Category Archives: South America

Episode 282: Little Longtailed Birds



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

Happy birthday to Jasper!! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Fossil of Ancient Long-Tailed Bird Found in China

All adult scissor-tailed flycatchers have long tails:

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

The long-tailed widowbird male has a long tail:

The long-tailed widowbird female has a short tail:

The pin-tailed whydah male has a long tail:

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

Kompsornis longicaudus had a really long tail:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 270: The Tapir Frog



New frog just dropped.

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

Further reading:

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

Meet the tapir frog:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the frog sounds like:

[tapir frog beeping]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


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



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

Happy birthday to Vale! Have a fantastic birthday!!

The magnificent Gila monster:

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

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

A striped basilisk has a racing stripe:

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

The desert sand boa:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 266: Mystery Macaws



Thanks to Pranav for this week’s suggestion!

Happy birthday to MaxOrangutan! Have a great birthday!

Further reading:

Scarlet macaw DNA points to ancient breeding operation in Southwest

The glorious hyacinth macaw:

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

The blue-and-gold macaw:

Eleazar Albin’s mystery macaw:

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

The scarlet macaw:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 262: Animals Discovered in 2021



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

Further reading:

First description of a new octopus species without using a scalpel

Marine Biologists Discover New Species of Octopus

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

Meet the freaky fanged frog from the Philippines

New alpine moth solves a 180-year-old mystery

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

Fourteen new species of shrew found on Indonesian island

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

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

Scientists describe a new Himalayan snake species found via Instagram

The emperor dumbo octopus (deceased):

The star octopus:

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

The slender bleating tree frog:

The screaming tree frog:

The Mindoro fanged frog:

Some frogs do have lil bitty fangs:

The hidden Alpine moth, mystery solver:

The Hokie twisted-claw millipede:

One of 14 new species of shrew:

The snake picture that led to a discovery:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the slender bleating tree frog sounds like:

[frog call]

This is what the screaming tree frog sounds like:

[another frog call]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 257: Some Animals of Belize



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

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

Further reading:

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

The adorable proboscis bat, my favorite:

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

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

The white-crowned manakin is impossibly cute:

The mealy parrot is cheerful and loud:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[guide and howler monkey sounds]

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

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

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

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

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

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

[mealy parrot calls]

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 250: Mystery of the Golden Toad



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This week let’s look at a scientific mystery: what caused the golden toad to go extinct, and is it still alive after all?

Further reading:

A deadly fungus is killing frogs, but the bacteria on their skin could protect them

The male golden toad:

The female golden toad (photo by Mary Crump):

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is gorgeous and hopefully still hides some golden toads:

Show transcript:

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

This is our 250th episode, not counting the various bonus episodes, and I should have prepared a special show as a result but I didn’t notice until just now. But let’s pretend this is a special episode 250 show. It’s all about the golden toad.

The golden toad is from a tiny area of Costa Rica in Central America. I really do mean a tiny area. North of the city of Monteverde is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, and the toad was only known from one small part of the reserve that was less than two square miles in size, or about four square kilometers. Specifically, it’s from a single ridge in the nature reserve.

A cloud forest is a type of high altitude rainforest. Because temperatures tend to be much cooler than in an ordinary rainforest, a cloud forest can look very different and sometimes wonderfully strange. Cloud forests are foggy a lot of the time and the trees are often covered in thick mosses. In some cloud forests the trees are quite small while ferns and other plants can grow extremely large.

The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of them found nowhere else in the world. That includes the golden toad.

The golden toad gets its name from the male’s coloring. The males are a beautiful golden orange while the females are mostly gray or black with yellow, red, or green markings. As in many frogs and toads, females are larger than males, with a big female growing over two inches long from nose to butt, or about 5.5 centimeters.

The golden toad was only discovered by scientists in 1964 and described in 1966. The last golden toad was a male observed in May of 1989 during what should have been the mating season, but he was all alone. The golden toad was declared extinct in 2004 after repeated searches turned up no toads at all.

It’s easy to think that because the golden toad was restricted to such a small area, it was inevitable that it would go extinct, but the toads were actually common throughout their range until suddenly they weren’t. We’re not sure what happened. Here’s the story.

When the toad was first discovered, researchers estimated that there were around 1,500 adult toads living on the ridge. Most of the time the toads were hard to find, since during the dry season, or when they weren’t actively hunting the insects they ate, they’d stay in underground burrows where it was always nice and damp. But when the spring rains started, the males would hop out and gather around shallow puddles at the base of trees. Females would join the males, and because there were always more males than females, they’d all try to be the one to fertilize her eggs. During this time researchers were able to observe and count the toads, which they described as looking like living jewels.

