Episode 250: Mystery of the Golden Toad



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

Further reading:

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

The male golden toad:

The female golden toad (photo by Mary Crump):

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 249: Strange Seals



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Thanks to Richard from NC for his suggestion that leads us to learn about some interesting seals!

Further reading:

Mystery of Siberian freshwater seal food choice solved

Under Antarctica’s ice, Weddell seals produce ultrasonic vocalizations

Further listening/watching:

Rarely-heard Weddell Seal Sounds in Antarctica

The bearded seal Wikipedia page with audio so you can listen over and over and over

The Baikal seal, the world’s only fully fresh water seal species:

Baikal seal, round boi:

The Baikal seal’s teeth have teeth:

A Weddell seal mama with her pup who seems to be practicing singing:

Look ma, no ears!

The bearded seal. Can you tell where its name comes from? (Moustachioed seal might be more accurate.) (Also, note the ear opening with no external ear flap.)

Show transcript:

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

This week let’s learn about some interesting seals. Thanks to Richard from NC who suggested freshwater seals, which is where we’ll start.

Most seals live on the coast and spend most of the time in the ocean. But there’s one species of seal that lives exclusively in fresh water. That’s the Baikal [bay-CALL] seal, and the only place it lives is a big lake in Siberia called Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal formed where two sections of the earth’s crust are being pulled apart by continental drift. That’s called a rift lake or rift valley lake. The lake gets bigger every year, but only by a tiny amount—just under an inch, or 2 cm. Since this has been going on for an estimated 25 to 30 million years, though, it’s an extremely big, deep lake. It is, in fact, the deepest lake on earth, and is also the oldest lake on earth. It’s more than twice as old as Lake Tanganyika in East Africa, which is also a large, deep rift lake but only about 12 million years old at the most.

Lake Baikal is almost 400 miles long, or 636 km, and nearly 50 miles wide, or 80 km. At its deepest point, it’s 3,893 feet deep, or 1,186.5 meters. That’s from the surface of the water to the muddy bottom. But that mud and sediment on the bottom has been building up for a very long time and there’s a lot of it—4.3 miles of it, in fact, or 7 km. The water is very clear and very oxygenated, but the surface freezes for several months out of the year. Then again, there are some hydrothermal vents, especially in the deepest areas, that heat the water around them to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, or 50 Celsius.

Because Lake Baikal is so deep, so big, so oxygenated, and so old, lots of species of animal live in and around it that live nowhere else in the world. That includes the Baikal seal.

The Baikal seal is related to the Arctic ringed seal but has lived in the lake exclusively for probably two million years. It only grows five and a half feet long at most, or 1.65 meters, and is usually closer to four feet long, or 1.2 meters. It’s gray in color and has no external ears, so that its head appears smooth. It can still hear, but because it doesn’t have ears sticking out of its head, it’s more streamlined than seals with external ears. It has large eyes, a pair of front flippers that it uses to maneuver in the water and on land, and a pair of hind flippers that act like a tail instead of legs.

That’s actually the main difference between earless and eared seals. Earless seals are more streamlined in general and more adapted for life in the water and for deep diving, but they’re awkward on land because they can’t use their hind limbs for walking. Eared seals have little flaps of external ears and while their hind flippers act as a tail in the water, the seal can turn its hind flippers over to walk on them on land.

The Baikal seal is quite small for a seal, which keeps it from needing as much food as a bigger animal. For a long time people thought the Baikal seal mostly ate fish, but a study published in late 2020 determined that it eats a whole lot of amphipods. Lake Baikal is home to a species of amphipod that grows up to about 10 millimeters long. Amphipods are a type of crustacean and all other freshwater amphipods known are bottom-dwellers. Only the Lake Baikal amphipod is free-floating.

The seal catches these tiny amphipods by sucking them up in a big mouthful of water, closing its teeth tightly, and using its tongue to force the water out through its teeth. The amphipods get caught against the teeth and the seal swallows them, yum. This is a type of filter feeding used by some other species of seal too, including the crabeater seal. Like the crabeater seal, it’s so well adapted to filter feeding that it has specialized teeth with curved projections all around their edges. These projections interlock closely when the seal closes its mouth. Because it doesn’t have to depend on eating fish, the Baikal seal isn’t threatened by commercial fishing. As long as it has plenty of amphipods to eat, it’s happy.

While the Baikal seal is the only truly freshwater seal species, a subspecies of ringed seal lives in a lake in Finland. Unlike the Baikal seal, though, which are numerous and doing just fine, the Saimaa ringed seal is endangered, with only around 400 individuals left in the wild. They’re strictly protected these days, fortunately, and the population is growing after it reached a low of only about 100 animals in 1983.

During the Pleistocene, the land mass that is now Finland was pressed down by the weight of glaciers. Once the glaciers melted, the land began to slowly rise back up until the lake where a population of ringed seals lived was cut off from the ocean.

Some other seals live in lakes that are cut off from the sea, including a population of harbor seals in Iliamna Lake in Alaska and a subspecies of harbor seal in northern Quebec, Canada, but let’s move on to seals that live in the ocean instead of fresh water.

Specifically, let’s discuss two earless seals that make interesting sounds. You may think you know what a typical seal sounds like, such as this kind of barking call:

[barking sound]

That’s actually not a seal but a closely related pinniped called a sea lion. Even though it’s not a seal, it is sort of technically a seal because it shares a family with fur seals and walruses, Otariidae, also called the eared seals that we talked about earlier. Some seals bark like sea lions and make lots of other noises, but it’s the earless seals that can really make weird sounds.

For instance, listen to this eerie sound:

[Weddell seal call]

That’s not a whale, it’s a seal. The Weddell seal lives around Antarctica and can grow quite large, up to 11 ½ feet long, or 3.5 meters. Males and females look alike although females tend to be slightly larger. It eats fish, squid, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else it can catch. It dives deeply and can stay underwater for up to 80 minutes, and while it has good eyesight, it doesn’t need to see to find food. The whiskers on its snout are incredibly sensitive and can sense tiny movements of water that indicate exactly where a fish or other animal is swimming.

Both male and female Weddell seals make various vocalizations, including some that can be described as songs, although the songs seem to be rare and researchers aren’t sure what the seals communicate with them. There’s still a lot we don’t know about these seals. Because Antarctica is so far away from most human activity, it’s extremely quiet most of the time. The seals can hear each other without having to compete with the noise from cars and boats and things like that. A seal sitting on the ice can hear other seals calling from deep in the water below the ice, and in fact the ice can amplify the sounds so well that scientists living in the Antarctic report being able to feel the sounds as well as hear them.

Here’s another clip of Weddell seals. These sounds are taken from an amazing youtube video I’ve linked to in the show notes. It’s short and has two scientists talking a little bit about their experiences hearing the seals, and then there’s about a minute of seal calls afterwards.

[Weddell seals calling]

Another seal with a loud, amazing vocalization is the bearded seal. It lives on the other side of the world from the Weddell seal, in the Arctic Ocean, and can grow almost nine feet long, or 2.7 meters. It eats fish and squid but mostly eats animals that live on the sea floor, including clams, polychaete worms, sea anemones, and many others. Like the Weddell seal and many other seals, its whiskers are incredibly sensitive. The bearded seal uses its long whiskers to feel around in the soft mud at the bottom of the ocean, looking for food.

In the spring, male bearded seals sing loudly and rhythmically, either to attract a mate or to defend a territory, or maybe both or something else—we don’t know. This is what the bearded seal sounds like underwater. I grabbed this audio off Wikipedia if you need to listen to it on repeat for a very long time. It’s an incredible sound.

[bearded seals singing]

This is what a bunch of bearded seals sound like when they’re singing together. This audio was taken on land although the seals sing underwater.

[more bearded seals singing]

These vocalizations sound so much like whale calls that I wondered if some seals can echolocate the way whales and dolphins can. There are quite a few studies into this topic, but right now most of the evidence points to no, seals don’t use echolocation to navigate underwater. Of course, studies in the future might discover something new about potential echolocation in seals. It’s only been very recently that sophisticated studies on bats have discovered that many species use different types of echolocation.

Conclusions of a two-year study published at the very end of 2020 show that a lot of Weddell seal vocalizations are ultrasonic, meaning they’re much higher than humans can hear. While the study doesn’t show any evidence of echolocation, they weren’t actually looking for it either. So you never know.

It’s possible, of course, that even if seals don’t echolocate right now, they might one day evolve the ability. Earless seals are well adapted to the water but still spend part of the time on ice or on land, especially to give birth. Many millions of years from now, the descendants of today’s seals might be completely aquatic the way whales and dolphins are. Because most scientists today think that seals can’t echolocate because their ears need to be useful on land as well in water, a fully aquatic seal that doesn’t need to hear well in the air might then develop echolocation to help it navigate underwater.

I’ll do a follow-up episode about seals and echolocation in a few million years when we can determine whether that’s happening.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 248: The Giant Jellyfish Revisited



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We’re down to the last few days to back our Kickstarter!

We’ve got a slightly different type of episode this week. Follow along as I try to find out more about the giant jellyfish that nearly sank a ship!

Further reading:

Kraken: Monster of the Deep

A lion’s mane jellyfish:

A giant squid:

The first photo ever taken of a giant squid:

Show transcript:

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

Halloween is behind us and we’re all now ready to head into winter, if we live in the northern hemisphere, or summer, if we live in the southern hemisphere. This week’s episode is a little different, but hopefully you’ll like it.

Before we get into this week’s topic, let me give you the very last Kickstarter update, I promise! From here on out you’ll only get updates through the Kickstarter page if you backed the project. If you’re listening to this episode within a day or two of its release on November 1, 2021, you still have time to back the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book! The campaign ends on Nov. 5, but at 12:03 am eastern time, and one of the many things I’ve learned about running a Kickstarter is maybe don’t launch the project at midnight because then it ends at midnight. Remember that if we reach 100 backers before the end, I’ll release a second bonus episode from the audiobook. I’m really late getting this episode done so it’s actually Halloween as I record this, and we currently have 67 backers, which is amazing! Remember, we have a $1 tier if you just want to pitch a dollar in.

That reminds me, after the campaign is over I’m going to update the first bonus episode and take out the ten minutes of Kickstarter talk that starts it. Thanks again to everyone who’s backed the project. I’m blown away by everyone’s support! If you want a copy of the book but not right now, it’ll be available to buy from your regular book-buying places but only after all the Kickstarter backer rewards are sent.

