Category Archives: South America

Episode 172: Temnospondyls



This week let’s go back back back in time to more than 300 million years ago, when amphibian-like animals lived in enormous swamps. Don’t be fooled by the word amphibian: many Temnospondyls were really big!

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

And Sclerocephalus, five feet long and full of teeth. This one has a couple of larvae nearby:

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

Mastodonsaurus had nose teeth too and it was way bigger than Nigerpeton, but somehow it just looks goofy instead of cool:

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going back into the past, way before the dinosaurs, to look at an order of animals that resembled modern amphibians but weren’t precisely amphibians, or reptiles, or fish. Let’s look at the Temnospondyls.

During the early Carboniferous period, which lasted from about 360 to 300 million years ago, the ocean levels were high, the climate across much of the world was humid and tropical, and the continents were in the process of smushing together to form a huge landmass called Pangea. Much of the land was flooded with warm, shallow water that created enormous swampy areas full of plants and newly evolved trees. These swampy areas, full of decomposing leaves, eventually became coal and peat beds. As the Carboniferous period continued, the climate turned milder and the sea levels dropped, but while the huge swamps remained, many life forms evolved to take advantage of the various habitats and ecological niches they provided.

The armored fish of the Devonian went extinct, replaced by more modern-looking fish, including sharks and the first freshwater fish. The first conifer trees appeared, land snails, dragonflies and other insects, and the first animals that could survive on land for part of the time. This included the Temnospondyls, a numerous and successful order of animals whose fossils have been found worldwide and appear in the fossil record for more than 200 million years. But most people have never heard of them.

Temnospondyls are grouped in the class Amphibia alongside Lissamphibia, which is the order all living amphibians and their ancestors belong to. But researchers aren’t sure if Temnospondyls gave rise to lissamphibians or if they all died out.

The first Temnospondyl fossils were discovered in the early 19th century and early paleontologists immediately started debating what exactly these strange animals were. It was originally classified as a reptile, but as more fossils came to light, it became clear that these weren’t reptiles. Finally it was classified as a subclass of amphibian called Labyrinthodontia, where it remains today, at least for now.

Temnospondyls do share many traits with modern amphibians. We know that at least some species had a larval form that was completely aquatic, with fossil evidence of gill arches. Some retained external gills into adulthood the way some salamanders do. But they still had a lot in common with their fish ancestors.

Most Temnospondyls had large heads that were broad and flattened in shape, often with a skull that was roughly triangular. The earliest species had relatively small, weak legs and probably spent most of their time in the water, but it wasn’t long before species with stronger legs developed that probably lived mostly on land.

When you think about amphibian relatives, you probably think these animals were small, maybe the size of a bullfrog. But while some Temnospondyls were small, many grew much larger. Some had smooth skin but many had scales, including some species with scales that grew into armor-like plates. Let’s look at some individual species of Temnospondyl and get an idea of how varied they were.

Let’s start with a group of temnospondyls with one of the most confusing names ever, Dvinosauria. That may not sound too confusing, but it’s spelled just like dinosauria but with a V after the D. It lived in the late Permian around 260 million years ago, and its fossils have been found in parts of Russia. It was named not to mess with people who keep seeing dvinosaur and thinking dinosaur, but after the Northern Dvina River.

Dvinosaurs were either semi-aquatic or fully aquatic, depending on the species. The genus Dvinosaurus was pretty typical for aquatic Temnospondyls. It had external gills and was fully aquatic, with small legs but a powerful tail for swimming. It grew over three feet long, or around a meter, and probably looked like a big salamander with a big triangular head. It probably ate fish and other small animals. Like many Temnospondyls, it had extra teeth growing from the roof of its mouth to help it hold onto fish. Some paleontologists think it lurked at the bottom of rivers and streams until it saw a fish or other animal approach, at which point it shot upward and grabbed it.

A typical land Temnospondyl was Sclerocephalus, which lived around 300 million years ago in what is now Germany. We have a lot of Sclerocephalus fossils, which means it was probably a successful animal. It was also big, around five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Because we have so many Sclerocephalus fossils, we know a lot more about it than we do other Temnospondyls. Its larval form was aquatic and had a long tail to help it swim. As a juvenile it probably had external gills but as it matured, it spent more and more time on land, using its lungs to breathe. Its tail was shorter as an adult because it didn’t need to swim as often. But it did spend time in the water and retained the lateral line system still found in fish and some amphibians, a sensory organ that detects water movements. It also had a pineal eye that a few animals retain today, notably the reptile Tuatara that we talked about way back in episode three. This third eye was at the top of the skull and was probably only sensitive to light rather than being useful for seeing. As in modern animals that still have a pineal eye, it probably helped regulate behaviors according to the length of days.

We even know exactly what Sclerocephalus ate, because we have fossilized stomach contents in a few cases. It ate fish and amphibians and sometimes smaller Sclerocephaluses, and was probably an opportunistic predator. Like other Temnospondyls it had teeth on its palate, three pairs in its case that grew from the roof of its mouth.

A less typical temnospondyl was the genus Fayella, which lived in what is now Oklahoma in the United States and lived around 270 million years ago, in the early Permian. It grew to about four feet long, or 1.15 meters, and had unusually long legs for a Temnospondyl. It also had a smaller head in proportion to its body compared to most Temnospondyls, and was more lightly built. As a result, it looked more like a reptile or an early synapsid, which as you may remember from episode 119 were proto-mammals that looked like weird reptiles. Researchers think Fayella could run much faster than other Temnospondyls could, which didn’t so much help it catch prey as evade hunting synapsids.

Nigerpeton looked more like your average Temnospondyl, mostly. It lived in what is now the African country of Niger, around 250 million years ago. It was only discovered in the early 2000s and we still don’t have very many fossils so we don’t know exactly how big it was. But its skull was two feet long, or 60 cm, so it was definitely a big animal. It probably looked a lot like a crocodile in many ways, including a long, heavy snout with lots of teeth. Lots of teeth. LOTS of teeth. As with other Temnospondyls, it ate fish and other small, wriggly animals, and to help it catch those fish it had ordinary teeth and extra teeth that grew from the top of the mouth and the lower jaw. Basically it just had a mouthful of teeth. This is true for many Temnospondyls, but Nigerpeton took that one step too far. Two of its extra teeth are referred to as tusks, because they grew upward from the lower jaw, pierced through the roof of the mouth, and emerged from the top of the nose about where you’d expect nostrils to be in a modern animal. Instead of nostrils, NOSE TEETH. Actually, the nostrils were behind the nose teeth. We don’t know enough about Nigerpeton to know what it used these tusks for, but it sure looked cool.

Nigerpeton wasn’t the only Temnospondyl with tusks that emerged from the top of the nose when its mouth was closed. Others had it too, including one of the first Temnospondyls discovered, Mastodonsaurus. Mastodonsaurus was a successful genus of Temnospondyls that lived from about 247 million years ago to 201 million years ago in what is now Europe. Despite its name, Mastodonsaurus was neither a mastodon nor a dinosaur. It was big, though—one species grew up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters. Like other Temnospondyls it had a big head and a somewhat short tail. It also had legs that were small and weak, which suggests it was mostly if not completely aquatic, and it ate fish and other small animals.

The most recently living Temnospondyl, which went extinct around 120 million years ago, lived in what is now Australia. Koolasuchus lived in fast-moving streams and filled the same ecological niche as crocodiles, which eventually replaced it after it went extinct. But it didn’t look anything like a crocodile. It had the typical big head of a Temnospondyl, in this case broad and rounded with a blunt nose, but with what are called tabular horns that projected from the rear of the skull, which gave its head a triangular appearance. Plus, it probably grew up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters. But its body was relatively slender compared to the chonky head, which made it look kind of like a really really big tadpole.

We’ll finish with the largest species of Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus. It lived between 299 and 272 million years ago in what is now Brazil, and while it didn’t look much like a modern crocodile, it filled the same ecological niche. It had relatively small legs and a big head like most Temnospondyls, but its snout was slender and elongated like a ghavial’s. It was an aquatic animal and was probably an ambush predator that mostly ate fish.

While we don’t know exactly how big Prionosuchus could grow since we don’t have any complete specimens, the largest skull found measured 5.2 feet long, or 1.6 meters. That’s just the skull. Researchers estimate the animal was 30 feet long, or 9 meters, when it was alive.

But although Prionosuchus was amphibious like other temnospondyls, it retained a lot of features from its fish ancestors. Basically, it looked something like the biggest salamander you could imagine, but with jaws and teeth like a ghavial’s, but inside it was more fish than amphibian. It’s no wonder paleontologists have been trying to figure Temnospondyls out for almost two centuries.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 167: Animals That Just Look Wrong



Thanks to Sam for this week’s topic suggestion and animal suggestions! This week we’re looking at some animals that just look…weird? And wrong? And not what you expect?

Like the gerenuk:

And the Tibetan fox:

And the maned wolf:

 

And the proboscis monkey:

And the bald uakari:

Further watching:

Shani the baby gerenuk (so cute!)

Show transcript:

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

This week the theme and many of the animals we’ll cover are a suggestion by Sam. We were chatting on Twitter earlier this week and they linked me to an animal called the gerenuk, and it was just all weird from there. So thank you to Sam who jumpstarted what has turned out to be a really fun episode, Animals That Look Wrong.

The gerenuk is an antelope, but not one that I’d ever heard of before. My life is better now that I know it exists. It lives in East Africa and is a member of its own genus, but is probably most closely related to the springbok.

The gerenuk is a slender antelope that grows around three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. It has a very long neck and long thin legs, and the male has a pair of black horns that can grow around 18 inches long, or 45 cm. It’s reddish-brown on the back and lighter on the belly, with a pale stripe across its sides. It also has a white patch around each eye that makes its large eyes look even bigger. Its tail is short.

This doesn’t sound too weird, right? It’s just a small, slender antelope. But the gerenuk’s legs are really remarkably thin, even for an antelope. They’re practically like sticks with hooves, especially the front legs. The gerenuk stands on its hind legs and stretches its neck upward to reach leaves that other animals can’t, and it uses its front legs to help it pull branches down closer to its mouth. This means that it sometimes folds its long, incredibly thin legs in ways that look like it shouldn’t be possible.

The gerenuk usually lives in small groups of maybe half a dozen animals at most. Usually a group is either all males or all females, and each group has a small territory. The territory of a female group will overlap with the territories of male groups. The female gerenuk can have a baby at any time of the year instead of having a particular birthing season. Male calves stay with their mothers longer than females, so if a gerenuk has a male calf she won’t have another baby for two years, but if she has a female calf she will usually have another baby the following year. The gerenuk lives in fairly dry areas and eats all kinds of plants, although it prefers acacia.