The female golden toad laid her eggs in the pools of rainwater. The eggs hatched quickly but the tadpoles needed to live in their pool for at least four more weeks until they metamorphosed into toadlets that lived on land. If there was too much rain, the pools would overflow and the tadpoles were in danger of being washed out to die. If there wasn’t enough rain, the pools would dry out and the tadpoles would also die. But most years conditions were pretty good and lots of tadpoles lived to grow up. Until 1987.

A behavioral ecologist who specializes in amphibians, Martha Crump, was studying the golden toads in 1987. In April things seemed normal. The females laid their eggs in the shallow pools as usual, but then the rains stopped. The pools dried out and the eggs and tadpoles all died. When it rained again in May, the females laid more eggs and Dr. Crump counted them, because scientists do a lot of counting. She counted about 43,500 toad eggs. But the pools dried up again, and it was sadly easy for Dr. Crump to count how many tadpoles survived. It was only 29.

The next year, in 1988, there were only ten adult golden toads found. In 1989, one golden toad. In 1990 and beyond, zero golden toads.

The unusually dry spring of 1987 was a devastating blow to the golden toad population, but the adults weren’t affected. They had their nice damp burrows to live in and lots of insects to eat. Dry conditions happen every so often but not every year. Obviously something else happened between 1987 and 1988 to kill off almost all the adult toads too.

Researchers couldn’t figure out what might have happened. One hypothesis was that drought caused by the El Niño weather pattern was unusually severe in 1987 and killed off the adults as well as that year’s eggs and tadpoles. Another was that pesticides had found their way into the environment and killed the toads. Many researchers hoped that the toads were actually still alive, just hiding in their burrows until conditions improved, and every spring for many years toad experts waited to see if the living jewels would emerge during the spring rains. But they never did.

At the same time, though, toads, frogs, and other amphibians around the world were declining in numbers and going extinct. A veterinarian named Lee Berger, who was working toward her doctorate degree, discovered why in 1998. It’s a disease called chytridiomycosis, which is caused by a fungus. The disease infects the animal’s skin, and since amphibians absorb water, oxygen, and some essential minerals through their skin, the disease kills them rapidly.

Chytridiomycosis doesn’t kill every frog. Some species are more or less immune to the disease’s effects, but when infected frogs are taken to other places by people, as pets or food or whatever reasons people have for moving frogs around, the disease spreads rapidly. By the time Dr. Berger identified the cause, dozens of species of amphibian had already gone extinct as a direct result of the disease, and it’s continued ever since. The fungus spreads through water, so if a healthy frog moves into an infected pond, it’s likely to contract the disease.

There’s no cure for chytridiomycosis and treatment isn’t always effective. It doesn’t mean all amphibians are doomed, though. Studies of species that show natural immunity reveal that some amphibians have beneficial bacteria on their skin that stops the fungus from infecting it. Frogs from parts of Costa Rica show various levels of resistance to the fungus even though Costa Rica is particularly hard-hit when it comes to the disease.

The fungus especially thrives in cooler areas in high elevations—exactly the kind of place where the golden toad lived. Even so, the golden toad might have survived and developed a resistance to the disease, except for the bad luck of a drought year that killed off all the eggs and tadpoles at the worst possible time.

But while researchers have searched for the golden toad for years without luck, it might still be around. In 1991 one farmer reported seeing a pool full of healthy golden toads in a remote part of the cloud forest, including young toads. Other people have reported sightings too.

The important thing is that the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve is still protecting the golden toad’s habitat, along with all the other animals and plants in the reserve. If the golden toad is still hanging on, hopefully with individuals that have developed a resistance to chytridiomycosis, it has a safe place to increase in numbers.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 239: Mystery Crocodiles



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Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions. Let’s learn about some mystery crocodiles (and crocodile mysteries) this week!

Further reading:

Huge prehistoric croc ‘river boss’ prowled waterways

Extinct “horned” crocodile’s ancestry revealed

New species of crocodile discovered in museum collections

Rediscovery of “Lost” Caiman Leads to New Crocodilian Mystery

The Orange Cave-Dwelling Crocodiles

The horned crocodile’s fossil skull:

A baby Apaporis River caiman, looking fierce but cute (picture from link above):

An orange crocodile (later released, picture from link above):

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. We’ve got a crocodile episode this week you can really sink your teeth into. Thanks to Pranav and Max for their suggestions! (Yes, I do have a cold but hopefully I don’t sound too bad. I got a covid test today to make sure it’s just a cold, and it’s just a cold.)

We talked about crododilians in episode 85, so if you want to learn more about the saltwater crocodile or how to tell the American crocodile from the American alligator and so forth, that’s the episode to listen to. This episode is going to talk about mystery crocodiles!

