Episode 225: Talking Animals



Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 224: Diprotodon and Friends



Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions this week!

Diprotodon was big and had a big nose:

Koala!

The bush thick-knee looks like it has regular knees, actually:

Show Transcript:

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

This week let’s head to Australia for a short episode about three interesting animals. Thanks to Ruby and Tex for their suggestions!

Recently, we had an episode about the wombat—episode 208, to be exact. Ruby suggested we talk about an extinct giant wombat called Diprotodon too, because while we touched on it in the wombat episode, an animal that awesome deserves more attention. Also, Ruby had just gone to the Australian Museum and learned about it, and naturally wanted to share that knowledge. So let’s find out more about Diprotodon!

Diprotodon was the largest marsupial ever known. It stood around 6 ½ feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and up to 12 feet long, or 4 meters. It was related to the wombat but probably didn’t look much like one, although I bet it was pretty cute. It was heavily built and its legs were pillar-like, similar to a rhinoceros’s legs, but its feet were actually kind of small in comparison. It had massive flat front teeth and long claws.

So did those big teeth and claws mean it ate meat? Nope, it was a plant-eater, just like the wombat. It ate plants of all kinds in the savannas and plains where it lived, and its teeth were adapted to shear through branches and roots like chisels and grind up plant material at the same time. It also did a lot of digging, which is what it used its long claws for. The female had a rear-facing pouch so dirt wouldn’t get on her joey while she was digging.

Diprotodon had a larger nasal aperture in its skull than would be expected for an animal its size. It probably just had a really big nose, but some researchers think it might actually have had a short trunk sort of like a tapir’s.

Diprotodon probably lived in small groups made up of related females and their babies, while males probably spent most of their time either solitary or in small bachelor groups. It may have been migratory too. It went extinct somewhere between 42,000 and 25,000 years ago, along with many other species of Australian megafauna. Researchers think climate change was probably the main cause of its extinction, as the climate where it lived became drier.

Diprotodon was also related to the modern koala. We talked about the koala in episode 94, but Tex wanted to know more about it.

In episode 94 we learned that the koala smells like a cough drop because of all the eucalyptus leaves it eats. Eucalyptus oil is a common ingredient in cough drops. Here’s some other basic information about the koala from that episode, and then we’ll go on to learn something new about it.

The koala is a marsupial that lives near the coasts of eastern and southern Australia in eucalyptus trees, also called gum trees. It’s gray, gray-brown, or brown in color, with no tail, short floofy ears, a flat face with a big black nose, and long claws that help it cling to tree trunks. Almost its entire diet is made up of eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic, but the koala’s liver produces a type of protein that breaks down the toxins so it doesn’t get sick. It spends almost its whole life in trees except when it needs to move from one tree to another one.

In a study published in May 2020, researchers finally figured out how the koala gets water. Until this study, everyone assumed that the koala usually got enough moisture from the leaves it eats that it didn’t need to drink water most of the time. Now, though, researchers have observed koalas licking water from tree trunks during rain. This makes sense, because koalas prefer to stay in a tree whenever possible. The study determined that the koala gets about three-quarters of the moisture it needs from leaves, and during droughts it will come down from its tree to drink from streams. But in ordinary circumstances, it licks water from the tree trunks during and just after rain, and will do so even when other water sources are available.

I bet if you called someone a tree-licker, they would think it’s an insult, but really it’s adorable. You can say, “You’re such a tree-licker” to someone, and if they get mad at you, you can explain about koalas, hopefully before they hit you.

Let’s finish this short episode with a type of bird. It’s called the bush thick-knee. It’s nocturnal and while it can fly, it spends most of its time walking along the ground looking for small animals to eat. It’s a large, slender bird with a wingspan over three feet across, or one meter, and long legs.

The bush thick-knee eats frogs, lizard, small snakes, small mammals, crustaceans and mollusks, and insects and spiders. It will sometimes eat seeds or other plant material too. During the day it hides in long grass where it’s hidden from predators and has some shade, and at night it comes out and walks around. It’s especially active on moonlit nights.

And during those moonlit nights, or dark nights, it makes a sound like this:

[bush thick-knee sound]

Apparently people who live where the bush thick-knee is common find the sound really annoying, but I think it’s awesome and creepy.

Okay, that’s it. I actually have a serious reason for this episode being so short, which I won’t bother you with, but next week we’re going to have a good long episode. Until then, listen to this bird, just listen to it!

[more bush thick-knee calls]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 223: The Elephantnose Fish and the Burmese Star Tortoise



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This week let’s learn about an amazing little fish and an awesome tortoise! All the pictures here were taken by ME at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga!

Further Reading:

Star tortoise makes meteoric comeback

The astonishing elephantnose fish:

Burmese star tortoises:

Show transcript:

Welcome to Strange Animals Podcast. I’m your host, Kate Shaw. I’m fully vaccinated now so I’m able to go out and about cautiously, still wearing a mask of course, and this weekend I went to the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. I had a fantastic time and saw lots and lots of amazing fish and other animals! If you ever get a chance to visit, it’s definitely worth it.

When I got home, I kept thinking about one particular fish. I wanted to learn more about it. So I decided to make an episode about that fish and another animal I saw at the aquarium.

The fish that captivated me so much is called the elephantnose fish. I’d never seen anything like it. The one I saw was about the length of my hand, dark gray or black in color, and looked like a pretty ordinary fish except for the proboscis that gives it its name. The fish has a flexible projection from its nose that it was using to probe around in the gravel at the bottom of its river habitat.

I should mention that the Tennessee Aquarium has enormous displays, beautifully designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitat and give them plenty of room to move around. There’s one tidal animals display in the ocean side of the aquarium where the water sloshes through and around rocks to mimic the tide. It’s fascinating to watch the fish in that exhibit stay pretty much motionless despite the water’s movement, because that’s what they’re adapted for. So there’s plenty of opportunities to see an animal’s behavior.

Anyway, I took lots of pictures of the elephantnose fish and when I got home, I started researching it. It turns out that it’s way more interesting even than I thought!

It lives in rivers and other freshwater in central Africa and grows up to 9 inches long, or 23 cm. That’s according to the info display next to the exhibit. The display also said the fish was a species called Peter’s elephantnose fish, although it’s possible they have more than one species on display. There are a lot of elephantnose fish, more properly called mormyrids or freshwater elephantfish, and many of them have this interesting proboscis.

The proboscis isn’t actually a nose like an elephant’s trunk. It’s technically a modified chin and mouth, called the Schnauzenorgan. The elephantnose fish mostly eats small worms and insect larvae, and it especially loves mosquito larvae.

The elephantnose fish uses electroreception to navigate the muddy waters where it lives and find food. Its whole body, and especially its Schnauzenorgan, is covered with electrocyte cells that can detect tiny electrical pulses. If you remember way back in episode ten, about electric animals, many animals can sense the weak bioelectrical fields that other animals generate in their nerves and muscles. It’s especially common in fish since water conducts electricity much better than air does. But the elephantnose fish also generates a stronger electric field of its own, which it uses as a sort of sonar. It generates the field in special electric organs in its tail, and as it moves around in the water, the electric field comes in contact with other things—plants, rocks, other fish, and so on. It’s not strong enough to give an animal a shock, but it’s strong enough for the elephantnose fish to easily sense changes in its environment. The fish can tell what it’s near because its electrical field interacts differently with different things. A rock, for instance, doesn’t conduct electricity so the fish probably senses it as a blank spot in its electrical field, while a plant may conduct electricity even better than water and therefore changes the shape of the fish’s electrical field in a particular way. But it doesn’t generate its bioelectric field all the time. It can control when it discharges pulses of electricity the same way a dolphin can control when it sends out pulses of sound. If the fish feels threatened, maybe by another elephantnose fish nosing in on its territory, it will pulse much faster so it can keep tabs on what the other fish is doing—plus, of course, the other elephantnose fish can sense its pulses and can interpret how aggressive the first fish is. Female elephantnose fish generate a slightly different electrical field than males, which allows males and females to find each other to spawn.

You may be thinking about all this and wondering how the elephantnose fish can sense the tiny bioelectric charges of its tiny prey over its own electric field. Its electric field is much stronger than that of a teensy worm hiding in the mud, after all. It would be like trying to hear a bird chirping outside through a closed window while someone is playing music really loudly in the room you’re in. It turns out that the elephantnose fish is able to filter out its own electrical field so it can sense other things—but at the same time it’s still able to navigate using its electrical field.

The elephantnose fish needs a large brain to interpret all these complicated bioelectrical signals, and it has a brain to body size ratio equivalent to birds and possibly equivalent to primates. It’s not a social fish, and intelligence seems to develop from complex social interactions, although the fish is considered pretty intelligent. I mean, generally fish are not masterminds, so it’s not hard to be considered an intelligent fish, but the elephantnose fish has the brainpower to pull it off.

The elephantnose fish lives along the bottom of rivers and ponds, usually murky ones, and is mostly nocturnal. For a long time researchers thought it probably couldn’t see very well. It turns out, though, that it sees extremely well. Its retina is made up of cup-shaped cells that act like tiny mirrors, reflecting light and concentrating it so it can see better even in low light.

The elephantnose fish is a popular pet, but it is hard to keep. You have to really know what you’re doing and have a really big aquarium that’s set up just right. The males are aggressive toward each other and while the fish isn’t threatened in the wild, from what I could find out it has never bred in captivity.

Speaking of breeding in captivity, our other animal this week isn’t a fish but a reptile. It’s called the Burmese star tortoise and unlike the elephantnose fish, it’s critically threatened in the wild. It also doesn’t have a Schauzenorgan and instead just has a short little snub nose and lives on land in dry forests in Myanmar. It’s basically the opposite of the elephantnose fish.

