Tag Archives: beaked whales

Episode 209: Animals Discovered in 2020



Here’s a 2020 retrospective episode that looks at the bright side of the year! Thanks to Page for the suggestion! Let’s learn about some animals discovered in 2020 (mostly).

Further reading:

Watch This Giant, Eerie, String-Like Sea Creature Hunt for Food in the Indian Ocean

Rare Iridescent Snake Discovered in Vietnam

An intrusive killer scorpion points the way to six new species in Sri Lanka

What may be the longest (colony) animal in the world, a newly discovered siphonophore:

New whale(s) just dropped:

A newly discovered pygmy seahorse:

A newly discovered pipefish is extremely red:

So tiny, so newly discovered, Jonah’s mouse lemur:

The Popa langur looks surprised to learn that it’s now considered a new species of monkey:

The newly rediscovered devil eyed frog. I love him:

The newly discovered Lilliputian frog looks big in this picture but is about the size of one of your fingernails:

This newly discovered snake from Vietnam is iridescent and shiny:

A new giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka and now lives in our nightmares:

The Gollum snakehead was technically discovered in 2019 but we’re going to let that slide:

Show transcript:

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

Very recently, Page suggested the topic “animals discovered in 2020.” Since I was already thinking of doing something like this, I went ahead and bumped his suggestion to the top of the list and here we go!

You’d think that with so many people in the world, there wouldn’t be too many more new animals to discover, especially not big ones. But new scientific discoveries happen all the time! Many are for small organisms, of course, like frogs and insects, but there are still unknown large animals out there. In fact, 503 new animals were officially discovered in 2020. Every single one is so amazing that I had a hard time deciding which ones to highlight. In most cases we don’t know much about these new animals since studying an animal in the wild takes time, but finding the animal in the first place is a good start.

Many of the newly discovered species live in the ocean, especially the deep sea. In April of 2020, a deep-sea expedition off the coast of western Australia spotted several dozen animals new to science, including what may be the longest organism ever recorded. It’s a type of siphonophore, which isn’t precisely a single animal the way that, say, a blue whale is. It’s a colony of tiny animals, called zooids, all clones although they perform different functions so the whole colony can thrive. Some zooids help the colony swim, while others have tiny tentacles that grab prey, and others digest the food and disperse the nutrients to the zooids around it. Many siphonophores emit bioluminescent light to attract prey.

Some siphonophores are small but some can grow quite large. The Portuguese man o’ war, which looks like a floating jellyfish, and which we talked about way back in episode 16, is actually a type of siphonophore. Its stinging tentacles can be 100 feet long, or 30 m. Other siphonophores are long, transparent, gelatinous strings that float through the depths of the sea, snagging tiny animals with their tiny tentacles, and that’s the kind this newly discovered siphonophore is.

The new siphonophore was spotted at a depth of about 2,000 feet, or 625 meters, and was floating in a spiral shape. The scientists estimated that the spiral was about 49 feet in diameter, or 15 meters, and that the outer ring alone was probably 154 feet long, or 47 meters. The entire organism might have measured 390 feet long, or almost 119 meters. It’s been placed into the genus Apolemia although it hasn’t been formally described yet.

Another 2020 discovery off the coast of Australia was an entire coral reef a third of a mile tall, or 500 meters, and almost a mile across, or 1.5 km. It’s part of the Great Barrier Reef but isn’t near the other reefs. A scientific team mapping the seafloor in the area discovered the reef and undoubtedly did a lot of celebrating. I mean, it’s not every day that you find an entirely new coral reef. They were able to 3D map the reef for study and take video too. Best of all, it’s a healthy reef with lots of other animal life living around it.

Another big animal discovered in 2020 is one Patreon subscribers already know about, because we started out the year with an episode all about it. It’s a new whale! In 2018 scientists recording audio of animal life around Mexico’s San Benito Islands in the Pacific Ocean heard a whale call they didn’t recognize. They thought it probably belonged to a type of beaked whale, probably a little-known species called Perrin’s beaked whale.

In late 2020 a team went back to the area specifically to look for Perrin’s beaked whales. They did see three beaked whales and got audio, video, and photographs of them, but they weren’t Perrin’s beaked whales. The whale specialists on the expedition didn’t know what these whales were. They don’t match any species of known cetacean and appear to be a species new to science.

