Category Archives: whales

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.

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 027: Creatures of the Deeps



This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 024: The Water Owl and the Devil Bird



This week’s episode is about two solved mysteries that aren’t exactly solved after all, the water owl and the devil bird! Let’s figure out what those two might really be!

Cuvier’s Beaked Whale:

A swordfish, swording everywhere it goes:

Seems definitive:

A possible culprit for the devil bird, the spot-bellied eagle owl:

The brown wood owl. Nice hair, dude.

Show transcript:

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

I got my air conditioning fixed, so you’ll be happy to know I’m not sitting in front of the microphone sweating like last week.

This week I wanted to look at a couple of animal mysteries that are supposedly solved. Imagine me cracking my knuckles to get down to business, because they’re not actually solved but you and I are going to solve them right now.

If you do a search for mythical animals that turned out to be real, the water owl is on just about every single one. The water owl is supposedly a huge sea monster with the body of a fish and the head of an owl, with big round eyes. According to the medieval myth, the water owl (also called the Xiphias) was supposed to ram ships with its sword-like beak, or slice through them with its huge dorsal fin.

According to those solve mystery animals lists, it turns out that the monster was really a Cuvier’s beaked whale. But in TH White’s 1960 translation of the Book of Beasts, a 12th century bestiary, Xiphias is clearly identified as a swordfish. Elsewhere it’s also called gladius, “so-called because he has a sharp pointed beak, which he sticks into ships and sinks them.” Not coincidentally, the swordfish’s scientific name is Xiphias gladius, which basically means “sword sword.”

Directly under the Gladius entry is that of the serra, which “is called this because he has a serrated cockscomb, and swimming under the vessels he saws them up.” I don’t know what the serra is supposed to be and neither does TH White. It’s possible it was a muddled account of the sawfish.

There is no entry for sea owl, water owl, or anything similar in any bestiary I could get my hands on. It’s possible that the Xiphias if medieval bestiaries and Cuvier’s beaked whale comes from the whale’s scientific name, Ziphius cavirostris, with Ziphius spelled differently from the swordfish’s Xiphias, although I’m pretty sure the pronunciation is the same. Xiphos means sword in Greek and the whale does have an elongated beak, although nothing like a swordfish’s, and not even very long compared to other beaked whales. Another common name for it is the goose-beaked whale, which is a lot more accurate.

Its face and its beak look nothing like an owl’s, nor does it have a very big dorsal fin. Cuvier’s beaked whale is a relatively common whale found throughout the world. It grows up to 23 feet long [or 7 meters] and can be gray, brown, or even a reddish color. It’s a deep diver and habitually feeds on squid and deep-sea fish. In fact, it holds the record for the longest and deepest recorded dive for any mammal—over two hours underwater and over 9800 feet deep [or nearly 3,000 meters]. That’s almost two miles. Its flippers fold back into depressions in its sides to reduce drag as it swims. Like other beaked whales it has no teeth except for two tusks in males that stick up from the tip of its lower jaw. Males use these tusks when fighting, and many whales have long scars on their sides as a result.

The swordfish also has no teeth, but it does have a hugely elongated bill that it uses not to spear fish, but to slash at them. It’s a fast, scary-looking fish that can grow up to 15 feet long [or 4.6 meters], and it does have a pronounced upright dorsal fin. And while its bill isn’t exactly owl-like, since owls all have short bills, it does have huge round eyes.

In other words, the water owl isn’t Cuvier’s beaked whale. It’s probably the swordfish. And if anyone can point me to a primary source that mentions an animal called the water owl, I’d be much obliged.

Like Cuvier’s beaked whale, the swordfish spends a lot of time in deep water. Its deepest recorded dive was over 9400 feet [or 2,865 meters], almost that of the deepest recorded whale dive. It eats fish, squid, and crustaceans, swallowing the smaller prey whole and slashing the larger prey up first.

One interesting note about the swordfish’s eyes. Like marlin, tuna, and some species of shark, the swordfish has a special organ that keeps its eyes and brain warmer than the surrounding water. This improves its vision, but it’s also really unusual in fish, which are almost exclusively cold-blooded.

Another animals that appears on the mythical animals found to be real list is the devilbird, also called the ulama. It’s a Sri Lankan bird whose call is supposed to be a death omen, and the spot-bellied eagle owl is supposed to be the actual bird with the eerie human-like scream. But that may not be the case.

So what is the legend? What bird might be behind it? And most importantly, what does it sound like?

The legend shares similarities with folk tales like La Llorona and the Banshee, and many others throughout the various cultures of the world. in the Sri Lankan legend, a man who thought his wife was cheating on him killed their infant son. His wife went insane, ran into the jungle, and died. The gods transformed her into the ulama bird, and now her terrible wailing warns others that they are doomed.

