Category Archives: South America

Episode 302: The Coatimundi and a Mysterious Friend



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

Further reading:

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

The coatimundi has a long tail and a long nose:

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

The olingo in daylight:

My new podcasting studio!

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 296: The Hide and the Blood-Sucking Blanket



Monster month is upon us, October, where all our episodes are about spooky things! This episode is only a little bit spooky, though. I give it one ghost out of a possible five ghosts on the spooky scale.

Happy birthday to Casey R.!

Further reading:

All you ever wanted to know about the “Cuero”

Mystery Creatures of China by David C. Xu

Freshwater stingrays chew their food just like a goat

A 1908 drawing of the hide (in the red box) [picture taken from first link above]:

The Caribbean whiptail stingray actually lives in the ocean even though it’s related to river stingrays:

The short-tailed river stingray lives in rivers in South America and is large. Look, there’s Jeremy Wade with one!

The bigtooth river stingray is awfully pretty:

Asia’s giant freshwater stingray is indeed giant:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally October, and you know what that means. Monster month! We have five Mondays in October this year, including Halloween itself—and, in the most amazing twist of fate, our 300th episode falls on Halloween!

I know some of our listeners don’t like the really spooky episodes because they’re too scary, especially for our younger listeners. To help people out, I’m going to rate this year’s monster month episodes on a scale of one ghost, meaning it’s only a little tiny bit spooky, to five ghosts, which means really spooky. This week’s episode is rated one ghost, so it’s interesting but won’t make you need to sleep with a night light on.

Before we get started, we have two quick announcements. Some of you may have already noticed that if you scroll all the way down in your podcast app to find the first episode of Strange Animals Podcast, it doesn’t appear. In fact, the first several episodes are missing. That’s because we actually passed the 300 episode mark several weeks ago, because of the occasional bonus episode and so forth, and podcast platforms only show the most recent 300 episodes of any podcast. That’s literally the most I can make appear. However, the early podcasts are still available for you to listen to, you’ll just have to click through to the website to find them.

Second, we have a birthday shout-out this week! A very very happy birthday to Casey R! I hope your birthday is full of all your favorite things.

Now, let’s learn about the hide of South America and the blood-sucking blanket of Asia.

The first mention of a creature called El Cuero in print comes from 1810, in a book called Essay on the Natural History of Chile by a European naturalist named Fr. Juan Ignacio Molina. In his book Molina wrote, “The locals assure that in certain Chilean lakes there is an enormous fish or dragon…which, they say, is man-eating and for this reason they abstain from swimming in the water of those lakes. But they are not in agreement the appearance that they give it: now they make it long, like a serpent with a fox head, and now almost circular, like an extended bovine hide.”

Later scholars pointed out that the reason Molina thought the locals couldn’t decide what the animal looked like was because locals were talking about two different monsters. Molina just confused them. One monster was called a fox-snake and one was the cuero, which means “cow hide” in Spanish. And it’s the hide we’re going to talk about.

During the century or so after Molina wrote his book, folklorists gathered stories and legends from the native peoples of South America, trying to record as much about the different cultures as they could before those cultures were destroyed or changed forever by European colonizers. The hide appears to be a monster primarily from the Mapuche people of Patagonia.

Most stories about the hide go something like this: a person goes into the water to wash, or maybe they have to cross the lake by swimming. The hide surfaces and folds its body around the person like a blanket, dragging them under the water, and the person is never seen again. Sometimes the monster is described as resembling a cowskin or calfskin, sometimes a goat- or sheepskin. It’s usually black or brown and sometimes is reported as having white spots, and some reports say it has hooks or thorns around its edges. It may bask at the water’s surface or in shallow water in daytime, waiting for a person or animal to come too close.

The safest way to kill a hide is to trick it into coming to the surface to catch an animal or person. When it’s close enough, people throw the branches of a cactus with really long, sharp thorns at it. The hide folds its body around the cactus pieces, which pierce it through and kill it. The least safest way to kill a hide is to make sure you’re carrying a sharp knife, and when the hide grabs you, cut your way out of its enveloping folds before you drown or are eaten.

The main suggestion, starting in 1908, was that the hide was a giant octopus that lived in freshwater and had hooks on its legs or around the edges of its mantle. The main problem with this hypothesis is that there are no known freshwater octopuses. There aren’t any freshwater squid either, another suggestion.

A much better suggestion is that the hide is actually some kind of freshwater ray. And, as it happens, there are lots of freshwater stingrays native to South America. Specifically, they’re members of the family Potamotrygonidae, river stingrays.

River stingrays are pretty much round and flat with a slender tail equipped with a venomous stinger. The round part is called a disc, and some species can grow extremely large. The largest is actually a marine species called the Caribbean whiptail stingray, which can grow about 6 1/2 feet across, or 2 meters. But the short-tailed river stingray can grow about 5 feet across, or 1.5 meters, and it lives in the Río de la Plata basin in South America. The short-tailed river stingray is dark gray or brown mottled with lighter spots, while many other river stingrays are black or dark brown with light-colored spots.

Even better for our hypothesis, river stingrays are covered with dermal denticles on their dorsal surface, more commonly called the back. Dermal denticles are also called placoid scales even though they’re not actually scales. They’re covered with enamel to make them even harder, like little teeth. If that sounds strange, consider that rays are closely related to sharks, and sharks are well known to have skin so rough that you can hurt your hand if you try to pet a shark. Please don’t try to pet a shark. Admire sharks from a safe distance like you should with any wild animal.

River stingrays don’t eat people, of course. They mostly eat fish, crustaceans, worms, insects, mollusks, and other small animals. Females are much larger than males and give birth to live young. The ray’s mouth is underneath on the bottom of the disc near the front, and it has sharp teeth. Unlike pretty much every fish known, it chews its food with little bites like a mammal, which if you think about it too much is kind of creepy.

River stingrays also don’t hunt by wrapping animals in their disc, but the disc is involved in hunting in a way. The disc is formed by the ray’s fins, which are extremely broad and encircle the center part of its body, and the disc as a whole is pretty flat. The stingray will lie on the bottom of the river until a little fish or an insect gets too close. Then it will lift the front part of its disc quickly, which sucks water under it. If you’ve ever stood up in the bathtub before the water has completely drained, you can feel the suction as your body leaves the water. Quite often, the stingray’s prey gets sucked under it with the water. The ray then drops back down, trapping the animal underneath it, and chews it up.

That doesn’t mean stingrays aren’t dangerous to humans, though. The stingray’s sting is barbed and very strong, and can cause a painful wound even without its venom. A ray often hides by burying itself in the sand or mud, and if someone steps on it by accident, the ray whips its tail up and jabs its sting into their leg.

In other words, we have a large, flat creature with little pointy denticles on its back that may be dark-colored with white spots, and it’s dangerous to people and animals. That sounds a lot like the hide. There’s just one problem with this theory.

The stingray is a tropical or temperate animal. It needs warm water to survive. Patagonia is at the extreme southern end of South America, much closer to Antarctica than to the equator. No river stingray known lives within at least 500 miles of Patagonia, or 800 km, and the Patagonian lakes where the hide is supposed to live are extremely cold even in summer.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a stingray unknown to science living in remote areas of Patagonia, of course. Many river stingray species were only discovered in the last decade or so, some of them quite large, and there are still some undescribed species. There’s always the possibility that at least one river stingray species has become adapted to the cold but hasn’t been discovered by scientists yet. It might be endangered now or even extinct.

