Category Archives: whales

Episode 179: Lost and Found Animals



This week let’s learn about some animals that were discovered by science, then not seen again and presumed extinct…until they turned up again, safe and sound!

Further reading:

A nose-horned dragon lizard lost to science for over 100 years has been found

Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard has a nose horn, that’s for sure:

Before the little guy above was rediscovered, we basically just had this painting and an old museum specimen:

The deepwater trout:

The dinosaur ant:

The dinosaur ant statue of Poochera:

The false killer whale bite bite bite bite bite:

Some false killer whales:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about some animals that were discovered by scientists but then lost and assumed extinct, until they were found again many years later. There’s a lot of them and they’re good to think about when we feel down about how many species really are extinct.

We’ll start with a brand new announcement about a reptile called Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard, named after an Italian explorer named Elio Modigliani. He donated a specimen of the lizard to a natural history museum when he got home from exploring Indonesia. That was in 1891, and in 1933 scientists finally described it formally as Harpesaurus modiglianii.

The lizard was especially interesting because it had a horn on its nose that pointed forward and slightly up, and it had spines along its back. It looked like a tiny dragon.

But no one saw another one, not in Indonesia, not anywhere. Researchers knew it had lived where Modigliani said it did because a group of people from Indonesia called the Bataks knew about the lizard. It was part of their mythology and they carved pictures of it. But they didn’t have any, live or dead. Researchers thought it must have gone extinct.

Until 2018. In June 2018, a wildlife biologist named Chairunas Adha Putra was surveying birds in Indonesia, specifically in North Sumatra, when he found a dead lizard. Putra isn’t a lizard expert but he thought it might interest a herpetologist colleague named Thasun Amarasinghe, so he called him. Amarasinghe said oh yeah, that does sound interesting, do you mind sending it to me so I can take a look?

And that’s history, because once he saw it, Amarasinghe knew exactly what the lizard was.

Amarasinghe immediately called Putra, who was still out surveying birds. Could Putra please go back to where he’d found the dead lizard and see if he could find another one, preferably alive? It was really important.

Putra returned obligingly and searched for another lizard. It took him five days, but finally he found one asleep on a branch. He caught it and took pictures, measured it, and observed it before releasing it a few hours later. Hurray for scientists who go that extra mile to help scientists in other fields!

Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard is bright green with a yellow-green belly and spines, plus some mottled orange markings. At least, that’s what it looks like most of the time. It can change colors just like a chameleon. If it’s feeling stressed, it turns a darker gray-green and its spines and belly turn orangey. But it can change its color to match its environment too.

It’s related to a group of lizards called dragon lizards, which includes the bearded dragon that’s often kept as a pet. There are a lot of dragon lizards, and 30 of them have never been seen since they were first described.

Unfortunately, deforestation and habitat loss throughout North Sumatra and other parts of Indonesia threaten many animals, but the Modigliani’s nose-horned lizard was found just outside of a protected area. Hopefully it will stay safely in the protected area while scientists and conservationists study it and work out the best way to keep it safe.

A fish called the deepwater trout, also known as the black kokanee or kunimasu salmon, used to live in a Japanese lake called Lake Tazawa, and that was the only place in the world where it lived. It’s related to the sockeye salmon but it’s much smaller and less flashy. It grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm, and is black and gray in color as an adult, silvery with black markings as a young fish.

In the 1930s, plans to build a hydroelectric power plant on the lake alarmed scientists. The plan was to divert water from the River Tama to work the power station, after which the water would run into the lake. The problem is that the River Tama was acidic with agricultural runoff and water from acidic hot springs in the mountains. The scientists worried that if they didn’t do something to help the fish, soon it would be too late.

In 1935 they moved as many of the fish’s eggs as they could find to other lakes in hopes that the species wouldn’t go extinct. In 1940 the plant was completed, and as expected, the lake’s water became too acidic for the deepwater trout to survive. In fact, it became too acidic for anything to survive. Soon almost everything living in the lake was dead. Within a decade the lake was so acidic that local farmers couldn’t even use it for irrigation, because it just killed any plants it touched. Lake Tazawa is still a mostly dead lake despite several decades of work to lessen its acidity by adding lime to the water.

So, the deepwater trout went extinct in Lake Tazawa along with many other species, and to the scientists’ dismay, they found no sign that the eggs they’d moved to other lakes had survived. The deepwater trout was listed as extinct.

But in 2010, a team of scientists took a closer look at Lake Saiko. It’s one of the lakes where the deepwater trout’s eggs were transferred, and it’s a large, deep lake near Mount Fuji that’s popular with tourists.

The team found nine specimens of deepwater trout. Further study reveals that the population of fish is healthy and numerous enough to survive, as long as it’s left alone. Fortunately, Lake Saiko is inside a national park where the fish can be protected.

Next, let’s look at a species of ant called the dinosaur ant. It was collected by an amateur entomologist named Amy Crocker in 1931 in western Australia. Crocker wasn’t sure what kind of ant she had collected, so she gave the specimens to an entomologist named John Clark. Clark realized the ant was a new species, one that was so different from other ants that he placed it in its own genus.

The dinosaur ant is yellowish in color and workers have a retractable stinger that can inflict painful stings. It has large black eyes that help it navigate at night, since workers are nocturnal. It lives in old-growth woodlands in only a few places in Australia, as far as researchers can tell, and it prefers cool weather. Its colonies are very small, usually less than a hundred ants per nest. Queen ants have vestigial wings while males have fully developed wings, and instead of a nuptial flight that we talked about in episode 175 last month, young queens leave the nest where they’re hatched by just walking away from it instead of flying. Males fly away, and researchers think that once the queens have traveled a certain distance from their birth colony, they release pheromones that attract males. If a queen with an established colony dies, she may be replaced with one of her daughters or the colony may adopt a young queen from outside the colony. Sometimes a queen will go out foraging for her food, instead of being restricted to the nest and fed by workers, as in other ant species.

The dinosaur ant is called that because many of its features are extremely primitive compared to other ants. It most closely resembles the ant genus Prionomyrmex, which went extinct around 29 million years ago. Once researchers realized just how unusual the dinosaur ant was, and how important it might be to our understanding of how ants evolved, they went to collect more specimens to study. But…they couldn’t find any.

For 46 years, entomologists combed western Australia searching for the dinosaur ant, and everyone worried it had gone extinct. It wasn’t until 1977 that a team found it—and not where they expected it to be. Instead of western Australia, the team was searching in South Australia. They found the ant near a tiny town called Poochera, population 34 as of 2019, and the town is now famous among ant enthusiasts who travel there to study the dinosaur ant. There’s a statue of an ant in the town and everything.

The dinosaur ant is now considered to be the most well-studied ant in the world. It’s also still considered critically endangered due to habitat loss and climate change, but it’s easy to keep in captivity and many entomologists do.

Let’s finish with a mammal, and the situation here is a little different. In 1846 a British paleontologist published a book about British fossils, and one of the entries was a description of a dolphin. The description was based on a partially fossilized skull discovered three years before and dated to 126,000 years ago. It was referred to as the false killer whale because its skull resembled that of a modern orca. Scientists thought it was the ancestor of the orca and that it was extinct.

Uh, well, maybe not, because in 1861, a dead but very recently alive one washed up on the coast of Denmark.

The false killer whale is dark gray and grows up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters. It navigates and finds prey using echolocation and mostly eats squid and fish, including sharks. It’s not that closely related to the orca and actually looks more like a pilot whale. It lives in warm and tropical oceans and some research suggests it may migrate to different feeding spots throughout the year. It often travels in large groups of a hundred individuals. That’s as many dolphins as there are ants in dinosaur ant colonies. Part of the year it spends in shallow water, the rest of the year in deeper water, only coming closer to shore to feed.