It gets the name star tortoise because of its pretty shell markings that look sort of like stars. It can grow up to a foot long, or 30 cm, and eats grass, fruit, and other plant material, but will also eat mushrooms, insects, and snails. It has a steeply domed carapace, the proper name for its shell, with big bumps on it. It lives in central Myanmar in south Asia, but by the late 1990s it was almost extinct in the wild. The tortoise was eaten by locals, but mostly it was captured and sold as a pet or as a medicine ingredient even though it’s a tortoise, not a medicine. This was despite the tortoise being a protected species in the country.

Conservationists realized they had to act fast before this lovely tortoise went extinct. In 2004, authorities caught smugglers with 175 of the tortoises, so Myanmar’s conservation group created tortoise breeding facilities within three of the country’s wildlife sanctuaries. They consulted zoo veterinarians and tortoise experts from all over the world to make sure the rescued tortoises were as happy and healthy as possible. The first captive-bred Burmese star tortoise babies had only been hatched the year before, since it’s hard to breed in captivity.

Each sanctuary has guards that protect it from anyone who wants to sneak in and steal the animals to sell, and 150 of the tortoises have little radio trackers attached to their shells so conservationists can keep an eye on exactly where they are. They go out and check on the tagged tortoises every other week.

Since 2004, over 16,000 Burmese star tortoises have hatched in captivity and about a thousand have been returned to the wild. They’d release more into the wild, but the conservationists are worried that poachers would collect them to sell. The country of Myanmar is in a long-running civil war, unfortunately, and that makes it hard for the people living there to concentrate on conservation. Their main goal is just to stay safe. Hopefully things will get better soon for the people of Myanmar, and when they do, the tortoises will be waiting.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 222: Two Dangerous Birds of New Guinea



This week let’s learn about a couple of dangerous birds of New Guinea! They’re not what you might think.

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Further Reading/Watching:

How Dangerous Are Cassowaries, Really?

Inside the Cassowary’s Casque

Breakfast Club Ep. 34: Jack Dumbacher on Poisonous Birds (a long video but a really great deep dive into the pitohui)

The mighty cassowary with a mighty casque on its head, looking like a modern dinosaur, which it is:

A cassowary and babies:

A hooded pitohui, looking surprised to learn it’s toxic:

Show transcript:

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

It’s time to revisit New Guinea and its weird and amazing birds! This week we’re going to look at two dangerous birds of New Guinea. Thanks again to M Is for Awesome for the suggestion.

Lots of birds are pretty or cute, and that’s great. But some birds…are dangerous. For instance, the cassowary. There are three species alive today, all of which live in New Guinea along with some other nearby islands. The southern cassowary lives in northeastern Australia too.

It’s a big, shy, flightless bird that lives deep in the rainforest. The biggest species is the southern cassowary, which can grow up to six and a half feet tall, or 2 meters. Its wings are small but it can run extremely fast, up to 30 mph, or 50 km/h. It can also jump and even swim extremely well. This is surprising not just because it’s such a big bird but because it looks ungainly. It’s shaped sort of like its relation, the emu, although its neck is shorter, with a big chunky body, long strong legs, and a little head in comparison. Females are larger than males on average with more brightly colored necks.

The cassowary’s body is covered with black feathers while the legs are bare, as is the neck and head. The neck is bright blue in females, paler blue in males, with red wattles that hang down as decoration. The face is a lighter blue with a black bill. It has spine-like feathers that grow from its small wings, which appear to be for decoration too, or at least the cassowary doesn’t seem to use those spiny feathers for anything. But the most unusual thing about the cassowary is the casque on its head.

The casque is a sort of plate that grows on the top of the bird’s head. Different species of cassowary have different shaped casques, and there’s some variation in size and shape of casques from individual to individual. The dwarf cassowary is the smallest, naturally, and has a relatively low casque. The northern cassowary has a larger, taller casque and the southern cassowary has the largest, tallest casque, shaped sort of like your hand if you keep it flat with all your fingers together, only instead of flat it’s sticking up from the top of the bird’s head. Looking at a cassowary is like looking at a dinosaur with a beak.

The casque consists of a bony core made up of two layers around an open space, and it’s covered with a keratin sheath. This is similar in structure to the kind of horns many hoofed animals have, like cattle and sheep, but there are plenty of differences. The sheath isn’t as hard as the keratin sheath on a mammal’s horn, for one thing. It’s actually a little bit leathery. It also contains a pocket inside the skull beneath the casque that’s full of delicate tissue made up mostly of tiny blood vessels.

No one except the cassowary knows for sure what the casque is for. Over the years, researchers have suggested it might be used as a weapon, it might act as a shield to keep falling fruit from injuring its head when it’s under a fruit tree, it might knock the casque against a tree to make fruit fall, it might use it to dig with, it might use the empty space inside as a resonant chamber to make noise with, or it might use the empty space inside to help it hear faint sounds.

Most likely, the casque is primarily for display. Since the cassowary does communicate with low-frequency booming sounds to attract mates, it might also help with resonance or amplification of its calls.

The cassowary mostly eats fruit, which it swallows whole, even large fruit like apples. This is good for the plants, since it poops out seeds which are then ready to sprout in their own little pile of fresh fertilizer. It will also eat flowers and other plant material, but if it can catch a frog or mouse, or other small animal, including insects and snails, it will eat them too. It even sometimes eats carrion.

A female’s territory overlaps that of several males, and she seems to form a bond with all of them. In breeding season she makes deep, booming calls, which a male answers with a running dance. The female often chases the male into water and follows him in, where he then chases her out of the water before they mate. Then the male builds a nest on the ground, basically just a pile of grass and leaves, and the female lays her eggs in the nest. The male takes care of the eggs and the chicks when they hatch. Meanwhile, the female leaves and finds one of the other males in her territory. She will usually have a clutch of eggs with each male.

So, why is the cassowary considered dangerous? Because of its big, strong legs and big feet with claws. Its first claw is especially long and sharp. A cassowary will kick if it feels threatened or if it’s protecting its eggs or chicks, and many people consider it the most dangerous bird in the world.

In reality, though, while many people have been injured by cassowaries, usually ones kept in captivity for their feathers, only a few have died. One 16yo boy died in 1926 when a cassowary kicked him in the neck, but that’s the most recent death known. Dogs are in more danger.

These days, a lot of people are chased or injured by cassowaries demanding food. This happens when a cassowary is fed by tourists or even locals who think they’re cute and maybe want to take selfies with them. The cassowaries lose their fear of humans and get aggressive. Don’t feed wild animals and don’t get too close to them. If you must take a selfie with a wild animal, the quokka is a lot less dangerous.

Next, let’s talk about the hooded pitohui. It lives in forests throughout much of New Guinea and eats seeds, insects and other invertebrates, and fruit. It’s related to orioles and looks very similar, with a dark orange body and black wings, head, and tail. Its eyes are red. It’s a social songbird that lives in family groups where everyone works to help raise the babies.

Obviously, it’s not kicking anyone to death. Instead, it’s toxic.

The people who live in New Guinea know all about its toxicity, of course. They know not to bother killing the pitohui because it tastes nasty and will make you sick. They mentioned this to European naturalists as long ago as 1895. But ha ha ha, birds aren’t toxic, obviously that’s just superstition by “primitive natives,” right? So it wasn’t until 1989 that a grad student studying birds of paradise made a surprising discovery.

Jack Dumbacher was trying to net some birds of paradise to study but kept catching pitohuis in his nets. He would untangle the birds and let them fly away, but naturally they were upset and one scratched him. He was in a hurry so he just licked the cuts clean. His tongue started to tingle, then burn, and then it went numb. Uh oh.

Fortunately the effects didn’t last long, but when he mentioned it to another researcher who turned out to have had the same thing happen, they realized something weird was going on. Dumbacher asked some of the local people what the cause might be, and they all said, “Yeah, don’t lick the pitihui bird.”

Dumbacher did, though, because sometimes scientists have to lick things. The next time his nets caught a pitihui, Dumbacher plucked one of its feathers and put it in his mouth. His mouth immediately started to burn.

Dumbacher was amazed to learn about a toxic bird, but it took a year for anyone else to take an interest, specifically Dr. John W. Daly, an expert in poison dart frogs in Central and South America. Back in the 1960s while he was studying the frogs, in order to determine which ones were actually toxic and which ones weren’t, he frequently poked a frog and licked his finger, so Daly completely understood Dumbacher putting a feather in his mouth.

Maybe don’t put random stuff in your mouth. Both Dumbacher and Daly were lucky they didn’t die, because it turns out that poison dart frogs and pitihuis both contain one of the deadliest neurotoxins in the world, called batrachotoxin.

A chemical analysis determined that both animals excrete the exact same toxin. If you remember episode 204, where we talked about poison dart frogs, you’ll remember that in captivity, poison dart frogs lose their toxicity. Daly was the one who figured this out, but he couldn’t figure out why except that he was pretty sure they absorbed the toxins from something they were eating in the wild. He thought the same might be true for the pitihui.

Dumbacher agreed, and after he achieved his doctorate he started making expeditions to New Guinea to try to find out what. Both he and Daly thought it was probably an insect. But there are a lot of insects in Papua New Guinea and he couldn’t stay there and test insects for toxins all the time. He came and went as often as he could, and to make his trips easier he left his equipment in a village rather than hauling it back and forth with him.

What he didn’t know is that one villager, named Avit Wako, had gotten interested in the project. When Dumbacher was gone, he continued the experiments. In 1995 Dumbacher sent a student intern to the village, since he didn’t have time to go himself, and Avit Wako said, “Hey, good to see you! I solved your problem. The toxin comes from this particular kind of beetle.” He was right, too. The toxin comes from beetles in the genus Choresine.

We still aren’t sure what beetle or other insect supplies toxins to poison dart frogs. Maybe they should get Avit Wako on the case.