Or the hide might not be a real animal, just a legend inspired by the river stingrays in other parts of South America. The Mapuche people are not closely related to the other peoples of Patagonia, even though they’ve lived there for at least 2,500 years, and some archaeologists think they might have migrated to Patagonia relatively late. If they brought memories of big river stingrays from their former home north of Patagonia, the memories might have inspired stories of the hide.

On the other side of the world, in China, there’s a similar legend of a monster sometimes called the xizi. The name means “mat” but it’s also referred to as a blood-sucking blanket. It lives in rivers and other waterways, and can even slide out of the water onto land. And like the hide, it’s described as a sort of living blanket that wraps itself around people or animals that venture into the water, where it pulls them under and sucks all the blood out of them.

In the case of the blood-sucking blanket, though, it’s supposed to have sharp round suckers on its underside that it uses to stick to its victims and slurp up their blood. It varies in size, sometimes about a foot across, or 30 cm, sometimes as much as 6 1/2 feet across, or 2 meters. Sometimes it’s described as reddish, sometimes green or covered with fuzzy moss on its back.

One story is that a hunter witnessed an elephant and her calf crossing a shallow river when the calf was dragged underwater by something. The mother elephant grabbed her calf and pulled it to safety, then trampled its attacker. Once the elephants were gone, the hunter went to investigate and found a dead creature that resembled a wool blanket, with a greenish, mossy back but with big suckers underneath the size of rice bowls, sort of like an octopus’s suckers.

And there is a freshwater stingray that lives in Asia, although it isn’t closely related to the river stingrays found in South America. Most of its closest relatives live in the ocean, but the giant freshwater stingray lives in rivers in southeast Asia. It’s dark gray-brown on its back and white underneath, and it has a little pointy nose at the front of its disc. It has denticles on its back and tail just like its distant South American cousins.

It’s also enormous. A big female can grow over 7 feet across, or 2.2 meters. Its tail is long and thin with the largest spine of any stingray known, up to 15 inches long, or 38 cm. In fact, its tail is so long that if you measure the giant freshwater stingray by length including its tail, instead of by width of its disc, it can be as much as 16 feet long, or about 5 meters. Some researchers think there might be individuals out there much larger than any ever measured, possibly up to 16 feet wide. The length and thinness of the tail gives the ray its other common name, the giant freshwater whipray, because its tail looks like a whip.

Even though it’s endangered due to habitat loss and hunting, and it only lives in a few rivers in South Asia these days, the giant freshwater stingray was once much more widespread. Because stingrays have cartilaginous skeletons the same way sharks do, we don’t have very many fossils or subfossil remains except for stingray teeth and denticles, so we don’t know for sure where the giant freshwater stingray used to live. But even if it didn’t live in China, travelers who had seen one in other places might have brought stories of it to China, where it spread as a scary legend.

Or, of course, there might be another freshwater stingray in China that’s unknown to science, possibly endangered or even extinct. It might even still be around, just waiting for someone to go swimming.

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

Thanks for listening!

 


Episode 287: Sand Crabs, Sea Slugs, and a Mystery Octopus



Sign up for our mailing list! Even though I hardly ever send an email to it!

It’s INVERTEBRATE AUGUST! Thanks to Elizabeth, Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions this week!

Further reading:

Meet Phylliroe: the sea slug that looks and swims like a fish

Hey, so these sea slugs decapitate themselves and grow new bodies

Found, Then Lost, Then Found Again: Scientists Have Rediscovered the Sand Octopus

A sand crab in the air:

Sand crabs in the water, feeding:

Phylliroe is a sea slug that looks like a fish (pictures from article linked to above):

How I used to draw snails when I was a kid, adding an extra foot because I didn’t understand that the “foot” of a snail/slug is the flat part of the body that touches the ground:

The mysterious sand octopus in mid-swim:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the first week of invertebrate August and we’re heading to the ocean for our first episode! Let’s jump right in with an episode about sand crabs, a couple of sea slugs, and an octopus mystery that was recently solved. Thanks to Elizabeth, my brother Richard, and Llewelly for their suggestions!

We’ll start with Elizabeth’s suggestion. The sand crab is also called the sand bug, the mole crab, or similar names that refer to its habit of burrowing into the sand. It’s common throughout much of the world’s oceans, especially in warm areas, and can be extremely numerous. It’s also sometimes called the sand flea, but it’s not the kind of tiny jumping crustacean that bites, also called the sand flea. This little crustacean is harmless to humans. It doesn’t even have pincers.

The sand crab isn’t a true crab although it is closely related to them. It’s gray-brown and has a tough carapace to protect it when it’s washed around by waves and to help protect it from predators. Females are larger than males and can grow up to an inch and a half long in the largest species, or about 35 mm, and an inch wide, or 25 mm. So it’s longer than it is wide, unlike most crabs, and its carapace is domed sort of like a tiny tortoise shell. Overall, it’s shaped sort of like a streamlined barrel. I saw one site that called it the sand cicada and it is actually about the same size and shape as a cicada, which it isn’t related to at all except that they’re both invertebrates. Some species have little spines on the carapace while others are smooth.

The sand crab lives in the ocean, specifically in the intertidal zone right at the area where waves wash up on the beach. This is called the swash, by the way, which is a great word. The sand crab burrows into the sand tail-first, using its strong rear legs, and during the time that there’s water over the sand, it unfurls its feathery antennae to filter tiny food particles from the water. When the wave goes out, it retracts its antennae and works on staying buried in the sand as the next wave rolls in.

In some species, males are very similar to females, but smaller. In other species, they’re tiny, barely 3 mm long at most, and even as adults they resemble larvae. The male finds a female and grabs hold of her leg, and there he stays. I tried to find out more about this, but it doesn’t look like the humble sand crab gets a lot of attention. If you’re interested in becoming a scientist who studies invertebrates and you want to spend a lot of time on the beach, the sand crab would make a good study buddy.

Lots of fish and birds eat sand crabs, and people do too. In many places they’re considered a delicacy and grilled as a snack. This isn’t surprising since they’re related to other crustaceans people like to eat, like crabs and lobsters.

Next, let’s learn about two strange sea slugs. We’ve talked about sea slugs a few times before, including in episodes 215 and 129, but there are a lot of species, with more being discovered pretty often.

Llewelly sent me a link ages ago about a sea slug that’s related to the sea bunny, which we talked about in the cutest invertebrates episode, 215. It’s called Phylliroe and doesn’t look like a little bunny or a slug. It looks like a fish.

Phylliroe grows a few inches long at most, or 5 cm, and the article Llewelly sent, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, points out that it’s about the size of a goldfish. Its rear end is shaped roughly like a fish tail, which it uses just like a fish tail to propel itself through the water. It’s probable that Phylliroe’s shape doesn’t have anything to do with disguising it, but instead is just the result of convergent evolution. A body streamlined to move through the water with minimal resistance is always going to be fish-shaped, because that’s why fish are shaped the way they are. The fish-like tail is also an efficient way to move through the water relatively quickly.