Just think of them out there right now, gerenuks folding their impossibly thin legs back so far you would swear they were part grasshopper. They’re eating acacia leaves right now while you listen to me talk about them. It’s blowing my mind. Perhaps I have been in quarantine too long.

Okay, moving on. Next up is the Tibetan fox. This is not the same animal as the Corsac fox we talked about in our bonus Mongolian episode a few weeks ago, even though the Corsac fox is sometimes called the Tibetan fox, and sometimes both animals are called sand foxes. The Tibetan fox is a species of fox that lives in semi-arid grasslands in high altitudes in Tibet, parts of China, and surrounding areas. It’s brown and gray with a brushy tail like other foxes, although it has relatively short legs.

When you get a mental picture of a fox, you probably think of the common red fox with a long, slender muzzle. But the Tibetan fox does not look like this. Sam referred to it as the fox that looks like it got stung on the face by a bee, and that’s a really good description. It has a large, blocky head with a short, thick muzzle and yellow eyes that see you and immediately dismiss you as unworthy.

The Tibetan fox mostly eats pikas, a rodent-like mammal common throughout its range, but it also eats other small animals like marmots and hares. It’s usually a solitary animal but mated pairs may hunt together. It also sometimes follows brown bears that are also hunting pikas. The bear digs up pika burrows, but sometimes the pika escapes. When it does, the fox will grab it instead. Because the Tibetan fox is so dependent on the pika for most of its diet, conservationists are worried that farmers are increasingly poisoning pikas, which they consider pests. The fox is not considered endangered right now, though, and hopefully farmers will start using other methods of pest control instead of poisoning.

Next up is another canid, the maned wolf. We’ve talked about it before in episode 80, and it is definitely weird-looking. Imagine a wolf. Now, imagine a wolf with legs twice as long as usual. Now, make it reddish with black legs and a ruff of black fur down its neck, a short white-tipped tail, and a long muzzle. If you’re thinking that this wolf looks more like a fox with really long legs and a short tail, you’re right. But it’s not a wolf and it’s not a fox. Like the gerenuk, the maned wolf is the only member of its own genus.

So why does the maned wolf have such long legs? It lives in the grasslands of central and eastern South America, especially Brazil, and its long legs are an adaptation to see over the tall grass. It stands around three feet tall at the shoulder, or 90 cm, but has small feet in comparison to its size. It’s usually a crepuscular animal, active around dawn and dusk, and is generally solitary. It’s an omnivore and eats quite a bit of plant material, especially a tomato-like fruit called the wolf apple. It will also eat carrion and any small animals it can catch, sometimes burying dead animals that it can’t eat right away. When it buries a dead animal, it will mark the spot with urine so it can find it more easily later.

That brings us to the maned wolf’s smell. It marks its territory with urine, and its urine has a really strong odor, which is why the maned wolf is sometimes called the skunk wolf. And it smells like cannabis. The chemical in maned wolf urine that makes it smell so strongly is called pyrazine, which is used by many animals and plants to indicate that they’re toxic. It’s likely that having so much of the chemical in its urine helps keep other animals away from its territory, since they interpret it as a warning signal. In 2006 someone at the Rotterdam Zoo in Holland complained that people were smoking marijuana in the zoo, but when police investigated they discovered that the smell was actually coming from the maned wolf exhibit.

This is what the maned wolf sounds like. The sound is called a roar-bark but honestly it just sounds like a big dog barking if you ask me:

[maned wolf barking]

Next let’s look at two monkeys, one from Asia and one from South America. We don’t talk about monkeys often enough on this podcast.

The proboscis monkey is an endangered animal from Borneo in southeast Asia. It’s a big monkey and a big male can weigh more than 65 pounds, or around 30 kg. Females are generally much smaller. It has long fur that can range from orange or yellowish to brown or gray. A baby proboscis monkey has a blue face that darkens to gray after a few months, but as it grows up, the baby’s face turns cream-colored like adult faces. But this isn’t the weird part about the proboscis monkey. Not even the fact that some of its toes are webbed is the weird part. Nope, it’s the monkey’s nose that’s just so weird-looking. Most monkeys have little noses, but the proboscis monkey has a really big nose. The male’s nose is bigger than the female’s and is so long and bulbous that it hangs down below the mouth. The female’s nose is more pointy. Researchers aren’t sure why the monkey has such a big nose but suggest it might help the male make louder honking noises to attract females.

The proboscis monkey also has a pot belly like many monkeys do, since it mostly eats leaves and leaves require a lot of digestion. It even chews its cud. It has a long tail and mostly stays in trees.

Proboscis monkeys live in family groups, often one male with several females and their babies, but the family groups spend time with other family groups to socialize. The different groups gather together at night to sleep in one big group. Sometimes the male of a family group will leave and be replaced by another male, which usually happens without too much drama. A female occasionally leaves to join another group, and young males who don’t have mates will sometimes form bachelor groups. For the most part proboscis monkeys are pretty chill and not very aggressive.

With its pot belly and big nose, after the first European settlers arrived in Borneo, the locals started calling the monkey the orang belanda. That means “Dutchman.” Sorry if you are Dutch, but there it is. Also, it’s weird that I’ve mentioned Holland twice in the same episode about totally different animals.

This is what a proboscis monkey sounds like:

[proboscis monkey honking]

Our last animal this week is another monkey, the bald uakari [pronounced wakari], a rare monkey that lives in the Amazon rainforest in South America. It’s threatened by habitat loss, especially deforestation. Females only have one baby every two years.

The bald uakari has long fur over its body, usually brown but sometimes black or blond, but its head is bald, which is where it gets its name. It has a short furry tail that looks like a big round poof and it’s a much smaller animal than the proboscis monkey, only a little larger than a cat. It lives in small groups that travel around their territory to find food, mostly seeds, nuts, and unripe fruit, which it bites open with its strong jaws and teeth. It has a normal monkey nose.

So, picture the bald uakari in your mind. Small brown monkey with long fur and a bald head. Did you picture it with a BRIGHT RED FACE? No? Well, it has a bright pinky-red face, like it saw a can of red paint and thought, I’d like that on my entire face.

So why does the bald uakari have a red face? It’s not because of a particular pigment in the skin, it’s actually due to a lack of pigment. The skin of its face is thin and unpigmented, but contains lots of small blood vessels. The red color actually comes from the blood that’s visible through the skin. Monkeys with bright red faces are healthy, which means they’re attractive as mates. Monkeys that aren’t healthy have much paler faces, especially if the monkey has malaria. Most bald uakari monkeys are naturally immune to malaria, but not all of them.

So if anyone ever razzes you about a haircut or a shirt you’re wearing or anything else, just remember these awesome animals that don’t look like what people expect. They might not fit into the mental category we have for a particular type of animal, but they’re all really awesome, and so are you.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, or if you would like a sticker, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 161: Strange Bird Sounds 2



I still have a cold, so let’s let some birds do part of the talking in this episode about more weird bird calls!

Further reading:

Listen to the Loudest Bird Ever Recorded

Further listening/watching:

A video of the screaming piha. You need to see this.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a real bird, and an adorable one too:

The mute swan is not actually mute:

The white bellbird is the loudest bird ever recorded (photo by Anselmo d’Affonseca):

The screaming piha is hilariously loud. Left, sitting like a normal bird. Right, screaming:

Show transcript:

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

I still have this rotten cold, although I’m getting over it. As you can hear, my voice is pretty messed up, so for this episode I’ll let birds do some of the talking for me. Yes, it’s another weird bird calls episode!

We’ll start with this cute little call:

[yellow-bellied sapsucker call]

That’s not a dog’s squeaky toy, it’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Yes, that’s a real bird. It’s a type of woodpecker that lives in much of eastern and northern North America, breeding in Canada and spending winters in the eastern United States and Mexico. I get them in my yard sometimes. The sapsucker will also drum on dead trees and other items to make a loud sound to communicate with other sapsuckers.

It mostly eats tree sap, but it also eats berries, small insects, and fruit. To get the tree sap, it drills small holes in tree bark, usually in neat rows, and licks up the sap that oozes from the holes. If you ever see a tree with rows of little holes in the bark, that was done by a sapsucker. It can sometimes even kill trees this way, but for the most part it doesn’t hurt the tree unless the tree is already dying.

Males and females both forage for insects to feed their babies. They usually dip the insects in tree sap before feeding them to the chicks. Yummy!

Next up is this little grunty call:

[mute swan call]

Maybe it’s not exciting or loud, but it’s made by a bird you wouldn’t expect to hear, the mute swan. I mean, the word mute is right there in its name but it’s not mute at all. The mute swan is a big white waterfowl from Eurasia, although it’s been introduced to other parts of the world since it’s so pretty. Its legs are black with an orange and black bill, and it has a long neck that it uses to reach plants that are deeper underwater than ducks and most geese can get at. Its wingspan can be seven and a half feet across, or 2.4 meters. It’s more closely related to the black swan of Australia and the black-necked swan of South America than it is to other swan species from Eurasia.

Mute swans get their name not because they can’t make sounds, obviously, but because they’re not as noisy as other swan species. Not only does it make the little grunting sounds we just heard, it will sometimes hiss aggressively if a person or animal gets too close to its nest. Also, swans can give you such a wallop with their wings that they could knock you out stone cold, so it’s best to just watch them from a distance and not get too close. When mute swans fly, their wings make a distinctive thrumming sound that helps them stay in contact with other mute swans. This is what their wingbeats sound like:

[mute swans flying]

That sounds more like a UFO than a bird, just saying.

Next is a weird metallic call that doesn’t sound like a noise a bird could make either. It sounds like an industrial machine of some kind:

[white bellbird call]

That’s the sound the male white bellbird gives to attract a female. It also happens to be the loudest bird call ever recorded. In late 2018, an ornithologist from Brazil teamed up with a bioacoustician from the United States. They traveled into the mountainous forests of the Brazilian Amazon to record both the white bellbird and our next bird, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The male white bellbird is white with a black bill with a long wattle hanging from it. The female is green streaked with brown. It’s about the size of a pigeon but the male is as loud as a piledriver hammering rock. The male sits on an exposed perch to call, usually the top of a tree. If a female is interested, she’ll join him. The male will turn his back on the female, then turn around quickly to face her during the call, which adds an extra level of drama to an already dramatic call. These birds are the rock stars of the bird world.