The partial skull of a massive extinct crocodilian discovered in Queensland, Australia over a century ago was finally described in June of 2021. All we have is the partial skull from an animal that lived between 2 and 5 million years ago, but researchers can estimate the size of the whole animal by comparing the dimensions of its skull with its closest living relation. That happens to be an animal called the false gharial that lives on a few islands in South Asia, including Java and Sumatra. It’s the only living member of the subfamily Tomistominae, which used to be common worldwide. The false gharial can grow as long as 16 feet, or 5 meters, but its extinct Australian cousin was much bigger. The new species, Gunggamarandu maunala, may have grown up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters.

A smaller extinct crocodile, called the horned crocodile, lived in Madagascar until only about 1,400 years ago. It grew a little over 16 feet long, or 5 meters. It had two projections at the back of its head that look like horns, although they weren’t actually horns and probably weren’t all that big or noticeable when the crocodile was alive.

Like Gunggamarandu, the horned crocodile’s fossils were discovered almost 150 years ago but only definitively described in 2021. In this case, though, the delay was because no one could decide where the horned crocodile belonged in the crocodilian family tree. The Nile crocodile lives on Madagascar now, and some researchers assumed that the horned crocodile was either a close relation of the Nile croc or its ancestor. Since new evidence points to the Nile crocodile being a fairly recent arrival to the island, that’s not likely, so researchers analyzed the fossil remains and reclassified the horned croc as a member of the dwarf crocodiles in 2007. Finally, though, a research team analyzed the horned croc’s DNA and determined that it belongs in its own genus and is most closely related to the ancestral species of all living crocodiles. This suggests that crocodiles evolved in Africa and spread throughout the world from there.

Researchers aren’t sure what caused the horned croc to go extinct, but it may have been a combination of factors, including a drying climate on Madagascar, the arrival of humans, and the arrival of the Nile crocodile.

Speaking of the Nile crocodile and DNA, a 2011 genetic study of the Nile crocodile resulted in a surprising discovery. The study tested not just DNA samples gathered from 123 living Nile crocodiles but from 57 crocodiles mummified in ancient Egypt. The goal was to see if there were differences between modern crocodiles and ones that lived several thousand years ago, and to determine whether maybe there was a subspecies of Nile crocodile that hadn’t been recognized by science. Instead, they discovered that what was previously known as the Nile crocodile is actually two completely different species!

The Nile croc lives in Africa and is a large, aggressive animal that can grow just over 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters. The West African croc also lives in Africa and is a smaller, less aggressive animal that can grow up to 13 feet long, or 4 meters. Since crocodiles of all species show a lot of variation in size and appearance, no one realized until 2011 that there were two species living near each other. They’re not even all that closely related.

After the finding was published, zoos across the world tested their crocodiles and discovered that a lot of their Nile crocs are actually West African crocs.

Something similar happened more recently, in 2019, when a team of scientists did a genetic study of the New Guinea crocodile. They gathered DNA from 51 museum specimens from 7 different museums, and compared them to living New Guinea crocodiles. They were hoping to determine if there are actually two species of crocodile living in different parts of New Guinea, which had been suspected for a while. It turns out that yes, there are two separate species! Knowing exactly what kinds of animals live in a particular environment helps conservationists protect them properly.

In 1952 a subspecies of the spectacled caiman was discovered by science, called the Apaporis River caiman. It lives in Colombia, South America and is relatively small as crocs go, maybe 8 feet long at most, or 2.5 meters. After that, though, it wasn’t seen again. This was partly due to how remote and hard to navigate its habitat is, and partly due to a dangerous political situation, with rebel forces occupying the jungle where the crocodiles live. A peace treaty signed in 2016 made it safe for scientists to travel to that area at last, and a Colombian biologist named Sergio Balaguera-Reina visited with various indigenous tribes of the area to ask about the Apaporis caiman and learn everything they knew about it.

At night, he and two local people paddled upriver in a canoe and searched for the caimans—and he found lots of them. He caught as many as he could to take DNA samples before releasing them again. When he got home, he tested the DNA and made a surprising discovery. Even though the Apaporis caimans look very different from another subspecies of spectacled caiman found in other parts of South America, their DNA is quite similar. That means the differences, especially the Apaporis caiman’s much narrower snout, are due to selective pressures in its environment. Balaguera-Reina is working on figuring out the causes of the Apaporis caiman’s physical differences.