Phylliroe mostly eats tiny jellyfish, which it grabs with its small foot. It doesn’t need a big flat foot to glide on, since it doesn’t live on the sea floor like some of its relations, so over many, many generations its foot has become smaller and smaller until it’s just a little tiny foot near its mouth. It’s still sticky, though, which means jellies stick to it, which means it’s easier for Phylliroe to eat the jellies.

Phylliroe is mostly see-through, although you can see its digestive system. It also has two so-called horns, called rhinophores, that it probably uses to sense the chemical signature of its prey in the water. If you remember the sea bunny, its rhinophores look like bunny ears. Phylliroe’s look more like thick antennae or barbels. Phylliroe also exhibits bioluminescence, which is not a typical trait for a sea slug.

My brother Richard alerted me to another sea slug a while back, this one referred to as the Deadpool slug. The reason why it’s called the Deadpool slug is lost on me because I haven’t seen that movie or read the comic book, but the sea slug can separate its head from its body when it wants to, and it just grows a new body. The old body eventually dies instead of growing a new head.

The Deadpool slug is one of a type of sea slug that we talked about back in episode 129, about the blurry line between plants and animals. It eats algae and incorporates the algae’s chloroplasts into its body to use. Chloroplasts are what allows a plant to photosynthesize energy from sunlight, and the sea slug absolutely uses them for the same thing. Researchers think the Deadpool slug uses the energy from photosynthesis to regrow its body even though it has no digestive system after it separates its head from its body.

The big question is why the Deadpool slug wants to grow a new body in the first place. It doesn’t seem to be a defensive strategy if the sea slug is attacked. Instead, researchers think it often happens when the body contains too many parasites, specifically a type of tiny parasitic copepod, which is a crustacean. It might also happen after a predator bites a big chunk off the slug. Instead of hauling around a damaged body, the sea slug just jettisons the old body and regrows it.

Let’s finish with a recently solved octopus mystery that goes back almost 200 years. In 1838, the United States launched a scientific expedition throughout the Pacific Ocean and parts of the Atlantic that lasted four years. While it was mostly for exploration and mapping of places seldom or never visited by outsiders, the expedition also brought along a team of scientists and artists to document and study all the animals and plants they found. One of the things they found was an octopus.

The scientists didn’t fish the octopus up themselves. They actually bought several of them at a fish market in Brazil. It was red with little white spots all over it and not very big, although a dead octopus tends to shrink, especially when it’s out of water. The specimens were preserved in a jar of alcohol and brought back to the United States, where in 1852 they were studied by an expert on mollusks, Augustus Addison Gould. Octopuses are in the phylum Mollusca and Gould had examined lots and lots of octopuses. He decided this one was a new species and named it Callistoctopus furvus.

At some point the specimens were either lost or destroyed. Decades passed, then a century, then almost two centuries. Modern scientists thought Gould was probably wrong and that the little red octopus was one known from the Mediterranean Sea, Calistoctopus macropus. It’s red with little white spots, and has a mantle length only about 8 inches long, or 20 cm, although it has long arms and has been measured as almost five feet long, or 1.5 meters, if you include the arms. It lives in shallow water, where it spends a lot of time hunting for small animals that live in coral or in sea grass. It’s sometimes called the grass octopus.

Then a graduate student in Brazil named Manuella Dultra was studying octopuses, and part of her research involved talking to local fishers. They told her about an octopus that lived in shallow water and often buried itself in sand to hide, which is why they called it the sand octopus. They also said it was generally only seen when the wind blew from the east, and was more likely to be out and about during the new moon. Naturally Dultra wanted to find one. She asked the fishers to keep an eye out, and in 2013 she was given a freshly caught specimen.

The biologists at Dultra’s university identified the octopus as C. macropus, the grass octopus. Dultra wasn’t so sure. She noticed a lot of differences that seemed significant, and decided to do more research. She and her team gathered genetic material from specimens the local fishers caught, and sure enough, it was different from the grass octopus.

At the same time, researchers in Mexico had also found a sand octopus that they thought might be C. furvus. When Dultra compared her specimens’ DNA profile with the DNA profile from the Mexican octopus, it matched.

The discovery is still very new and isn’t accepted by all scientists yet, not until more studies are completed. The sand octopus appears to be rare, and once it’s definitely identified as its own species or subspecies and we learn more about it, we can do more to protect it.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 285: The Mysterious Hueque



This week we have a mystery animal from South America, the hueque!

Further reading:

Llamas are having a moment in the U.S., but they’ve been icons in South America for millennia

Whatever happened to the hueque? Seeking the lost llama of Chile

First complete mitochondrial genome data from ancient South American camelids – The mystery of the chilihueques from Isla Mocha (Chile)

A dressed up person and her dressed up llama (picture from llama article linked above):

The noble guanaco:

Cuddly alpacas!

The noble vicuña:

A 1646 picture of a hueque:

A 1776 engraving of four camelids of South America, including the hueque. The “guemul” in the upper left is actually a llama (the huemul is a type of deer found in a small part of southern Patagonia):

A 1716 engraving supposedly depicting a hueque (central figure) alongside a llama (on the left with the carry-bags over its back):

Show transcript:

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

We’ve done a lot of listener suggestions lately and I still have lots more, but this week let’s look at a mystery animal that I really want to learn more about. It’s a South American animal, specifically from central Chile, called the chilihueque or hueque.

Whether the heuque turns out to be an animal unknown to science or not, it’s definitely a camelid of some kind. Camelids include camels, llamas, and their relations, four of which are native to South America. Those four are the guanaco, the llama, the vicuña, and the alpaca, which are all closely related.

The vicuña lives in high elevations in the Andes Mountains while the guanaco lives in lower elevations. The vicuña is smaller and more delicate than the guanaco. It grows not quite three feet tall at the shoulder, or about 85 cm, with a long, slender neck and small head, and a short fuzzy tail. Its legs are long and slender too. It’s white and light brown with thick, incredibly soft fur that keeps it warm in its mountain home. It eats grass and other plants.

The vicuña lives in small groups, usually consisting of a male, several females, and their babies. When the babies are about a year old or a little older, males leave and initially form small bachelor groups while females leave and form small groups too, called sororities. Eventually both males and females of various bachelor groups and sororities will seek each other out during mating season.

Vicuña wool is extremely soft and fine, and in the days of the Inca Empire, around 500 to 600 years ago, only royalty were allowed to wear clothes made of it. It’s actually not wool like sheep wool but a fiber similar to cashmere from goats or angora from bunnies. Because the vicuña is a wild animal, it has to be captured and its fur cut off, or shorn, but it’s hard to catch. Not only that, since the vicuña is small, it doesn’t give very much fiber so you need to shear a whole lot of the animals to get enough to make a single piece of clothing.

In the olden days, the Inca people constructed traps and worked together to herd vicuña into the traps. Then they would shear the animals and release them again, but only once every four years. These days the practice has been re-instituted by the Peruvian government, although the capture and shearing is done every three years. The fiber is only supposed to be sold outside of Peru after it has been certified by the government as being gathered lawfully and humanely, and most of the money remains with the villagers who gather it. It’s extremely expensive to buy, but unfortunately that means that poachers will sometimes kill the animals to shear and sell the fiber illegally, even though it’s a protected species.