The white bellbird eats fruit, some of it rather large, so the bird can open its beak really wide. This makes its beak act as the bell of an instrument like a trumpet, which helps increase the volume of its call. It also has a robust syrinx and unusually strong abdominal muscles. Its call can reach 125 decibels, which is louder than a firetruck’s siren, a rock band, and even a thunderclap.

Let’s finish with another extremely loud bird:

[screaming piha call]

That’s the male screaming piha, which is related to the white bellbird and lives in the same areas in South America. It’s a drab-looking bird, plain grayish in color, and it looks like a type of thrush. It’s a little bit bigger than an American robin. But drab as it is, keep in mind the bird has “screaming” right in its name. It’s almost as loud as the white bellbird.

The screaming piha eats fruit and insects, and it especially likes figs, which it often swallows whole. I like figs too but I chew them. Also, I don’t scream to attract a mate. The male usually perches in a tree and starts with a couple of relatively ordinary-sounding notes. But when he does the actual screaming part, he tips backwards on his perch, pulls his head back into his shoulders, so to speak, opens his beak wide to show how orange it is inside, and SCREAMS. It’s hilarious to watch. I’ve linked to a video in the show notes and you really do owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

The male gives these calls to attract a female, but it’s also useful to define his territory to other males. During mating season the males gather in a group called a lek to show off for females, and then pairs return to the male’s territory to build a nest. We don’t know a whole lot about the bird’s nesting behavior, but they appear to only lay one egg. Fortunately the screaming piha is a common bird that’s doing well, because if you’ve watched that video of one screaming you’ll agree that it’s probably the funniest bird ever and we definitely need them in the world.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 158: Legless Lizards and Other Not-Snakes



What’s the difference between a snake and a legless lizard? Find out this week and learn about all kinds of interesting reptiles without legs that aren’t actually snakes!

The slow-worm. Not a snake:

Burton’s legless lizard. Not a snake:

The excitable delma. Not a snake:

The Mexican mole lizard. Not a snake or a worm:

The red worm lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Also not a snake or a worm, but honestly, it looks a lot like I imagine the Mongolian death worm to look:

The giant legless skink. Not a snake:

Stacy’s bachia. Not a snake:

Further reading (and this is where I got the Stacy’s bachia picture above):

Bachia lizards–look, no hands!

An Explosive Enigma from Kalmykia—the ‘Other’ Mongolian Death Worm?

Show transcript:

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

A couple of weeks ago we discussed the Mongolian death worm and the possibility that it was an animal called an amphisbaenian, which is a reptile without legs that’s not a snake. But there are lots of other legless reptiles that aren’t snakes. So this week we’re going to learn about legless lizards and their friends.

Researchers have determined that leglessness evolved in reptiles many different times in species that aren’t related, often in species that spend at least part of their time underground. If the legs get in the way of burrowing or other movement, over time individuals born without legs or with much smaller legs end up finding more food than those with legs. That means they’re more likely to reproduce, and their offspring may inherit the trait of no legs or smaller legs.

Some legless lizards look so much like snakes at first glance that it can be hard to tell them apart. The common slow-worm, for instance, lives throughout most of Europe and part of Asia. It grows to about a foot and a half long, or 50 cm, and is brown. It mostly eats slugs and worms so it spends most of its time in damp places or underground. But while it looks superficially like a snake, it’s not a snake. It’s a lizard with no legs. Like some other lizard species, including many legless lizards, it can even drop its tail if it’s threatened and then regrows a little tail stump.

So how can you tell the difference between a legless lizard and a snake? The one big clue is if the reptile blinks. Snakes don’t have eyelids; instead, their eyes are protected by a transparent scale that covers the eye completely. Lizards have eyelids and blink. Legless lizards have a different head shape from snakes too, usually more blocky and less flattened. The tongue is not so much forked as just notched, and shorter and less slender than a snake’s tongue.

Species of one family of legless lizards do sometimes have legs. Honestly, this is almost as confusing as the whole deer and antelope mix-up from episode 116. The family is Pygopodidae and they’re actually most closely related to geckos although they don’t look much like geckos. They look like snakes, and to make things even more complicated, geckos and Pygopodids don’t have eyelids. I know I know, I just said lizards have eyelids but geckos are an exception. Pygopodids don’t have front legs at all, but some do have vestigial hind legs that look more like little flaps than actual legs. They’re sometimes called flap-footed lizards as a result. They live in Australia and New Guinea.

One Pygopodid is Burton’s legless lizard, which does actually have vestigial hind legs. It lives in parts of Australia and Papua New Guinea and is kind of a chunky reptile with a pointed nose. It’s brown or gray, sometimes with long stripes, and can grow to more than three feet long, or one meter. It eats other lizards, especially skinks, but will also sometimes eat small snakes.

Burton’s legless lizard mostly stays in leaf litter in forests. Sometimes it will twitch the end of its tail to attract a lizard, which it then grabs by the neck. It will swallow small lizards whole, but if it’s too big to swallow, it will just hold onto its neck until the lizard suffocates or just gives up out of exhaustion. It can also retract its eyes so they’re less likely to be injured if its prey fights back.

The excitable delma is another pygopodid, this one without any legs at all. It lives in many parts of Australia and can grow nearly two feet long, or 54 cm, but almost half that length is tail. It’s shy and nocturnal, so even though it’s very common, it’s seldom seen. It’s brown or grayish with darker stripes on its head. The reason it’s called the excitable delma is because it uses its long tail to jump, twisting and changing directions as it jumps repeatedly up to six inches off the ground, or 15 cm. It does this to escape from predators but it also sometimes just jumps around for the heck of it, according to observations of excitable delmas in captivity. It can also make a squeaky sound. It likes dry, rocky areas and eats insects.

There are other reptiles that look like snakes but aren’t, in addition to the legless lizards. We talked about the amphisbaenians in the Mongolian animals episode a few weeks ago, and also in episode 10. Amphisbaenians are sometimes called worm lizards because they look less like snakes than they do worms. They’re related to both legless lizards and snakes but lost their legs independently.

The amphisbaenian moves like a worm, not a snake. Its skin is loosely attached to its body so that it can move freely, and it bunches up its skin the way a worm bunches up its body, then extends it to move forward or backward. This kind of action is called peristalsis, by the way. Unlike worms, the amphisbaenian has scales because it’s a reptile, but the scales are often arranged in rings that make it look even more like an earthworm. Many amphisbaenians are pink like many earthworms, too.

Most amphisbaenians live underground their entire lives, hunting worms, insect grubs, and other small animals. In most cases they only come to the surface at night or after a heavy rain. Most have no legs at all, but one family consisting of four species, all of them native to Mexico, has little front legs. One of these species is the Mexican mole lizard, which can grow over a foot long, or more than 30 cm. It mostly eats soft-bodied animals like worms and termites, but it will occasionally eat small lizards. It’s pink and has little black dots for eyes and is actually really cute, but don’t let that fool you. If you are a worm, the Mexican mole lizard is a murder machine. It has sharp little teeth that it uses to bite pieces from its prey instead of swallowing them whole.

All the other known amphisbaenians have no legs at all, and for most species we know very little about them. The red worm lizard, for instance, lives throughout much of western South America and appears to be common, but it lives underground and is hardly ever seen. It’s the largest amphisbaenian known and can grow nearly three feet long, or 85 cm, although it’s only a few inches thick, or around 6 cm. It’s brown, reddish, or yellowish in color with a white belly and has tiny eyes that are barely visible. Its tail is blunt and rounded like other amphisbaenian tails, but its tail is tough enough to withstand bites from predators without being injured. If the red worm lizard feels threatened, it raises its head and tail and bends itself into a U shape so that it looks like it has two heads.

That’s why the amphisbaenian has that name, by the way. In ancient mythology, the amphisbaena was a serpent with a head on each end of its body. It was said to mostly eat ants, and that’s actually a good observation of the real amphisbaenian, which often eats ants, termites, and other insects.

Legless skinks are another group of lizards that either have no legs at all or just little flaps instead of hind legs. The males are the ones with the hind leg flaps, which they use to hold onto the female while mating. Most legless skinks look sort of like amphisbaenians, with a blunt-ended tail that’s sometimes hard to tell from the head, but more snakey than wormy for the most part.

One example is the giant legless skink, which is dark gray or black with no legs, and which lives in South Africa. It grows almost a foot and a half long, or 42 cm, and is a little bit of a chonk. We still don’t know much about it but it probably eats insects and other invertebrates like most legless skinks do.

A while back, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about Stacy’s bachia, a lizard that lives in the tropics of South America. It’s a member of the spectacled lizards, which all have lower eyelids that are transparent. That way the lizard can see even if its eyes are closed. I put a link to the article in the show notes if you want to read it.

Stacy’s bachia usually has no hind legs, although it may have little stubby ones, but it hatches with small front legs. But it spends most of its life burrowing in soil and in leaf litter as it hunts termites, ants, and other small animals, and eventually all its legs wear away to nothing.

Let’s finish with a mystery animal. Kalmykia is a small region of Russia, and the native people of the area are called Kalmyks. The Kalmyks report that there’s an animal that lives in both the steppes and in sand dunes in the desert that looks like a snake but isn’t a snake, which they actually call the short gray snake. It grows around 20 inches long, or 50 cm, and has smooth skin and a tail that’s short and rounded at the end. It has no legs. This report is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s blog, and check the show notes for a link. The person who told him about this animal also says it’s about six to eight inches thick, or up to 20 cm, so if that’s correct it’s even more of a chonk than the giant legless skink.

Kalmykia is west of Kazakhstan, which is west of Mongolia, so there’s always the possibility that this legless animal is related to or the same animal as the Mongolian death worm that we talked about in episode 156. But Kalmykia is actually pretty far away from Mongolia, and the short gray snake is different from the death worm in two important ways. One, reports say it has no bones. If this is true, it must be some kind of invertebrate, not a reptile. It’s also supposed to move like a worm, although remember that the amphisbaenian does too and it’s a reptile.

But the other thing reported about the short gray snake is much weirder than having no bones. Apparently if someone hits the animal in a particular place on its back—presumably with a stick—it EXPLODES. It explodes into goo that spreads for several feet in every direction, or about a meter, leaving nothing else behind.

It’s possible this isn’t a real animal but a folktale, something like American tall tales about the hoop snake that’s supposed to grab its tail in its mouth and roll itself along like a hoop. The hoop snake is not a real animal, in case you were wondering. There’s no way of telling whether the exploding boneless short gray snake is a real animal, a folktale, or reports of more than one real animal that have gotten mixed up in translation. Hopefully someone who lives in Kalmykia will investigate and find out more. In the meantime, don’t hit any animals with sticks. For one thing, that’s mean. For another, it might explode and leave you covered in goo.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 157: Rodents of Unusual Size



Uh, yeah, not the legless lizard episode. But just as interesting! This week let’s learn about the largest rodents in the world! Hint: way bigger than a rat.