Researchers are only just starting to learn more than the basics about the false killer whale, and what they’re learning is surprising. It will share food with its family and friends, and will sometimes offer fish to people who are in the water. It sometimes forms mixed-species groups with other species of dolphin, sometimes hybridizes with other closely-related species of dolphin, and will protect other species of dolphin from predators. It’s especially friendly with the bottlenose dolphin. So basically, this is a pretty nice animal to have around if you’re a dolphin, or if you’re a swimming human who would like a free fish. So it’s a good thing that it didn’t go extinct 126,000 years ago.

This is what the false killer whale sounds like:

[false killer whale sounds]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses



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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

Further watching:

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

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

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

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

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

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

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 137: The Orca, Jolly Terror of the Seas



Thanks to Pranav for this week’s topic, the orca or killer whale!

Further reading:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/07/killer-whales-orcas-eat-great-white-sharks/

Save Our Seas Magazine (I took the Jaws art below from here too)

An orca:

Orcas got teeth:

Starboard and Port amiright:

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s return to the sea for a topic suggested by Pranav, the orca. That’s the same animal that’s sometimes called the killer whale. While it is a cetacean, it’s more closely related to dolphins than whales and is actually considered a dolphin although it’s much bigger than other dolphin species.

The orca grows up to 26 feet long, or 8 meters, and is mostly black with bright white patches. The male has a large dorsal fin that can be 6 feet tall, or 1.8 meters, while females have much shorter dorsal fins that tend to curve backwards more than males’ do. Some orcas have lighter coloring, gray instead of black or with gray patches within the black.

The orca lives throughout the world’s oceans although it especially likes cold water. It eats fish, penguins and other birds, sea turtles, seals and sea lions, and pretty much anything else it can catch.

Everything about the orca is designed for strength and predatory skill. It has good vision, hearing, sense of touch, and echolocation abilities. It’s also extremely social, living in pairs or groups and frequently hunting cooperatively.

Some populations of orca live in the same area their whole lives, traveling along the same coastline as they hunt fish. These are called resident orcas and they’re closely studied since researchers can tell individuals apart by their unique markings, so can keep track of what individuals are doing.

Other populations are called transient because they travel much more widely. Transient and resident orcas avoid each other, so they may be separate species or subspecies, although researchers haven’t determined whether this is the case yet. There’s even a newly discovered population of orcas found off the tip of South America that may be a new species. Researchers are analyzing DNA samples taken from the South American orcas with little darts. Fishers had reported seeing odd-looking small orcas in the area for over a decade, but recent photos taken by tourists gave researchers a better idea of what they were looking for. The new orcas have rounder heads and different spotting patterns than other orca populations.

Transient orcas eat more mammals than resident orcas do. Resident orcas mostly eat fish. They have clever ways of catching certain fish, too. A pod of orcas can herd herring and some other fish species by releasing bubbles from their blowholes, which frighten the fish away. A group of orcas releasing bubbles in tandem can make the school of fish form a big ball for protection. Then each orca slaps the ball with its tail. This stuns or even kills some of the fish, which the orca then eats easily. Pretty clever. An orca may also stun larger fish by smacking it with its powerful tail flukes.

But the orca is also good at catching seals and sea lions. Some orcas learn to beach themselves safely when chasing seals, since the seal will often try to escape onto land. Another hunting technique is called wave-hunting, where a group of orcas swim in a way that causes waves to slop over an ice floe. Any animal or bird resting on the ice floe is washed into the water.

Because transient orcas mostly hunt mammals that can hear the orcas’ echolocation clicks and other vocalizations, they tend to stay silent while hunting so they don’t alert their prey. Resident orcas don’t have to worry about noise as much, since most of the fish they eat either can’t hear or their calls or don’t react to them. Resident orcas are much more vocal than transient orcas as a result.

But all orcas have calls they use socially. These are calls that help members of the pod stay in contact, help them coordinate hunting activities, and identify themselves to members of other pods. A pod is usually made up of several family groups, usually ones that are related in some way. You know, like the orca equivalent of an extended family—you and your mom and siblings, maybe your dad, and your mom’s sister and her babies, and so on. Each pod has its own dialect, with their own calls not heard in other pods.

Orcas are also incredibly intelligent and show social traits that match those of humans and chimpanzees, like playfulness, cooperation, and protectiveness. Their social structure is also complex and similar in many ways to those of humans and other great apes. As you may remember from episode 134 about the magpie, complex social structures lead to intelligence in individuals. Individual orcas have what’s known as signature whistles, a unique vocalization that only applies to that one orca. In other words, orcas have names. Researchers have also identified signature whistles in other dolphin species.

Because orcas are so large, so social, so intelligent, and travel such enormous distances every day—up to 50 miles, or 80 km—it doesn’t make any sense to keep them in captivity. But there are a lot of orcas in captivity. In the last decade or so people have started to realize that maybe this is not good for the orcas. Captive orcas develop mental and physical problems that they don’t have in the wild, including bad teeth. A 2017 study of captive orcas found that all of them had tooth problems and more than 65% of them had teeth so worn that the tooth pulp was exposed. That’s the sensitive part of your tooth, so you can imagine the agony this must cause the orca. It’s so bad that over 61% of the orcas studied had had the pulp removed from some of their teeth, which at least stops the pain but which leaves the orca more prone to infection and disease, plus weakens the tooth and can lead to it cracking. Such awful tooth problems mostly result from the orca chewing on concrete and steel in its tank, and this kind of chewing is due to extreme anxiety and other mental problems due to captivity. It’s not seen in orcas in the wild at all. So no, there shouldn’t be any orcas in captivity, or any other cetaceans, unless it’s for rehabilitation purposes with the goal of releasing the orca back into the wild after it’s healthy again.

The orca can live to be at least 90 years old, possibly older. Females especially live much longer than males overall. Female orcas lose the ability to have babies after about age 40 and enter a stage of life called menopause. Humans do this too, and studies show that it’s for the same reasons. Older females help younger females care for their children, and they’re also group leaders who teach younger orcas where to find food and how to catch it.

The orca is an apex predator, meaning there is nothing in the wild that hunts and eats it. Even the great white shark. On average the orca is larger than the great white, and it has an advantage because it hunts cooperatively. Where there are orcas around, there are usually not any great white sharks. This is partly because the two species eat the same thing and the orca out-competes the shark, but it’s also because the orca can and will eat great white sharks.

Some orcas have figured out that they can turn a shark upside down and keep it there in order to hypnotize it. This is called tonic immobility and researchers aren’t entirely sure why it happens, but the shark remains immobile until it wears off after a few minutes. It doesn’t work in all shark species or for every shark, but it makes the shark a lot easier for the orca to kill since it can’t fight back. In 1997 witnesses saw an orca hold a great white upside down for 15 minutes, trying to hypnotize it. It didn’t work, but since sharks have to keep moving to breathe, since they can’t pump water through their gills otherwise, the shark in question actually suffocated and the orca ate it.

But a pair of orcas have taken predation of great white sharks to a whole new level.

The phenomenon was first spotted in 1997 off the coast of San Francisco in western North America. People in a whale-watching tour saw two orcas attack a great white shark and eat its liver. Just its liver. They knew exactly where the liver was and aimed for it during the attack. A great white’s liver is huge and full of yummy fat.

Later that year, researchers studying elephant seals in the area noticed that all the great white sharks that usually preyed on seal colonies had vanished. They’d actually moved out of the area instead of staying to eat the seals. Studies of tagged great whites determined that they avoided orcas to the point of migrating away from feeding sites entirely if orcas were around.