I don’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned this on the podcast, but one of my hobbies is spinning. I can take raw wool from a sheep or fiber from some other animal and turn it into yarn or thread using my spinning wheel or hand spindle, and yes, I have bought legal vicuña fiber and spun it into thread. I bought a single gram of it ages ago, and spun it using a very small support spindle, because the fibers are so fine and short that they’re hard to spin any other way. My single gram produced enough thread to knit into a square about the size of a small handkerchief, which I made for a quilt the handspinning guild I was part of at the time was putting together to showcase all sorts of different animal fibers. It was a pretty amazing quilt, by the way. One woman cut her own hair short and spun her hair into thread which she then wove into a square with a small hand loom. Human hair is actually really coarse when you spin it, because the ends stick out and are prickly.

Anyway, the guanaco is very similar to the vicuña but it’s a larger, more robust animal that’s brown above and white underneath, with a gray face. It’s common in the lower elevations of the Andes and throughout much of Patagonia. It also produces soft fiber, but it’s not quite as fine or soft as the vicuña’s.

The alpaca is the domestic descendant of the vicuña while the llama is the domestic descendant of the guanaco. One interesting thing is that all four of these animals have quite thick skin on the neck. This helps protect their necks from the bites of predators.

All these animals are in the genus Lama, and they all look very similar, like small, delicate camels without humps. But until just a few hundred years ago, there might have been a fifth member of the genus Lama in parts of Chile, the hueque.

As reported by Spanish and Dutch explorers and colonizers, the hueque was a domesticated animal kept for its meat and its fine, soft, very long fur. Its fur was so long that it supposedly brushed the ground. It wasn’t supposed to be the same animal as the guanaco, which lived in the area and was also sometimes kept as a semi-domesticated animal. It was smaller than a llama or guanaco but larger than a vicuña, standing up to four feet tall at the shoulder, or about 1.2 meters.

As more Spanish colonized Chile and other parts of South America, bringing sheep and cattle with them, the hueque became less and less common. Not only did the introduced animals compete with the hueque and other South American camelids for resources, they brought diseases that camelids could catch. Eventually the local people switched to raising sheep for wool and meat and the hueque was supposed to have died out completely by the late 18th century.

Many people have suggested that the hueque was actually another word for the alpaca, which did decline in numbers during this time, although of course it didn’t go extinct. The hueque might have been a particular variety of alpaca or even a subspecies that looked somewhat different. Remember that the alpaca is a domesticated animal descended from the vicuña. Other people hypothesize that the hueque was a type of llama or guanaco, and remember that the llama is the domesticated descendant of the guanaco.

In December of 2016, the scientific journal Nature published a genetic study of camelid remains found on Isla Mocha, a volcanic island off the coast of Chile. The people living on the island in the early 17th century kept hueques, according to reports of Dutch and Spanish explorers. People have lived on the island for about 1,500 years but the hueque probably didn’t. Instead, it was transported to the island in small boats on special occasions, to be used as ritual sacrifices where the meat was then eaten. Then again, there is at least one report that the animal did live on the island and was used to pull plows or possibly wagons.

A 1615 report by a Dutch captain who saw the hueque is that it was like a “sheep of a very wonderful shape, having a very long neck and a hump like a camel, a hare lip and very long legs.” This is strange because while it is otherwise a good description of any South American camelid, no South American camelid has a hump like a camel. The hump the captain reported might actually have been thick fur that can look a little bit like a hump above the shoulders.

The 2016 report looked at DNA samples extracted from the subfossil remains of 14 camelids found on the island, including the complete genomes of three individual animals. Then the samples were compared to those of other South American camelids. They most closely matched the DNA profile of the guanaco.

The study suggests that “chilihueque” was the local term for the guanaco, especially a guanaco kept as a domesticated or semi-domesticated animal.

That’s just one study of one specific island, of course. Hopefully genetic analysis of other camelid remains will be made soon and we can learn more about what exactly the hueque might have been.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 282: Little Longtailed Birds



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

Happy birthday to Jasper!! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Fossil of Ancient Long-Tailed Bird Found in China

All adult scissor-tailed flycatchers have long tails:

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

The long-tailed widowbird male has a long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird female has a short tail:

The pin-tailed whydah male has a long tail:

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

Kompsornis longicaudus had a really long tail:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 270: The Tapir Frog



New frog just dropped.

Happy birthday to Finn and Oran this week! Have a great birthday, both of you!

Further reading:

Frog with tapir-like nose found in Amazon rainforest, thanks to its “beeping” call

Meet the tapir frog:

Looks kind of like the South American tapir, but frog:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have a short episode about the recent discovery of a mystery frog in Peru–but first, we have TWO birthday shout-outs! That’s twice the fun!

Happy birthday to both Finn and Oran! I hope your birthdays are amazing! Maybe you should each have two birthday parties, one for yourself and one for the other, even though you don’t know each other and your birthdays are actually on different days.

Peru is a country in western South America, and it’s home to the Amazon Basin rainforest and many other habitats. Frogs are common throughout the Amazon, naturally, since there’s a whole lot of water and rain, and it’s warm all the time. One particular genus of frog, Synapturanus, is especially widespread but is hard to find because it spends most of its time underground.

A team of scientists researching the Amazon’s diversity of animals and plants, especially those organisms that are mostly hidden for various reasons, heard about a particular Synapturanus frog known to the people of the area. The frog is nocturnal and lives underground in burrows it digs in the Amazon peatlands.

Peat is wet soil made up mostly of partially decayed vegetation. It’s the first step in the formation of coal beds, but the coal takes millions of years to form whereas peat only take thousands of years to form. Peatlands are really important to the ecological health of the entire earth, because they store so much carbon and absorb so much water.

The scientists knew from locals that this particular frog existed. The next step was to actually find it so they could learn more about it. A small team of scientists from Peru and other countries traveled to the area, and local guides took them to sites where the frog was supposed to live.

Because the frog is nocturnal, they had to go at night to find it. But because the frog also spends most of its time underground, they couldn’t just walk around shining flashlights on frog-shaped things in hopes of finding a new species of frog. Instead, they had to listen.

Many new frog species are only discovered after a frog expert hears a call they don’t recognize. That was the case for this frog. The male makes a loud beeping noise, especially after rain. Whenever one of the scientists heard one, they’d immediately drop to the ground and start digging with their hands. I can’t even imagine how muddy they must have gotten.

It was around 2am on the last night of the search when their digging paid off. A little brown frog hopped out of its disturbed burrow and all the scientists scrambled around in an excited panic to catch it carefully before it got away.

This is what the frog sounds like:

[tapir frog beeping]

The locals call the frog rana danta, which means tapir frog. The tapir, as you may remember from episodes 18 and 245, among others, is a sort of pig-shaped animal with a short trunk-like snoot called a proboscis. It’s distantly related to rhinoceroses and horses. It uses its proboscis to gather plants and spends a lot of time underwater, and will even sink to the bottom of a pond or stream and walk across it on the bottom instead of swimming.

The tapir most common around the Amazon in Peru is the South American tapir. It’s dark brown in color with a tiny little stub of a tail and a shorter proboscis than other tapir species. Its proboscis looks less like a little trunk and more like a long pointy nose.

The tapir frog is chocolate brown in color, has no tail of course because it’s a frog, and while it has a chonky body sort of life a tapir, its nose draws out to a blunt point. It looks remarkably similar in shape to a South American tapir, but in frog form.

