Episode 180: Synchronous Fireflies

Thanks to Adam for the great suggestion of synchronous fireflies! Let’s learn about lightning bugs (or fireflies) in general, and in particular the famous synchronous fireflies!

Further reading:

How Fireflies Glow and What Signals They’re Sending

Further watching:

Tennessee Fireflies

Synchronizing Fireflies in Thailand (it shows an experiment to encourage the fireflies to start blinking by the use of LEDs)

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a bioluminescent insect, the firefly, also called the lightning bug, but we’ll especially learn about a specific type of various species called synchronous fireflies! This is a suggestion from Adam, so thank you, Adam!

Fireflies are beetles and they’re common throughout much of the world. I actually call them lightning bugs, but firefly is faster to say so I’m going to use that term in this episode. They’re most common in temperate and tropical areas, especially around places with a lot of water and plant cover, like marshes and wooded streams. This is because the firefly spends most of its life as a larva, and it needs to be able to hide from predators and also find the tiny insects, snails and slugs, worms, and other small prey that it eats. Adults of some species don’t eat at all and may not even have mouths, while adults of other species may eat nectar, pollen, or other insects.

There are probably two thousand species of firefly, with more being discovered all the time. While they vary a lot, all of them emit light in one way or another. We’ll talk about how they produce the light in a minute, but first let’s talk about why they light up. In many species, the larvae can light up and do so to let predators know they taste bad. The larvae are usually called glowworms, although that name is also applied to other animals.

Some firefly species don’t light up at all as adults, but many species use their lights to find a mate. Every species has a distinct flash pattern. In some species, the female can’t fly but will sit on the ground or in foliage and watch for her species’ flash pattern from males flying around. When she sees a male she likes, often one whose light is brightest, she signals him by flashing back. Sometimes a pair will flash back and forth for hours, sometimes just minutes, but eventually the male will find the female and they will mate.

As a result, the firefly is sensitive to light pollution, because it needs to see the flashing of potential mates. If there’s too much light from buildings and street lamps, fireflies can’t find each other. They’re also sensitive to many other factors, so if you have a lot of fireflies where you live, you can be proud to live in a healthy ecosystem. But overall, the number of fireflies are in decline all over the world due to habitat loss and pollution of various kinds.

So how does a firefly light up? It’s a chemical reaction that happens in the lower abdomen in a special organ. The organ contains a chemical called luciferin [loo-SIF-er-in] and an enzyme called luciferase [loo-SIF-er-ace], both of which are found in many insects that glow, along with some other chemicals like magnesium. The firefly controls when it flashes by adding oxygen to its light-producing organ, since oxygen reacts with the chemicals to produce light.

Female fireflies in the genus Photinus, which are common in North America and other areas, can’t fly and instead look for potential mates to fly by. When a male sees a female’s answering flash, he lands near her. But sometimes when the male lands, he’s greeted not by a female Photinus but by a female Photuris firefly. Photuris females often mimic the flash patterns of Photinus, and they do so to lure the males close so they can EAT THEM. Photuris is sometimes called the femme fatale firefly as a result. Some species of Photuris will also mimic the flash patterns of other firefly species, so they don’t specifically pick on Photinus. Also, these names are way too similar. Photuris will even grab and eat fireflies that are caught in spiderwebs, stealing from the spider. I like to imagine these femme fatale fireflies with tiny guns and slinky 1950s-era dresses.

But the really interesting thing is that these femme fatale fireflies aren’t just hungry. They belong to species that can’t manufacture the toxic compounds that other fireflies do. After a female Photuris has mated, she needs this compound to protect her eggs when she lays them, so she gets it by eating fireflies that do produce the compound.

Fireflies vary in size, but they’re generally quite small, with the biggest only about an inch long, or 2.5 cm. They’re usually brown or black, sometimes with orange, red, or yellow markings on the head and yellow streaks on the wing covers. They also have a weird smell, which is probably related to this toxic compound. It’s a type of steroid that’s chemically similar to the toxins excreted by some poisonous toads. In one fantastic article I found online, which I link to in the show notes, the writer says, “A colleague of mine once put a firefly in his mouth—and his mouth went numb for an hour!” In other words, don’t eat fireflies even if you’re a frog or a bird.

In many areas, larval fireflies hibernate during the winter, in underground burrows or under tree bark. Once a larva pupates and transforms into an adult, it only lives a matter of weeks. It mates, lays eggs, and dies.

There is an exception, of course. The winter firefly lives in much of North America and actually overwinters as an adult. It lives in tree bark in the winter, coming out in early spring. But the adult winter firefly doesn’t light up. It’s not even nocturnal like most other species. It comes out during the day and the male finds a mate by following the trail of pheromones released by the female. It eats tree sap and is especially attracted to sap buckets when people are tapping maple trees to make maple syrup, which is why it’s also sometimes called the sap bucket beetle. It mates and lays its eggs in spring, then dies. Larvae pupate in late summer so that new adults have several months to build up energy reserves to get them through the winter.

Synchronous fireflies are native to Southeast Asia and the eastern United States, from Georgia to Pennsylvania. There are several famous sites in the United States for synchronous fireflies, including one that’s very close to me, at Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are 19 species of firefly in the park, but only one, Photinus carolinus, flashes synchronously. So many people want to see the display that the park has to have a lottery to see who gets tickets. I’ve never been to see the synchronous fireflies, but I have seen synchronous fireflies, at a spot only a five-minute drive from my house.

WHAT?, you may be thinking, if you know anything about synchronous fireflies. There are only like three spots in the United States where these fireflies live! But this actually isn’t the case. In 2015 another species was discovered in East Tennessee, specifically in the Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area. I remember reading an article about it and contacting the scientist quoted in the article, because I already knew of some synchronous fireflies near my house. No one else seemed to know about them but me.

I looked for the email I got in response, but unfortunately I must have deleted it at some point. This was way before I’d started the podcast so I didn’t think I’d ever need to refer to it. All I remember is that the scientist’s last name was also Shaw and that he said he’s sure there are lots of small pockets of the synchronous fireflies in East Tennessee and surrounding areas, and that they were a different species from the ones in the Smokies, with a different flashing pattern.

And indeed, there are two species of synchronous fireflies in the United States, Photinus carolinus and Photuris frontalis. Photuris is the one I’ve seen. But there’s also a third species of synchronous fireflies in the United States, but it’s only found in Arizona. The species is Photinus knulli, but it’s rare and doesn’t congregate in huge numbers.

The synchronous fireflies found in mangrove forests and other forested areas in southeast Asia are much more common than the species found in the United States, and flash year-round instead of for only a few weeks in summer. I have a couple of links to synchronous fireflies in the show notes, one of them in Tennessee and one in Thailand. The Thailand video is better since you get a better idea of how in synch the fireflies are. In that case, as the video shows, the fireflies were encouraged to start their light show by an experiment with computer-controlled LEDs hidden in a few trees.

So the videos are good, but what do synchronous fireflies really look like when you’re there in person? I mean, it’s easy to say that all the fireflies light up at once and it’s beautiful, but I’ve seen them and this doesn’t even start to explain how amazing it looks. The videos are accurate but let me try to describe my experience.