Twenty years later, a marine biologist in South Africa named Alison Kock studied a pair of orcas named Starboard and Port who were attacking sharks the same way and eating their livers. Initially they targeted sevengill sharks, which can grow up to ten feet long, or 3 meters. But all the sevengill sharks fled and in 2017 the carcasses of great white sharks started to wash ashore with their livers eaten. Dr. Kock was pretty sure Starboard and Port were the culprits. When she studied the dead sharks, she recognized tooth marks from orcas.

Remember how earlier I said there were two types of orcas known, the residential and the transient groups? Plus the newly discovered group? Well, there’s actually a fourth group called the offshore orca. These are populations of orcas that live farther away from shore than most other groups. They travel widely and are the only orcas known in the wild to have teeth that are worn down flat almost like the captive orcas. Researchers think the offshore orcas specialize in hunting sharks and their relatives, and that the tooth wear comes from the sharks’ rough skin. Unlike the captive sharks, the tooth wear doesn’t affect the orcas’ overall health. Studies of offshore orcas have determined that more than 93% of their diet is made up of sharks.

Starboard and Port are now mostly after the bronze whaler shark, which grows up to 11 feet long, or 3.3 meters. No shark is safe.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 135: Smallest of the Large



This week we’re looking at some very small animals–but not animals that we think of as small. Join us for a horrendously cute episode!

Further reading:

The Echinoblog

Further listening:

Animals to the Max episode #75: The Sea Panda (vaquita)

Varmints! episode #49: Hippos

Further watching:

An adorable baby pygmy hippo

The Barbados threadsnake will protecc your fingertip:

Parvulastra will decorate your thumbnail:

Berthe’s mouse lemur will defend this twig:

The bumblebee bat will eat any bugs that come near your finger:

The vaquita, tiny critically endangered porpoise:

The long-tailed planigale is going to steal this ring and wear it as a belt:

He höwl:

A pygmy hippo and its mother will sample this grass:

This Virgin Islands dwarf gecko will spend this dime if it can just pick it up:

Show transcript:

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

I talk a lot about biggest animals on this podcast, so maybe it’s time to look at the very smallest animals. I don’t mean algae or bacteria or things like that, I mean the smallest species of animals that aren’t usually considered especially small.

We’ll start with the smolest snek, the Barbados threadsnake. It only lives on a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Barbados. The very largest individual ever measured was only 4.09 inches long, or 10.4 cm, but most are under four inches long. But it’s an extremely thin snake, not much thicker than a spaghetti noodle.

The Barbados threadsnake mostly eats termites and ant larvae. It spends most of its time in leaf litter or under rocks, hunting for food. The female only lays one single egg, but the baby is relatively large, about half the mother’s length when it hatches.

That’s so cute. Why are small things so cute?

Remember the starfish episode where we talked about the largest starfish? Well, what’s the smallest starfish? That would be Parvulastra parvivipara, which is smaller than a fingernail decoration sticker. It grows to about ten millimeters across and is orangey-yellow in color. It lives on the coast of Tasmania in rock pools between low and high tide, called intertidal rock pools.

If you remember the Mangrove killifish from a few episodes ago, you’ll remember how killifish females are hermaphrodites that produce both eggs and sperm, and usually self-fertilize their eggs to produce tiny clones of themselves. Well, Parvulastra does that too, although like the killifish it probably doesn’t always self-fertilize its eggs. But then it does something interesting for a starfish. Instead of releasing its eggs into the water to develop by themselves, Parvulastra keeps the eggs inside its body. And instead of the eggs hatching into larvae, they hatch into impossibly tiny miniature baby starfish, which the parent keeps inside its body until the baby is big enough to survive safely on its own.

But what do the baby starfish eat while they’re still inside the mother? Well, they eat their SIBLINGS. The larger babies eat the smaller ones, and eventually leave through one of the openings in the parent’s body wall, called gonopores. Researchers theorize that one of the reasons the babies leave the parent is to escape being eaten by its siblings. And yes, occasionally a baby grows so big that it won’t fit through the gonopores. So it just goes on living inside the parent.

Next, let’s look at the smallest primate. The primate order includes humans, apes, monkeys, and a lot of other animals, including lemurs. And the very smallest one is Berthe’s mouse lemur. Its body is only 3.6 inches long on average, or 9.2 cm, with a tail that more than doubles its length. Its fur is yellowish and brownish-red.

Berthe’s mouse lemur was only discovered in 1992. It lives in one tiny area of western Madagascar, where it lives in trees, which means it’s vulnerable to the deforestation going on all over Madagascar and is considered endangered.

It mostly eats insects, but also fruit, flowers, and small animals of various kinds. Its habitat overlaps with another small primate, the gray mouse lemur, but they avoid each other. Madagascar has 24 known mouse lemur species and they all seem to get along well by avoiding each other and eating slightly different diets. Researchers discover new species all the time, including three in 2016.

Last October we had an episode about bats, specifically macrobats that have wingspans as broad as eagles’. But the smallest bat is called the bumblebee bat. It’s also called Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, but bumblebee bat is way cuter. It’s a microbat that lives in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, and like other microbats it uses echolocation to find and catch flying insects. Its body is only about an inch long, or maybe 30 millimeters, although it has a respectable wingspan of about 6 ½ inches, or 17 cm. It’s reddish-brown in color with a little pig-like snoot, and it only weighs two grams. That’s just a tad more than a single Pringle chip weighs.

Because the bumblebee bat is so rare and lives in such remote areas, we don’t know a whole lot about it. It was only discovered in 1974 and is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, since it’s only been found in 35 caves in Thailand and 8 in Myanmar, and those are often disturbed by people entering them. The land around the caves is burned every year to clear brush for farming, which affects the bats too.

The bumblebee bat roosts in caves during the day and most of the night, only flying out at dawn and dusk to catch insects. It rarely flies more than about a kilometer from its cave, or a little over half a mile, but it does migrate from one cave to another seasonally. Females give birth to one tiny baby a year. Oh my gosh, tiny baby bats.

So what about whales and dolphins? You know, some of the biggest animals in Earth’s history? Well, the vaquita is a species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California, and it only grows about four and a half feet long, or 1.4 meters. Like other porpoises, it uses echolocation to navigate and catch its prey. It eats small fish, squid, crustaceans, and other small animals.

The vaquita is usually solitary and spends very little time at the surface of the water, so it’s hard to spot and not a lot is known about it. It mostly lives in shallow water and it especially likes lagoons with murky water, properly called turbid water, since it attracts more small animals.

Unfortunately, the vaquita is critically endangered, mostly because it often gets trapped in illegal gillnets and drowns. The gillnets are set to catch a different critically endangered animal, a fish called the totoaba. The totoaba is larger than the vaquita and is caught for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in China and is exported on the black market. The vaquita’s total population may be no more than ten animals at this point, fifteen at the most, and the illegal gillnets are still drowning them, so it may be extinct within a few years. A captive breeding plan was tried in 2017, but porpoises don’t do well in captivity and the individuals the group caught all died. Hope isn’t lost, though, because vaquita females are still having healthy babies, and there are conservation groups patrolling the part of the Gulf of California where they live to remove gill nets and chase off fishing boats trying to set more of the nets.

If you want to learn a little more about the vaquita and how to help it, episode 75 of Corbin Maxey’s excellent podcast Animals to the Max is an interview with a vaquita expert. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Next, let’s talk about an animal that is not in danger of extinction. Please! The long-tailed planigale is doing just fine, a common marsupial from Australia. So, if it’s a marsupial, it must be pretty big—like kangaroos and wallabies. Right? Nope, the long-tailed planigale is the size of a mouse, which it somewhat resembles. It even has a long tail that’s bare of fur. It grows to 2 ½ inches long not counting its tail, or 6.5 cm. It’s brown with longer hind legs than forelegs so it often sits up like a tiny squirrel. Its nose is pointed and it has little round mouse-like ears. But it has a weird skull.

