Tag Archives: apes

Episode 178: The Koolakamba



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

Further reading:

Between the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee

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

Mystery of the Koolakamba

Antoine the Yaounde Zoo ape, supposedly a koolakamba:

Mafuka (sometimes spelled Mafuca):

A rare photo of the Bili ape:

A handsome western gorilla:

A handsome western chimpanzee:

A western chimpanzee mother and baby:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 131: Paleontological Mistakes



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are Gastornis’s footprints:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 102: Three Mystery Apes



It’s mystery ape time! Learn about de Loys’ ape and two other mystery apes this week!

The only photograph we have of de Loys’ ape:

A white-fronted spider monkey:

Oliver the so-called “ape man”:

A better picture of Oliver late in his life:

A Bili ape:

A regular gorilla (top) and a regular chimp (bottom, hearing no evil) for comparison with the Bili ape and Oliver:

Show transcript:

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

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the mood for a mystery animal this week. So let’s really dig in to a topic I haven’t covered much before, mystery apes!

A lot of people get apes and monkeys confused, but it’s actually easy to tell them apart. For one thing, there aren’t very many apes. Gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos are called great apes, and gibbons and siamangs are called the lesser apes, mostly because they’re smaller.

Apes never have tails and are closely related to humans. Humans, in fact, are considered great apes, but it’s rude to say so. We like to think we’re special because we can make podcasts and bulldozers and delicious cakes. Monkeys usually have tails, although not always, and a monkey, unlike an ape, can’t stand fully upright and can’t straighten its elbow out so that its arm is flat.

Now that we have a pretty good idea of what an ape is, let’s look at three mystery apes.

We’ll start with a big mystery from 1920, an ape supposedly killed in South America and subsequently dubbed de Loys’ ape. It’s not just one mystery, it’s several mysteries wrapped up together. And while the ape’s body has been lost, we still have a photograph.

In 1917, geologist François de Loys led an expedition to Venezuela and Colombia to search for oil. It was a disaster of an expedition, since not only did they not find oil, almost everyone in the expedition died. According to de Loys, in 1920 what was left of the group was camped along the Tarra River on the border between Colombia and Venezuela when two large animals appeared. De Loys said he thought they were bears at first, then realized they were apes of some kind. They were large, had reddish hair and no tails, and walked upright. The apes became aggressive toward the humans and, fearing for their lives, the geologists shot at the apes. They killed one and wounded the other, which fled.

The dead ape looked like a spider monkey, which was fairly common in the area, but it was much larger and had no tail. There was no way for the expedition to keep the body, so they propped it up on a crate with a stick under its chin to keep it upright, then took pictures. Only one of those pictures survived, since de Loys said the others were lost when a boat capsized later in the expedition.

But after de Loys got home to Europe, he didn’t tell anyone about the ape. He said he forgot all about it until 1929 when the anthropologist George Montandon noticed the surviving photograph in de Loys’s papers. After that, De Loys wrote an article about the ape which was published in the Illustrated London News.

It was a sensational article, not meant to be scientific. Here’s an excerpt:

“The jungle swished open, and a huge, dark, hairy body appeared out of the undergrowth, standing up clumsily, shaking with rage, grunting and roaring and panting as he came out onto us at the edge of the clearing. The sight was terrifying…

“The beast jumped about in a frenzy, shrieking loudly and beating frantically his hairy chest with his own fists; then he wrenched off at one snap a limb of a tree and, wielding it as a man would a bludgeon, murderously made for me. I had to shoot.”

Montandon was enthusiastic about the ape. He wrote three articles for scientific journals and proposed the name Ameranthropoides loysi for it. But scientists were skeptical. Who was this de Loys guy and did he have any proof that the ape wasn’t just a spider monkey? Did he even have proof that the photograph was taken in South America?

Because that’s one of the mysteries. Quite apart from what kind of primate de Loys’ ape might be, if it really is an ape, is it an ape native to South America? There are no apes native to the Americas at all, only monkeys. Chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos live in Africa, while orangutans, gibbons, and siamangs live in Asia. If de Loys really did find an ape new to science in South America, it radically changes what we know about ape evolution.

De Loys said he measured the animal as 157 cm high, which works out to about 4.5 feet. This is much larger than a spider monkey, which tops out at about 3.5 feet high, or 110 cm. But we have only de Loys’s word to go by, and as it happens, de Loys was a known practical joker. He also didn’t talk about the ape very often and seems to have only written his article at the urging of Montandon, his friend the anthropologist. We’ll come back to Montandon in a minute.

In 1962, a medical doctor, Enrique Tejera, read an article about de Loys’ ape in a magazine called The Universal. Tejera had worked with de Loys during part of his expedition as a camp doctor, and he had firsthand knowledge about de Loys’ ape. The letter was published, and published again in 1999 in the Venezuelan scientific magazine Interciencia. I’ll read an excerpt of the translated letter:

“This monkey is a myth. I will tell you his story. Mister Montandon said that the monkey had no tail. That is for sure, but he forgot to mention something: it has no tail because it was cut off. I can assure you, gentlemen, because I saw the amputation. In 1917 I was working in a camp for oil exploration in the region of Perijá. The geologist was François de Loys and the engineer Dr. Martín Tovar Lange. De Loys was a prankster and often we laughed at his jokes. One day they gave him a monkey with an infected tail, so it was amputated. After that de Loys called him ‘el hombre mono,’ the monkey man.

“Some time later de Loys and I entered another region of Venezuela, an area called Mene Grande. He always took his monkey along, who died some time later [in 1919]. De Loys decided to take a photo and I believe that Mr. Montandon will not deny it is the same photograph that he presented in 1929.”

The monkey Dr. Tejera said de Loys had been given was a white-fronted spider monkey. And that’s exactly what the photo de Loys took looks like.

I’ll put the photo of de Loys’ ape in the show notes if you want to look at it. There are no people in the photo, nothing except the crate it’s sitting on to use as a size reference. You can’t even see whether the animal has a tail or not.

The white-fronted spider monkey is endangered these days due to habitat loss and hunting, but in the early 20th century it was still common in Colombia, Venezuela, and other parts of northwestern South America. It’s mostly black with a white belly, a long tail, and long arms and legs. That’s why they’re called spider monkeys, incidentally. Long arms and legs like a spider. The white-fronted spider monkey mostly eats fruit, but it also eats leaves, flowers, and other plant parts, and occasionally eats insects. Like many monkeys, its tail is somewhat prehensile and has a bare patch near the end that helps it grip branches like an extra finger. Since the spider monkey doesn’t have actual thumbs on its hands like most primates, it needs that tail to help it get around in trees.