The ones I’ve seen live in a very small part of the local watershed, on the hillside above a stream called Clear Creek. They only live on one side of the stream, which fortunately is the side where there’s a hiking trail. It’s amazing because you can look across the creek and see just ordinary fireflies flashing, then turn around and see a spectacular lightshow. And even though it’s literally a few minutes’ walk from a little parking lot, I don’t think anyone but me has ever noticed.

They only flash in mid-June when the days are long, so you have to be out late to see them, around 10pm or later. The first time I saw them I was out hiking and went farther than I’d intended, so it was dark when I was approaching the parking lot.

In East Tennessee on a summer evening, it’s dark under the trees but the sky still holds a little light, so that when you look up through the tree canopy you see patches of dark blue. On this particular stretch of trail, it’s dangerous to walk too fast because there are lots of roots and rocks that you can trip over in the dark. So imagine you’re walking along with just enough light from the sky to tell where the trail is. Clear Creek is to your left, broad and shallow here. You can hear it gurgling over rocks. To your right, the ground rises steeply—not too steep to climb if you wanted to, but too steep to bother.

It’s a summer evening, so of course there are fireflies. You don’t pay any attention until you notice something unusual to your right, on the hillside beneath the trees.

That’s funny, three or four fireflies flashed at exactly the same time. But now that your attention is on the hillside, you see another flash as dozens of fireflies light up at the same time. And a few seconds later, when it happens again, you realize that it’s ALL the fireflies on the entire slope—hundreds of them!

At a distance, the flashing looks like a gold-tinted glitter of light, not a glow. Hundreds of tiny glittering lights blink on and then immediately off, so that the entire hillside looks like it’s covered with tiny electric bulbs winking on and off. The flashes come in groups, two or three flashes in a row over the course of several seconds, then a pause, then more flashes. The fireflies on one side of the hill are slightly out of synch with those on the other side of the hill so that the flashing seems to travel in a wave across the hillside. It’s so beautiful you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. It doesn’t even seem real.

One thing I’ve noticed, after being lucky enough to witness this amazing sight several summers in a row, is that the flashing doesn’t fully synchronize until it’s really dark. If I get there too early, I can see the fireflies are trying, but they aren’t quite in time yet. It has to be dark enough for them to really be able to see each other.

So why do some fireflies synchronize their flashing while most don’t? Researchers aren’t sure, but the best guess is that by flashing all together, it’s easier for females to compare males and choose which male they want to mate with. The males may also be trying to keep other males from flashing before they do, which means they eventually all synch up.

It really is an amazing sight. If you’re ever going to be in East Tennessee in June, let me know and I’ll take you out to see my fireflies, or you can sign up to see the really big displays in the Smokies or other areas. Until then, hopefully my description will help you imagine it.

This is what a firefly sounds like. HA, fooled you, they don’t make any noise at all.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 179: Lost and Found Animals

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

The deepwater trout:

The dinosaur ant:

The dinosaur ant statue of Poochera:

The false killer whale bite bite bite bite bite:

Some false killer whales:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the false killer whale sounds like:

[false killer whale sounds]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 178: The Koolakamba

Let’s learn about another mystery ape, the koolakamba (also spelled kooloo-kamba or other variations)!

Further reading:

Between the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee

The Yaounde Zoo mystery ape and the status of the kooloo-kamba

Mystery of the Koolakamba

Antoine the Yaounde Zoo ape, supposedly a koolakamba:

Mafuka (sometimes spelled Mafuca):

A rare photo of the Bili ape:

A handsome western gorilla:

A handsome western chimpanzee:

A western chimpanzee mother and baby:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to round out our bonus mystery animal month with a mystery ape called the koolakamba. Every time I think we’ve covered every mystery ape out there, I find another one.

The koolakamba first appears in print in the mid-19th century, but let’s fast-forward to 1996 first and talk about a photograph of a purported koolakamba. The picture was taken at the Yaounde Zoo in Central Cameroon in Africa, and the ape was a male called Antoine. He has very black skin on his face but bright orange eyes, with a pronounced brow ridge. The picture appeared in the November 1996 issue of the Newsletter of the Internal Primate Protection League and some people suggested the ape was a hybrid of a chimpanzee and a gorilla. That’s what a koolakamba is said to be, a chimp-gorilla hybrid.

But that’s not what the koolakamba was always said to be. So let’s go back again to find out what the first European naturalists reported about this animal.

The first European to write about the koolakamba was a man called Paul DuChaillu. He was also the first European to write about several other animals, including the gorilla, and he was always eager to find more and describe them scientifically. He was the one who gave the koolakamba its name, which was supposed to be a local name for the animal, meaning “one who says ‘kooloo.’” In other words, the ape’s typical call was supposed to sound like it was saying kooloo. I’ve chosen the spelling koolakamba for this episode, as you’ll see in the show notes, but I’ve also seen it as kooloo-kamba with various spellings.

Chimpanzees and gorillas were well known to the local people, of course, but although they weren’t quote-unquote discovered until much later, early travelers to Africa mentioned them occasionally. The first mention of both dates to about 1600. In 1773 a British merchant wrote about three apes he heard about from locals: the chimpanzee, the gorilla, and a third ape called the itsena.

DuChaillu thought the koolakamba was a separate species too, one that looked similar to both the gorilla and the chimpanzee. Other explorers, big game hunters, and zoologists thought it was a chimp-gorilla hybrid, which accounted for its similarity to both apes. A few thought the koolakamba was just a subspecies of chimp, while a few thought it was a subspecies of gorilla.

The argument of what precisely the koolakamba was is still ongoing, but no one ever denied that the koolakamba existed. After all, there were specimens, both dead and alive. In July 1873, a female chimpanzee named Mafuka was shipped to the Dresden Zoo, and she was supposed to be a koolakamba.

We have some beautifully done engravings of her face that are so detailed they might as well be photographs. Mafuka had black skin on her face, pronounced brow ridges, fairly small ears, and a gorilla-like nose. Her hair was black with a reddish tinge. She was also a big ape although she was young, measuring almost four feet high, or 120 cm. She only lived two and a half years in captivity, unfortunately, dying in December of 1875.

Some zoologists classified Mafuka as a young gorilla, while others thought she was a chimpanzee. Others thought she was a hybrid of the two apes. In 1899 an anatomist claimed she was a koolakamba and a different species from either ape.

Other koolakamba apes have been identified after Mafuka, including one called Johanna kept by Barnum & Bailey at the end of the 19th century. But there are more recent examples. A chimpanzee colony kept at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico supposedly had a koolakamba in the 1960s. An ape expert named Osman Hill studied the chimps at Holloman and published his observations in the late 1960s in a comprehensive taxonomy of the chimpanzee. Hill was convinced that the koolakamba was a subspecies of chimp, which he named Pan troglodytes kooloo-kamba.

But Hill’s description of the koolakamba varies from DuChaillu’s description. Basically the only agreements between the two is that the koolakamba has a black face—dark enough that it’s usually referred to as ebony—and pronounced brow ridges.

And that’s the trouble. No one seems able to agree on what the koolakamba actually definitively looks like. Part of the problem is that Europeans who went to Africa to kill animals and claim them as new to science asked the locals what a particular animal was, and assumed that the locals thought about animal relationships the same way Europeans do. That is, we think of animals as distinct species even if they look similar. But many people in Africa, especially hunters, and especially in the 19th century and earlier, approached animals with a different mindset. They needed to know what animals were good to eat, what animals were safe to hunt and which were dangerous and should be avoided, and so forth. Often, they gave different names to the same species of animal based on physical characteristics like size or color. But the Europeans didn’t know this. Many of the local names reported for apes that resemble what we might call the koolakamba translate to things like “gorilla’s brother” and “gorilla-like.”