Further reading:

Rodents of Uncertain Systematics

The mellow and photogenic capybara:

Oh to be a capybara in an open bath with an orange on its head:

Hey, pacarana:

Oh to be a paca with half an orange:

Oh to be a chevrotain with a piece of orange. (The chevrotain is not a rodent. It has hooves. Episode 116 explains this creature):

Show transcript:

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

Yes, I know, last week I said we might have an episode this week about legless lizards and other snakey things that aren’t snakes, but I got this episode ready first so instead, this week we’re going to learn about some rodents of unusual size!

Rodents are mammals in the order Rodentia, and there are thousands of them throughout the world. Mice and rats are rodents, of course, but so are chipmunks and squirrels, hamsters and gerbils, prairie dogs and guinea pigs, and many others. But you may notice that all the animals I just mentioned are pretty small. That’s because most rodents are on the small side. But not all of them.

The biggest rodent alive today may be one you’ve heard of, the capybara. It’s native to much of South America and lives in forests, rainforests, and other areas, but always near water. It really likes water and eats a lot of aquatic plants, although it also eats grass, fruit, tree bark, and other plants. Like other rodents, its teeth grow throughout its life but constantly wear down as it eats tough plants.

So how big is the capybara? It grows to about two feet tall, or 62 cm, and four feet long, or 1.3 meters. Females are usually a little larger than males. Basically they’re the size of a big dog, but a big dog with webbed toes, small ears, big blunt muzzle, basically no tail, and a calm outlook on life. Because unlike many rodents who tend to be nervous and quick-moving, the capybara is pretty chill.

The capybara is semiaquatic and likes to hang out in the water, often in social groups. It can hold its breath underwater for up to five minutes, and can even sleep while submerged with just its nose above water. That’s why its nose, eyes, and ears are close to the top of its head, so it can be alert to predators while remaining safely underwater.

The capybara has a scent gland on its nose called a morillo. The female has a morillo but the male’s is bigger since he scent marks more often by rubbing the gland on plants, trees, rocks, other capybaras, and so on. During mating season, the female capybara attracts a male by whistling through her nose, because who doesn’t like a lady who can whistle through her nose? The capybara will only mate in water, so if a female decides she doesn’t like a male, she just gets out of the water and walks away from him.

The female usually gives birth to four or five babies in one litter. If the female is a member of a group of capybaras, all the babies stay together in the middle of the group and all the females care for them. In most mammals, the female will only let her own babies drink her milk, but a female capybara will suckle any babies in the group who are hungry. Like I said, they’re pretty chill.

There are actually two species of capybara, but some people consider the lesser capybara to be a subspecies of capybara and anyway, we don’t know much about it. Other than that, though, the capybara is most closely related to the guinea pig. Like the guinea pig and like humans, the capybara can’t synthesize vitamin C in its body and has to get it through its diet. That means if a capybara in captivity doesn’t receive fruit and other plant material containing vitamin C, eventually it will show symptoms of scurvy.

The capybara is killed for its meat and hide, but it’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s not a domesticated animal and it’s as heavy as a full-grown human, so while the capybara isn’t specifically dangerous it’s not really a good pet. Also, it will eat your garden and wallow in mud and if you don’t have a pool it’s going to wander around until it finds one. It’s probably better to get a dog.

While the capybara is a strong swimmer, it can move fast on land when it wants to. It can run up to 22 miles per hour, or 35 km/hour. This is what a capybara sounds like.

[capybara sounds]

Big as the capybara is, even bigger rodents used to live in South America. Around 8 million years ago a rodent called Phoberomys pattersoni [foe-barommis] lived in what is now Venezuela and nearby areas, especially around the Orinoco River. It was discovered in 2000 when an almost complete skeleton was found, and it was really big. We’re talking nine feet long, or 2.75 meters, and that doesn’t even include its tail. It stood over four feet tall, or 1.3 meters. It was described in 2003 and is a relative of guinea pig and the capybara.

But since then, paleontologists have found fossils of rodents that are estimated to be even bigger. Around 3 million years ago an animal called the giant pacarana grew to an estimated five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, with a body ten feet long, or 3 m. But we don’t know for sure if it was bigger or smaller than that estimate, since so far all we have is a fossilized skull discovered in 1987 and described in 2008. Another closely related rodent is only known from some teeth. Some researchers think it used its massive teeth like elephants use their tusks, to fend off predators and fight each other.

So if there was once a giant pacarana, what’s a regular pacarana? It’s another South American rodent, and while it’s not exactly capybara size it’s much larger than a mouse. It grows more than 3 ½ feet long, or 100 cm, and is shaped sort of like a capybara with a tail, although its head is more rodent-like. It’s dark brown-gray with rows of white spots down its sides and a thick tail covered with fur. It’s the only living member of the family Dinomyidae and it has many unusual features compared to other rodents. I’d tell you what they are but they’re all things like “it has a flatter sternum,” which wouldn’t mean a whole lot to most of us. Shout-out to any rodent experts listening, though.

The pacarana was discovered by scientists in 1873 when a Polish nobleman traveling in Peru shot one and sent its skin and skeleton home, where it was studied by the director of the Berlin Zoo. But after that one specimen was killed, the pacarana seemed to vanish. Then in 1904 someone sent two pacaranas to a museum in Brazil. The museum’s director gave them to the local zoo where they could be taken care of, although the female died after giving birth shortly afterwards.

It turns out that the pacarana isn’t all that rare, but it’s shy and hard to spot in its habitat, forested mountains in South America. But because it’s seldom seen, not very many zoos have them, but zookeepers all report that pacaranas are docile and friendly. I can confirm that they are very, very cute although I haven’t seen one in person.

The pacarana is named after another rodent called the paca, which looks similar but has a shorter tail and is smaller than the pacarana, although still a pretty big rodent. The paca grows up to about two and a half feet long, or 77 cm, not counting its 9-inch tail, or 23 cm, and is dark brown with rows of white spots on each side. It looks kind of like a chevrotain, which as you may remember from episode 116 is also called the mouse deer even though it’s not a mouse or a deer. The paca lives in a burrow that can be ten feet long, or 3 meters, usually with two entrances that it covers with leaves to hide it. It likes fruit, leaves, flowers, fungi, and other plant material, but it will also eat insects.

The paca likes to swim and can stay underwater even longer than the capybara, as much as 15 minutes. It usually mates in the water too. It’s mostly nocturnal, although some populations may be crepuscular, and it lives in much of Central and South America, although it’s also present in southern Mexico.

After her babies are born, the mother paca tucks her babies in a hole she digs that’s too small for predators to enter. But the hole is also too small for her to enter. To let the babies know it’s safe to come out, she calls to them in a low trill. The paca, in fact, makes a lot of sounds, and its voice is way louder than you’d think. It has resonating chambers in its cheeks to make its voice even louder.

Here are some sounds that a paca makes:

[paca calls]

Ages ago, Llewelly sent me a link to an article about some interesting rodents of South America. I’ve included a link to it in the show notes in case you want to learn more about South American rodents that aren’t quite as big as the ones we’ve covered today, but which are just as interesting.

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

Thanks for listening! Oh, and this is what a baby capybara sounds like.


Episode 152: The Freshwater Seahorse and Other Mystery Water Animals



This week let’s look at some (mostly) smaller mystery animals associated with water! Thanks to Richard J., Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

Further reading:

What Was the Montauk Monster?

The black-striped pipefish. Also, that guy has REALLY BIG FINGERTIPS:

The Pondicherry shark, not looking very happy:

A ratfish. What BIG EYES you have!

The hoodwinker sunfish, weird and serene:

The Montauk monster, looking very sad and dead:

Show transcript:

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

Let’s finish off the year with an episode about a few mystery animals, specifically a few mystery animals associated with water. Thanks to Richard, Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

We’ll start off with a mystery suggested by Richard J, but not the Richard J. who is my brother. A different Richard J. Apparently half the people who listen to my podcast are named Richard, and that’s just fine with me.

Richard wanted to know if there are there such things as freshwater seahorses. We’ve talked about seahorses before in episode 130, but seahorses are definitely marine animals. That means they only live in the ocean. But Richard said he’d heard about a population of seahorses native to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, which is in South America. I put it on my suggestions list, but Richard was on the case. He sent me a link to an article looking into the mystery, which got me really intrigued, so I bumped it to the top of my list. Because I can do that. It’s my podcast.

Freshwater seahorses are supposedly known in the Mekong River and in Lake Titicaca, and sometimes you’ll see reference to the scientific name Hippocampus titicacanesis. But that’s actually not an official scientific name. There’s no type specimen and no published description. Hippocampus is the generic name for many seahorse species, but like I said, they’re all marine animals and there’s no evidence that any live in freshwater at all. Another scientific name supposedly used for the Mekong freshwater seahorse is Hippocampus aimei, but that’s a rejected name for a seahorse named Hippocampus spinosissimus, the hedgehog seahorse. It does live in parts of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, including around Australia, especially in coral reefs, and sometimes in the brackish water at the Mekong River’s mouth, but not in fresh water.

On the other hand, there’s no reason why a seahorse couldn’t adapt to freshwater living. A few of its close relatives have. There are a few species of freshwater pipefish, and in the world of aquarium enthusiasts they are actually sometimes called freshwater seahorses. The pipefish looks like a seahorse that’s been straightened out, and most of them are marine animals. But some have adapted to freshwater habitats.

This includes the black-striped pipefish, which is found off the coasts of much of Europe but which also lives in the mouths of rivers. At some point it got introduced into the Volga River and liked it so much it has started to expand into other freshwater lakes and rivers in Europe.

The pipefish is closely related to the seahorse, but while it does have bony plates like a seahorse, it’s a flexible fish. It swims more like a snake than a fish, and it can anchor itself to vegetation just like a seahorse by wrapping its tail around it. It mostly eats tiny crustaceans and newly hatched fish, since it swallows its food whole. It usually hides in vegetation until a tiny animal swims near, and then it uses its tube-shaped mouth like a straw to suck in water along with the animal. Just like the seahorse, the male pipefish has a brooding pouch and takes care of the eggs after the female deposits them in his pouch.