And speaking of new species of whale, guess what. Don’t say chicken butt. You can say whale butt, though, because the discovery of another new whale species was just announced. This one’s a 2021 discovery but there’s no way I was going to wait until next year to talk about it. It lives in the Gulf of Mexico and can grow over 41 feet long, or more than 12 meters. It’s a baleen whale, not a beaked whale, and it was hiding in plain sight. It looks a lot like the Bryde’s whale and was long thought to be a subspecies, but new genetic testing shows that it’s much different. It’s been named Rice’s whale, and unfortunately it’s extremely rare. There may only be around 100 individuals alive. It’s mostly threatened by pollution, especially oil spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and by collisions with ships. Hopefully now that scientists know more about it, it can be further protected.

Let’s move on from new gigantic animal discoveries to a much, much smaller one. A new pygmy seahorse was discovered off the coast of South Africa in May 2020. It’s brownish-yellow with pinkish and white markings and is only 20 mm long at most. A dive instructor who had seen the fish but didn’t know what it was told researchers about it and they organized a team to look for it. Its closest known relation lives in southeast Asia almost 5,000 miles away, or 8,000 km. Like other seahorses, it lives in shallow water and uses its flexible tail to hang onto underwater plants, but the area where it lives is full of huge waves rolling in from the ocean. It’s called the Sodwana Pygmy Seahorse after the bay where it was discovered, and officially named Hippocampus nalu. “Nalu” means “here it is” in the local Zulu and Xhosa languages, and it also happens to mean “surging surf” in Hawaiian, and it also happens to be the middle name of the dive instructor who spotted the fish, Savannah Nalu Olivier. Sometimes fate just says “this is the right name.”

A new species of pipefish, which is closely related to the seahorse, was also described in 2020, Stigmatopora harastii. It lives off the coast of New South Wales, Australia and can grow up to 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. It was first spotted by scuba divers in 2002. These divers know their fish. It lives among a type of red algae and is the same color red for camouflage. It’s surprising how long it took for scientists to discover it, because it’s not exactly hard to confuse with anything else. Except, you know, algae.

Not all newly discovered animals live in the ocean. In August of 2020 researchers discovered a new mouse lemur in Madagascar. We talked about a different type of mouse lemur in episode 135, that one discovered in 1992 and only growing to 3.6 inches long, or 9 cm, not counting its long tail. The newly discovered Jonah’s mouse lemur is only a little bigger than that. Mouse lemurs are the smallest members of the primate family. They’re also super cute but endangered due to habitat loss.

Another primate discovered in 2020 is one that researchers already knew about for more than a hundred years, but no one realized it was its own species, just like Rice’s whale. In 2020, genetic analysis finally determined that the Popa langur is a new species. It’s a beautiful fuzzy gray monkey with bright white markings around its eyes like spectacles. It lives on an extinct volcano in Myanmar and is critically endangered, with only an estimated 250 individuals left in the wild.

A 2020 expedition to the Bolivian Andes in South America led to the discovery of twenty new species of plant and animal, plus a few re-discoveries of animals that were thought to be extinct. The rediscoveries include a species of satyr butterfly not seen for 98 years, and a frog seen only once before, twenty years ago. The frog is called the devil-eyed frog because of its coloring. It’s purplish or brownish black with red eyes and only grows about an inch long, or 29 mm.

Another frog the team found is one of the smallest frogs in the world. It’s been identified as a frog in the genus Noblella and it only grows about ten mm long. As one article I read pointed out, that’s the size of an aspirin. It’s a mottled brown and black and it lives in tunnels it digs in the leaf litter and moss on the forest floor. It’s being referred to as the Lilliputian frog because of its small size.

In the summer of 2019, a team of scientists surveying the karst forests in northern Vietnam spotted an unusual snake. It was so unusual, in fact, that they knew it had to be new to science. It was dark in color but its small scales shone an iridescent purplish, and it was about 18 inches long, or almost 46 cm. It belongs to a genus referred to as odd-scaled snakes, and we don’t know much about them because they’re so hard to find. They mostly burrow underground or under leaf litter on the forest floor. The new species was described in late 2020.

A new species of giant scorpion was discovered in Sri Lanka in 2020. It lives in the forests of Yala National Park and is nocturnal. The female is jet black while the male has reddish-brown legs, and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or a little over 10 cm. It’s called the Yala giant scorpion after the park and is the sixth new scorpion species discovered in the park.