So there are a lot of things going on here. Let’s see if we can make some sense out of this confusion.

The first big question, of course, is if chimpanzees and gorillas even live in the same parts of Africa. And it turns out they do, at least in a few places in western Africa. Where the territories of chimps and gorillas overlap, they generally avoid each other. It’s rare that they interact at all, and extremely rare that they get in fights. Even if they were feeding in the same small area, they wouldn’t need to fight because they eat different things. Gorillas mostly eat leaves and twigs, while chimps prefer fruit and meat. Also, of course, gorillas stay on the ground while chimps spend most of their time in trees.

So there is enough population overlap that there’s a potential for gorillas and chimpanzees to interact. That doesn’t mean they hybridize, of course. While gorillas and chimpanzees do share a subfamily, they don’t share a genus, which means they’re not very closely related. Chimps are actually more closely related to humans than to gorillas, and we share the same subfamily with both. If you listened to episode 120 about hybrid animals, you may remember that the less closely related two species of animal are, the less likely they are to be interested in mating, the less likely that a pregnancy will result even if they do mate, and the less likely that the baby will survive even if the female does get pregnant. So while it’s extremely unlikely that gorillas and chimps could or would hybridize, it’s not completely out of the question. But even if it does happen, it would be an extremely rare occurrence for a chimp-gorilla hybrid to be born at all, much less live to adulthood.

So we can make a check-mark next to the “hybrid ape” hypothesis, but only a very small check-mark.

Could the koolakamba be a separate species of ape entirely, something new to science? That wouldn’t explain why it’s generally seen in the company of chimpanzees that look like ordinary chimps, not other koolakambas. There are reports that the koolakamba is solitary or only hangs out on the edges of chimp societies, but I can’t find any good sources for these claims and they may not be accurate. If it is a rare species of ape related to the chimpanzee, it shouldn’t be hanging out with chimps. Different species with the same dietary and environmental needs don’t live in the same place. One will always outcompete the other, either driving it to extinction or into another area.

So I’d say no check-mark next to the new species of ape hypothesis.

If you remember episode 102 where we talked about the Bili ape, it turned out that the Bili ape is a population of chimps where the males grow especially large and look gorilla-like. Could the koolakamba actually be the same thing as a Bili ape? The Bili ape is only found in far northern Congo in the Bili Forest, which is close to central Africa, while the koolakamba is only reported from West Africa. So no check-mark for this hypothesis either, although that was a good suggestion.

Chimps can show a lot of variety in facial features, including skin color and ear shape and size, and so on. They also vary in overall body size, just as any animal does. I suspect the main reason that the koolakamba is so often considered a gorilla-chimpanzee hybrid is because the koolakamba’s face is always described as ebony or jet black. This is uncommon in chimps, but all gorillas have dark gray or black skin.

Some populations of the subspecies of chimp that lives in West Africa, the western chimpanzee, are so different from other chimps that some researchers suggest it may be a different species. These populations use spears to hunt, cool off by swimming and playing in water, are more social between tribes than other chimps, and even sometimes live in caves. They also typically live in savannas or open woodland instead of thick forest. Until recently, most observational studies of chimps in the wild have focused on the eastern chimpanzee, so researchers were shocked to learn how different the western chimp is. And the western chimpanzee is generally a little larger than eastern chimps.

It may be the case that the koolakamba isn’t a separate type of animal but a western chimpanzee that shows individual differences that seem striking to us. The fact that even ape experts and local hunters can’t agree on what the koolakamba actually looks like suggests that it’s not a separate subspecies or even a hybrid. It’s just a chimp that happens to have some facial features that look slightly more gorilla-like than other chimps. This is where I would put a nice big check-mark, pending new information.

For all we know, chimps think other chimps with koolakamba-type features are absolutely gorgeous. Or other chimps might think they look a little too gorilla-like, so they might be considered kind of ugly.

I like to imagine a mother chimp looking at her newborn baby and thinking, “Oh my gosh, what a beauty! Look at those distinguished brow ridges and attractive nose. My little baby is going to be the star of the whole troop one day!” But then again, all mothers think that about their babies.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 177: The Mush-khush-shu, AKA the Sirrush

This week we’ll look at an ancient mystery from the Middle East, a mythological dragon-like animal called the Mush-khush-shu, popularly known as the sirrush. Thanks to Richard J. for the suggestion!

The Ishtar Gate (left, a partial reconstruction of the gate in a Berlin museum; right, a painting of the gate as it would have looked):

The sirrush of the Ishtar Gate:

Two depictions of Silesaurus:

The desert monitor, best lizard:

Show transcript:

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

This week I have an interesting mystery animal suggested last September by Richard J. Thanks for the suggestion, Richard!

Before we learn about what the sirrush is, though, a quick note, or at least I’ll try to make it quick. I know a lot of people listen to Strange Animals as a fun escape from the everyday world, but right now the everyday world has important stuff going on that I can’t ignore. I want to make it clear to all my listeners that I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement, and I also support LGBTQ rights. Everyone in the whole world deserves respect and equality, but unfortunately right now we’re not there yet. We have to work for equality, all of us together.

If you’re not sure what to do to make the world a better place for everyone, it’s actually really simple. Just treat everyone the same way you want others to treat you and your friends. This sounds easy but when you meet someone who seems different from you it can be hard. If someone has different color skin from you, or speaks with an accent you find hard to understand, or uses an assistive device like a wheelchair, or if you just think someone looks or acts weird, it’s easy to treat that person different and even be rude, although you may not realize that’s what you’re doing at the time. When that happens, it’s always because you’re scared of the person’s differences. You have to consciously remind yourself that you’re being unreasonable and making that person’s day harder when it was probably already pretty hard, especially if everywhere they go, people treat them as someone who doesn’t fit in. Just treat them normally and both you and the other person will feel good at the end of the day.

So that’s that. I hope you think about this later even if right now you’re feeling irritated that I’m taking time out of my silly animal podcast to talk about it. Now, let’s find out what the sirrush is and why it’s such a mystery!

The sirrush is a word from ancient Sumerian, but it’s actually not the right term for this animal. The correct term is mush-khush-shu (mušḫuššu), but sirrush is way easier for me to pronounce. So we’ll go with sirrush, but be aware that that word is due to a mistranslation a hundred years ago and scholars don’t actually use it anymore.

My first introduction to the sirrush was when I was a kid and read the book Exotic Zoology by Willy Ley. Chapter four of that book is titled “The Sirrush of the Ishtar Gate,” and honestly this is about the best title for any chapter I can think of. But while Ley was a brilliant writer and researcher, the book was published in 1959. It’s definitely out of date now.

The sirrush is found throughout ancient Mesopotamian mythology. It usually looks like a snakelike animal with the front legs of a lion and the hind legs of an eagle. It’s sometimes depicted with small wings and a crest of some kind, sometimes horns and sometimes frills or even a little crown. And it goes back a long, long time, appearing in ancient Sumerian art some four thousand years ago.

But let’s back up a little and talk about Mesopotamia and the Ishtar Gate and so forth. If you’re like me, you’ve heard these names but only have a vague idea of what part of the world we’re talking about.