So where did the rumor that seahorses live in the Mekong come from? The Mekong is a river in southeast Asia that runs through at least six countries, including China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Parts of it are hard to navigate due to waterfalls and rapids, but it’s used as a shipping route and there are lots of people who live along the river. Like all rivers, it’s home to many interesting animals, including a type of giant softshell turtle that can grow up to six feet long, or 1.8 meters, a type of otter, a bunch of enormous fish, including three species of catfish that can grow up to almost ten feet long, or 3 meters, and a giant freshwater stingray that can grow up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, and of course lots more animals that aren’t as big or as impressive, but which are still important to the river’s biodiversity. But there’s no evidence of seahorses anywhere throughout the Mekong’s 2700 mile length, or 4,350 km.

But there is a hint about where the rumor of a Mekong seahorse could have come from. One researcher named Heiko Bleher chased down the type specimens of the supposed Mekong seahorse in a Paris museum, which were collected in the early 20th century by a man named Roule. Roule got them in Laos from a fisherman who had nailed the dried seahorses to his fishing hut. The fisherman told Roule the seahorses were from the Mekong, but when they were further studied in 1999 Roule’s specimens were discovered to actually be specimens of Hippocampus spinosissimus and Hippocampus barbouri. Both are marine fish but do sometimes live in brackish water at the mouth of the Mekong. So the fisherman wasn’t lying, but Roule misunderstood what he meant.

As for the freshwater seahorse supposedly found in Lake Titicaca, that one’s less easy to explain. Titicaca is a freshwater lake in South America, specifically in the Andes Mountains on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It’s the largest lake in South America and is far, far above the ocean’s surface—12,507 feet above sea level, in fact, or 3,812 meters. It’s also extremely deep, 932 feet deep in some areas, or 284 meters. It’s home to many species of animal that live nowhere else in the world. Why couldn’t it be home to a freshwater seahorse too?

Titicaca was formed when a massive earthquake some 25 million years ago essentially shoved two mountains apart, leaving a gap—although technically it’s two gaps connected with a narrow strait. Over the centuries rainwater, snowmelt, and streams gradually filled the gaps, and these days five rivers and many streams from higher in the mountains feed water into the lake. Water leaves the lake by the River Desaguadero and flows into two other lakes, but those lakes aren’t connected to the sea. Sometimes they dry up completely. So Titicaca isn’t connected to the ocean and never was, and even if it was, seahorses are weak swimmers and would never be able to venture up a river 12,000 feet above sea level. Some 90% of all fish in the lake are found nowhere else in the world. There’s just simply no way a population of seahorses could have gotten into the lake in the first place, even if they could survive there.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any freshwater seahorses out there ready to be discovered, of course. But I don’t think you’re going to find any in Lake Titicaca. And I have no idea how the rumor got started that any live there.

From a tiny seahorse let’s move on to a small shark, another topic suggested by Richard J. The Pondicherry shark grows to about 3.3 feet, or 1 meter, and once lived throughout the Indo-Pacific, especially in coastal waters. It’s considered critically endangered, but it’s so rare these days that we hardly know anything about it except that it’s harmless to humans, eats small fish and other small animals, and was once common. But until the mid-2010s, scientists were starting to worry it was already extinct. Then in 2016 two different Pondicherry sharks were photographed in two different places—and not where anyone had expected to find it. Some tourists took a photo of one in a river called the Menik and a freshwater fish survey camera caught a photo of one in the Kumbuk River. Both rivers are in Sri Lanka. Since then researchers have spotted a few more. The shark is protected, and hopefully the excitement around the shark’s rediscovery has helped people in the area learn about it so they know not to bother it. Some sharks tolerate fresh water and brackish water quite well, so it’s not surprising that the Pondicherry shark has moved into the rivers where it has less competition from commercial fishing boats.

Our next water mystery is actually not really a mystery, just a really strange-looking fish related to sharks. This one was suggested by my aunt Janice who doesn’t actually listen to the podcast but who likes to send me links to strange animal articles that she comes across on the internet. This one is called Chimaera Monstrosa, sometimes called the rat fish.

The rat fish mostly lives in the deep sea, although it’s sometimes seen in shallower water, and can grow up to 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. It’s mostly brown but has white markings. Its body looks more or less like a regular plump shark-like fish, but it has great big round green eyes, relatively long pectoral fins, and a very long tail that tapers to a point. The tail gives it its common name, since it kind of resembles a rat’s tail. It eats whatever it can catch on the ocean floor, including crustaceans and echinoderms.

Ratfish, and other chimaeriformes, are most closely related to sharks, and like sharks they have skeletons that are made of cartilage instead of bone. Since they’re rarely seen and look really weird, every so often someone catches one and posts about it online, and then my aunt sends me a link. They are really interesting fish, though.

Simon also sent me an article about an interesting fish a while back, the hoodwinker sunfish. We talked about the sunfish, or mola mola, in episode 96. The hoodwinker sunfish, or mola tecta, was only discovered in 2017 despite its large size. So far it’s known to live in the South Pacific around New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Chile, but only off the southernmost parts of those countries. But in early 2019 one washed up in Southern California.

The mystery sunfish was measured at almost 7 feet long, or 2.1 meters. An intern at the University of California at Santa Barbara found it, but didn’t know what it was. But once photos of the fish were posted online, two experts from Australia recognized it immediately—but because it showed up so far out of its known range, they were cautious about IDing it from just a photo. That’s despite the fact that one of the experts, Marianne Nyegaard, was actually the person who named the species. She asked for samples and more photos, and when she got the results, it really was a hoodwinker sunfish. But what was it doing in the warm waters of the northern Pacific instead of the cold southern waters? No one knows except the sunfish.

Let’s finish with another mystery animal you may have heard of. On July 12 or 13, 2008, depending on which source you consult, three friends visited Ditch Plains Beach, two miles away from the little town of Montauk in New York state in eastern North America. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded, and when the three noticed people gathered around something, they went to look too. There they saw a weird dead animal that had obviously washed ashore. One of the three took a picture of it, which appeared in the local papers and then the local TV news along with an interview with the three. From there it went viral and was dubbed the Montauk monster.

The monster was about the size of a cat, but with shorter legs and a chunkier body, and a relatively short tail. It didn’t have much hair but it did have sharp teeth, and the front part of its skull was exposed so that it almost looked like it had a beak. Its front paws were elongated with long fingers, almost like little hands.

So what was the monster? People all over the world made guesses, everything from a sea turtle without a shell to a diseased dog or just a hoax. Some people thought it was a mutant animal that had been created in a lab on one of the nearby islands, escaped, and died trying to swim to the mainland.

But while no one knows what happened to the animal’s body, scientists have studied the photo and determined that it was probably a dead raccoon that had been washed into the ocean. The waves had tumbled the animal’s body around through the sand long enough to rub off most of its remaining fur and some of its facial features, and then it washed ashore during the next high tide. It was also somewhat bloated due to gases building up inside during decomposition. It’s the animal’s teeth and paws that made the identification possible, since both match a raccoon’s exactly. Remember that raccoons have clever front paws that help them open locking trash bins, as we learned in episode 138.

So the Montauk monster isn’t actually a mystery, except what happened to it, but don’t be discouraged. There are still lots of genuinely mysterious animals in the ocean, from misplaced sunfish to creatures no one has ever seen yet. Maybe you’ll be the one to discover them.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 148: Gastric Brooding and Other Frogs



Thanks for Merike for suggesting the gastric brooding frog and to Hally for suggesting newly-discovered frogs!!

The Gastric brooding frog:

Darwin’s frog, round boi:

The Surinam toad carries her eggs and tadpoles in the skin of her back:

Kermit the frog and a newly discovered glass frog:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have another fantastic listener suggestion, about frogs! Merike is a herpetologist from Estonia, who suggested the gastric brooding frog, and another listener, Hally, also wanted to learn about some of the new frog species discovered recently.

The gastric brooding frog is native to eastern Australia, specifically Queensland. There are two species, and both of them live in creeks in separate rainforests. The habitat is specific and small, and unfortunately both species went extinct less than forty years ago. Researchers aren’t sure why they went extinct, but it was probably due to pollution and habitat loss.

The gastric brooding frog was a slender frog, with the northern gastric brooding frog being about three inches long, or about 8 cm, while the southern gastric brooding frog was about half that size. Females were larger than males. It was grey or brown-gray in color with some darker and lighter patches on the back with a lighter belly. During the day it spent most of its time at the water’s edge, hidden in leaf litter or among rocks, although it generally only fully came out of the water when it was raining. It ate insects and may have hibernated in winter.

As you may have guessed from its name, the gastric brooding frog had a unique way of taking care of its eggs. After the eggs were fertilized, the female would actually swallow the eggs and keep them in her stomach while they developed. Even after the eggs hatched into tadpoles, they stayed in the mother’s stomach. As they grew larger, the stomach also grew larger, until it pretty much filled up the mother’s insides, to the point where she couldn’t even use her lungs to breathe. Fortunately many frogs, including the gastric brooding frog, can absorb a certain amount of oxygen through the skin. Finally the tadpoles metamorphosed into little frogs, at which point the mother regurgitated one or a few of them at a time, or sometimes all of them at once if she felt threatened.

So how did the mother keep from digesting her own eggs or tadpoles? How did she eat when her stomach was full of babies? How did the babies eat?

The jelly around the gastric brooding frog’s eggs contained prostaglandin E2, also called PGE2, which causes the stomach to stop producing hydrochloric acid. That’s a digestive acid, so once the eggs were inside the stomach, the stomach basically stopped stomaching. There is some speculation that the first eggs the mother frog swallowed actually got digested, but then the acid production stopped and the rest of the eggs remained. Once the eggs hatched, the tadpoles also produced PGE2 in the mucus in their gills.

The tadpoles continued to live off the yolk sac from their eggs as they developed, and in fact their mouths weren’t even connected to their gut yet. As for the mother, she just didn’t eat until the babies were developed and released into the water on their own, which took about six weeks.

The gastric brooding frog is the only frog known to raise its babies this way, but other frog species have interesting variations of the usual way frogs reproduce. Most female frogs lay their eggs, and then the male fertilizes them. But about a dozen species of frog have developed internal fertilization, where the female retains the eggs in her body until the male fertilizes them. The tailed frog from California in the United States, in North America, gets its name from a structure that looks like a tail, but is actually an extension of the cloaca. That’s the opening used for both excretion and reproduction. Only males have the tail, and it works like a penis to fertilize the female’s eggs without her needing to lay the eggs first. Once they’re fertilized, she can choose just the right spot to lay the eggs.