The Siamese crocodile was once common throughout South Asia, but habitat loss has had a major impact on the species and for a long time it was thought to be extinct in the wild. It grows up to 13 feet long at most, or 4 meters, and is not very aggressive. It’s kept in captivity in crocodile farms, where it’s bred and killed for its meat and skin, but a lot of those farms have multiple species of closely related crocodiles and they can and do interbreed, meaning that the Siamese crocodiles in the farms are most likely hybrid animals.

In 2001 a team of conservationists traveled to Thailand to search for tigers, and one of their camera traps recorded a Siamese crocodile just walking along the river like it was no big deal. The photograph was especially lucky because it shouldn’t have even happened. The camera traps used actual film, not digital cameras which were still expensive and not very good back then. The rolls of film could capture 36 pictures before the film ran out, but the crocodile appeared on the 37th picture. Film is manufactured in long strips, then cut into pieces and rolled up and put in little canisters for a photographer to put in the camera, and the roll is a little longer than it needs to be because the ends have to be anchored in place. This particular strip of film just happened to be long enough to take 37 pictures instead of 36. If it hadn’t been, the conservationists wouldn’t have known the crocodile was still alive.

A follow-up expedition to look specifically for crocodiles discovered more of them. Since then a captive breeding program was set up, and in 2013 the first hatchlings were released into the wild.

Sometimes when a crocodile is killed, interesting things turn up in its stomach. This is what happened in 2019 when a crocodile farm in Queensland, Australia necropsied one of their saltwater crocs to see what he had died of. The croc was over 15 feet long, or 4.7 meters, and was about 60 years old. When they opened up his stomach, they found a piece of metal and six screws, the kind of metal called an orthopedic plate. It’s used to join two pieces of broken bone or strengthen an injured bone so it won’t break.

Medical devices like this are always etched with a serial number, but the metal was inside the croc’s belly for so long that the serial number was corroded off by stomach acid. This would have taken decades to happen, so the crocodile had to have eaten the metal decades ago, possibly as long as 40 years ago.

The farm contacted the police but so far they haven’t been able to trace what might have happened. The croc wasn’t bred on a farm but had been caught wild. The farm owner sent pictures of the plate to a surgeon, who determined that yes, it was probably from a human, not an animal, and that it looks like a type of plate used in Europe. The farm owner hopes the discovery will one day help solve a missing persons case.

Let’s finish with an interesting discovery in the rainforests of Gabon, a small country on the west coast of central Africa. The Abanda caves in the area are extensive, not very well explored, and full of bats and insects. A man named Olivier Testa, a professional explorer who often leads scientific expeditions into remote areas, heard a rumor about a population of orange [I read this as strange instead of orange and was too lazy to fix it] crocodiles living in the cave system. A lot of people would have just laughed, because everyone knows crocs and other reptiles like hot weather, sunshine, and warm water to hunt in. But when Testa got the opportunity to join an expedition into the cave system in 2010, he remembered the crocodiles.

Guess what they found in the cave. I bet you all guessed correctly. There really were crocodiles in the caves, specifically African dwarf crocodiles, and the biggest ones did look slightly orangey in color. Crocs don’t live in caves, but there they were. The following year the expedition returned, and this time they were there to find out more about the crocs.

A crocodile expert named Matthew Shirley came along, and he figured out why the crocodiles were in the cave. There are an estimated 50,000 bats living in the cave system, so many that the crocodiles could basically just reach up and snap bats off the walls to eat. There are lots of crickets in the cave too, and young crocs eat lots of insects.

As for the orange color of the older crocs, that comes from the water in the cave. Bats have to pee just like every other animal does, and where they roost over the water they pee into the water, naturally. So much bat urine actually has an effect on the water composition, turning it extremely alkaline. This affects the skin color of animals that stay in it for a long time, as the older crocs have.

The cave crocodiles appear to spend the dry season in the caves, eating bats and avoiding humans who hunt crocs. During the rainy season, they emerge from the caves to mate and lay their eggs in rotting vegetation outside.

This is the first population of crocodiles ever found that spends time in caves deliberately. Some researchers speculate that the crocodiles could eventually evolve into a new subspecies of dwarf crocodile that’s especially adapted to the cave system.

You know what we call those? We call them dragons.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 238: The Pink Fairy Armadillo and Two Adorable Friends



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This week we’ve got three adorable little animals to learn about! Thanks to Simon and Thia, Elaine, and Henry for their suggestions!

Further reading:

Turning the spotlight on the rusty-spotted cat (Wildlife SOS)

The cute and fuzzy pink fairy armadillo:

The cute and fuzzy rusty spotted cat:

The cute and fuzzy baby Arctic tern:

Adult Arctic terns:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got three strange and adorable animals for you, all listener suggestions because I’m getting really behind on those. Thanks this week to Simon and Thia, Elaine, and Henry!