Mesopotamia refers to a region in western Asia and the Middle East, basically between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. These days the countries of Iraq and Kuwait, parts of Turkey and Syria, and a little sliver of Iran are all within what was once called Mesopotamia. It’s part of what’s sometimes referred to as the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. The known history of this region goes back five thousand years in written history, but people have lived there much, much longer. Some 50,000 years ago humans migrated from Africa into the area, found it a really nice place to live, and settled there.

Parts of it are marshy but it’s overall a semi-arid climate, with desert to the north. People developed agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, including irrigation, but many cultures specialized in fishing or nomadic grazing of animals they domesticated, including sheep, goats, and camels. As the centuries passed, the cultures of the area became more and more sophisticated, with big cities, elaborate trade routes, and stupendous artwork.

That includes the Ishtar Gate, which was one of the entrances to Babylon, the capital city of the kingdom of Babylonia. The city grew along the banks of the Euphrates River until it was one of the largest cities in the world by about 1770 BCE. Probably a quarter million people lived there in its heyday around the sixth century BCE, but it was a huge and important city for hundreds of years. It’s located in what is now Iraq not far from Baghdad. Babylon is actually the source of the Tower of Babel story in the book of Genesis. In that story, people decided to build a tower high enough to touch heaven, but God didn’t like that and caused the workers to all speak different languages and scattered them across the world. But that story may have grown from earlier stories from Mesopotamia, such as a Sumerian myth where a king asks the god Enki to restore a single language to all the people building an enormous ziggurat so the workers could communicate more easily.

Babylon means “gate of the gods,” and it did have many splendid gates in the massive walls surrounding the city. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus reported there were a hundred of these gates. One of these was the Ishtar Gate, built around 575 BCE. This wasn’t like a garden gate but an imposing and important entry point to the city. For one thing, it was the starting point of a half-mile religious procession held at the new year, which was celebrated at the spring equinox. The gate was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was more than 38 feet high, or 12 meters, and faced with glazed bricks. The background bricks were blue, with decorative motifs in orange and white, and there were rows of bas-relief lions, bulls, and sirrushes.

The sirrush was considered a sacred animal of both Babylon and its patron god, Marduk. It’s sometimes called a dragon in English, but from artwork that shows both Marduk and a sirrush, the sirrush was small, maybe the size of a big dog.

The question, of course, is whether the sirrush was based on a real animal or if it was an entirely mythical creature.

As I’ve said before in other episodes, every culture has stories that impart useful information—warnings, history lessons, and so forth. Every culture has monsters and mythological creatures of various kinds. That doesn’t mean those animals were ever thought of as real animals, although they might have taken on aspects of real animals. Think of it this way: You know the story of little red riding hood, right? Where the wolf meets the little girl on her way to Grandma’s house, then runs ahead and swallows the grandma whole and then tricks the little girl into coming close enough to swallow too? That story was never intended to be about a real, actual talking wolf but a warning to children to not talk to strangers. (There are plenty of other things going on in that story, but that’s the main takeaway.)

In other words, it’s quite likely that the sirrush was never meant to be anything but a creature of mythology, a glorious pet for a god. Then again, it’s also possible that it was based on a known creature, sort of like the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is based on the real wolf that can’t talk.

And if that’s the case, what might that animal be?

There have been a lot of suggestions over the years. Willy Ley even suggested it was a modern dinosaur, possibly the mokele-mbembe. That was before the mokele-mbembe stories were widely recognized as hoaxes, as you may remember from way back in episode two. Other people have suggested it was an animal called a Silesaurus, which lived some 230 million years ago in what is now Poland.

Silesaurus grew up to around 7 ½ feet long, or 2.3 meters, and does kind of resemble the Ishtar Gate sirrush. It was slender and probably walked on all fours, with a long tail, long neck, and long legs. It had big eyes and probably mostly ate insects and other arthropods.

Silesaurus had traits found in dinosaurs but it wasn’t actually a dinosaur, although it belonged to a group of animals that were ancestral to dinosaurs. But it probably had one trait that puts it right out of the running to be the model for the sirrush, and that is that paleontologists think it had a beak. This wouldn’t have looked like a bird’s beak but more like a turtle’s, but it would have made the shape of the head very different from the snakelike head of the sirrush. Silesaurus probably pecked like a bird to grab insects. It also had stronger rear legs than front legs, as opposed to the sirrush that was depicted with birdlike rear legs but muscular lion-like front legs.

Silesaurus also lived 230 million years ago, so there’s just simply no way that it survived to modern times, no matter how much it superficially resembles the sirrush.

Ley also claims that the sirrush was the same dragon mentioned in the Bible, in a story called “Bel and the Dragon” in the extended Book of Daniel. Daniel slays the dragon by feeding it cakes made from hair and pitch. But there’s actually no connection between the sirrush and the dragon in this story.

One very specific detail of the sirrush is its forked tongue. This is a snakelike trait, of course, but some lizards also have forked tongues. Could the sirrush of mythology be based on a large lizard? For instance, a type of monitor lizard?

The largest monitor lizard species is the Komodo dragon, which can grow some ten feet long, or more than 3 meters. We talked about it in the Dragons episode a couple of years ago. But there are smaller, more common species that live throughout much of Africa, southern and southeastern Asia, and Australia. And that includes the Middle East.

The desert monitor was once fairly common throughout the Middle East, although it’s threatened now from habitat loss. It can grow up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and varies in color from light brown or grey to yellowish. Some have stripes or spots. It eats pretty much anything it can catch, and like many monitor species it’s a good swimmer. It hibernates in a burrow during the winter and also spends the hottest part of the day in its burrow. Like other monitor lizards it has a forked tongue and a flattish head. And it has a long tail, fairly long, strong legs, and a long neck.

If the sirrush was based on a real animal, it’s a good bet that that animal was the desert monitor. That doesn’t mean anyone thought the sirrush was a desert monitor or that we can point to the desert monitor and say, “Ah yes, the fabled sirrush, also called Mušḫuššu.” But people in Mesopotamia would have been familiar with this lizard, so a larger and more exaggerated version of it might have inspired artists and storytellers.

So…Boom! Looks like we solved that mystery. And we learned some history along the way. Definitely check the show notes for pictures of the Ishtar Gate, which has been partially reconstructed from bricks found in archaeological digs. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Also, the desert monitor is totally adorable.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

Further watching:

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

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

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

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

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

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

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 175: Three Small Mystery Animals

This week we’ve got three more mystery animals, but they’re small instead of gigantic! Also, I didn’t say anything about it in the episode, but Black lives matter. Stay safe and fight for justice, everyone.

The water chevrotain:

The real-life face-scratcher monster, Schizodactylus monstrosus, more properly known as a dune cricket:

Flying ants:

It’s flying ants, that’s what it is:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about three mystery animals, but they’re not giants. They’re small mysteries.

We’ll start with a small mystery animal from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa. Guinea borders the ocean on its west and is shaped sort of like a croissant. The middle of the country is mountainous, which is where the tankongh is supposedly found.

The tankongh is supposed to look like a small, shy zebra with tusks and it lives in high mountain forests. If that description makes you think of a chevrotain, you may have listened to episode 116, about various unusual hoofed animals. The chevrotain is a small ruminant that has short tusks or fangs instead of horns or antlers like other ruminants. Many have white stripes and spots, including the water chevrotain.

