Category Archives: sea monsters

Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses



We have more mystery animals this week, horrible carcasses that have washed ashore and are hard to identify! It’s a sequel to our popular Globsters episode, episode 87. None of these are actual mysteries but they’re all pretty gross and awesome.

(I don’t know what I did wrong with the audio but it sounds bad, sorry. I just got a new laptop and have been experimenting with improving audio, and this was obviously a failed experiment.)

Further reading:

The Conakry monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/05/30/conakry-monster-tubercle-technology

Brydes whale almost swallows a diver! https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2015/AugSept/PhotoZone/Brydes-Whales

The Moore’s Beach monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/07/08/moores-beach-monster

The Tecolutla Monster: https://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2008/07/10/tecolutla-monster-carcass

Further watching:

Oregon’s Exploding Whale Note: The video says it’s a Pacific grey whale but other sources say it’s a sperm whale. I called it a sperm whale in the episode but that may be incorrect.

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

A Bryde’s whale hunting (left) and with its throat pleats expanded to hold more water (right):

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

The Sakhalin Island woolly whale and a detail of the “fur” (decomposing connective tissue):

The Tecolutla monster (yeah, kind of hard to make out details but the guy in the background has a nice hat):

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

Remember episode 87 about globsters? Well, let’s revisit some globsters I didn’t mention in that episode, or basically just any weird dead animals that have washed ashore in various parts of the world.

We’ll start with the Conakry monster, which I learned about while I was researching last week’s episode about small mystery animals. In May 2007 a huge, peculiar-looking dead animal washed ashore in Guinea in Africa. It looked like a badly decomposed alligator of enormous size, with black plates on its back that almost looked burnt. It had a long tail and legs, but it also had fur. Its mouth was huge but there were no teeth visible.

If you’ve listened to the globsters episode, you can guess what this was just from the mention of fur. It’s not fur, of course, but collagen fibers, a connective tissue that’s incredibly tough and takes years, if not decades, to fully decompose. But what’s up with the burnt-looking plates on its back? Well, that’s actually not rare in decomposing whales. And it’s not even on its back; the carcass is lying on its back, so the plates are on its belly. You can even see the ventral pleats that allow it to expand its mouth as it engulfs water before sieving it out through its baleen.

So yes, this is a dead baleen whale, and we even know what kind. The legs aren’t legs but flippers, and details of their shape and size immediately let whale experts identify this as a humpback whale.

Another strange sea creature, referred to as the Ataka carcass, washed ashore in Egypt in January 1950 after a colossal storm that didn’t let up for 72 hours. When the storm finally abated, a huge dead animal was on the beach. It was the size of a whale and looked like one except that it had a pair of tusks that jutted out from its mouth. Witnesses said it had no eyes but they did note the presence of baleen.

The baleen identified it as a whale, but what about those tusks? Well, it turns out that those are bones that were exposed by the stormy water. They’re called mandible extensions and the whale itself was identified as a Bryde’s whale. It resembles a sei whale and not a whole lot is known about it.

The longest Bryde’s whale ever measured was just under 51 feet, or 15.5 meters. It’s related to blue whales and humpbacks and mostly eats small fish like anchovies, cephalopods, and other small animals. It’s a swift, slender whale, the only baleen whale that lives year-round in warm water so it doesn’t need blubber to keep it warm.

And you know what? A DIVER WAS ONCE SWALLOWED BY A BRYDE’S WHALE. Okay, it didn’t actually swallow him but it gulped him into its mouth when he was swimming near a school of fish. Fortunately for the diver, after a few minutes the whale spat him out. Another diver had a close call in 2015 when a whale charged past him to gulp down some fish that he was photographing, and he was nearly swallowed and then was nearly hit by the whale’s tail.

Anyway, in baleen whales the lower jaw is made of two separate bones called mandibles, mandible extensions, or just lower jaws. They’re only loosely attached and often separate after death, especially after being tossed around in a storm.

Even longer ago, in 1925, a weird dead animal with a duck-like bill and long neck washed ashore at Moore’s Beach near Santa Cruz, California. It’s now called Natural Bridges State Beach. It was almost twenty feet long, or six meters.

A man named E.L. Wallace said it was a plesiosaur that had been frozen in a glacier, and when the glacier melted the carcass was washed south to California. But when someone took the carcass to the California Academy of Sciences, biologists immediately recognized it as a Baird’s Beaked Whale, also called Baird’s fourtooth whale. The head was nearly severed from the body, only connected by a twist of blubber that looked like a long neck. The school kept the skull, which is still on display.

The Baird’s beaked whale lives in the northern Pacific and can grow 42 feet long, or nearly 13 meters. Its dorsal fin is small and toward the back of its body, and its flippers are short and rounded. It has a bulbous melon, the bump on the forehead that helps in echolocation, and long jaws that do sort of resemble a duck’s bill, a little. Males fight by using their four sharp teeth, which jut out from the lower jaw and are always exposed, so that they eventually get barnacles growing on them, but females have the teeth too.

The Baird’s beaked whale is a deep diver that mostly eats deep-sea fish and cephalopods, but it will also eat crustaceans and other invertebrates. It hunts throughout the day and night, unlike most other whale species, and researchers think it probably doesn’t use its eyes much at all, certainly not to hunt. It has well-developed echolocation that it uses instead.

In 2015, a carcass now dubbed the woolly whale washed ashore on Sakhalin Island, which is part of Russia even though it’s very close to Japan. It was more than 11 feet long, or 3 1/3 meters, with a birdlike bill and fur, but it was later identified as another Baird’s beaked whale. That’s not the first weird carcass washed up on Sakhalin Island, but it’s the most well documented.

On the other side of the world, in the town of Tecolutla in Veracruz, Mexico in 1969, some locals walking along the beach at night saw a monster in the water. It was 72 feet long, or 22 meters, with a beak or fang or bone jutting from its head–reports vary–huge eye sockets, and was covered with hair-like fibers. Some witnesses said it was plated with armor too. It was floating offshore and later the people who found it claimed it was still alive when they first saw it. Since the hairy fibers are a sign of a whale or shark that’s been dead and decomposing in water for considerable time, they probably mistook the motion of the carcass in the waves for a living animal swimming.

But the locals who found the carcass thought its bones were made of ivory and would be valuable. They kept their find a secret for a week and managed to haul it onshore. It took them 14 hours and was probably really smelly work. They tried to cut it apart on the beach but only managed to remove the enormous head. By that time the rest of the body was starting to get buried in sand.

At that point the locals, frustrated, decided they needed heavy machinery to move the thing. They told the mayor of Tecolutla that they’d discovered a crashed plane, probably expecting the city to send out a crane big enough to move a small plane and therefore big enough to move their monster. But, of course, when the volunteer rescue party showed up to the supposed plane crash, all they found was a really stinky 72-foot-long corpse. The mayor decided that a stinky 72-foot-long corpse was exactly what tourists wanted to see, so instead of hauling it out to sea or burying it, he moved it in front of the town’s lighthouse so people could take pictures of it.

He was right, too. A college student who traveled to the town to film the event said there were a hundred times more tourists in the area than usual, all to look at the monster.

What photos we have of the monster aren’t very good and basically just show a big long lump. Biologists finally identified it as the remains of a sei whale, a baleen whale that you may remember from episode 67, about sea monsters. Living Sei whales are probably the source of at least some sea monster sightings. The horns or beak were probably jaw bones, as in the Ataka carcass we talked about earlier.

Let’s finish with something a little different. This isn’t exactly a globster or hard-to-identify monster, but just a plain old obvious sperm whale carcass that washed ashore in Florence, Oregon in the western United States in November 1970. It was 45 feet long, or 14 meters, and was way too big and heavy to move. So instead of towing it out to sea or burying it in the sand, the local authorities decided the best way to get rid of the massive stinky dead animal was of course to blow it up with dynamite.

But no one was sure how much dynamite to use, even though an expert who happened to be in town said twenty sticks of dynamite would be plenty. Instead, they used twenty CASES. That’s half a ton of dynamite.

It was way too much dynamite. I mean, honestly, any dynamite would have been too much, but this was way way too much. The carcass exploded and sent chunks of blubber flying at least a quarter mile. And remember that expert who said “whoa there, twenty sticks of dynamite is enough”? He was there, driving a brand new car. Well, a big chunk of blubber fell right on his new car and destroyed it.

After all that, most of the whale carcass remained where it was. The dynamite had mostly blown a big hole in the sand and only exploded part of the whale. Fortunately no one was hurt.

These days, Oregon buries any dead whales that wash ashore.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 142: Gigantic and Otherwise Octopuses



Happy birthday to me! For my birthday, we’re all going to learn about octopuses, including a mysterious gigantic octopus (maybe)! Thanks to Wyatt for his question about skeletons and movement that is a SURPRISE SPOOKY SKELETON SEGMENT of the episode, or maybe not that much of a surprise if you read this first.

Further reading:

How octopus arms make decisions

Octopus shows unique hunting, social and sexual behavior

Kraken Rises: New Fossil Evidence Revives Sea Monster Debate

The larger Pacific striped octopus is not especially large, but it is interesting and pretty:

The giant Pacific octopus is the largest species known. It even eats sharks, like this one:

Show transcript:

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

Today happens to be my birthday, and not just any birthday. It’s a significant birthday that ends with a zero. That’s right, I’m TWENTY! Or maybe a little bit older than that. So for my birthday celebration, and one week closer to Halloween, let’s learn about the octopus. The episode was going to be about possible giant octopuses, but as I researched, octopuses in general turned out to be so interesting and weird that that’s what the episode is about. But we will talk about some mystery gigantic octopuses at the very end.

The first thing to know about the octopus is what the correct plural is. Sometimes people say octopi but that’s actually technically incorrect, although it’s not like you’ll be arrested if you say octopi. The correct plural of octopus is octopuses, although octopodes is also correct. No one says octopodes because that sounds weird.

But who cares about that, because we’re talking about awesome creepy weird cephalopods! The octopus lives in the ocean but it can come out of the water and walk around on land if it wants to, although it usually only does so for a matter of minutes. The octopus breathes through gills but it can also absorb a certain amount of oxygen through its skin, as long as its skin stays moist. Generally people don’t see octopuses come out of the water because most octopuses are nocturnal.

Most octopuses spend their time on the ocean floor, crawling around looking for food. When it’s threatened or frightened, though, it swims by sucking water into its body cavity and shooting it back out through a tube called a siphon, which allows it to jet propel itself quickly through the water headfirst with its arms trailing, so that it looks like a squid. But most of the time the octopus doesn’t swim like this, because when it does, the heart that pumps blood through most of the body stops. The octopus has three hearts, but two of them are only auxiliary hearts that move blood to the gills to make sure the blood stays oxygenated.

Octopus blood is blue because it’s copper-based instead of iron-based like the blood of mammals and other vertebrates. This allows it to absorb more oxygen than iron-based blood can. Since many octopuses live in cold water that doesn’t contain very much oxygen, they need all the help they can get.

The octopus also uses its siphon to release ink into the water when it’s threatened. Of course it’s not ink, but it is black and resembles ink. Also, people have used octopus ink to write with so, you know, I guess maybe it is sort of ink. Anyway, when the octopus releases ink, it can choose to mix it with mucus. Without the mucus, the ink makes a cloud of dark water that hides the octopus while it jets away, and it may also interfere with the predator’s sense of smell. With the mucus, the ink forms a blob that looks solid and in fact looks a lot like a dark-colored octopus. This is called a pseudomorph or false body, and the octopus uses it to confuse predators into thinking it’s still right there, when in fact the octopus is jetting away while the predator attacks the false body. Researchers have found that young sea turtles who attack the false body thinking it’s the real octopus later ignore real octopuses instead of trying to eat them.

In addition to their ninja-like ability to disappear behind a smoke screen, or ink screen, the octopus can also change its color and even its texture to blend in with its background. Its skin contains cells with different-colored pigments, and tiny muscles can change both the color and the texture of the cells. Think of it like being able to shiver to give yourself goosebumps whenever you want, but at the same time you can change the color and shape of the goosebumps. An octopus species that lives in shallow water and is active during the day generally can camouflage itself better than a species that lives in deeper water and is nocturnal, and small species are typically better at camouflage than large ones. Some species mimic rocks or algae with six arms and use the other two arms to creep along the ocean floor, inching away from a potential predator without it noticing.

But the octopus doesn’t just use its ability to change colors to hide from predators. It also communicates with other octopuses by changing colors. And some species have a special threat display of bright colors that warns predators away. This is especially true of the blue-ringed octopus that lives in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which will display bright blue spots if it feels threatened. Since the blue-ringed octopus has the strongest venom of any octopus, if you see this particular threat display, swim away quickly. I don’t know why I’m assuming my listeners include sharks and whales. Actually, the place you’re most likely to encounter a blue-ringed octopus is in a shallow tide pool on the beach, so watch where you step.

You probably already know what an octopus looks like, but I haven’t actually mentioned it yet. The octopus has a bulbous body with two large eyes, eight arms lined on the bottom with suckers, and in the middle of the arms, a mouth with a beak. The beak looks sort of like a parrot’s beak and is made of chitin, a tough material that’s similar to keratin. Inside the mouth, the octopus has a radula, a tongue-like structure studded with tiny tooth-like bumps.

Until about ten years ago, researchers thought that only the blue-ringed octopus was venomous. The blue-ringed octopus is tiny but super venomous. Its venom can kill humans, although that’s extremely rare. But now we’ve learned that all octopuses appear to have venomous saliva, most of it relatively weak, but enough to kill mollusks and other small animals. The octopus eats anything it can catch, for the most part, including crabs, shrimp, small fish, mollusks, and so forth. Its suckers can attach so firmly to a bivalve’s shells that it can pull the shells apart. If it can’t manage this, though, it will cover the shells with its toxic saliva. The toxin dissolves tiny holes in the shell and kills the mollusk, allowing the octopus to open the shells easily and eat the animal inside. It can also inject the toxins into crabs to paralyze them, then uses its beak to bite the shells open without the crab being able to fight back.