If you look closely at the photograph of de Loys’ ape, you can see that the poor dead monkey does not have thumbs on its hands the way an ape would. It also looks like it has a penis, but that’s actually not a penis. Female spider monkeys have an organ that retains droplets of urine and drips them out as the monkey travels around, leaving a scent trail, and which looks superficially like a penis. It’s actually called a pseudo-penis and it makes it difficult for researchers to determine whether a spider monkey in the wild is male or female at first glance. It’s also an organ only found in spider monkeys and a few other types of monkey, never apes.

So we can be pretty sure de Loys’ ape was actually a spider monkey. But there’s more going on here than a simple hoax. Here’s another excerpt from de Loys’s 1929 article. He writes,

“Until my discovery of the American anthropoid, we could only imagine that man migrated to these shores. But now, in the light of this discovery, it is obvious that the failure of the otherwise well established principle of evolution when it was applied to America was due only to imperfect knowledge. The gap observed in America between monkey and man has been eliminated; the discovery of the Ameranthropoid has filled it.”

What? WHAT? What is that mess of a paragraph trying to say?

Well, basically, it’s promoting Montandon’s theory that humans of different races evolved from different apes. We know these days that that’s nonsense. All humans are genetically the same species, despite superficial physical differences like skin and hair color. Montandon thought that, for instance, people from Africa had evolved from gorillas, Asians evolved from orangutans, while people from Europe—you know, white people—were the only ones actually descended from early Homo sapiens.

In other words, Montandon wasn’t just a terrible scientist, he was a terrible human being, because his theory was pure racism. He was delighted to learn about de Loys’ ape because he decided that was the ape that native Americans must have evolved from. Again, nonsense science, awful person, I’m glad he’s dead. The French Resistance killed him during WWII.

It’s possible that de Loys wasn’t even trying to hoax anyone initially. He just had a pet monkey that died, took a photo as a creepy joke, and stuck the photo in his papers. It was Montandon who came across the photo and urged de Loys to write about it. It’s very likely that Montandon decided to claim the animal was an ape to further his racist theory, and de Loys went along with it, possibly reluctantly given how little he talked about it.

Ugh. Let’s move on to something less infuriating.

Oliver was a strange-looking chimpanzee sometimes referred to as an ape-man back in the 1970s. Oliver had been part of a traveling animal act, but he never fit in with the other chimps in the act and preferred to spend his time with humans, helping with chores. He walked fully upright at all times.

In 1976 an attorney called Michael Miller bought Oliver, mostly because Oliver just looked weird. His head was oddly shaped compared to other chimps and his jaw was smaller and more human-like in appearance. His ears were slightly pointed. The popular press found Oliver interesting and for a short while he was famous, or infamous. Some claims about Oliver were that he had 47 chromosomes instead of a chimp’s normal 48, that he was a mutant, that he was a hybrid between a chimp and some other primate, like a bonobo, or even an ape-man somewhere between a human and a chimp.

Oliver had a rough life, honestly. Michael Miller sold him to a theme park in 1977, and after that Oliver was passed from theme park to theme park. Interest in Oliver died down after a while, and in 1989, he was bought by a laboratory that leased out animals for testing. Oliver was never used as an experimental animal, but he lived for seven years in a cage so small he could barely move, so that his muscles atrophied.

Fortunately, in 1996 Oliver finally got a break and moved to an animal sanctuary in Texas. He had a spacious territory of his own, a chimp mate called Raisin, and lived out the rest of his days in peace. He died in 2012 at the age of about 55.

When the sanctuary acquired Oliver, they had him genetically tested to see if he really was a hybrid animal. It turned out that Oliver’s chromosome count was normal for a chimpanzee, and that he was genetically dead normal in every respect. So why did he look so weird?

Mainly, it was because his teeth had all been pulled at an early age so he couldn’t bite. This barbaric practice resulted in his jaw muscles being underdeveloped and his jaw bones becoming shortened. His head and ear shape were well within normal range for chimps, but only looked strange when combined with his poorly developed jaw. And the reason he walked upright all the time was because he’d been trained to do so.

After Oliver died, the sanctuary cremated his body and spread his ashes on the grounds where he had lived peacefully for the first time in his life.

Our last mystery ape this week is called the Bili ape. In 1898, a Belgian army officer donated some skulls to a museum in Belgium, skulls which he said were from gorillas killed in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Specifically, he said the gorillas lived in a forest near the village of Bili in an area referred to as Bondo. So after a museum curator examined the skulls and realized they weren’t the same as other gorilla skulls and not from an area where gorillas were known to live, the mystery ape was dubbed the Bili ape or the Bondo ape. The curator thought the Bili ape was a subspecies of gorilla.

In 1970 a mammalogist examined the skulls and determined that they were just regular old western lowland gorilla skulls. Nothing exciting. But a conservationist and photographer named Karl Ammann wasn’t convinced. He decided to go out and see if he could find the Bili ape for himself, take pictures, and see what the ape really was. In 1996, he took his cameras and went looking for gorillas.

He didn’t find any, but he did find a skull. It looked sort of like a gorilla skull, which has what’s called a sagittal crest that runs along the top of the skull and which allows the attachment of a gorilla’s powerful jaw muscles. But the rest of the skull looked more like a chimpanzee’s. Ammann also bought a photograph taken from a poacher’s trail cam that showed what looked like huge chimps. He also found great big poops and great big footprints, larger even than a gorilla’s footprint.

He had enough evidence to interest researchers, so in 2001 he and a team of scientists returned to find the Bili ape. They had no luck, partly because there was a civil war going on in the area at the time and getting around without getting killed was difficult. But they did find evidence that the apes were there, and the evidence was confusing. Gorillas build nests on the ground to sleep in, and the team did find big nests on the ground. But gorillas don’t like swampy ground and they move around a lot and build a new nest every night. These nests were often in swampy areas and showed evidence that they were reused. Chimps prefer to sleep in trees. But while the feces the researchers collected from around the nests were big enough to be gorilla poops, they indicated the apes’ diet was high in fruit, which is typical of chimps.

The team returned to the area in 2003 after the civil war ended, and this time they found the Bili ape.

The first scientist to see a Bili ape was a primate behavior specialist named Shelly Williams. The whole group heard the apes in the trees around them, very close to them, and then four apes rushed at the group. Williams knew they weren’t trying to intimidate the humans, they were going to kill them—I mean, that’s what it means to be a primate behavior specialist. It apparently means you know when you’re about to die at the hands of an enraged mystery ape. But the apes caught sight of her, stopped short, and returned into the brush.