One thing I should mention is that all these scientific expeditions to various countries are almost always undertaken by both local scientists and experts from other places. Any finds are studied by the whole group, resulting papers are written with all members contributing, and any specimens collected will usually end up displayed or stored in a local museum or university. The local scientists get to collaborate with colleagues they might never have met before, while the visiting scientists get the opportunity to learn about local animals from the people who know them best, who also happen to know the best places to eat. Everybody wins!

Let’s finish with an astonishing fish that was technically discovered in 2018 and described in 2019, but was further studied in 2020 and found to be even more extraordinary than anyone had guessed. In 2018, after a bad flood, a man living in the village of Oorakam in Kerala, South India, spotted a fish in a rice paddy. He’d never seen a fish like it before and posted a picture of it on social media. A fish expert saw the picture, realized it was something new, and sent a team to Oorakam to retrieve it before it died or something ate it. It turned out to be a new type of snakehead fish.

There are lots of snakehead species that live in rivers and streams throughout parts of Africa and Asia. But this snakehead, which has been named the Gollum snakehead, lives underground. Specifically, it lives in an aquifer. An aquifer is a layer of water that occurs underground naturally. When rain soaks into the ground, some of it is absorbed by plant roots, some seeps out into streams, and some evaporates into the air; but some of it soaks deeper into the ground. It collects in gravel or sand or fractured rocks, or in porous rocks like sandstone. Sometimes an aquifer carves underground streams through rock, creating caves that no human has ever seen or could ever see, since there’s no entrance to the surface large enough for a person to get through. In this case, the heavy rain and floods in Oorakam had washed the fish out of the aquifer and into the rice paddy.

The Gollum snakehead resembles an eel in shape and grows abound four inches long, or 10 cm. Unlike fish adapted for life in caves, though, it has both eyes and pigment, and is a pale reddish-brown in color. This may indicate that it doesn’t necessarily spend all of its life underground. Aquifers frequently connect to springs, streams, and other aboveground waterways, so the Gollum snakehead may spend part of its life aboveground and part below ground.

When it was first described, the researchers placed the fish in its own genus, but further study in 2020 has revealed that the fish is so different from other snakeheads that it doesn’t just need its own genus, it needs its own family. Members of the newly created family are referred to as dragonfish.

Other snakeheads can breathe air with a structure known as a suprabranchial organ, which acts sort of like a lung, located in the head above the gills. Not only does the Gollum snakehead not have this organ, there’s no sign that it ever had the organ. That suggests that other snakeheads developed the organ later and that the Gollum snakehead is a more basal species. It also has a small swim bladder compared to other snakeheads.

Researchers think that the dragonfish family may have separated from other snakehead species as much as 130 million years ago, before the supercontinent of Gondwana began breaking up into smaller landmasses. One of the chunks that separated from Gondwana probably contained the ancestor of the Gollum snakehead, and that chunk eventually collided very slowly with Asia and became what we now call India.

The Gollum snakehead isn’t the only thing that lives in the aquifer, of course. Lots of other species do too, but it’s almost impossible to study them because they live underground with only tiny openings to the surface. The only time we can study the animals that live there is when they’re washed out of the aquifers by heavy rain. It turns out, in fact, that there’s a second species of dragonfish in the aquifer, closely related to the Gollum snakehead, with a single specimen found after rain.

So, next time you’re outside, think about what might be under the ground you’re walking on. You might be walking above an aquifer with strange unknown animals swimming around in it, animals which may never be seen by humans.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 176: More Globsters and Horrible Carcasses



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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

Further watching:

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

The Conakry monster:

The Ataka carcass:

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

The Moore’s beach monster:

Baird’s beaked whales in better circumstances:

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

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

What not to do with a dead whale:

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 072: Weird Whales



It’s been too long since we discussed whales, so this week let’s learn about how whales evolved and some especially strange or mysterious whales!

Pakicetus was probably kind of piggy-looking, but with a crocodile snout:

Protocetids were more actually whale-like but still not all that whale-like:

Now we’re getting whaley! Here’s basilosaurus, with a dinosaur name because the guy who found it thought it was a reptile:

Here’s the skull of a male strap-toothed whale (left). Those flat strips are the teeth:

Another view. See how the teeth grow up from the lower jaw and around the upper jaw?

A dead pygmy right whale:

The walrus whale may have looked sort of like this:

The half-beak porpoise had a chin that just would not quit:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is weird whales and some of their relations. If you think about it, all whales are weird, but these are the weirdest whales we know of. Some are living, some are extinct, and some…are mysteries.

