candy shop in Brooklyn, New York. They labeled it “Teddy’s bear” and the rest is history.

Most teddy bears don’t look much like an actual American black bear. The black bear lives in forested areas throughout much of North America and used to be even more widespread, but was hunted to extinction in many areas. It’s more closely related to the Asian black bear than it is to other bears found in North America, including the grizzly and polar bears. Its fur is usually black although some black bears are gray, various shades of brown, or sometimes even a rare cream color. The biggest American black bear ever measured was just barely under 8 feet long, or 2.41 meters, and probably weighed 1,100 pounds, or 500 kg. Most black bears are a lot smaller than that, though.

Black bears mate in summer but the fertilized egg cells don’t start developing until November. This gives the female plenty of time to gain lots of healthy weight before she finds a safe place to spend the winter. Black bears hibernate in cold weather, although scientists are still debating whether its metabolic changes constitute true hibernation. A bear will use a hollow tree or small cave as a den, or will dig a den. It gets comfortable in its den and soon its heart rate starts to drop until it only beats about 8 times a minute. Its body temperature stays about the same as usual and unlike many other animals that hibernate, it’s not sound asleep the whole time. It spends a lot of time awake and may even get up and move around, maybe even go out on nice days and look for food. Mostly, though, a hibernating bear doesn’t eat or drink, and it doesn’t need to defecate or urinate. Once the weather starts warming up, it emerges from its den and spends a few weeks just roaming around, eating whatever it can find while its body returns to non-hibernation status.

Babies are born during the winter, and they’re extremely small and underdeveloped at birth, only about 8 inches long on average, or 20 cm. A mother bear usually has two or three cubs, sometimes just one and occasionally four. The mother bear nurses her babies and keeps them warm through the rest of the winter, and once the weather warms up they’re big enough to come outside with her for the first time.

The American black bear is an omnivore, but it eats a lot more plant materials than it does meat. It especially likes berries and other fruit. It also eats a lot of insects, including ants, bees, and an especially nasty type of wasp called a yellow jacket. The bear has thick fur to help protect it from stings, but it also eats up the insects really fast. You can’t sting a bear if a bear just crunched you up with its big teeth. The black bear will catch fish whenever it can, will eat fawns and other baby animals when it can find them, will eat small animals like rodents when it gets the chance, will eat eggs when it comes across a nest, and will eat carrion, especially when it first emerges from hibernation.

Although black bears are dangerous, they’re also shy and avoid people when they can. The exception is when they get used to people food, either because they were given food by people, or because they found food that people left. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to never feed wild animals, especially dangerous ones like bears, and why you should learn how to properly hang your backpack from a tree when you’re camping so a bear can’t get it. If a bear learns to associate humans with food, it will become aggressive. When that happens, forest rangers have to make the hard decision to kill the bear before it hurts or kills a person.

While other species of bear growl, the American black bear doesn’t. The closest it comes to a growl is a deep call it makes in its throat, and it also makes huffing sounds, moans and grunts, squeals, clicks and pops that it makes with its mouth, including tongue clicking, and when it’s comfortable a bear may make a rumbling sound something like a hum or a purr.

This is what a black bear sounds like:

[bear sounds]

So, back to teddy bears. Plush toy bears were incredibly popular while Teddy Roosevelt was in office, but toy manufacturers were pretty sure the fad would drop in popularity once Roosevelt was no longer president. William H. Taft became president after Roosevelt, and in January 1909 he attended a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia where the main course served was possum and sweet potatoes.

These days most people don’t eat the Virginia opossum, more commonly called the possum in the United States, but it used to be considered a delicacy. Taft wolfed down an entire roast possum by himself, so fast that a doctor sitting at the table with him said he needed to slow down. Taft liked his food and he especially liked possum, and when his supporters presented him with a plush toy possum after the meal, he found it amusing.

But the people who’d given him the toy possum weren’t playing around. Ha ha, get it? Playing? Toy? They were certain their possum was going to be the next big thing. They formed a company called the Georgia Billy Possum Company and advertised the toys with the slogan, “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” They also released postcards, pins, songs and sheet music, and all sorts of other stuff branded with Billy Possum in hopes of hyping up their toy and becoming millionaires.

The problem, of course, is that while everyone cared about the poor bear that Roosevelt refused to kill, no one cared that Taft could eat a whole roast possum in one sitting. Besides, Taft was boring. Billy Possum never took off and people kept their teddy bears.

In many articles about Billy Possum, the whole idea of a possum being cute enough to make a cuddly toy from is laughed at. But possums are adorable! The Virginia opossum is a nocturnal marsupial that lives throughout much of the eastern United States, especially the southeast, and just about all of Mexico. It’s gray and white with a bare pink nose and bare pink toes, and it also has a long prehensile tail that’s mostly bare of fur that it uses to help it climb around in trees. Most possums are about the size of a cat but with much shorter legs. It’s the only marsupial that lives in North America.