If that happened to me, for one thing I would wet myself, and for another I would wonder for the rest of my life if I was an extra pretty human, or if I was extra pretty for a chimp or gorilla. But as it happens, Williams knew that the apes weren’t after the humans specifically but had responded to a call made by the team’s tracker, who had imitated the noise a wounded antelope makes. Imagine the scene from the apes’ point of view. You’re out hunting with your buddies, you hear some loud noises of animals walking through the forest. Then you hear an antelope. You and your buddies rush out, already thinking about how good that antelope is going to taste—and instead of antelopes, you see a bunch of humans. Of course you’re going to beat feet, because those humans might be hunting you.

Williams was the only scientist in the group to get a look at the apes that day, and they confused her. They mostly looked like chimps, but they were huge. A male common chimpanzee is about five feet tall when standing, or 1.5 meters, with females usually about a foot shorter, or 30 cm shorter. The Bili ape was way bigger, closer to six feet tall, or 1.8 meters. This is the height of a gorilla. Williams wasn’t sure if she’d seen giant chimps or weird gorillas or something else entirely.

After that first sighting, the team was able to get video and photos of the Bili apes. They resemble large chimps with gorilla-like heads, and Williams thinks the females and young mostly sleep in trees, while adult males sleep on the ground. They seem to live and travel in small groups, compared to chimps that usually live in troupes of up to 50 members.

The locals in the area say there are two different kinds of Bili ape. The smaller ones prefer to live in trees and are known as tree-beaters. The larger ones live on the ground and are called lion-killers. The lion-killers are supposed to be immune to the poison-dart frog secretions that locals use to poison their arrow tips.

DNA samples from dung and hair finally cleared up the mystery. Results indicate that the apes are chimpanzees, specifically a known subspecies of the common chimpanzee. Researchers think the Bili ape may look and act different since it’s so isolated from other chimps and may be somewhat inbred. Bili apes encountered far from villages show very little fear or aggression toward humans, only curiosity. Unfortunately, the chimps are under increased threat from poaching, since gold mining began in the area in 2007 and the population of humans has increased. Hopefully protections can be put into place soon so these rare chimpanzees can remain safely in their homes and can continue to be studied by researchers.

One exciting thing to remember is that the area where the Bili ape lives is still quite remote. There could very well be other animals unknown to science hidden in the forests. That’s yet another reason to protect the forest and everything that lives in it. You never know what might be out there ready to be discovered.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 084: Gorillas



This week let’s learn about a close relative, the gorilla!

But first, if you don’t already listen to these fantastic animal podcasts, definitely check them out!

Species   All Creatures   Life Death & Taxonomy   Animals to the Max   Varmints   Cool Facts about Animals

Why hello there:

This gorilla has some lettuce. It looks pretty good:

Some mountain gorillas with awesome hair:

GORILLA BABY FLOOFY HEAD ALERT:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about gorillas, mostly because I just found out they sometimes hum happily while they eat. And yes, I have audio of happy munching gorillas that will make you want to snack too.

But first, did you notice what happened last week? If you subscribe to several animal podcasts, you might have noticed that the first week of September 2018 suddenly turned into big cat week! A bunch of us animal podcasters thought it would be hilarious to release episodes covering the same topic in the same week.

Species covered snow leopards, All Creatures covered lions, Life Death & Taxonomy covered jaguars, Animals to the Max covered wildcats, Varmints covered tigers, Cool Facts about Animals covered mountain lions, and of course we had our mystery big cats episode. I’ll put links in the show notes to each podcast, but I recommend all of them. One thing I love is that all these podcasts can cover the same topic but approach it so differently that you’ll never get bored and think, Oh, I already know about this animal.

Anyway, let’s learn about gorillas!

The gorilla is a great ape, closely related to chimpanzees, bonobos, humans, orangutans, and gibbons. There are two species, the eastern and the western, separated by the Congo River, and several subspecies. All gorillas live in Africa, but different species and subspecies live in different environments. Eastern gorillas prefer forests, including bamboo forests, but the mountain gorilla subspecies lives at a much higher elevation. Western gorillas live in swampy forests too. The western gorilla’s scientific name is Gorilla gorilla, and the scientific name of the western lowland gorilla subspecies is Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Don’t say you never learned anything from a podcast.

The gorilla is the largest primate alive today. They usually knuckle-walk, but can walk upright for short distances when they want to, usually when carrying something. Gorillas are vegetarian, although they will also eat insects. They have brown eyes and unique fingerprints like humans have. They also have black, brown, or grayish hair, and the western lowland gorilla also has a reddish forehead. Mountain gorillas have longer hair than lowland gorillas. They look awesome. Male gorillas develop silver hair on the back as they mature, which is why they’re usually called silverbacks. A silverback male acts as the leader of his group, making decisions and stopping other gorillas from arguing with each other. The silverback also plays with the children in his troop, even if they aren’t his offspring. If the group is attacked, the silverback will defend his troop to the death—in addition to his silver fur, silverbacks develop large canine teeth that can inflict massive wounds. But the gorilla is so big and strong, it doesn’t have many predators. Leopards will occasionally kill a gorilla if they catch one alone, but generally the only danger to gorillas comes from humans.

The gorilla is vulnerable to habitat loss, poaching, and human disease. More than 5,000 gorillas may have died due to the ebola virus outbreak in the 2000s, and gorillas can also suffer from malaria. But things are looking up for the gorilla, at least a little bit. The population of critically endangered mountain gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes has doubled in only 25 years, finally climbing over 1,000 individuals, following some intensive conservation efforts.

In the 1990s, researchers estimated that there were only 50,000 western lowland gorillas alive. Then a survey of gorilla populations in the Republic of the Congo made an amazing discovery. In 2007, researchers discovered that there was an entire population of gorillas in the swamps and forests that they had never even known about—and not just a few gorillas, either. Estimates put the population at about 125,000. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about, of course. Gorillas are still endangered, but at least there are more of the western lowland gorilla than we thought.

The gorilla spends most of its time on the ground. Young gorillas will climb trees, but adults are usually too big and heavy and feel more comfortable on the ground unless they’re actually after a specific food. Just like humans—and in fact, a recent study found that the heel bones of our ancestor Australopithecus had more similarities with gorilla heel bones than with chimpanzee heel bones, even though humans and our ancestors are more closely related to chimps. The study gives researchers a better idea of how our ancestors got around.

At night, each gorilla builds a nest to sleep in from branches and leaves. These are on the ground, and since gorilla troops travel sometimes several miles every day to find food, they usually build a new nest every night. Sometimes they’ll build a nest to nap in during the day too. Babies nest with their mothers, but when a young gorilla is around three years old, it will start building its own nest near hers.