The long-tailed planigale’s skull is flattened—in fact, it’s no more than 4 mm top to bottom. This helps it squeeze into cracks in the dry ground, where it hunts insects and other small animals, and hides from predators.

The pygmy hippopotamus is a real animal, which I did not know until recently. It grows about half the height of the common hippo and only weighs about a quarter as much. It’s just over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 100 cm. It’s black or brown in color and spends most of its time in shallow water, usually rivers. It’s sometimes seen resting in burrows along river banks, but no one’s sure if it digs these burrows or makes use of burrows dug by other animals. It comes out of the water at night to find food. Its nostrils and eyes are smaller than the common hippo’s.

Unlike the common hippo, the pygmy hippo lives in deep forests and as a result, mostly eats ferns, fruit, and various leaves. Common hippos eat more grass and water plants. The pygmy hippo seems to be less aggressive than the common hippo, but it also shares some behaviors with its larger cousins. For instance, the pooping thing. If you haven’t listened to the Varmints! Episode about hippos, you owe it to yourself to do so because it’s hilarious. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that one too. While the hippo poops, it wags its little tail really fast to spread the poop out across a larger distance.

Also like the common hippo, the pygmy hippo secretes a reddish substance that looks like blood. It’s actually called hipposudoric acid, which researchers thinks acts as a sunscreen and an antiseptic. Hippos have delicate skin with almost no hair, so its skin dries out and cracks when it’s out of water too long.

The pygmy hippo is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching, but fortunately it breeds successfully in zoos and lives a long time, up to about 55 years in captivity. For some reason females are much more likely to be born in captivity, so when a male baby is born it’s a big deal for the captive breeding program. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a video where you can watch a baby pygmy hippo named Sapo and his mother. He’s adorable.

Finally, let’s finish where we started, with another reptile. The smallest lizard is a gecko, although there are a lot of small geckos out there and it’s a toss-up which one is actually smallest on average. Let’s go with the Virgin Islands dwarf gecko, which lives on three of the British Virgin Islands. It’s closely related to the other contender for smallest reptile, the dwarf sphaero from Puerto Rico, which is a nearby island, but while that gecko is just a shade shorter on average, it’s much heavier.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko is only 18 mm long not counting its tail, and it weighs .15 grams. A paperclip weighs more than this gecko. It’s brown with darker speckles and a yellow stripe behind the eyes. Females are usually slightly larger than males. Like other geckos, it can lose its tail once and regrow a little stump of a tail.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko lives in dry forests and especially likes rocky hills, where it spends a lot of its time hunting for tiny animals under rocks. We don’t know a whole lot about it, but it does seem to be rare and only lives in a few places, so it’s considered endangered. In 2011 some rich guy decided he was going to release a bunch of lemurs from Madagascar onto Moskito Island, one of the islands where the dwarf gecko lives. Every conservationist ever told him oh NO you don’t, rich man, what is your problem? Those lemurs will destroy the island’s delicate ecosystem, drive the dwarf gecko and many other species to extinction, and then die because the habitat is all wrong for lemurs. So Mr. Rich Man said fine, whatever, I’ll take my lemurs and go home. And he did, and the dwarf gecko was saved.

Look, if you have so much money that you’re making plans to move lemurs halfway across the world because you think it’s a good idea, I can help take some of that money off your hands.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 131: Paleontological Mistakes



Part of the scientific method involves making mistakes and correcting them. Here are some interesting and sometimes goofy mistakes made by paleontologists through the years, and how the mistakes were corrected.

Iguanodon did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Pterosaur did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Elasmosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Apatosaurus/brontosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Stegosaurus did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Gastornis did not actually look like this (left). It looked like this (right):

Those are Gastornis’s footprints:

Show transcript:

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

Paleontology is the study of fossils, and really it’s only been a discipline for a little over a century. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, even experts made major mistakes in preparing and assembling fossil skeletons, and dishonest amateurs made deliberate errors so their fossil animals looked bigger or scarier. Many of these mistakes or hoaxes were displayed in museums, sometimes for decades.

I found so many interesting examples during my research that I decided to split the episode into two. This week we’ll learn about some paleontological mistakes and what the fossil animals really looked like when they were alive. Next week we’ll look at the frauds and hoaxes.

We’ll start with Iguanodon, a dinosaur that lived around 125 million years ago in what is now Europe. It ate plants and was fairly common, with a number of species now known to science. The biggest could grow as much as 43 feet long, or 13 meters. It had teeth that resemble an iguana’s, which is how it gets its name, and a beak probably covered in keratin that it used to clip through tough plants. It probably mostly walked on two legs and browsed from trees, but its front legs were long and it might have spent at least some of its time on all fours. But the most interesting thing about Iguanodon was its hands. Its little finger was slender and usually longer than the others and many researchers think it was used for handling food and other objects. The first finger, which is equivalent to a thumb, wasn’t so much a digit as just a big spike. It’s called a thumb spike and no one’s sure what it was for. It might have been used for defense, but it might also have been used to help dig up plants. Maybe it was used for both. But it was the source of an embarrassing mistake that many paleontologists made for years.

Iguanodon came to the attention of science in 1822 when a medical doctor in Sussex, England found some fossilized teeth. No one was sure what kind of animal the teeth belonged to, although guesses ranged from a crocodile to a rhinoceros. In 1824 the doctor, Gideon Mantell, noted the teeth’s resemblance to iguana teeth, but so big that he estimated Iguanodon must have been almost 60 feet long, or 18 meters. He also thought Iguanodon looked like an iguana.

In 1834 more Iguanodon fossils came to light in a quarry and Mantell bought them. This incomplete skeleton included a thumb spike, but Mantell didn’t know where it belonged. He thought it was a horn, so when he made a drawing of the living animal, he placed the thumb spike on the nose.

And there it stayed, despite other fossils found with the thumb spike in place on the hand, and despite other scientists pointing out that they didn’t think Iguanodon had a horn on its nose. It wasn’t until 1882 that the nose horn vanished for good and Iguanodon started looking more like itself.

Similarly, pterosaurs have been misunderstood since the very beginning, with a lot of frankly ridiculous suggestions made about them. To be fair, they are really strange animals and nothing like any animal living today. The first pterosaur was described in 1784 by an Italian naturalist, but he thought it was a swimming animal and that its wing bones were actually flippers. Zoologist Georges Cuvier pointed out it was a flying reptile in 1801, but the swimming hypothesis wasn’t abandoned for decades after that. Even after the flying part was accepted by other researchers and the general public, many people believed they were related to bats for a remarkably long time. In 1843 one scientist suggested pterosaurs were not only bats, but specifically marsupial bats. (There are no marsupial bats. Bats are placental mammals.) The notion that pterosaurs and bats were related hung around a really long time, right up to the 1930s, although experts had more or less figured it out by then.

Elasmosaurus lived around 80 million years ago and was a type of plesiosaur. We talked about Elasmosaurus in episode 92 about marine reptiles. It wasn’t a dinosaur but it lived at the same time as dinosaurs, and could grow up to 34 feet long, or over 10 meters. It had a very long neck containing 72 vertebrae, a short tail, and four paddle-like legs. These days we know that the neck wasn’t very flexible, but for a long time Elasmosaurus and its relatives were depicted with flexible, serpentine necks. But the real mistake came when it was first discovered.