As it happens, this week’s episode is connected with the Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie book. Specifically, I decided to add a chapter about the giant jellyfish we talked about in episode 16, but to do that I needed to do a lot more research.

That story has actually bothered me for a long time. When I first started the podcast, I wasn’t always as diligent in my research as I am now. If a story came from a source I trusted or had enough realistic-sounding details, I’d assume it was accurate. This story met both criteria but whenever I thought about it, something felt off. So I was glad to dig in and find out more.

This episode is about the research process I went through, which will give you a little bit of a behind-the-scenes look at how I approach each episode. We’ll also learn about a couple of other weird events where a ship or boat was seemingly attacked by a sea monster.

Let’s start with the story as I reported it in episode 16. I think you will appreciate how much better our audio quality is these days. Here it is:

“In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.”

My first step was to find where I got that story. I was pretty sure it was from Karl Shuker’s blog but when I looked, it wasn’t there. I checked his books that I own and it wasn’t there either. A quick internet search turned up the story in a lot of places with more or less identical wording, but no one said where they’d found the story—except one site, which referenced a book called Mysteries and Monsters of the Sea.

I looked it up and discovered it was a 1998 book, also published as Mysteries of the Deep, made up of articles from FATE Magazine. One of those articles is titled “Giant Jellyfish” and is by Karl Shuker.

The story appeared in the March 1994 issue of FATE, so my next step was to find the article. Karl Shuker is a zoologist who writes a lot about mystery animals, and he’s very good about sharing his sources.

FATE Magazine is still around and isn’t giving its old issues away for free. Then, in one of those amazing, wonderful coincidences, I found an ebay auction for that very issue that had nice clear photographs of several pages to show how good a condition it was in. One of those pages just happened to be the one I needed. I grabbed a screenshot and enlarged it so I could read the text. Shuker writes, “One of the most dramatic cases on record was documented by James Sweeney in Sea Monsters (1977), and took place in January 1973.”

Bingo! Now I just had to find a copy of that book. I found a used copy online that wasn’t very expensive and ordered it, but a little more searching online led me to a digitized version that I was able to access by logging in to the Internet Archive.

I found the story on pages 73-76. It has lots of details that should be easily corroborated, although unfortunately there isn’t a specific date. My next step was my newspapers.com account to see how the event was reported at the time.

This is where I came up against a blank wall. There was nothing in any of the hundreds of digitized newspaper archives available. I searched for the name of the ship, the Kuranda. I searched for the name of the captain, Langley Smith. I couldn’t find a single mention of either, never mind an encounter with a gigantic jellyfish.

It wasn’t looking good for the story, but I had one more clue. The account starts out in Sweeney’s book:

One of the strangest, and probably best documented, sea monster stories to be found anywhere is recorded in the Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives, State Library, Melbourne, Australia. Written testimony submitted by the officer of the watch and others tells clearly what happened to the steamer Kuranda.”

Melbourne is in Victoria, so after some searching online for the archives mentioned in the book and not finding them, I used the Ask a Librarian feature on the State Library Victoria website. I got a response only a few hours later asking for a little more information, which I supplied. I gave the gist of the story, including the details of the ship’s name, the captain’s name, and so forth, and I even gave the link to the digitized version of Sweeney’s book.

A few days later I got a response from a librarian named Jane. I’ll break it down for you.

Jane discovered there were two ships named Kuranda. One was broken up in 1936, the other wrecked in 1969.

In 1973, when this story was supposed to have taken place, there was no longer a colonial secretary in any Australian state. Therefore there is no Colonial Secretary’s File of the Archives from 1973 or after.

And there are no records of a Langley Smith who is a ship’s captain.

At this point I decided, reluctantly, that the story is probably fiction. I actually dug around looking at the table of contents of various 1970s magazines that might have published a fictional story about the giant jellyfish and claimed or implied it was real. I even thought about finding Sweeney’s email and just asking him if he remembered where he learned about this story. Sadly, it turns out that he died in 2019.

According to his obituary, Sweeney worked as a forest ranger for most of his life and was also a voracious reader. I don’t want to believe that a forest ranger who likes to read could possibly stretch the truth so I assume he read about the giant jellyfish somewhere, thought it was a true story, and added it to his book. This was long before the internet so he couldn’t just look stuff up online like I’m doing.

Just to make sure, though, let’s take a look at something else Sweeney mentions in his book. He writes, “Perhaps those aboard Kuranda were luckier than they realized. For the Times of London carried a story somewhat similar. Unfortunately, it ended in absolute horror.”

Back I went to newspapers.com, and by the way, a big thanks to the podcast’s Patreon supporters whose contributions allow me to subscribe. The Times isn’t listed on the site, which mostly focuses on American newspapers, but when I did a search for the name of the ship given in Sweeney’s book, the steamer Strathowen, during the 1870s when he reported it occurred, I got lots of hits.

Here’s an excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal of Dublin, Ireland from July 2, 1874.

“The octopus is likely to lose none of its popularity in the Brighton Aquarium, if we are to believe a strange story which comes from India. The master of the screw steamer Strathowen, on his way to Madras, observed a little schooner lying becalmed, and between him and her what he at first thought to be a bank of weed. The mass was perfectly quiet, but after a time began to move towards the schooner. Suddenly it struck her, and sunk her to the bottom. The master of the Strathowen put about, dropped boats, and saved five men from the sunken ship. James Floyd, the master, was rescued, and he tells his story in the most circumstantial fashion. The Pearl schooner, 150 tons, was bound from the Mauritius to Rangoon. On the 10th of May about five in the evening he observed a great mass rising slowly out of the sea. It remained stationary, and looked like the back of a huge whale. In a hapless moment he took his rifle and hit the monster, which began to lash about furiously. … All the men were then ordered up, and knives and hatchets and cutlasses were grasped, and all awaited the advent of the terrible stranger. The narrator proceeds: ‘We could now see a huge oblong mass moving by jerks just under the surface of the water, and an enormous train following; the oblong body was at least half the size of our vessel in length, and just as thick. The wake or train might have been 100 feet long. In the time that I have taken to write this, the brute struck us, and the ship quivered under the thud; in another moment, monstrous arms like trees seized the vessel, and she heeled over. In another second the monster was aboard, squeezed in between the two masts…. [T]he brute holding on by his arms, slipped his vast body overboard, and pulled the vessel down with him on her beam ends.” The general opinion amongst the sailors is that the big bank of sea-weed was an octopus, but we dare say a little confirmation of the story would be welcomed by us all whether naturalists or not.”

This is actually a brief and measured account of the story that appeared in the Times and which later hit the American papers. The longer account reads very much like fiction. The Dublin paper’s tone of interested skepticism matches what I feel, but the story does corroborate what Sweeney wrote in his book about sea monsters, so at least Sweeney wasn’t making stuff up.

I found a 2019 article in Skeptical Inquirer that did all the research about the octopus or squid sinking the Pearl. According to the author, there’s no record of a ship named the Strathowen or a captain named James Floyd. The author also points out that Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was published in 1869, only five years before, and included an attack on the submarine by giant cephalopods.

Before you get too discouraged, though, the Skeptical Inquirer article also talks about a giant squid attacking a small boat, and that one actually happened.

In October 1873 in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, two fishermen and a boy were crossing the bay in a rowboat and noticed something floating in the water. As they neared it, it grabbed the boat with two tentacles and pulled so hard that the boat started to take on water. Luckily there was a hatchet in the boat, and the boy grabbed it and chopped off the tentacles. Later he sold the longer tentacle to a minister who lived nearby and who was interested in squid, which were often referred to as devil-fish back then. The minister, Moses Harvey, wrote about it later and reported that the partial tentacle was as thick as a man’s wrist and measured 19 feet long, or almost 6 meters.

Only a few weeks later Harvey bought a giant squid that had been tangled in a fishing net and hauled ashore. He arranged to get a photograph of it because he knew a lot of people wouldn’t believe how big it was otherwise, and his photo was the very first one taken of a giant squid. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first photographs of a living giant squid were taken.

We talked about the giant squid in episode 74 and we talked about some other types of huge squid in episode 235. I’m willing to bet that there are even larger squid living their quiet squid lives in the depths of the ocean, just as there are probably jellyfish larger than any human has ever seen. Let’s just hope they leave ships and boats alone.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month. This month’s Patreon episode is about two hikers in the Pyrenees Mountains who heard a ferocious, terrifying roar out of the darkness near their camp.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 247: Shapeshifters



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Happy Halloween! Let’s learn about some shapeshifters of folklore, including the werewolf and kitsune (thanks to Joel, Pranav, and Emma!), and a real-life shapeshifter.

Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Further reading:

Folklore and Mythology

Breeding Butterflies

Further listening:

MonsterTalk (note: sometimes there’s adult language or really scary themes)

Sandman Stories Presents podcast

A death’s head hawkmoth, looking spooky:

A death’s head hawkmoth caterpillar, not looking spooky at all:

Show transcript:

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

It’s Halloween week and that means we need to talk about a truly spooky monster! Both Joel and Pranav suggested the werewolf a while back and Emily suggested the kitsune [kee-tsoo-neh], so let’s learn about shapeshifters and were-animals of all kinds. “Wer” is an Old English word that just means “man,” and just to get confusing, the word “man” used to refer to any person. The word “wif” referred to a woman, with wifman actually meaning woman. From those words we get the modern uses of wife, woman, and man, while “wer” is obsolete except in werewolf.

Let me derail myself from talking about language by reminding you about our Kickstarter! It ends pretty soon, on November 5, 2021, so if you’ve been thinking about backing the project this would be a great time. It’s to help me publish a book all about mystery animals, called Beyond Bigfoot and Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World. The book has a foreword by Blake Smith of MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters, and if you don’t already listen to that podcast, it’s a whole lot of fun and informative too. Thanks to everyone who has already backed the project!

Now, Happy Halloween and on to the spookiness!

The important first question we need to answer is if werewolves really exist.

No. They do not exist outside of folklore and fiction, and I’ll explain why later so you don’t ever have to worry about werewolves or any other shapeshifters. But first, let’s learn what werewolves and kitsunes are.