As young gorillas grow up, they usually move away from their home troop and join other troops, or in the case of males, they eventually start their own troops. The female chooses her mate, and usually has one baby every four years or so. Baby gorillas are even smaller than human babies, only about four pounds, or 1.8 kilograms. Babies cling to the mother’s fur and ride on her back when she’s walking.

Gorillas eat lots of different types of plant, especially fruit, tree bark, various roots and leaves, and the stems of some plants. An adult gorilla eats around 40 pounds of food a day, or 18 kg. And gorillas frequently sing and hum while eating, especially when a gorilla is eating a food it particularly enjoys. Researchers think that the singing is partly communication with others—sort of a dinner-time conversation—partly just to show their happiness with having food they like. This is what gorillas sound like while eating and humming. I don’t know about you, but this sounds totally appetizing. It sounds like they’re eating popcorn, but in fact it’s the leaves of the banana tree.

[gorillas eating and humming]

Like all great apes, gorillas are highly intelligent. They use tools, laugh, grieve their dead, have a complex system of communication, and even prepare food in ways that varies from region to region. A few captive gorillas have been taught to speak using a form of sign language, most famously Koko.

Koko was an amazing ape. She only died earlier this year, 2018, at the age of 46. She was a western lowland gorilla born in the San Francisco Zoo, and her proper name was Hanabiko, which means ‘fireworks child’ because she was born on the Fourth of July. She spent much of her life in a gorilla preserve in Woodside, California, and was purposefully exposed to spoken English from about age one. By the time she died, she could understand more than 2,000 words in English and knew over 1,000 signs.

Different studies of Koko and her use of language come to different conclusions. Some researchers claim she didn’t demonstrate any kind of grammar, while others claim her language use was extremely human. But everyone except utter curmudgeons agrees that Koko was actually using language to communicate. She even made up some signs when she needed a new word.

Koko also demonstrated a sense of humor, encouraged other gorillas when they attempted to sign, talked about her memories, recognized herself as the individual in a mirror, and even gave her pet kitten a name without being prompted. His name was All Ball, and when he later escaped her enclosure and was killed by a car, she cried. She had other pet cats later, all named by her, including Lipstick, Smoky, Miss Black, and Miss Grey. I’m just saying, Lipstick is a great name for a cat. Koko was reportedly gentle with her pets and when they were kittens, she treated them like baby gorillas.

Young gorillas play games like all young mammals do. Tag, for instance. Young gorillas, and sometimes even older ones, play tag. Researchers say that according to their observations, it appears that the rules of gorilla tag are pretty much the same as the human version of tag. Researchers do not report whether or not there was a big argument about who hit whom when they supposedly called a time-out to tie their shoe, probably because gorillas don’t wear shoes.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 076: The Orang Pendek



This week we’re back to Sumatra, that island of mystery, to learn about a mysterious ape called the orang pendek.

A beautiful Sumatran orangutan:

This orangutan and her baby have won all the bananas:

This picture made me DIE:

An especially dapper siamang, a type of gibbon:

Here’s a walking siamang:

The sun bear, looking snoozy:

The sun bear, standing:

Further reading:

These are the articles where I got my quotes.

This one has some general information.

This one is by Debbie Martyr herself.

Show transcript:

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

The island of Sumatra is a place that keeps popping up in our episodes. We’ve barely scratched the surface of weirdness in Sumatra and nearby islands, but this week’s episode is about a Sumatran mystery ape called the orang pendek. That means “short person” in Indonesian.

The story goes that a human-like ape lives in the forests of western Sumatra. It walks on two legs, has short black, gray, or golden fur on its body with longer hair on its head, human facial features, and is shorter than a human but not by much. The people of the remote Sumatran villages where the orang pendek is reported say that it’s enormously strong, and has small feet and short legs but long arms. It mostly eats plants and will raid crops occasionally, but it also eats insects, fish, and river crabs.

Many people think the first report of the orang pendek outside of the Sumatran people is from a 14th century traveler called John of Florence, who visited China around 1342 and many other countries afterwards, including either Java or Sumatra. He reported seeing hairy men who lived on the edges of the forest, but since he also said that the hairy men planted crops and traded with the locals, it’s possible he was talking about a tribe of people who lived on the outskirts of mainstream society.

The various native groups in Sumatra have stories of creatures that sound like the orang pendek, including a demon-like entity called the hantu pendek, which means short ghost. But as I’ve said before in other episodes, it’s a mistake to treat folktales as if they were scientific observations. People tell stories for lots of reasons, only one of which is imparting knowledge about a particular animal. Plus, those aren’t the only stories of strange people told in the area. There are stories of giants, of people with tails, and many others. For instance, the orang bati is a bat-winged man that’s supposed to live in extinct volcanic craters in Seram, Indonesia, and who flies out at night and steals babies.

The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early 19th century, around 1820, after centuries of varying levels of control in what was known as the Dutch East Indies. Colonists reported seeing apes or strange small people in the forest too. One fairly typical report is this one from 1917, from a Mr. Oostingh, who saw what he took to be a man sitting on the ground in the forest about 30 feet away from him, or nine meters. He said,

“His body was as large as a medium-sized native’s and he had thick square shoulders, not sloping at all. The colour was not brown, but looked like black earth, a sort of dusty black, more grey than black.

“He clearly noticed my presence. He did not so much as turn his head, but stood up on his feet: he seemed quite as tall as I. Then I saw that it was not a man, and I started back, for I was not armed. The creature took several paces, without the least haste, and then, with his ludicrously long arm, grasped a sapling, which threatened to break under his weight, and quietly sprang into a tree, swinging in great leaps alternately to right and to left.”

Expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s found nothing out of the ordinary. Interest trailed off until around 1990, when a journalist named Debbie Martyr decided she was going to get to the bottom of the mystery. She had traveled to Sumatra in 1989 for a story she was writing, and while she was there she learned about the orang pendek. She spent the next fifteen-odd years interviewing witnesses and setting up camera traps, but without uncovering any proof. She did spot what she thought might be an orang pendek at least once, but got no clear photos, no remains, no conclusive footprints. Martyr states that the ape she saw had much different proportions than an orangutan, much more human-like.

Other people have searched for the orang pendek too, also without success. National Geographic set up camera traps between 2005 and 2009 without getting any photos of unknown apes. One expedition found some hairs that they later sent for DNA testing, but the results were inconclusive due to the hairs’ poor quality and possible human contamination.