The octopus can regrow an arm if it’s bitten off or otherwise lost. Some species will even drop an arm like some lizards can drop their tails in order to distract a predator. In the case of the lizard, its tail thrashes around after it’s detached, while in the case of an octopus arm, the arm continues to crawl away and tries to escape from being hurt. This is creepy to the extreme, especially when you realize the arm acts this way because it contains a sort of brain of its own.

An octopus’s brain doesn’t fully control its arms. In fact, the arms contain about twice the number of neurons that the brain contains, which means they can act autonomously in a lot of ways. Basically, each octopus arm processes information the same way that a brain does, without involving the actual brain. The arms have an excellent sense of touch, naturally, and the suckers have chemical receptors that act as a sense of taste as well. When an arm touches something, the arm decides whether it’s food, or if it’s dangerous, or if it’s in the way, or so forth. Then it decides what it should do about it. The arms use the peripheral nervous system, again not the brain, to make decisions that require arms to work together. The result is that the arms can all work at different tasks, together or separately, while the central brain is processing other information, primarily from its eyes. But also as a result, the octopus doesn’t have a good sense of where its body is in space at all times. You don’t have to see your arms to figure out where they are in relation to your body, but the octopus does.

This is all very different from the way our brains work. Researchers study the octopus to determine how its brain works with the arms to help the octopus navigate its environment. Some researchers point out that the octopus’s intelligence is so different from the intelligence of other animals we’ve studied that it’s as close as we can come to studying intelligent life from another planet.

The main reason why the octopus has such a different nervous system is that it’s an invertebrate. Humans and other mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish are all vertebrates, meaning they have a backbone of some kind. The backbone contains a spinal cord that is the main pathway for the nervous system, connecting the brain with the rest of the body. The brain processes everything that the body does. But invertebrates and vertebrates started evolving separately over half a billion years ago, and while most invertebrates don’t demonstrate a lot of what we would consider intelligence, the octopus does. Instead of a central spinal cord of nerves, the octopus, like other invertebrates, has concentrations of neurons throughout its body, called ganglia. The ganglia form a sort of neural net. This actually means the octopus can process information much more quickly than a human or other vertebrate can.

And the octopus is intelligent, probably as intelligent as parrots, crows, and primates. An octopus can learn to recognize individual humans and solve complex puzzles, can learn from watching another octopus solve a problem, and many species use tools in the wild. Some species of octopus spend the day in dens that they make out of rocks, including a rock door that they close after they go inside. The veined octopus will collect pieces of coconut shells, stack them up, and carry them around. If it’s threatened, or if it just wants to take a nap or rest, it uses the coconut shells as a hiding place.

Octopuses in captivity can cause a lot of trouble because they’re so intelligent. They will dismantle their tanks out of curiosity or just escape. An octopus in an aquarium in Bermuda escaped repeatedly in order to eat the fish and other animals displayed in nearby tanks. A common New Zealand octopus named Inky, kept at the National Aquarium, was famous for causing mischief, and one day in 2016 he managed to move the lid to his enclosure just enough to squeeze out. Then he walked around until he found a small pipe. He squeezed into the pipe, and fortunately for him it was a pipe that led directly outside and into the ocean.

The reason that octopuses can squeeze through such tiny openings is that they have NO BONES. There is not a single bone in the octopus’s body. The only hard part of the body is its beak. As long as the octopus can get its beak through an opening, the rest of the body can squish through too.

And that brings us to a surprise spooky SKELETON SECTION, thanks to a suggestion by Wyatt!

[spooky scary skeletons song!]

Wyatt wants to know how bones work and move, which is a good question and will help us learn about octopuses too. Bones have many purposes, including making blood cells and protecting the brain—that would be the skull part of the skeleton, of course—but mainly bones help your body move. Muscles are attached to bones, and when you contract a muscle, it moves the bone and therefore the rest of that part of your body. Without muscles, your bones couldn’t move; but without bones, your muscles wouldn’t do much. Also, you’d look sort of like a blob because bones provide structure for your body.

But if you need bones to move, how does an octopus move? An octopus has no bones! Do I even know what I’m talking about?

The octopus’s muscles are structured differently than muscles in animals with bones. Our muscles are made up of fibers that contract in one direction. Let’s say you pick up something heavy. To do so, you contract the fibers in some muscles to shorten them, which makes the bone they’re attached to move. Then, when you push a heavy door closed, you contract other muscles and at the same time you relax the muscles you used to pick up something heavy. This pulls the arm bone in the other direction.

But in the octopus, the fibers in its muscles run in three directions. When one set of fibers contracts, the other two tighten against each other and form a hard surface for the contracted fibers to move. So they’re muscles that also sort of act like bones. It’s called a muscular hydrostat, and it actually can result in muscle movements much more precise than muscle movements where a bone is involved.

There are exceptions to the “bones and muscles work together” rule, of course. Your tongue is a muscle. So is an elephant’s trunk, or at least it’s made up of lots and lots of muscles that aren’t attached to bones. Tongues and elephant trunks and worms and things like that all use muscular hydrostatic functioning to move.

The octopus has a lifespan that seems abbreviated compared to other intelligent animals. It typically only lives a year or two and dies soon after it has babies. After the female lays her eggs, she stops eating and instead just takes care of the eggs, which she attaches to a rock or other hard surface. It usually takes several months for the eggs to hatch, and all that time the female protects them and makes sure they have plenty of well-oxygenated water circulating around them. She dies about the time the babies hatch. As for the male, he doesn’t take care of the eggs but after he mates with a female he starts showing signs of old age and usually dies within a few weeks. That’s if the female doesn’t just decide to eat him after mating. Most male octopuses stay as far away as they can from a female while mating, and uses one of his arms to transfer a packet of sperm into her mantle, which she uses to fertilize her eggs.

At least one octopus species has been observed to brood its eggs for four and a half years, guarding them from predators and keeping them clean. Researchers studying life in an area of Monterey Bay called Monterey Canyon, off the coast of western North America, regularly survey animals in the area. In May of 2007 they saw a female octopus on a rocky ledge about 4,600 feet, or 1,400 meters, below the surface. She had distinctive scars so the researchers could identify her, and she didn’t leave her eggs once during the next four and a half years. She also didn’t appear to eat or even be interested in the small crabs and other delicious octopus food within easy reach of her. As the years went by she became thinner and paler. She and her eggs were still there in September of 2011 but when the researchers returned in October, she was gone and her eggs had hatched.

Babies are teensy when they’re first hatched, typically only a few millimeters long. The babies drift with the currents and eat tiny animals like zooplankton as they grow. One exception is the same deep-sea octopus species that spends so long protecting its eggs, Graneledone boreopacifica. Because they develop in the egg for so long, babies of this species are much larger than most baby octopuses and can even hunt for small prey immediately.

Another exception to the usual octopus habit of only reproducing once before dying is the larger Pacific striped octopus, which lives in the eastern Pacific Ocean in warm, shallow water. Not only is it gregarious, instead of mostly solitary like other octopus species, it can reproduce repeatedly without dying. Mated pairs sometimes live and hunt together and even share food. Despite the word “larger” in its name, the larger Pacific striped octopus only grows to about three inches across, or 7 cm. It is striped, though. It’s quite attractive, in fact. And its many differences from other octopus species show just how little we know about octopuses.

So how big can an octopus grow? We don’t actually know. The species that grows the largest is called the giant Pacific octopus, and the biggest one ever measured had an armspan of about 30 feet, or 9 meters.

But there are always rumors and sightings of octopuses of colossal sizes, often referred to as the gigantic octopus or the colossal octopus. In 2002 a fishing trawler brought up the incomplete carcass of a dead octopus near New Zealand, and estimates of its armspan when it was alive are around 32 feet, or 10 meters. In 1928 a man named Robert Todd Aiken reported seeing six octopuses off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii with armspans of nearly 40 feet, or 12.5 meters. In 1950, also off the coast of Oahu, a diver named Madison Rigdon reported seeing an octopus with each arm alone measuring almost 30 feet, or over 9 meters.

But because octopuses are soft-bodied animals that are eaten by so many predators, and because the biggest ones typically live in deeper water, we just don’t know that much about how big they can get. When we do find a big dead octopus, its size is difficult to estimate since cephalopods actually shrink quite quickly after they die.

We only have a few remains of ancient octopuses, mostly body impressions and fossilized beaks. In 2009, paleontologists working in Lebanon reported finding five specimens of fossilized octopus that date to 95 million years ago. The specimens are remarkably well preserved, too, which allows researchers to determine that the octopuses belong to three different species that appear to be unchanged from their modern counterparts. In 2014 the impressions of cephalopod beaks dated to around 80 million years ago were found in Hokkaido, Japan. The impressions were well preserved and paleontologists have determined that all but one belonged to an extinct species related to the vampire squid, that we talked about in episode 11. They estimate its body to have been about two feet across, or 60 cm, without the arms. The other beak impression was from a different species, one related to modern squid.

If you listened to episode 86 about ammonoids and nautiloids, which are related to octopuses, you may remember that some extinct species grew enormous, probably over 19 feet long, or 6 meters. Since those species have shells, we have a lot more fossilized remains.

But we have almost no remains of ancient octopuses, so we have no way of knowing how big some species once grew. The colossal squid was only determined to be a real animal a matter of years ago (and we talked about it and giant squid in episode 74). I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if the colossal octopus was one day found to be a real animal too.

Let’s finish with an ancient cephalopod mystery. The octopus is a messy eater, so sometimes researchers can identify an octopus’s territory by the way it leaves shells lying around. Some species of octopus arrange shells and other items in heaped-up patterns around its den. In 2011 a pair of paleontologists named Mark McMenamin and Dianna Schulte McMenamin examined an unusual pattern of ichthyosaur remains in Nevada and suggested that they might have been arranged by an octopus after eating them. But since the nine ichthyosaurs are 45 feet long, or 14 meters, the octopus would have had to be equally enormous. Dr. McMenamin and other Dr. McMenamin think the octopus might have killed the ichthyosaurs by either breaking their necks or drowning them, or both. In 2013 the team investigating the site found what may be part of a fossilized cephalopod beak, further backing up the theory. Then again, that species of ichthyosaur, Shonisaurus, ate squid and other cephalopods, so it’s possible the beak was actually inside an ichthyosaur stomach when it died and that a giant octopus or other cephalopod had nothing to do with the deaths. Still, it’s fun to think about, and it might be true!

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 122: Strange Shark Ancestors



This week let’s learn about some ancestors of sharks and shark relatives that looked very strange compared to most sharks today!

Stethacanthus fossil and what the living fish might have looked like:

Two Falcatus fossils, female above, male below with his dorsal spine visible:

Xenacanthus looked more like an eel than a shark:

Ptychodus was really big, but not as big as the things that ate it:

A Helicoprion tooth whorl and what a living Helicoprion might have looked like:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back in time again to learn about some animals that are long-extinct…but they’re not land animals. Yes, it’s a weird fish episode, but this one is about shark relatives!

The first shark ancestor is found in the fossil record around 420 million years ago, although since all we have are scales, we don’t know exactly what those fish looked like. The first true shark was called Cladoselache [clay-dough-sell-a-kee] and lived around 370 million years ago, at the same time as dunkleosteus and other massive armored fish. We covered dunkleosteus and other placoderms back in episode 33. Cladoselache grew up to four feet long, or 1.2 meters, and was a fast swimmer. We know Cladoselache ate fish because we have some fossils of Cladoselache with fish fossils in the digestive system—whole fish fossils, which suggests that cladoselache swallowed its prey whole. Cladoselache also had fin spines in front of its dorsal fins that made the fins stronger, but unlike its descendants, it didn’t have denticles in its skin. It didn’t have scales at all.

The denticles in shark skin aren’t just protection for the shark, they also strengthen the skin to allow for the attachment of stronger muscles. That’s why sharks are such fast swimmers.

[Jaws theme]

Stethacanthidae was a family of fish that went extinct around 300 million years ago. It was related to ratfish and their relatives, including sharks. Stethacanthus is the most well-known of the stethacanthidae. It grew a little over 2 feet long, or 70 cm, and was probably a bottom-dwelling fish that lived in shallow waters. It ate crustaceans, small fish, cephalopods, and other small animals.

We have some good fossils of various species of Stethacanthidae and they show one feature that didn’t get passed down to modern ratfish or sharks. That’s the shape of its first dorsal fin, the one that in shark movies cuts through the water just before something awful happens.

[Jaws theme again]

Stethacanthidae’s dorsal fin was really weird. It was shaped sort of like a scrub brush on a pedestal, with the bristles sticking upwards, which is sometimes referred to as a spine-brush complex. Researchers aren’t sure why its fin was shaped in such a way, but since it appears that only males had the oddly shaped fin, it was probably for display. It also had a patch of the same kind of short bristly denticles on its head. Males also had a long spine that grew from each pectoral fin that was probably also for display. Some researchers think the males fought each other by pushing head to head, possibly helped by the odd-shaped dorsal fin.

In the past, before researchers figured out that only the males had the strange dorsal fin, some people suggested that the fish may have used the fin as a sucker pad to attach to other, larger fish and hitch a ride. This is what remoras do. Remoras have a modified dorsal fin that is oval-shaped and acts like a sucker. The oval contains flexible membranes that the remora can raise or lower to create suction. The remora attaches to a larger animal like a shark, a whale, or a turtle and lets the animal carry it around. In return, the remora eats parasites from the host animal’s skin. But remoras aren’t related to sharks.

Other shark relatives had dorsal spines. Falcatus falcatus lived about the same time as Stethacanthus, around 325 million years ago. It grew up to a foot long, or 30 cm, and ate shrimp, fish, and other small animals. We have so many fossils of falcatus from the Bear Gulch Limestone deposits in Montana that we know quite a bit about it. It probably detected prey with electroreceptors on its snout like many modern sharks do, and it was probably a fast swimmer that could dive deeply. Its eyes are unusually large for a shark too. Females would have looked like a small, slender sharklike fish, but males had a spine that grew forward from just behind its head, sort of like a single bull’s horn. It’s called a dorsal spine and is actually a modified dorsal fin. It was probably for display, although males may have also used it to fight each other. We have a well preserved fossil of a pair of falcatus together, a male and female, where it looks like the female may be biting the male’s dorsal spine. Some researchers suggest the spine was used in a pre-mating ritual, but it’s probable that the fish just happened to die next to each other and no one was actually biting anyone.