Werewolves are supposed to be people who can turn into wolves. Depending on the story, this can happen when the person wants to turn into a wolf or it can happen during the full moon whether the person wants to be a wolf or not. Sometimes the person has a magical wolfskin or some other item that they put on in order to transform. Sometimes they have to cast a magic spell, but sometimes it’s a curse that someone else has inflicted on them. Some stories say that the only way to kill a werewolf is by shooting it through the heart with a silver bullet, especially one that’s been blessed by a priest.

The werewolf is mainly from European folklore, where for many centuries all werewolves were also supposed to be witches. Until about the 18th century in some areas, if someone accused you of being a werewolf, you could be put on trial as a witch. Lots of people were convicted of witchcraft and killed during waves of witch-hunts in various parts of Europe. Most of the people accused were women, especially elderly women, especially women who were widowed or single, especially women who owned land that someone else wanted. Hmm.

The kitsune is a creature of Asian folklore, especially from Japan, that’s basically a fox that can work magic. It’s sometimes said that all foxes can turn into humans if they want, especially older foxes. The older and more powerful a kitsune is, the more tails it’s supposed to have, up to nine. Kitsunes sometimes play tricks on people but they can also act as guardians and friends.

About the same time that old ladies were being accused of being werewolves in Europe, though, around the 15th to the 18th centuries, something similar happened in Japan. People were much more superstitious during this time and thought the kitsune was a dangerous goblin-like creature that could possess people and make them act like animals. These days the kitsune is back to being considered mostly a friendly trickster.

Werewolves weren’t the only shapeshifters in the folklore of Europe, although they were the most common. A German story collected in 1879 is about someone who could transform into a fox using an item called a strap.

“In the village of Dodow near Wittenburg there lived an old woman who possessed a fox strap. With its help she could transform herself into a fox, and thus her table never lacked for geese, ducks, and all kinds of poultry.

“Her grandchild knew about it, and one day when the schoolmaster was talking about magic in the school, the child told about the fox strap, and the next day brought it to school.

“The schoolmaster took it into his hand and unintentionally approached his head with it. Suddenly he was standing before the children, transformed into a fox. They broke out with a deafening noise. This so frightened the little schoolmaster that he jumped out the window with a single leap.

“He ran to the hill that lay near the village and there built himself a den.

“One day a great hunt was organized, and our fox was among those pursued by the huntsmen. A bullet hit him, and suddenly a schoolmaster was lying there before the bewildered huntsman. The bullet had struck the fox strap and ripped it apart.”

Witches were also supposed to be able to transform themselves into hares, cats, dogs, even geese in European folklore. In other parts of the world, though, folklore is full of people who can turn into different animals, and the animals are always ones local to the area. In various parts of Africa there are stories of people who transform into hyenas, leopards, and lions, while in various coastal areas of the world there are stories of seals, orcas, dolphins, and other water animals that can transform into people or which are humans in disguise.

The nagual is a story from many places in Mesoamerica, dating back to the ancient Aztecs and Olmecs and other people who lived in what is now Mexico and parts of Central and South America. The nagual was supposed to be someone who could shapeshift into a jaguar. Some people today still believe in the nagual the same way some people still believe in werewolves, and like many other shapeshifters it’s often connected with witches. Modern nagual stories are about witches who can transform into various animals at night, including owls, bats, turkeys, pumas, and even wolves. In some stories they’re thieves and murderers, while in other stories they help people.

Of course, not all folktales about shapeshifters are spooky. Sometimes they’re just meant to be funny, like this story from India.

Once there was a boy who herded buffaloes, and he noticed that at noon every day a dog would visit some nearby pools of water in a little valley. One day he hid to watch the dog. To his surprise, when the dog reached the water, it took its skin off and out stepped a beautiful young woman! She bathed in the pool, then put her dog-skin back on and left. The boy followed her to see what house she went to, then went back to watching his buffaloes.

Later that year the boy’s parents decided it was time for him to marry and began to look for a wife for him. But he told them he wanted a dog as his wife and even had a particular dog picked out. Everyone laughed at him, but he was determined to marry the dog and so his parents agreed.

The wedding took place and that night the new bridegroom pretended to fall asleep, and when the dog got up he watched to see what she would do. She took her dog-skin off and started to leave the house, but the groom jumped up and threw the dog-skin on the fire, where it burned up. His wife remained in her human form and they lived happily ever after.

Here’s another story, this one from Korea and published in 1911. Once a very poor old couple lived on the edge of a town, where they grew just enough rice to keep from starving. The old man caught fish to sell for extra money, but one day when he went to the lake, it was almost dried up and all the fish were gone. In the middle of the lake was a giant frog.

The old man shouted at the frog, “How dare you drink up the lake and eat up all the fish!” But the frog said, “You’ll thank me for it one day. Take me home and let me live in your house, and you’ll see how lucky you’ll be.”

The old man didn’t know what to do. Without the water from the lake, his rice would die, and without the fish from the lake, he had nothing to sell. He took the giant frog home.

The old man and his wife gave the frog the best room in their small house and the best food they had. In return, the frog turned out to be a very pleasant lodger and would talk and laugh with the couple long into the night, telling stories and singing songs.

After a week, the frog said he needed to take a wife, but she had to be beautiful and of noble birth. The old man went to the town’s magistrate, whose youngest daughter was the most beautiful woman in the land, and explained that a giant frog would like to marry the magistrate’s daughter.

The magistrate laughed at first, but when he realized the old man was serious, he ordered him to be beaten. But immediately, hail began to fall from the sky—first tiny hailstones, then bigger and bigger ones. The magistrate hastily changed his mind and said his daughter could marry the frog, and the hail stopped.

In this time and place, a bride went to her wedding with her eyes closed and painted over with wax so she couldn’t see her husband until after the ceremony. Imagine the bride’s horror, after the wax was removed and she took her first look at her new husband, when she discovered he was a giant frog! The bride was furious, but the frog said, “You’ll be glad you married me. Will you take these scissors and loosen the skin of my back? It’s too tight and hurts me.”

The bride was so angry that she took the scissors and cut the frog’s skin open all the way down his back. Then, to her astonishment, he wriggled right out of his skin and out stepped a handsome prince wearing fine silk clothes. He had been enchanted and the spell could only be broken when he married a human woman. He and his wife lived happily ever after, and the poor old couple who had helped him were given all the riches they desired and lived in a palace to the end of their days.

I could keep going forever, because there are a whole lot of stories about shapeshifters from around the world. If you want more folktales, I recommend the podcast “Sandman Stories Presents.” Each episode is another folktale. It’s really interesting and the host’s voice is soothing if you need a podcast to help you fall asleep.

Outside of folklore and mythology, shapeshifters aren’t real. To understand why, we have to look at a very different animal, the butterfly—or, since this is a Halloween episode and most moths are nocturnal, the moth. Let’s learn about an especially Halloween-y moth, the African death’s-head hawkmoth. It gets its name from a pattern on its back that looks sort of like a human skull. Its upper wings are black and its lower wings are usually yellowy-orange. Its wingspan is as much as 5 inches across, or 13 cm. It lives in parts of Africa and migrates to Europe for the summer.

The deaths-head hawkmoth caterpillar can grow up to 6 inches long, or 15 cm, and has a curved horn-like structure basically on its butt. After it hatches, it spends the next month or two eating leaves, especially the leaves of potato and tomato plants. During this time it will go through five stages of development, called instars, where it sheds its skin and grows larger. Finally, the caterpillar burrows into the ground and forms a little nesting chamber in the dirt. For the next few weeks it just sits in the chamber while moisture evaporates from its body and it forms a hard shell-like structure called a pupa.

Inside the pupa, the caterpillar transforms into a moth by breaking down its own body with digestive juices. The resulting goo of undifferentiated cells reforms into a moth body, a process that takes weeks. Finally the newly formed moth emerges from the shell of its pupa and from the ground, climbs onto a leaf or twig, and hangs there for a little while as its wings uncrumple and extend to their full size.

The transformation of a moth or butterfly, or other insects that go through the same process, is astounding and not fully understood. What we do know is that it takes massive amounts of energy. A caterpillar eats all the time in order to store up energy to metamorphose into a moth or butterfly. If there was an easier way, for instance if a caterpillar just had to cast a magic spell or put on a mothskin coat to transform, they would do it the easy way. But they don’t, because this is the most efficient way to transform from one body to another that nature has developed. It takes weeks, it’s messy and dangerous because the animal is helpless the whole time, and it only happens once in an insect’s lifetime.

So that’s that. Werewolf movies are a lot of fun to watch, especially this time of year, but you don’t have to lie awake at night afterwards worried that a werewolf is going to bite you.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 246: MOTHMAN!



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Don’t forget our Kickstarter! I can’t believe it reached its funding goal THE FIRST DAY!

We’re getting so close to Halloween! This week we’ll learn about Mothman! Is it a moth? Is it a ghostly entity from another world? Is it a bird? (hint: it’s probably a bird)

Sandhill cranes (not mothmen):

A Canada goose (not mothman):

A great bustard (not mothman):

A green heron (definitely not mothman but look at those big cute feets and that telescoping neck):

A barn owl’s eyes reflecting red (photo taken from Frank’s Barn Owls and Mourning Doves, which has lots of lovely pictures):

Barn owls look like strange little people while standing up straight:

Barn owls got legs:

All owls got legs:

Show transcript:

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

This week for monster month, let’s cover a spooky monster with a silly name, mothman! We’ll go over the facts as clearly as possible and see if we can figure out what kind of creature mothman might be.

First, though, a quick reminder that our Kickstarter is still going on if you’re listening to this before Nov. 5, 2021! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to go look at it. We actually reached our funding goal on the very first day, so thank you all so much for backing the project, sharing the project on social media, or just putting up with me spamming you about it all month.

Now, on to mothman.

As far as anyone can tell, it all started in 1966, specifically November 12, outside of Clendenin, West Virginia, in the eastern United States. Five men were digging a grave in a cemetery outside of town when one of them saw something big fly low across the trees and right over their heads. The witness thought it looked like a man with wings, but with red eyes and an estimated wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. This definitely happened, even though it sounds like the opening scene of a scary movie.

That story didn’t come to light until after the next sighting hit the newspapers and caused a lot of excitement. The second sighting took place only three days later near Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the McClintic Wildlife Area. Locals call it the TNT area, since explosives were stored there during WWII. The TNT area is about 70 miles, or over 110 km, away from Clendenin, which has led to a lot of people discounting the gravedigger’s sighting. We’ll come back to that later, though.