The water chevrotain is the largest of the known chevrotain species, but that’s not saying much because they’re all pretty small. The female is a little larger than the male, but it’s barely more than a foot tall at the shoulder, or 35 cm. The coat is reddish-brown with horizontal white stripes on the sides and white spots on the back. It has a rounded rump with a short tail that’s white underneath. So, you know, it’s sort of rabbit-like, but with long slender legs and tiny cloven hooves like a little bitty pig’s legs. It lives in tropical lowland forests of Africa, always near water. It’s nocturnal and mostly eats fruit, although it will also eat insects and crabs.

But while that sounds a little like the description given of the tankongh, it’s not a very close match. The water chevrotain only lives in lowlands, while the tankongh is supposed to live in the mountains. But the water chevrotain is the only species of chevrotain that lives in Africa; all the others are native to Asia.

So it’s very possible that there’s another chevrotain species hiding in the mountains of Guinea and nearby countries. One visitor to Guinea reported being shown some tiny gray hooves and pieces of black and cream skin supposedly from a tankongh that had been killed and eaten. Since the water chevrotain is red-brown and white, the skin must be from a different animal. Unfortunately, the witness doesn’t report if the hooves were cloven like the chevrotain’s.

Hopefully, if this is a species of chevrotain that’s new to science, it’s safe in its mountain habitat from the deforestation, mining, and other issues threatening many animals in Guinea.

Our next mystery animal is an invertebrate from India called the muhnochwa, or face scratcher. The story apparently started in 2002 and spread throughout Uttar Pradesh state. Stories of a small but hideous insect with six legs covered with spines caused panic during an especially hot, dry summer. The scratch monster supposedly came out at night and attacked sleepers, scratching them greviously with its legs, sometimes causing burns or even killing people. Some witnesses said it was the size of a football and that it glowed or sparkled with red and blue lights.

Then, in late August, someone trapped a scratch monster and took it to Lucknow University for identification. It was a type of dune cricket, usually only found in sandy ground near river banks in parts of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. It grows around three inches long, or almost 8 cm, and is yellowish-brown with sturdy legs that do indeed have spiny structures at the ends. It’s nocturnal although it doesn’t glow or shine.

During the day, the dune cricket lives in burrows it digs in the sandy soil, often very deep burrows since the cricket prefers damp ground. It comes out at night to hunt insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets, including other dune crickets. Its antennae are longer than its body and the spines on its legs help it burrow and navigate the sandy soil where it lives.

So while the cricket is scary-looking, it’s not dangerous to humans at all. It certainly couldn’t kill anyone, and probably couldn’t do more than make faint scratches that wouldn’t even pierce the skin.

Possibly what happened was that unusually dry weather caused the crickets to search for moist ground, which means they might have been seen in areas where they were usually extremely rare. Because of its ferocious appearance, people assumed it was dangerous, and then stories about people dying from the insect started circulating, which made people even more frightened. Even after the insect was identified, news outlets kept reporting it as a monstrous, possibly extraterrestrial creature, which made things worse, although fortunately it eventually turned into an urban legend sort of joke once people realized it wasn’t really dangerous.

Oh, and the dune cricket is also an insect in Animal Crossing, called the mole cricket. You have to listen for its chirping, then dig it up, and quick switch to your net to scoop it up as it runs away. But you can’t do that now unless you live in the southern hemisphere, because it’s only in the game between November and May in the northern hemisphere.

Our last small mystery animal is an ant, but not one particular species of ant. In many ant species, once a year a special hatch of eggs develop into ants with wings. The female ants are all queens but there are also plenty of much smaller males. The ants swarm into the air and fly off in a group. This generally happens in summer, especially on hot, humid days.

It’s known as a nuptial swarm because all the ants are ready to mate and start new colonies. Well, the queens start new colonies. The males just die. The queen ants that survive the nuptial swarm after mating land, bite off their own wings, and search for a good place to start a new nest. If the queen survives, she begins laying eggs to hatch workers, using the sperm she collected from males during the flight. She’ll use the sperm for the rest of her life, and in some species that’s something like twenty years. She stores it in a special chamber in her body.

Entomologists know a lot about swarming ants. It’s not exactly a rare phenomenon. Nuptial swarms can sometimes contain millions of individual ants as ants from different colonies combine. This helps reduce the risk of any particular ant being eaten by predators and it helps mix up the gene pool by allowing ants from different colonies to find each other and mate. The females release pheromones that attract the males, and the females usually fly quickly and make the male pursue so queens mate with only the strongest males.

Different species of ant will fly at different times and require different temperature and humidity levels to start the nuptial flight. Many species prefer to fly after rain or thunderstorms and some prefer to fly in late evening or at night when there are fewer predators. Sometimes a swarm is so large it shows up on weather radar.

But that’s not the mysterious part. But is it possible that these clouds of winged ants, which often fly so closely together that they seem to be a solid mass, could be the source of some UFO sightings?

At first thought that’s preposterous. Ants don’t give off light any more than dune crickets do. Or do they?

Ants have hard exoskeletons and sometimes this can reflect sunlight so that the ant appears to glow. But I’m talking about actual glowing ants, not just reflected light.

As you may remember from episode 10, about electric animals, we’re only just now starting to learn about how insects and other invertebrates use electric fields. One thing that we know happens is a build-up of static electricity on the body of flying insects. This is well documented in bumblebees and when a bee lands on a flower, the static electricity actually temporarily changes the flower’s own negative charge. Other bees can sense this change and know that a bee has already visited that flower recently. The static charge also helps pollen adhere to the bee.

So it’s completely possible that flying ants also have an electrostatic charge, from both the action of the wings and the movement of air molecules over the body. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be visible, but in late evening or night-time when the air is already charged from the recent passage of a storm, on rare occasions the whole colony might glow. Since it’s hard enough to tell an object’s size, distance, and speed in the air, a zigzagging, fast-moving, densely compacted swarm of a million or so winged ants glowing in the sky might be taken for a much larger but much farther away aircraft of some kind emitting light.

That’s not to say that every UFO is a swarm of glowing winged ants. Obviously, even if it does happen like this, it would be extremely rare. But it might be the case for the occasional UFO sighting. After all, UFOs are unidentified flying objects, whether that object is an alien spaceship buzzing our planet or a bunch of glowing ants. So if you see a UFO on a humid summer night after a thunderstorm, maybe take a closer look just in case you’re observing an incredibly rare natural phenomenon. And if it isn’t glowing ants, it might be aliens, so either way you might see something amazing.

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

Thanks for listening!



It’s a bonus monster month in June, because everything is awful and learning about monsters will take our minds off the awfulness. This week let’s learn about some mysterious stories from around the world that feature huge octopus or squid!

Further watching:

River Monsters episode about the Lusca

A colossal squid, up close to that gigantic eyeball:

Blue holes in the ocean and on land:

A giant Pacific octopus swimming:

The popular image of the kraken since the 1750s:

Show transcript:

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

Last week’s mystery bird got me thinking about how far away Halloween feels and how we haven’t really had a lot of monsters or mystery animals lately. So let’s have an extra monster month in June! We’ll start with a topic I’ve touched on in past episodes but haven’t covered in depth, three stories of GIANT OCTOPUS TYPE MONSTERS from around the world.