Another shark relative with a dorsal spine is Hybodus, which grew up to 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. Hybodus was a successful genus of cartilaginous fish that lived from around 260 million years ago up to 66 million years ago. Researchers think its dorsal spine was used for defense since both males and females had the spine. Hybodus would have looked like a shark but its mouth was relatively small. It probably ate small fish and squid, catching them with the sharp teeth in the front of its mouth, but it also probably ate a lot of crustaceans and shellfish, which it crushed with the flatter teeth in the rear of its mouth.

Xenacanthus had a dorsal spine too, but it was a much different shark ancestor from the ones we’ve talked about so far. It lived until about 208 million years ago in fresh water. It grew to about three feet long, or one meter, and would have looked more like an eel than a shark. It was slender with an elongated body, and its dorsal fin was short but extended along the back down to the pointed tail. This suggests it probably swam like an eel, since eels have a similar fin structure. It probably ate crustaceans and other small animals.

Xenacanthus’s spine grew from the back of the skull and, unusually for a shark relation, it was made of bone instead of cartilage. Both males and females had the spine and some researchers suggest that it may have been venomous like a sting ray’s tail spine.

Rays are closely related to sharks, and if you want to see a fish that makes every single weird extinct shark look normal, just look at a sawfish. The sawfish is a type of ray and it’s alive today, although it’s endangered. I’m going to do a whole episode on rays pretty soon so I won’t go into detail, but the sawfish isn’t the only fish alive today with a long snout with teeth that stick out on either side. The sawshark is related to the sawfish but is actually a shark, not a ray. And there’s a third type of fish with a saw, related to both sawfish and sawsharks, called the Sclerorhynchidae. Sclerorhynchids went extinct around 55 million years ago and are considered part of the ray family, although they’re not ancestors of living rays. Sclerorhynchids grew around three feet long, or about a meter, and probably looked a lot like modern sawfish although with a rostrum, or snout, that was more pointed and less broad than most sawfish rostrums. The teeth that stuck out to either side were also relatively small. Researchers think Sclerorhynchids used their saws the same way modern sawfish and sawsharks do, to find small animals living on or near the bottom in shallow water and slash them to death before eating the pieces.

[Jaws theme again]

Most of the shark relatives we’ve talked about so far were pretty small, certainly compared to sharks like the great white or megalodon, which by the way we covered in episode 15 along with the hammerhead shark. But a shark called Ptychodus grew up to 33 feet long, or ten meters. It went extinct about 85 million years ago. Its dorsal fin had serrated spines and its mouth had lots and lots of really big teeth–up to 550 teeth, but they weren’t sharp. Instead, they were flattened with riblike folds that helped Ptychodus crush the mollusks it ate. It probably also ate squid and crustaceans, along with any carrion it might come across. It lived at the bottom of the ocean, but in relatively shallow areas where there were plenty of mollusks but not too many mosasaurs or other sharks that might treat Ptychodus as a nice big meal.

In episode 33, the one about dunkleosteus, we also talked about helicoprion and some of its relations. Helicoprion looked like a shark but was actually less closely related to true sharks than to ratfish. Helicoprion lived until about 250 million years ago and some researchers estimate it could grow up to 24 feet long, or 7.5 meters.

Instead of a weird dorsal fin, helicoprion had weird teeth. Weird, weird teeth. It had a tooth whorl instead of the regular arrangement of teeth, where its teeth grew in a spiral that seems to have been situated in the lower jaw. It looked like the blade of a circular saw. Now, this is bizarre but it’s not really all that much more bizarre than sawfish teeth, which aren’t even inside the mouth and stick out sideways. But the frustrating thing for researchers is that we still don’t have any helicoprion fossils except for the teeth whorls and part of one skull. Like most sharks and shark relatives, almost all of helicoprion’s skeleton was made of cartilage, not bone, and cartilage doesn’t fossilize very well. So even though helicoprion was widespread and even survived the Permian-Triassic extinction event, we don’t know what it looked like or what it ate or how exactly its tooth whorl worked. But I think it’s safe to say that it would not be good to be bitten by helicoprion.

[stop playing the Jaws theme omg]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!

[Jaws theme again]


Episode 114: The Depths of the Sea of Cortez



The Gulf of California, AKA the Sea of Cortez, is home to thousands upon thousands of animals, many of them not found anywhere else in the world. New research expeditions in its deep-sea fissures and trenches have turned up some amazing new animals too. Let’s take a look at a few of them!

Thanks to Hally for this week’s topic suggestion!

The lollipop catshark sounds cuter than it is:

The black brotula:

A super creepy grenadier fish. Look at those EYES:

A type of batfish. It uses its stiff fins to walk around on the bottom of the ocean:

Some beautiful hydrothermal chimneys:

Giant tube worms:

Show transcript:

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

It’s been a while since we did a deep-sea episode. This week let’s find out about some strange fish discovered in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. Thanks to Hally for the suggestion!

The Gulf of California, also called the Sea of Cortez, is the stretch of water between mainland Mexico and the Baja peninsula. Researchers estimate it started forming over 5 million years ago when tectonic forces separated the strip of land now called Baja peninsula or Baja California from the mainland. It’s still attached to the mainland at its northern edge, where the Colorado River empties into the gulf. The sea is about 700 miles wide, or over 1100 km.

Because the gulf was formed by tectonic forces and undersea volcanos, parts of it are extremely deep—more than 12,500 feet deep in places, or 3,800 meters. It’s full of islands, nearly 1,000 of them, a few of them quite large and some just tiny, some of them volcanic and some not. And it’s rich in ocean life, with many animals found in the Gulf of California that live nowhere else in the world.

For instance, the lollipop catshark! What a cute name. It probably plays ukulele and its best friend plays the xylophone. They should start a band!

The lollipop catshark is actually not super cute, although it is pretty awesome. It’s a small shark, only about 11 inches long, or 28 cm, and it has pinkish gray skin that’s almost gelatinous in texture, although it also has tiny spiky denticles, especially on its back. It gets the name lollipop from its shape. It has a broad head with large gills, but its body tapers to a slender tail so that it’s sort of shaped like a tadpole. Not really lollipop shaped, frankly. Babies are born live instead of hatching from eggs, with a female giving birth to two babies at a time. It eats crustaceans and fish.

The reason the lollipop catshark has such big gills is that it lives at the bottom of the ocean where there’s not much oxygen. The Gulf of California is especially oxygen-poor in its deepest areas, so when a team of scientists sent a submersible to the deepest parts of the gulf in 2015, they didn’t expect to find that many fish or other animals. But not only were there a lot of lollipop catsharks, there were lots of other animals too.

The submersible found the most fish in a part of the gulf called the Carralvo Trough, which is nearly 3,300 feet deep, or 1,000 meters. A few years before, a submersible had discovered the bodies of dozens of dead squid in the trough, and researchers determined that the squid were all females that had laid eggs and then died and sunk to the bottom. The dead squid are usually eaten by scavengers within 24 hours of dying, including crabs and sea stars, brittle stars, and acorn worms, as well as small bottom-dwelling sharks like the lollipop catshark. So it was good timing that the submersible saw so many of them at once.

Another deep-sea animal found in the Gulf of California is the cusk eel. There are lots of species of cusk eel that live throughout the world’s oceans and even some fresh water, and despite the name, cusk eels are fish, not eels. They’re related to cod, although not closely. They live on the bottom of the ocean, usually in shallow water, where they burrow in the sediment and sand at the bottom.

But the cusk eel found in the Carralvo Trough is called the black brotula, and it’s so different from other cusk eels that it has its own genus. The black brotula grows up to 10 inches long, or about 25 cm, and only lives in the depths of the Gulf of California and in some deep areas along the western coast of Mexico and Chile. Not only can it tolerate low-oxygen water, it prefers it. It’s black or dark gray in color–even its intestines are black. And that’s pretty much all we know about it at this point. Cusk eels are generally not very well studied, and the black brotula is hard to study because it lives so deep in the gulf. Researchers don’t even know how it tolerates water with so little oxygen and what it eats down there. We do know that young black brotulas prefer shallower water.

Another deep-sea fish found in the Gulf of California is the grenadier [grin-a-deer]. Grenadiers are some of the most common deep-sea fish in the world, with lots of different species. Some researchers estimate that they may make up as much as 15% of all fish that live in the deep sea. All grendadiers have large heads with big eyes and mouths, slender bodies that taper to such a thin tail that some people call the fish rattail.

The grenadier has barbels under the chin with chemoreceptors on them, and more chemoreceptors on the mouth and head, so it can sense other fish nearby even if it can’t see them. It’s been found as deep as nearly 23,000 feet under the surface, or 7,000 meters, which is just ridiculous. That’s four and a third miles underwater, or seven km. The Gulf of California isn’t that deep, of course, but there are grenadiers swimming around in the deepest areas, eating anything they can catch.

Some grenadiers are eaten, but mostly they have a soft, unpleasant texture and are low in protein. The biggest grenadier, which is common throughout the deep areas of the Pacific Ocean, is the giant grenadier, which can grow to 6 ½ feet long, or 2 meters. It eats vampire squid and other cephalopods. The grenadier most commonly found in the Gulf of California is the smooth grenadier, which only grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm.

A type of batfish that’s common off the western coasts of North, Central, and South America is also found in the deep sea of the Gulf of California. It’s a small type of anglerfish, only about six inches long, or 15 cm, dark in color, with a broad flattened head tapering to a much thinner long tail. Like other anglerfish, it has strong, stiff fins that it uses to crawl around on the ocean floor, where it hunts small animals like polychaete worms and crustaceans as well as fish.

If you look at the pictures I have in the show notes, or if you’ve been paying attention to the descriptions of all these fish, you’ll notice that even though they’re not related, they all share similar features. Their heads are large and usually broad, while their bodies are relatively small with a slender tail. The large head allows the fish to have unusually large gills and eyes, with a broad mouth so it can gulp down any food it finds. You know what this points to? That’s right, convergent evolution, where the fish all share a similar habitat that has influenced certain aspects of the body shape!

Currently, researchers are exploring volcanic vents in the Gulf of California that are the deepest found in the area. The area contains hydrothermal vents, which can heat the water to over 660 degrees F, or 350 degrees Celcius, and cold seeps, which are only called cold because they’re not super heated.

The vents are surrounded by mineral towers called hydrothermal chimneys that are up to 120 feet high, or 37 meters. These deepest vents and chimneys were only discovered in 2015, with others nearby only discovered in 2012. There are two types of chimneys in the area, dark-colored ones that grow the biggest, which are made up of sulfide minerals, and smaller, more delicate ones made up of light-colored carbonate minerals. The only other carbonate chimneys ever found are in the Atlantic. They’re really pretty.

Between the super heated water, the high levels of sulfides and heavy metals from the vents, and the great depth, the area would kill most animal life. But hydrothermal ecosystems are home to extremophiles that thrive in places that are deadly to other animals. The dark-colored chimneys, often called black smokers since they give off plumes of superheated minerals that look like smoke, are home to giant tube worms that can grow nearly eight feet long, or 2.4 meters, although they’re only a little more than an inch and a half wide, or 4 cm.

Giant tube worms don’t have a digestive tract, just a sort of internal pouch to hold the chemosynthetic bacteria that provide nutrients to the worm. The worm gives the bacteria a safe place to live, and the bacteria convert the carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other minerals into nutrients that the worm absorbs.

But how do giant tube worms find new hydrothermal vents? Old vents go cold and new ones open up all the time, and giant tube worms can’t move once they’ve attached themselves to a rock or other solid structure. It turns out that newly hatched giant tube worms are free-swimming larvae, and at first they don’t contain any of the symbiotic bacteria that they need later in life. They acquire the bacteria later, when bacteria in the water find the larva and burrow into its skin. The larva swims deeper into the ocean and finds a hydrothermal vent, if it’s lucky, and attaches itself to a rock or something nearby. It then develops rapidly from a larva into the juvenile stage, where its digestive system reforms into a place for the bacteria to live. Then it grows into an adult tube worm.

The carbonate chimneys have a different kind of tube worm that prefers a different range of minerals.

Giant tube worms were only discovered in 1977. No one back then dreamed that anything could live around hydrothermal vents so the team exploring some vents hadn’t even brought along a biologist, just geologists. I like to think that they freaked out when they saw tube worms and other animals living around the vents.

It just goes to show, like they say in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 087: Globsters



It’s October! Let the spooky monster episodes begin! This week we’re starting off with a bang–or maybe a squoosh–with an episode about globsters. What are they? Why do they look like that? Do they smell?

Yes, they smell. They smell so bad.

Trunko, a globster found in South Africa:

A whale shark:

The business end of a whale shark:

A globster found in Chile:

A globster found in North Carolina after a hurricane:

A globster that still contains bones:

Not precisely a globster but I was only a few weeks late in my 2012 visit to Folly Beach to see this thing:

Further reading:

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

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

It’s October, and you know what that means! Monsters! …and have I got a creepy monster for you this week. Grab your Halloween candy and a flashlight while I tell you about something called a globster.

If you live near the seashore, or really if you’ve spent any time at all on the beach, you’ll know that stuff washes ashore all the time. You know, normal stuff like jellyfish that can sting you even though they’re dead, pieces of debris that look an awful lot like they’re from shipwrecks, and the occasional solitary shoe with a skeleton foot inside. But sometimes things wash ashore that are definitely weird. Things like globsters.

A globster is the term for a decayed animal carcass that can’t be identified without special study. Globsters often look like big hairy blobs, and are usually white or pale gray or pink in color. Some don’t have bones, but some do. Some still have flippers or other features, although they’re usually so decayed that it’s hard to tell what they really are. And they’re often really big.

Let’s start with three accounts of some of the most famous globsters, and then we’ll discuss what globsters might be and why they look the way they do.

The St. Augustine monster was found by two boys bicycling on Anastasia Island off the coast of Florida in November 1896. It was partially buried in sand, but after the boys reported their finding, people who came to examine it eventually dug the sand away from the carcass. It was 21 feet long, or almost 6.5 meters, 7 feet wide, or just over 2 meters, and at its tallest point, was 6 feet tall, or 1.8 meters. Basically, though, it was just a huge pale pink lump with stumpy protrusions along the sides.