The hooded pitohui, along with its close relation the variable pitohui, is the most toxic, but there are other species and many of them are toxic too. The pitohuis are separated into three different families that aren’t as closely related as originally thought, although they all look pretty similar.

But the pitohui isn’t the only toxic bird in New Guinea. The blue-capped ifrit is another little songbird that lives only in the rainforests of New Guinea. It’s brownish-yellow with a yellow belly and black and white markings on the head. It isn’t closely related to the pitohui but its skin and feathers contain the same toxin that the pitohui’s does, which researchers think they also get from the same beetle.

There’s also a bird called the rufous shrikethrush that lives in New Guinea and Australia. It’s a little gray-brown bird with a reddish-brown breast, and it mostly eats insects. It is actually related to the pitohui, and like the pitohui its skin and feathers are toxic—but only in the subspecies that live in New Guinea. Australian shrikethrushes aren’t toxic because the toxic beetles aren’t found in Australia.

New Guinea undoubtedly has bird species that haven’t been described scientifically yet. Who knows how many of them may also be toxic? Just to be on the safe side, don’t lick any of them.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 221: Arachnids in the Antarctic!



Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion. There may not technically be spiders in the Antarctic, but there are mites.

A nunatak (note the size of the research vehicles at the bottom left):

I don’t have any pictures of the Antarctic mites, so here are some red velvet mites, although they’re giants compared to their Antarctic cousins:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to have a short episode, because I get my second Covid-19 vaccine on the Thursday before this episode goes live and I want to have the episode all finished before then. That way if I feel bad afterwards I can rest. Thanks to Ella for this week’s suggestion!

Back in episode 90, about some mystery spiders, I mentioned that spiders live everywhere in the world except Antarctica. Well, guess what. Ella sent me some links about spiders that live in…Antarctica!

Antarctica is a landmass at the South Pole, specifically a continent about twice the size of Australia. It looks bigger than it really is because ice projects out from the land and is only supported by water, called an ice shelf. It’s not a little bit of ice, either. It’s over a mile thick, or nearly 2 km. The ice is called the Antarctic ice sheet and it covers 98% of the continent. The only places not covered in ice are some rock outcroppings and a few valleys, called dry valleys because they basically get no precipitation, not even snow and certainly not rain. Researchers estimate that it hasn’t rained in these dry valleys in almost two million years. There are no plants, just gravel. There are no animals but some bacterial life that live inside rocks and under at least one glacier. Scientists have used these dry valleys to test equipment designed for Mars. This is not a hospitable land. Everything that lives in Antarctica is considered an extremophile.

That doesn’t mean there’s no life in Antarctica, though, just that it’s only found in a few places, mostly along the coast or on nearby islands. Emperor penguins and Adelie penguins, several species of seal, and some sea birds live at least part of their lives in and around Antarctica, as do some whales. There are lichens, algae, and a few low-growing plants like liverwort and moss. And there are some invertebrates, although not very many and not large at all. The largest is a flightless midge that only grows 6 mm long. But what we’re interested in today are mites found only in Antarctica.

We talked about mites in episode 186 when we learned about the red velvet mite. Mites are arachnids, although they’re not technically spiders, but frankly we’re just quibbling at this point. It has eight legs and is in the class Arachnida, so I say there are spiders in Antarctica. Or close enough.

There are 30 species of mite in Antarctica. They mostly live on islands throughout the Antarctic peninsula, which sticks out from one side of the continent like a tail pointing at the very tip of South America. All the mites eat moss, algae, and decomposing lichens. They’re also teeny-tiny, less than a millimeter long.

One type of mite is found on the mainland of East Antarctica instead of just on islands. It’s called Maudheimia and it only lives on big rock outcroppings that stick up through the ice. These rocks are called nunataks and are covered with lichens. But nunataks are far apart, sometimes hundreds of miles apart, and the mites are so tiny they’re just about microscopic. How did they get from one nunatak to the next?

To find out, we have to learn some history about Antarctica. It hasn’t always been at the South Pole. It was once part of the supercontinent Gondwana, and 500 million years ago it was right smack on the equator. You know, tropical. As the centuries passed and the continents continued their slow, constant dance around the Earth, Gondwana drifted southward and broke apart. Antarctica was still connected to Australia on one side and South America on the other, and was still subtropical. Then it broke off from Australia around 40 million years ago, drifted farther southward, and ultimately, about 25 million years ago, separated from South America. Ever since it’s been isolated at the South Pole, and by 15 million years ago it was ice-covered.

Fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient animals have been discovered in Antarctica, but it’s hard to find fossils and excavate them when the ground is under a mile of ice. The animals and plants that once lived in Antarctica went extinct gradually as its climate became less and less hospitable, and most of the remaining holdouts went extinct when the ice age began and the continent’s climate was even colder and harsher than it is now.

But one animal remains, toughing it out on rock outcroppings where the temperature can drop to -31 degrees Fahrenheit, or -35 Celsius. Maudheimia, the brave little mite.

Maudheimia was probably common throughout Antarctica’s mountains before the big freeze happened, and would have already been well adapted to the cold of high elevations. As the continent grew colder and colder, the little mite adapted even more. The fluids in its body contain an organic antifreeze agent so it doesn’t freeze solid. As the ice covered more of its home, it migrated, in its tiny way, to the rocks that stayed ice-free and allowed lichen to survive too. It’s reasonably common despite its restricted habitat, which is good because the female Maudheimia only lays one egg every year or two. There are four species known.

Maudheimia probably isn’t the only animal that survived Antarctica’s ice age, though. Species of springtail only found in Antarctica live alongside Maudheimia, and there are tardigrades and tiny nematode worms around too. All these were probably around long before the end of the ice age around 12,000 years ago.

There may be other microscopic or nearly microscopic animals we haven’t discovered yet. The Antarctic is the only place in the world that humans have never colonized, although a small number of people live in scientific outposts while conducting research of various kinds. There’s a lot we don’t know about the continent.

For instance, there are at least 400 subglacial lakes in Antarctica. The lakes form between the bedrock and the ice sheet, like a little bubble of water. Iceland, Greenland, and Canada have some too. They’re hard to study, naturally, because it requires drilling through over a mile of ice to get a water sample. So far researchers have discovered extremophile microbes in these lakes, but so few samples have been taken that we certainly don’t know everything that’s down there. Most of the lakes occasionally overflow into nearby subglacial lakes, but at least some appear to have been isolated under the ice for potentially millions of years. They may contain bacteria and other microbial life that are radically different from modern species.

There’s one other place that we know has a subglacial lake, discovered in 2018. It’s on the planet Mars. I wonder if there’s anything living in that one.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 220: Panda Mysteries, Solved!



This week let’s learn about a mystery panda and a few small panda mysteries!

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Further Reading:

Mystery of the brown giant panda deepens

The Qinling panda is not like other pandas:

The giant panda is subtly different from the Qinling panda. Can you spot the difference?

Show transcript:

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

I usually like to shake things up from week to week, but April has turned into mammal month. We’ve got another interesting mammal this week, a panda that until recently was a mystery. But first! A quick correction from last week. Pranav emailed to let me know that I got infrasound and ultrasound mixed up. Tarsiers communicate and hear in ultrasound. Infrasound is below human hearing while ultrasound is above.

We’ve talked about the giant panda before in episodes 42 and 109. Pretty much everyone is familiar with the panda because it looks so cuddly. It’s a bear, but unlike every other bear it eats plants. Specifically, it eats bamboo, although it will also sometimes eat bird eggs and small animals. It’s mostly white but its ears are black, it has black patches around and just under its eyes, and its legs are black. It also has a strip of black around its body at about its shoulders.

But what if I told you there was another kind of panda that wasn’t black and white? I’m not talking about the red panda, which is not actually very closely related to bears. I’m talking about the Qinling panda.

Qinling refers to the Qinling Mountains in central China, which is where the pandas live. There aren’t many of them, although to be fair there aren’t many pandas in the wild at all. Estimates vary from around 200 to 300 Qinling pandas in the wild. They live in two big nature reserves, and there’s only one in captivity.

The reason you’ve probably never heard of the Qinling panda is because until 2005, no one realized it wasn’t a regular panda with slightly different color fur. In 2005 a genetic study determined that the Qinling panda has been isolated from other pandas for at least 12,000 years and is different enough that it’s considered a subspecies of panda.

The Qinling panda is sometimes called the brown panda or sepia panda, because instead of being black and white, it’s brown and brownish-white. Where an ordinary panda has white fur, the Qinling panda has light tan or light brown fur. Where an ordinary panda has black fur, the Qinling panda has brown fur. It’s not dark brownish-black, just a medium brown. It also has a smaller, rounder head than other pandas.

In 1989, before anyone realized the Qinling panda was a different subspecies, a female was captured as a mate for a captive giant panda. The pair had a baby who looked like an ordinary black and white panda cub, at least for the first four months of his life. At four months old his fur started to look more and more brown, until he was a brown and pale brown panda instead of a black and white panda. Unfortunately, the baby didn’t survive to grow up, and the mother panda died in 2000.

The Qinling panda lives in high elevations and eats bamboo, just like other pandas. Because there are so few of them, and because they’re hard to keep in captivity and hard to find in the wild, we still don’t know a whole lot about them. We do know that the Qinling panda tends to have more tooth problems than regular pandas, sometimes losing its teeth or just fracturing them. This may be due to inbreeding, but it may be genetic.

The Qinling panda’s genetic profile indicates that it has more traits in common with the ancestor it shares with giant pandas than the giant panda does. In the time that the populations have been separate, the giant panda has evolved more quickly than the Qinling panda. The giant panda’s teeth may be better adapted to its diet than the Qinling panda’s teeth are.