The trouble is, not only is no one sure which bird is actually the ulama, no one’s really sure what the ulama sounds like. Some accounts say it sounds like a little boy being strangled, others just say it’s a terrifying scream. What seems to be the case is that any creepy-sounding night bird call is said to be an ulama.

I did a search online and didn’t come up with much. This audio is the closest thing to a bona fide ulama call that I could find. Most of the calls in the video are hard to hear and there’s a lot of background noise, so I just snipped out the two best calls to give you an idea:

[creepy ulama call]

There are a lot of birds people think might be the ulama. The most common suggestion is the spot-bellied eagle owl, which nests in Sri Lanka although it doesn’t live there year-round. It is an adorable floof like an owls, with ear tufts and big dark eyes. It’s not spooky-looking, but it is spooky sounding. Here’s a sample of its call:

[owl call]

Then there’s the highland nightjar, the brown wood owl, the crested honey buzzard, the crested hawk eagle, and many others. The crested hawk eagle and crested honey buzzard are diurnal hunters, so are not likely to give their calls at night. The brown wood owl, which by the way looks like the spot-bellied eagle owl with an Afro instead of ear tufts, just hoots like a regular owl. The highland nightjar, also called the jungle nightjar, calls at dusk, and like all nightjars is hard to spot. It’s gray with black streaks and black-barred tail and wings. The problem is, it sounds like this:

[cute instead of creepy nightjar call]

That’s maybe a little spooky if you hear it at a lonely place at night, but not “I or a loved one am now doomed to die” kind of spooky. Supposedly the male’s flight call is more of a scream, but I couldn’t find any corroboration about that, and in fact every bird site I checked indicated the male’s flight call is more of a hooting sound.

So what is the ulama? Here’s my suggestion. It’s not a particular bird at all, but an interpretation of any number of bird and animal calls. If you hear an inhuman scream or wail in the night, and you know about the ulama legend, then that call is naturally an ulama call. It doesn’t matter that some other person on some other night might hear a completely different call and also know it’s the ulama. All terrifying cries in the night are the ulama.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 015: Hammerhead shark and Megalodon!



This week’s episode is all about some awesome sharks: the hammerhead shark, which used to scare the poop out of me when I was a kid, and the unbelievably huge but fortunately for all the whales extinct megalodon! Thanks to Zenger from Zeng This! for recommending such a great topic!

The great hammerhead, a huge and freaky-looking shark.

A ray leaping out of the water to escape a hammerhead. The article I pulled this from is here.

A guy with a teeny adorable bonnethead, a newly discovered species of hammerhead.

Hello there. I am a great white shark.

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode was suggested by Zenger from the fun pop culture podcast Zeng This!, which I recommend if you don’t already subscribe. He suggested megalodon as a topic, so since I was already researching hammerhead sharks, I decided to put together a shark episode.

We’ll start with the hammerhead shark, because hammerheads scared the crap out of me as a kid. They just look so weird! You know what else scared me as a kid? Skeletons. It’s a good thing no one ever showed me the skeleton of a hammerhead shark.

There are a lot of species of hammerhead shark, some of them small like the new species of bonnethead discovered earlier this year that’s only about as long as your forearm, and some of them huge, like the great hammerhead, which can grow up to 20 feet long [6 meters]. One of the biggest sharks ever caught was a great hammerhead. At fourteen feet long [4.2 meters], it wasn’t the longest shark ever, but it weighed 1,280 pounds [580 kg]. It was caught in 2006 off the coast of Florida.

If it weren’t for its weird head shape, the hammerhead wouldn’t seem all that interesting. It’s mostly plain gray in color, hardly ever attack humans, and is common all over the world. But they’ve got that head! The shape is called cephalofoil, and not only are the shark’s eyes on the end of the stalks, the head is flattened.

Researchers think the shape serves two purposes. A hammerhead shark can see really well since its eyes are so far apart, and the shape actually provides a certain amount of lift when water flows over it, like an airplane’s wing, which helps the shark maneuver. Plus, of course, a wide head allows for even more electroreceptor cells so the shark can sense prey better.

Hammerheads have relatively small mouths compared to many other sharks. They do a lot of feeding on the ocean floor, snapping up rays, fish, crustaceans, octopus, even other sharks. Oh yeah, and a hammerhead will actually use its head as a weapon. Hammerheads like eating stingrays and will pin one to the ocean floor with its head to keep it from escaping until the shark can bite it. In February of 2017, tourists surfing near Panama saw a spotted eagle ray escape a hammerhead shark by leaping out of the water like a bird. The stingray actually beached itself on an island, too far up the beach for the shark to reach. After it gave up, the ray managed to catch a wave that carried it back out to sea. That’s pretty epic.