A local doctor, DeWitt Webb, was one of the first people to examine the carcass. He thought it might be the rotten remains of a gigantic octopus and described the flesh as being rubbery and very difficult to cut. Another witness said that pieces of what he took to be parts of the tentacles were also strewn along the beach, separated from the carcass itself.

Dr. Webb sent photographs and notes to a cephalopod expert at Yale, Addison Verrill. He at first thought it might be a squid, but later changed his mind and decided it must be an octopus of enormous proportions—with arms up to 100 feet in length, or over 30 meters.

In January a storm washed the carcass out to sea, but the next tide pushed it back to shore two miles away. Webb sent samples to Verrill, who examined them and decided it was more likely the remains of a sperm whale than a cephalopod.

In 1924, off the coast of South Africa, witnesses saw a couple of orcas apparently fighting a huge white monster covered with long hair—far bigger than a polar bear. It had an appendage on the front that looked like a short elephant trunk. Witnesses said the animal slapped at the orcas with its tail and sometimes reared up out of the water. This went on for three hours.

The battle was evidently too much for the monster, and its corpse washed ashore the next day. It measured 47 feet long in all, or 14.3 meters, and the body was five feet high at its thickest, or 1.5 meters. Its tail was ten feet long, or over three meters, and its trunk was five feet long and over a foot thick, or about 35 cm. It had no legs or flippers. But the oddest thing was that it didn’t seem to have a head either, and there was no blood on the fur or signs of fresh wounds on the carcass.

The carcass was so heavy that a team of 32 oxen couldn’t move it. The reason someone tried to move it was because it stank, and the longer it lay on the beach the more it smelled.

Despite its extraordinary appearance, no scientists came to investigate. After ten days, the tide carried it back out to sea and no one saw it again. Zoologist Karl Shuker has dubbed it Trunko and has written about it in several of his books.

Another globster was discovered well above ordinary high tide on a Tasmanian beach in 1960 after a massive storm. It was 20 feet long, or 6 meters, 18 feet wide, or 5.5 meters, and about 4 ½ feet high at its thickest, or 1.4 meters. It stayed on the beach for at least two years without anyone being especially interested in it. It was in a fairly remote area, admittedly. It wasn’t until 1962 that a team of zoologists examined it. They reported that it was ivory-colored, incredibly tough, boneless, and without any visible eyes. The lump had four large lobes, but it also appeared to have gill slits. One of the zoologists suggested it might be an enormous stingray.

So what were these three globsters?

Let’s look at Trunko first. Shuker points out that when a shark decomposes, it can take on a hairy appearance due to exposed connective tissue fibers. But Trunko was fighting two orcas only hours before it washed ashore.

OR WAS IT??

Here’s the thing. No one saw the fight from up close and orcas are well known to play with their food. There’s a very good chance that Trunko was already long dead and that the orcas came across it and batted it around in a monstrous game of water volleyball. That would also explain why there was no blood associated with the corpse.

In that case, was Trunko a dead shark? At nearly 50 feet long, it would have had to be the biggest shark alive…and as it happens, there is a shark that can reach that length. It’s called the whale shark, which tops out at around 46 feet, or 14 meters, although we do have unverified reports of individuals nearly 60 feet long, or 18 meters—or even longer.

Like the megamouth shark, the whale shark is a filter feeder and its mouth is enormous, some five feet wide, or 1.5 meters. But the interior of its throat is barely big enough to swallow a fish. Its teeth are tiny and useless. Instead, it has sieve-like filter pads that it uses to filter tiny plants and animals from the water, including krill, fish eggs and larvae, small fish, and copepods. The filter pads are black and are probably modified gill rakers. The whale shark either gulps in water or swims forward with its mouth open, and water flows over the filter pads before flowing out through the gills. Tiny animals are directed toward the throat so the shark can swallow them.

The whale shark is gray with light yellow or white spots and stripes, and three ridges along each side. Its sandpaper-like skin is up to four inches thick, or 10 cm. It has thick, rounded fins, especially its dorsal fin, and small eyes that point slightly downward. It usually stays near the surface but it can dive deeply too, and it’s a fast swimmer despite its size. Females give birth to live babies which are a couple of feet long at birth, or 60 cm. While no one has watched a whale shark give birth, researchers think a shark may be pregnant with hundreds of babies at a time, but they mature at different rates and only a few are born at once.

The whale shark isn’t dangerous to humans at all, but humans are dangerous to whale sharks. It’s a protected species, but poachers kill it for its fins, skin, and oil.

The whale shark usually lives in warm water, especially in the tropics, but occasionally one is spotted in cooler areas. They’re well known off the coast of South Africa. If the Trunko globster was a dead whale shark, the “trunk” was probably the tapered end of the tail, with the flukes torn or rotted off. Most likely the jaws had rotted off as well, leaving no sign that the animal had a head or even which end the head should be on.

But sharks aren’t the only big animals in the ocean, and the skin and blubber of a dead whale can also appear furry once it’s broken down sufficiently due to the collagen fibers within it. Collagen is a connective tissue and it’s incredibly tough. It can take years to decay. Tendons, ligaments, and cartilage are mostly collagen, as are bones and blubber.

While we don’t know what Trunko really was, many other globsters that have washed ashore in modern times have been DNA tested and found to be whales. In 1990 the Hebrides blob washed ashore in Scotland. It was 12 feet long, or 3.7 meters, and appeared furry, with a small head at one end and finlike shapes along its back. Despite its weird appearance, DNA analysis revealed it was a sperm whale, or at least part of one. Another sperm whale revealed by DNA testing was the Chilean blob, which washed ashore in Los Muermos, Chile in 2003. It was 39 feet long, or 12 meters.

As for the tissue samples of the St Augustine monster, they still exist, and they’ve been studied by a number of different people with conflicting results. In 1971, a cell biologist from the University of Florida reported that it might be from an octopus. Cryptozoologist Roy Mackal, who was also a biochemist, examined the samples in 1986 and also thought the animal was probably an octopus. A more sophisticated 1995 analysis published in the Biological Bulletin reported that the samples were collagen from a warm-blooded vertebrate—in other words, probably a whale. The same biologist who led the 1995 analysis, Sidney Pierce, followed up in 2004 with DNA and electron microscope analyses of all the globster samples he could find. Almost all of them turned out to be remains of whale carcasses, of various different species. This included the Tasmanian globster.

Sometimes a globster is pretty obviously a whale, but one with a bizarre and unsettling appearance. The Glacier Island globster of 1930, for instance, was found floating in Eagle Bay in Alaska, surrounded by icebergs from the nearby Columbia Glacier. The head and tail were skeletal, but the rest of the body still had flesh on it, although it appeared to be covered with white fur. Its head was flattish and triangular and the tail was long. The men who found the carcass thought it had been frozen in the glacier’s ice.

They hacked the remaining flesh off to use as fishing bait, but they saved the skeleton. A small expedition of foresters came to examine the skeleton, which they measured at 24 feet and one inch, or over 7.3 meters. They identified it as a minke whale. The skeleton was eventually mounted and put on display in a traveling show, advertised as a prehistoric monster found frozen in a glacier. In 1931 the skeleton was donated to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, where it remains in storage. Modern examinations confirm that it’s a minke whale.

On March 22, 2012, a rotting corpse 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, with armor-like scutes along the length of its body, washed ashore on Folly Beach in South Carolina. This isn’t exactly a globster, since it was still fish-shaped, but I’m including it because I was literally at Folly Beach a matter of weeks after this thing washed ashore. I wish I’d seen it. It turned out that it wasn’t a sea monster as people assumed, but a rare Atlantic sturgeon.

Many globsters have stumps that look like the remains of flippers, legs, or tentacles. The Four Mile Globster that washed ashore on Four Mile Beach, Tasmania in 1998 had protrusions along its sides that looked like stumpy legs. It was 15 feet long, or 4.6 meters, and 6 feet wide, or 1.8 meters, with white hair and flippers that were separate from the protrusions. We don’t actually know for sure what this globster was.

In 1988 a treasure hunter found a globster now called the Bermuda blob. It was about eight feet long, or almost 2.5 meters, pale and hairy with what seemed to be five legs. The discoverer took samples of the massively tough hide, which were examined by Sidney Pierce in his team’s 1995 study of globster remains. This was one of the few that turned out to be from a shark instead of a whale, although we don’t know what species.

But sharks don’t have five legs. And the Four Mile Globster had six stumps that were separate from the flippers still visible on the carcass. So what causes these leg-like protrusions? They’re probably flesh and blubber stiffened inside with a bone or part of a bone, such as a rib. As the carcass is washed around by the ocean, the flesh tears in between the bones, making them look like stumps of appendages.

There’s a good reason why so many globsters turn out to be sperm whale carcasses. A sperm whale’s massive forehead is filled with waxy spermaceti oil. The upper portion of the head contains up to 500 gallons of oil in a cavity surrounded by tough collagen walls. Researchers hypothesize that this oil is used both for buoyancy and to increase the whale’s echolocation abilities. The lower portion of the forehead contains cartilage compartments filled with more oil, which may act as a shock absorber since males in particular ram each other when they fight. So much of the head of a sperm whale, which can be as big as 1/3 of the length of the whale, is basically a big mass of cartilage and connective tissue. After a whale dies, this buoyant section of the body can separate from the much heavier skeleton and float away on its own.

Globsters aren’t a modern phenomenon, either. We have written accounts of what were probably globsters dating back to the 16th century, and older oral traditions from folklore around the world. The main problem with globsters is that they’re not usually studied. They smell bad, they look gross, and they may not stay on the beach for long before the tide washes them back out to sea. For instance, after Hurricane Fran passed through North Carolina in 1996, a group of young men found a globster washed up on a beach on Cape Hatteras. They took pictures and estimated its length as twenty feet long, or six meters, six feet wide, or 1.8 meters, and four feet high at its thickest, or 1.2 meters. From the pictures it’s pretty disgusting, like a lump of meat with intestines or tentacles hanging from it. But the men weren’t supposed to be on the beach, which was part of the Cape Hatteras National Park and closed due to hurricane damage. They didn’t mention their find to anyone until the following year, when one of the men learned about the St Augustine Monster in his college biology class. By then, of course, the Cape Hatteras globster was long gone. While it might have been a rotting blob of whale blubber or a piece of dead shark, we don’t know for sure. So if you happen to find a globster on a beach, make sure to tell a biologist or park ranger so they can examine it…before it’s lost to science forever.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 075: Archelon and Other Giant Sea Turtles



This week we’re going to find out about the biggest turtles that ever lived! Spoiler: one of them is alive right now, swimming around eating jellyfish.

A green sea turtle. These guys are adorable:

A hawkbill glowing like a neon sign!

The majestic and enormous leatherback:

Bebe leatherback. LET ME GOW

Seriously, how are baby sea turtles so darn cute?

Archelon was a big tortle:

Further reading:

This is a link to a pdf of that “Historicity of Sea Turtles Misidentified as Sea Monsters” article

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re back in the sea, but not the deep sea this time, because we’re looking at marine turtles!

The oldest known turtle ancestor lived around 220 million years ago, but it wouldn’t have looked a whole lot like a modern turtle. For one thing, it had teeth instead of a bill. It resembled a lizard with wide ribs that protected its belly. It lived in the ocean, probably in shallow inlets and bays, but it may have also spent part of its time on land. Some researchers think it may have had at least a partial shell formed from extensions of its backbone, but that this didn’t fossilize in the three specimens we have.

The oldest sea turtle fossil found so far has been dated to 120 million years old. It was seven feet long, or 2 meters, and already showed a lot of the adaptations that modern sea turtles have. Researchers think it was closely related to the green sea turtle and the hawksbill sea turtle.

Seven species of sea turtle are alive today. They all have streamlined shells and flippers instead of feet. They all breathe air, but they have big lungs and can stay underwater for a long time, up to about an hour while hunting, several hours when asleep or resting. Like whales, they surface and empty their lungs, then take one huge breath. They can see well underwater but can probably only hear low-frequency sounds.

Sea turtles have a special tear gland that produces tears with high salt concentration, to release excess salt from the body that comes from swallowing sea water. They migrate long distances to lay eggs, thousands of miles for some species and populations, and usually return to the same beach where they were hatched. Female sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs in sand, but the males of most species never come ashore. The exception is the green sea turtle, which sometimes comes ashore just to bask in the sun. Once the babies hatch, they head to the sea and take off, swimming far past the continental shelf where there are fewer predators. They live around rafts of floating seaweed call sargassum, which protects them and attracts the tiny prey they eat.

Six of the extant sea turtles are relatively small. Not small compared to regular turtles, small compared to the seventh living sea turtle, the leatherback. More about that one in a minute. The other six are the green, loggerhead, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley and Olive ridley, and the flatback.

Let’s start with the green sea turtle, since I just mentioned it. Its shell is not always green. It can be brown or even black depending on where it spends most of its life. Green turtles that live in colder areas of the Pacific have darker shells, which probably helps them stay warm by absorbing more heat from sunlight. Young turtles have darker shells than old turtles for the same reason.

The green sea turtle can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, can live some 80 years, and mostly eats plants, especially seagrass, although babies eat small animals like worms, jellyfish, and fish eggs. A recent satellite tracking study of green sea turtles in the Indian Ocean tracked the turtles to a huge underwater seagrass meadow that no human realized existed until then. The meadows were farther underwater than the ones researchers knew about, up to 95 feet deep, or 29 meters. Researchers think the seagrass can grow at these depths because the water is so clear in the area, which means more light for the plants.

Unlike the green sea turtle, which lives throughout much of the world’s oceans, the flatback sea turtle is only found around Australia. It’s greenish or grayish and only grows around 3 feet long, or 95 cm, and eats invertebrates of various kinds, including jellyfish, shrimp, and sea cucumbers. It stays near shore in shallow water and doesn’t migrate, so it’s mostly safe from getting tangled in commercial fishing nets that kill a lot of other sea turtle species.