If you haven’t listened to episode 142, about octopuses, that ran last October, I recommend you listen to it for information about octopus biology and habits. This week we are all about the mysterious and gigantic octopuses.

Let’s jump right in with a monster from Japan, Akkorokamui. Its origins trace back to the folklore of the Ainu, a group of people who in the past mostly lived on Hokkaido, the second largest island in the country. These days they live throughout Japan. The story goes that a monster lives off the coast of Hokkaido, an octopus-like animal that in some stories is said to be 400 feet long, or over 120 meters. It’s supposed to swallow boats and whales whole. But Akkorokamui isn’t just an octopus. It has human features as well and godlike powers of healing. It’s also red, and because it’s so big, when it rises near the surface of the water, the water and even the sky look red too.

Akkorokamui is supposed to originally be from the land. A humongous red spider lived in the mountains, but one day it came down from the mountains and attacked a town, stomping down buildings as the earth shook. The villagers prayed for help, and the god of the sea heard them. He pulled the giant spider into the water where it turned into a giant octopus.

The problem with folktales, as we talked about way back in episode 17, about the Thunderbird, is that they’re not usually meant to be taken at face value. Stories impart many different kinds of information, especially in societies where writing isn’t known or isn’t known by everyone. Folktales can give warnings, record historical events, and entertain listeners, all at once. It’s possible the story of Akkorokamui is this kind of story, possibly one imparting historic information about an earthquake or tsunami that brought down a mountain and destroyed a town. That’s just a guess, though, since I don’t understand Japanese—and even if I did, the Ainu people were historically treated as inferior by the Japanese since their ancestors came from other parts of Asia, so many of their stories were never recorded properly. The Ainu people today have lost some of their historic cultural memories as they assimilated into Japanese society.

So we don’t know if Akkorokamui was once thought of as a real living animal, a spiritual entity, or just a story. There are a few reported sightings of the monster, but they’re all old and light on details. One account from the 19th century is supposedly from a Japanese fisherman who saw a monster with tentacles as big around as a grown man. It was so big that the fisherman at first thought he was just seeing reflected sunset light on the ocean. Then he came closer and realized what he was looking at—and that it was looking back at him from one enormous eye. He estimated it was something like 260 feet long, or 80 meters. Fortunately, instead of swallowing his boat, the monster sank back into the ocean.

Whether or not the folktale Akkorokamui was ever considered to be a real animal, it’s possible that some people who have seen enormous octopuses or squids have called them Akkorokamui. If you’ve listened to episode 74 about the colossal and giant squids, you may remember that both can grow over 40 feet long, or 12 meters, although the giant squid has longer arms while the colossal squid has a longer mantle in proportion to its arms. The two feeding tentacles that squids have are even longer than its arms when extended, which increases the longest measured length to 55 feet, or almost 17 meters. Both squid species are deep-sea animals that are rarely seen near the surface. But both are usually pink or red in color. A squid that big would terrify anyone, especially if they’re fishing in a small boat.

Another octopus-like sea monster is the lusca, this one from Caribbean folklore. The Caribbean Sea is part of the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Gulf of Mexico. Within the Caribbean Sea are thousands of islands, some tiny, some large, including those known collectively as the West Indies. Many reports of the lusca come from the Bahamas, specifically the so-called blue holes that dot many of the islands.

Blue holes are big round sinkholes that connect to the ocean through underground passages. Usually blue holes contain seawater, but some may have a layer of fresh water on top. Some blue holes are underwater while some are on land. The islands of the Bahamas aren’t the only places where blue holes exist. Australia, China, and Egypt all have famous blue holes, for instance, but they’re not uncommon across the world.

Blue holes form in land that contains a lot of limestone. Limestone weathers more easily than other types of rock, and most caves are formed by water percolating through limestone and slowly wearing passages through it. This is how blue holes formed too. During the Pleistocene, when the oceans were substantially lower since so much water was locked up in glaciers, blue holes formed on land, and many of them were later submerged when the sea levels rose. They can be large at the surface, but divers who try to descend into a blue hole soon discover that it pinches closed and turns into twisty passages that eventually reach the ocean, although no diver has been able to navigate so far. Many, many divers have died exploring blue holes.

Andros Island in the Bahamas has 178 blue holes on land and more than 50 in the ocean surrounding the island. It’s also the source of a lot of lusca reports.

So what does the lusca look like? Reports describe a monster that’s sharklike in the front with long octopus-like legs. It’s supposed to be huge, with an armspan of 75 feet, or 23 meters, or even more. The story goes that the tides that rise and fall in the blue holes aren’t due to tides at all but to the lusca breathing in and out.

But people really do occasionally see what they think is a lusca, and sometimes people swimming in a blue hole are dragged under and never seen again. Since blue holes don’t contain currents, it must be an animal living in the water that occasionally grabs a swimmer.

The problem is, there’s very little oxygen in the water deep within a blue hole. Fish and other animals live near the surface, but only bacteria that can thrive in low-oxygen environments live deeper. So even though the blue holes are connected to the ocean, it’s not a passage that most animals could survive. Larger animals wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the narrow openings in the rock anyway.

But maybe they don’t need to. Most blue holes have side passages carved out by freshwater streams flowing into the marine water, which causes a chemical reaction that speeds the dissolving of limestone. Some blue holes on Andros Island have side passages that extend a couple of miles, or several kilometers. It’s possible that some of these side passages also connect to the ocean, and some of them may connect to other blue holes. Most of the blue holes and side passages aren’t mapped since it’s so hard to get equipment through them.

But as far as we know, there is no monster that looks like a shark with octopus-like legs. That has to be a story to scare people, right? Maybe not. The largest octopus known to science is the giant Pacific octopus, which we talked about in episode 142. The largest ever measured had an armspan of 32 feet, or almost 10 meters. It lives in deep water and like all octopuses, it can squeeze its boneless body through quite small openings. When it swims, its arms trail behind it something like a squid’s, and it moves headfirst through the water. A big octopus has a big mantle with openings on both sides for the gills and an aperture above the siphon. The mantle of the octopus could easily be mistaken for the nose of a shark, with a glimpse of the openings assumed to be its partially open mouth. And a large octopus could easily grab a human swimming in a blue hole and drag it to its side passage lair to eat. Big octopuses eat sharks.

The giant Pacific octopus lives in the Pacific, though, not the Atlantic. If the lusca is a huge octopus, it’s probably a species unknown to science, possibly one whose mantle is more pointy in shape, more like a squid’s. That would make it resemble a shark’s snout even more.

Finally, let’s look at a monster many of us are already familiar with, the kraken. Many people think the legend of the kraken was just an exaggerated description of the giant squid. But that’s actually not the case.

The kraken is a Scandinavian monster that dates back to at least the 13th century, when a Norwegian historian wrote about it. That historian, whose name we don’t know, said it was so big that sailors took it for land while it was basking at the surface. The sailors would stop to make camp on what they thought was an island, but when they lit a campfire the kraken submerged and drowned the sailors. It could swallow ships and whales whole.

Nothing about the story mentions squid-like arms until the 1750s when a bishop called Erik Pontoppidan wrote about the kraken. Pontoppidan repeated the story of the kraken appearing island-like and then submerging, but said that it wasn’t the submerging that was so dangerous, it was the whirlpool the kraken caused as it submerged. I’d say that’s just a little bit of hair-splitting, because those sailors were in trouble either way. But Pontoppidan also said that the kraken could pull ships down into the ocean with its arms, which immediately made people think of squid and octopuses of enormous size. The idea of a stupendously large squid or octopus with its arms wrapped around a ship made its way into popular culture and remains there today.