The possum is omnivorous and eats fruit, carrion, eggs, nuts, vegetables, insects, and other small animals like mice and frogs. It’s resistant to the venom of snakes, bees, and scorpions, and will happily eat all three of these types of animals. It’s even less picky than the bear about what it eats and will genuinely eat pretty much anything, from birdseed and cat food it finds in people’s yards, to crayfish and baby rabbits, to ticks and persimmons, to slugs and snails.

The possum doesn’t live very long, and pretty much anything that can catch it will eat it, but it reproduces efficiently. Like other marsupials, the female has two vaginas and wombs and the male has a double penis. The female can have more than 20 babies at a time, although 8 or 9 is more common, and like other marsupials they’re born extremely early. The newborn babies are the size of a bean or a honeybee, but they’re strong enough to crawl into their mother’s pouch to find a teat. Since the possum has 13 teats, and each baby needs a teat to stay latched onto while it finishes developing, even if the mother has more than 13 babies, only 13 babies will survive.

The babies stay in their mother’s pouch for 2 1/2 months, at which point they start riding on her back instead. She carries them around for the next couple of months, teaching them how to be possums.

The possum has one real defense against predators, which it only resorts to when running away or hissing with its fur puffed up doesn’t help. It will flop onto its side with its tongue hanging out but its eyes open, and its heart rate drops and its breathing becomes shallow and slow. It also expels a stinky fluid from its anal glands. In short, it looks, acts, and smells like it’s already dead. It’s called “playing possum,” and it actually works pretty well…until the possum plays dead when threatened by a car. That’s why possums are so often killed by cars.

Many people think the possum is dirty or carries diseases, but this isn’t actually true. The possum grooms its fur and keeps it clean, and it’s actually less likely to have a disease than many other mammals. It’s even resistant to rabies, possibly because its body temperature is lower than that of most mammals and this helps keep the rabies virus from reproducing.

The Virginia opossum also has a secret that scientists only recently discovered. Its fur glows bright pink under ultraviolet light. No one is sure why.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 282: Little Longtailed Birds



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Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of our long-tailed birds this week!

Happy birthday to Jasper!! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Fossil of Ancient Long-Tailed Bird Found in China

All adult scissor-tailed flycatchers have long tails:

The long-tailed sylph male is the one with the long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird male has a long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird female has a short tail:

The pin-tailed whydah male has a long tail:

A pin-tailed whydah baby (left) next to a common waxbill baby (right):

Kompsornis longicaudus had a really long tail:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. This week is a short episode all about little birds with really long tails. The tails are longer than the episode. Thanks to Elaine for suggesting one of the birds we talk about today!

But before we start learning about birds, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to Jasper, who has the best name and who will hopefully have the best birthday to go along with it!

Let’s start with Elaine’s suggestion, the scissor-tailed flycatcher. I’m embarrassed to admit that Elaine suggested this bird way back in 2020, so it’s about time we talked about it.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher lives in south-central North America during the summer, especially Texas and Oklahoma, and migrates to parts of Mexico and Central America in winter. It’s pale gray with black and white wings and tail, and salmon pink markings on its sides and under its wings. It also has a really long tail. It gets the name scissor-tail because its tail is so long and forked that it’s sort of the shape of an open pair of scissors. The male’s tail is typically longer than the female’s, longer than the rest of its body. The bird is about the size of an average songbird, with a body length of about 5 inches, or 13 centimeters, but with a tail that can increase its overall length to over 14 inches, or 36 cm.

The scissor-tailed flycatcher prefers open areas like pastures and fields, where there’s lots of space but some brush, trees, or fences nearby to perch in. It mostly eats insects, but it will also eat berries, especially in winter. It’s related to kingbirds and pewees and will even hybridize with the western kingbird where their ranges overlap. Its long tail is partly for display, but mostly it helps the bird maneuver in midair as it chases insects, or hover in midair as it looks around for an insect to catch. It especially likes grasshoppers, and when it catches one, it will usually kill it before eating it by smashing it against a tree limb or other perch.

Another little bird with a long tail is the long-tailed sylph, which is a type of hummingbird! It lives on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in northwestern South America, mostly along forest edges, in gardens, grasslands, and other mostly open areas. It migrates to different parts of the mountains at different times of year to follow the flowering of its favorite plants. It’s larger than many species of hummingbird even if you don’t count the tail.

It eats nectar like other hummingbirds do, but also eats tiny insects and spiders. Its bill is black and not very long compared to most of its relations. Sometimes it will jab the tip of its bill straight through the base of a flower to get at the nectar, instead of inserting it into the flower like other hummingbirds do, and while it can hover, sometimes it perches to feed instead.

Both the male and female long-tailed sylph are a beautiful metallic blue and green in color, although the male is brighter and has purplish-brown wings. The female is about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, including her tail, and while the male is about the same size as the female, his tail is really long—up to 4.5 inches long, or 12 cm. His tail is forked like the scissor-tailed flycatcher’s, but unlike the flycatcher, the sylph’s tail makes it harder for the bird to fly. During breeding season the male attracts a mate by flying in a U-shaped pattern that shows off his tail and his flying ability.