On Nov. 15, 1966, two young couples decided to go out driving. They were bored and it was a cold, clear Tuesday night. Remember, this was the olden days when there weren’t as many things to do as there are today. You could watch TV, but only if there was something you wanted to watch on one of the three TV stations available in the United States. If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater, and so on.

Anyway, Steve Mallette and his wife Mary and their friends Roger Scarberry and his wife Linda went out driving that Tuesday night. Toward midnight, as they drove through the TNT area, their car came over a hill and they saw a huge creature in front of them.

Some 35 years later, in July 2001, Linda gave an interview to the author of the book I used as my main reference for this episode, called Mothman: The Facts Behind the Legend. She mentioned details that aren’t in any of the newspaper articles from 1966, or that give a better explanation of what happened than the articles did. There’s always a possibility that after 35 years, her memory wasn’t accurate, so I’m mostly going by the newspaper articles for my information, but she does mention something interesting in that interview.

She says this about the very first sighting of the creature:

We had just topped a hill in the TNT area, and when the headlights of our car hit it, it looked directly at us, as if it was scared. It had one of its wings caught in a guide wire near a section of road close to the power plant, and was pulling on its wings with its hands, trying to free itself. Its hands were really big. It was really scared. We stopped the car and sat still while it was trying to free itself from the wire. We didn’t sit there long, just long enough to scare it, I think. It seemed to think we were going to hurt it. We were all screaming, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ But, we couldn’t perform the actual action of leaving the scene. It was like we were hypnotized. It finally got its wing loose from the wire and ran into the power plant. I felt sorry for it.”

In the original reports from 1966, the couples said the creature was 6 or 7 feet tall, or 1.8 to 2.1 meters, with a wingspan of 10 feet, or 3 meters. Its eyes were big and glowed red in the car’s headlights and its wings were white and angel-like. Its body was gray. While it was a clumsy runner, it could fly at an estimated 100 mph, or 161 km/hour.

Let’s stop right here before we talk about what else happened that spooky night. A ten-foot wingspan is big for a bird but not unheard-of. The trumpeter swan, several species of vulture, Andean condor, Marabou stork, two species of pelican, and several species of albatross have wingspans of at least ten feet across. Some of those have wingspans of 12 feet, or 3.7 meters.

The heaviest bird that can still fly is probably the great bustard, which has a wingspan of up to 8 feet, or 2.5 meters. A big male can weigh up to 44 lbs, or 18 kg. Mothman is described as a man-sized creature with wings. Even if it was stick-thin, a person that tall would weigh far too much to get off the ground with a wingspan barely longer than its armspan.

So that’s one thing to keep in mind. Let’s find out what happened next on that cold November night.

After their initial fright, Roger Scarberry, who was driving, naturally decided to get out of the TNT area. He headed back to town. The newspaper articles report that the strange creature followed them for some distance, gliding above their car. All four of the people in the car were frightened, and after about half an hour they decided to go to the police. In her 2001 interview, Linda said,

“We wouldn’t have went to the police, but it kept following us. We saw it sitting in different places as we drove back down Route 62 toward Point Pleasant, and saw it sitting in various places once we got in town, too. It was as if it was letting us know that it could catch up to us, no matter where we went, or how fast we went there. When we first left the TNT area, it was sitting on the sign when we went around the bend and when the headlights hit it, it went straight up into the air, very fast. That’s when it followed us and hit the top of the car two or three times while we were going over one hundred miles per hour down Route 62, toward Point Pleasant. The last place we saw it was sitting on top of the flood wall. It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back. It didn’t seem scared, then. I guess it figured out that we weren’t going to hurt it, so it followed us. We didn’t know what else to do but go to the police station.”

So, the people in the car initially saw the creature with its wing caught in a guide wire, and when it got its wing free, it ran clumsily into a nearby abandoned building. But Linda says they then saw it as they were driving away from the TNT area, presumably just a few minutes later, and that it was sitting on a sign and flew straight up in the air when the headlights lit it up.

Next, she said the car was going about 100 mph but the creature was flying above it, keeping pace, and even hit the top of the car a few times. No one said they had their head out the window to look up, so how did they know the creature was flying over their car? Presumably they assumed that’s what it was doing because it thumped the roof of their car a few times—but how do they actually know that’s what happened? They heard some thumps and made an assumption because they were scared, but at 100 mph on a back road a car is naturally going to be making a lot of noise and shaking a lot as it goes over uneven pavement. Not to mention that none of the newspaper reports mention that the creature hit the roof of their car.

I don’t think the creature was ever flying above their car. I also think the creature they saw initially was not the same creature they saw fly up from the sign. I especially don’t think the thing they saw repeatedly as they drove to town was the same one as the others. But we’ll come back to that again too in a few minutes.

The story appeared in the papers on Wednesday, November 16 and that evening, half the town went to the TNT area to look for the creature. They spotted it, too. Four people reported seeing a huge bird at 10pm on Wednesday night. The creature stared at them as they sat in their car, then flew away. Reporters also turned up another sighting of a creature with red-reflecting eyes a few hours’ drive away, also on Tuesday night, and the gravedigger’s story from several days before. By Thursday night an estimated 1,000 people arrived at the TNT area to look for the creature.

By the end of November 1966, though, things were quieting down. A November 22 article in the Huntington Herald-Dispatch is titled “Mason Bird-Monster Presumed Gone Now.” I’ll read part of the article.

“It was a week ago today that the first sighting was reported of a large red-eyed winged creature in the McClintic area. Since then there have been about 10 or more similar reports.

“The latest report was by four teenaged youths who said they saw a large bird with red eyes fly away from their car at a very high rate of speed. This was 3 a.m. Sunday.”

The article goes on to quote various authorities, including a wildlife biologist who suggested it might be a sandhill crane. It also ends with the suggestion that the sightings may lead to an eventual legend and tourism draw, which is exactly what happened, although it took almost 50 years for it to really gain traction.

The sandhill crane theory is repeated in a lot of newspapers and occasionally crops up today, so let’s learn a little bit about the sandhill crane and see if it makes any sense as a solution.

The sandhill crane is a big bird. A big male can have a wingspan of almost 8 feet, or 2.3 meters. It’s mostly gray in color and since it has long legs, it can stand 4 ½ feet tall, or 135 cm. In the dark, this might look like a man-sized gray creature with angel wings.

But actually, the sandhill crane theory is nonsense and here’s why. First, sandhill cranes don’t migrate through West Virginia. By mid-November the nearest sandhill cranes are in their wintering grounds in Alabama or Florida, where they congregate in wetlands in the thousands, or on their way to those areas from their breeding grounds in Canada. Second, sandhill cranes are not nocturnal. They’re not active at night at all. They also aren’t clumsy on the ground—quite the opposite, since they’re well known for the elegant dances mated pairs perform. Third, the sandhill crane has a long neck, a small head, and a long bill, very different from the description given of Mothman. I’ve seen sandhill cranes and they’re beautiful birds, but there’s nothing spooky about them.

Other birds were suggested as culprits too, including a Canada goose, an Andean condor, and an oversized green heron. The Andean condor has never been seen in North America and isn’t nocturnal anyway, plus it looks like a gigantic vulture, which it is. The Canada goose is a common, well-known bird that has a long neck but short legs, and isn’t nocturnal. The green heron is a small and humble bird with a wingspan barely more than two feet across, or 68 cm. It has long yellow legs with really big feet and a long, heavy bill.

It’s worth noting that none of the newspaper reports mention a bill, although they do stress that the creature had big eyes that glowed red in the light. The head isn’t prominent either, with one newspaper quoting Roger Scarberry as saying the head was “not an outstanding characteristic.”

By the end of November, newspapers had started calling the creature Mothman more and more, and that’s the name that stuck even though it didn’t actually look like a moth. It did look like another animal, though, and the newspapers even picked up on that by the end of December 1966, when a snowy owl was shot in the area.

The snowy owl is also a large bird, mostly snow-white although young birds have black and gray markings. Its eyes are yellow. Its wingspan can be as much as six feet across, or 1.8 meters. It lives throughout the Arctic and nearby regions and is migratory, sometimes traveling long distances to find food. It mostly eats small animals like lemmings although it will also kill birds, including ducks. It’s rare for one to stray as far south as West Virginia, but the bird killed in December 1966 fits the description of a snowy owl. Its wingspan was almost five feet across, or 1.5 meters.

The newspapers declared that the snowy owl was the culprit behind the mothman sightings. Linda doesn’t agree according to her interview, and I actually don’t either. I do think it’s an owl, just not a snowy owl.

I don’t even think mothman was inspired by a very big owl, like a great horned owl. I think it was a much smaller, more common bird. The barn owl is common throughout much of the world, including West Virginia. Its wingspan is 3.5 feet across at most, or just over one meter.

The reason I think that mothman was a barn owl is because the four people in the car saw several of them around midnight, although they assumed they were seeing the same creature over and over. It’s nocturnal, although it’s also sometimes active at dawn and dusk or even in daytime, and it hunts low over the ground listening for the sound of small animals like mice. Because it flies so low, the barn owl is sometimes hit by cars and would certainly be vulnerable to getting a wing caught in the guide wire of a power pole.

The barn owl has a heart-shaped face that is usually white. Its body is pale underneath and gray or brown above. It doesn’t have ear tufts. Its eyes are large and completely black, but they reflect red at night. It also has an inconspicuous beak with a ridge of feathers at its base that can look like the suggestion of a human-like nose. In other words, it can look superficially like it has a human head and face, especially when seen at night in the glare of headlights, but weird and eerie because it doesn’t quite match up with human features.

One thing people usually don’t realize is that owls actually have quite long legs. An owl standing with its legs extended and its body straight genuinely looks like a tiny, creepy person with wings instead of arms. The male barn owl even shows off his legs and his flying ability in a courtship display called the moth flight, where he hovers in front of a female with his legs dangling.

The gravedigger who supposedly saw a manlike creature with wings fly over him only came forward after the story hit the newspapers. People who doubted it was the same creature because it was seen so far away from the TNT area are assuming Mothman was a single entity when it was probably different birds being seen in different places.