Now that I’ve told you that the Qinling panda has a different color coat than giant pandas, let me back that up a little. Not all Qinling pandas have brown fur. Most are black and white, although they may have a brown tinge to the coat. The brown pandas were first noticed in the 1960s and researchers worry that it’s a sign of inbreeding. Then again, the genetic studies done on Qinling pandas show a healthy amount of genetic diversity with little sign of inbreeding. The brown coloration might be due to other factors.

While we’re talking about panda coloration, why does the giant panda have such unusual markings? Even animals that are black and white aren’t patterned like the panda. I’m happy to report that the researcher who led the study that determined that zebras have black and white stripes to confuse biting flies, which we talked about in episode 149, seems to have solved the panda markings mystery too.

Because the panda’s diet is so low in calories and nutrition, it can never build up the kind of fat stores that other bears do. As a result, it doesn’t have fat reserves that would allow it to go dormant during the winter and sleep most of the time. The white fur helps hide it in snow during the winter. Adult giant pandas don’t have to worry too much about predators because they’re so big, up to a little more than six feet long, or 2 meters, but young pandas are vulnerable to snow leopards, eagles, black bears, and other predators. The black markings help break up the body’s pattern and help hide it in the bamboo forests where there’s lots of dappled shade.

But the giant panda’s black ears may actually help deter predators. Many animals signal aggression with their ears, and because the panda’s ears are large and black against its white-furred head, potential predators may perceive the panda as being aggressive.

All pandas have to travel sometimes long distances to find enough food to eat, and they need more than one species of bamboo. Some bamboo species contain more nutrients than others, while different species of bamboo sprout, flower, and die back at different times of the year. Female pandas will also sometimes wander widely to find a mate, although she will often return to her home territory to give birth.

Most animals are active at one of three sections of the day. Diurnal animals are mostly active during daytime, nocturnal animals are mostly active at night, and crepuscular animals are mostly active at dawn and dusk. The giant panda, however, including the Qinling panda, is mostly active in the morning, in the afternoon, and at midnight. We don’t even have a term for that pattern because it appears to be unique to the panda. But you know what? If that makes the panda happy, that’s fine. The panda can get up at midnight to snack on bamboo all it wants.

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. Oh, and we have a mailing list sign-up now too!

Thanks for listening!


Episode 219: The Strange and Mysterious Tarsier



Thanks to Phoebe for suggesting the tarsier, this week’s strange and interesting primate!

Further Reading:

Decoding of tarsier genome reveals ties to humans

Long-lost ‘Furby-like’ Primate Discovered in Indonesia

Tarsiers look like weird alien babies:

A tarsier nomming on a lizard:

A tarsier nomming on an insect:

The pygmy tarsier and someone’s thumb:

There’s probably not much going on in that little brain:

Show Transcript:

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

This week we’re looking at a weird and amazing little primate, but it’s not a monkey or ape. It’s the tarsier, with thanks to Phoebe who suggested it. It’s pronounced tarsiAY or tarsiER and both are correct.

The tarsier is such a little mess that until relatively recently scientists weren’t even completely certain it was a primate. A 2016 genetic study determined for sure that it is indeed a primate even though it differs in many ways from all other primates alive. For instance, it’s a carnivore. Most primates are herbivores and some are omnivores, including humans and chimpanzees, but only the tarsier is an obligate carnivore. That means it has to eat meat and only meat, whether it’s invertebrates, birds, reptiles, or small mammals like rodents.

Scientists divide primates into two groups informally, into wet-noses and dry-noses. Wet-nose doesn’t refer to a nose that’s runny but to a nose that stays moist, like a dog’s nose. This splits along the same lines as simians and prosimians, another way to group primates. Humans and other apes, along with monkeys, are simians, and also dry-noses. If you’re not sure if that’s accurate, just touch the end of your nose. Make sure you’re not standing in the rain or just got out of the bathtub, though. All other primates are wet-noses, and also prosimians, except for the tarsier. The tarsier is sort of in between. It’s grouped with the wet-nose primates, but it turns out to be more closely related to the dry-nose primates than the wet-noses. Also, its nose is actually dry.

One interesting difference between prosimians and simians concerns vitamin C. Vitamin C is found in a lot of foods, but especially in fruit and vegetables. If you don’t have any vitamin C in your diet, you will eventually die of scurvy like an old pirate, so make sure to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. But most animals don’t need to eat foods containing vitamin C because their bodies already produce the vitamin C they need. Humans, apes, and monkeys have to worry about scurvy but prosimians don’t. But the tarsier does need vitamin C even though it’s a prosimian. A lot of researchers think the tarsier should be grouped with the simians, not prosimians.

The tarsier currently lives only in southeast Asia, mostly on forested islands, although tarsier fossils have been found throughout Asia, Europe, and North America. Genetic studies also indicate it probably started evolving separately from other primates around 55 million years ago in what is now China.

As it happens, we have a fossil that appears to be an early ancestor of the tarsier. Archicebus achilles was discovered in 2003 and studied for an entire decade before it was described in 2013, and it lived about 55 million years ago in what is now central China. It looks a lot like a tiny tarsier, but with smaller eyes that suggest it was active during the day. Its feet were shaped like a monkey’s, though, not like a tarsier’s feet. It probably only weighed about an ounce, or 28 grams. That’s about the same weight as a pencil. It had sharp little teeth and probably ate insects. So far the 2003 specimen is the only one found, but it’s remarkably complete so researchers have been able to learn a lot about it. If I’d been one of the scientists studying it, there is no way I could have waited ten whole years to tell people about it. I’d have studied it for like six months and then thought, “Okay, good enough, HEY EVERYONE LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THIS COOL ANIMAL.”

The tarsier is nocturnal and has enormous eyes to help it see better in the dark. Its eyes are so big and round, and frankly the tarsier is not the brainiest animal, that its eyes are actually bigger than its brain. The tarsier also has mouse-like ears, long fingers and toes with sucker-like discs at the end to help it grip branches, and an extremely long tail that’s scaly on the underside. It spends almost its whole life in trees, where it climbs and jumps from branch to branch. When it climbs up a tree, it presses its long tail against the trunk to help it balance.

It’s not a big animal, though. A typical tarsier measures about six inches long, or 15 cm, from the top of its little round head to the bottom of its bottom, not counting its tail. Its tail can be almost a foot long, or 25 cm, though, and its hind legs are also extremely long, about as long as the tail. Its body is rounded with short plush fur, usually brown, gray, or dark gold in color.

With its big eyes and chonky body, if you wrapped up a tarsier in a little robe so you can’t see how small its ears are and how long its legs and tail and fingers are, it would kind of look like a miniature baby Yoda guy from that Mandalorian TV show. Someone please do that. Also, it kind of looks like a cute and furry Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Unlike other primates, the tarsier can turn its head 180 degrees in both directions. Basically it can turn its head like an owl. This is helpful because its eyes are so big it can’t move them. It can only look straight ahead, so it needs to be able to move its head all around instead. This is actually the same for the owl, too.

The tarsier mostly eats insects, but it will eat anything it can catch, including venomous snakes. It doesn’t just eat the meat, though. It eats just about everything, including bones. It has a wide mouth and strong jaws and teeth, and it’s so agile that it’s been observed to jump up and catch a bird as it flies past. Current speculation is that the tarsier gets enough vitamin C from the insects it eats that it doesn’t need to eat fruit, but no one knows for sure yet. Some species of bat can’t synthesize vitamin C in the body and have to get it from their diet, which is made up of insects.

We talked about the tarsier a little in episode 43, about the Chinese ink monkey, and also way back in episode eight, the strange recordings episode, because the tarsier can communicate in ultrasound [not infrasound]—sounds too high for humans to hear. It has incredibly acute hearing and often hunts by sound alone. Researchers speculate that not only can the tarsier avoid predators by making sounds higher than they can hear, it can also hear many insects that also communicate in ultrasound. As an example of how incredibly high-pitched their voices are, the highest sounds humans can hear are measured at 20 kilohertz. The tarsier can make sounds around 70 kh and can hear sounds up to 91 kh.

The tarsier also makes sounds humans can hear. Here’s some audio of a spectral tarsier from Indonesia:

[tarsier sound]

Some species of tarsier are social, some are more solitary. All are shy, though, and they don’t do well in captivity. Unfortunately, because the tarsier is so small and cute and weird-looking, some people want to keep them as pets even though they almost always die quite soon. As a result, not only is the tarsier threatened by habitat loss, it’s also threatened by being captured for the illegal pet trade. Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway to protect the tarsier within large tracts of its natural habitat, which is also beneficial for other animals and plants.

The smallest species is the pygmy tarsier, which is only found in central Sulawesi in Indonesia, in high elevations. It’s four inches long, or 10.5 cm, from head to butt. You measure tarsiers like you measure frogs. It’s basically the size of a mouse but with a really long tail and long legs and big huge round eyes and teeny ears and a taste for the flesh of mortals. Or, rather, insects, since that’s mostly what it eats.

For almost a century people thought the pygmy tarsier was extinct. No one had seen one since 1921. Then in 2000, scientists trapping rats in Indonesia caught a pygmy tarsier. Imagine their surprise! Also, they accidentally killed it so I bet they felt horrible but also elated. It wasn’t until 2008 that some live pygmy tarsiers were spotted by a team of scientists who went looking specifically for them. This wasn’t easy since tarsiers are nocturnal, so they had to hunt for them at night, and because the wet, foggy mountains where the pygmy tarsier lives are really hard for humans to navigate safely. It took the team two months, but they managed to capture three of the tarsiers long enough to put little radio collars on them to track their movements.

One of the things Phoebe wanted to know about tarsiers is if there are any cryptids or mysteries associated with them. You’d think there would be, if only because the tarsier is kind of a creepy-cute animal, but I only managed to find one kinda-sorta tarsier-related cryptid.