The kraken story was probably inspired by whales, which of course were well known to Scandinavian sailors and fishers. It also might have been inspired by remote islands that are so low in the water that they’re sometimes submerged.

All that aside, could a cephalopod of enormous size actually reach out of deep water and grab the railing or masts of a ship or boat? Actually, it can’t do that, no matter how big or small. Remember that cephalopods have no skeleton, and while their arms are remarkably strong, it takes a whole lot of energy to lift a body part out of the water. We don’t notice this when swimming because our bodies are naturally buoyant especially with our lungs filled with air, and we have bones to give our bodies structure. An octopus spends most of its life supported by the water. When it comes out of the water, it stays very flat to the ground. It can only lift an arm out of the water if it can brace itself against something.

So the dramatic movie scenes where massive kraken arms suddenly shoot out of the water to seize a ship are just fantasy. But an octopus could grab onto the side of a ship with its suction cups and even heave itself onboard that way, potentially capsizing it. So that’s something fun to think about the next time you’re in a boat.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 173: The Mystery of the Forest Raven

We have a fun mystery bird this week, the forest raven! Was it a real bird??? (hint: yes, but not a raven)

The “forest raven” illustration from Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium, published in 1555:

Scans of the original pages about the forest raven. It’s written in Latin:

The Northern bald ibis. Wacky hair!

Flying bald ibises:

Further viewing:

This Weird Bird May Have Been the First Protected Species

Show transcript:

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

It’s high time we had a mystery animal episode, so this week we’re going to learn about a mystery bird, one with a satisfying conclusion.

The story starts almost 470 years ago, when a scholar and physician named Conrad Gessner, who lived in Switzerland, published a book called Historia animalium. The book wasn’t like the medieval bestiaries of previous centuries, in which fantastical and real animals were listed together and half the information consisted of local superstitions. Gessner was an early naturalist, a scientist long before the term was in general use. Historia animalium consisted of five volumes with a total of more than 4,500 pages, and in it Gessner attempted to describe every single animal in the world, drawing from classical sources such as Pliny the Elder and Aristotle as well as his own observations and study.

The book contained animals that had only recently been discovered by Europeans at the time, including animals from the Americas and the East Indies. It also included a few entries which no one today believes ever existed, like the fish-like sea monk and sea bishop. Those and similar monsters were probably added by Gessner’s publishers against his will or maybe just without him knowing, since he was seriously ill by the time the volume on fish was published. For the most part, the book was as scholarly as was possible in the mid-16th century and was lavishly illustrated too.

Volume three, about birds, was published in 1555, and it included an entry for a bird Gessner called the waldrapp, or forest raven. But the illustration didn’t look anything like a raven. The bird has a relatively long neck, a crest of feathers on the back of its head, and a really long bill that ends in a little hook. Gessner wrote that the bird was found in Switzerland and was good to eat.

In fact, I spent an entire morning finding the original scanned pages of a copy of the forest raven entry, typing them as well as I could and modernizing the spelling where I knew how, and using Google translate from Latin to English. The results were…not entirely coherent. Then, after I’d done all that, I continued my research, and that included watching a short BBC film about the bird–which included part of the translation! So I transcribed it. Here’s a translation cobbled together from the BBC’s translation and other parts of the passage that me and Google translate could figure out:

“The bird is generally called by our people the Waldrapp, or forest raven, because it lives in uninhabited woods where it nests in high cliffs or old ruined towers in castles. Men sometimes rob the nests by hanging from ropes. It acquires a bald head in its age. It is the size of a hen, quite black from a distance, but if you look at it close, especially in the sun, you will consider it mixed with green. The Swiss forest raven has the body of a crane, long legs, and a thick red bill, slightly curved and six inches long. Its legs and feet are longer than those of a chicken. Its tail is short, it has long feathers at the back of its head, and the bill is red. The bill is suited for poking in the ground to extract worms and beetles which hide themselves in such places. It flies very high and lays two or three eggs. The young ones are also praised as an article of food and are considered a great delicacy, for they have lovely flesh and soft bones. Those who rob the nests of young take care to leave one chick so the parents will return the following year.”

All that sounds like a perfectly ordinary bird, although not a raven. But what was it? That’s the problem. No one knew, and eventually scholars decided that Gessner must have included a bird that didn’t exist.

But it did sound like one particular bird, just not one related in any way to the raven and not one that lived in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. That’s the northern bald ibis, which was once common across the Middle East and northern Africa.

Here’s a description of the Northern bald ibis. Let’s see how it matches up with Gessner’s forest raven.

The Northern bald ibis is a fairly large bird, about a foot long, or 31 cm, with a wingspan of four and a half feet, or 135 cm. That’s about the size of a goose. It has black feathers that shine with iridescent colors in sunlight, including bronze, violet, and green. It has long, dull red legs and a long, curved bill that’s also reddish. Its head is the same shade of dull red and has no feathers, but it does have a crest of long feathers on the back of its head and neck. It nests on cliff ledges and prefers to hunt for food in areas where the grass or other vegetation is short, such as pastures, fallow fields, semi-arid steppes, and golf courses, often ten miles or more from the cliffs where it nests, or 15 km. It eats insects and other small invertebrates, but it especially likes lizards and beetles. It probes into soft, sandy soil with its bill to find most of its food. The birds live in small flocks and often fly in a V formation.

The northern bald ibis mates for life. The male finds a good nesting site and tidies it up, then waits to see if he can attract a female. The female inspects the site and the male to decide if she likes them, and if she does, the pair build a nest of twigs lined with grass, and the female lays two to four eggs.

Oh, and the northern bald ibis is sometimes also called the waldrapp, just as Gessner reported.

All this information certainly sounds like the same bird Gessner described. But the northern bald ibis doesn’t live in Switzerland or other parts of Europe. It’s only known from the Middle East and northern Africa. Right?

That’s what people after Gessner thought, until 1941. That’s when a team of scientists excavating ancient sites in Switzerland found the bones of what turned out to be northern bald ibises—but the bones weren’t fossilized. They were only a few hundred years old. More remains, both fossil and subfossil, have since been found in France, Germany, Austria, and Spain, and the bird probably lived in even more areas.

It turns out that the northern bald ibis was once common in many parts of Europe, especially around the Alps. It was considered a sacred bird in ancient Egypt, and was supposed to be one of the birds released by Noah during the great flood to help him find land, so was venerated by people of different faiths in the Middle East. But in Europe, it was just considered good to eat. The Archibishop Leonard of Salzburg called for its protection in the Swiss Alps as long ago as 1504, but by the early 17th century, only a matter of decades after Gessner’s book was published, the bird was extinct in Europe. It didn’t take long for Europeans to forget it even existed.

Unfortunately, the northern bald ibis is still endangered due to hunting, habitat loss, and poisoning from pesticides. It’s also sometimes electrocuted when it lands on electricity pylons that aren’t insulated for birds, although efforts are underway to make pylons bird-safe in many areas. A successful captive breeding program has been in place since the late 1970s, though, and that’s a good thing, since the last migratory population went extinct in 1989 and the remaining non-migratory colonies declined to only a few hundred individuals.