Hammerhead sharks are considered a delicacy in many countries, but since their fins are the most valuable part of the fish, fishermen sometimes catch a shark, cut its fins off, and toss the still-living shark back in the ocean. It always dies, because it can’t swim without fins. The practice is horrific and banned in many countries. Overfishing has also threatened many hammerhead species. Researchers estimate that the great hammerhead in particular has decreased in numbers some 80% in the last 25 years.

Ironically, recent studies have found repeatedly that shark fins and meat contain high levels of mercury and a neurotoxin called BMAA, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases in humans. The frequent eating of shark fin soup and other dishes made of shark meat, and cartilage pills which some people take as a diet supplement, may increase the risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. (I ate shark once, a shark steak. It was terrible.)

You may think a 20-foot hammerhead is a really big shark, and it is. Great white sharks aren’t much bigger. But before the great white and the hammerhead, a 60 foot [18 meter] shark ruled the oceans. Megalodon is first found in the fossil record around 23 million years ago, and died out about 2 ½ million years ago. Because shark skeletons are made of cartilage instead of bone, they don’t fossilize well. We have a whole lot of megalodon teeth, but except for some vertebrae we don’t know much about the rest of the shark.

Researchers generally compare megalodon with the great white, since while they’re not necessarily closely related, they occupy the same ecological niche. We do know how the teeth were arranged, since associated teeth in formation as they had been in the jaw, although the jaw itself wasn’t preserved, have been discovered in North Carolina and Japan.

At a rough estimate, megalodon probably grew 60 or even 70 feet long [18 to 21 m]. Its jaws were over six feet across [1.8 meters] with some 276 teeth in five rows. Due to the size of its teeth and jaws, it probably mostly preyed on large whales, and was probably a lot blockier looking than the great white. If the great white is a racecar, megalodon was that bus from Speed.

Some researchers want to classify megalodon as a close relative of the great white shark, which has serrated teeth like megalodon’s. But others argue the great white is more closely related to the mako shark, which does not have serrated teeth. For a long time the megalodon hypothesis was more accepted, but a study published in the March 12, 2009 issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology concluded that mako sharks and great whites probably share a recently discovered fossilized ancestor some 4 to 5 million years old. Its teeth have coarse serrations, which researchers think are a transitional point between no serrations and the serrations in modern great white shark teeth. The similarities between the great white and megalodon are due to convergent evolution.

This points to something many people don’t understand about science. It’s messy. It’s incomplete. Our collective body of knowledge is being added to, adjusted, reinterpreted, and hopefully corrected all the time. From the outside it can look like people arguing over ridiculous minutiae, or a bunch of eggheads who can’t make up their minds. In reality, as new information is added to what we know, what we used to think was true has to be changed to fit new facts. It’s exciting!

For a long time researchers though megalodon died out around the beginning of the Pleistocene because the world grew colder as the world entered into the ice ages. New findings suggest that climate change didn’t push the megalodon into extinction, other sharks did. Newcomers like the great white and the orca, which of course isn’t a shark but a whale, starting expanding into new territory, out-competing megalodon around the same time that a lot of marine mammals were also going extinct. Megalodon needed a lot of food to survive—more than the much smaller upstarts.

Back when megalodon was king, though, there was plenty of food to go around. It wasn’t even the only mega-predator hunting the oceans. In 2008, fossils of an ancestor of today’s sperm whale were discovered in Miocene beds dated to around 12 or 13 million years ago. The whale has been dubbed Livyatan melvillei and estimates of its length, from the partial skull, lower jaw, and teeth that were found is around 57 feet [17 meters]. Since modern sperm whales are frequently some 60 feet long [18 m] and 80-foot [24 m] monster males were reported in the past, it’s possible the newly discovered Leviathan could attain similar lengths. Its biggest teeth were two feet long [61 cm] compared to modern sperm whales’ 8-inch teeth [20.5 cm]. It also apparently had teeth in its upper jaw as well as its lower. The sperm whale only has teeth in its lower jaw, and since it mostly eats squid, it doesn’t really need teeth at all. Individuals who have lost their teeth survive just fine.

The Leviathan, though, used its teeth. Like megalodon, it may have preyed on baleen whales. Megalodon teeth were found in the same fossil deposits where the Leviathan was discovered. I bet they battled sometimes.

So how do we know Megalodon isn’t still around, cruising the oceans in search of whales? After all the megamouth shark was only discovered in 1976 and it’s almost 20 feet long [6 m]. Well, we have two big clues that there isn’t a population of Megalodon sharks still living. Both involve its teeth.

Sharks have a lot of teeth, and they lose them all the time as new teeth grow in. Shark teeth are among the most common fossils around, and any dedicated beachcomber can find shark teeth washed up on shore. If megalodon still lived, we’d be finding its teeth. We’d also probably be finding whales and other large marine animals with scars from shark attacks, the way we find scars on sperm whales from giant squid suckers.