The first Elasmosaurus fossil was found in Kansas in 1867 and given to Edward Cope, a well-known paleontologist who discovered many fossil species found in North America.

The problem was, Cope was the bitter rival of another well-known paleontologist, Othniel Marsh. The two men were so frantic to publish more descriptions of new animals than the other that it sometimes led to sloppy work. That may have been why, when Cope described Elasmosaurus in 1869, he placed its head at the end of its tail so that it looked like it had a short neck and a really long tail instead of the other way around. The bones were all jumbled together and the jaws had ended up at the wrong end of the skeleton when it was covered over with sediment and the fossilization process began.

Another paleontologist pointed out Cope’s mistake only a few months later. Cope tried to buy up all the copies of the article and reissued a corrected version. But Cope’s nemesis Marsh got hold of a copy of the original article and was absolutely gleeful. He never would let Cope forget his mistake, and in fact it was the final straw in the relationship between the two. Cope and Marsh had started out as friends but their friendship soured, and by 1870 they pretty much loathed each other.

But Marsh made his own mistakes. In 1877 he found a dinosaur he named Apatosaurus, although the specimen was missing a skull. He used the skull of a different dinosaur when he prepared the specimen. Then in 1885 his workers found a similar-looking skeleton with a skull. He named it Brontosaurus.

Guess what. They were the same animal. Marsh was so eager to describe a new dinosaur that Cope hadn’t described yet that he didn’t even notice. But for some reason the name Brontosaurus stuck in pop culture, which is why you probably know what a Brontosaurus was and what it looked like, while you may never have heard of Apatosaurus. The mistake has been corrected and the dinosaur’s official scientific name is Apatosaurus, but Marsh’s Apatosaurus skeleton from 1877 didn’t get the right skull until 1979. The skeleton had been on display with the wrong skull for almost a century, but researchers found the correct skull that had been unearthed in 1910 and stored away.

Apatosaurus lived in North America around 150 million years ago and was enormously long, growing on average 75 feet long from head to tail, or 23 meters. It ate plants, and some researchers suggest that it used its incredibly long tail as a whip to scare predators by cracking the whip and making a loud noise. This sounds absurd but the physiology of the tail’s end supports that it could probably withstand the pressures involved in a whip-crack. The neck was also quite long and researchers are still debating how flexible it was. The reason so much old artwork of Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus shows the animal standing in water eating swamp plants is because scientists used to think it was such a heavy animal that it couldn’t even support its own weight out of the water, much like whales. Not true, of course. It had strong, column-like leg bones that had no trouble supporting its weight on dry land, and it lived on what are referred to as fern savannas. Grass hadn’t yet evolved so the main groundcover was made up of ferns.

The name Brontosaurus has been retained for some Apatosaurus relations, fortunately, because it’s a pretty nifty name. It means thunder lizard.

Marsh is also responsible for the notion that some of the larger dinosaurs, specifically Stegosaurus, had a second brain at the base of their tails. This isn’t actually the case at all. Marsh just couldn’t figure out how such a large animal had such a small brain. Then again, Marsh also thought Stegosaurus’s tail spikes, or thagomizer, belonged on its back while its back plates belonged on its tail.

If you want to learn more about the Stegosaurus, check out episode 107 where we learn about it and Ankylosaurus. It’s too bad a paleontologist named Charles Gilmore couldn’t listen to that episode, because in 1914 he decided the back plates were osteoderms that lay flat on its skin. This was an early idea of Marsh’s that he had rejected early on but which Gilmore liked. Gilmore also thought the thagomizer spikes grew between the back plates so that the Stegosaurus was covered in both big plates like armor with spikes in between the plates.

A man named Henry Fairfield Osborn made a couple of mistakes too. He was the guy who named Oviraptor, which means “egg thief.” That was a reasonable assumption, really, since the first specimen was found in 1923 in a nest of Protoceratops eggs…but the Protoceratops eggs were later found to actually be Oviraptor eggs, and Oviraptor was just taking care of its own nest.

In 1922 Osborn was the president of the American Museum of Natural History when a rancher sent him a fossil tooth he’d found in Nebraska in 1917. Paleontologists often have to extrapolate an entire animal from a single fossil, and teeth are especially useful because they tell so much about an animal. So Osborn examined the tooth carefully and published a paper describing the ape that the tooth came from.

If you remember, though, there are no apes native to the Americas, just monkeys. The media found out about the discovery and wrote articles about the missing link between humans and apes, which was a popular topic back before people fully understood how evolution worked and when so little was known about human ancestry. The papers called the fossil ape the Nebraska man.

Then, a few years later, paleontologists went to Nebraska to find the rest of the fossilized ape bones. And while they did find them, they didn’t belong to an ape. The tooth came from a species of extinct peccary. You know, a type of pig relation. Peccaries do evidently have teeth that look a lot like human teeth, which is kind of creepy, plus the fossil tooth was badly weathered. Osborn retracted his identification in 1927.

All this wouldn’t have been a big deal except that people who didn’t believe evolution was real decided that this one relatively small mistake, quickly corrected, meant ALL scientists were ALL wrong FOREVER.

We’ll finish with a bird fossil, a bird you’ve probably never heard of although it’s massive. The first Gastornis fossil was found in the mid-19th century near Paris and described in 1855. More fossils were found soon after, and in the 1870s there were enough Gastornis bones that researchers were able to reconstruct what they thought it looked like, a gigantic crane. They were wrong.

Gastornis was as big as a big moa, over six and a half feet high, or 2 meters. It had a heavy beak and a powerful build that for over a century led many paleontologists to think it was a predator. But these days, we’re pretty sure it only ate tough plant material. Its bill could have crushed nuts but wasn’t the right shape to strip meat from bones, and a carbon isotope study of Gastornis bones indicate that its diet was entirely vegetarian.

Gastornis had vestigial wings that probably weren’t even visible under its body feathers. It was actually related most closely to modern waterfowl like ducks and geese. We have some fossilized Gastornis eggs and they were bigger than ostrich eggs, although they were shaped differently. They were oblong instead of ovoid, about ten inches long, or over 25 cm, but only four inches in diameter, or 10 cm. Only the elephant bird of Madagascar laid bigger eggs. We even have two fossil feather impressions that might be from Gastornis, and some fossil footprints in Washington state that show Gastornis had three toes with blunt claws. The bird went extinct around 40 million years ago.

At about the same time that Gastornis was being described in Europe as a kind of giant wading bird, our old friend Edward Cope found some bird fossils in New Mexico. He described the bird in 1876 as Diatryma gigantea and recognized that it was flightless. Cope’s deadly enemy Othniel Marsh also found a bird’s toe bone and described it as coming from a bird he named Barornis regens in 1894. As more and more fossils were found, however, it became clear that Cope’s and Marsh’s birds were from the same genus, so Barornis was renamed Diatryma.

By then, some paleontologists had already suggested that Diatryma and Gastornis were the same bird. In 1917 a nearly complete skeleton, including the skull, was discovered in Wyoming in the United States, but it didn’t really match up to the 1881 reconstruction of Gastornis.

But in the 1980s, researchers looked at that reconstruction more closely. It turned out that it contained a lot of mistakes. Some of the elements weren’t from birds at all but from fish and reptiles, and some of the broken fossil bones had been lengthened considerably when they were repaired with plaster. A paper published in 1992 highlighted these mistakes, and gradually the use of the term Diatryma was changed over to Gastornis.