The smallest sea turtle is the olive ridley, which only grows around two feet long, or 60 cm. Its shell is roughly heart-shaped and is usually olive green. It mostly lives in tropical waters and is the most common sea turtle of all the living species, but getting rarer. It likes warm, shallow water and eats small animals like snails, jellyfish, and sea urchins.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is closely related to the olive ridley, and is not much larger. It grows to around 28 inches long, or 70 cm, and eats the same things as the olive ridley. It also likes the same warm, shallow waters, but it nests exclusively along the Gulf Coast of North America. Oil spills in the Gulf have killed so many turtles that the species is now listed as critically endangered. Conservationists sometimes remove eggs to safer, cleaner beaches where babies are more likely to hatch and survive. Besides oil spills and other types of pollution, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are often killed when they get tangled in shrimp nets and drown. Fortunately, shrimp trawlers in the Gulf now use turtle excluders, which help keep turtles from getting tangled.

The hawksbill sea turtle grows to around three feet long, or 1 meter, and lives around tropical reefs. It has a more pointed, hooked beak than other sea turtles, which gives it its name. You might think it eats fish or something with a beak like that, but mostly it eats jellyfish and sea sponges. It especially likes the sea sponges, some of which are lethally toxic to most other animals. It also doesn’t have a problem eating even extremely stingy jellies and jelly-like animals like the Portuguese man-o-war. The hawkbill’s head is armored so the stings don’t bother it, although it does close its eyes while it chomps down on jellies. People used to kill hawksbill sea turtles for their multicolored shells, but don’t eat them. Its meat can be toxic due to the toxins it ingests.

The hawksbill is also biofluorescent! Researchers only found this out by accident in 2015, when a team studying biofluorescent animals in the Solomon Islands saw and filmed a hawksbill glowing like a UFO with neon green and red light. Researchers still don’t know why and how the hawksbill glows. They think the red color may be emitted by certain algae that grow on hawksbill shells, but the green appears to be emitted by the turtle itself. Since the hawksbill lives mostly around coral reefs, where many animals biofluoresce, researchers hypothesize it might be a way for the turtle to blend in. If everyone’s glowing, the big turtle-shaped spot that isn’t glowing would give it away. Then again, since male turtles glow more brightly than females, researchers also think it may be a way to attract mates.

Finally, the loggerhead sea turtle grows to a little longer than three feet, or 95 cm, and its shell is usually reddish-brown. It lives throughout the world’s oceans and while it nests in a lot of places, many loggerheads lay their eggs on Florida beaches. It eats invertebrates like bivalves and sponges, barnacles and jellyfish, starfish, plants, and lots of other things, including baby turtles. Its jaws are powerful and it has scales on its front flippers that stick out a little, called pseudoclaws, which allow it to manipulate its food or tear it into smaller pieces.

All sea turtles are endangered and are protected worldwide, although some countries enforce the protection more than others. Some people still eat sea turtles and their eggs, even though both can contain bacteria and toxic metals that make people sick. But mostly it’s habitat loss, pollution, and fishing nets and longlines that kill turtles.

People want to build houses on the beach, or drive their cars on the beach, and that destroys the habitat female turtles need to lay their eggs. Turtles also get stuck in fishing equipment and drown. And there’s so much plastic floating around in the sea that all sorts of animals are affected, not just turtles. A floating plastic bag or popped balloon looks like a jellyfish to a sea turtle that doesn’t know what plastic is. A turtle can eat so much plastic that its digestive system becomes clogged and it dies. One easy way you can help is to remember your reusable bag when you go shopping. The fewer plastic bags that are made and used, the fewer will find their way into the ocean. Some countries have banned plastic shopping bags completely.

Now let’s talk about the leatherback turtle. It’s much bigger than the others and not very closely related to them. It can grow some nine feet long, or 3 meters, and instead of having a hard shell like other sea turtles, its carapace is covered with tough, leathery skin studded with tiny osteoderms. Seven raised ridges on the carapace run from head to tail and make the turtle more stable in the water, a good thing because leatherbacks migrate thousands of miles every year. Not only is the leatherback the biggest and heaviest turtle alive today by far, it’s the heaviest living reptile that isn’t a crocodile. It has huge front flippers, is much more streamlined even than other sea turtles, and has a number of interesting adaptations to life in the open ocean.

The leatherback lives throughout the world, from warm tropical oceans up into the Arctic Circle. It mostly eats jellyfish, so it goes where the jellyfish go, which is everywhere. It also eats other soft-bodied animals like squid. To help it swallow slippery, soft food when it doesn’t have the crushing plates that other sea turtles have, the leatherback’s throat is full of backwards-pointing spines. What goes down, will not come back up, which is great when the turtle swallows a jellyfish, not so great when it swallows a plastic bag.

The leatherback can dive as deep as 4,200 feet, or almost 1,300 meters. Even most whales don’t dive that deep. But it’s a reptile, so how does it manage to survive in such cold water, whether in the Arctic Ocean or nearly a mile below the water’s surface?

The leatherback’s metabolic rate is high to start with, and it swims almost constantly. Its muscles generate heat as they work, which keeps the turtle’s body warmer than the surrounding water, as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, or 18 degrees Celsius. Its flippers and throat also use a system called countercurrent heat exchange, where blood that has been chilled by outside temperatures returns to the heart in veins that surround arteries containing warm blood flowing from the heart. By the time the cool blood reaches the heart, it’s been warmed by the arterial blood. This keeps heat inside the body’s core.

Unlike other sea turtle species, leatherbacks don’t necessarily return to the same beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. Females usually nest every two or three years and lay about 100 eggs per nest. No one is sure how long leatherbacks live, but it may be a very long time. Most turtles have long lifespans, and many sea turtle species don’t even reach maturity until they’re a couple of decades old.

One interesting thing about sea turtles, which is also true of many other reptiles, is that the temperature of the egg determines whether the baby turtle will develop into a male or female. Cooler temperatures produce mostly male babies, warmer temperatures produce mostly female babies. This is pretty neat, until you remember that the global temperature is creeping up. A new study of sea turtles around Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef found that almost all baby turtles hatching there are now female—up to 99.1% of all babies hatched. Another study found the same results in sea turtle nests in Florida, where 97 to 100% of all babies are female. The studies also found that the amount of water in the nest’s sand also contributes to whether babies are male or female, with drier nests producing more females. Researchers are considering incubating some nests in climate-controlled rookeries to ensure that enough males hatch and survive to produce the next generation.

So those are the seven types of sea turtle alive today. Now let’s talk about an extinct sea turtle, a relative of the leatherback. This is archelon, and it was huge.

Archelon was the biggest turtle that has ever lived, as far as we know. The first fossil archelon was discovered in 1895 in South Dakota, in rocks that were around 75 million years old. The biggest archelon fossil ever found came from the same area, and measures 13 feet long, or 4 meters. It’s even broader from flipper to flipper, some 16 feet wide, or 5 meters. It lived in the shallow sea that covered central North America during the Cretaceous, called the Western Interior Seaway. I like that name. Its shell was leathery and probably flexible like the leatherback’s, but unlike the leatherback, it wasn’t teardrop shaped. In fact, it was very round. Since it lived at the same time as mosasaurs, its wide shell may have kept it from being swallowed by predators. It probably ate squid and jellyfish like the leatherback, and researchers think it was probably a slow swimmer. It went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, but fortunately its smaller relations survived.

We don’t know if that 13-foot-long archelon was an unusually large specimen, an average specimen, or a small specimen. It was probably on the large size, but it’s a good bet that there were larger individuals swimming around 75 million years ago. We don’t know if leatherbacks occasionally get bigger than nine feet long, for that matter. But we do have reports of sea turtles that are much, much bigger than any sea turtles known.

In August of 2008, a 14-year-old boy snorkeling in Hawaii reported swimming above a sea turtle that was resting on the bottom of a lagoon. He estimated the turtle was eight to ten feet across with a round shell. At the time he didn’t realize that was unusual. He also reported seeing a geometric pattern on the shell, which is not a feature of the leatherback or archelon but is present in other sea turtles. So if his estimation of size is correct, he saw a sea turtle far bigger than any living today.

In 1833, a schooner off the coast of Newfoundland came across what they thought was an overturned boat. When the crew investigated, they discovered it wasn’t a boat at all but an enormous leatherback turtle, which they reported was 40 feet long, or 12 meters.

Many sea serpent sightings may actually be misidentifications of sea turtles. Sea turtles do have relatively long necks which they can and do raise out of the water. A long neck with a small head sticking out of the water, with a hump behind it, describes a lot of sea serpent reports. It’s also possible that some sea serpent reports are actually sightings of sea turtles entangled with fishing nets and other debris that the turtle drags with it as it swims, which may look like a long snake-like tail behind a humped body.

For instance, in 1934 some fishermen off the coast of Queensland, Australia spotted what they thought was a sea serpent. I’ll quote the description, which is from an article with the lengthy title of “Historicity of Sea Turtles Misidentified as Sea Monsters: A Case for the Early Entanglement of Marine Chelonians in Pre-plastic Fishing Nets and Maritime Debris” by Robert France. I’ll put a link in the show notes in case you want to read the article, if I can find it again. I printed it out so I could keep it.

Anyway, the fishermen reported that the sea serpent looked like this:

“The head rose about eight feet out of the water, and resembled a huge turtle’s head…the colour was greyish-green. The eye…was small in comparison to the rest of the monster. The other part in view was three curved humps about 20 feet apart, and each one rose from six feet in the front to a little less in the rear. They were covered with huge scales about the size of saucers, and also covered in barnacles. We could not get a glimpse of the tail, as it was under the water.”

Robert France suggests that this was a sea turtle entangled with a string of fishing gear, specifically fishing floats. He also gives a number of other examples dating back hundreds of years. Fortunately for sea turtles and other animals in the olden days, most fishing nets were made from rope, usually hemp and sometimes cotton, which eventually rotted and freed the animal, if it survived being entangled for months on end.

So if you live around the ocean, or any kind of water for that matter, make sure to pick up any litter you find, especially plastic bags. You could save a lot of lives. Who knows, maybe the sea turtle you save from eating that one fatal plastic bag will grow up to become the biggest sea turtle alive.

As a companion piece to this episode, Patreon subscribers got an episode about the Soay Island Sea Monster sighted in 1959, which was probably a sea turtle of some kind. Just saying.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 074: Colossal Squid and the Things That Eat Them



We’re going to learn about the colossal squid in this episode, with bonus info about the giant squid…and then we’re going to learn about the massive things that eat this massive squid!

A giant squid, looking slightly guilty for eating another squid:

A colossal squid, looking less than impressive tbh:

THAT EYEBALL:

A sperm whale looking baddass:

A southern sleeper shark, looking kind of boring:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn first about the colossal squid, and then we’re going to learn about what eats the colossal squid.

You’ve probably heard of the giant squid, but maybe you haven’t. Let’s start with it, because the giant squid and the colossal squid are both massive, amazing deep-sea animals.

Stories of huge squid go back to ancient times. Aristotle and Pliny wrote about it, the legend of the kraken may be at least partially inspired by it, and sailors have told stories about it for time out of mind. Naturalists of the mid-19th century knew it must exist because whalers had found enormously long tentacles and huge beaks in sperm whale stomachs. But except for the occasional badly damaged specimen washed up on shore, no one had seen a giant squid. Certainly no one had seen a living giant squid.

It wasn’t until 2001 that a live giant squid was caught on film, and then it was only a larval squid. In 2002 a live adult giant squid was caught off the coast of Japan. It wasn’t especially big, just 13 feet long, or 4 meters, but up until then an adult giant squid had never been captured or even photographed. Its body is now on display at the National Science Museum of Japan. It wasn’t until 2004 that a research team got photographs of a live giant squid in its natural habitat, also off the coast of Japan. Since then researchers have taken more photographs and footage of giant squid, and we’re starting to learn more about it.

Squids in general have a body called a mantle, with small fins at the rear and eyes near the base above the arms, eight arms, and two long tentacles. The arms and tentacles are lined with suction cups that contain rings of serrated chitin, which allows the squid to hang on to its prey. Chitin is the same stuff lobster shells and fish scales are made of. It’s the invertebrate version of keratin. In the middle of the arms, at the base of the mantle, is the squid’s mouth, which looks for all the world like a gigantic parrot beak, also made of chitin. Instead of actual teeth, the squid has a radula, which is basically a tongue studded with chitinous teeth that it uses to shred its prey into pieces small enough to swallow.

Most of the length of a giant squid comes from its tentacles. Researchers estimate that the longest giant squid’s mantle is about 7 ½ feet long, or 2.25 meters. The longest giant squid’s mantle and arms together reach around 16 feet long, or 5 meters. That’s still pretty huge, but it’s not until you add in the tentacles that the length just gets ridiculous. The longest giant squid known—and this is an estimate based on the size of the biggest beak ever found—was 43 feet, or 13 meters. Females are typically much bigger than males and can weigh twice as much.

The giant squid is a deep-sea animal, probably solitary, and eats fish and smaller squid, including other giant squid. It’s an active hunter and catches prey by grabbing it with its super-long tentacles, reeling it in to hold it more securely with its arms, then biting it with its beak and shredding it into pieces with its radula.

The giant squid has the largest eye of any living animal, as big as 11 inches in diameter, or 27 cm. Since it mostly lives in the deep sea, it probably needs such big eyes to see bioluminescent light given off by the animals it eats and to detect predators. Only ichthyosaurs had larger eyes. Well…except for the colossal squid, which may have eyes even bigger than the giant squid’s.

So if the giant squid can grow to some 43 feet long, is the colossal squid even longer? Only a little. Researchers estimate the colossal squid can grow to around 46 feet long, or 14 meters, but it has shorter tentacles and a much longer mantle than the giant squid so is an overall much bigger and heavier animal.

But that size estimate is only that, an estimate. We know very little about the colossal squid. It was first described from parts of two arms found in the stomach of a sperm whale in 1925, and for more than 50 years that was pretty much all we had. Then a Russian trawler caught an immature specimen in 1981 off the coast of Antarctica. Since then researchers have been able to study a few other specimens caught or found dead, mostly from the Antarctic seas.