The breeding program has gone so well that birds started being reintroduced in some areas of their former range in about 2003, including Spain, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Tagging of the remaining wild birds has also revealed that a small population still migrates from the Middle East to Africa to winter in central Ethiopia. In some areas, conservationists have added nesting platforms to the existing cliffs so that more birds can nest safely. Hopefully their numbers will continue to climb.

I’ll finish with a final piece of trivia about the northern bald ibis that I think you’ll like. It’s a member of the pelican family. Have a nice day.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 172: Temnospondyls

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

Further reading:

Palaeos Temnospondyli

Dvinosaurus, three feet long and full of teeth:

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

Fayella (art by Nix)

Nigerpeton’s astonishing NOSE TEETH:

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

Koolasuchus just looked weird:

The largest Temnospondyl known, Prionosuchus:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Episode 171: The Animals of St. Kilda

Thanks to Emma for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals that live on the St. Kilda islands off the coast of Scotland!

St. Kilda:

Soay rams (kept on farms, not the feral sheep):

A small flock of Soay sheep (these are from a farm too):

A Boreray ram (on a farm):

A Boreray ewe with her babies (also on a farm, or at least I think so):

The St. Kilda wren (not a sheep):

The St. Kilda field mouse (also not a sheep) is the size of a hamster:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is a suggestion from Emma, who long ago told me about the interesting history and unique animals of the island of St. Kilda in Scotland. I’ve been meaning to cover it ever since, so finally I’m getting around to it after only two years or so.

Emma says, “It’s an amazing little island and sort of a reverse of the usual ‘humans cause extinction’ story. The humans on the island went ‘extinct’, being evacuated from the island partly because increased mainland human contact was bringing illnesses they couldn’t fight without hospitals. Two lots of rad ancient sheep and some unique wrens and mice are happily living there to this day.”

St. Kilda is not one but a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, but the largest island and the only one where people once lived is called Hirta. In 1930, everyone who still lived there moved to the mainland, but by that time hardly anyone remained on St. Kilda anyway. The island probably never had more than a few hundred people in residence at any given time. In 1957 St Kilda was designated as a nature reserve and in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.

Since then, as Emma says, the animals of the islands have mostly been left alone. This includes two breeds of sheep that were left behind on two of the smaller islands when the last residents moved away.

One of these sheep breeds is the Soay, which originally lived on a tiny island called Soay, which actually means “sheep island.” The island of Soay is only about 250 acres in size, or 100 hectares, but that’s not the only place they used to be found. The breed has lived in northern Europe for probably 4,000 years, and was a popular sheep in Britain for centuries. When all the people moved away, 107 sheep living on Soay were moved to Hirta. The sheep on Hirta are feral and receive no care from humans, but they also have basically no predators on the island. They have been studied since 1955 by a small team of scientists and conservationists.

The Soay is a primitive breed of sheep that closely resembles its wild ancestor, the Asiatic mouflon. It’s brown, usually with lighter markings on the face and rump, and the rams often grow a short mane of hair in addition to wool. Rams have dark brown horns and ewes often grow smaller horns too. It also has a short tail. In late spring, Soay sheep shed their fleece naturally instead of needing to be shorn. This is the case with many primitive sheep breeds. Its wool is considered high quality and sought after by handcrafters.

Also like many primitive breeds, the Soay doesn’t have much of a flocking instinct. Soay sheep have been exported from the islands and are kept on farms in many areas for their wool, but if a sheep dog tries to herd a flock of Soay, the poor dog is going to be so frustrated. Soay scatter instead of flocking together. It can also be an aggressive sheep, especially the rams, but it’s also a small breed, with even a big ram rarely heavier than 70 lbs, or 32 kg. And these days, the feral Soay sheep are actually getting smaller overall and have been for the last twenty years. The research team that studies the sheep thinks it’s because climate change has led to shorter, warmer winters, which allows more of the sheep to survive, including smaller sheep that would ordinarily have trouble in cold weather. The smaller sheep breed and their offspring are more likely to be small too, and after twenty years of this the breed overall is smaller than it used to be.

While the Soay used to be a popular breed throughout much of Europe, it’s an at-risk rare breed these days. There are fewer than 1500 breeding ewes registered on farms, in addition to the feral flock on Hirta.

The other breed of St. Kilda sheep is called the Boreray, and it’s also a feral sheep on one of the St. Kilda islands. In this case it lives on the island of Boreray. It’s even rarer than the Soay sheep, the rarest sheep breed in the UK. In 1999 there were only 84 individuals known, but a conservation effort by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has increased the number to nearly 900 breeding ewes as of 2018.

The Boreray is a little smaller than the Soay and shares characteristics with that breed, including a short tail and its fleece shedding naturally in late spring. It’s usually gray or white, although sometimes brown, often with a speckled black face. Its wool is much coarser than the Soay’s and was traditionally used to make tweed fabric or carpets.

But sheep are domesticated animals, feral or not. What about some of the other animals of St. Kilda?

The St. Kilda wren is a subspecies of Eurasian wren that’s found nowhere else in the world. Like other wrens it’s a tiny songbird, brown and gray with a short tail. It was only recognized as a separate subspecies in 1884, and as happened a lot in those days, museum collectors killed so many of them to stuff and mount that the bird nearly went extinct. Fortunately, early conservationists realized the danger in time, and a special Act of Parliament in 1904 protected the bird. After all the people were evacuated from Hirta, a small team of scientists studied the wren. In 1931 68 nesting pairs were counted, and in 2002 230 breeding pairs were counted. That’s still a low population, but since the wren has almost no predators on St. Kilda, that’s a decent number for such a small habitat.

The St. Kilda wren eats insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates. The male builds the nest out of dead grass and other plants, moss, and seabird feathers.

This is what the St. Kilda wren sounds like:

[St Kilda wren singing]

Another animal found nowhere else in the world is the St. Kilda field mouse, a subspecies of wood mouse. There used to be another mouse subspecies found only on St. Kilda, the St. Kilda house mouse. Both mice were described in 1899, and both are larger than mainland mice. But because the house mouse is dependent on humans, once everyone evacuated the islands the St. Kilda house mouse went extinct within two years.

But the field mouse was fine, and is common throughout the island of Hirta and at least one other island. It actually moved into the abandoned buildings after the house mice went extinct, since houses are full of little nooks and crannies that mice can use as homes. Researchers think the mouse may have been on the islands for something like a thousand years, arriving with Viking settlers.

The St. Kilda field mouse is twice as large and heavy as mainland mice, probably because it basically has no predators. It’s an omnivore like most other mice, and eats seeds, moss, insects and other small animals, and even scavenges meat from dead sheep and birds.

Many sea birds nest on St. Kilda, including Atlantic puffins and northern gannets. The grey seal started breeding on Hirta after everyone left. But except for the sheep, the mice, and the gray seals coming ashore during breeding season, there are no other mammals living on St. Kilda. There are also no trees, no bees, and a limited number of plants and animals, all due to how remote the islands are. They’re 41 miles, or 66 km, away from the Outer Hebrides, a series of much larger islands off the Scottish coast.

Humans have probably lived on Hirta for two thousand years, maybe longer, and have visited the St. Kilda islands as long as 5,000 years ago. But now that the people are gone, the mice and sheep and birds are free to live their quiet lives. As long as they don’t mind a few curious scientists keeping an eye on them.

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

Thanks for listening!