Interest in the orang pendek spiked after remains of the Flores little people were found in 2003, and after anthropologists made connections between those remains and local stories about small, mischievous people called the ebo gogo. As you may remember if you’ve listened to episode 26, researchers initially thought the Homo floresiensis remains were only some 12,000 years old. More recent studies have pushed this back to around 50,000 years old. But the island of Flores is not all that far from the island of Sumatra, so it’s not out of the question that the Flores little people also lived on other islands.

Sumatra is a big island with a lot of animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. It’s certainly a big enough island to hide a population of shy apes or small human relations. But the only proof we have that the orang pendek exists, after a couple of decades of intensive searching, are a bunch of witness reports, some blurry photos and video, inconclusive plaster casts of footprints, and some ape hairs too degraded for DNA testing. If the orang pendek was a real animal, no matter how elusive, you’d think we’d at least have one good clear photo by now.

There have been hoaxes in the past. A “young orang pendek” turned out to be a dead langur monkey with its tail cut off. A video released in 2017 that purports to show a group of motorbikers who startle an orang pendek is probably a hoax. I’ve sent an alert to Captain Disillusion. If he covers the video I’ll let y’all know.

Despite the hoaxes and the lack of evidence, people are obviously seeing something. Witnesses include forest rangers, zoologists, hunters, and other people who know the local animals well. So what could they be seeing? Let’s take a look at some of the animals of Sumatra that might be mistaken for an orang pendek, at least some of the time.

The orang pendek is supposed to have small feet, about the size and shape of a human child’s foot. This sounds like the tracks of the Malayan sun bear. In fact, a footprint found in 1924 that was supposed to belong to an orang pendek was identified as that of a sun bear once it was seen by an expert.

The sun bear has sleek black fur, although some are gray or reddish, and a roughly U-shaped patch of fur on its chest that varies in color from gold to almost white to reddish-orange. Its muzzle is short and its ears are small. It’s the world’s smallest bear, only around three feet long from head to tail, or 150 cm, and four feet tall when standing on its hind legs, or 1.2 meters. It has long front claws that it uses to climb trees and tear open logs to get at insect larvae, which it licks up with its long tongue. It also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit. It’s mostly nocturnal.

Orangutans also live on the island, but currently only in the northern part of the island, although they lived all over Sumatra and in Java until the end of the 19th century. The Sumatran orangutan is one of only three orangutan species in the world, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss. It’s slenderer than the other species, with pale orange fur. Like the sun bear, it eats a lot of insects and fruit; unlike the sun bear, it uses tools it makes from sticks to gather insects, honey, and other foods more easily. It also uses large leaves as umbrellas. It communicates not by sound, like other orangutans, but by gestures. In short, it sounds like a pretty awesome ape. Orangutan means “forest person,” if you were wondering.

Other apes and monkeys live on the island too, including several species of gibbon. Gibbons are apes, but they’re not considered great apes, only lesser apes. They look more like monkeys, although they don’t have tails. They’re also fairly small, generally about two feet long, or 60 cm, and quite slender. They live in the treetops and swing from branch to branch, which is called brachiation. Orangutans brachiate sometimes too, but they’re much heavier than gibbons and move much more slowly and cautiously. Gibbons can move. They also have loud voices and melodic calls.

The Siamang, a type of gibbon, has a throat pouch called a gular sac which, when inflated with air, enhances the voice and helps it resonate. Family groups of siamangs sing together. The siamang has shaggy black fur and is a little larger than other gibbons, around 3 feet tall, or one meter. Its arms are long, its legs short, and it mostly eats plants, especially fruit, although it also eats insects. Like orangutans and many other animals on Sumatra, it’s threatened by habitat loss.

There’s one thing that the sun bear, the orangutan, and the siamang all sometimes do that is suggestive of the orang pendek. All three sometimes walk on their hind legs. Bears usually only stand on their hind legs to get a better view of something, but they can certainly walk on their hind legs if they want to. While the orangutans of Sumatra spend most of their time in trees, since the Sumatran tiger likes to eat orangutans, it can and does come down to the ground sometimes. Males in particular sometimes walk upright for short distances. Siamangs walk upright along branches, and occasionally on the ground, usually with their long arms held above their heads for balance but not always.

So we have three animals that when seen clearly, really don’t look much like the orang pendek is supposed to look. None have especially human faces, although I’ve just spent half an hour looking at pictures of orangutans and siamangs, and those are some handsome apes. But they all have a number of features that sound like orang pendek features. They’re all the right size, they can all walk upright, their fur is black, gray, or golden, and they eat the things the orang pendek is supposed to eat.

At least some orang pendek sightings are mistaken identity of these three animals, I guarantee it. Even the most knowledgeable zoologist or forest ranger can make a mistake, especially if they only catch a glimpse of the animal or see it in poor light. And, as I often point out, people tend to see what they expect to see. In a 1993 article, Debbie Martyr herself says that when she first started studying the orang pendek sightings, people in Sumatra laughed at the thought that the orang pendek was a real animal. But, she writes, “Times have changed in Sumatra. The officials of the Kerinci Seblat have become, if not converts to the orang pendek cause, then at least openly curious about the animal. Pak Mega Harianto, director of the park, admitted, ‘We now have too many sightings, from all over the national park. It is always the same animal. Always the same description.’”

In other words, as the legend becomes more and more popular, more and more people report seeing a mystery animal that fits the orang pendek’s description. And yet, there is no more proof now than there was in 1925 of the animal’s existence.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown ape living in Sumatra, of course. I just don’t think that’s what people are seeing. It would be fantastic if the orang pendek did turn out to be a real animal. It would focus more attention on the loss of rainforest and other habitats in Sumatra, and would probably bring more tourists to the island, which would help the local economy. But until someone actually finds a body or captures a live orang pendek, I have to remain skeptical.

I’m sure we’ll revisit Sumatra and other parts of the Malay Archipelago soon to learn about other little-known and mystery animals. Until then, remember that you now know at least one word of the Indonesian language. ‘Orang’ means person, whether it’s an ape-type person or a ghost-type person.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 026: Humans Part Two



Part two of our humans episode is about a couple of our more distant cousins, the Flores little people (Homo floresiensis) and Homo naledi, with side trips to think about Rumpelstiltskin, trolls, and the Ebu gogo.

Homo floresiensis skull compared to a human skull. We are bigheaded monsters in comparison. Also, we got chins.

Homo naledi’s skull. I stole that picture from Wits University homepage because I really liked the quote and it turns out it’s too small really to read. Oh well.

Some of our cousins. Homo erectus in the middle is our direct ancestor. So is Lucy, an Australopithecus, although she lived much longer ago.