According to a 1932 book called Myths and Legends of the Australian Aboriginals, a little red goblin creature lives in trees in some parts of Australia, especially the wild fig tree. It’s called the yara-ma-yha-who and it looks sort of like a frog but sort of like a monitor lizard. It’s bright red and stands around four feet tall, or 1.2 meters, with skinny arms and legs. The ends of its fingers and toes are cup-shaped suckers. Its head is large with a wide frog mouth and no teeth.

When a person comes along, the yara-ma-yha-who drops down from its tree and grabs them by the arm. It uses the suckers on its fingers and toes to drain blood from their arm, then swallows the person whole. Then later it horks them back up, but they’re smaller than before and their skin is starting to turn red. Eventually the person turns into a yara-ma-yha-who, unless they manage to escape in time.

Some cryptozoologists speculate that the yara-ma-yha-who may be based on the tarsier. The tarsier has never lived in Australia, but it does live in relatively nearby islands. Most tarsier species do have toe pads that help them cling to branches, but frogs also have toe pads and frogs are found in Australia. Likewise, by no stretch of the imagination is the tarsier bright red, four feet tall, toothless, or active in the daytime. It’s more likely the legend of the yara-ma-yha-who is inspired by frogs, snakes, monitor lizards, and other Australian animals, not the tarsier. But just to be on the safe side, if you live in Australia you might want to walk around wild fig trees instead of under them.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 218: More Unusual Hoofed Animals



So many interesting hoofed animals in this episode, so many awesome suggestions! Thanks to Page, Elaine, Pranav, Richard E., Richard from NC, and Llewelly!

Further Reading:

Meet the Takin: The Largest Mammal You’ve Never Heard Of

New hope for the elusive okapi, the Congo’s mini giraffe

The Resurrection of the Arabian Oryx

Eucladoceros was not messing around with those antlers:

Megaloceros and Thranduil’s elk in the Hobbit movies. COINCIDENCE?

The stag-moose. What can I say? This thing is AWESOME:

Hoplitomeryx. Can you have too many horns? No, no you cannot:

The gerenuk, still beautiful but freaky-looking:

The golden takin looking beautiful [pic from the article linked above]:

The elusive okapi:

Okapi bums [pic from the article linked above]:

The giraffe being really tall and a baby giraffe being somewhat less tall:

A giraffe exhibiting dwarfism but honestly, he is still plenty tall:

The Arabian oryx is just extra:

The weird, weird tusks of the babirusa. Look closely:

Show Transcript:

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

Back in episode 116, we talked about some amazing hoofed animals. This week we’re going to look at some more amazing hoofed animals that you may have never heard about. Some are extinct but some are running around out there looking awesome even as we speak! Thanks to Page, Elaine, Pranav, Richard E., Richard from NC, and Llewelly for their suggestions! If you’re a Patreon subscriber you may recognize part of the end of the episode as largely from a Patreon episode, by the way.

Let’s start with an extinct deer with amazing antlers. Llewelly suggested it, or more accurately replied to a Twitter conversation mentioning it. That counts as a suggestion. It’s been a while but I think the conversation was about the Hobbit movies.

Eucladoceros was a deer the size of a moose but with much weirder antlers. We’re not talking about the Megaloceros, often called the Irish elk, although it was distantly related. Eucladoceros’s antlers were much different. They branched up and out but were spiky like an ordinary deer’s antlers instead of palmate like a moose’s or Megaloceros’s antlers. But they were seriously big, with up to twelve points each and over five and a half feet across, or 1.7 meters. The deer itself stood just under 6 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters. It’s often called the bush-antlered deer because the antler’s many points look like the branches of a bush.

Eucladoceros lived in Eurasia but we’re not completely sure when it went extinct or why. We don’t really know that much about it at all, in fact, which is surprising because it was such a big animal. It was one of the earliest deer with branching antlers and it probably went extinct before humans encountered it, but we don’t know that for sure either.

Another deer relation is a gigantic animal called the stag moose that lived at the very end of the Pleistocene, or ice age, until around 13,000 years ago. It probably looked a lot like a huge, muscular deer more than a moose, but had moose-like antlers that grew up to 6 1/2 feet across, or 2 meters. The animal itself stood almost six feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.8 m, which is about the size of the modern moose. It lived in northern North America until melting glaciers allowed other animals to migrate into the area, and the modern moose outcompeted its cousin.

Early deer and deer relations looked a lot different from the deer we’re familiar with today. For instance, Hoplitomeryx. It was a ruminant and therefore related to modern deer, but while it probably looked a lot like a deer, it didn’t have antlers. It had horns. Antlers grow every year from the skull and the animal sheds them later, usually after breeding season. Horns are permanent, usually made of a bony core with a keratin sheath over it.

Hoplitomeryx lived around 11 to 5 million years ago in one small area of Europe. Specifically, it lived on a large island near what is now Italy, although the island is now part of a little peninsula. It probably also lived on other, smaller islands nearby. While some specimens found are quite small, probably due to island dwarfism, some grew as big as the bush-antlered deer, over 5 ½ feet tall, or 1.7 meters.

It had a pair of horns that were shaped like a modern goat’s, that grew from the top of its head and curved backwards. And it had a smaller pair of horns underneath those horns that grew outward. And it had a single horn that was about the same size or bigger and shaped the same as the goat-like horns, but which grew in the middle of the forehead like a really weird unicorn. Also, it had fangs. I am not making this up. It’s sometimes called the five-horned deer for obvious reasons.

We also don’t know much about Hoplitomeryx except that it was really awesome, so let’s move on to our next strange hoofed animal. This one is a suggestion by Page, who wanted to know more about the gerenuk. We talked about it in episode 167 but it’s such an interesting animal that there’s more to learn about it.

The gerenuk is an antelope that lives in East Africa. It’s considered a type of gazelle, although it’s not very closely related to other gazelles. It’s slender with long legs and a long neck, and stands about three feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. The male has a pair of S-shaped, ridged black horns that can grow up to 18 inches long, or 45 cm, while the female doesn’t have horns at all. It’s reddish-brown with a pale belly and a pale stripe down its sides, a short tail, and a white patch around each eye. But as we talked about in episode 167, its legs are extremely thin—so thin that they look like sticks, especially the front legs.

The gerenuk is the only type of antelope that can stand on its hind legs, which it does all the time. It will even use its front legs to pull branches down closer to its mouth while standing on its hind legs. As a result, even though it’s not very big, it can reach leaves that other antelopes can’t. Not only does this mean it can find food where other antelopes can’t, it also means it doesn’t need very much water because it can reach tender leaves with a higher moisture content.

Like many gazelles, the gerenuk marks its territory with scent glands. It has scent glands on its knees, covered with tufts of hair, and scent glands in front of its eyes. So if you see a gerenuk rubbing its knees or face on a branch, that’s why.

Our next hoofed animal is the golden takin, which looks kind of like a musk ox except that it has pale golden fur. But it isn’t a musk ox although it is in the family Bovidae. It’s actually most closely related to sheep but is sometimes referred to as a goat-antelope. It does resemble the mountain goat in some respects, which makes sense because it lives in the Himalayan Mountains in China. As a result, it has a lot of adaptations to intense cold.

It has a thick coat that grows even thicker in winter, with a soft, dense undercoat to trap heat next to the body. It also has large sinus cavities that warm the air it breathes before it reaches the lungs, which means it has a big snoot. Its skin is oily, which acts as a water repellent during rain and snowstorms. In spring it migrates to high elevations, but when winter starts it migrates back down to lower elevations where it’s not quite as cold.

Like the gerenuk, the golden takin will stand on its hind legs to reach leaves, but it has to balance its front legs against something to stay upright. It will eat just about any plant material it can reach, including tree bark, tough evergreen leaves, and bamboo. Yes, bamboo. It sometimes shares the same bamboo forests where pandas live. The golden takin is a strong animal that will sometimes push over small trees so it can eat the leaves. It visits salt licks regularly, and some researchers think it needs the minerals available at salt licks to help neutralize the toxins found in many plants it eats.

Both male and female golden takins have horns, which grow sideways and back from the forehead in a crescent and can be almost three feet long, or 90 cm. It has a compact, muscular build and can stand over four feet tall at its humped shoulder, or around 1.4 m. Baby golden takins are born with dark gold-brown fur that helps camouflage it, but as it ages, it fur grows more and more pale gold. A full-grown golden takin is big enough and strong enough that it doesn’t have many predators. If a bear or wolf threatens it, it can run fast if it needs to or hide in dense underbrush.

Next, let’s learn about an animal requested by both Elaine and Pranav. In the 19th century and earlier, Europeans exploring central Africa kept hearing about an elusive animal that lived deep in the remote forests. It was supposed to be a kind of donkey or zebra, but it was so little-known that some Europeans started calling it the African unicorn because they didn’t even think it existed.

In 1899, a British man named Harry Johnston decided to get to the bottom of the African unicorn mystery. When he asked the Pygmy people about it, they knew exactly what he was talking about and showed him some hoof prints. Like most Europeans at the time, Johnston thought the African unicorn was a zebra, so he was surprised to learn that it had cloven hooves.

The Pygmy people also gave Johnston some strips of skin from the animal, and later he bought two skulls and a complete skin. He sent these to England where the animal was identified as a giraffe relation. It was named Okapia johnstoni, and is known by the name okapi.

The okapi’s discovery by science was as astounding in its way as the coelacanth’s discovery a few decades later. Until it was described in 1901, scientists thought all the giraffe relations had died out long ago. Paleontologists had found fossils that showed how the giraffe evolved from a more antelope-like animal, and suddenly there was a living animal with those same features. It was mind-blowing!