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are most closely related to—wait for it—HIPPOPOTAMUSES. About 48 million years ago an ancestor of both modern hippos and whales lived in Asia. It’s called Inodhyus and it was about the size of a cat, but looked more pig-like. It was at least partially aquatic, probably as a way to hide from predators, but it was an omnivore that probably did most of its hunting and foraging on land.

The earliest whale is generally accepted to be Pakicetus. It lived around the same time as Inodhyus and its fossils have been found in what is now Pakistan and India. It was about the size of a big dog, but with a long, thick tail. Its skull was elongated, something like a short-snouted crocodile with big sharp triangular teeth. It had upward-facing eyes like a crocodile or hippo, and it also had four long, fairly thin legs. It probably hunted on both land and in shallow water, and like the hippo it probably didn’t have much hair.

That doesn’t sound much like a whale, but it had features that only appear in whales. These features became more and more exaggerated in its descendants. At first, these ancestral whales looked more like mammalian crocodiles. It’s not until Protocetids evolved around 45 million years ago that they started to look recognizably like whales. Some protocetids lived in shallow oceans throughout the world but probably still gave birth on land, while others were more amphibious and lived along the coasts, where they probably hunted both in and out of water. But they had nostrils that had migrated farther back up their snouts, although they weren’t blowholes just yet, reduced limbs, and may have had flukes on their large tails. But they still weren’t totally whale-like. One protocetid, Rodhocetus balochistanensis, still had nail-like hooves on its forefeet.

By around 41 million years ago, the basilosaurids and their close relations had evolved, and were fully aquatic. They lived in the oceans throughout the tropics and subtropics, and their nostrils had moved almost to the location of modern whales’ blowholes. Their forelegs were basically flippers with little fingers, their hind legs had almost disappeared, and they had tail flukes. They were also much bigger than their ancestors. Basilosaurus could grow up to 60 feet long, or 18 meters, and probably looked more like a gigantic eel than a modern whale. It was long and relatively thin, and may have mostly lived at the ocean’s surface, swimming more like an eel or fish than a whale. It ate fish and sharks. SHARKS.

So when did whales develop the ability to echolocate? Researchers think it happened roughly 34 million years ago, which also happens to be about the same time that baleen whales and toothed whales started to develop separately. Echolocation probably evolved to help whales track hard-shelled mollusks called nautiloids. By 10 million years ago, though, nautiloids were on the decline and mostly lived around reefs. Whales had to shift their focus to soft-bodied prey like squid, which meant their sonar abilities had to become more and more refined. Toothed whales echolocate, while baleen whales probably do not. Researchers aren’t 100% sure, but if baleen whales do use echolocation, it’s limited in scope and the whales probably mostly use it for sensing obstacles like ice or the sea floor.

Baleen whales are the ones that communicate with song, although the really elaborate songs are from humpback and bowhead whales. Of those species, humpback songs are structured and orderly, while bowhead whale song is more free-form. But humpback songs do change, and researchers have discovered that they spread among a population of whales the same way popular songs spread through human populations. This is what they sound like, by the way. A snippet of humpback song is first, then a snippet of bowhead song.

[examples of humpback and bowhead]

So now we’ve got a basic understanding of how whales evolved. Now let’s take a look at some of the weirder whales we know about. We’ll start with a living one, the strap-toothed whale. It’s one of 20-odd species of mesoplodont, or beaked whale, and we don’t know a whole lot about any of them. The strap-toothed whale is the longest beaked whale at 20 feet long, or 6.2 meters.

The strap-toothed whale lives in cold waters in the southern hemisphere. It’s rarely seen, probably since it lives in areas that aren’t very well traveled by humans. It mostly eats squid. Females are usually a little bigger than males, and adults are mostly black with white markings on the throat and back.

The weird thing about this whale is its teeth. Male beaked whales all have a pair of weird teeth, usually tusk-like, which they use to fight each other, but strap-toothed whales take the weird teeth deal to the extreme. As a male grows, two of its teeth grow up from the lower jaw and backwards, curving around the upper jaw until the whale can’t open its mouth very far and can only eat small prey. The teeth can grow a foot long, or 30 cm, and have small projections that cause more damage in fights with other males.

Most of what we know about the strap-toothed whale comes from whales that have been stranded on land and died. Males don’t seem to have any trouble getting enough to eat, and researchers think they may use suction to pull prey into their mouths. Other beaked whales are known to feed this way.