If you’re still doubtful, let’s go back to Linda’s interview that we quoted earlier. She says repeatedly that she thought the creature was scared and she also mentions she felt sorry for it. We can infer several things from these statements. First, Linda is obviously a compassionate person who can feel sorry for a creature even when she’s terrified by it. Second, she must be honest because she hasn’t changed her story to make Mothman seem menacing or dangerous. She seems to be reporting exactly what she remembers seeing and feeling. Third, Mothman does not actually seem to be very big.

When you’re scared, especially if it’s dark, anything threatening or out of place seems larger than it really is, especially when you think back on it. Combine that with most people not knowing that an owl has really long legs and not knowing how huge a big bird’s wings really are when they’re unfolded, and that’s the recipe for a monster story.

Linda does specifically say the creature had huge hands that it was using to pull at its wing. My suggestion is that the owl was standing on one leg, which was extended to its full length because it didn’t want to put any more pressure on its wing than it had to. It was either using its other foot to pull at its wing or, more likely to my mind, to try and grab the guide wire to hoist itself up to a better angle. In addition to having very long legs, owls have huge talons, and in the dark that huge talon would have looked like a human-like hand. With one leg on the ground and one leg stretched up toward its wing, Linda naturally assumed it had the ordinary compliment of two legs and two arms in addition to two wings.

Once the creature freed its wing, it didn’t fly away. Its wing was probably hurt and it ran toward the nearest shelter, an abandoned building. The witnesses said it was a clumsy runner, and that’s true of owls too. Their talons are made for grabbing, not walking on.

Then, a few minutes later, the witnesses saw the creature—or something that looked like it—on a sign as they left the TNT area. I don’t know the size of the sign but even if it was a big sign, would a human-sized creature really perch on it? It flew straight up, which also seems unlikely for a creature as heavy as a human six feet tall. Heavy birds can’t fly straight up, but an owl can because it’s actually not very heavy at all. It looks big because owls have such thick, fluffy feathers.

Later, Linda reports seeing the creature—or, again, something that looked like it—sitting on a wall. She says “It was sitting crouched down, with its arms around its legs and its wings tucked against its back.” This actually sounds like the way an owl usually sits except of course that an owl doesn’t have arms. Linda thought it had arms so she would have assumed they were wrapped around its legs, which is why she couldn’t see them.

Obviously the people who saw the creature were terrified. That’s a natural reaction to seeing something at night that you can’t identify and think might be dangerous and even supernatural. I don’t think any of the initial witnesses were lying or stupid or drunk, or anything like that. They had a frightening encounter they couldn’t understand, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Last year I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a little girl’s voice say, “Oh, hello there!” in the darkness of my bedroom in my locked house with no other people in the house with me. It was absolutely terrifying–but then I woke up better and realized that I’d been dreaming and my cat Dracula was snoring, and as I woke up my brain interpreted the little cat snores as a person talking. That doesn’t mean I was stupid and that doesn’t change the fact that I was really scared even after I realized what happened.

The trouble is that many people, after they’ve had a frightening experience like this, refuse to consider that they might have been wrong about what they saw. They say things like, “I know what I saw!” without taking into account that maybe their brain was doing its best to fill in details so they could better evaluate the potential danger. You brain is hard-wired to give you as much information about danger as possible so you can decide whether to run away or prepare to fight or just laugh and tell your little brother he didn’t actually scare you. If you can’t see details properly because it’s dark and the car’s headlights are making weird shadows, your brain fills in the details based on what you can see (and what you expect to see), and it’s not always correct. If in doubt, your brain assumes the thing you’re seeing is dangerous. That’s how our far-distant ancestors survived when movement in tall grass might actually have been a cave bear and not just the wind.

In other words, after a scary experience is over and you’re thinking back about what happened, ask yourself if it’s more likely that you saw a flying man with wings and red eyes, or if you saw an owl and your brain added other details to convince you to run just in case you were in danger.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 245: The Devil-Pig



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Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Our next monster for monster month is the devil-pig! It’s probably not a devil although it might be a pig.

The Asian tapir and its remarkable snoot:

The New Guinea carving:

The “gazeka” as imagined in the early 20th century:

Domestic and feral hogs are common in New Guinea:

Show transcript:

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

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter is still going on to fund the mystery animals book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie! There’s a link in the show notes so you can click through and look at the different tiers available. We’re doing really well so far, so thanks to those of you who have already backed the project or just shared it with your friends! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Our next monster month episode is about a mystery animal from New Guinea. We’ve learned a lot about New Guinea’s birds this year, and it comes up repeatedly in other episodes too because it’s such a huge island with varied ecosystems. It also has steep mountains that have hardly been explored by scientists or even locals. If you want to learn more about New Guinea itself, I recommend episode 206, which is the first of our episodes this year about strange birds of New Guinea. But this week, let’s learn about the devil-pig! It’s also sometimes called the gazeka, but we’ll come back to that later.

The story starts in 1875, when a man named Alfred O. Walker sent a letter to the journal Nature about a discovery on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. It wasn’t the discovery of an animal itself but a big pile of dung from an unknown animal. The dung pile was so big that the people who found it thought it must be from some kind of rhinoceros. The problem is that New Guinea doesn’t have any rhinos.

The dung pile was discovered by a British expedition led by Lt. Sidney Smith and Captain Moresby from the ship H.M.S. Basilisk. After the report was published in Nature, a German zoologist wrote to say he’d been to New Guinea too and that the people living there had told him about a big animal with a long snout, which they referred to as a giant pig. It supposedly stood 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters, and was very rare.

If you do a search for the devil-pig online, you’ll see it called the gazeka in a lot of places. Let’s discuss the word gazeka, because it doesn’t have anything to do with New Guinea. In fact, it comes from an adaptation of a French musical called The Little Michus. I bet you didn’t expect that. The musical is about two girls with the last name of Michu. One girl was given to the Michu family as a baby by her father, a general, who had to leave the country. The Michus had a baby daughter of the same age, and one day without thinking the father decided to give both babies a bath at the same time—and mixed them up. So no one knew which girl was which, but they grew up as sisters who think they’re twins and are devoted to each other. The play takes place when they’re both seventeen and the general suddenly shows up demanding his daughter back.

It’s a funny musical and was popular in the original French in 1897, but in 1905 an English translation was performed in London and was a huge hit. It ran for 400 performances and became part of the pop culture of the day. So where does the gazeka come in?

George Graves was a famous English comic actor, and he added an extra line or two to the play to get a laugh. He tells about a drunken explorer who thought he had seen a strange animal called the gazeka while under the influence of whiskey. The play was so popular, and the gazeka was considered so funny, that the idea just took off. The theater manager ran a competition for people to make drawings of the gazeka, and the winning drawing was made into a design that appeared on little charms, toys, and even in some advertisements for Perrier. The gazeka was even spun off into its own little song and dance in another play.

That was in 1905. In spring of 1906 an explorer called Captain Charles A.W. Monckton led an expedition to Papua New Guinea, and on May 10 two members of the team were sent to investigate some tracks the expedition had found the previous day. The team members included an army private named Ogi and a village constable called Oina who acted as Ogi’s guide. The two became separated at some point, and while he was looking for Oina, Ogi stumbled across two weird animals grazing in a grassy clearing. The devil-pigs!

The animals were only sort of piglike. Later Ogi reported that they were dark in color with a patterned coat, cloven hooves, horse-like tail, and a long snout. They stood about 3.5 feet tall, or 106 centimeters, and were 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. He shot at one but missed, probably because he was so scared, but he claimed later that his hands were shaking because he was cold.

The tracks the two men were investigating were of a large cloven-footed animal. Captain Monckton thought the tracks must be made by the devil-pigs.

The story hit the newspapers while the gazeka craze was still popular. People started calling the devil-pigs Monckton’s Gazeka. Monckton didn’t appreciate this, because he didn’t like being compared to someone who saw imaginary animals while drunk.

So what could the devil-pig actually be?

One guess is that it was an unknown species of tapir. We talked about the tapir in episode 18, where I chose the only pronunciation of tapir that no one else in the world uses. The tapir looks kind of like a pig but it’s actually much more closely related to horses and rhinos. It has four toes on its front legs, three on its hind legs, and each toe has a large nail that looks like a little hoof. It also has a rounded body with a pronounced rump, a stubby little tail, and a long head with a short but prehensile trunk.

There are four known species of tapir alive today, three in Central and South America and one in Asia. It’s a shy, largely solitary, mostly nocturnal animal that prefers forests near rivers or streams. It spends a lot of time in water, eating water plants and cooling off when it’s hot. It swims well and can use its short trunk as a snorkel. Technically the trunk is called a proboscis, and the tapir mostly uses it to help gather plants.

As far as we know, there have never been any tapirs in New Guinea. The only tapir that lives in Asia today is the Asian tapir, which is mostly white or pale gray with black or dark gray forequarters and legs. It lives in lowland rainforests in Thailand, Sumatra, Myanmar, and a few other places, but not New Guinea. It’s the largest species of tapir alive today, up to 3 feet 7 inches tall, or 110 centimeters.

In 1962 some stone carvings were discovered in Papua New Guinea. The carvings are a few thousand years old and depict a strange animal. It looks a little like an anteater sitting up on its bottom with its front paws on its round belly, although there’s no tail. Its ears are small, its eyes are large, and it has a long nose with large nostrils at the end. It’s usually said to depict the long-beaked echidna, a small spiny monotreme mammal that lives in New Guinea, although it doesn’t look a lot like one.

In 1987 a mammologist named James Menzies looked at the carvings and made a suggestion. Instead of an echidna, he thought the carvings might depict a marsupial called a palorchestid diprotodont. The word diprotodont may make you perk your ears up, because we talked about it earlier this year in episode 224. Palorchestes is a genus of marsupials related to the diprotodont we talked about in that episode, but generally smaller, with the largest species being about the size of a horse. It had large claws on the front feet and a long tongue like a giraffe’s. Until recently, it was thought to have a short proboscis like a tapir, but a June 2020 study indicates it probably had prehensile lips instead. It used all these adaptations to strip leaves from branches.

Since Palorchestes probably didn’t have a trunk after all, and since its fossil remains have only been found in Australia, and since it went extinct around 13,000 years ago, the carvings probably don’t depict it. It probably also doesn’t depict a tapir. New Guinea is close to Australia and all of its native mammals are marsupials. The tapir is a placental mammal. That doesn’t mean a species of tapir didn’t once live on the island, but we have no fossil remains and the carvings don’t resemble a tapir all that much.