The team ended up catching several of the frogs, and genetic studies determined that it is indeed a new species. They described the new frog in February of 2022 and named it Synapturanus danta. Danta is the local word for tapir.

While we still don’t know much about the tapir frog, it probably lives only in the Amazon peatlands and eats worms and small insects it finds underground. The discovery is important because it’s yet another animal endemic to this part of the Amazon. Conservationists are working to preserve the Amazon peatlands habitat from development in order to save all the unique plants and animals that live there. Development is just a fancy term for habitat loss.

The Putumayo Corridor is a proposed conservation area that follows the Putumayo River across Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Its goal is to keep the river from being dammed and protect it from logging and other invasive development, while allowing local people to manage the land in traditional ways as they have for thousands of years. Hopefully the peatlands will remain undisturbed and the little tapir frog will continue to beep from its underground home for a very long time.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 269: Gila Monsters, Basilisks, and Sand Boas, oh my!



Thanks to Zachary, Enzo, and Oran for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some interesting reptiles!

Happy birthday to Vale! Have a fantastic birthday!!

The magnificent Gila monster:

The Gila monster’s tongue is forked, but not like a snake’s:

The remarkable green basilisk (photo by Ryan Chermel, found at this site):

A striped basilisk has a racing stripe:

I took this photo of a basilisk myself! That’s why it’s a terrible photo! The basilisk is sitting on a branch just above the water, its long tail hanging down:

The desert sand boa:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about three weird and interesting reptiles, with suggestions from Zachary, Enzo, and Oran, including a possible solution to a mystery animal we’ve talked about before!

But first, we have a birthday shoutout! A very happy birthday to Vale! You should probably get anything you want on your birthday, you know? Want a puppy? Sure, it’s your birthday! Want 12 puppies? Okay, birthday! Want to take your 12 puppies on a roadtrip in a fancy racecar? Birthday!

Our first suggestion is from Enzo and Zachary, who both wrote me at different times suggesting an episode about the Gila monster. How I haven’t already covered an animal that has monster right there in its name, I just don’t know.

The Gila monster is a lizard that lives in parts of southwestern North America, in both the United States and Mexico. It can grow up to two feet long, or 60 cm, including its tail. It’s a chonky, slow-moving lizard with osteoderms embedded in its skin that look like little pearls. Only its belly doesn’t have osteoderms. This gives it a beaded appearance, and in fact the four other species in its genus are called beaded lizards. Its tongue is dark blue-black and forks at the tip, but not like a snake’s tongue. It’s more like a long lizard tongue that’s divided at the very end.

The Gila monster varies in color with an attractive pattern of light-colored blotches on a darker background. The background color is dark brown or black, while the lighter color varies from individual to individual, from pink to yellow to orange to red. You may remember what it means when an animal has bright markings that make it stand out. It warns other animals away. That’s right: the Gila monster is venomous!

The Gila monster has modified salivary glands in its lower jaw that contain toxins. Its lower teeth have grooves, and when the lizard needs to inject venom, the venom flows upward through the grooves by capillary force. Since it mostly eats eggs and small animals, scientists think it only uses its venom as a defense. Its venom is surprisingly toxic, although its bite isn’t deadly to healthy adult humans. It is incredibly painful, though. Some people think the Gila monster can spit venom like some species of cobra can, but while this isn’t the case, one thing the Gila monster does do is bite and hold on. It can be really hard to get it to let go.

The fossilized remains of a Gila monster relative were discovered in 2007 in Germany, dating to 47 million years ago. The fossils are well preserved and the lizard’s teeth already show evidence of venom canals. The Gila monster is related to monitor lizards, although not closely, and for a long time people thought it was almost the only venomous reptile in the world. These days we know that a whole lot of lizards produce venom, including the Komodo dragon, which is a type of huge monitor lizard.

In 2005, a drug based on a protein found in Gila monster venom was approved for use in humans. It helps manage type 2 diabetes, and while the drug itself is synthetic and not an exact match for the toxin protein, if researchers hadn’t started by studying the toxin, they wouldn’t have come up with the drug.

The Gila monster lives in dry areas with lots of brush and rocks where it can hide. It spends most of its time in a burrow or rock shelter where it’s cooler and the air is relatively moist, and only comes out when it’s hungry or after rain. It eats small animals of various kinds, including insects, frogs, small snakes, mice, and birds, and it will also eat carrion. It especially likes eggs and isn’t picky if the eggs are from birds, snakes, tortoises, or other reptiles. It has a keen sense of smell that helps it find food. During spring and early summer, males wrestle each other to compete for the attention of females. The female lays her eggs in a shallow hole and covers them over with dirt, and the warmth of the sun incubates them.

The Gila monster is increasingly threatened by habitat loss. Moving a Gila monster from a yard or pasture and taking it somewhere else actually doesn’t do any good, because the lizard will just make its way back to its original territory. This is hard on the lizard, because it requires a lot of energy and exposes it to predators and other dangers like cars. It’s better to let it stay where it is. It eats animals like mice and snakes that you probably would rather not have in your yard anyway, and as long as you don’t bother it, it won’t bother you. Also, it’s really pretty.

Next, Oran wants to learn more about the basilisk lizard. We talked about it very briefly in episode 252 and I actually saw two of them in Belize, so they definitely deserve more attention.

The basilisk lives in rainforests from southern Mexico to northern South America. There are four species, and a big male can grow up to three feet long, or 92 cm, including his long tail. The basilisk’s tail is extremely long, in fact—up to 70% of its total length.

Both male and female basilisks have a crest on the back of the head. The male also has a serrated crest on his back and another on his tail that make him look a little bit like a tiny Dimetrodon.

The basilisk is famous for its ability to run across water on its hind legs. The toes on its large hind feet have fringes of skin that give the foot more surface area and trap air bubbles, which is important since its feet plunge down into the water almost as deep as the leg is long. Without the air trapped under its toe fringes, it wouldn’t be running, it would be swimming. It can run about 5 feet per second, or 1.5 meters per second, for about three seconds, depending on its weight. It uses its long tail for balance while it runs.

When a predator chases a basilisk, it rears up on its hind legs and runs toward the nearest water, and when it comes to the water it just keeps on running. The larger and heavier the basilisk is, the sooner it will sink, but it’s also a very good swimmer. If it’s still being pursued in the water, it will swim to the nearest tree and climb it, because it also happens to be a really good climber.

The basilisk can also close its nostrils to keep water and sand out, which is useful because it sometimes burrows into sand to hide. It can also stay underwater for as long as 20 minutes, according to some reports. It will eat pretty much anything it can find, including insects, eggs, small animals like fish and snakes, and plant material, including flowers. It mostly eats insects, though.

Fossil remains of a lizard discovered in Wyoming in 2015 may be an ancestor to modern basilisks. It lived 48 million years ago and probably spent most of its time in trees. It had a bony ridge over its eyes that shaded its eyes from the sun and also made it look angry all the time. It grew about two feet long, or 61 cm., and may have already developed the ability to run on its hind legs. We don’t know if it could run on water, though.