First, Simon and Thia suggested the pink fairy armadillo. That’s one we covered briefly in a Patreon episode back in 2018, but it deserves to be featured in the main feed because it’s so strange and cute. It lives in deserts and grasslands of central Argentina, South America, but since its range is so restricted and it spends most of its life underground and is rarely seen by humans, we don’t know much about it.

The pink fairy armadillo is the smallest armadillo species known. It only grows about 4.5 inches long, or 11.5 cm, small enough to sit in the palm of your hand. It’s protected by a leathery shell that runs from its nose along the top of its head and down its back to its bottom, and the shell is segmented like a regular armadillo’s shell except that it’s a delicate pink. The fluffy fur on the animal’s sides and tummy is white. It has a short spade-shaped tail, but the rear of its body is flattened, and it uses its flat bottom to compress dirt in the tunnels as it digs. It has a small head, short legs, and gigantic front claws. Its hind claws are big too.

It spends almost all of its life underground, digging shallow tunnels and eating small animals like worms, insect larvae, snails, and insects like ants, which it probably hunts by scent. It has a good sense of smell but its eyes are tiny and its ears don’t show at all, although it does have good hearing. It can dig extremely quickly. It loosens the soil with its huge front claws, kicks it back with its hind claws, and then does a quick reverse to tamp the new dirt heap into a firm column with its flat bottom. This keeps the floor of its burrow clear so the armadillo can breathe properly and helps keep the burrow from collapsing.

Almost the only time the pink fairy armadillo surfaces is when it reaches an obstacle it can’t dig through or around, and then its claws are so big it has trouble walking on hard surfaces. This is bad if it tries to cross a road. Most sightings of pink fairy armadillos are of roadkill animals. Sometimes it surfaces after heavy rain when its burrows are flooded.

The reason the pink fairy armadillo’s shell is pink is that blood vessels show through it. Researchers think it can regulate its temperature according to how much blood flows through the vessels beneath the shell. The shell is only attached to the body by a membrane along the spinal column and doesn’t protect it as well as other armadillo shells do, but then it’s almost always underground so the shell probably mostly protects it from rocks and roots.

The pink fairy armadillo doesn’t do well in captivity, usually dying from stress within a day or two of capture, and since it’s almost always underground it can be hard to find and study. It’s threatened by habitat loss, climate change, poaching, and the use of pesticides. It’s extremely sensitive to changes in temperature and soil.

The pink fairy armadillo has a similar-looking but slightly larger relative, the greater fairy armadillo, which can grow up to 7 inches long, or 17.5 cm. It’s also a burrowing armadillo that lives in South America, which has an additional conservation problem. It’s considered by locals to be the spirit of a dead baby, so if a local sees it they usually kill it.

Next, Elaine suggested the rusty spotted cat. It’s a tiny cat that lives in forests and grasslands in South Asia, especially in India and Sri Lanka, and although it resembles a tiny domestic cat, it’s not all that closely related to domestic cats or their wild cousins.

The rusty spotted cat is reddish-gray with darker stripes on the face and small rusty-red spots over most of its body. It’s about half the size of a domestic cat and grows up to 19 inches long at most, or 48 cm, not counting its tail, which adds another 12 inches or so to its length, or 30 cm. This is where I tried to measure my cats with the soft plastic tape measure I use for sewing, but they thought it was a toy so I never did figure out how long they are. Also, my tape measure has holes in it now from claws and teeth. The rusty spotted cat only weighs up to about 4 pounds, or 1.8 kg. Keep in mind that these numbers are for the biggest possible rusty spotted cats. Most are much smaller. They’re basically kitten-sized.

The rusty spotted cat is mostly nocturnal and eats small animals like mice and other rodents, birds, lizards, and insects. It mostly hunts on the ground and mostly only climbs trees to escape predators. It’s a fierce hunter and can be very aggressive despite its small size, so even though it’s really cute and some people want to keep it as a pet, it’s very wild and not friendly. You’re way better off adopting a small domestic cat. Besides, the rusty spotted cat is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting for its fur, so we shouldn’t be keeping it as pets.

Conservationists are working to protect the rusty spotted cat by educating people who live in the area about what the cat is. While a mother rusty spotted cat is out hunting, she leaves her kittens in a little nest in long grass. If she makes her nest in a cultivated field, like a tea plantation, sometimes a worker harvesting or caring for the plants will find the kittens. People are basically good at heart and want to help baby animals, so a lot of times the worker will take the kittens home thinking they’re abandoned. A conservation group called Wildlife SOS is working to teach people to leave the babies alone, and when they hear about someone who’s found a kitten, they send someone out to learn where the kitten was found and when, and will reunite the kittens with their mother. Wildlife SOS also helps other animals in India, including leopards and elephants. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to find out more and maybe donate to the program to help these adorable teeny-tiny wildcats.