Show transcript

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

This week is part two of our humans episode. Last week we learned how modern humans evolved and about two of our close cousins, Neandertals and Denisovans. This week, we’re going to walk on the weirder side of the hominin world.

Before we get started, this episode should go live on July 31, 2017, one week before I fly to Helsinki, Finland for WorldCon 75! Don’t worry, I’ve got episodes scheduled to run normally until I get home. If you’re going to be in Finland between August 8 and August 17, let me know so we can meet up. On Thursday, August 10 and 4pm I’ll be on a panel in room 207 about how to start a podcast, so check it out if you’re attending the convention. I’ll also be in Oslo during the day on August 7 and have two birding trips planned with lunch in between, and I’d love you to join me if you’re in Oslo that day too. Then, two weeks after I return from Finland, I’ll be attending DragonCon over Labor Day weekend. blah blah blah this is old news

Now, let’s learn about some of our stranger distant cousins!

In 2003, a team of archaeologists, some from Australia and some from Indonesia, were in Indonesia to look for evidence of prehistoric human settlement. They were hoping to learn more about when humans first migrated from Asia to Australia. One of the places they searched was Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores. They found hominin remains all right, but they were odd.

The first skeleton they discovered was remarkably small, only a bit more than three and a half feet tall [106 cm] although it wasn’t a child’s skeleton. That skeleton was mostly complete, including the skull, and appears to be that of a woman around 30 years old. She’s been nicknamed the Little Lady of Flores, or just Flo to her friends. Officially, she’s LB1, the type specimen for a new species of hominin, Homo floresiensis.

But until very recently, that statement was super controversial. In fact, there’s hardly anything about the Flores remains that aren’t controversial.

At first researchers thought the remains were not very old, maybe only twelve or thirteen thousand years old, or 18,000 at the most. Stone tools were found in the same sediment layer where Flo was discovered, as were animal bones. The tools were small, clearly intended for hands about the size of Flo’s, which argued right off the bat that she was part of a small-statured species and wasn’t an aberrant individual.

The following year, 2004, the team returned to the cave and found more skeletal remains, none very complete, but they were all about Flo’s size. Researchers theorized that the people had evolved from a population of Homo erectus that had arrived on the island more than three quarters of a million years before, and that they had become smaller as a type of island dwarfism. A volcanic eruption 12,000 before had likely killed them all off, along with the pygmy elephants they hunted.

But as more research was conducted, the date of the skeletons kept getting pushed back: from 18,000 years old to 95,000 years old to 150,000 years old to 190,000 years old. Dating remains in the cave is difficult, because it’s been subject to flooding and partial flooding over the centuries. Currently, the skeletal remains are thought to date to 60,000 years ago and the stone tools to around 50,000 years ago.

When news of the finds was released, the press response was enthusiastic, to say the least. The skeletons were dubbed Hobbits for their small size, which made the Tolkien estate’s head explode, and practically every few weeks it seems there was another article about whether there were small people still living quietly on the island of Flores, yet to be discovered.

And, of course, there were lots of indignant scientists who were apparently personally angry that the skeletons were considered a new species of hominin instead of regular old Homo sapiens. Part of the issue was that only one skull has ever been found. It’s definitely small, and the other skeletal remains are all correspondingly small, and the stone tools are all correspondingly small, and the skull shows a number of important differences from that of a normal human. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a subspecies of Homo sapiens, and of course that needs to be investigated. But some of the arguments got surprisingly ugly. There were even accusations that the entire find was faked. One person even suggested that the skull’s teeth showed evidence of modern dental work.

Amid all this, two unfortunate things happened. First, in December 2004 an Indonesian paleoanthropologist named Teuku Jacob removed almost all the bones from Jakarta’s National Research Centre of Archaeology for his own personal study for three months. When he returned them, two leg bones were missing, two jaw bones were badly damaged, and a pelvis was smashed. Then, not long after, Indonesia closed access to Liang Bua cave without explanation, although the archeological community suspected it was due to Jacob’s influence, and didn’t reopen it until 2007 after Jacob died.

It’s important to note that Jacob was a proponent of the theory that the remains found in Liang Bua cave were microcephalic individuals of the prehistoric local population, not a new hominin species at all. He also had a history of keeping Indonesian fossils from being studied unless he specifically approved of the research.

At any rate, since then, repeated studies of the LB1 skull have suggested that Homo floresiensis is a separate species of hominin and not a Homo sapiens with evidence of pathology, whether microcephaly or another disease, or a population with a genetic abnormality. There’s still plenty of research needed, of course, and hopefully some more skulls will be found. But it seems clear that Homo floresiensis isn’t just a weird subspecies of Homo sapiens.

One of the more common theories in the last few years was that Homo floresiensis was descended from Homo erectus, although Homo erectus was a lot bigger and more human-like than the Flores little people. But results of a study released just a few months ago show that Homo floresiensis shared a common ancestor with Homo habilis around 1.75 million years ago. Homo floresiensis may have evolved before migrating out of Africa, or their ancestor migrated and evolved into Homo floresiensis. Either way, they spread as far as Indonesia before dying out around 50,000 years ago.

Other hominin remains have since been found on the island. Part of a jaw and teeth were found at Mata Menge on the island of Flores, some 50 miles away from the cave. It’s around 700,000 years old and is a bit smaller than the same bones in the later skeletons. Researchers think it’s an older form of Homo floresiensis.

Possibly not coincidentally, modern humans arrived on the island about 50,000 years ago, maybe earlier, bringing with them the arts of fire, painting, making jewelry from animal bones, and killing all of our genetic cousins.

We don’t know if humans deliberately killed the Homo floresiensis people or if they just outcompeted them. It does seem pretty certain that the two hominin species coexisted on the island for at least a while. It’s even possible that knowledge of the strange small people of the island has persisted in folk tales told by the Nage people of Flores. Stories about the ebu gogo have been documented for centuries. They were supposed to be little hairy people around three feet tall [one meter], with broad faces and big mouths. They were fast runners with their own language and would eat anything, frequently swallowing it whole. In some stories they sometimes kidnapped human children to make the children teach them how to cook, although the children always outwitted the ebu gogo.

Supposedly, at some point, tired of their children being kidnapped and their food being stolen, villagers gave the ebu gogo palm fibers so they could make clothes. The ebu gogo took the fibers to their cave, and the villagers threw a torch in after them. The fiber went up in flames and killed all of the ebu gogo.