As far as we know, the colossal squid is an ambush predator rather than an active hunter like the giant squid. It lives in the deep seas in the Southern Ocean, especially around Antarctica, as far down as 7,200 feet or 2.2 km beneath the surface of the ocean, and it mostly eats fish. While its tentacles are much shorter than the giant squid’s, they have something the giant squid does not. Its suckers have hooks, some of them triple-pointed and some of which swivel. When it grabs onto something, it is not going to let go until somebody gets eaten.

The largest colossal squid ever found was caught in 2007 in the Antarctic. It was caught by a trawler when they hauled in a fishing line. The squid was eating an Antarctic toothfish caught on the line and wouldn’t let go, so the fishermen hauled it aboard in a net and froze it. It was 33 feet long, or ten meters, and by the time it was thawed out for study, its tentacles had shrunk so that it was even shorter. Its eye was 11 inches across, or 27 cm, but when the squid was alive its eye was probably bigger, maybe as much as 16 inches across, or 40 cm—in which case, it wins the biggest eye category and deserves a trophy. With an eyeball on it.

So if the biggest colossal squid we’ve ever seen is only 33 feet long, how do we know it can grow to 46 feet long? Because whalers have found colossal squid beaks in the stomachs of sperm whales that are much larger than the 33-foot squid’s beak.

And that brings us to the first predator of the colossal squid, the sperm whale. Lots of things eat young colossal squids, from fish and albatrosses to seals and bigger squids, but today we’re talking about predators of full-grown colossal squid. There aren’t many. In fact, there are only two that we know of.

The sperm whale eats pretty much anything it wants, frankly, but mostly what it wants is squid. It eats both giant and colossal squid, and we know because squid beaks aren’t digestible. They stay in the whale’s stomach for a long time. Specifically they stay in the whale’s second stomach chamber, because sperm whales have a four-chambered stomach like cows and other ruminants do. Sometimes a whale will puke up squid beaks, but often they just stay in the stomach. Some whales have been found with as many as 18,000 squid beaks in their stomachs. 18,000! Can you imagine having 18,000 of anything riding around in your stomach? I wouldn’t even want 18,000 Cap’n Crunches in my stomach and I really like Cap’n Crunch cereal.

Sometimes squid beaks do make it deeper into the whale’s digestive system, and when that happens, researchers think it stimulates the body to secrete a greasy substance called ambergris to coat the beak so it won’t poke into the sides of the intestines. Small lumps of ambergris are sometimes found washed up on shore after the whale poops them out, and it can be valuable. Once it’s been out of the whale for a while it starts to smell really good so has been traditionally used to make perfume, but these days most perfume companies use a synthetic version of ambergris.

The sperm whale can grow to at least 67 feet long, or 20.5 meters, and may possibly grow much longer. It’s an active hunter and a deep diver, with the biggest whales routinely diving to almost 7,400 feet or 2,250 meters to catch that tasty, tasty squid. It can stay underwater for over an hour. It has teeth only in the lower jaw, which is long and thin. The upper jaw has holes in the gum called sockets where its lower teeth fit into, which is kind of neat. But because male sperm whales sometimes fight by ramming each other, occasionally a whale’s jaw will become broken, dislocated, or otherwise injured so that it can’t use it to bite squid. But that actually doesn’t seem to stop the whale from eating squid successfully. They just slurp them up.

Sperm whales use echolocation to find squid, but researchers also think the whale can use its vision to see the squid silhouetted against the far-off water’s surface. Sperm whales have big eyes, although not nearly as big as squid eyes, and a whale can retract its eyeballs into its eye sockets to reduce drag as it swims. It can also protrude its eyes when it wants to see better. Researchers have tagged sperm whales with radio transmitters that tell exactly where the whale is and what it’s doing, at least until the tag falls off. The tags occasionally show that a sperm whale will hunt while swimming upside down, which researchers think means the whale is looking up to see squid silhouettes.

You’ll often hear people talk about sperm whales and giant squids battling. Sperm whales do often have sucker marks and scars from giant and colossal squid arms, but that doesn’t mean the squid was trying to drown the whale. Squid have no real defense against getting eaten by sperm whales. All a squid can do is hang on to the whale in hopes that it won’t actually end up in the whale’s belly, which is not going to happen, squid. Some researchers even theorize that the sperm whale can stun prey with a massive burst of powerful sonar impulses, but so far there’s no evidence for this frankly pretty awesome hypothesis.

The other main predator of full-grown colossal squid are a few species of sharks called sleeper sharks. They’re slow-moving deep-sea sharks that mostly live in cold waters around the Arctic and Antarctic. We don’t know much about a lot of sleeper sharks species. Many of them were only discovered recently, and some are only known from one or a few specimens. Sleeper sharks are generally not much to look at. They don’t have great big mouths full of huge teeth like great whites, they don’t have weird-shaped heads like hammerheads, and they’re just plain grayish all over, maybe with some speckles.

The Greenland shark is one type of sleeper shark. It’s the one with the longest known lifespan of any vertebrate, as much as 500 years old. The Greenland shark is also one of the largest sharks alive, up to 24 feet long, or 7.3 meters, and possibly longer. But the Greenland shark isn’t one of the sleeper sharks that eat colossal squid, since it lives around the Arctic and the colossal squid lives around the Antarctic. But the Southern sleeper shark lives around the Antarctic and is so closely related to the Greenland shark that for a long time many researchers thought it was the same species. The Southern sleeper shark is overall shorter, only around 14 feet long, or 4.4 meters, although since we don’t know a lot about it, we don’t really know how big it can get. It’s probably an ambush predator and it definitely eats colossal squid because colossal squid beaks are sometimes found in its stomach.

In 2004 a team of researchers examined the stomach contents of 36 sleeper sharks that had been accidentally killed by fishing trawlers around and near Antarctica. They found remains of at least 49 colossal squid, bigger on average than the squid sperm whales typically eat.

Just going by what we know about the Greenland shark, it’s safe to say that the southern sleeper shark is an extremely slow swimmer, barely exceeding more than two miles an hour, or 3.5 km per hour. That’s about the speed you walk if you’re not in any particular hurry. It may also be prey to the same parasitic copepod, which is a type of crustacean, that infests a lot of Greenland sharks. The parasite attaches itself to the shark’s EYEBALL. But some researchers think the parasite actually gives something back to the shark, by glowing with a bioluminescence that attracts prey, which the shark then eats. Greenland sharks don’t appear to need to see in order to find prey anyway. That doesn’t make it any less gross.

I’m very sorry to end this episode with an eyeball parasite, so here’s one last thing to take your mind off it. As long as there have been reports of gigantic squid, there have been reports of gigantic octopuses. The largest octopus currently known is the giant Pacific octopus with a 20 foot legspan, or 6 meters. But there may be a gigantic octopus much larger than that. In 1928, six octopuses were sighted off the coast of Oahu in Hawaii by a sailor in the US Navy, who estimated their legs spanned 40 feet across, or 12.5 meters. In 1950, a diver in the same area reported seeing an octopus with a body the size of a car, and with tentacles estimated as 30 feet long each, or 9.3 meters.

Remember the study I mentioned earlier, about researchers finding lots of colossal squid remains in sleeper shark stomachs? They found something else in one of the sharks, remains of a huge octopus. Species unknown.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 067: More Sea Monsters



Finally, it’s the follow-up to our first sea monsters episode that sounds so terrible now that I know how to put a podcast together!

Here’s the published drawings of a strange animal seen from the HMS Daedalus:

Here’s Drummond’s sketch of what he saw:

Here’s a sketch of the HMS Plumper animal sighted:

And here’s a sei whale rostrum sticking up out of the water while it’s skim feeding:

Sei whales are neat and have gigantic mouths:

The rotten “sea serpent” that’s actually a decomposing baleen whale:

The Naden Harbour Carcass. It’s the black thing on the table with a white backdrop. It doesn’t look like much, but you probably wouldn’t look like much either after being eaten by a sperm whale:

Unexpected seal says “Hello, I am not a sea serpent, I am a stock photo”:

Hagelund’s sketch of the little animal he caught:

A pipefish with a lollipop tail and some drawings of pipefish:

The strange animal seen from the Valhalla:

Show transcript:

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

Recently I listened to episode six, about sea monsters. It’s climbed to our third most popular episode and when I heard it again, oh man, I winced. I was still really new to podcasting then and that episode sounds like someone reading a book report out loud to the class. So it’s time to do a new sea monsters episode and explore more mysteries of the world’s oceans, hopefully with a lot more vocal expression.

On August 6, 1848, about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the captain and some of the crew of HMS Daedalus saw something really big in the water. The ship was sailing between the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena on the way back to England from the East Indies. It was an overcast day with a fresh wind, but nothing unusual. The midshipman noticed something in the water he couldn’t identify and told the officer of the watch, who happened to be walking the deck at the time with the captain. Most of the crew was at supper.

This is what the captain, Peter M’Quhae, described in his report when the ship arrived at Plymouth a few months later.

“On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and, as nearly as we could approximate, by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal à fleur d’eau [that means at the water’s surface], no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it had passed in our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S.W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

“The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back.”

The original Times article also mentioned large jagged teeth in a jaw so large that a man could have stood up inside the mouth, but this seems to be an addition by the article’s writer, not the captain or crew.

The officer of the watch, Lieutenant Edgar Drummond, also published an excerpt from his own journal about the sighting, which appeared in a journal called the Zoologist in December 1848. It reads, “In the 4 to 6 watch, at about five o’clock, we observed a most remarkable fish on our lee quarter, crossing the stern in a S.W. direction; the appearance of its head, which, with the back fin, was the only portion of the animal visible, was long, pointed, and flattened at the top, perhaps ten feet in length, the upper jaw projecting considerably; the fin was perhaps twenty feet in the rear of the head, and visible occasionally; the captain also asserted that he saw the tail, or another fin about the same distance behind it; the upper part of the head and shoulders appeared of a dark brown colour, and beneath the under jaw a brownish white. It pursued a steady undeviating course, keeping its head horizontal with the surface of the water, and in rather a raised position, disappearing occasionally beneath a wave for a very brief interval, and not apparently for purposes of respiration. It was going at the rate of perhaps from twelve to fourteen miles an hour, and when nearest, was perhaps one hundred yards distant. In fact it gave one quite the idea of a large snake or eel. No one in the ship has ever seen anything similar, so it is at least extraordinary. It was visible to the naked eye for five minutes, and with a glass for perhaps fifteen more. The weather was dark and squally at the time, with some sea running.”

To translate some of this into metric, 60 feet is a little more than 18 meters, the 15 inch diameter the captain reported of the neck just behind the head is about 38 cm, and the speed of 13 mph is almost 21 km per hour.

A lot of people wrote in to the Times to discuss the sighting and suggest solutions. One writer claimed the animal couldn’t be a snake or eel, since a side to side undulating motion would have been obvious as the animal propelled itself with its tail. Another said it had to have been a snake but the undulations were only in the tail, which was below the water. Yet another article suggested it was a monstrous seal or other pinniped. Captain M’Quhai took exception to that one and wrote back stressing that he was familiar with seals and this definitely had not been one. Other suggestions included a basking shark or some other unknown species of shark, a plesiosaur, or a giant piece of seaweed.

Other similar sightings are on record, including a very similar one from the very end of 1849 off the coast of Portugal. In that one, an officer on HMS Plumper reported seeing “a long black creature with a sharp head, moving slowly, I should think about two knots, through the water, in a north westerly direction, there being a fresh breeze at the time, and some sea on. I could not ascertain its exact length, but its back was about twenty feet if not more above water; and its head, as near as I could judge, from six to eight. I had not time to make a closer observation, as the ship was going six knots through the water, her head E. half S., and wind S.S.E. The creature moved across our wake towards a merchant barque on our lee-quarter, and on the port tack. I was in hopes she would have seen it also. The officers and men who saw it, and who have served in parts of the world adjacent to whale and seal fisheries, and have seen them in the water, declare they have neither seen nor heard of any creature bearing the slightest resemblance to the one we saw. There was something on its back that appeared like a mane, and, as it moved through the water, kept washing about, but before I could examine it more closely, it was too far astern.”

Illustrations of the Daedalus sea serpent, which M’Quhai approved, were published in the Times. But the original sketch made by Drummond in his journal the day he saw the animal gives us a much better idea of what it looked like and what it probably was. The sketch accompanying the Plumper sighting reinforces the solution. It’s probable that both sightings, and probably many others, were of a sei whale skim feeding.

The sei is a baleen whale that’s generally considered the fourth largest whale, with some individuals growing almost 65 feet long, or nearly 20 meters. Females are larger than males. It lives all over the world although it likes deep water that isn’t too cold or too hot. It’s a mottled dark grey. Its fins are relatively short and pointed, its dorsal fin is tall and fairly far back on the animal’s body. Its tail flukes aren’t usually visible. Its rostrum, or beak, is pointed and short baleen plates hang down from it. The sei whale’s baleen is unusually fine, with a fringe that is curly and white and looks something like wool.

Unlike some whales, it doesn’t dive very deeply or for very long, and it’s usually relatively solitary. It spends a lot of its time at or near the surface, frequently skim feeding to capture krill and other tiny food. It does this by cruising along with its mouth open, often swimming on its side. It has throat pleats that allow its huge mouth to expand and hold incredible amounts of water. The whale closes its mouth and raises its huge tongue, forcing the water out through its baleen plates. Whatever krill and fish are caught by the baleen, the whale swallows.

A lot of baleen whales skim feed occasionally, but the sei is something of a skim feeding specialist. And it has a narrow, pointed rostrum that often sticks up out of the water as it skim-feeds, with pale baleen hanging down. This might easily look like a long snakey animal with a small head held up out of the water, especially in poor viewing conditions when the people involved are convinced they’re looking at a sea serpent. The sei whale is a fast swimmer too, easily able to cruise at the speeds described by the Daedalus and Plumper crews.

It’s not a perfect match, of course. The sei whale’s dorsal fin is pretty distinctive and if seen properly would have immediately told the crew they were looking at a whale. No one reported seeing anything that could be considered a whale’s breath either, sometimes called a spout. Since whales exhale forcefully and almost empty their lungs when they do, the cloud of warm air expelled looks like steam and is a tell-tale sign of a whale. Whales also don’t have hair on their rostrum that could wash around like a mane on a sea serpent’s neck. So while it seems likely that the Daedalus and Plumper sightings were of sei or other baleen whales skim feeding, we can’t know for sure.