The okapi is the giraffe’s closest living relation, but it doesn’t look much like a giraffe. For one thing, it’s not quite five feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters, and while it does have a long neck, it’s nothing like as long as a giraffe’s. It looks more like an antelope than a giraffe, at least at first glance. It’s dark reddish-brown with pale gray markings on its face, and its lower legs are white and its rump and upper legs are striped black and white. It also has a tail with a tuft at the end like a giraffe’s. Females are usually larger than males.

The male okapi has a pair of ossicones on his head, but they’re not very long compared to giraffe ossicones. As you may remember, an ossicone is a bony projection from the skull that’s covered with skin and hair. The female has little forehead bumps instead of actual ossicones.

The okapi lives in rainforests in central Africa and is a solitary animal. It has a long tongue like a giraffe which it uses to grab leaves. Its tongue is almost as long as the giraffe’s, up to 18 inches long, or 46 cm, whereas the giraffe’s tongue is 20 inches long, or 56 cm. A female okapi has one calf every two years or so, and in the first month of life, the calf doesn’t defecate at all. Not a single baby okapi poop. Some babies may hold it until they’re ten weeks old. Scientists aren’t sure if this same behavior is found in the wild, since okapis are hard to observe in the wild and most behavioral observations come from captive animals, but the hypothesis is that by not defecating, the baby is less likely to attract the attention of leopards who would smell the poops.

For a long time scientists thought the okapi didn’t make any sounds at all, just some whistles and chuffing sounds. It turns out, though, that a mother okapi communicates with her baby with infrasound, which is below the range of human hearing.

Speaking of giraffes, in March of 2021 a study of the giraffe genome was published, focusing on the giraffe’s adaptations for growing so extremely tall. One interesting discovery is that the giraffe has very little sense of smell although it has excellent eyesight. This makes sense considering that the giraffe’s head is so far above the ground. Most scents left by predators will be on or close to the ground, not high up in the air. The giraffe also doesn’t sleep very much and it shows a lot of genetic adaptations for extremely high blood pressure. It needs that high blood pressure to push blood up its long neck to its brain. Researchers are especially interested in the genetics of blood pressure, since high blood pressure in humans is a serious problem that can lead to all sorts of medical issues.

We’ve talked about giraffes before, especially in episode 50, about the tallest animals. Giraffes have extremely long necks and legs and a big male can stand 19.3 feet high, or 5.88 m, measured at the top of his head. Even a short giraffe is over 14 feet tall, or 4.3 meters. To put that into perspective, the average height of a ceiling in an average home is 8 or 9 feet high, or just over 2.5 meters. This means a giraffe could look into an upstairs window to see if you have any giraffe treats, and not only would it not need to stretch to see in, it would probably need to lower its head.

But in 2015, a team of biologists surveying the animals in the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, which is in eastern Africa, noticed a male giraffe that had much shorter legs than usual. They nicknamed him Gimli after one of the dwarf characters from Lord of the Rings, and estimated his height as just over nine feet tall, or about 2.8 meters. Gimli would not be able to peek into an upstairs window, but he was still a fully grown giraffe.

Since dwarfism affects the length of an animal’s limbs, it was obvious that Gimli was actually a dwarf giraffe, the first ever documented.

Then, in 2018, a different team of scientists found a different giraffe in a different place, Namibia in southwest Africa, who was fully grown but also had short legs. He was also a male, nicknamed Nigel, and was hanging around with some other giraffes on a private farm. The farmer had seen Nigel plenty of times over several years. Nigel’s height was estimated at 8 ½ feet tall, or 2.6 meters.

In animals, dwarfism can result from inbreeding, which is sometimes done on purpose by humans trying to breed cute pets. It also just sometimes happens, a random mutation that affects growth hormones. In the wild, an animal with unusually short legs usually doesn’t live very long. Either it can’t run fast enough to escape a predator or it can’t run fast enough to catch prey. Both Gimli and Nigel appear healthy, though, and even a short giraffe is still a large animal that can kick and run pretty fast.

Next, Richard from North Carolina suggested the Arabian oryx, and it is a beautiful and amazing hoofed animal. It’s a large antelope and used to live throughout the Middle East, but by the 1930s, habitat loss and hunting had restricted it to the desert in northwestern Saudi Arabia. Then oil company employees and Arabian princes both discovered the fun that is to be had when you have a car and a machine gun and can just drive around shooting everything you see. Such fun, driving animals to extinction, I’m being sarcastic of course. The last few Arabian oryx survived to 1972, but they were effectively extinct decades before then.

But. Zoos to the rescue. The Arabian oryx is a beautiful animal that does well in captivity, so lots of zoos had them on display. In 1960 conservationists realized they had to act fast if the oryx wasn’t going to go extinct completely, and they started a captive-breeding project called Operation Oryx at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, which is in the southwestern United States. They managed to capture three of the remaining wild animals and added to the herd with captive-bred oryxes donated by other zoos.

Operation Oryx was such a success that in only twenty years they were able to reintroduce oryx into the wild. Currently there are an estimated 1,200 oryxes in the wild with another 7,000 or so in zoos and conservation centers around the world. It’s still vulnerable, but it’s not extinct.

The oryx is white with dark brown or black markings, including dark legs and a pair of long, straight, slender black horns. Both males and females have these horns, which can grow up to two and a half feet long, or 75 cm. Since the oryx itself only stands a little over three feet high at the shoulder, or 1 meter, the horns are sometimes longer than the animal is tall. The oryx lives in small herds of mixed males and females, which travel widely in their desert habitat to find food and water. During the hot part of the day, the oryx digs a shallow nest under a tree or bush to lie in. It also has a short tufted tail. I just noticed the tail in a picture I’m looking at. It’s so cute.

In the last weird hoofed animals episode, we ended with a pig relation, so we’re going to end this episode with a pig relation too. Richard E. suggested the babirusa, and you definitely need to know about this weird piggy.

The babirusa is native to four islands in Indonesia. It’s related to pigs, but researchers think it split off from other pigs early on because of how different it is. Females have only one pair of teats, for instance, and usually only one piglet is born at a time, sometimes two. Females make a nest of branches to give birth in.

The babirusa also lacks the little bone in the snout that helps most pig species root. The babirusa only roots in very soft mud, but sometimes it digs for roots with its hooves. It eats plants of all kinds, including cracking nuts with its strong jaws, and will eat insect larvae, fruit, mushrooms, and even occasionally fish and small animals when it can catch them. Unlike most pigs, the babirusa is good at standing on its hind legs to reach branches, much like deer, which is why it’s sometimes called the deer-pig. Its stomach is more like a sheep’s than a pig’s, with two sacs that help it digest fibrous plant material, and it has relatively long, slender legs compared to most pigs.

Most pigs have tusks of some kind, but the babirusa’s are really weird. At first glance they’re just surprisingly long tusks that curve up and back, but when you look closer, you see that the upper pair actually grows up through the top of the snout.

The babirusa boar has two pairs of tusks, which are overgrown canine teeth. The lower pair jut out from the mouth the way most pig tusks do. The upper pair are the weird ones. Before a male babirusa is born, the tooth sockets for its upper canines are normal, but gradually they twist around and the teeth grow upward instead of down. They grow right up through the snout, piercing the skin, and then continue to grow up to 17 inches long, or 43 cm, curving backwards toward the head. In at least one case, a tusk has grown so long it’s actually pierced the boar’s skull.

For a long time researchers assumed males used their tusks to fight, but males fight by rearing on their hind legs and kicking each other with their forehooves. Then researchers decided the tusks were actually for defense during fights, to keep a boar from getting its face kicked. But the tusks aren’t actually very strong and don’t appear to be used for much of anything. Most likely, it’s just a display for females.

The babirusa does well in captivity, even becoming quite tame. Many zoos keep them, which is a good thing because they’re becoming more and more endangered as their island habitats are taken over by farming and development.

So that’s it for the second episode about strange hoofed animals. I guarantee you that we’re going to have a third because there are so many.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 217: Three (Small) Mystery Animals



This week we’re going to look at three small mystery animals! Well, the mysteries are small. The animals are not particularly small.

Further Reading:

Long-Extinct Gibbon Found Inside Tomb of Chinese Emperor’s Grandmother

Ancient Egypt’s Mona Lisa? An elaborately drawn extinct goose, of course

A case of mistaken identity for Australia’s extinct big bird

Bones of a mystery gibbon found in a noblewoman’s tomb:

Gibbons painted about a thousand years ago by artist Yi Yuanji:

A couple of gibbons at MAX FLUFF:

The mystery goose painting (left) compared with a modern version of the painting (middle) and a red-breasted goose (right):

All the geese from the painting:

A red-breasted goose, not historically known from Egypt:

The mystery bird rock art:

An emu (with babies):

Genyornis compared to a human:

Genyornis leg bones compared to emu leg bones (right), but on left is a comparison of a so-called Genyornis (actually not) egg and an emu egg:

A couple of megapodes in their egg field:

Show transcript:

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

We’re long overdue for an episode about a mystery animal, so this week let’s look at not one, not two, but three mysteries! They’re all small scientific mysteries, not big spooky ones, but I think you’ll find them interesting.

We’ll start at an archaeological dig in China. In 2004, archaeologists excavated a noblewoman’s tomb in northwestern China, which they dated to about 2,200 to 2,300 years old. The tomb might have been for a woman called Lady Xia, who was the grandmother of the first emperor of China. So, kind of a big deal.

The archaeologists discovered twelve pits in the tomb, and each pit contained the skeletons of various animals, some of them domesticated animals but some of them wild. Having a private menagerie was a status symbol back then, as it sometimes has been in other cultures around the world. In pit #12, they found remains of a leopard, a black bear, a crane, a lynx, and a type of small ape called a gibbon.

The gibbon remains were a surprise, because today all species of gibbon in China live only in the very southern areas and are critically endangered by habitat loss and hunting. Either a gibbon had been transported hundreds of miles over difficult terrain 2,300 years ago, or gibbons lived in the area.