Finally, Zachary also suggested the sand boa. Sand boas are non-venomous snakes that are mostly nocturnal. During the day the sand boa burrows deep enough into sand and dirt that it reaches a cool, relatively moist place to rest. At night it comes out and hunts small animals like rodents. If it feels threatened, it will dig its way into loose soil to hide. It’s a constrictor snake like its giant cousin Boa constrictor, but it’s much smaller and isn’t aggressive toward humans.

Zachary thinks that the sand boa might actually be the animal behind sightings of the Mongolian death worm. We’ve talked about the Mongolian death worm in a few episodes, most recently in episode 156.

The Mongolian death worm was first mentioned in English in a 1926 book about paleontology, but it’s been a legend in Mongolia for a long time. It’s supposed to look like a giant sausage or a cow’s intestine, reddish in color and said to be up to 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. It mostly lives underground in the western or southern Gobi Desert, but in June and July it surfaces after rain. Anyone who touches the worm is supposed to die painfully, although no one’s sure how exactly it kills people. Some suggestions are that it emits an electric shock or that it spits venom.

Mongolia is in central Asia and is a huge but sparsely populated country. At least one species of sand boa lives in Mongolia, although it’s rare. This is Eryx miliaris, the desert sand boa. Females can grow up to 4 feet long, or 1.2 meters, while males are usually less than half that length. Until recently it was thought to be two separate species, and sometimes you’ll see it called E. tataricus, but that’s now an invalid name.

The desert sand boa is a strong, thick snake with a blunt tail and a head that’s similarly blunt. In other words, like the Mongolian death worm it can be hard to tell at a glance which end is which. Its eyes are small and not very noticeable, just like the death worm. It’s mostly brown in color with some darker and lighter markings, although its pattern can be quite variable. Some individuals have rusty red markings on the neck.

It prefers dry grasslands and will hide in rodent burrows. When it feels threatened, it will coil its tail up and may pretend to bite, but like other sand boas it’s not venomous and is harmless to humans.

At first glance, the desert sand boa doesn’t seem like a very good match with the Mongolian death worm. But in 1983, a group of scientists went searching for the death worm in the Gobi. They were led by a Bulgarian zoologist named Yuri Konstantinovich Gorelov, who had been the primary caretaker of a nature preserve in Mongolia for decades and was familiar with the local animals. The group visited an old herder who had once killed a death worm, and in one of those weird coincidences, while they were talking to the herder, two boys rushed in to say they’d seen a death worm on a nearby hill.

Naturally, Gorelov hurried to the top of the hill, where he found a rodent burrow. Remember that this guy knew every animal that lived in the area, so he had a good idea of what he’d find in the burrow. He stuck his hand into it, which made the boys run off in terror, and pulled out a good-sized sand boa. He draped it around his neck and sauntered back to show it to the old herder, who said that yes, this was exactly the same kind of animal he’d killed years before.

That doesn’t mean every sighting of a death worm is necessarily a sand boa. I know I’ve said this a million times, but people see what they expect to see. The death worm is a creature of folklore, whether or not it’s based on a real animal. If you hear the story of a dangerous animal that looks like a big reddish worm with no eyes and a head and tail that are hard to distinguish, and you then see a big snake with reddish markings, tiny eyes, and a head and tail that are hard to distinguish, naturally you’ll assume it’s a death worm.

At least some sightings of the death worm are actually sightings of a sand boa. But some death worm sightings might be due to a different type of snake or lizard, or some other animal—maybe even something completely new to science. That’s why it’s important to keep an open mind, even if you’re pretty sure the animal in question is a sand boa. Also, maybe don’t put your bare hand in a rodent burrow.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 266: Mystery Macaws



Thanks to Pranav for this week’s suggestion!

Happy birthday to MaxOrangutan! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Scarlet macaw DNA points to ancient breeding operation in Southwest

The glorious hyacinth macaw:

Roelant Savery’s dodo painting with not one but TWO separate mystery macaws featured:

The blue-and-gold macaw:

Eleazar Albin’s mystery macaw:

Detail from Jan Steen’s painting of a mystery macaw:

The scarlet macaw:

Show transcript:

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

Recently, Pranav suggested the topic of mystery macaws. As it happens, that’s a topic I researched for the book, which by the way is now FORMATTED! And hopefully by the time you hear this I’ll have been able to order a test copy to make sure it looks good before I order enough copies for everyone who backed the Kickstarter at that level. Whew!

I’ve used the mystery macaw chapter from the book as a basis for this episode, but it’s not identical by any means—I’ve added some stuff.

Before we learn about some mystery macaws, though, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to MaxOrangutan! Max! I bet you like bananas and climb around a lot! I hope you have a fantastic birthday, maybe with a banana cake or a cake banana, which I think is a thing I just made up but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Macaws are a type of parrot native to the Americas. They have longer tails and larger bills than true parrots and have face patches that are mostly white or yellow. There are six genera [original incorrectly stated six species] of macaw with lots of living species, but many other species that are extinct or probably extinct. The largest living species is the hyacinth macaw, which is a beautiful blue all over except for yellow face markings. It can grow over 3 feet long, or about 92 centimeters, including its long tail. It mostly eats nuts, even coconuts and macadamia nuts that are too tough for most other animals to crack open, but it also likes fruit, seeds, and some other plant material. Like other parrots, macaws are intelligent birds that have been observed using tools. For instance, the hyacinth macaw will use pieces of sticks and other items to keep a nut from rolling away while it works on biting it open.

The story of a mystery bird sometimes called the Martinique macaw starts almost 400 years ago, when Jacques Bouton, a French priest, visited the Caribbean in 1639 and specifically Martinique in 1642. Bouton wrote an account of the people and animals he saw, including several macaws that don’t quite match any birds known today. One of these is the so-called Martinique macaw, which he said was blue and saffron in color. Saffron is a rich orangey yellow.

We have some paintings that might be depictions of the mystery macaws. An artist named Eleazar Albin painted a blue and yellow parrot with a white face patch in 1740 that’s supposedly the Martinique macaw, although Albin would have seen the bird in Jamaica when he visited in 1701, not Martinique. The two islands are about 1,100 miles apart, or almost 1,800 kilometers.

A similar blue and yellow macaw appears in Roelant Savery’s 1626 painting of a dodo. The dodo lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, nowhere near the Americas. Savery just liked to paint dodos and included them in a lot of his art. In another 1626 painting, called “Landscape with Birds,” he included a dodo, an ostrich, a chicken, a turkey, a peacock, ducks, swans, cranes of various kinds, and lots of other birds that don’t live anywhere near each other. On the far left edge of the painting there’s a blue macaw with yellow underparts.

In the early 20th century, a zoologist named Walter Rothschild read Bouton’s account and decided those birds needed to be described as new species, even though there were no type specimens and no way of knowing if the birds were actually new to science.

He described the Martinique macaw in 1905 but reclassified it when he published a book named Extinct Birds in 1907. He got an artist to paint a depiction of it based on Bouton’s account and it actually doesn’t look all that similar to Albin’s and Savery’s birds. It’s dark blue above, bright orange underneath, and only has a small white patch next to its lower mandible instead of a big white patch over the eye.

In other words, Albin’s macaw might be a totally different bird from the Martinique macaw.