Incidentally, the sei whale wasn’t fully protected from whaling until 1986. Japan still hunts sei whales, supposedly for scientific purposes but no one’s really fooled. The whales they catch are sold for meat. In 2010, a restaurant in Los Angeles closed after being caught serving sei whale meat. The sei whale is still endangered but if people would stop killing it maybe it would be doing better. Whalers reported that when harpooned, sei whales would cry audibly, which apparently disturbed the whalers. Maybe if your job involves making animals cry you should go back to school and get a degree in nursing or teaching or something else that will make the world a better place, not worse.

Another whale is responsible for a mystery carcass washed up in the Philippines in 2017. The carcass looks like a dragon-like sea monster, but that’s due to decomposition. It’s actually a baleen whale, probably a gray whale, that had apparently been floating around for a while, getting nastier and more nibbled on every day.

Speaking of nasty, nibbled-on dead things, and whaling, in 1937 a sperm whale brought to Naden Harbor Whaling Station on a small Canadian island for processing turned out to have something so extraordinary in its stomach that the whalers took pictures of it. It was about ten feet long, or three meters, with a head said to be horselike or camel-like in shape with a drooping nose. Its body was long and thin, and it had short pectoral flippers and a single fluke or spade-shaped end on its tail. Its skin was either smooth or furry depending on which witness you believe, and there were signs it may have had baleen or gill rakers.

The carcass wasn’t kept, but pieces of it were reportedly sent to the British Columbia Provincial Museum, whose museum director suggested it might be a fetal baleen whale. Locals thought it might be a young cadborosaurus, a sea serpent occasionally sighted off the coast of British Columbia. It gets its name from Cadboro Bay, and is usually called Caddy. Caddy is generally described as 5 to 15 meters long, or 16 to almost 50 feet long, with a horse-like or camel-like head, big eyes, and a tail with horizontal flukes like a whale’s. Some witnesses say it has brown fur and horns or ears of some kind.

In 1992, a retired museum researcher named Ed Bousfield found three photos of the Naden Harbor carcass, long believed lost. This sparked up lots of debate, naturally, and lots of suggestions as to what the animal might be—a basking shark, a sea lion or other pinniped, an eel, an oarfish, and many others.

The problem, of course, is that the pictures aren’t very clear, we don’t have the actual body to examine, and the carcass had spent some time in the belly of a sperm whale so was in the process of being digested. But the whalers who found it had never seen anything like it before.

In 1968, a man called William Hagelund was yachting with his family when he heard splashing and saw a strange creature in the water. It was small, only about 16 inches long, or 40 cm, so he lowered a dinghy and caught it in a net. It had what appeared to be armored plates on its back, its flippers were odd-shaped, its snout was elongated but widened at the end, and it had a downy yellow fuzz or fur underneath. Hagelund put it in a bucket but it was so frantic to get out that he worried it would die. He made a drawing of it and released it.

Hagelund thought he’d caught a baby Caddy. But he didn’t share his story until twenty years later, when he wrote a book called Whalers No More.

But while Hagelund’s creature probably wasn’t a baby Caddy, it might have been something almost as strange. The pipefish is a fish related to the seahorse, and it resembles a seahorse that has straightened out. Some species have prehensile tails, some have little paddles at the end of their tails. Some are stripey. Like seahorses, the pipefish male has a brood pouch where he broods the female’s fertilized eggs. Not only does he protect the eggs, he supplies them with nutrients from his body while they grow. Because the female can lay more eggs than the male can hold in his brood pouch, females of some species of pipefish will have more than one mate. Pipefish rarely grow longer than around 16 inches, or 40 cm and have armored plating. The yellow fuzz Hagelund reported might have been algae.

It’s probable that at least some Caddy sightings are of moose swimming to or from one of the many small islands in the area. Moose will also dive to reach aquatic plants. Other Caddy sightings are probably of the Northern sea lion or Northern elephant seal, both of which are common in the area for at least part of the year.

Pinnipeds, in fact, may be the biggest factor to consider in any sea serpent or sea monster sightings. I learned this interesting fact after doing the research for the previous sea monster episode, but pinnipeds will stand vertically in the water to look around above the surface, and a big elephant seal can raise its head over three feet, or one meter, out of the water. If you’re in a boat and a big head and neck pops up out of the water nearby, your first thought is not going to be, “Oh, that’s an unexpected seal.” It’s going to be, “THIS GIANT ANIMAL IS GOING TO EAT ME.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t definite sea monsters out there. Far from it. On December 7, 1905, two naturalists spotted an animal they couldn’t recognize off the coast of Brazil.

The pair were Michael Nicholl and Edmund Meade-Waldo, part of a research team on the Valhalla. The ship was about 15 miles, or 24 km, from the mouth of the Parahiba River. At 10:15 a.m. Nicoll spotted a dorsal fin above the water that he didn’t recognize, about 100 yards away, or 91 meters. He asked Meade-Waldo to take a look, and he couldn’t identify the fish either. The fin was roughly rectangular, close to two feet high and six feet long, or 61 cm and 1.8 meters, and dark brown with an edge Meade-Waldo described as crinkled.

Meade-Waldo was looking at the fin through his binoculars when a head and long neck emerged from the water in front of the fin. He estimated it as 7 or 8 feet high, or over 2 meters, with a brown, turtle-like head. The animal moved its neck from side to side. They watched it until it was out of sight as the ship sailed away, but early the next morning, around 2 am, three crew members spotted what they thought was the same animal swimming underwater.

Nicholl and Meade-Waldo published their report in 1906. We still have no idea what they saw.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 049: The Brantevik Eel and Friends



This week’s episode is about some interesting eels, including the Brantevik eel.

A European eel:

A leptocephalus, aka an eel larva:

A moray eel. It has those jaws you can see and another set of jaws in its throat:

Episode transcript:

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

This week, we’re going to learn about the Brantevik eel and some other eels, including an eel mystery.

The Brantevik eel is an individual European eel, not a separate species. Its friends knew it as Åle, which I’ve probably misprounounced, so I’m nicknaming it Ollie. So what’s so interesting about Ollie the eel?

First, let’s learn a little bit about the European eel in general to give some background. It’s endangered these days due to overfishing, pollution, and other factors, but it used to be incredibly common. It lives throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean to Iceland, and has been a popular food for centuries.

The European eel hatches in the ocean into a larval stage that looks sort of like a transparent flat tadpole, shaped roughly like a leaf. Over the next six months to three years, the larvae swim through the ocean currents, closer and closer to Europe, feeding on microscopic jellyfish and plankton. Toward the end of this journey, they grow into their next phase, where they resemble eels instead of tadpoles, but are mostly transparent. They’re called glass eels at this point. The glass eels make their way into rivers and other estuaries and slowly migrate upstream. Once a glass eel is in a good environment it metamorphoses again into an elver, which is basically a small eel. As it grows it gains more pigment until it’s called a yellow eel. Over the next decade or two it grows and matures, until it reaches its adult length—anywhere from two to five feet, or 60 cm to 1.5 meters. When it’s fully mature, its belly turns white and its sides silver, which is why it’s called a silver eel at this stage. Silver eels migrate more than 4,000 miles, or 6500 km, back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, lay eggs, and die.

One interesting thing about the European eel is that during a lot of its life, it has no gender. Its gender is determined only when it grows into a yellow eel, and then it’s mostly determined by environmental factors, not genetics.

Until the late 19th century, everyone thought these different stages—larva, glass eel, elver, yellow eel, and silver eel—were all separate animals. No one knew how or even if eels reproduced. The ancient Greeks thought eels were a type of worm that appeared spontaneously from rotting vegetation. Some people thought eels mated with snakes or some types of fish. By the 1950s the eel’s life cycle was more or less understood, but many researchers thought the European eels never made it to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. It was just too far, so they thought the eels that arrived in Europe were all larvae of the American eel, which is almost identical in appearance to the European eel. The Sargasso Sea is off the coast of the Bahamas, so the American eel doesn’t have nearly as far to travel. These days we know from DNA studies that the American and European eels are different species. The European eel is just a world-class swimmer.

European eels are nocturnal and may live in fresh water, brackish water, or sometimes they remain in the ocean and live in salt water, generally in harbors and shallows. They eat anything they can catch, from fish to crustaceans, from insect larvae to dead things, and on wet nights they’ll sometimes emerge from the water and slide around on land eating worms and slugs. Many populations don’t eat at all during the winter.

Now, back to the Brantevik eel. Brantevik is a tiny fishing village in Sweden. In 1859, an eight-year-old boy named Samuel Nilsson caught an eel and released it into his family’s well to eat insect larvae and other pests. This was a common practice at the time when water wasn’t treated, so the fewer creepy-crawlies in the water, the better.

And there the eel stayed. Ollie got famous over the years, at least in Sweden. Its 100th well anniversary was celebrated in 1959, and children’s books and even movies featured it. But in summer of 2014, Ollie died. Its well is now on the property of Tomas Kjellman, whose family bought the cottage and its well in 1962. Everyone knew about the resident eel, which the family treated as something of a pet. In fact, they discovered it was dead when they opened the well’s cover to show the eel to some visiting friends.

Ollie’s remains were removed from the well and shoved in the family’s freezer, and later sent to be analyzed at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science’s Institute of Freshwater Research. That analysis confirmed that Ollie was over 150 years old.

In the wild, European eels don’t usually live longer than twenty years, and ten years is more likely. But in captivity, where eels don’t spawn, they can live a long time. A female European eel named Putte lived over 85 years in an aquarium at Halsinborgs Museum in Sweden.

What most people don’t know is that Ollie wasn’t alone. Another eel still lives in the well and is doing just fine, but it’s younger, only about 110 years old.

The larvae of European eels are small, only about three inches at the most, or 7.5 cm. Even conger eel larvae are small, only 4 inches long, or 10 cm, and conger eels can grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters. But on January 31, 1930, a Danish research ship caught an eel larva 900 feet deep off the coast of South Africa—and that larva was six feet 1.5 inches long, or 1.85 meters.

Scientists boggled at the thought that this six-foot eel larva might grow into an eel more than 50 feet long, or 15 meters, raising the very real possibility that this unknown eel might be the basis of many sea serpent sightings.

The larva was preserved and has been studied extensively. In 1958, a similar eel larva was caught off New Zealand. It and the 1930 specimen were determined to belong to the same species, which was named Leptocephalus giganteus. Leptocephalus, incidentally, is a catchall genus for all eel larvae, which can be extremely hard to tell apart.

In 1966 two more of the larvae were discovered in the stomach of a western Atlantic lancet fish. They were much smaller than the others, though—only four inches and eleven inches long, or 10 cm and 28 cm. Dr. David G. Smith, an ichthyologist at Miami University, determined that the eel larvae were actually not true eels at all, but larvae of a spiny eel. Deep-sea spiny eels are fish that look like eels but they’re not closely related. And while spiny eels do have a larval form that resembles that of a true eel, they’re much different in one important way. Spiny eel larvae grow larger than the adults, then shrink when they develop into their mature form.

So the six-foot eel larvae, if it had lived, would have eventually developed into a spiny eel no more than six feet long itself at the most, and probably shorter.

More recent research has called Dr. Smith’s findings into question, and many scientists today consider L. giganteus to be the larvae of a short-tailed eel, which is a true eel—but not a type that grows much larger than its larvae. So either way, the adult form would probably not be much longer than a conger eel.

But…we still don’t have an adult. So there’s still a possibility that a very big deep-living marine eel is swimming around in the world’s oceans right now.

The longest known eel is the slender giant moray, which can reach 13 feet in length, or 4 meters. Morays are interesting eels for sure. They live in the ocean, especially around coral reefs, and have two sets of jaws, their regular jaws with lots of hooked teeth, and a second set in the throat that are called pharyngeal jaws, which also have teeth. The moray uses the second set of jaws to help grab and swallow prey that might otherwise wriggle out of its mouth. The moray has a strong bite and doesn’t see very well, although its sense of smell is excellent. This occasionally causes problems for divers who think it would be fun to feed an eel and end up with a finger bitten off. Don’t feed the eels, okay? Not only that, but a moray can’t release its bite even if it’s dead, so if one bites a diver, someone has to pry the eel’s jaws open before the bite can be treated. And as if all that wasn’t warning enough to not feed wild animals, and frankly just stay out of the water entirely, research suggests that some morays are venomous. Oh, and the giant moray sometimes hunts with a fish called the roving coralgrouper, which grows to some four feet long, or 120 cm, which is a rare example of interspecies cooperative hunting.

Some people believe that at least some sightings of the Loch Ness monster can be attributed to eels—European eels, in this case. An eel can’t stick its head out of the water like Nessie is supposed to do, but it does sometimes swim on its side close to the water’s surface, which could result in sightings of a string of many humps undulating through the water. But while eels do live in and around Loch Ness, it’s unlikely that any European eel would grow much larger than around five feet, or 1.5 meters. Still, you never know. Loch Ness is the right habitat for an eel to grow to its maximum size, and while we have learned a lot about eels in general, and the European eel in particular, since Ollie was released into a well in Brantevik, we certainly don’t know everything about them.

One last note about eel larvae. Occasionally on facebook and other social media, well-meaning people will share warnings about a nearly invisible wormlike parasite that can be found in drinking water, with pictures of, you guessed it, eel larvae. Eel larvae are not parasites, are not found in fresh water at all, and even if you did accidentally swallow one, you’d just digest it and get a little protein out of the bargain. So you don’t need to worry about those clickbait warnings, the eels do.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 016: Jellyfish



If you look at this episode and think, “Oh, ho hum, think I’ll skip this one because snore, jellyfish,” you are so wrong! Jellies are fascinating, creepy, and often beautiful. Come learn all about our squishy friends in the sea!

A Portuguese man o’war. Creepy as heck:

A lion’s mane jelly. You do not want this guy on your ship. Incidentally, a lot of the photos you find of divers with enormous lion’s mane jellies are fakes that make the jellies look gigantic.