Another weird way frogs take care of their eggs is something that Darwin’s frog does. Darwin’s frog lives in Chile and Argentina in South America, and grows to a little over an inch long, or 3 cm. It has a pointy snout that gives its head a wedge  shape something like a leaf, which helps keep it camouflaged on the forest floor. The female lays her eggs in damp leaf litter, and after the male fertilizes them he guards them for several weeks. When they start to move as they develop, the male swallows them—but instead of his stomach, he stores them in his vocal sac. That’s the expandable sac in the frog’s throat that males use to make their croaking sounds by filling the sac with air.

The eggs hatch into tadpoles, which the male carries around as they grow. They live off their egg yolks, but they also eat secretions from the lining of the vocal sac. Once the tadpoles metamorphose into little frogs, they hop out of the male’s mouth and are on their own. Until then, the male doesn’t eat.

The Surinam toad is a species of frog. Remember that all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads. It lives in wetlands and forests in northern South America, and has a radically different way of keeping its eggs safe. The Surinam toad is a flattened, broad toad that can grow up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and looks a lot like a dead leaf. It lives in slow-moving water. Unlike other frogs it doesn’t have a tongue, so instead of catching insects with its sticky tongue, it grabs them with its hands. It’s sometimes called the star-fingered toad because its long, thin fingers have tiny star-shaped appendages that help it catch prey. Instead of croaking, male Surinam toads make a clicking noise by moving a small bone in the throat back and forth.

When the female is ready to lay her eggs, a male clasps her around the middle like most frogs do while mating. But instead of just releasing her eggs and letting the male release sperm to fertilize them, the female makes a sort of flipping movement in the water as she releases a few eggs at a time. The male fertilizes them, then presses them onto her back. The skin of the female’s back grows up over the eggs, embedding them in the skin in little pockets. When the tadpoles hatch they stay in these little pockets as they develop. They only leave when they’ve metamorphosed into tiny toads, at which point they emerge and live on their own. The mother then sheds the layer of skin on her back where her babies lived.

A frog described in 2014 that lives in parts of South Asia gives birth to tadpoles instead of laying eggs. It’s a species of fanged frog, which are frogs that do actually have teeth unlike most frogs. Limnonectes larvaepartus grows about 1 ½ inches long, or just under 4 cm. The eggs are fertilized internally, but instead of laying them the female keeps them in her oviducts until they hatch. They remain inside her until they no longer have any yolk left to nourish them, at which point the mother releases them into a slow-moving stream.

Lots of other interesting frogs have been discovered recently. A new frog discovered in southern India in 2018 was recently determined to be a member of its own genus. It’s called the narrow-mouthed frog and had gone unnoticed even though it lives in an area that’s been extensively explored by scientists. It only comes out into the open for less than one week out of the year during the short breeding season, and the rest of the time it hides. Obviously, we don’t know much about it yet.

In 2016 in the same area as the narrow-mouthed frog, researchers discovered a new species of frog with a tadpole that burrows through sand. It’s a member of the Indian dancing frog family, and not only do the tadpoles burrow through wet sand at the bottom of streams, they have ribs that help them move around more easily. Tadpoles are usually just squidges without bones. Dancing frogs get that name because the males wave their feet to attract females during mating season.

There are so many recently discovered frog species that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. You know, like the new glass frog from Costa Rica described in 2015 that honestly looks just like Kermit the Frog, if Kermit had a translucent belly that showed his organs. Scientists don’t know why glass frogs have no pigmentation at all on their bellies. Or the three tiny frog species discovered in Madagascar and described earlier in 2019, all of them smaller than your thumbnail, that belong to a new genus, Mini. Their scientific names are therefore Mini mum, Mini scule, and Mini ature. The three are related to one of Madagascar’s biggest frogs, which grows over four inches long, or 10.5 cm, as opposed to the Mini frogs which top out at about 15 mm long. Hally sent me an article about eleven new species of frog discovered recently in the Andes, including the multicolored rain frog. It’s sometimes yellow, sometimes brown, sometimes green, speckled, splotched, spotted–so variable that at first scientists thought they were different related species. All eleven of the Andes frogs lay their eggs on land, and instead of hatching into tadpoles the eggs hatch into tiny froglets.

Frogs and other amphibians are sensitive to environmental change, which means a lot of species have either recently gone extinct or are critically endangered. Habitat loss and an amphibian fungal disease that has spread around the world are also making things hard for frogs and their relations. Scientists have been working hard lately to find species that are rare, suspected to be extinct, or are unknown to science, to learn about them while we can and do our best to preserve the species, either in the wild or in captivity. There are even multiple genetic resource banks, or biobanks, to preserve genetic material of frogs and other animals so that future scientists might be able to clone them.

There’s always the possibility that the gastric brooding frog isn’t actually extinct. The southern gastric brooding frog hasn’t been seen since at least 1981 despite extensive searches, though, with the last captive individual dying in 1983. The northern gastric brooding frog was only discovered in 1984 but hasn’t been seen since 1985.

But even if there aren’t any left in the wild, all hope isn’t lost. The gastric brooding frog is a good candidate for de-extinction, and cloning has actually been successful to a limited degree already. In 2013 a living embryo was produced from preserved genetic material, although it didn’t survive. Researchers are still working to clone the frogs and keep them alive. With luck the attempt will be successful, and not only can a population of the frogs be kept in captivity, they can be reintroduced to their former habitat one day.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 139: Skunks and Other Stinkers



This week we’re commemorating my HOUSE getting SKUNKED by a SKUNK and it was STINKY

The skunk, stinky but adorkable, especially when it’s eating yellow jackets:

The stink badger looks like a shaved skunk with a bobbed tail:

The zorilla wants to be your stinky friend:

A woodhoopoe, most magnificent:

A Eurasian hoopoe, looking snazzy:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some animals that are infamous for their stinkiness. This wasn’t the topic I had planned on for this week, but last week my house got skunked. That is, a skunk sprayed an animal very close to my house, which means I woke up at 4:45am gagging from the smell of point-blank skunk odor. And this was with the windows closed and the air conditioning going. It was so bad I thought I would throw up, so I yanked on my clothes, grabbed my purse, and fled the house at 5:30am. I went to work early—don’t worry, I got coffee on the way—and spent the whole day smelling skunk faintly where the smell clung to my hair and, oddly, my phone case. Also I spent the whole day complaining to my coworkers.

Fortunately, when I got home the smell had dissipated somewhat, so I opened all the windows and doors and by the next morning it was mostly gone. But it got me wondering why skunk spray smells so, so bad and how many other stinky animals are out there.

The skunk is native to North and South America, although there are two species of related animals that live in some of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, called stink badgers. No seriously, that’s really what they’re called. Skunks and stink badgers are related to actual badgers and to weasels, but not closely.

The stink badger is black or dark brown with a white stripe that runs from its head down the back of its neck and along its spine, and finishes at its little short tuft of a tail. The skunk is black or dark brown with one or two white stripes or white spots, depending on the species, which continues down its long fluffy tail. In all cases, though, these stinky animals are vividly patterned with dark fur and bright white markings as a warning to other animals. Do not get too close or there’s a world of stink coming your way. Also, I can verify from my own experience that the white markings of a skunk make it much easier to see in the darkness and therefore avoid. Since the skunk is crepuscular, meaning it’s most active around dusk and dawn, that’s important. The stink badger is more nocturnal than the skunk.

Both the skunk and the stink badger have relatively short legs with sharp claws. Both are relatively small, about the size of a cat. Both are also good diggers and spend the daytime asleep in their burrows. In winter the skunk doesn’t hibernate but it does stay in its burrow more, spending most of its time asleep. This is the best way to deal with winter cold, if you ask me.

Female skunks share a den in the winter but males are usually solitary. This means the females retain a higher amount of body fat when the weather warms up, since they didn’t need to burn that fat to keep themselves warm. Researchers think this helps the females stay in better condition for a spring pregnancy. Meanwhile, males are skinnier at the beginning of the winter but by staying alone they’re less likely to contract disease or parasites.

Mating season for skunks is in spring and babies are born in early summer. They mostly stay in the burrow for about two months, then start accompanying their mother when she goes out foraging. The mother is really protective of her babies and will spray any animal that approaches.

Although the skunk can hear and smell well, it has poor vision. That’s why so many are killed by cars. The skunk’s biggest predator is the great horned owl, because owls don’t have much of a sense of smell and don’t care about being sprayed.

The skunk and the stink badger are both omnivorous and will dig up grubs and earthworms, will sometimes eat carrion, and also eat frogs, crustaceans, and other small animals, leaves and other plant parts, especially berries and nuts, and insects. The skunk especially likes bees. It has thick fur that helps protect it from stings, and will eat all the bees it can catch.

The skunk also eats other stinging insects, including the dreaded yellow jacket. That’s a type of wasp that’s common where I live, with incredibly painful stings. A few years ago I noticed a yellow jacket nest in the ground behind my garage, and that night when the yellow jackets were asleep I carefully trimmed the long grass around the nest opening to see how extensive it was. Then I made a mental note to get some yellow jacket poison the following day. When I went back out to deal with the nest the next night, it was gone. A skunk had discovered it, probably because I’d exposed it by trimming back the grass, and had dug the whole nest up to eat the yellow jackets. There wasn’t a single one left. Ever since I have been lowkey fond of skunks, although I do wish they wouldn’t spray so close to my house.

So what is skunk spray and why is it so stinky? The skunk has two anal glands that contain an oily liquid made up of sulfurous chemical compounds. If a skunk feels threatened, it will raise its tail and fluff it out as a warning. It may also hiss, stomp its feet, and pretend to charge its potential attacker. The skunk doesn’t actually want to spray if it can avoid it, though. Its anal glands only hold enough of the oil to spray a few times, and when the skunk runs out it can’t spray again for almost two weeks. But if its warnings don’t work, it will use muscles to contract the glands and spray the oily liquid more than ten feet, or 3 meters.

If you’ve only ever smelled skunk spray in the distance, you may not think it’s so bad. But the smell is horrific up close, strong enough to induce vomiting, and it can cause irritation to the skin or even temporary blindness if it gets in the eyes. And the skunk is really accurate when spraying, aiming at the face. Not only that, because it’s an oil, the spray clings to skin, hair, or fur, and it won’t just wash off. It can literally take weeks to wear off normally. If your clothes get sprayed, or your dog’s collar, the smell will never come out and you will have to throw the clothes away.

Domestic dogs get sprayed by skunks a lot. Some dogs just never learn. I once had a cat who was sprayed by a skunk too. You may have heard that you can remove the smell by washing your pet in tomato juice, but this actually doesn’t work. I asked a veterinarian how to clean up my cat, and this is what she told me. This worked great, by the way.