So remember, everyone, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s how you get better at things. And for the same reason, don’t make fun of other people who make mistakes. Other people get to learn stuff too. And even if you don’t think you’ve made a mistake, maybe double check to make sure you didn’t accidentally include a fish fossil in your extinct flightless bird reconstruction.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 120: Hybrid Animals



If you’re a subscriber on Patreon, you may recognize some of the information in this episode, but I’ve updated it and added a whole bunch. Thanks to Pranav for the topic suggestion!

A cama, llama/camel hybrid:

A swoose, swan/goose hybrid:

Motty the Asian/African elephant hybrid and his mother:

A zorse, zebra/horse hybrid:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got another listener suggestion. Pranav really really wants me to do an episode about hybrid animals, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I actually already did an episode on the topic back in 2017—but only for Patreon subscribers. It wasn’t my best episode so for various reasons I’d decided not to unlock it. But Pranav really really wants to learn about hybrids! So I’ve taken part of the Patreon episode and added a lot of newer information to it to bring it up to date and make it more interesting.

The term for an animal with parents of different species is hybrid. Crossbreed is also a common term, although technically a crossbred animal is one with parents of the same species but different breeds, like a labradoodle is a crossbreed of a Labrador and a poodle. Both parents are domestic dogs.

A mule, on the other hand, is a hybrid between a horse and a donkey, specifically a mare and a jack, which is what a male donkey is called. The offspring of a stallion and a lady donkey, known as a jenny, is a hinny.

So why can a horse and a donkey breed while, for instance, a possum and a rat can’t? The two species must belong to the same family, and with very few exceptions, they must also belong to the same genus. The genus is indicated in an animal’s scientific name. Equus caballus is a horse and Equus africanus is a donkey, while a Labrador and a poodle are both Canis familiaris, or Canis lupus familiaris depending on who you ask. The Virginia opossum is Didelphis virginiana while the brown rat is Rattus norvegicus. They’re not even slightly related, although superficially they look alike.

If the hybrid’s parents are from species with different numbers of chromosomes, hybrid males will almost always be sterile. You can’t cross two mules to get more mules, for instance, because male mules can’t make babies. Female mules are sometimes fertile but very rarely conceive. Horses have 64 chromosomes while donkeys have 62. Mules end up with 63. Hinnies are much rarer than mules because if the female of a pair of related species has fewer pairs of chromosomes than the male, it’s less likely that any offspring will result.

More closely related species can have fertile offspring. Killer bees, for instance, are hybrids of a European honeybee and an African honeybee. The two are actually subspecies of the honeybee, Apis mellifera, so it’s less like creating a hybrid and more like crossing a Labrador and a poodle to get an adorable happy pup with curly hair. It seemed like a really good idea. The result was supposed to be a tropical bee that would produce more honey. What actually happened was killer bees. Which do actually kill people. Hundreds of people, in fact, since they escaped into the wild in 1957 and started spreading throughout the Americas.

When animals hybridize even though they aren’t of the same genus, it’s called an intergeneric hybrid. That’s the case with sheep and goats. While sheep and goats are related on the subfamily level, they belong to separate genuses. Sheep have 54 chromosomes while goats have 60. That’s enough of a difference that most hybrid babies don’t survive long enough to be born alive, but it does happen occasionally. Usually the babies have 57 chromosomes, and sometimes the babies survive and even prove to be fertile when crossed with either a goat or a sheep. So that’s weird.

Just because someone wants to find out what you get when you cross, say, a sheep and a goat, doesn’t mean the sheep and goat in question are willing to make that effort. The less closely related the two animals are, the less interested they are in mating. Occasionally hybrids are produced by artificial insemination, or rarely by genetic manipulation of embryos, although genetic manipulation technically results in a chimera, not a hybrid.

Another intergeneric hybrid is a cross between a male camel and a female llama. In this case it’s accomplished by artificial insemination and has only produced a handful of living babies, called camas. Researchers were hoping to produce a camel-sized animal with a llama’s more cooperative temperament, but camas turn out to act like camels. So basically they’re just camels that aren’t as big or strong as camels.

In the 1970s, Chester Zoo in Cheshire in the UK kept a female Asian elephant and a male African elephant together in the same enclosure. The pair mated but no one thought they could produce a hybrid calf, since Asian elephants and African elephants aren’t that closely related. They’re another pair of animals that don’t share a genus. But a calf named Mottie was born in 1978. Surprise!

Many hybrids resemble one or the other of their parents. Motty was a fascinating blend of both. He had five toenails on his forefeet and four on the hind feet like his mom. African savannah elephants like his dad have four front toenails and three hind toenails. But he had longer legs and bigger ears than an Asian elephant. His trunk was wrinkled like his dad’s, but had only one digit at the tip like his mom’s. African elephants have two digits at the tip of their trunks. Even the shape of Motty’s head and back were a mixture of his parents’ characteristics.

So why would anyone want to cross species to get a hybrid? I mean, you might end up with killer bees.

A lot of times hybrids show what is known as hybrid vigor. This is more common in hybrid plants, but some hybrid animals combine the best features of their parents. Mules, for instance, have more stamina than horses and are stronger than donkeys. A hybrid of a domestic cow and an American bison is called a beefalo, which is bred to produce leaner meat in an animal that is better for the environment than a cow but easier to handle than a bison. But a lot of times, hybrids are the result of human ignorance, such as keeping related animals together without realizing babies might result, or human curiosity. We just want to see what might happen.

Unfortunately, for every healthy mule-like hybrid, there’s an unhealthy, malformed, or stillborn animal from parents who should have never produced offspring. Motty the elephant was premature and died of infection when he was only eleven days old, probably because his immune system was weakened due to his hybridized genetics.

Lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats can all interbreed, but the resulting babies sometimes have unusual health issues. When a male lion and a female tiger breed, the resulting babies are known as ligers, and ligers are enormous. They’re much bigger and heavier than both their parents. This sounds neat, but it happens because of a genetic anomaly that means the animals just grow and grow much faster and longer than a normal tiger or lion cub. This puts stress on the body and can lead to health problems. Ligers can sometimes weigh over 1200 pounds, or over 550 kg, and grow up to 12 feet long, or 3.6 meters, bigger than a full-grown tiger or lion. The offspring of a puma and a leopard, often called a pumapard, has the opposite problem, with cubs usually inheriting a form of dwarfism. The cubs are only half the size of the parents.

The savannah cat is now accepted as a domestic cat breed by some organizations, but it was first developed in 1986 by crossing a female domestic cat and a male serval. The serval is a wild cat from Africa with large ears, long legs, and a spotted and striped coat pattern. It’s a little larger than a domestic cat and is sometimes kept as an exotic pet, although it’s not domesticated. The hybrid babies inherited their mother’s domesticated nature and turned out to be mostly sociable with humans, although some are less tame. But while Savannah cats are pretty, the kittens of a serval and domestic cat are often stillborn or premature, and many male offspring are infertile. Savannah cats are also prone to certain health issues, especially heart problems. Some areas have banned savannah cats since they’re not considered fully domesticated.

The more closely related the parents, the more likely a hybrid baby will result, and the more likely it will be healthy. Many wolf-like canids can and do easily hybridize with other wolf-like canids, since they have 78 chromosomes in the same arrangement and are closely related. Offspring are usually fertile. The wolf-like canids include wolves, domestic dogs, coyotes, jackals, and dholes. Where the ranges of these various species overlap in the wild, hybrids are not uncommon. But canids that are less closely related to the wolf-like canids, like foxes and raccoon dogs, can’t and don’t hybridize with their cousins.