Until the discovery of Homo floresiensis, anthropologists assumed the stories were about macaque monkeys. But there’s a genuine possibility that the ebu gogo tales are memories of Homo floresiensis. It’s not just cryptozoologists and bigfoot enthusiasts making the connection between the ebu gogo and Homo floresiensis. Articles and editorials have appeared in journals such as Nature, Scientific American, and Anthropology Today. At least, they did back when archeologists thought Flo was only about 12,000 years old.

But we still don’t know for certain when Homo floresiensis went extinct. There may be remains that are much more recent than 50,000 years ago. Locals mostly say there are no ebu gogo left but that they were still around about a century ago. I don’t know how long historical elements can persist in an oral tradition without becoming distorted. As we discussed in episode 17, about Thunderbird, oral history is easily lost if the culture is disrupted by invasion, disease, war, or other major episodes. But some stories are tougher than others, and those that are less history and more entertainment—although they may contain warnings too—can be very, very old.

Researchers have traced some traditional folktales, like Rumpelstiltskin, back some 4,000 or even 6,000 years, although not without controversy. But while Rumpelstiltskin is usually described as a small person, no one’s suggesting that story is about real events. It’s the juxtaposition of the Flores discoveries of small skeletons and the oral tradition or small people living on the island that got researchers excited. And as it happens, there is an oral tradition many miles and many cultures away from Flores that might be something similar.

Old Norse stories about trolls date back thousands of years. The trolls vary in appearance and sometimes have a lot of overlap with other monsters, but generally are described as big and strong, not very smart, often placid unless provoked, and usually evil, or at least godless. Sometimes they capture humans who outwit them to escape. In one story, a man named Esbern Snare wanted to marry a woman, but her father would only agree to the marriage if Esbern would build a church. Esbern struck a deal with a troll, who said he would build the church—on one condition. If Esbern couldn’t guess the troll’s name by the time the church was built, the troll would demand as his payment Esbern’s heart and eyes.

Esbern agreed, but he failed to trick the troll into telling him his name. On the final day, in despair Esbern threw himself down on the bank of a river, where he overheard the troll’s wife singing to her baby:

“Hush, hush, baby mine,

Tomorrow comes Finn, father thine,

To bring you Esbern’s heart and eyes

To play with, so now hush your cries.”

Esbern rushed back to the church and greeted Finn the troll by name. In some version of the story, Finn is so furious that he leaves the church incomplete in some way, usually a missing pillar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Rumpelstiltskin story, that’s a variant. Oh, and Esbern Snare was a real person who lived in the twelfth century, although I’m pretty sure he didn’t actually strike any deals with trolls.

But I do wonder if some elements of troll folklore might be derived from memories of Neandertal people. I’m not the first to suggest this, although it is a pretty fringey theory. And in the end, we just don’t have any way to know. But it is interesting to think about.

As you may remember from part one of the humans episode, Homo sapiens evolved roughly 200,000 years ago. But around the same time, or a little earlier, another cousin in our family tree was living in southern Africa. Remains of Homo naledi were only discovered in 2013 by some cavers. Partial skeletons from at least 15 individuals were recovered in one field season, but due to narrow cave passages, the field work had to be done by people of small stature who weren’t claustrophobic, mostly women.

Homo naledi is a mixture of primitive and advanced features. Primitive in this case means more like our ape ancestors, and advanced means more like modern humans. Homo naledi had long legs and feet that looked just like ours, but also had a small brain and fingers that are much more curved than ours—not characteristics that would look out of place a few million years ago, but surprising to discover in our family tree at about the same time that modern humans were evolving.

On the other hand (with curved fingers), evolution doesn’t have an end goal. Homo sapiens is not the pinnacle of creation to which all other living beings aspire. We’re just another animal, just another great ape. If Homo naledi was successful in their environment with a small brain, that’s all that matters from an evolutionary standpoint.

There are lots of remains left in the cave, so many in fact that some researchers are convinced they didn’t get there by accident. It’s possible that the cave was used as a burial pit, maybe even over the course of centuries. Bodies may have been dropped in a deep shaft and were then moved by periodic flooding to the remote chamber where they were found, or they may have been carried to the cave depths and left there.

Homo naledi wasn’t a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, but they were definitely a kind of human—no matter how small their brains may have been.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 025: Humans Part I (Neanderthals and Denisovans)



This week is our first two-parter ever! I don’t intend to do that often but there was just too much to go over for one episode. This week we’ll talk about humans: where we come from, how we evolved, and who our closest cousins are–Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Some young humans. Humans can do many surprising things, including surfing, making stained glass, and repairing helicopters. Most humans like the color blue and enjoy listening to music.

The bracelet found with Denisovan bones in a Siberian cave. Humans didn’t make or wear this lovely thing, Denisovan people did.

Further reading:

How to Think Like a Neandertal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge

Show transcript:

need to transcribe it, sorry


Episode 023: Nonhuman Musicians



This week’s episode is about nonhuman musicians. It’s rarer than you’d think.

The palm cockatoo. Nature’s drummer. In possibly related news, I know what my next tattoo is going to be.

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.

Members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center:

Further reading:

Kinship with Animals by Dave Soldier

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode about nonhuman musicians was inspired by an article about palm cockatoos. The male cockatoos drum on tree trunks or hollow logs as part of their courtship display, which doesn’t sound all that unusual until you learn that they use special crafted sticks to drum. A male will select a stick, trim it down the way he wants it, and hold it in his claw to drum. Sometimes he’ll use a hard seedpod instead. The resulting beats are not only consistently in rhythm, each individual has a personal style. Some drum quickly, some slowly, some throw in little flourishes. Sometimes females will drum too, and if a female likes a male’s drumming, she may imitate him or join in.

Here’s a little clip of a male drumming. He’s also whistling.

[palm cockatoo drumming]

The palm cockatoo is an awesome-looking bird. It looks like a drummer. It’s up to two feet long, or 61 cm, smoky gray or gray-black with a heavy gray beak, red cheek patches that flush when the bird is upset or excited, and a messy crest of feathers. It’s native to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the very northern tip of Australia, Cape York Peninsula. Only the Australian birds are known to drum. Unfortunately, the Australian birds are the ones most threatened in the wild due to habitat loss.

The palm cockatoo eats nuts and seeds, and like all parrots it can live a long time. And yes, you can get them as pets—and now I’m desperate for one even though the last thing I need is a pet cockatoo. I have a coworker with a pet parrot who she says is incredibly neurotic. He tends to get overexcited and starts screaming, and she has to put him in his cage and cover it so he’ll shut up. Her kids found the parrot when they were young. He plopped down in her yard when they were playing outside, and they put an empty laundry basket over him to trap him. No one claimed him, so my coworker has now been stuck with a neurotic parrot for over twenty years. She’s pretty sure he survived in the wild by hanging out with crows, because one of the things that will set off his excited screaming is hearing crows outside. And while cockatoos and parrots in general are typically affectionate and make good pets, palm cockatoos are not. They’re considered “difficult.” When parrot fanciers call a type of bird difficult, it’s difficult.