Wait, you may be saying, no one was talking about megamouth shark teeth found on beaches before it was discovered. Well, megamouth sharks have tiny, tiny teeth that they don’t even use. They gather food with gill rakes that filter krill from the water. Megalodon teeth can be seven inches long [18 cm]. Great white teeth are only two inches long [5 cm]. Occasionally a fossilized megalodon tooth washes up on shore, and when it does, it makes the news.

So okay, you might be saying, you fractious person you, what if megalodon survived into modern times but has died out now. Well, we’d probably still know. Not only would the non-fossilized teeth still be found, since nothing is going to eat them and they don’t decay readily, but a lot of cultures have incorporated shark teeth into weapons over the centuries. A seven-inch serrated tooth is a weapon worth having.

Consider the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific. Sharks were important in the Kiribati culture there, and the people crafted amazing weapons with shark teeth. Anthropologists studying the weapons discovered that some of the teeth used in older weapons come from sharks that are now extinct in the area.

So no, I’m going to insist that whatever you saw on Shark Week, megalodon is not out there and hasn’t been for a couple of million years. But what about other mystery sharks?

There aren’t very many reports, surprisingly. Even Karl Shuker comes up empty, with just one mention of a reportedly hundred-foot [30 m] shark called the Lord of the Deep by Polynesian fishermen, but I can’t find any additional information about it.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t mystery sharks out there, of course, just that they’re probably not gigantic or radically different from known shark species. In fact, new sharks are discovered all the time. In just the last few months, a three-foot [1 m] ghost shark with rabbit-like teeth, and a tiny hammerhead called a bonnethead have been described. And yeah, I’d love to be wrong about the megalodon’s existence.

Researchers are studying the genetics of sharks’ rapid healing, which could have important medical applications for humans. A recent study published in the January 2017 BMC Genomics Journal provides evidence that the genes linked to the immune system in sharks and rays have evolved in ways that their counterparts in humans have not. One gene is involved in killing cells after a certain amount of time, which is something cancer cells manage to avoid. It’s possible that as researchers learn more, new therapies for treating cancer in humans could be developed.

So maybe we should stop eating so many sharks. Shark meat isn’t good for you anyway.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 008: The Loneliest Whale and Other Strange Recordings



This week’s episode is a collection of strange animal sounds, some unknown, others identified. We start with “the loneliest whale.”

A blue whale. Not the loneliest whale, as far as anyone knows.

A tarsier:

This fox can see into your soul and does not like you:

Show transcript:

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

One of the great things about making my own podcast is that I’m the one who gets to decide what topics to cover. I love podcasts about unexplained sounds captured on audio, so this week’s episode is just that.

With one or two exceptions, I’ve tried to keep to sounds that are definitely or probably made by animals. I’ve also tried to dig a little deeper to explore some sounds that I haven’t heard covered in other podcasts. I waded through a million pop-up ads so you don’t have to.

First, let’s talk about a whale you’ve probably heard of. It’s frequently called the loneliest whale. The story goes that this whale is lonely because its voice is too high to be heard or understood by other whales. It calls but never gets a response.

But that’s actually not the case. Its voice is higher than other blue whales, fin whales, and humpback whales, but they can certainly hear it, and for all we know, they answer. Since the individual whale hasn’t actually been spotted, we don’t know if it travels alone or with other whales.

The loneliest whale was first detected in 1989 by the US Navy listening for submarines in the North Pacific, then again in 1990 and 1991. At that time the recordings were classified due to the cold war, but in 1992, some were partially declassified, and word about the whale got out. The calls vary but are similar to blue whale calls. The main difference is the voice’s pitch. The loneliest whale calls at 52 hertz. That’s slightly higher than the lowest notes on a piano or tuba. Blue whale songs are typically around 10 to 40 hertz. The whale’s voice has deepened over the years to around 49 hertz, suggesting that it has matured.

Suggestions as to why this whale has a different call include the possibility that the whale is deaf, that it’s malformed in some way, or that it’s a hybrid of two different species of whale. Fin whales and blue whales do interbreed occasionally, but no one has successfully recorded a hybrid’s calls.

Whale researchers think the recordings seem to be of one individual whale, but in 2010, sensors off the coast of California picked up lonely whale type calls that might have been made by more than one whale at the same time. One suggestion is that blue and fin whale hybrids might be common enough that they band together. This seems a little far-fetched to me, but I’m not a whale expert.

The loneliest whale’s migratory patterns suggest it’s a blue whale. So do its call patterns, if not its actual voice, but no one has recorded the whale’s song since 2004.