One animal that definitely lives in New Guinea is the pig, which was introduced to the island thousands of years ago by humans. Wild boars might be responsible for the huge cloven hoof prints found by explorers in New Guinea.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown hoofed animal hiding on the island, though. New Guinea is still not very well explored by scientists or even locals, so there are certainly animals living there that are completely unknown to science. Maybe one is a giant tapir or some other, more mysterious animal.

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

Thanks for listening!


Kickstarter bonus! The Ningen



THE KICKSTARTER IS LIVE AND I’M SO EXCITED!

The Kickstarter campaign is HERE! If you’re not sure how Kickstarter works, that’s what we talk about at the beginning of this episode. I then go over the different rewards available and finally we have a very short chapter from the audiobook.

Kickstarter FAQ

I talk about the Kickstarter for way too long, so if you don’t care you can jump ahead to 9:56 to listen to the actual chapter. Also, I am definitely going to re-record that chapter for the actual audiobook because I recorded it before I made adjustments to my mic.

One of the pictures of a ningen you’ll find online. It’s art, not a photograph:

Show transcript:

Welcome to a special bonus episode of Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw.

The Kickstarter funded successfully so there’s no need to have a ten-minute explanation of the Kickstarter tiers. I’ve cut all that out so anyone who wants to listen to this little bonus episode about the Ningen can do so without fast-forwarding a lot first. This is one of the new chapters from the book Beyond Bigfoot & Nessie: Lesser-Known Mystery Animals from Around the World, although I will be re-recording it for the audiobook version now that I’ve learned a little more about making the audio sound good.

The Ningen

The seas around Antarctica are cold and stormy. To humans it seems unhospitable, a deadly ocean surrounding an icy landmass. But the Antarctic Ocean is home to many animals, from orcas and penguins to blue whales and colossal squid, not to mention the migratory birds, cold-adapted fish, and many small animals that live in the depths. New animals are constantly being discovered, but it’s also not very well explored.

Stories from Japanese whalers who visit the area supposedly tell of a strange creature called the ningen, which is occasionally seen in the freezing ocean. It’s usually white and can be the size of a big person or the size of a baleen whale. It’s long and relatively slender, and while details vary, it’s generally said to have a human-like face, or at least large eyes and a slit-like mouth. It also has arms instead of flippers and either a whale-like tail or human-like legs.

These stories don’t come from long ago, though. The first post about the ningen appeared in 2002 in a Japanese forum thread about giant fish. Interest in the topic died down within a few months, until 2007 when the ningen was the subject of both a manga and a magazine article.

The ningen didn’t start appearing in English language sites until 2010. While it’s never been as well-known as many so-called cryptids, it has been the subject of short stories and books, creepy art, a J-pop song, and lots of speculation.

The question, of course, is whether the ningen is a real animal or a hoax. The initial post was made by an anonymous woman who claimed to be repeating something an unnamed whaler friend told her he’d experienced, and her friend also said that the Japanese government was baffled, and that the government was engaged in a cover-up so no one else would learn about the mystery animal. This has all the hallmarks of a modern urban legend. I don’t think the ningen is a real animal.

Just for fun, though, if it was a real animal, what might it be? The beluga whale is the first thing I thought of, since it’s white, grows around 18 feet long, or 5.5 meters, and has a small rounded head with features that look sort of human-like. But the beluga whale only lives in the Arctic, not the Antarctic. That’s the opposite side of the world.

Of the whales that do live around the Antarctic for at least part of the year, none are white all over and most are dark gray or black. Very rarely, though, a whale is born with albinism, which means its skin lacks pigment. As a result, it looks white or very pale gray. An albino humpback whale called Migaloo has been spotted off the coast of Australia repeatedly since 1991, for instance.

An albinistic bowhead or right whale living in the Antarctic might be seen occasionally by whalers who don’t realize they’re all seeing the same individual. Both the bowhead and right whales have deep, rounded rostrums that could potentially look like a human-like face—slightly, if you were looking at it through fog or darkness, and were already aware of the story of the ningen.

Then again, if the ningen is a real animal, it might be a whale that’s completely unknown to science. There are still a lot of beaked whales we know almost nothing about, and new species of beaked whale are occasionally discovered. The ningen might not even be a whale at all but something else entirely.

Still, while it’s a fun story, it’s probably not real. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Thanks for supporting the podcast and the Kickstarter! When we reach 100 backers on the Kickstarter, we’ll have a second bonus episode with another of the new chapters from the audiobook, even if all 100 pledges are just for a dollar.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 244: The Wampus Cat



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It’s the beginning of MONSTER MONTH! This episode’s not very spooky unless you’re outside at night and hear a terrifying scream! To be fair, that would be spooky even if you don’t know anything about the wampus cat.

THE KICKSTARTER GOES LIVE IN JUST TWO DAYS!!

Further watching:

The Growling, Ferocious, Diurnal Kitty Cat: The Jaguarundi

Further reading:

My original article about the wampus cat will appear in Flying Snake #21. You can order it and back issues here and here.

The cougar:

A jaguar with her black jaguar cub (picture by Alma Leaper):

The jaguarundi looks kind of like an otter:

Jaguarundis come in different solid colors, including black or nearly black:

Show transcript:

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

It’s October at last! Yes, that best of all months, MONSTER MONTH!

This episode started out as an article I wrote for the magazine Flying Snake, which is an awesome little magazine that you might like. I’ll put a link in the show notes if you want to order a copy.

Also, in only TWO DAYS we’re kicking off our Kickstarter to fund the Strange Animals Podcast book! It’s done and now I just need to pay the people who are going to make the cover and do the interior design to make it look great! The Kickstarter will go live on Wednesday, October 6, 2021 and will run through Friday, November 5, 2021, which gives you lots of time to decide if you want to back the project. On Wednesday I’ll be releasing a bonus episode to remind you that the Kickstarter has begun, explain exactly how Kickstarter works in case you’re not sure, and share a chapter from the audio version of the book about a mystery animal we’ve never covered before. If you want to look at the Kickstarter page now, though, there’s a link in the show notes so you can look at it and even set it so that Kickstarter will send you an email when the campaign starts. There’s an early-bird special that will only be available on the first day of the campaign, just saying.

But right now, let’s kickstart monster month with an episode about the wampus cat! The wampus cat, or just wampus, has appeared in folklore throughout North America for over a hundred years and probably much longer, especially in mountainous areas in the eastern portion of the continent.

The term actually comes from the word catawampus, probably related to the phrase catty corner. Both words mean “something that’s askew or turned diagonally,” but catawampus was also once used in the southeastern United States to describe any strange creature lurking in the forest. It was a short step from catawampus to wampus cat, possibly also influenced by the word catamount, used for the cougar and other large cats native to North America.

Whatever the origins of the word, the wampus cat was usually considered to be a real animal. Some people probably used the term as a synonym for catamount, but many people firmly believed the wampus was a different animal from the cougar, bobcat, or lynx. It was usually supposed to be a type of big cat, although not necessarily.

The word wampus also once referred to a dress-like garment resembling a knee-length smock worn over leggings, also called a wampus coat. The first newspaper use of wampus referring to an animal doesn’t appear until the very end of the 19th century. A Missouri paper wrote in May 1899:

They knew immediately the source of the hair-raising scream. The “wampus” was after them. They could see it; it was a big black thing with long hair and large feet.

What may be a follow-up to that story, from a different Missouri newspaper, appeared in November 1899 and was headlined “THE WAMPUS IS DEAD.”

Many described it as gray wolf, but others refused to believe such an animal was here and lightly spoke of the wampus. It frequented the dark woods at day time, coming forth at night and roaming around, uttering a strange cry. Woe unto the traveler overtaken by darkness, for the night was made hideous by the shrill cry. […]

On last Sunday night George Jolliff secreted himself in a tree south of his house and about 7 o’clock saw the long-sought monster, accompanied by several dogs, approaching; on seeing his dog, which was tied beneath the tree, they come under the tree and Mr. Jolliff fired, severely wounding the animal. Hastily climbing down, he fired again and this stopped the monster in his tracks. […]

It measured 6 feet 7 inches in length and 2 feet 4 inches in height; some say it is a female wolf, others a cross between the dog and wolf species. It is dark brown tinged with red and black.

This sounds like a coyote or red wolf, especially considering that it was accompanied by dogs. The size of the animal in metric is 2 meters long, presumably including the tail, and 73 cm tall. The height is accurate for a coyote or red wolf but is much longer than even a gray wolf. It’s possible the animal had an unusually long tail or there was a little exaggeration going on. Whatever the animal was, dogs, coyotes, and wolves don’t make a screaming sound, so this wasn’t the same animal that kept frightening people with its shrill cries.

By the beginning of the 1900s, the wampus as an animal had completely overtaken the use of the word as an article of clothing. The first baseball team named the Wampus Cats, from Texas, appears in 1908, which argues that the term wampus cat had been in common use for some time. The surge of articles about the wampus also suggests the term had made its way from local use into the popular culture. By the 1910s, any unidentified animal is referred to as a wampus, from a striped rodent-like animal to an exhibit in a traveling menagerie, which unfortunately wasn’t described. Humorous articles claiming to answer the question of “what is the wampus?” appear alongside humorous poetry about the wampus. Well, it supposed to be humorous but it’s not actually funny. More sports teams named the Wampus Cats also appear in the 1910s, along with a cheer squad in Oklahoma called the Wampus Kittens—although interestingly, the Wampus Kittens were cheering the Wildcats.

By the 1920s, newspaper reports of the wampus cat were routine. Its description varies and most reports are light on definite details. Here are some examples of descriptions.

November 1897 (near Clarksville, Tennessee): “Mr. Gaisser was within ten feet of the strange animal and describes it as being about six feet in length [that’s 1.8 meters], of a ferocious appearance, having long claws and looking as though it could attack and dispatch a man as easily as a hog. […] What kind of an animal it is Mr. Gaisser cannot say. It has the appearance of being either a jaguar, mountain lion or a catamount.”

November 1918 (near Vestal, Tennessee, a community in south Knoxville): “It looked very much like a leopard. It was a short haired animal, with a slick, glossy coat. It was white and gray spotted, and had a long tail, with a bushy end.”