Gibbons are small apes and there are 16 species alive today. They all live in southern Asia. We talked about the siamang in episode 76, and the siamang is a type of gibbon. Many gibbons, including the siamang, have inflatable resonant chambers in the throat to amplify their calls, but all gibbons make loud, often musical sounds to communicate with each other. They spend most of the time in treetops and mostly eat fruit, along with other plant material.

Because this part of northwestern China is subtropical, and because it’s been so long since the animals died, the skeletons aren’t complete. The only gibbon bones left were part of a cranium and mandible. Obviously, scientists had to be careful with the bones and couldn’t run any tests that might damage them. They made a 3D scan of the bones and used the scan to compare the gibbon’s skull and jaw with those of living species of gibbon, to determine what species it was.

It turned out that not only was it a species unknown to science, it was different enough from other gibbons that it belonged in its own genus.

According to experts in Chinese history and literature, gibbons were considered noble animals that often appeared in paintings and poetry. Various species of gibbon lived throughout much of China until around the 14th century. After the 14th century, though, habitat loss and hunting drove the gibbons farther south until now there are almost no gibbons left in China. Lady Xia’s pet gibbon is the first species known that definitely went extinct in the modern era, which makes it even more important that the gibbons still alive today are protected along with their habitats.

Speaking of ancient paintings of animals, 4,600 years ago, an artist made a painting of some geese for a tomb in Egypt. The painting is five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and is a fragment of a larger wall decoration that has been lost. It’s called the “Meidum Geese.” It’s a lovely painting and the geese are incredibly lifelike—so lifelike, in fact, that it should be easy to identify them.

But maybe not quite so easy after all.

There are three species of geese in the painting. Two are probably the graylag goose and the greater white-fronted goose. The third looks similar to the red-breasted goose, but there are enough differences that researchers aren’t sure. No red-breasted goose remains have ever been found in Egypt; it only lives in Europe and Asia.

It’s quite likely that the mystery goose is an extinct species. Other animal species depicted in Egyptian art are extinct now, even though they were common when the art was made. Egypt’s climate is much dryer than it was thousands of years ago, so naturally there were different animals back then even if you don’t factor in human activity like hunting.

The painting was discovered in 1871. One Italian archaeologist named Francesco Tiradritti claims it’s a hoax, painted by one of the curators at the Cairo Museum back when it was first found. One of the reasons he thinks it’s a hoax is that the red-breasted goose isn’t known in Egypt. This isn’t a very good argument to me. First of all, the goose doesn’t exactly match the red-breasted goose, while a hoaxer would probably work from a model or a picture to get the details right. Second of all, a hoaxer would probably have been careful to only include goose species that are known to live in Egypt. Tiradritti’s argument basically seems to be that the Meidum geese are too good and therefore could only possibly be painted by someone who had trained in Italy. In reality, though, ancient people of all cultures were perfectly capable of being masterful artists even though they were not European.

Other experts have rebutted Tiradritti’s claim and point out that he’s not an art historian and that many actual art historians have studied the Meidum geese and declared them genuine. Not only that, but scenes carved in other tombs seem to depict the same types of geese that are in the painting.

Speaking of geese and artwork, let’s move on to our final mystery animal. This one’s complicated, because it’s not just one mystery, it’s two.

Ancient artwork sometimes gives scientists useful information about when and where an animal lived and what it looked like. Sometimes, though, the artwork reveals more mysteries than it solves. For instance, some rock art found in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The art depicts two birds with long goose-like necks, drawn with a pigment called red ochre. It’s sort of a rusty color. The birds have legs that are about as long as the neck, and small heads with short, blunt bills.

At first the archaeologists studying the site thought the art depicted emus. Then they took a closer look and realized the details were wrong for emus, but they did match a different bird. Genyornis newtoni was distantly related to modern ducks and geese, but was flightless and really big. It stood seven feet tall, or over two meters. It had strong but relatively short legs, a goose-like neck, tiny wings, and a short, blunt bill. It probably ate fruit and small animals.

The finding excited the palaeontologists, because Genyornis was supposed to have gone extinct around 45,000 years ago. That meant that if the art really did depict the bird, the art had to be that old too.

The reason that researchers dated the extinction of Genyornis to about 45,000 years ago is because that’s when its eggshells stop being found, even though until then they were fairly common in ancient sand dunes.

But something didn’t add up. Genyornis was a little taller but six times heavier than the emu, but its eggs were no larger than an emu’s egg. A 2016 study suggested that the eggshells identified as Genyornis eggs were actually from a completely different bird, specifically a type of megapode.

Megapodes are birds that live in Australia and some nearby islands, including New Guinea. In fact, I think we’ll learn about some megapodes in an upcoming episode about more weird New Guinea birds. One interesting thing about megapodes is the way they incubate their eggs. Instead of keeping the eggs warm by sitting on them, megapodes build nest mounds. Most make a big mound of leaves and other vegetation, because as vegetation decays, it releases heat. The female lays her eggs on the mound and the male guards and tends the eggs, placing more leaves over them as needed or sometimes removing it to keep the eggs from getting too hot. Other megapodes lay their eggs in warm sand or even in volcanic areas where the ground stays warm. In other words, it makes sense that lots of these old eggshells would be found in what were once sand dunes, since the eggs were most likely buried in the sand to start with. Researchers think the sand dune eggs belonged to an extinct species of megapode called the giant malleefowl.

So that’s one mystery solved, but it leaves us with other mysteries. When did the Genyornis actually go extinct? How old is the rock art and does it really depict Genyornis?

Since its discovery around 2010, the so-called Genyornis rock art has been carefully studied. Geologists have determined the age of the rock face where the painting appears, and it’s not nearly as old as 45,000 years. Right about 13,800 years ago, a rock overhang collapsed, exposing a rock surface. Then some people came along and decided that rock surface would be the perfect place to paint two birds. So the painting can’t be any older than that.

A close analysis of the painting shows that there’s more than meets the eye, too. The initial painting was of a person with animal characteristics, called an anthropomorph, and at some point later someone painted the birds over it. The painting also contains the image of a barbed spear piercing one of the birds. So whatever the birds are, they were birds that people hunted.

Meanwhile, other experts were studying Genyornis. The current determination is that it went extinct around 25,000 or 30,000 years ago.

So we have rock art that cannot be older than a tad under 14,000 years old, but it appears to be art of a bird that went extinct at least 25,000 years ago. What’s going on?

It’s probable that Genyornis actually lived a lot more recently than 25,000 years ago. Scientists can only make determinations of when an animal went extinct by the fossils and subfossil remains they find or don’t find. There aren’t a lot of Genyornis fossils to start with, but the ones we do have mostly come from the same area where the rock art was found.

If the rock art really is of Genyornis, and it does seem to be, then people were most likely hunting Genyornis less than 14,000 years ago and possibly much more recently. Hopefully soon researchers will find more recent evidence so we can get a better idea of when it really went extinct and why.

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 216: Gentle Giant Sharks



Let’s learn about some of the biggest sharks in the sea–but not sharks that want to eat you!

Further reading:

‘Winged’ eagle shark soared through oceans 93 million years ago

Manta-like planktivorous sharks in Late Cretaceous oceans

Before giant plankton-eating sharks, there were giant plankton-eating sharks

An artist’s impression of the eagle shark (Aquilolamna milarcae):

Manta rays:

A manta ray with its mouth closed and cephalic fins rolled up:

Pseudomegachasma’s tooth sitting on someone’s thumbnail (left, photo by E.V. Popov) and a Megachasma (megamouth) tooth on someone’s fingers (right):

The megamouth shark. I wonder where its name came from?

The basking shark, also with a mega mouth:

The whale shark:

Leedsichthys problematicus (not a shark):

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at some huge, weird sharks, but they’re not what you may expect when you hear the word shark. Welcome to the strange world of giant filter feeders!

This episode is inspired by an article in the brand new issue of Science, which you may have heard about online. A new species of shark is described in that issue, called the eagle shark because of the shape of its pectoral fins. They’re long and slender like wings.

The fossil was discovered in 2012 in northeastern Mexico, but not by paleontologists. It came to light in a limestone quarry, where apparently a quarry worker found it. What happened to it at that point isn’t clear, but it was put up for sale. The problem is that Mexico naturally wants fossils found in Mexico to stay in Mexico, and the authors of the study are not Mexican. One of the authors has a history of shady dealings with fossil smugglers too. On the other hand, the fossil has made its way back to Mexico at last and will soon be on display at a new museum in Nuevo León.

Fossils from this quarry are often extremely well preserved, and the eagle shark is no exception. Sharks don’t fossilize well since a shark’s skeleton is made of cartilage except for its teeth, but not only is the eagle shark’s skeleton well preserved, we even have an impression of its soft tissue.

The eagle shark was just slightly shorter than 5 ½ feet long, or 1.65 meters. Its tail looks like an ordinary shark tail but that’s the only ordinary thing about it. The head is short and wide, without the long snout that most sharks have, it doesn’t appear to have dorsal or pelvic fins, and its pectoral fins, as I mentioned a minute ago, are really long. How long? From the tip of one pectoral fin to the other measures 6.2 feet, or 1.9 meters. That’s longer than the whole body.

Researchers think the eagle shark was a filter feeder. Its mouth would have been wide to engulf more water, which it then filtered through gill rakers or some other structure that separated tiny animals from the water. It expelled the water through its gills and swallowed the food.

The eagle shark would have been a relatively slow swimmer. It glided through the water, possibly flapping its long fins slowly in a method called suspension feeding, sometimes called underwater flight. If this makes you think of manta rays, you are exactly correct. The eagle shark occupied the same ecological niche that manta rays do today, and the similarities in body form are due to convergent evolution. Rays and sharks are closely related, but the eagle shark and the manta ray evolved suspension feeding separately. In fact, the eagle shark lived 93 million years ago, 30 million years before the first manta remains appear in the fossil record.