A documentary called “52: The Search for the Loneliest Whale” is currently in production. There aren’t any dates listed on the official site, 52thesearch.com, but it’s supposed to be released some time this year, 2017. [Note from 2020: it doesn’t appear that this has ever been released.] The film’s expedition has concluded, although we don’t know yet whether the scientific and film teams actually identified the loneliest whale or recorded it.

Here is the call of the loneliest whale. This recording has been sped up 10x to make it easier to hear. The original recording is barely more than a rumble, depending on how good your hearing is and how good your speakers are.

[whale call]

And just for fun, here’s a recording of an ordinary blue whale, also sped up:

[another whale call]

Now let’s go from the largest mammal alive to one of the largest land mammals alive, the elephant. In 1984, biologist Katy Payne, a pioneer in the field of bioacoutics, was at a zoo in Portland, Oregon to give a talk about whale songs. While she was there, she visited the elephant exhibit and noticed that every so often she felt what she called a throbbing in the air. She got some recording equipment and came back to the zoo, recorded the elephants, and sped up her recording. Sure enough, the elephants were making sounds below 20 hertz.

She pursued the finding with wild elephants in Africa. It turns out that elephants communicate not only with the familiar trumpets and squeaks, but in infrasound—that is, sounds below the lower limits of human hearing.

Infrasound can travel a long distance, especially useful in forested areas with limited visibility, and at dusk and dawn when atmospheric conditions help propagate the sound waves so they can travel as far as six miles away [9.6 km]. Females in estrus make a special call to bull elephants, for instance, attracting potential mates from a long way away.

Here’s a recording of elephant rumbles—again, sped up so we can hear it:

[elephant sounds]

Other animals communicate in infrasound, generally large animals like rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and of course whales. Many more communicate in ultrasounds, sounds above the top hearing range of humans, about 20 kilohertz. Bat radar navigation and sonar navigation sounds made by many species of dolphins and toothed whales register in the ultrasonic range, as do many insect calls. But there are other much more surprising animals that communicate in ultrasound.

The Philippine tarsier is a tiny primate only about five inches tall [13 cm], a big-eyed nocturnal fluffball with long fingers. Researchers studying the tarsiers wondered why the animals frequently opened their mouths as though to make calls but produced no sound. Sure enough, they’re communicating at ranges far too high for humans to detect—higher, in fact, than has been discovered for any terrestrial mammal.

The Philippine tarsier most often communicates at 70 kHz and can hear sounds up to 90 kHz. Researchers think the tarsier uses its ultrasonic hearing to track insects, and communicates in frequencies too high for predators to hear. Here’s a tarsier call, slowed down so we can hear it. I’ll keep it short because it’s super annoying.

[tarsier call]

Another animal that uses ultrasound is the cat. Domestic cats can hear sounds up to 85 kHz. Some kitten calls fall in the ultrasonic range, so the mother cat can hear her babies but many predators can’t. Cats have evolved to hear such high sounds because many rodents communicate in ultrasound. Male mice, for instance, sing like birds to attract mates. Here’s an example, slowed down so we can hear it:

[mouse singing]

But so far these are all known animals, or in the case of the loneliest whale, probably known. What about truly mysterious sounds?

Probably the most famous mystery sound is the bloop. It was recorded by NOAA in 1997 off the tip of South America. It’s an incredibly loud sound, much louder than the loudest animal ever recorded, the blue whale, and for a long time, people speculated that it might be an enormous unknown animal. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately because no one wants to awaken Cthulhu, NOAA has identified the bloop as the sound of an icequake. That is, massive iceburgs breaking apart. Here’s a clip of the bloop, sped up so we can hear it:

[the bloop]

Another solved mystery sound has been dubbed “bioduck,” since it sounds sort of like a robotic duck. It’s been recorded since the 1960s, when it was first reported by submarine operators in the southern ocean off the Antarctic. It’s common, heard almost year-round near Antarctica and Australia, and was not from any known human-made source. Then, in 2013, whale researchers attached suction-cup tags to two Antarctic minke whales. While the tags remained in place, they recorded not only where the whales went, but the sounds they made. And to the research team’s astonishment, both whales made bioduck calls. This finding is important, not just because it cleared up a longstanding mystery, but because it tells us a lot about the Antarctic minke whale that wasn’t known. Researchers thought the whales only lived in Antarctic waters part of the year. Now they know that some whales remain year-round while some migrate near Australia. They can also make better estimates of whale populations now that they can identify this distinctive call.

The Antarctic minke whale is a baleen whale that grows to around 40 feet [12 m], but usually much smaller. It’s gray with white belly and mostly eats krill. This is what they sound like:

[minke whale call]

In our sea monster episode a couple of weeks ago, I shared another baleen whale call, this one from an unidentified species. It’s been dubbed the bio-twang and has been recorded in the Mariana trench in the western Pacific year-round in 2014 and 2015. Researchers suspect the dwarf minke whale, but they don’t know yet.