Some whales will hybridize in the wild, including the fin whale and the blue whale, which are closely related. Dolphins of different species sometimes hybridize when they’re kept together in captivity, such as the false killer whale and the bottlenose dolphin. The resulting babies don’t usually live very long. Occasionally dolphins also hybridize in the wild too. In 2017 a hybrid baby of a rough-toothed dolphin and a melon-headed whale, which is actually a species of dolphin, was spotted off the coast of Hawaii. Researchers were able to get a small tissue sample from the young hybrid to DNA test, which confirmed its parentage. The melon-headed whale mother was also spotted with her calf in a pod of rough-toothed dolphins.

Birds also sometimes hybridize in the wild. This happens occasionally where the range of two closely related species overlap. Since the resulting babies may look very different from both their parents, this makes bird-watching even more challenging. Some warbler species hybridize so often that the hybrid offspring are well-known to birders, such as Brewster’s warbler and Lawrence’s warbler. These two birds are both offspring of a golden-winged warbler and a blue-winged warbler mate, with the appearance different depending on which traits the babies inherit from which parent.

Occasionally a domestic chicken will mate with a wild pheasant and produce babies, since chickens and pheasants are related. Very rarely, a swan and goose will mate and produce babies, although the babies don’t usually survive very long. One swan-goose hybrid that did survive was hatched in 2004 in Dorset in the UK, with a mute swan mother and a domestic goose father. The baby was referred to as a swoose and it was the only of the offspring to survive. It looks like a goose but with a longer, more swan-like neck and head.

If you’ve listened to episode 25, part one of the humans episode, you’ll recall that human DNA contains traces of DNA from our extinct cousins, including Neandertals. If Neandertals were still around, we could undoubtedly produce hybrids with them. But what about our living cousins, the other great apes? Humans are closely related to chimpanzees, but could a human produce a hybrid with a chimp? It’s possible but very unlikely. We belong to different genuses and have different numbers of chromosomes, not to mention the enormous ethical issues involved.

Let’s finish up with my favorite hybrid animal, the zebroid. This is a term for any hybrid where one parent is a zebra and the other parent is a horse, a donkey, or a pony, which also leads to the terms zorse, zedonk, and zony. These all crack me up, especially zedonk.

Zebroids are usually at least partially striped, frequently on the legs and neck but sometimes all over. The mane may stand up like a zebra’s or fall over the neck like a horse’s. The zebroid is adorable because of the stripes, but it’s also ornery and can be aggressive. There goes my dream of having a stripy horse.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 087: Globsters



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

Yes, they smell. They smell so bad.

Trunko, a globster found in South Africa:

A whale shark:

The business end of a whale shark:

A globster found in Chile:

A globster found in North Carolina after a hurricane:

A globster that still contains bones:

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

Further reading:

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what were these three globsters?

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

OR WAS IT??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 074: Colossal Squid and the Things That Eat Them



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

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

A colossal squid, looking less than impressive tbh:

THAT EYEBALL:

A sperm whale looking baddass:

A southern sleeper shark, looking kind of boring:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 072: Weird Whales



It’s been too long since we discussed whales, so this week let’s learn about how whales evolved and some especially strange or mysterious whales!

Pakicetus was probably kind of piggy-looking, but with a crocodile snout:

Protocetids were more actually whale-like but still not all that whale-like:

Now we’re getting whaley! Here’s basilosaurus, with a dinosaur name because the guy who found it thought it was a reptile:

Here’s the skull of a male strap-toothed whale (left). Those flat strips are the teeth:

Another view. See how the teeth grow up from the lower jaw and around the upper jaw?

A dead pygmy right whale:

The walrus whale may have looked sort of like this:

The half-beak porpoise had a chin that just would not quit:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is weird whales and some of their relations. If you think about it, all whales are weird, but these are the weirdest whales we know of. Some are living, some are extinct, and some…are mysteries.

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are most closely related to—wait for it—HIPPOPOTAMUSES. About 48 million years ago an ancestor of both modern hippos and whales lived in Asia. It’s called Inodhyus and it was about the size of a cat, but looked more pig-like. It was at least partially aquatic, probably as a way to hide from predators, but it was an omnivore that probably did most of its hunting and foraging on land.

The earliest whale is generally accepted to be Pakicetus. It lived around the same time as Inodhyus and its fossils have been found in what is now Pakistan and India. It was about the size of a big dog, but with a long, thick tail. Its skull was elongated, something like a short-snouted crocodile with big sharp triangular teeth. It had upward-facing eyes like a crocodile or hippo, and it also had four long, fairly thin legs. It probably hunted on both land and in shallow water, and like the hippo it probably didn’t have much hair.

That doesn’t sound much like a whale, but it had features that only appear in whales. These features became more and more exaggerated in its descendants. At first, these ancestral whales looked more like mammalian crocodiles. It’s not until Protocetids evolved around 45 million years ago that they started to look recognizably like whales. Some protocetids lived in shallow oceans throughout the world but probably still gave birth on land, while others were more amphibious and lived along the coasts, where they probably hunted both in and out of water. But they had nostrils that had migrated farther back up their snouts, although they weren’t blowholes just yet, reduced limbs, and may have had flukes on their large tails. But they still weren’t totally whale-like. One protocetid, Rodhocetus balochistanensis, still had nail-like hooves on its forefeet.

By around 41 million years ago, the basilosaurids and their close relations had evolved, and were fully aquatic. They lived in the oceans throughout the tropics and subtropics, and their nostrils had moved almost to the location of modern whales’ blowholes. Their forelegs were basically flippers with little fingers, their hind legs had almost disappeared, and they had tail flukes. They were also much bigger than their ancestors. Basilosaurus could grow up to 60 feet long, or 18 meters, and probably looked more like a gigantic eel than a modern whale. It was long and relatively thin, and may have mostly lived at the ocean’s surface, swimming more like an eel or fish than a whale. It ate fish and sharks. SHARKS.

So when did whales develop the ability to echolocate? Researchers think it happened roughly 34 million years ago, which also happens to be about the same time that baleen whales and toothed whales started to develop separately. Echolocation probably evolved to help whales track hard-shelled mollusks called nautiloids. By 10 million years ago, though, nautiloids were on the decline and mostly lived around reefs. Whales had to shift their focus to soft-bodied prey like squid, which meant their sonar abilities had to become more and more refined. Toothed whales echolocate, while baleen whales probably do not. Researchers aren’t 100% sure, but if baleen whales do use echolocation, it’s limited in scope and the whales probably mostly use it for sensing obstacles like ice or the sea floor.

Baleen whales are the ones that communicate with song, although the really elaborate songs are from humpback and bowhead whales. Of those species, humpback songs are structured and orderly, while bowhead whale song is more free-form. But humpback songs do change, and researchers have discovered that they spread among a population of whales the same way popular songs spread through human populations. This is what they sound like, by the way. A snippet of humpback song is first, then a snippet of bowhead song.

[examples of humpback and bowhead]

So now we’ve got a basic understanding of how whales evolved. Now let’s take a look at some of the weirder whales we know about. We’ll start with a living one, the strap-toothed whale. It’s one of 20-odd species of mesoplodont, or beaked whale, and we don’t know a whole lot about any of them. The strap-toothed whale is the longest beaked whale at 20 feet long, or 6.2 meters.

The strap-toothed whale lives in cold waters in the southern hemisphere. It’s rarely seen, probably since it lives in areas that aren’t very well traveled by humans. It mostly eats squid. Females are usually a little bigger than males, and adults are mostly black with white markings on the throat and back.

The weird thing about this whale is its teeth. Male beaked whales all have a pair of weird teeth, usually tusk-like, which they use to fight each other, but strap-toothed whales take the weird teeth deal to the extreme. As a male grows, two of its teeth grow up from the lower jaw and backwards, curving around the upper jaw until the whale can’t open its mouth very far and can only eat small prey. The teeth can grow a foot long, or 30 cm, and have small projections that cause more damage in fights with other males.