The male long-tailed widowbird also attracts a mate with a flying display to show off his long tail. It lives in grasslands in a few parts of Africa, with the biggest population in South Africa. It forages in small flocks looking for seeds, and it also eats the occasional insect or spider. It’s a sparrow-like bird only about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, not counting its tail. The female is mostly brown with darker streaks and has a short tail. The male is black with red and white patches on the shoulders of his wings, called epaulets. His coloring, including the epaulets, is almost identical to that of a totally unrelated bird, the red-winged blackbird of North America, but he has something the blackbird doesn’t: a gigantically long tail.

The male widowbird’s tail is made up of twelve feathers, and about half of them grow up to 20 inches long. That’s nearly two feet long, or half a meter. Like the long-tailed sylph, the long-tailed widowbird’s tail actually makes it harder for him to fly. If it’s raining, he can’t fly at all. Fortunately for him, outside of the breeding season his tail is much shorter. During display flights, he spreads his tail feathers to show them off better and flies very slowly. Males with the longest tails attract the most females.

Similarly, the pin-tailed whydah is another little sparrow-like bird where the male grows a really long tail to attract females. It lives in grasslands, savannas, and open woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, which just means south of the Sahara Desert. It mostly eats seeds.

During breeding season, the male is a striking pattern of black and white with a bright orangey-red bill and really long tail plumes. He’s about the size of the long-tailed widowbird but his tail grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. The female is brown with darker streaks and looks a lot like a sparrow, although it’s not related to sparrows. To impress a female, the pin-tailed whydah will hover in place near her, showing off his long tail plumes and his flying ability.

A lot of whydah species grow long tails. A lot of whydahs are also brood parasites, including this one, meaning that instead of building a nest and taking care of her own eggs, the female sneaks in and lays her eggs in the nest of a different species of bird. Then she flies away, probably whistling to make her seem extra nonchalant, and leaves the other bird to take care of her eggs and the babies when they hatch. She mostly lays her eggs in the nests of various species of finch, and not only do her eggs resemble the finch’s eggs except that they’re bigger, the babies resemble finch babies when they hatch, except they’re bigger.

Specifically, the babies have a really specific gape pattern. When an adult bird approaches its nest, a baby bird will gape its mouth wide to beg for food. This prompts the parent bird to shove some food down into that mouth. The more likely a baby is to be noticed by its parent, the more likely it is to get extra food, so natural selection favors babies with striking patterns and bright colors inside their mouths. Many finches, especially ones called waxbills, have a specific pattern of black and white dots in their mouths that pretty much acts as a food runway. Insert food here. The whydah’s mouth gape pattern mimics the waxbill’s almost exactly. But as I said, the whydah chick is bigger, which means it can push the finch babies out of the way and end up with more food.

The pin-tailed whydah is a common bird and easily tamed, so people sometimes keep it as a pet. This is a problem when it’s brought to places where it isn’t a native bird, because it sometimes escapes or is set free by its owners. If enough of the birds are released in one area, they can become invasive species. This has happened with the pin-tailed whydah in many parts of the world, including parts of Portugal, Singapore, Puerto Rico, and most recently southern California. Since they’re brood parasites, they can negatively impact a lot of other bird species in a very short time. But a study released in 2020 about the California population found that they mostly parasitize the nests of a bird called the scaly-breasted munia, a species of waxbill from southern Asia that’s been introduced to other places, including southern California, where it’s also an invasive species. So I guess it could be worse.

There are lots of other birds with long tails we could talk about, way too many to fit into one episode, but let’s finish with an extinct bird, since that seems to be the theme lately. In May 2020, an ancient bird was described as Kompsornis longicaudus, and it lived 120 million years ago in what is now China. Its name means long-tailed elegant bird. It was bigger than the other birds we’ve talked about today, a little over two feet long, or 70 cm, but a lot of that length was tail.

Kompsornis is only known from a single fossil, but that fossil is amazing. Not only is it almost a complete skeleton, it’s articulated, meaning it was preserved with all the body parts together as they were in life, instead of the bones being jumbled up. That means we know a lot about it, including the fact that unlike other birds of the time, it didn’t appear to have any teeth. It also shows other features seen in modern birds but not always found in ancient birds, including a pronounced keel, which is where wing muscles attach. That indicates it was probably a strong flier. It also had a really long tail, but unlike modern birds its tail was bony like a lizard’s tail although it was covered with feathers.

During their study of Kompsornis, the research team compared it to other birds in the order Jeholornithiformes, which seem to be its closest relations. There were six species known, with Kompsornis making a seventh—except that during the study, the team discovered that one species was a fake! Dalianraptor was also only known from one fossil, and that fossil was of a different bird with the arms of a flightless theropod added in place of its missing wings. Send that fossil to fossil jail!

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

Thanks for listening!