[mystery whale call]

To get out of the water for a moment, in 2012 a supposed bigfoot recorded started going around the internet. It was supposedly recorded on a cell phone in the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon. It’s more likely to be nothing more exotic than a red fox.

Here’s the unknown scream:

[creepy animal sound]

And here’s a recording of a red fox:

[equally creepy red fox sound]

To me the sounds are very similar. If you want to know how I know the red fox scream is actually a red fox screaming, google “red fox scream.” The first hit is a YouTube clip of a fox screaming. I pulled the audio from that one.

In 2014, an unknown animal was recorded in Lake Champlain in Vermont. Dennis Hall, who claimed to have spotted the lake monster known as Champ in 1985, and Katy Elizabeth, who runs an organization known as Champ Search, made the recording and thought it might be from a beluga whale.

But while Lake Champlain is connected to the ocean, a whale would have a hard time reaching the lake due to canals, and would most likely have been spotted either on its way to the lake or once it arrived. Certainly it would have been spotted once it died from trying to live in fresh water.

Other recordings of clicking and squeaking sounds like those of beluga whales have been recorded in the lake in the past, including by a Discovery Channel team researching Champ. In 2013, Dr. Lance Barret Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center, and an expert on whale acoustics, examined some of the echolocation patterns. He determined that not only are the recordings not of beluga whales, they’re not from any kind of whale. They’re probably not mammalian in origin.

Some turtles have been found to produce underwater signals that may be a form of echolocation, and many fish make clicking and drumming sounds. But we don’t know what’s making the sounds recorded in Lake Champlain.

Here’s the 2014 recording:

[Lake Champlain sounds]

Finally, here’s a sound that’s not mysterious, I just really like it. It’s the song of the veery, an attractive but rather plain thrush. I’ve heard it in person while hiking at high elevations in the Smoky Mountains, and it’s completely ethereal.

If you listen closely, you can hear that the veery is actually making two sounds at the same time. The avian vocal mechanism, called a syrinx, is much different from a mammal’s larynx, and allows a bird to product more than one tone at a time.

[veery call]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 006: Sea Monsters



This week’s episode is all about sea monsters: mysterious sightings, possible solutions, and definitely discovered monsters of the world’s oceans!

The giant oarfish! Try to convince me that’s not a sea serpent, I dare you.

The megamouth shark. Watch out, krill and jellyfish!

The frilled shark. Watch out, everything else including other sharks!

A giant isopod. Why are you touching it? Stop touching it!

Sorry, it’s just a rotting basking shark:

Recommended reading:

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans by Michael A. Woodley

In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Bernard Heuvelmans

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker


Episode 005: The Unicorn



Everyone knows the legend of the unicorn and most of us know unicorns don’t really exist. But how did the legend get started? And more importantly, can we talk about narwhals a whole lot? Narwhals are rad.

Narwhal. So rad.

I haven’t seen this show but apparently it’s pretty good. I love that elasmotherium.

Unicorns are (sort of) real. Unicorning certainly is.

Thanks to Jen and Dave for suggesting this week’s topic!

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about the unicorn, or at least about almost-unicorns. This is a re-record of the original episode to improve sound quality and update some information.

When I was a kid, I was convinced unicorns were real. I’m not alone in this, apparently. A lot of people assume the unicorn is a real animal. Take away the magical trappings and it’s just a horse-like animal with one spiral horn. It seems a lot more plausible than squids, for instance.

I’m sorry to tell you that that kind of unicorn doesn’t exist, and never has, or at least we have no fossil or subfossil evidence that an animal resembling the classical unicorn actually existed. But the animals that probably inspired the unicorn legend are fascinating.

Everyone knows that the unicorn has one spiral horn growing from its forehead. The horn was supposed to have curative properties. If you ground up a little bit of the horn, known as alicorn, it acted as a medicine to cure you of poisoning or other ailments. If you actually made a little cup out of alicorn, you could drink from it safely knowing any poison was already neutralized. People in the olden days were really worried about being poisoned, probably because they didn’t understand how food safety and bacteria worked and they didn’t have refrigerators or meat thermometers and so forth. I suspect a lot of so-called poisoning cases were actually food poisoning. But this re-record is already off the rails, so back we get to the main topic.

All this about alicorn wasn’t legend, either. You could buy alicorn from apothecaries up until the late 18th century. Doctors prescribed it. It was expensive, though—literally worth its weight in gold. Pharmacies kept their alicorns on display but chained down so no one could steal them.