Most of what we know about the strap-toothed whale comes from whales that have been stranded on land and died. Males don’t seem to have any trouble getting enough to eat, and researchers think they may use suction to pull prey into their mouths. Other beaked whales are known to feed this way.

All beaked whales are deep divers, generally live in remote parts of the world’s oceans, and are rarely seen. In other words, we don’t know for sure how many species there really are. In 1963, a dead beaked whale washed ashore in Sri Lanka. At first it was described as a new species, but a few years later other researchers decided it was a ginkgo-toothed whale, which had also only been discovered in 1963. Male ginkgo-toothed whales have a pair of tusks shaped like ginkgo leaves, but they don’t appear to use them to fight each other. But a study published in 2014 determined that the 1963 whale, along with six others found stranded in various areas, belong to a new species. It’s never been seen alive. Neither has the ginkgo-toothed whale.

The pygmy right whale is a baleen whale, but it’s another one we know very little about. It lives in the southern hemisphere. Despite its name, it isn’t closely related to the right whale. It’s small for a baleen whale, around 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters, and it’s dark gray above and lighter gray or white underneath. Its sickle-shaped dorsal fin is small and doesn’t always show when the whale surfaces to breathe. It feeds mostly on tiny crustaceans like copepods, and probably doesn’t dive very deeply considering its relatively small heart and lungs.

The pygmy right whale was first described in 1846 from bones and baleen. Later studies revealed that it’s really different from other baleen whales, with more pairs of ribs and other physical differences. It also doesn’t seem to act like other baleen whales. It doesn’t breach, slap its tail, or show its flukes when it dives. It doesn’t even swim the same way other whales swim. Other whales swim by flexing the tail, leaving the body stable, but the pygmy right whale flexes its whole body from head to tail. It seems to be a fairly solitary whale, usually seen singly or in pairs, although sometimes one will travel with other whale species. In 1992, though, 80 pygmy right whales were seen together off the coast of southwest Australia. Fewer than 200 of the whales have been spotted alive, including those 80, so we have no idea how rare they are.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the pygmy right whale’s differences were explained. It turns out that it’s not that closely related to other baleen whales. Instead, it’s the descendant of a family of whales called cetotheres—but until then, researchers thought cetotheres had gone extinct completely around two million years ago. Not only that, it turns out that at least one other cetothere survived much later than two million years ago, with new fossils dated to only 700,000 years ago. But that particular whale, Herpetocetus, had a weird jaw joint that kept it from being able to open its mouth very far. It and the strap-toothed whale should start a club.

Sometimes whale fossils are found in unexpected places, which helps give us an idea of what the land and ocean was like at the time. For instance, fossils of an extinct beaked whale known as a Turkana ziphiid was found in Kenya in 1963, in a desert region 460 miles inland, or 740 kilometers. The fossil is 17 million years old. So how did it get so far inland?

It turns out that at the time, that part of east Africa was near sea level and grown up with forests. The fossil was found in river deposits, so the whale probably swam into the mouth of a river, got confused and kept going, and then couldn’t turn around. It kept swimming until it became stranded and died. Because of the finding, researchers know that 17 million years ago, the uplift of East Africa had not yet begun, or if it had it hadn’t yet made much progress. The uplift, of course, is what prompted our own ancestors to start walking upright, as their forest home slowly became grassland.

As an interesting aside, the fossil was stored at the Smithsonian, but at some point, like so many other fascinating items, it disappeared. Paleontologist Louis Jacobs spent 30 years trying to find it, and eventually located it at Harvard University in 2011. After he finished studying it, he donated it to the National Museum of Kenya.

More whale fossils were uncovered in 2010 in the Atacama Desert in Chile—in this case, over 75 skeletons, many in excellent condition, dated to between 2 and 7 million years ago. Researchers think they’re the result of toxic algae blooms that killed the whales, which then washed ashore. Over 40 were various types of baleen whales. Other fossils found in the same deposit include a sperm whale, marine sloths, and a tusked dolphin known as a walrus whale.

The walrus whale lived in the Pacific Ocean around 10 million years ago, and while it’s considered a dolphin, it’s actually more closely related to narwhals. But it probably looked more like a walrus than either. Unlike most whales, it had a flexible neck. It also had a face like a walrus. You know, flattish with tusks sticking down. It probably ate molluscs. But the right tusk was much longer than the left one, possibly in males only. In the case of one species of walrus whale, one specimen’s left tusk was about 10 inches long, or 25 cm, while its right tusk was over four feet long, or 1.35 meters. Some researchers suggest that the whale swam with its head bent so that the long tusk lay along the body. Possibly it only used it for display, either to show off for females or to fight other males. But we don’t know for sure.

Speaking of narwhals, if you were hoping to hear about them, you’ll need to go way back to episode five, about the unicorn. I talk about the narwhal a lot in that episode. The narwhal happens to be one of the best animals. A lot of people think the narwhal isn’t a real animal, that it’s made up like a unicorn. In fact, about a week ago, I was talking to a coworker and the subject of narwhals came up. She actually did not realize it was a real animal. Nope, it’s real, and that horn is real, but it’s actually a tusk rather than a horn. It grows through the whale’s upper lip, not its forehead. In another weird coincidence, this afternoon when I was about to sit down and record this episode, a friend sent me a link to an article that had some narwhal sounds. So we’re not really talking about narwhals in this episode, but hey, this is what they sound like.

[narwhal calls]

Another weird whale is the halfbeak porpoise, or skimmer porpoise, which lived off the coast of what is now California between 5 and 1.5 million years ago. While it probably looked mostly like an ordinary porpoise, its chin grew incredibly long. The chin, properly called a symphysis, was highly sensitive, and researchers think it used it to probe in the mud for food.

There’s still so much to learn about whales, both living ones and extinct ones. We definitely haven’t identified all the living whales yet. There are reports of strange whales from all over the world, including a baleen whale with two dorsal fins. It was first spotted in 1867 off the coast of Chile by a naturalist, and other sightings have been made since. It’s supposedly 60 feet long, or 18 meters, so you’d think it wouldn’t be all that hard to spot…but there’s a whole lot of ocean out there, and relatively few people on the ocean to look for rare whales.

Whales can live a really long time. In 2007, researchers studying a dead bowhead whale found a piece of harpoon embedded in its skin. It turned out to be a type of harpoon that was made around 1879. Bowheads can probably live more than 200 years, and may even live longer than that.

And, of course, whales are extremely intelligent animals with complex social and emotional lives, the ability to reason and remember, tool use, creative thinking and play, self-awareness, a certain amount of language use, and altruistic behaviors toward members of other species. Whales and dolphins sometimes help human swimmers in distress, dolphins and porpoises sometimes help beached whales, and humpback whales in particular sometimes rescue seals and other animals from orcas. Humans aren’t very good at thinking about intelligence except as it pertains to us, but it seems pretty clear that other apes, whales and their relations, elephants, and probably a great many other animals are a lot more intelligent than we’ve traditionally thought.

One last interesting fact about whales and their relations. Most of them sleep with half their brain at a time. The half that isn’t sleeping takes care of rising to the surface to breathe periodically, so the whale doesn’t drown. That does not sound very restful to me. But sperm whales sleep with their bodies vertical and their heads sticking up out of the water. But they don’t sleep very long, only around ten minutes at a time—and only in the hours before midnight. I’ve had nights like that.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 067: More Sea Monsters



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

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

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

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

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

Sei whales are neat and have gigantic mouths:

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

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

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

Hagelund’s sketch of the little animal he caught:

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

The strange animal seen from the Valhalla:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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