Mix hydrogen peroxide about half and half with warm water and add about a spoonful of dishwashing liquid. Rub the mixture into the fur thoroughly, making sure to work it in well right down to the skin. If you can tell where the spray is, concentrate on that part. Do your best not to get the mixture into your pet’s eyes, and make sure to use good warm water. Part of the reason animals hate getting bathed is because they get cold really easily once their fur is wet, so using really warm water helps. Then rinse your pet thoroughly, making sure to get all the soap out so they won’t get itchy. You may need to mix up another batch of the hydrogen peroxide, water, and soap and give the stinkiest areas another wash. After you’ve rinsed your pet thoroughly, wrap them up in a towel and gently squeeze as much of the water out of the fur as you can. Then make sure you have a dry towel to put in your pet’s bed or basket or wherever it wants to hide after its horrible bath.

In July of 2019 a research team published a report about a type of fungus that makes a chemical called pericosine A that neutralizes noxious chemicals. The researchers tested pericosine on skunk spray and discovered that it neutralized the smell harmlessly. So it’s probably just a matter of time before pericosine is marketed to veterinarians to help pet owners. Let’s hope so.

Even skunks don’t like to be sprayed, incidentally. Males fight each other during mating season and will sometimes spray each other. A skunk reacts like any other animal when it gets sprayed.

The zorilla is another stinky animal related to the skunk, although it lives in parts of Africa. It’s brown with white markings and is sometimes called the striped polecat or African skunk. It’s about the same size as a skunk or stink badger and looks and acts very similar, although it’s a carnivore and much more social than the skunk. It’s also related to the honey badger, which we talked about in episode 62. If you remember, the honey badger is also black with a broad white or silvery stripe down its back, and it can invert its anal sacs and discharge a stinky oil, although it doesn’t spray like a skunk.

It’s not really surprising that all these animals are related, since most members of the weasel family, known as mustelids, have anal scent glands that produce a strong odor. Most species just use the glands to mark their territory, though.

But are there animals who spray like skunks but aren’t related to the skunk? Many animals have anal glands for marking territory, and if threatened some animals will empty the anal glands as a form as defense. The king ratsnake will sometimes do this, as will the lesser anteater, the opossum, and others.

But there’s another animal that actually sprays a smelly substance for defense, and it’s not one you’d expect. It’s a bird called the hoopoe, along with its relative the woodhoopoe.

The woodhoopoe lives in woods, savannah, and rainforests of Africa. It looks something like a cuckoo, with a very long tail marked with white spots. It’s mostly a metallic black in color, although some species have markings in other colors. Males have longer, more curved bills than females because they eat larger insects that live in bark and rotten wood while females eat smaller insects that live mostly on leaves. In this way, mated pairs don’t compete with each other for food.

The hoopoe lives across Eurasia and parts of Africa, and while it’s related to the woodhoopoe, it looks very different. It has a long crest that it can raise and lower like a crown, and it’s a pretty tan or brown color with black and white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly curved bills that they use to catch insects and other small animals.

Female hoopoes and woodhoopoes are picky about nesting spots. The female likes to nest in dead trees in rotting wood, or sometimes in a gap in a rock wall. The female incubates her eggs alone. But animals find dead trees and crumbling walls easy to climb, so to protect her nest the female can spray a foul-smelling liquid from the gland that most birds just use to secrete preening oil. This is the case for the female hoopoe and woodhoopoe too most of the time, but after she lays her eggs the gland becomes weaponized. Not only that, when the babies hatch, they develop the same gland. The female rubs the stinky oil on her babies and on the nest to deter predators, and researchers think it may also deter parasites. If an animal approaches the nest anyway, the female can spray the oil at it. And if the female is off catching food for her babies, the babies will hiss, peck, and squirt liquid poop at the predator. At that point, most predators probably just decide to go hunt something else. After they clean up.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 133: The mangrove killifish and the unicorn pig



This week’s (short) episode is about two animals that should have been in the strangest small fish and weird pigs episodes, respectively. I left them out by accident but they’re so interesting that they deserve an episode all to themselves anyway. Thanks to Adam for suggesting the mangrove killifish!

Further reading:

25 Years in the Mud: How a Quirky Little Fish Changed My Life

The mangrove killifish just looks normal:

Not a unicorn pig (okay yes technically a unicorn pig):

Unicorn pig skull:

Show transcript:

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

A few weeks ago we had an episode about strange small fish. Shortly after that episode released, I was going through my disorganized ideas and suggestions file and realized I’d left out one of the best weird small fish ever, a suggestion by Adam. I also discovered I’d missed an extinct pig I’d planned to include in the recent weird pigs episode. So let’s play catch up in a short episode and learn about both this week.

The fish Adam suggests is called the mangrove killifish, also called the mangrove rivulus, which lives in parts of Florida and Mexico, down to Central and South America. It’s technically a marine fish, meaning it lives in salt-water, but it also likes brackish water, that’s less salty than the ocean, and occasionally it even lives in freshwater. It especially likes mangrove swamps. It grows up to 3 inches long, or 7.5 cm and is a mottled brown in color with an eye spot on its tail. It doesn’t look like anything special.

But the mangrove killifish has a lot in common with amphibians, especially the lungless salamanders. Many types of salamander absorb air through the skin instead of through lungs or gills. The mangrove killifish does this too. It often lives in abandoned crab holes, which may not have very high quality water. But that’s okay, because it can absorb air through its skin and can live out of the water for well over a month as long as its skin stays damp. It’s sometimes found in places where you wouldn’t expect to find a fish, like the inside of rotting logs or buried in damp dead leaves.

So how does the killifish get into the rotting logs or the leaf litter or the crab burrows that aren’t connected to waterways? It actually uses its tail to flip itself out of the water and onto land, and then it continues to flip here and there until it finds a place where it wants to live for a while. It can direct this jumping, not just flop around like most fish out of water, and can jump several times its own length.

A lot of times when the tide goes out, fish get trapped in crab holes, dimples in the sand or mud, and other shallow water. That’s okay if the tide comes back in far enough to re-submerge the holes, but if the water doesn’t quite reach, it’s not long before fish start to suffocate as all the oxygen in the water is used up. But the killifish doesn’t have that problem. It just flips itself out of the water. It can also leave the water if it gets too hot.

The killifish is also territorial in water, which requires a lot of energy. When it’s out of the water, or in a little temporary pool or a crab burrow where it doesn’t have to worry about other killifish, it can relax. On the other hand, it loses a lot of weight while it’s out of the water since it doesn’t eat as much. So there are trade-offs.

Even the killifish’s eggs can survive out of water. The fish usually lays its eggs in shallow water, sometimes even on land that’s just near water. The eggs continue to develop just fine, in or out of water, but they delay hatching until they’re submerged.

And that leads us to the most astonishing thing about the mangrove killifish. In most populations, almost all killifish are females, and most of the time they don’t need a male fish to fertilize their eggs. Females produce eggs but they also produce sperm that fertilize the eggs before they’re even laid. The eggs hatch into genetic duplicates of the parent—clones, basically. The term for an organism that produces both eggs and sperm is hermaphrodite, and while it’s common in some invertebrates, the killifish is the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite. Vertebrate, of course, is an animal with a backbone.

But while most killifish are females, there are occasionally males. Male killifish are orangey in color. When a male is around, females suppress their ability to self-fertilize eggs and they lay the eggs for the male to fertilize, just like any other fish. This helps keep the species genetically diverse and able to adapt to external pressures like increased numbers of parasites.

Next, let’s talk about the unicorn pig. Or pigicorn, if you like. It’s called Kubanochoerus [koo-ban-oh-ko-rus] and there were several species. It was related to modern pigs and lived throughout most of Eurasia and parts of Africa around 10 million years ago.

It was big, up to four feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.2 meters, and had tusks like other pigs. It probably looked a lot like a wild boar. But its skull is longer than modern pig skulls and it had horns. Three horns, specifically. Two of the horns were small and grew above the eyes, while a bigger horn grew forward from its forehead. The forehead horn wasn’t very long and was probably blunt. Researchers used to think males used these forehead horns to fight each other, but females had them too so they may also have been used for defense from predators.

That is literally all I can find out about this fascinating animal. I can’t even speculate about the horns since literally no other pig has horns, at least that I can find. Presumably the warty protrusions that many modern pig species have are similar to the horns that Kubanochoerus had. The eyebrow horns might have had the same purpose as the facial protrusions on warthogs and other pigs, as a way to protect the eyes when the pigs fight. The forehead horn, though…well, that’s just weird. It probably wasn’t covered with keratin, but we don’t know. My own guess is that it was something more like an ossicone and was covered with skin and hair. But again, we don’t know. Not until we invent a working time machine and go back to look at one.

That’s it, a very short episode. I’m actually in Dublin, Ireland right now attending WorldCon, so while I’m here I will keep an eye out for leprechauns, fairies, and pigicorns, just in case.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 127: New World Vultures



This week we’ll learn about some vultures from North and South America–some living, some extinct, and one mystery! Thanks to Maureen and Grady for their suggestions!

Thanks also to Kat White for the Turkey Vulture Song that opens the podcast! If you’d like to buy her album “In the Eye of the Owl,” visit her website at katwhitemusic.com/

Further listening:

CritterCast episode 35 Turkey Vultures

How to tell a turkey vulture apart from a black vulture:

The king vulture has a very bright head:

The Andean condor soaring:

The painted vulture:

Show transcript:

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

Way back in episode 40 we learned about the bearded vulture and some of its close relatives. This was a suggestion from Maureen, and I always meant to revisit vultures so we could learn about more vulture species. Then Grady wanted to know how long buzzards stay in the sky until they come down for food, and why do they soar for so long? That’s a great question that shows some good observation skills, so let’s go back to vultures and learn more about them.

Those of you listening in Europe may be wondering why I’m talking about buzzards in a vulture episode. That’s because we’re going to learn about new world vultures today, and in North America the general term for a vulture is a buzzard. In Europe, a buzzard is actually a type of eagle.

Before we get into the episode, though, I should mention that the intro music we heard is by Kat White, who was kind enough to let me use a snippet. It’s from the album “In the Eye of the Owl,” which is all about animals and so much fun I wanted to let everyone know about it. I’ll put a link in the show notes so you can find out more about the songs.

Kat also let me know about a turkey vulture named Lord Richard who lives in a park called Lindsay Wildlife Experience in California. Lord Richard just turned 45 years old and got a huge birthday party! So as you can see, vultures can live a long time in captivity, although usually not as long in the wild. Then again, the oldest verified vulture is an Andean condor born in captivity in 1930 who died in 2010 at the age of 79. Andean condors in the wild can live more than 50 years. This makes Lord Richard sound like a positive youngster.