There is a known bird that might have inspired Albin’s painting. The blue-and-gold macaw lives in many parts of northern South America. It has rich yellowy-gold underparts and is a brilliant aqua blue above. It matches the colors of Albin’s painting pretty well, but not the facial markings. The blue-and-gold macaw has a white face but a large stripe of black, outlining the white patch, that extends under its chin. Albin’s macaw doesn’t have any black markings and its white patch is much smaller than the blue-and-gold macaw’s.

Of course, Albin may have gotten details wrong in his painting. Even though he was probably painting from sketches and notes he took during his visit to Jamaica, about forty years had passed since he actually saw it. As for Savery’s paintings of a similar macaw, he never traveled to the Americas and probably based his paintings on pet birds brought to Europe by sailors and missionaries. He was known for his meticulous detail when painting animals, though, and his birds clearly show the white face and black stripe under the chin of a blue-and-gold macaw, even though the blue plumage appears much darker than in living birds. This is probably due to the paint pigments fading over the centuries.

Savery’s birds lack one detail that blue-and-gold macaws have: a small patch of blue under the tail. This would be an easy detail for an artist to miss, though, especially if he finished the painting’s details without a real bird to look at. Albin’s painting also lacks the blue patch.

That still leaves us with two bird mysteries. Was Albin’s macaw a real species or just a blue-and-gold macaw with incorrect details? And what bird did Bouton see in Martinique?

These aren’t the only mystery macaws, though. Roelant Savery painted another one in the same dodo picture where the mystery blue and yellow macaw appears. This macaw is bright red all over except for some yellow markings on the wing and a white face patch. He painted that one in 1626, and in 1665 a Dutch artist named Jan Steen painted a very similar bird in the background of a painting. It’s also red except for yellowish markings on its wings and a yellowish or white face patch.

There are many reports of a big red macaw seen on the Guadaloupe islands in the Caribbean that date all the way back to 1493 when Christopher Columbus visited. Back then the bird was common but by the end of the 17th century it was rare. It was supposed to look a lot like the scarlet macaw, which is common in parts of Central America and northern South America, but it was smaller with a shorter tail. It was mostly red with blue and yellow markings on the wings and a white patch on its face. Its tail was all red, whereas the scarlet macaw has a red and blue tail.

Savery’s and Steen’s paintings don’t show any blue markings, so either the artists got that detail incorrect or they were painting birds that didn’t have blue wing markings—meaning that there’s potentially yet another mystery red macaw.

There are, in fact, a whole lot of mystery macaws, maybe as many as 15. Some of these may be species or subspecies of macaw that went extinct before any scientist could examine them, while some may have just been known macaw species outside of their natural range.

People have been trading macaws and parrots as a type of currency for thousands of years, since their large, brightly colored feathers were in high demand for ceremonial items. They’re relatively easy to tame and can be kept as pets. A genetic study of scarlet macaw remains found at archaeological sites in New Mexico revealed that the birds were all relatively closely related even though the remains came from birds who lived at different times over a 300-year period. Researchers think there must have been a captive breeding program in place somewhere in the area about a thousand years ago. It wasn’t at the sites where the bird remains were found because there were no macaw eggshells in the whole area.

Similarly, remains of scarlet macaws and Amazon parrots have been found in archaeological sites in the Atacama desert. The remains date back to almost a thousand years ago also. But the Atacama is in northern Chile on the western coast of South America, not the southwestern United States. To reach it from the scarlet macaw’s natural range in northern South America you have to travel more than 300 miles, or 500 kilometers, at minimum and cross the Andes Mountains. But that’s exactly what people did, bringing macaws and parrots to oasis communities in the Atacama by llama caravan.

If any of these mystery macaws ever existed, they seem to be extinct now—but they might not be. Many macaws live in South America in sometimes hard to explore terrain. While many known species of macaw are threatened with habitat loss and hunting for feathers or for the pet trade, there’s always a possibility that an undiscovered species still thrives in remote parts of the Amazon rainforest.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 262: Animals Discovered in 2021



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

Further reading:

First description of a new octopus species without using a scalpel

Marine Biologists Discover New Species of Octopus

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

Meet the freaky fanged frog from the Philippines

New alpine moth solves a 180-year-old mystery

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

Fourteen new species of shrew found on Indonesian island

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

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

Scientists describe a new Himalayan snake species found via Instagram

The emperor dumbo octopus (deceased):

The star octopus:

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

The slender bleating tree frog:

The screaming tree frog:

The Mindoro fanged frog:

Some frogs do have lil bitty fangs:

The hidden Alpine moth, mystery solver:

The Hokie twisted-claw millipede:

One of 14 new species of shrew:

The snake picture that led to a discovery:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the slender bleating tree frog sounds like:

[frog call]

This is what the screaming tree frog sounds like:

[another frog call]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 257: Some Animals of Belize



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A big birthday shout-out this week to Yori!!!

I was fortunate enough to visit the country of Belize in December and saw lots of amazing animals! I’ve chosen four to highlight in this week’s episode.

Further reading:

There may be more bird species in the tropics than we know

The adorable proboscis bat, my favorite:

Proboscis bats all in a row (photograph by me!):

The black howler monkey has a massive hyoid bone that allows it to make big loud calls:

The white-crowned manakin is impossibly cute:

The mealy parrot is cheerful and loud:

A morning view and night view from our villa balcony, photos by me!

Show transcript:

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

Let’s start the new year off right with an episode about some animals I saw in person recently during my vacation to Belize!

But first, we have our first birthday shout-out of the year! A very happy birthday to Yori, whose birthday is on the 8th of January! I hope you have a great day!

Belize is a country on the eastern coast of Central America on the Caribbean Ocean, just south of Mexico and north of Guatemala. It used to be called British Honduras but has been an independent country since 1981. The coast is protected by a series of coral reefs that are so little studied that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of animals and plants waiting to be discovered around them. Belize is serious about protecting the reefs and about conservation in general, which is great because it has some of the highest animal and plant life diversity in the Americas.

My brother and his family had made vacation plans for Belize in spring of 2021, about the time the Covid-19 vaccine was rolling out and things were looking up. They rented a big villa with more bedrooms than they needed so they generously invited me and one of my cousins to join them. I didn’t mention the trip on the podcast because I was worried it would end up canceled. But we were able to visit in mid-December, with negative Covid tests coming and going, and wearing our masks appropriately in all public areas.

Belize is absolutely gorgeous. We stayed right on the coast in an upstairs flat with a big balcony that overlooked the ocean. We spent most of the time relaxing on the beach or the balcony and eating amazing food, but we did go on two excursions.

We all went on a riverboat wildlife tour of the Monkey River, and a few days later my brother and cousin and I went on a birdwatching expedition to the nearby Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. We had to get up at 5am for that one but it was worth it. In both excursions we saw lots of animals of all kinds, so many that it was hard for me to choose which ones to highlight in this episode.

One animal that I fell in love with on the Monkey River is the proboscis bat. Belize has a lot of bat species but I didn’t expect to see any, much less up close.

The proboscis bat lives throughout Central America and the northern half of South America. It’s only about 2.5 inches long, or 6 cm, and gets its name from its pointed nose. It lives near water, especially wetlands, because it eats insects that live around water like mosquitoes and caddisflies. It’s so small that it sometimes gets caught in spiderwebs, especially of the big spider Argiope submaronica, [ar-JY-opee] a species of orbweaver spider that holds its legs in an X pattern while it’s on its web. Different species live throughout the world, especially in warm places. It does actually eat the bats it catches, which is hard on the bat but a nice big meal for the spider. There’s two sides to every story.