Finally, Henry suggested the Arctic tern, a bird that lives…pretty much everywhere, in fact, not just the Arctic. It breeds along the coasts in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere, including parts of Canada, Greenland, northern Europe, and Siberia, but after its babies are grown and the short northern summer comes to an end, it takes off for the southern hemisphere and spends the winter—which is summer in the southern hemisphere—around South Africa and Australia and New Zealand, all the way down to the Antarctic. When that summer ends, it flies back north to breed again. That’s an astoundingly long migration.

The Arctic tern spends most of its life flying above the ocean, hunting for small animals like fish, krill, amphipods, and crabs. It’s not a picky eater, though. It will also eat worms, insects, and berries, although it mostly eats these land foods when it’s nesting. It’s a beautiful bird that looks a little like a seagull, but is more lightly built and slender than most gulls. It’s white and pale gray with a black cap that extends down the back of the neck, a red bill, and short red legs and webbed feet. Its tail is forked like a swallow’s tail and it has long wings, which allow it to catch even the smallest sea breeze and fly extremely fast. Its wingspan is about 2.5 feet across, or 75 cm.

The Arctic tern mates for life. Even though the male and female have traveled literally around the world separately for most of the year, they both return to the same nesting ground, find each other, and start their summer courtship. The pair will fly high together with the female chasing the male, and then they’ll fly lower where the male will catch a little fish and offer it to the female. On land, they’ll do a little courtship dance where they raise and lower their tail and wings while strutting around together. Finally the pair decides where they want to build a nest.

The nest isn’t fancy, just a little scooped out place in the ground with maybe some grass in it. Parents take turns keeping the eggs warm and defending the nest from potential predators. It’s an aggressive bird and will even attack polar bears and drive them away, even though it’s just a delicate little bird. It will dive at the predator’s face and peck with its strong, sharp bill. Once the babies hatch, both parents feed the chicks until they learn how to fly.

An Arctic tern chick is possibly the cutest bird you will ever see, at least today. It’s gray and white with short legs, and it’s super super fluffy. The coloration helps it blend in with the rocks around the nesting site.

The Arctic tern travels over 40,000 miles every single year, or more than 70,000 km, and still manages to find its way back to the same breeding colony. How does it know where it is and where it’s going? Like many birds, it can sense the earth’s magnetic field. It combines this sense with where the sun is in the sky and can pinpoint exactly where it is in the world and where it needs to go. It’s like having built-in Google Maps.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 237: Geckos and Other Arboreal Reptiles



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Thanks to Riley, Richard, and Aiden and Aiden’s unnamed friend for suggestions this week! We’re going to learn about some geckos and other reptiles that live in trees. Thanks also to Llewelly for a small correction about lions. Also, I mispronounced Strophurus–it should be more like Stroff-YOUR-us but I’m too lazy to fix it.

Further reading:

Cancer Clues Found in Gene behind ‘Lemon Frost’ Gecko Color

A chameleon’s feets:

A rare healthy lemon frost domestic leopard gecko (photo taken from article linked above):

An ordinary leopard gecko:

I don’t remember what kind of gecko this is (golden spiny-tailed?) but I love it:

A crested gecko looking surprised:

The green iguana:

A black mamba. Watch out!

Flying snake alert!

The draco lizard with its “wings” extended (male) and the draco lizard with its “wings” folded (female):

A parachute gecko showing how it works:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some reptiles, specifically reptiles that live in trees. This is a suggestion from Riley, who wanted to hear about arboreal reptiles in general and the crested gecko in particular. Thanks also to my brother Richard, who suggested the dragon-tailed gecko. An anonymous reviewer also suggested the leopard gecko so we’ll learn about that one too. Specifically, the anonymous reviewer said “me and my friend Aiden suggest either red foxes or leopard geckos.” We actually covered the red fox in episode 138, about city animals, and in episode 106, about domestication, but we’ve only mentioned the leopard gecko briefly way back in episode 20.

Arboreal animals have some traits in common, whether they’re reptiles or mammals or something else. In general, an animal that spends most of its time in trees is small and lightweight, either has long legs or very short legs, may have a long tail to help it balance, and may also have various adaptations to its feet to help it maneuver through branches.

This is the case with the chameleon, which is arboreal and has weird feet. Its feet look more like mittens. The feet are called zygodactylous, which means it has two toes pointing forward and two pointing backwards. A lot of birds have feet like this too. Chameleons have other adaptations for arboreal life, like prehensile tails that can twine around a twig to help it keep its balance. The chameleon really deserves its own episode some day, so let’s move on to learn about some geckos.