December 1921 (in Howell County, Missouri): “Drake says it was a long lanky animal, had spots on it. Then Bill Webb saw the ‘wampus cat.’ It was in the day time. Bill says it was running and disappeared in a second. It was built like a tiger and light yellow in color, he reports.”

January 1926 (near the Spring Creek community of Crenshaw County, Alabama): “The animal has been seen by a number of people, and apparently either is a panther or a monster wildcat from the recesses of Patsalega swamp. The beast is described as being of the size of a large shepherd dog, dark of hue and shaggy of coat. It steps from eighteen to twenty inches while walking, and when running it covers the ground in huge leaps of from six to ten feet. It has long claws, and leaves a footprint measuring two and one-half inches in width.” That’s about 6.5 centimeters, which is not a very big pawprint for a big cat; a cougar’s print would be up to four inches across, or 10 centimeters.

By the 1940s, newspaper mentions of the wampus as an animal diminish, taken over by sports teams with the name. By the 1960s wampus cat articles are mostly space-filling pieces talking about traditions among local oldtimers, usually with a humorous tone although again, they’re not actually funny, and fewer sports teams carry the name. By the 2000s, when reporters were doing their research online, any mention of a wampus cat is accompanied by the bogus Cherokee story about a woman who could turn into a wildcat, and usually also claim that “wampus” is a Cherokee word.

Even though the term wampus fell out of favor slowly after its peak in the late 1920s, reports of cat-like animals were still appearing in newspapers. They just didn’t get called wampus cats. A search for “strange animals” on Newspapers.com will bring up dozens of reports. Here are a few from the 1950s and 60s.

January 1951 (Pennsylvania): “Sent to hunt a strange animal reportedly sighted in the Noxen-Harveys Lake area, three bloodhounds today were themselves the objects of an extensive search in that region. Meanwhile, other reports of ‘strange’ animals came from the Hazleton area. The three bloodhounds…began trailing the animal, variously described as a bobcat, lynx, or mountain lion….”

February 1955 (South Carolina): “A resident…reported today he had seen the animal yesterday and described it as being black and having long hair and a long bushy tail. Mr. Findley said he heard weird sounds about 10 o’clock last night and went out with a light and gun, but neither saw nor heard anything more. He said the sounds were similar to a huge cat.”

July 1962 (Cherrytree Township, Pennsylvania): “According to Mr. Black, the large animal jumped from the limb of an oak tree on his farm and fled into the cover of a nearby game preserve. […] He pointed out the marks on the ground where the animal landed and inspected claw marks on the tree. […] Asked to compare its size with that of a large dog, the farmer said it was considerably larger and tawney coated.”

February 1963 (near Roan Mountain in the Cherokee National Forest, south of Elizabethton, Tennessee): “It has a track larger than a big dog, and is black in color. A real shiny black. Most of the dogs refuse to track or bay this strange animal and those with nerve enough to get close to the animal wish they hadn’t. Mr. Birchfield had one dog that was real brave and ventured close, but the poor dog was carried home by Birchfield with broken bones.”

September 1965 (Fairview, North Carolina): “The ‘animal,’ described as dark in [color], resembling a cat but much larger, was first seen when the Thomasville-Lexington reservoir was under construction in the late 1950’s. […] It has been reported that the cries sound ‘like cats fighting, then ending with the sound of a bob-white bird.’”

I only stop in 1965 because otherwise this episode would be about two hours long and very repetitive.

Reports still occur today, posted online. In a May 2018 comment on an article about wampus cats, someone named Greg Brashear writes “I saw what the old farmers in my area in north central Ky. [Kentucky] call a ‘wompus cat’. […] It was bigger than a bobcat but smaller than a cougar with yellow eyes and a [disproportionately] long tail and it was solid black.”

The cougar (also called a mountain lion, puma, painter, catamount, or panther) was once common throughout most of the Americas but was hunted to extinction in much of the eastern United States around the early to mid-20th century. It’s a big animal, able to kill deer, with a big male weighing as much as 100 kg [220 lb]. It can leap enormous distances—up to 40 feet while running, or 12 meters, up to 18 feet straight up into a tree, or 5 1/2 meters—and can sprint up to 50 mph, or 80 km/hour. It doesn’t roar but instead produces an unearthly scream. It can also purr.

This is what a cougar sounds like:

[cougar scream]

There’s no doubt that at least some wampus cat reports were cougars. Cougar sightings have continued in the eastern United States and Canada through the present day. Young male cougars travel widely to establish a territory, so most modern sightings in the southeast are probably of young males who have traveled from populations in the west. There’s evidence that many more cougars have started moving into the northeastern United States and Canada and may have even established breeding populations.

The cougar varies in color from tawny to reddish and is occasionally greyish-white. Occasionally a leucistic individual (meaning white or partially white) is caught on camera traps, but there has never been a confirmed sighting of a melanistic cougar (meaning black). It’s likely that sightings of wampus cats described as yellow or gray and white are actually cougar sightings.

Another North American cat, the jaguar, is sometimes black in color. Jaguars are fairly common in South America but much less common in Central and North America. North American jaguars are also much smaller than South American populations, only about half the size of a cougar. The jaguar strongly resembles the leopard, with rosette-like black spots on a tawny or yellowish background. Melanistic jaguars are usually called black panthers and are rare in the North American population.

By 1960 the jaguar was almost completely extirpated in the United States (that means driven to extinction in a particular area), but a population remains in northern Mexico and occasionally one roams across the border into Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. It prefers heavily forested areas near water.

It’s possible, though very unlikely, that a young male black panther could roam as far as the eastern United States and contribute to wampus cat sightings. On the other hand, the jaguar doesn’t fit wampus cat descriptions very well either. The jaguar roars instead of screaming like the cougar, and its smaller stature and extreme shyness make it unlikely to venture close to humans.

This is what a jaguar sounds like:

[jaguar sounds]

There is a third possibility, assuming the wampus cat isn’t an animal new to science. The jaguarundi is also native to the Americas, including most of South and Central America through northern Mexico. It’s related to the cougar and is solid colored, without spots, with a coat that can be black, gray-brown, or reddish. It’s only about twice the size of a domestic cat but looks much different.

The jaguarundi’s body is long and its legs are relatively short in proportion, which means it has a somewhat otter-like gait when it runs. Its rounded face has small round ears, also resembling an otter. Its tail is long, thick, and bushy. It lives in forests, rainforests, open areas (as long as there’s brush to hide in), deserts, and mountains across a wide range, but it’s not very well studied.

The jaguarundi used to be found in the United States, although its former range is unclear. Confirmed and/or credible sightings have been reported in Texas, Arizona, Alabama, and especially Florida, including roadkill animals. It mostly eats small animals like rodents, rabbits, birds, lizards, and fish. It’s mostly nocturnal but is somewhat active during the day as well. It has at least 13 different calls, including whistles, growls, screams, and chattering and chirping.

This is what a jaguarundi sounds like. I apologize for the music in the background; there’s not a lot of jaguarundi calls to choose from online and I had to grab this audio from a National Geographic video. There’s a link in the show notes to the original if you’d like to watch the whole thing:

[jaguarundi sound]

It’s interesting to compare the jaguarundi’s variety of calls to some of the wampus cat sightings. While the jaguarundi isn’t a large animal and can’t kill pigs and dogs, as is frequently reported for the wampus cat, it’s a vocal animal and can and does kill domestic poultry. Brashear’s 2018 comment about a black cat with a disproportionately long tail sounds like a potential jaguarundi, although he described it as bigger than a bobcat when the bobcat is typically larger (although not as long, especially if you include the tail). The 1965 report of a dark-colored cat whose screams ended with a bird-like call also sounds like the jaguarundi. The bobwhite referred to in that sighting makes a two-tone whistle that sounds like this:

[bobwhite call]

It’s exciting to think that many wampus cat sightings might be of the jaguarundi, especially since sightings continue to the present day. Fortunately, the jaguarundi is a protected species in the United States and throughout most of its range. It would be great if these interesting wild cats were found to have established breeding populations in the less populated areas of North America.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 243: Bats and Rats



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Don’t forget the Kickstarter, as if I’d let you forget it: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/kateshaw/beyond-bigfoot-and-nessie

Let’s pre-game Halloween and monster month with an episode about some Halloween-y bats and rats! Thanks to Connor for the suggestion!

Further reading:

Meet Myotis nimaensis

Hyorhinomys stuempkei: New Genus, Species of Shrew Rat Discovered in Indonesia

Fish-eating Myotis

The orange-furred bat is Halloween colored!

The hog-nosed rat has a little piggy nose and VAMPIRE FANGS:

The fish-eating bat has humongous clawed feet:

The crested rat does not look poisonous but it is:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re getting ready for October by talking about a bat suggested by Connor, along with another type of bat and two rats. It’s the bats and rats episode ushering us into Monster Month with style!

Don’t forget that our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book goes live in just over a week! I know, it hasn’t even started yet and I’m already shouting all about it, but I’m excited! There’s a link in the show notes if you want to click through and bookmark that page.

Also, I have a correction from our recent squirrel episode. Nicholas wrote to let me know that vitiligo isn’t actually a genetic condition, although some people are genetically slightly more likely to develop it. I think that’s what caused my confusion. Vitiligo can be caused by a number of things, but it’s still true that you can’t catch it from someone. I’ll include a more in-depth correction in next year’s updates episode.

Okay, let’s start this episode off with Connor’s suggestion. Connor told me about a newly discovered bat called Myotis nimbaensis, and it’s not just any old bat. It’s a Halloween bat! Its body is orange and its wing membranes are black. It’s called the orange-furred bat and it lives in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea in West Africa.

The orange-furred bat was only discovered in 2018, when a team of scientists was exploring abandoned mine shafts in the mountains, looking for the critically endangered Lamotte’s roundleaf bat. The team was surveying the bats in cooperation with a mining company and conservation groups, because they needed to know where the bats were so the old mine shafts could be repaired before they fell in and squished all the bats.

Then one of the team saw a bat no one recognized. It was orange and fluffy with big ears and tiny black dot eyes, and its wings were black. They sent a picture of the bat to an expert named Nancy Simmons, and Dr. Simmons knew immediately that it was something out of the ordinary. Sure enough, it’s a species unknown to science. The team described the bat in 2021.

Next, let’s talk about a rat. It was also discovered recently, in this case in 2013 and described in 2015. It’s usually called the hog-nosed rat. It lives in a single part of a single small island in South Asia, specifically in North Sulawesi, Indonesia. This is one of the same places where the babirusa lives, if you remember episode 218.