New World vultures are native to the Americas and all of them are pretty big. In fact, condors are vultures and they’re extremely large birds. The New World vultures aren’t very closely related to each other but they all share some traits.

Vultures are scavengers that find dead animals to eat. The meat from dead animal carcasses is referred to as carrion. Vultures will also eat rotting fruit and garbage sometimes. Because they eat meat that is often spoiled, vultures have an extremely acidic digestive system that helps the bird digest its food quickly and kills off any bacteria that might make it sick. It also has beneficial bacteria in its digestive system that neutralize toxins.

But that’s not where the adaptations to eating carrion end. The vulture is a highly specialized bird. Most vultures don’t have many feathers on their heads, unlike other birds. If you’re snacking right now, you might want to pause this until you’re done. Quite often a vulture will actually stick its head into a rotting animal carcass to get at the, uh, softer parts. This means its head gets covered in rotting gunk and a lot of bacteria. If it had head feathers, they would be destroyed by bacteria.

One interesting thing about vultures of all kinds is that they actually help stop the spread of diseases like rabies and anthrax. Their digestive tract is so effective that it kills off viruses that caused the animal to die, so it’s actually beneficial to the environment in general and to farmers. Unfortunately, farmers don’t always know this and think vultures spread disease. Many vultures are protected species in most countries to stop farmers and other people from shooting them.

Quite often you’ll see a vulture perched somewhere up high with its wings spread. It does this to dry them when it’s been rainy or foggy, but also so that sunlight will help kill off any bacteria on the feathers. That’s another reason the vulture has no feathers on the head, so that sunlight can kill off any bacteria on its skin.

Vultures do some other gross stuff, like pee on their own legs. They do this to cool down in hot weather, since as the liquid droppings evaporate it cools the legs, and therefore cools the blood flowing through the legs, and therefore cools the vulture’s body temperature overall. But vultures also like to bathe in shallow water, which helps clean the skin and the feathers, and which of course washes any droppings off their legs.

Vultures also puke up what they’ve eaten if they feel threatened. This serves two purposes. The vulture is immediately much lighter and can fly away more easily, and the horrible stench of partially digested rotting meat may drive away a potential predator.

There are seven species of new world vulture alive today. The most common one is the turkey vulture, which lives throughout most of North and South America. The next most common is the American black vulture, which lives in South America up to the southern parts of North America. From a distance it can be hard to tell the two apart, but the black vulture has silvery tips on its wings.

The turkey vulture is the vulture most often referred to as a buzzard. It has a wingspan of about six feet, or over 1.8 meters, although it doesn’t weigh more than about five pounds at most, or 2.4 kg. It’s kind of a picky eater, surprisingly, and doesn’t like really rotten meat. It often hangs out with black vultures, but black vultures are more aggressive even though they’re a little smaller, and the turkey vulture will wait until the black vultures are done eating before it moves in to finish off what’s left.

Black vultures and turkey vultures aren’t very closely related and don’t really look very similar if you see them up close. The turkey vulture has a red head that looks a lot like a male turkey’s, which is where it gets its name. The black vulture has a gray head.

Unlike the turkey vulture, which almost exclusively eats carrion and rotting fruit and sometimes vegetables, the black vulture will also eat eggs and sometimes kills small animals, especially baby animals. It hunts in groups and can even kill newborn calves.

If you want to learn more about the turkey vulture, the Critter Cast Podcast has a really good episode all about it. I’ll put a link in the show notes in case you don’t already listen to Critter Cast.

The other new world vultures are mostly restricted to South America, except for the California condor. We’ll talk about condors in a minute. The king vulture is most common in South America although it also lives in parts of southern Mexico and in Central America. Unlike most vultures, which are mostly black, its feathers are mostly white with some gray and black markings. The skin of its bald head is brightly colored, with different individuals having different coloration—red, orange, yellow, purple, even blue, with an orange crest on its bill in adult birds. It also has a white eye with a red rim, and short bristles on the head. The ancient Maya people considered the king vulture a messenger of the gods, which is pretty neat.

The king vulture is big even for a vulture, with a wingspan of up to about 7 feet, or 2 meters, which makes sense since it’s most closely related to the Andean condor. It has a stronger bill than most vultures, which helps it tear open an animal carcass that other vulture species might not be able to access. Often, other vulture species will wait until a king vulture has opened a carcass and eaten its fill before they move in and eat too. It especially likes the skin and tougher meat of a carcass, and its tongue is raspy to help it pull meat off bones.

The king vulture’s ancestors lived farther north, into parts of North America, but went extinct around 2 ½ million years ago. We don’t really know all that much about the ancestors of the New World vultures, though, because they’re not very common in the fossil record. But the New World vultures are related to the terratorns, huge birds that are extinct now. We’ve discussed terratorns once before way back in episode 17, about the Thunderbird, but let’s discuss them again because they were incredible birds.

We have a decent number of terratorn remains from the La Brea Tar Pits and a few other places. The terratorns were bigger even than condors. A number of species lived throughout the Americas, with even the smaller species having an estimated wingspan of around 12 feet, or 3.8 meters. The largest species known, Argentavis magnificens, lived in South America around six million years ago. It’s estimated to have a wingspan of at least 16 feet, or 6.5 meters, and possibly as much as 26 feet, or 8 meters. That’s the size of a small aircraft.

Researchers think Argentavis was an efficient glider, hardly needing to flap its wings. But it wasn’t very maneuverable, so researchers also think it was probably a scavenger like modern vultures. Smaller terratorns may have been active hunters, more like eagles than vultures. Argentavis had strong legs and probably took off by running into the wind with its massive wings spread, sort of like an airplane taking off, so it didn’t have to flap its wings at all.

That brings us to Grady’s question about why and how buzzards soar for so long. Argentavis would have spent most of its time soaring, hardly ever needing to flap its wings. Its wings weren’t even very strong, and it might not even have been able to flap them when they were extended. The turkey vulture, or buzzard, is especially good at soaring for long periods of time, sometimes for hours, without needing to flap its wings.

If you’ve noticed, soaring birds like vultures, eagles, and hawks tend to fly in circles. There’s a reason for this. When the wind blows over a hill or mountain, it creates an updraft, a breeze that blows directly upward. Similarly, air rises from land that’s been warmed by the sun, causing columns of warm air called thermals. A soaring bird stays in these updrafts and thermals by flying in circles. Vultures also have wingtips where the feathers are spread out, so that each flight feather is separated from the next by a small space. Each of these feathers acts like a tiny wing of its own, which helps keep the vulture gliding forward and not downward. All this wind over the wingtip feathers causes a lot of pressure, though, and vultures have a special bone at the wingtip that helps strengthen and support the flight feathers. Soaring instead of flapping conserves a lot of energy, which is why vultures will soar for as long as they can, looking for food.

Most New World vultures have a good sense of smell, which is unusual for birds. The turkey vulture finds a lot of its food by smell. The black vulture doesn’t have nearly as good a sense of smell, though, and as a result it often follows turkey vultures to find carcasses, then bullies the turkey vultures out of the way to eat first. That’s not very nice, birds. In addition, the turkey vulture has keen eyesight, which helps it find dead animals that might not have started to smell yet.

So let’s talk about those condors now. There are two species of condor alive today, the California and the Andean. We covered the California condor in episode 44, extinct and back from the brink. The California condor actually went extinct in the wild in 1987, with only 22 birds alive in captivity, but an ongoing captive breeding program saved it from extinction and captive-bred birds started to be released into the wild in 1991. But there are still fewer than 500 individuals alive today, so it’s still in danger of extinction. The California condor only lives in a few small areas of western North America today, but around 40,000 years ago it lived throughout North America. Part of the reason it’s still so rare is that it reproduces very slowly. A pair doesn’t nest every year, and even when they do, the female only lays one egg. A young condor depends on its parents for a full year, both for food and to learn how to fly. It can take a young condor months to learn how to fly properly, and researchers sometimes observe awkward crash landings that are probably pretty funny, although maybe not so funny to the condor.

The California condor’s wingspan can be up to almost ten feet, or 3 meters. This is huge, but the Andean condor is even bigger. Its wingspan is nearly eleven feet, or 3.3 meters. The Andean condor lives in and near the Andes Mountains along the western coast of South America. It’s mostly black with silvery patches on the wings and a white ruff around the neck, and its head is gray in color but can flush reddish to communicate with other condors. The male also has a comb on the top of its head.

The Andean condor’s feet are adapted for walking, not fighting. Its feet aren’t very strong and its talons aren’t very sharp. It does sometimes kill small animals like rabbits, but its feet are so weak that it can’t use them to attack. Instead, it stabs the animal to death with its beak.

Like Argentavis, the Andean condor’s wings are built for soaring, not flapping. It can soar for hours without needing to flap its wings once, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles in a day to find food.

It’s a social bird that mates for life, and one of its courtship rituals is a hopping, flapping dance. Keep in mind that this is a bird with wings over five feet long. That would be a pretty impressive dance. The Andean condor nests high in the Andes Mountains on cliffs that predators can’t reach and lays one or two eggs.

Let’s go back to the king vulture now to finish up, because there’s a mystery associated with the king vulture. In the 1770s, a man named William Bartram traveled through Florida and took notes about the animals and plants he saw. He published a book of his travels in 1791 and in it, he included information about a bird he called a painted vulture. He said it was fairly common in Florida and that he’d even shot one himself. The description he gave sounds like a king vulture except that Bartram described its tail as white with a black tip, not entirely black.

But remember, the king vulture primarily lives in South America. It is known in the very southern parts of North America in Mexico, but not Florida. What’s going on?

Some people think Bartram included the painted vulture as a hoax. Some people think he got it mixed up with a different bird, the Northern caracara, a bird of prey which only looks slightly like a king vulture. Some people think there may have been a small population of king vultures in Florida at the time that later went extinct, possibly a subspecies of king vulture with a mostly white tail instead of all black.

Bartram wasn’t the only person who reported seeing the painted vulture. In 1734 an English naturalist and artist, Eleazar Albin, painted a vulture that looked almost identical to the one Bartram described 30-odd years later, tail and all. It’s not completely clear where Albin saw his bird, but as far as researchers can determine Bartram wasn’t aware of the painting. So it’s possible that a subspecies of king vulture once lived in Florida but went extinct soon after Bartram saw it. If he and Albin hadn’t documented it, no one alive today would have any idea the painted vulture ever existed.

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

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