The biggest gecko known grows up to two feet long, or 60 cm, but most are much smaller. There are more than 1,800 species known and they’re all really interesting and honestly, adorable. They’re mostly nocturnal and eat small animals like insects. About 60% of all gecko species have toe pads that allow them to walk up walls and windows and even across ceilings.

Like many other lizards, most geckos species can drop their tail if a predator attacks. The tail thrashes around on its own for several minutes, distracting the predator so the gecko can escape. The gecko later regrows a little stumpy tail, but it can’t drop it a second time. Many species of gecko store fat in the tail, so it needs that tail. A genus of gecko called the fish-scaled gecko, which lives on Madagascar and nearby islands, has big scales that come loose easily if an animal tries to bite it or if a scientist tries to capture it. The predator gets a mouthful of scales while the gecko runs off. The scales grow back eventually and can be lost again.

Scientists are always interested in animals that can regenerate parts of the body, to learn how that works. A study published in 2017 identified the type of cells that allow the gecko to regrow the part of its spinal cord that’s lost with its tail. In 2018, the same team published their discovery that geckos renew brain cells. This is amazing, since humans and many other animals are born with all the brain cells they’ll ever have, and if something happens to injure the brain, the damage can’t be repaired. Maybe one day people will be able to heal their brains just like the gecko does.

Most species of gecko don’t have eyelids. Instead, the gecko has a protective scale over its eyeball. To remove dust and other debris from the scale, the gecko licks its eyes.

The leopard gecko grows about 11 inches long, or almost 28 cm, and is one of the species that doesn’t have toe pads. That makes it easier to keep in captivity, since it’s less likely to climb out of its terrarium. It’s a handsome lizard that’s yellowish or orangey in color with black spots, but baby leopard geckos actually have black stripes. It’s native to parts of the Middle East and south Asia where it’s mostly hot and dry, and in the wild it spends its day in a burrow and only comes out at night to hunt.

The leopard gecko has been kept as a pet for so long that some people consider it the first truly domesticated lizard. It’s easy to take care of and is usually comfortable around people. Breeders select for brighter colors than are found in wild geckos, including various color and pattern morphs.

One color variety of domestic leopard gecko is called the lemon frost morph, an especially attractive coloration. It’s a pastel yellow with white underneath and brown or black speckles that form broad bands over the lizard’s back. It’s really pretty and when the trait cropped up unexpectedly around 2015, its owner started breeding for the color. Lemon frost babies were rare and incredibly expensive, with people paying up to $2,000 for a single gecko.

Unfortunately, people soon learned that lemon frost geckos were prone to a type of rare skin cancer that affects the iridophores, which are pigment-producing cells. Up to 80% of all lemon frost morphs develop the cancer. Geneticists have discovered that the color morph is due to a single mutation in a single gene, but that the change in that gene also makes the gecko susceptible to cancer. Scientists are now trying to figure out more about how it works in hopes of learning how to prevent skin cancer in humans.

The dragon-tailed gecko is one name for the golden spiny-tailed gecko, one of twenty species in the genus Strophurus. All Strophurus geckos are from Australia and they all spend most of their lives in trees and shrubs. Unlike other geckos, Strophurus geckos don’t drop their tails when threatened. Instead, they have a unique way of deterring predators. A Strophurus gecko can squirt an incredibly smelly liquid from tiny pores in its tail. If it feels threatened, instead of dropping its tail, it will raise its tail up and wave it back and forth as a warning. It also opens its mouth to reveal a bright yellow or blue lining, which alerts the potential predator that this is not a lizard it wants to mess with. If that doesn’t scare the predator away, it will squirt liquid at its face. The liquid is sticky and smells horrible, and if it gets in an animal’s eyes it can cause eye irritation.

Strophurus geckos grow up to 5 inches long, or 13 cm, and species may look very different from each other. Some are drab and spiny, some are smooth and brighter in color. The dragon-tailed gecko has a broad reddish or golden stripe down the top of its tail.

The crested gecko is native to a collection of remote Pacific islands called New Caledonia. It can grow more than 10 inches long, or 25 cm. It has tiny spines above its eyes that look like eyelashes and more spines in two rows down its back, like a tiny dragon. It can be brown, reddish, orange, yellow, or gray, with various colored spots, which has made it a popular pet. These days all pet crested geckos were bred in captivity, since it’s now protected in the wild.

The crested gecko spends most of its time in trees, and not only does it have adhesive toe pads, it also has tiny claws. Most geckos don’t have claws. It can drop its tail like other geckos, but it doesn’t grow back. This doesn’t seem to bother the gecko, though.