Anyway, the really unusual thing about the palm cockatoo’s drumming isn’t its tool use, which is well known among many types of birds, especially parrots and their relations. It’s the rhythm.

Most animals can’t keep a beat. Synchronization to an external rhythm is called rhythmic entrainment. Humans are really good at it and recognize a beat automatically, but responding in time to a rhythm is a learned skill. Small children have to learn to keep a beat by moving their bodies, speaking, or singing, and they learn it best in social settings. That’s why music, dance, and rhythmic play activities are so important to preschool children. And as a drummer myself, I promise you, humans of any age can learn to improve their rhythm.

But most animals don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish rhythmic beats, although it hasn’t been studied all that much until fairly recently. Some researchers think it may have something to do with the ability to mimic vocal sounds.

That would explain why many birds show rhythmic entrainment, varying from species to species. A sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball was internet-famous for a while in clips where the bird danced to music. As a result, Snowball became the subject of a rhythmic entrainment study that shows he can adapt his dancing to changing tempos.

But not all animals who show rhythmic entrainment can mimic vocally. California sea lions aren’t exactly the parrots of the sea animal world, but they can be trained to move to a beat. On the other hand, closely related seals are vocal learners. In fact, one famous harbor seal who was raised by a fisherman who found the orphaned pup could imitate the fisherman so well he was known as “Hoover the Talking Seal.”

Here’s the only clip I would find of Hoover. The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t figure out when the seal was talking. All I could hear was some gruff-sounding guy talking really fast. Well, that’s Hoover.

[Hoover the talking seal]

That is Hoover the talking seal talking. It’s creepy as heck.

It’s possible that sea lions still retain neural pathways that allow vocal mimicking even if they no longer use them. Then again, some researchers now believe that vocal mimicking ability may only be a skill related to rhythmic entrainment, not the source of the ability, and that the neural pathways for rhythmic entrainment may be very old. Some species can express entrainment, others appear to have lost it.

Studies on human brains show that when music plays, pretty much the entire brain lights up in response. That’s because we have special neural connections that help coordinate motor planning, speech, and other skills with the perceived beat. Brains of parrots and other birds are very similar. But monkeys are not. Monkeys can’t dance. Poor monkeys.

One study with rhesus monkeys who were trained to tap in rhythm with a metronome determined that they couldn’t anticipate the beat but could tap just after it, responding to it, even after years of training. Many rhythmic entrainment studies focus on great apes, since it’s reasonable to suppose that humans’ close cousins might share our rhythmic ability.

Patricia Grey, a bio-music researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, taught a group of captive bonobo apes to play a drum along with a beat. But it wasn’t as simple as showing a bonobo how a drum worked and seeing if it could keep a beat. She had to encourage the apes in a social setting, just like with human children. Also, she had to design a drum that could take a whole lot of abuse. I love that she went to Remo, a company that manufactures drums and drumheads, to have the drum made.

Her experiment started by accident. In 2010, Grey was at the Great Ape Research Center in Des Moines waiting for an experiment to be set up, and while she waited she idly tapped the glass on the bonobo enclosure. A bonobo named Kanzi came over and tapped her hand on the glass in response, matching Grey’s tempo. Intrigued, Grey continued tapping to see how long Kanzi would keep it up. Kanzi didn’t stop, even when her snack time came. She ate her snack lying on her back so she could continue to tap with her feet.

Wild chimpanzees and bonobos drum on logs and their own bodies to make rhythmic noise during play and dominance activities. Dominant male chimps do a particularly exaggerated slow display when thunderstorms approach, called a rain dance by researchers, that involves drumming. A variation of the rain dance has been seen when wildfires are approaching a troupe of chimps. Naturally it’s called a fire dance, and it includes a vocalization heard at no other time.

Chimps are pretty chill when it comes to fire, by the way. They understand how it spreads and how to avoid it without panicking.

Another animal that can keep the beat? Elephants! Asian elephants are vocal mimics and their ability to keep a beat is extremely precise. In 2000, the Thai Elephant Orchestra was created with elephants at a conservation center in Thailand, who learned to play oversized versions of traditional Thai percussion instruments.

The elephants learned the instruments easily, taking to it so quickly and so well that the orchestra’s founders were astonished. The great thing is, the elephants actually create much of the music themselves. The orchestra’s founders, neuroscientist Dave Soldier and elephant conservationist Richard Lair, wanted the elephants to have fun and enjoy making music. So for most songs, the animals are only signaled when to start and stop playing. Occasionally human musicians play along.

The orchestra released three albums between 2002 and 2011, which were all well received—not as novelty albums, but as actual improvisational compositions. Some of the songs are arranged, with the elephants trained to play traditional Thai music. The orchestra performs live for visitors at the conservation center.

The orchestra varies in size from five to fourteen elephants. One particularly talented drummer, Luk Kop, could play three drums at the same time and set up complex rhythms. Unfortunately he was also a dangerous elephant, and that’s not good for a band or an elephant orchestra, so he had to drop out.

The elephants prefer non-dissonant tones and learn to strike the properly resonant parts of their instruments without even being taught. The elephants at the center also enjoy playing harmonicas. The tip of an elephant’s trunk has a fingerlike projection, so an elephant can hold a harmonica and blow through it with its trunk. Soldier reports that one morning he arrived at the center early when the elephants were heading down to the river for their morning bath. Almost all the elephants had brought their harmonicas and were playing together as they walked.

Most of the elephants at the center are former logging animals, and many of their handlers, known as mahouts, once worked with them when they were logging. Mahouts traditionally sing to their elephants, which is supposed to keep them calm. So the elephants in the orchestra are familiar with traditional Thai music.

Locals who have heard the orchestra play say the music sounds like the music in Buddhist temples. Soldier, a musician and composer himself, transcribed an original elephant piece which was then played by a human orchestra in New York. The audience didn’t know it was composed by elephants. Some guesses as to who the composer might be included John Cage, Dvorak, and Charles Ives.

Whether or not you like improvisational Thai music played by elephants, or you think it’s just a stupid gimmick, it’s clear the elephants are having a lot of fun. Here’s a clip of some of their music recorded at the conservation center. That’s some mighty fine percussion for animals who don’t even have hands.

[elephant orchestra]

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

Thanks for listening!