The cosmic jelly, a deep-sea creature:

The creepy Stygiomedusa gigantea, guardian of the underworld:

A newly discovered golden jelly.

Further reading:

Jelly Biologist (I’ve been enjoying browsing this site)

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about jellyfish—also called jellies, which is more accurate since they’re not fish at all.

Originally, I was going to focus on the Portuguese man o’war, another in the ongoing feature of “animals that scared me as a kid” and technically not even a jelly. But there’s so much to learn about jellies that we’re going to cover a whole lot more than that.

Jellies are interesting animals, to say the least. Their bodies have radial symmetry, meaning they’re the same in all directions. While the body shape varies, most jellies have a bell-like shape. The bell is generally rather thin, made up of an external covering, an internal covering, and an elastic gel-like material in between. Inside, the jelly has a digestive cavity with four to eight oral arms surrounding the mouth and long tentacles hanging beneath. The jelly also has a simple nerve net that can detect light and react to other stimuli, and which takes the place of a brain.

Jellies don’t have brains. They don’t have hearts, specialized sensory organs, or much of anything else. But they’ve been around for some 650 million years, possibly much longer, so clearly it all works.

The jelly’s life cycle is pretty weird. Most start out as polyps that stick to rocks or shells and use their little tentacles to catch microscopic organisms. A polyp can bud, producing new polyps that are clones of the original. Eventually, a polyp will constrict its body and develop into a stack of larvae. Each larva develops into a tiny jelly, which separates from the stack and swims away.

Once it’s grown, a jelly reproduces by releasing sperm, if it’s male, which the water carries to the female to fertilize her eggs. Some female jellies have brood pouches on the oral arms, some just carry the fertilized eggs inside the body while they develop. The embryos develop into swimming larvae called planula, which leave the female and attack themselves to something firm, where they transform into polyps.

This seems needlessly complicated, but again, it works for the jelly.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, which I’m delighted to report are called medusas, usually only live a few months. The immortal jellyfish throws another step into this process. It can transform back into a polyp from any stage of its life if it needs to. As a polyp, the immortal jellyfish is tiny, only about a millimeter long. As a full-grown medusa it’s not all that much bigger, less than four millimeters in diameter. Because it can transform back into a polyp as many times as it needs to, apparently without any kind of degradation or injury, the immortal jellyfish is effectively, well, immortal.

Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that there’s not a whole lot of research into the immortal jellyfish yet. It’s not even known if they will transform back into polyps in the wild, since it’s only ever been observed in captivity.

Almost all jellies have stinging cells, usually concentrated on the tentacles or oral arms, which they use to stun and kill prey. The stinging cells contain venom-filled nematocysts, which are coiled structures that uncoil and sting when touched. Humans are not jelly prey, but jelly stings can still be uncomfortable—and sometimes fatal—to humans.

You’ve probably heard of the infamous box jellyfish, the most dangerous species of which is common around Australia. Unlike most jellies, box jellyfish have true eyes and a relatively well-developed nervous system. They’re active, hard for humans to detect while swimming since they’re nearly transparent, and in the case of Chironex fleckeri, their venom can kill a human in as little as two minutes. Most fatalities occur in children, but most stings don’t result in death.

Another vicious and occasionally fatal stinger is the Portuguese man o’war, although it isn’t actually a jelly. It’s not even a single animal, it’s a colony. One member is the float, another the feeding polyps, and so forth. The man o’war takes its name from a type of ship, which the float somewhat resembles. The float is bluish or purplish, generally under a foot long [30 cm], and filled with gas. Underneath the float are feeding polyps from which hang purple tentacles, typically around 30 feet long [9 m] but sometimes up to 200 feet long [61 m]. If something attacks the man o’war, it can vent some of the gas in its bladder and submerge temporarily.

When I was a kid, my family occasionally went to the beach in North Carolina. Man o’wars are tropical animals but they do occasionally drift farther north. I was fully aware of this as a kid and did not want to get in the water farther than my waist. My grandfather and one of my aunts reassured me that they’d both been stung by a man o’war once, and it wasn’t any more painful than a wasp sting.

That did not make me feel any better. In fact, it made me even more scared because then I KNEW there were man o’wars out there. I wasn’t afraid of being stung, I was afraid of touching those creepy tentacles.

As it happens, my grandfather and Aunt Barbara probably had not encountered a Portuguese man o’war but a smaller animal called a by-the-wind sailor, which is now my favorite name of anything. It has a blue bladder float like the man o’war, but its sting is much milder, A man o’war sting is incredibly painful, more of a shock, that can lead to intense muscle and joint pain, open wounds on the skin at the sting site, headache, chills and fever, nausea, and can cause victims to faint and drown. Occasionally the venom travels to the lymph nodes and causes even more serious symptoms, including swelling of the larynx, an inability to breathe, and cardiac distress. Even a dead man o’war can sting if you touch its tentacles. Why would you touch its tentacles.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about man o’wars, clearly, because one of its other names if the floating terror. That sounds like the title of a pulp science fiction novel.

The bluebottle is a smaller related species found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The man o’war is found in those oceans and the Atlantic. A few weeks ago, in early May 2017, hundreds of man o’wars washed ashore in Georgia and South Carolina. Man o’wars are pretty common around Florida, especially in winter, and occasionally they wash ashore in the thousands.

The man o’war eats fish and other organisms that get caught in the stinging tentacles, but there are some fish that live among the tentacles, even feeding on them, like the man o’war fish and the clownfish. Not a lot of things eat Portuguese man o’wars, but the loggerhead turtle and ocean sunfish do. I like them both. The blanket octopus is immune to the man o’war’s venom and may carry broken-off tentacles to deter predators.

If you’re stung by a man o’war, treat the sting the same way you’d treat other jelly stings. Rinse with vinegar to remove any remaining bits of tentacle or nematocysts, then apply heat for 45 minutes, either with a hot pack or by immersing in hot water. Don’t rinse with urine or vodka; it can make the stings worse—and definitely don’t rinse with fresh water. If you don’t have vinegar, rinse with sea water, but keep in mind that you may be pouring nematocysts back onto the patient with the water. This treatment is from a very recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, released only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live, so if you’ve heard differing advice for jelly stings, it may be out of date.

Jellies are related to some surprising things: coral, sea anemones, a rare parasitic worm, the freshwater hydra—a ten mm long tubular animal with stinging tentacles at one end that it can stretch four or five times the length of the body to catch its tiny prey. Like jellies, the hydra can regenerate parts of its body if they’re injured or bitten off. And the hydra doesn’t appear to age, making it biologically immortal, although in a different way than the immortal jellyfish.

So what’s the largest jelly known, not counting ridiculously long tentacles like the man o’war’s? That would be the lion’s mane jellyfish. Its bell can have a diameter of over seven feet [2 m] and it has pretty darn long tentacles, too—sometimes over 120 feet long [36.5 m]. It likes cold water and the biggest individuals live where it’s coldest. While small individuals are brown or tan in color, the big ones are usually red or purple. The sting of a lion’s mane jellyfish isn’t usually that bad, but it has a lot of tentacles, so it can inflict thousands of stings upon contact.

In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.

But remember, lion’s mane jellies don’t live in the warm waters near Fiji and Australia. There are other reports of lion’s mane jellies seen in the area, though, so it’s possible there’s a gargantuan warm-water variety that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Most jellies live near the surface of the ocean, but there are some deep-sea species known, with more being discovered every year. A gorgeous jelly, dubbed the cosmic jellyfish by the press, was spotted 9,800 feet [2987 m] below the surface near American Samoa this February. It has an umbrella-like bell with short tentacles that point both downward and upward. You may have seen it in the news described as looking like a flying saucer, which it does. A similar jelly was discovered in the Mariana Trench in 2016, almost two and a half miles underwater [4 km]. These are lovely jellies with translucent bells and glowing red and yellow innards, but there are less lovely ones down there.

The big red jellyfish discovered in 2002 is an ugly cuss. It lives in waters up to 4900 feet deep [1493 m] and is over a foot in diameter [30 cm]. It’s dull red in color and doesn’t have tentacles, just thick oral arms.

Stygiomedusa gigantea, also known as the guardian of the underworld by at least one website, and now by me, isn’t so much ugly as horrifying. Its bell is some three feet across [1 m], and while it doesn’t have tentacles or even stinging cells, it does have four 30-foot-long [9 m] oral arms that resemble dark brown or reddish strips of cloth that drift in the ocean currents.

Some deep-sea jellies don’t have tentacles or oral arms. Deepstaria enigmatica, a rare jelly described in 1967, basically just looks like a big mesh bag. Its close relative, Deepstaria reticulum, is very similar, but it’s reddish instead of whitish. The Deepstaria hangs motionless in the deep with its three-foot-wide [1 m] bell open, waiting for something to swim into it. When it does, the bell contracts like a bag, the fish or other organism is stung by nematocysts lining the bell, and the jelly pushes its stunned prey into its mouth with tiny cilia inside the bell.

Isopods, which are small crustaceans, frequently hitch rides inside Deepstaria bells. It’s not known if they’re parasites or confer some benefits to the jellies, but they don’t seem to be affected by the stings.

There are plenty of mysteries associated with enormous jellies, although the two most famous ones I dug into started to seem less and less likely once I got closer to the primary sources. According to Eric Frank Russell in his 1957 book Great World Mysteries, in 1953 a diver testing a new type of deep-sea diving suit in the South Pacific saw an enormous jelly-like monster kill a shark. The diver had been testing how deep he could dive in the suit and noticed a fifteen-foot [4.6 m] shark following him down. I’m going to quote the relevant section instead of paraphrasing, because it’s pretty amazing.

“The shark was still hanging around some 30 feet [9 m] from me and about 20 feet [6 m] higher, when I reached a ledge below which was a great black chasm of enormous depth. It being dangerous to venture farther, I stood looking into the chasm while the shark waited for my next move. Suddenly the water became distinctly colder. While the temperature continued to drop with surprising rapidity, I saw a black mass rising from the darkness of the chasm. It floated upwards very slowly. As at last light reached it I could see that it was of a dull brown color and tremendous size, a flat ragged-edged thing about one acre in extent. It pulsated sluggishly and I knew that it was alive despite its lack of visible limbs or eyes. Still pulsating, this frightful vision floated past my level, by which time the coldness had become most intense. The shark now hung completely motionless, paralyzed either by cold or fear. While I watched fascinated, the enormous brown thing reached the shark, contacted it with its upper surface. The shark gave a convulsive shiver and was drawn unresisting into the substance of the monster. I stood perfectly still, not daring to move while the brown thing sank back into the chasm as slowly as it had emerged. Darkness swallowed it and the water started to regain some warmth.”

I am skeptical, I admit. Eric Frank Russell was primarily a science fiction writer and this sounds like something from a novel, probably one called The Floating Terror. If he described the monster as 20 feet across or even 30 or 40 [6, 9, 12 m], I’d be going, “Hmm, but hey, the deep sea is full of amazing things.” But an acre? That’s 208 feet 9 inches across. 43,450 square feet. A lot of meters [4,046 square meters]. It’s three times the size of my yard, which takes me like an hour to mow. It’s just too big to believe, not without corroborating details—like a first-hand account of the actual diver. We don’t even know his name. And what about the diver’s buddy? Divers don’t go down alone, although maybe they did back in 1953. The whole story is just too thin, too fantastical to be believed.

The other promising mystery I looked into is a supposed legend from Chile, a sea monster that resembles a cow hide stretched flat but with eyes all around the edges and four big eyes in the middle. It rises to the ocean’s surface and swallows animals it encounters.

At first glance this sounds ridiculous, until you realize that many jellies have semi- or fully transparent bells and their internal organs, such as they are, may resemble eye-like blobs in the center of their bodies. Some jellies do have light-sensitive eye spots near their edges too. But the research I did to follow up this story, which I took from Karl Shuker’s blog, but which is originally from Jorge Luis Borges’ 1969 book called The Book of Imaginary Beings, indicated that the actual legend is much different and much less jelly-like.

El Cuero is a cowhide monster called Threquelhuecuvu among the Mapuche of Patagonia. It lives in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. It’s nearly circular, has claws around its edges, and one pair of red eyes. It also has tentacles on its head and a mouth in its middle, which it uses to suck bodily fluids from its prey. It’s supposed to come out of the water and come on land, and when an animal steps on it, it wraps its body around the animal and suffocates it. Then it drags its prey into the water to eat it. The only way to kill it is to throw cacti into the water. When the monster grabs the cacti, it’s pierced through with spines and dies.

It’s generally supposed that the monster is based on freshwater stingrays, although they’re not known to live in Patagonia. But in 1976, after a bus full of tourists ended up on the bottom of Lake Moreno, divers who retrieved the drowned victims reported enormous rays in the depths.

There is a freshwater stingray species in South America which has thorn-like denticles on its body and a closely related species, also with denticles, sometimes travels upriver from the ocean off the Chilean Patagonian coast. That might be the source of the cowhide monster.

So those two mysteries are almost certainly bust. But don’t feel discouraged. Not only was that 20-ton ship-sinking 1973 lion’s mane jelly a real, documented thing that happened, there are lots of jelly species being discovered all the time.

Not all are deep-sea species. In 2013, a fisherman in northeast Italy hauled up a net full of golden jellies he’d never seen before. He contacted the local university, and a researcher came out and determined that the lovely golden jellies were completely unknown to science. In 2015, a 9-year-old boy caught a new species of box jelly that’s only around an inch long [3 cm].

There are freshwater jellies too, but not a lot is known about them. To add to the confusing and complex life cycle of marine jellies, many freshwater jellies also have a dormant stage where they basically turn into tiny jelly seeds, tough and capable of surviving even if dried out.

And back in the Cambrian era, some 500 million years ago, some jellies actually had skeletons. Fossil impressions show plates, spines, and spokes from comb jellies, which today are completely soft-bodied. Comb jellies are different from the kind of jellies I’ve mostly talked about in this episode, and not even closely related to them. I’d dig into them next, but we’re already pushing 20 minutes and there’s a limit to how much jellyfish information I can expect my listeners to tolerate in one sitting. We’ll save the comb jellies for another episode.

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