The crested gecko was discovered by science in 1866, but wasn’t seen after that in so long that people thought it was extinct. Then it was rediscovered in 1994, so hurrah for the crested gecko!

Let’s move on from geckos to some other arboreal reptiles. A lot of reptiles live mostly in trees, and not all of them are small. The green iguana, for instance. It’s native to southern Mexico into parts of South America but has been introduced in many other places in the Americas, where it’s often considered an invasive species. In warm weather it lives in trees, although it will climb down to the ground in cool, rainy weather, and it can grow up to six and a half feet long, or 2m.

Although the iguana can be really long, most of its length is tail. It has an incredibly long tail for its size. It’s not that heavy, either, with the biggest green iguana ever weighed only a little more than 20 lbs, or 9.1 kg. Most are much lighter. It has long legs and long toes with claws, which makes it a good climber. It uses its tail to balance. It’s usually a drab olive-green or brown in color, although babies are brighter green with reddish spots and some adults are more orange in color. The tail is patterned with broad stripes. It has spines along its back and down its chin, and males develop a large dewlap that hangs down under the neck.

Although the iguana looks like a small dragon, it eats leaves, flowers, fruit, and other plant material, although it will also sometimes eat a grasshopper or snail and even bird eggs every so often. Many people keep green iguanas as pets, but they can be hard to keep healthy in captivity.

Another big reptile that lives in trees is the black mamba, a snake that lives in parts of Africa. It’s a slender snake that can be black in color, but that’s actually rare. The name black mamba comes from the inside of the snake’s mouth, which is black. When it feels threatened, it will raise its head high and open its mouth as a threat display. It can even flatten its neck to look like a hood like some cobras do. You really don’t want to see this threat display, because the black mamba’s venom is deadly and it’s an aggressive snake. Without treatment and antivenin, someone who is bitten can die within 45 minutes.

The mamba’s body can be gray, gray-green, brown, or brownish-yellow. It can grow nearly 15 feet long, or 4.5 meters, which makes it the second-longest venomous snake in the world, after the king cobra that we talked about in our Q&A episode last week.

The black mamba mostly lives in open forests and savannas, and it’s equally at home on the ground and in trees. It hides in termite mounds or in holes in trees at night, then comes out in the morning to warm up in the sunshine. Then it goes hunting, usually for small animals like rodents but also for larger ones like the rock hyrax. The rock hyrax can grow almost two feet long, or 50 cm, and looks kind of like a big rodent even though it’s not a rodent. It’s actually most closely related to the elephant. The black mamba will sneak up on a hyrax, bite it quickly, and then just wait until it dies to swallow it whole. The mamba also hunts birds and bats, which is why it spends so much time in the trees.

Some reptiles are so well adapted to living in trees that they can glide from tree to tree, like the flying snakes we talked about in episode 56. Flying snakes live in southeast Asia, and of course they can’t really fly. A flying snake has ridged scales on its belly that help it climb trees, and when it wants to move from one tree to another, it can flatten its body by flaring its ribs. This gives it more surface area to catch air, like a long skinny Frisbee. It’s been measured as gliding as far as 100 meters, or 109 yards, which is just a little longer than an American football field.

The largest species of flying snake, the golden tree snake, can grow over four feet long, or 1.3 meters. It’s striped black, gold, and yellow although some may be green and black. It eats small animals it finds in trees, including frogs, birds, bats, and lizards. It’s venomous, but its venom is weak and not dangerous to humans.

Many lizards can glide too, including the draco lizard. The draco lizard is common throughout much of southeast Asia and spends almost its whole life in trees, eating insects like ants and termites. It’s a small, slender lizard that only grows about 8 inches long at most, or 20 cm, and that includes its very long tail. Many gliding animals, like the flying squirrel, have gliding membranes called patagia that stretch from the front legs to the back legs, but the draco lizard is different. It has greatly elongated ribs that it can extend like wings, and the skin between the ribs acts as a patagium. This skin is usually yellow or brown so that the lizard looks like a falling leaf when it’s gliding.

The male draco also has a brightly colored dewlap under its chin that it can extend to attract a mate. When a female is ready to lay her eggs, she climbs down from her tree, finds some soil that’s soft enough for her to stick her head into to make a little hole, and then lays her eggs in the hole and covers them with dirt to hide them.

The draco lizard is beautiful and looks like a tiny dragon, and I want one to live in my garden and every time I go out to water my plants or pull weeds, I want it to fly down and ride around on my shoulder.

To bring us full circle, some geckos can also glide using thin membranes of skin around their body, legs, tail, and toes that act as patagia. They’re called parachute geckos, which is just perfect.

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