The alicorn, of course, was actually the tusk of the narwhal, and the narwhal is as mysterious as the unicorn in its own way. In fact, the narwhal seems a lot less plausibly real than a unicorn and a lot of people actually don’t realize it’s a real animal. I had that discussion with a coworker last year and had a lot of fun astonishing her with science facts, or maybe boring her. It’s a fairly small whale, some 13 to 18 feet in length not counting the tusk. That’s about four to five and a half meters long. It’s pale gray in color with darker gray or brown dapples, but like gray horses, many narwhals get paler as they age. Old individuals can appear pure white.

The narwhal and the beluga whale are similar in size and physical characteristics, such as their lack of a dorsal fin. They live in the same areas and are the only two living members of the family Monodontidae. They even interbreed very rarely.

But the narwhal is the one with the horn, or more accurately a tusk. It’s not a horn at all but a tooth. Most males and about 15% of females grow a tusk. Occasionally an individual grows two tusks, but almost always it’s the left canine tooth that pierces through the lip and continues to grow, sometimes up to ten feet long, or 3 meters.

It’s a weird, weird tooth too. It can bend as much as a foot without breaking, or 30 cm, not something teeth are generally known for. It also grows in a spiral. And we still don’t know what the narwhal uses its tusk for.

For a long time, researchers assumed that male narwhals used their tusks the same way male deer use their antlers, to show off for females and to battle other males. Males do exhibit behavior called tusking, where two individuals will rub their tusks together in what researchers once assumed was a ritual fight display. But that seems not to be the case.

A 2005 study discovered that the tusk is filled with nerves and is extremely sensitive. Through its tusk, the whale can identify changes in water temperature and pressure, water salinity, and the presence of fish and other whales. It even acts as an antenna, amplifying sound. The study was led by Martin Nweeia of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Nweeia is a dentist, basically, which delights me. Okay, he’s a clinical instructor in restorative dentistry and biomaterials scientist, but dentist is funnier.

I liked Nweeia even more when I found this quote: “Why would a tusk break the rules of normal development by expressing millions of sensory pathways that connect its nervous system to the frigid arctic environment?” As someone who has trouble biting ice cream without wincing, I agree.

In other words, the narwhal’s tusk has scientists baffled. You hear that a lot in a certain type of article, but in this case it’s true. Especially baffling in this case is why the tusk is found mostly in males. If having a tusk confers some advantage in the narwhal’s environment, why don’t all or most females grow one too? If having a tusk does not confer an advantage beyond display for females, why does the tusk act as a sensory organ?

The narwhal lives in the Arctic, especially the Canadian Arctic and around Greenland, and it’s increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, pollution, and noise pollution. Overall increased temperature of the earth due to climate change has caused a lot of the sea ice to melt in their traditional breeding grounds, and then humans decided those areas would make great oil drilling sites. The noise and pollution of oil drilling and exploration threatens the narwhal in particular, since when a company searches for new oil deposits it sets off undersea detonations that can deafen or even outright kill whales. But it’s hard to count how many narwhals are actually alive, and some recent studies have suggested that there may be more around than we thought. That’s a good thing. Now we just have to make sure to keep them safe, because narwhals are awesome.

The narwhal eats fish and squid and shrimp and sometimes accidentally rocks, because instead of biting its prey the narwhal just hoovers it up, frequently from the sea floor, and swallows it whole. It does that because it doesn’t actually have any teeth. Besides the one.

As a final narwhal mystery, on December 17, 1892, sailors aboard a ship in the Dundee Antarctic Expedition spotted a single-horned narwhal-like whale in the Bransfield Strait. But narwhals don’t live in the Antarctic…as far as we know.

One of the reasons why so many people believe the unicorn is a real animal is because it’s mentioned in some English-language versions of the Bible. When the Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew into Greek in the third century BCE, the translators weren’t sure what animal the re’em was. It appeared in the texts a number of times but wasn’t described. The translators settled on monokeros for their translation, which in English is unicorn. The King James Version of the Bible mentions the unicorn seven times, giving it a respectability that other animals (like squids) can’t claim.

These days, Biblical scholars translate re’em as a wild ox, or aurochs. You can learn more about the aurochs in episode 58, Weird Cattle. The aurochs was the ancestor to domestic cattle and was already extinct in most parts of the world by the third century BCE, but lived on in the remote forests north of the Alps until its final extinction in 1627.

So while the Greek translators didn’t know what the re’em was, why did they decide it was a unicorn? It’s possible they were drawing on the writings of Greek physician Ctesias, from the fourth century BCE. Ctesias described an animal from India he called a type of wild ass, which had “a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length.” But it seems clear from his writing that he was describing a rhinoceros.

In fact, any description of a rhino given by someone who hasn’t actually seen one, just heard about it, comes across as a unicorn-like animal. So it’s quite likely that the translators made a wild guess that the fierce re’em was a rhinoceros, which they would have known as a horse-like animal with one horn.