The eagle shark lived in the Western Interior Seaway, a shallow sea that stretched from what is now the Gulf of Mexico straight up through the middle of North America. Because it’s the only specimen found so far, we don’t know when it went extinct, but researchers suspect it died out 65 million years ago at the same time as the non-avian dinosaurs. We also don’t have any preserved teeth, which makes it hard to determine what sharks it was most closely related to. Hopefully more specimens will turn up soon.

Now that we’ve mentioned the manta ray, let’s talk about it briefly even though it’s not a shark. It is big, though, and it’s a filter feeder. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re hard to describe. If it had gone extinct before humans started looking at fossils scientifically, we’d be as astounded by it as we are about the eagle shark—maybe even moreso because it’s so much bigger. Its body is sort of diamond-shaped, with a blunt head and short tail, but elongated fins that are broad at the base but end in drawn-out points.

Manta rays are measured in width, sometimes called a wingspan since their long fins resemble wings that allow it to fly underwater. There are two species of manta ray, and even the smaller one has a wingspan of 18 feet, or 5.5 meters. The larger species can grow 23 feet across, or 7 meters. Some other rays are filter feeders too, all of them closely related to the manta.

The manta ray lives in warm oceans, where it eats zooplankton. Its mouth is wide and when it’s feeding it moves forward with its mouth open, letting water flow into the mouth and through the gills. Gill rakers collect tiny food, which the manta ray swallows. It has a pair of fins on either side of the mouth that are sometimes called horns, but which are properly called cephalic fins. Cephalic just means “on the head.” These fins help direct water into the mouth. When a manta ray isn’t feeding, it closes its mouth just like any other shark, folding its shallow jaw shut. For years I thought it closed its mouth by folding the cephalic fins over it, but that’s not the case, although it does roll the fins up into little points. The manta ray is mostly black with a white belly, but some individuals have white markings on the back and black speckles and splotches underneath. We talked about some mysteries associated with its coloring in episode 96.

The eagle shark isn’t the only filter feeding shark. The earliest known is Pseudomegachasma, the false megamouth, which lived around 100 million years ago. It was only described in 2015 after some tiny shark teeth were found in Russia. The teeth looked like those of the modern megamouth shark, although they’re probably not related. The teeth are only a few millimeters long but that’s the same size as teeth from the megamouth shark, and the megamouth grows 18 feet long, or 5.5 m.

Despite its size, the megamouth shark wasn’t discovered until 1976, and it was only found by complete chance. On November 15 of that year, a U.S. Navy research ship off the coast of Hawaii pulled up its sea anchors. Sea anchors aren’t like the anchors you may be thinking of, the big metal ones that drop to the ocean’s bottom to keep a ship stationary. A sea anchor is more like an underwater parachute for ships. It’s attached to the ship with a long rope on one end, and opens up just like a parachute underwater. The tip of the parachute has another rope attached with a float on top. When the navy ship brought up its sea anchors, an unlucky shark was tangled up in one of them. The shark was over 14 ½ feet long, or 4 ½ m, and didn’t look like any shark anyone had ever seen.

The shark was hauled on board and the navy consulted marine biologists around the country. No one knew what the shark was. It wasn’t just new to science, it was radically different from all other sharks known. Since then, only about 100 megamouth sharks have ever been sighted, so very little is known about it even now.

The megamouth is dark brown in color with a white belly, a wide head and body, and a large, wide mouth. The inside of its lower lip is a pale silvery color that reflects light, although researchers aren’t sure if it acts as a lure for the tiny plankton it eats, or if it’s a way for megamouths to identify each other. It’s sluggish and spends most of its time in deep water, although it comes closer to the surface at night.

The basking shark is even bigger than the megamouth. It can grow up to 36 feet long, or 11 meters. It’s so big it’s sometimes mistaken for the great white shark, but it has a humongous wide mouth and unusually long gill slits, and, of course, its teeth are teensy. It’s usually dark brown or black, white underneath, and while it spends a lot of its time feeding at the surface of the ocean, in cold weather it spends most of its time in deep water. In summer, basking sharks gather in small groups to breed, and sometimes will engage in slow, ponderous courtship dances that involve swimming in circles nose to tail.

But the biggest filter feeder shark alive today, and possibly alive ever, is the whale shark. It gets its name because it is literally as large as some whales. It can grow up to 62 feet long, or 18.8 meters, and potentially longer.

The whale shark is remarkably pretty. It’s dark gray with a white belly, and its body is covered with little white or pale gray spots that look like stars on a night sky. Its mouth is extremely large and wide, and its small eyes are low on the head and point downward. Not only can it retract its eyeballs into their sockets, the eyeballs actually have little armored denticles to protect them from damage. The body also has denticles, plus the whale shark’s skin is six inches thick, or 15 cm.

The whale shark lives in warm water and migrates long distances. It mostly feeds near the surface although it sometimes dives deeply to find plankton. It filters water differently from the megamouth and basking sharks, which use gill rakers. The whale shark has sieve-like filter pads instead. The whale shark doesn’t need to move to feed, either. It can gulp water into its mouth by opening and closing its jaws, unlike the other living filter feeders we’ve talked about so far.

We talked about the whale shark a lot in episode 87, if you want to know more about it.

All these sharks are completely harmless to humans, but unfortunately humans are dangerous to the sharks. Even though they’re all protected, they’re vulnerable to getting tangled in nets, killed by ships running over them, and killed by poachers.

One interesting thing about these three massive filter feeding sharks is their teeth. They all have tiny teeth, but the mystery is why they have teeth at all. Their teeth aren’t just tiny, they have a LOT of teeth, more than ordinary sharks do. It’s the same for the filter feeding rays. They have hundreds of teensy teeth that the animals don’t use for anything, as far as researchers can tell. One theory is that the babies may use their teeth before they’re born. All of the living filter feeders we’ve talked about, including manta rays, give birth to live pups instead of laying eggs. The eggs are retained in the mother’s body while they grow, and she can have numerous babies growing at different stages of development at the same time. The babies have to eat something while they’re developing, once the yolk in the egg is depleted, and unlike mammals, fish don’t nourish their babies through umbilical cords. Some researchers think the growing sharks eat the mother’s unfertilized eggs, and to do that they need teeth to grab hold of slippery eggs. That still doesn’t explain why adults retain the teeth and even replace them throughout their lives just like other sharks. Since all of the filter feeders have teeth although they’re not related, the teeth must confer some benefit.

So, why are these filter feeders so enormous? Many baleen whales are enormous too, and baleen whales are also filter feeders. Naturally, filter feeders need large mouths so they can take in more water and filter more food out of it. As a species evolves a larger mouth, it also evolves a larger body, and this has some useful side effects. A large animal retains heat even if it’s not actually warm-blooded. A giant fish can live comfortably in cold water as a result. Filter feeding also requires much less effort than chasing other animals, so a giant filter feeder has plenty of energy for a relatively low intake of food. And, of course, the larger an animal is, the fewer predators it has because there aren’t all that many giant predators. At a certain point, an adult giant animal literally has no predators. Nothing attacks an adult blue whale, not even the biggest shark living today. Even a really big great white shark isn’t going to bite a blue whale. The blue whale would just bump the shark out of the way and probably go, “HEY, STOP IT, THAT TICKLES.” The exception, of course, is humans, who used to kill blue whales, but you know what I mean.

Let’s finish with a filter feeder that isn’t a shark. It’s not even closely related to sharks. It’s a ray-finned fish that lived around 165 million years ago, Leedsichthys problematicus. Despite not being related to sharks and being a member of what are called bony fish, its skeleton is partially made of cartilage, so fossilized specimens are incomplete, which is why it was named problematicus. Because the fragmented fossils are a problem. I’m genuinely not making this up to crack a dad joke, that’s exactly why it got its name. One specimen is made up of 1,133 pieces, disarticulated. That means the pieces are all jumbled up. Worst puzzle ever. Remains of Leedsichthys have been found in Europe and South America.

As a result, we’re not completely sure how big Leedsichthys was. The most widely accepted length is 50 feet long, or 16 meters. If that’s anywhere near correct, it would make it the largest ray-finned fish that ever lived, as far as we know. It might have been much larger than that, though, possibly as long as 65 feet, or 20 meters.

Leedsichthys had a big head with a mouth that could open extremely wide, which shouldn’t surprise you. Its gills had gill rakers that it used to filter plankton from the water. And we’re coming back around to where we started, because like the eagle shark, Leedsichthys had long, narrow pectoral fins. Some palaeontologists think it had a pair of smaller pelvic fins right behind the pectoral fins instead of near the tail, but other palaeontologists think it had no pelvic fins at all. Because we don’t have a complete specimen, there’s still a lot we don’t know about Leedsichthys.

The first Leedsichthys specimen was found in 1886 in a loam pit in England, by a man whose last name was Leeds, if you’re wondering where that part of the name came from. A geologist examined the remains and concluded that they were part of (wait for it) a type of stegosaur called Omosaurus. Two years later the famous early palaeontologist Othniel Marsh examined the fossils, probably rolled his eyes, and identified them as parts of a really big fish skull.

In 1899, more fossils turned up in the same loam pits and were bought by the University of Cambridge. IA palaeontologist examined them and determined that they were (wait for it) the tail spikes of Omosaurus. Leeds pointed out that nope, they were dorsal fin rays of a giant fish, which by that time had been named Leedsichthys problematicus.

In 1982, some amateur palaeontologists excavated some fossils in Germany, but they were also initially identified as a type of stegosaur—not Omosaurus this time, though. Lexovisaurus. I guess this particular giant fish really has been a giant problem.

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!