The hog-nosed rat is a rodent but it’s not actually that closely related to other rats and mice. It’s even been assigned to its own genus. It’s a soft brown-gray on its back and white underneath, with big ears, a very long tail, and a pink nose that does actually look a lot like a little piggy nose. Its eyes are small but its incisors are extremely long and sharp. In fact, they look like vampire fangs!

In 2013, a team of scientists was studying rodents living in the area. To do this they would put special traps out at night and check them in the morning. This isn’t a regular rat trap that kills rats, of course, but a box that keeps the rodent safe inside so it can be examined before being released again. One day they checked a trap and inside was a rodent no one recognized. Surprise rat!

So, what does the hog-nosed rat eat with those vicious fangs? Earthworms and beetle grubs! Terrifying, I know.

Next, let’s learn about another bat, Myotis vivesi. It’s called the fish-eating bat or the Mexican fishing bat. It lives around the Gulf of California on the west coast of North America, mostly on small islands. It’s brown on top, white or cream-colored underneath, and it has big ears because it’s a bat. Almost all bats have big ears.

Fish eating is unusual in bats, and marine fish eating is even more unusual. Only one other species of bat, the fisherman bat of Central and South America, catches marine fish regularly, but the two species belong to completely different families. The Mexican fishing bat’s closest relatives don’t eat fish at all.

Because it lives exclusively around the ocean and feeds mostly on fish and crustaceans, although it will occasionally eat insects and algae, the Mexican fishing bat has other unusual adaptations. It drinks seawater instead of fresh water, for one thing. During the day it hides in crevices in rocks, sometimes in cliffs but more often in the rocky ground. It actually wriggles its way about three feet underground, or a meter, where it’s dark and cool.

Why are we talking about this particular bat in our pre-October episode? Because it has humongous feet with long, pointy claws. The bat itself is only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm, but its feet are almost an inch long, or 2.5 cm. It uses its big feet to snag tiny fish out of the water.

We’ll finish with another rodent, the maned rat, or African crested rat. It doesn’t actually look much like a rat, since its tail is furry and it has a short, blunt muzzle sort of like a porcupine’s face. It’s mostly gray and black with white-tipped hairs that make it look frosty, and it has a crest of longer hairs along its back. It also has white stripes along its sides. It grows about 14 inches long, or 36 cm, not counting its thick, furry tail.

The crested rat mostly eats plants, especially fruit and leaves, but will sometimes eat insects and meat too. Its stomach is divided into multiple chambers and is more like a ruminant’s stomach than a rodent’s, which allows it to use a form of foregut fermentation to digest plant material more efficiently.

Also, the African crested rat is POISONOUS.

The crested rat chews on the bark of the poison arrow tree, which contains toxins that can kill most animals. The crested rat isn’t affected by the toxins, though. After it chews the bark, it licks the long hairs of its crest, which are unusually absorbent. The hairs absorb the poison-filled spit so that any animal that tries to take a bite of African crested rat gets sick or even dies. It probably also tastes terrible but that’s just a guess.

The poison arrow tree is a type of milkweed, and most plants in this family contain toxins. North American milkweed plants are the ones that monarch butterfly caterpillars eat, and the caterpillars absorb toxins from the milkweed that keep birds and other animals from eating them. Researchers aren’t sure how the crested rat keeps from getting sick from the toxins, but one theory is that its stomach contains specialized bacteria that break down the toxins.

If an African crested rat feels threatened, it will raise its crest of long hairs. The crest actually parts down the middle of the back, exposing the white section of the hair and warning predators away.

In case you’re too scared by this poisonous fuzzy rodent, you can relax knowing that the African crested rat is a sociable animal that makes purring sounds while it grooms its family members. Just don’t lick it.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 242: Snakes with Nose Horns



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Thanks to Max for suggesting the rhinoceros viper! We’ll learn about that one and several other snakes with nose horns this week.

The rhino viper, AKA the butterfly viper because of its beautiful colors and pattern:

The rhino viper has nose horns (photo by Balázs Buzás):

The West African Gaboon viper (Bitis rhinoceros), AKA the other rhino viper:

The rhinoceros snake, AKA the Vietnamese longnose snake (photo taken by me! That’s why it’s kind of blurry!):

The nose-horned viper is a beautiful snake:

Show transcript:

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

Just a reminder about our Kickstarter for the Strange Animals Podcast book! Check the show notes for a link if you want to look at the preliminary cover and maybe bookmark the page for when we go live in just two weeks!!

This week we’ll learn about the rhino viper, which was suggested by Max, who at the time was almost eight years old but that was so long ago I bet Max is eight now or maybe nine or ten. Maybe thirty.

The rhinoceros viper lives in forests in parts of western and central Africa, and can grow three and a half feet long, or 107 cm. It’s a heavy chonk of a snake but it’s beautifully colored, with big triangular blotches and smaller markings of red, yellow, black, and blue or green. If you look at one on a white background it stands out, but on the forest floor where it lives, with dead leaves and plants all around, it blends right in. It has rough scales that make it look bristly, called keeled scales. The rhino viper’s scales are so strongly keeled that they can cut your hand if you pet it. It’s not a good idea to pet wild snakes anyway.

The rhino viper’s scientific name is Bitis nasicornis. At first I thought it was pronounced like “bite us,” which I thought was hilarious, and I was disappointed to find that it’s pronounced “bit-us,” although that’s actually funny too. Actually it’s pronounced “bit-is.” It’s spelled B-I-T-I-S. Nasicornis means nose horn, and it definitely has horns on its nose. It has a pair of horns, in fact, side by side, and they stick up and slightly forward. Some rhino vipers even have three nose horns. They’re not true horns, though. Instead they’re made of modified scales. They’re bendy like scales too.

The rhino viper mostly eats rodents but will also eat frogs, birds, and other small animals if it can catch them. It’s an ambush hunter, meaning it hides among fallen leaves and waits for an animal to come too close. Most of the time it moves slowly, but when it strikes, it does so very quickly, in less than a quarter of a second. It has relatively mild venom, although some other Bitis species have venom that’s deadly to humans.

The rhino viper spends most of its time on the ground, but it can climb trees if it wants to. The end of its blunt tail is even partially prehensile, meaning it can curl around branches to help it hang on. This is the closest thing to a hand that snakes have. It can also swim well.

Sometimes the rhino viper is called the butterfly viper because of its colorful markings, and to stop people from confusing it with another closely related snake called Bitis rhinoceros. Rhinoceros also means nose-horn, by the way. B. rhinoceros is also called the West African Gaboon viper because it lives in West Africa. It looks similar to the other rhino viper with a similar pattern but in more neutral tones of brown and tan. It’s sort of a more sophisticated-looking rhino viper. It also has a pair of nose horns but they’re smaller and generally point up and slightly back.

All snakes in the genus Bitis have a threat display that has earned them the name puff adder, although that’s also the name of a specific species, Bitis arietans, that’s extremely venomous. Some people call the various species of hognose snake found in North America puff adders too because of its behavior when it feels threatened. The hognose snake flattens its neck and raises its head so that it looks like a cobra, all the while hissing in a way that sounds like it’s puffing air in and out. Snakes in the genus Bitis have a similarly impressive display. It appears to inflate and deflate as it hisses loudly, as though you’re being warned away by a bicycle tire innertube with keeled scales and nose horns. This is what it sounds like when a puff adder puffs and hisses:

[snake hissing sounds]

Vipers of all kinds are members of the family Viperidae, which includes a whole lot of venomous snakes from many parts of the world. Vipers have fangs that are so long, they’re actually hinged so they can fit in the mouth. Each fang is attached to a small bone that can rotate forward and back to extend and refold the fangs. Most of the time the viper’s fangs are folded down along the sides of the mouth, protected by a sheath of skin. When it’s ready to bite, either in defense or to kill prey, the viper extends its fangs, but because the fangs are delicate and easily broken, the snake waits to extend its fangs until the last possible moment.

The fangs are also hollow and are connected to venom glands located behind the eyes. That’s why so many vipers have triangular heads, because the venom glands take up extra space at the back of the head. The venom glands are equipped with tiny muscles that the snake contracts to send venom flowing through the fangs and into the bite wound, and it can control how much venom it injects, if any.

Vipers in the genus Bitis have especially long fangs with powerful bites, so that many animals die from the bite itself and not the venom. The reason that snakes inject venom into small prey that it could easily kill and swallow without venom is that the venom begins the digestion process. Most snakes don’t actually have very efficient digestive systems, so by having venom that not only kills its prey but starts digesting it before the snake even swallows it, vipers can extract more nutrients from their food.

The rhino viper and the other rhino viper aren’t the only snakes with nose horns. The rhinoceros snake isn’t a viper but it does have a nose horn—in this case just one nose horn, which grows from the tip of the nose and points straight forward. It’s also called the rhinoceros ratsnake or the Vietnamese longnose snake. It lives in rainforests in northern Vietnam and southern China and spends almost all of its time in trees. Adults are a lovely pale green or blue-green. It can grow over five feet long, or 1.6 m, and is a slender, active snake that mostly eats rodents and other small animals.

Another snake with a nose horn is the nose-horned viper. This one lives in parts of southern Europe and the Middle East, and it’s also called the sand viper. Since lots of vipers live in sandy areas but not all vipers have nose horns, I don’t know how you could possibly look at this snake and decide to call it a sand viper and not a nose-horned viper. Also, it doesn’t live in the sand. It likes rocky areas and can sometimes be found in old stone walls where it has lots of crevices to hide in. It eats small animals, including rodents, lizards and other snakes, large insects like centipedes, and the occasional bird.

The nose-horned viper can grow over three feet long, or about a meter. Individuals can be gray-brown, reddish-brown, coppery-red, dark red, or pale brown, and it has a darker zigzag pattern. Like most vipers it’s a chonky, fairly slow-moving snake. Its nose horn points upward in some subspecies, forward in others.

That brings us to the big question: what are these nose horns used for? Why do these snakes have nose horns at all?

The answer is: we don’t know. They’re soft and bendy, made of scales, so they can’t be used as weapons, not that a four-foot-long snake with massive fangs and deadly venom needs to poke at predators with a little nose horn. They’re probably just for display, but only the snake knows for sure.

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

Thanks for listening!