But while the unicorn is mentioned in the Bible, it isn’t a specifically Christian legend. The karkadann is a huge monster in Muslim folk tradition, with a horn so big it could spear two or three elephants on it at the same time. In Siberia, some tribes told stories of a huge black ox with one horn, so big that when the animal was killed, the horn alone required its own sledge for transport. In some Chinese tales, the kilin was supposed to be a huge animal with one horn. For more information about the kilin, or kirin, you can listen to episode 61.

It’s probable that all these stories stem from the rhinoceros, which is a distinctive and unusual animal that we only take for granted today because we can go visit it in zoos. But some researchers have suggested a more exotic animal.

Elasmotherium was an ice age animal sometimes called the steppe rhino, giant rhino, or Siberian unicorn. The largest of the three species of elasmotherium was the size of a mammoth, some seven feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters. It was a grazer like horses and cattle today, and like them it had long legs, much longer than living rhinos. It could probably gallop at a pretty good clip. It lived at the same time as the smaller woolly rhino, but while the woolly rhino resembled modern rhinos in a lot of respects, notably its large horn on the nose with a smaller horn farther up, elasmotherium only had one horn…one enormous horn. On its forehead.

We don’t actually have any elasmotherium horns to look at. Rhino horns aren’t true horns at all but a keratin structure. Keratin is an interesting fiber. It can be immensely tough, as it is when it forms rhinoceros horns, but it’s also what our nails and hair are made of. It doesn’t fossilize any more than hair fossilizes. The main reason we know elasmotherium had a horn is because of its skull. While rhino horns are made of keratin fibers instead of bone, the skull shows a protuberance with furrows where blood vessels were that fed the tissues that generated the horn. In elasmotherium, the protuberance is five inches deep, or 13 cm, and three feet in circumference, or just over a meter. Researchers think the horn may have been five or six feet long, or 1.5 to 1.8 meters.

Researchers have also found an elasmotherium fossil with a partially healed puncture wound. It’s possible the males sparred with their enormous horns and sometimes inflicted injuries. At least it happened once.

For a long time researchers thought elasmotherium died out 350,000 years ago, much too long ago for humans to have encountered it. But a skull found a few years ago in Kazakhstan was radiocarbon dated to about 29,000 years old. If elasmotherium and humans did cross paths, it wouldn’t be at all surprising that the animal figured in stories that have persisted for millennia. More likely, though, our early ancestors found carcasses partially thawed from the permafrost the way mammoth carcasses are sometimes found today. This might easily have happened at the end of the Pleistocene, a relatively recent 11,000 years ago or thereabouts. A frozen carcass would still have a horn, and while the carcasses are long gone now, it’s not unthinkable that stories of a massive animal with a monstrous single horn were passed down to the present.

Of course, this is all conjecture. It’s much more likely that the stories are not that old and are about the modern rhinoceros. But it’s definitely fun to think about our ancestors crossing a vast hilly grassland for the first time in search of new hunting grounds, and coming across a herd of towering monsters with five-foot horns on their foreheads. That would definitely make an impression on anyone.

One final note about the unicorn. When I was a kid, I read a book called A Grass Rope by William Maine, published in 1957 so already an oldie when I found it in my local library. It concerns a group of Yorkshire kids who hunt for a treasure of local legend, which involves a unicorn. I was an American kid from a generation after the book was written, so although it’s set in the real world it felt like a fantasy novel that I could barely understand. When one of the characters discovers a unicorn skull, it didn’t seem any more extraordinary to me than anything else. But on rereading the book in my late teens, I was struck by a character at the end who tells the children “it’s not very hard to grow unicorns.”

By that time, I pretty much had Willy Ley’s animal books memorized, including the chapter about unicorns. In it, he talks about unicorning animals that have two horns.

The practice of unicorning has been known for centuries in many cultures, but the first modern experiment was conducted in 1933 by Dr. Franklin Dove in Maine. He removed the horn buds from a day-old bull calf and transplanted them to the middle of the calf’s forehead. The calf grew up, the horn buds took root and grew into a single horn that was almost completely straight and which sprouted from the bull’s forehead.

Dr. Dove reported that the bull was unusually docile, although I suspect his docility may have come from being handled more than the usual bull calf, so he became tamer than most bulls. Either way, the experiment proved that unicorning wasn’t difficult. Any animal that grows true horns, such as sheep, goats, and cattle, can be unicorned.

More recently, in the 1980s, neopagan writer Oberon Zell Ravenheart and his wife Morning Glory unicorned mohair goats that looked astonishingly like the unicorns of legend. So technically, kid me was right. Unicorns are sort of real.

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

Thanks for listening!