How, you may ask, did I manage to see a bat up close during broad daylight while on a boat? The proboscis bat spends the day on a tree trunk or branch or log near the water, especially in shady areas, and our guide was able to ease the boat up to not one but two different trees with bats asleep on them. The proboscis bat is gray-brown with darker and lighter markings that help it blend in against bark, and it sleeps perched on the side of the tree with its head pointing down. It literally looks like a little bump on a log that way. But it’s not usually alone. It lives in small groups and everyone roosts on the same tree during the day, and the best thing is that they roost in a row one above the other, head to tail. Nothing to see here, just a row of bumps on this log.

The second group of proboscis bats we saw we got a little too close to and suddenly all the bats took off in all different directions. Everyone else in the boat yelped and ducked except me, although I think they were mostly just startled. I could tell the bats were about to fly and just sat there thinking, “Oh no, we’ve disturbed the bats!” and then their amazing little wings unfolded and they all flew away. I’m still sorry we bothered them but it was a wonderful sight. Bats are so great.

Another animal we saw and heard on our Monkey River trip was the black howler monkey. It gets its name from the male’s appearance because males have mostly black fur while females are more golden.

It’s pretty big for a monkey, with a big male growing over two feet long, or 65 cm, not counting its tail. Females are smaller. The black howler’s tail is as long as its body and is prehensile to help it navigate through the trees. Its tail only has hair on the upper side, with the lower side bare to help it grab onto tree limbs more securely. Part of the reason the black howler monkey uses its tail so much to climb around in trees is that its arms can’t move as far as the arms of many primates, and that’s because of something called the hyoid bone.

The hyoid bone is found in a whole lot of animals, not just howler monkeys. In humans it’s shaped like a little horseshoe and it’s found near the top of the throat. While everyone has a hyoid bone, it’s larger and more prominent in men, and it causes the bump in the throat sometimes called an Adam’s apple. A lot of muscles attach to the bone, including the tongue, and it helps us talk and breathe properly. But in howler monkeys, the hyoid bone is much larger and shaped more like a cup. Air resonates in the cup, which is how howler monkeys make such loud, deep, booming calls. Male howler monkeys have much larger hyoid bones than females, but having such an enlarged hyoid bone restricts the range of motion in the arms.

The black howler monkey is really loud. It’s especially noisy at sunrise when males in a troop roar together to let other troops know where they are and to announce that they’re the biggest, baddest males around and no one better mess with them. These sounds can be heard three miles away, or 5 km.

The black howler monkey lives in forests and spends most of the time in the trees, eating fruit, leaves, and flowers. Its diet isn’t all that high in caloric energy, though, so unlike many species of monkey, the black howler spends a lot of time just lazing around in trees, resting or napping.

We only saw two howler monkeys on our Monkey River trip even though they’re common throughout the area. We all got out of the boat and our guide grabbed a machete, which I think was pretty much just for show because the trail we were on was obviously well traveled and wide. We were going to hike 15 or 20 minutes into the rainforest to find a troop of howlers, but there had been so much rain in the last week that the trail was ankle-deep in mud. We were all sliding around and my sister-in-law actually lost a shoe and had to fish it out of the mud. We were all relieved when after only about five minutes we came across a young male howler and stopped to watch him.

He was sitting way way up high in the treetops, naturally, and there were definitely other monkeys around him that we couldn’t see because after a few minutes we spotted an even younger monkey walking along a branch. It was mid-morning by then and the male was eating, so when our guide banged his machete on a tree trunk and imitated the territorial call of a male howler, the male up in the tree only responded half-heartedly. I got audio and you should be able to tell which call is our guide and which call is the monkey because the guide was so much louder, since he was so close to me.

[guide and howler monkey sounds]

We also saw a LOT of birds! As you may know, birdwatching is one of my hobbies, so I was excited and amazed at the variety of birds in Belize. I did some birding on my own with my cousin along, and my brother came with us one early morning on an actual birdwatching trip with a local guide. I’m going to be on the Casual Birder podcast soon talking about the birds I saw on the trip, although I’m not sure yet when it will air. I’ll let you know or you could just subscribe to the Casual Birder Podcast now and beat the rush.

Anyway, one bird we saw is a tiny adorable little floof called the white-crowned manakin. It only grows about 4 inches long at most, or 10 cm, and has red eyes, a short tail, and looks superficially like a wren in shape. The female is olive-green with a gray head but the male is glossy black with a bright white cap that he can raise up in a fluffy crest. He looks like the lead singer of an edgy indie band.

The white-crowned manakin is a common bird throughout parts of Central and South America. The reason I decided to talk about it in this episode is because of a study released in November 2021 that discovered the white-crowned manakin isn’t actually a single species. Genetic studies found that some isolated populations of the bird are different enough from the others to be considered a completely different species. These populations may look similar but their plumage patterns and songs are very different from the main population too. Since there are so many birds in South America that aren’t very well studied, conservationists are concerned that other known bird species may actually have genetically different populations that look very similar. If we don’t know what birds are rare, we don’t know how to protect them.

The last animal we’ll cover today is another bird, the mealy parrot, also called the southern mealy Amazon parrot. It’s a big parrot, mostly green, that lives in rainforests in parts of Central and South America. Like other parrots, it’s a smart, social animal that lives in flocks. It gets its name because many individuals have paler feathers on their back and upper wings that make them look like they’ve been dusted with flour, and meal is another word for flour. It mostly eats fruit, nuts, berries, and other plant material, including flowers. It’s still a common parrot but habitat loss, hunting, and trapping of birds to sell as pets on the black market has caused their numbers to decline recently. If you decide you want a pet parrot, make sure you buy yours from a reputable breeder who is selling domesticated parrots, not wild-caught ones.

Because we started birding so early, we were lucky enough to hear the mealy parrots calling, something they do early in the day and at night. We also heard some howler monkeys in the distance. But while we kept hearing a whole flock of mealy parrots, they were always just out of sight. We would hurry as quietly as we could up the trail and they would retreat ahead of us, calling cheerfully as though taunting us. It was actually really funny. Then, finally, just when I’d started to assume I would never see the wild parrots we kept hearing, there they were! And there were lots of them! We also saw a small flock of red-lored parrots that look similar but have a red band just above their upper bill, lots of keel-billed toucans, the national bird of Belize, and lots lots more!

This is some audio I took of the mealy parrots calling while we were trying to spot them.

[mealy parrot calls]

We didn’t see a jaguar or a manatee during our visit to Belize, but I did learn how to properly pronounce the word spelled T-A-P-I-R. There are lots of different pronunciations throughout the world, but from now on I’m going with the Belizean one of TAP-eer. We didn’t see a tapir either but we did see crocodiles and green iguanas and a couple of basilisks and lots more. I was even brave enough to get in a kayak and paddle around ON THE OCEAN, admittedly in very calm, shallow water with my family around to encourage me, and saw some kind of small rays, moon jellies, and a crab. I’m scared of the ocean but as soon as I started seeing jellies from my kayak I got a lot less scared and a lot more interested, so I’m proud of myself for facing my fears.

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

Thanks for listening!