All beaked whales are deep divers, generally live in remote parts of the world’s oceans, and are rarely seen. In other words, we don’t know for sure how many species there really are. In 1963, a dead beaked whale washed ashore in Sri Lanka. At first it was described as a new species, but a few years later other researchers decided it was a ginkgo-toothed whale, which had also only been discovered in 1963. Male ginkgo-toothed whales have a pair of tusks shaped like ginkgo leaves, but they don’t appear to use them to fight each other. But a study published in 2014 determined that the 1963 whale, along with six others found stranded in various areas, belong to a new species. It’s never been seen alive. Neither has the ginkgo-toothed whale.

The pygmy right whale is a baleen whale, but it’s another one we know very little about. It lives in the southern hemisphere. Despite its name, it isn’t closely related to the right whale. It’s small for a baleen whale, around 21 feet long, or 6.5 meters, and it’s dark gray above and lighter gray or white underneath. Its sickle-shaped dorsal fin is small and doesn’t always show when the whale surfaces to breathe. It feeds mostly on tiny crustaceans like copepods, and probably doesn’t dive very deeply considering its relatively small heart and lungs.

The pygmy right whale was first described in 1846 from bones and baleen. Later studies revealed that it’s really different from other baleen whales, with more pairs of ribs and other physical differences. It also doesn’t seem to act like other baleen whales. It doesn’t breach, slap its tail, or show its flukes when it dives. It doesn’t even swim the same way other whales swim. Other whales swim by flexing the tail, leaving the body stable, but the pygmy right whale flexes its whole body from head to tail. It seems to be a fairly solitary whale, usually seen singly or in pairs, although sometimes one will travel with other whale species. In 1992, though, 80 pygmy right whales were seen together off the coast of southwest Australia. Fewer than 200 of the whales have been spotted alive, including those 80, so we have no idea how rare they are.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the pygmy right whale’s differences were explained. It turns out that it’s not that closely related to other baleen whales. Instead, it’s the descendant of a family of whales called cetotheres—but until then, researchers thought cetotheres had gone extinct completely around two million years ago. Not only that, it turns out that at least one other cetothere survived much later than two million years ago, with new fossils dated to only 700,000 years ago. But that particular whale, Herpetocetus, had a weird jaw joint that kept it from being able to open its mouth very far. It and the strap-toothed whale should start a club.

Sometimes whale fossils are found in unexpected places, which helps give us an idea of what the land and ocean was like at the time. For instance, fossils of an extinct beaked whale known as a Turkana ziphiid was found in Kenya in 1963, in a desert region 460 miles inland, or 740 kilometers. The fossil is 17 million years old. So how did it get so far inland?

It turns out that at the time, that part of east Africa was near sea level and grown up with forests. The fossil was found in river deposits, so the whale probably swam into the mouth of a river, got confused and kept going, and then couldn’t turn around. It kept swimming until it became stranded and died. Because of the finding, researchers know that 17 million years ago, the uplift of East Africa had not yet begun, or if it had it hadn’t yet made much progress. The uplift, of course, is what prompted our own ancestors to start walking upright, as their forest home slowly became grassland.

As an interesting aside, the fossil was stored at the Smithsonian, but at some point, like so many other fascinating items, it disappeared. Paleontologist Louis Jacobs spent 30 years trying to find it, and eventually located it at Harvard University in 2011. After he finished studying it, he donated it to the National Museum of Kenya.

More whale fossils were uncovered in 2010 in the Atacama Desert in Chile—in this case, over 75 skeletons, many in excellent condition, dated to between 2 and 7 million years ago. Researchers think they’re the result of toxic algae blooms that killed the whales, which then washed ashore. Over 40 were various types of baleen whales. Other fossils found in the same deposit include a sperm whale, marine sloths, and a tusked dolphin known as a walrus whale.

The walrus whale lived in the Pacific Ocean around 10 million years ago, and while it’s considered a dolphin, it’s actually more closely related to narwhals. But it probably looked more like a walrus than either. Unlike most whales, it had a flexible neck. It also had a face like a walrus. You know, flattish with tusks sticking down. It probably ate molluscs. But the right tusk was much longer than the left one, possibly in males only. In the case of one species of walrus whale, one specimen’s left tusk was about 10 inches long, or 25 cm, while its right tusk was over four feet long, or 1.35 meters. Some researchers suggest that the whale swam with its head bent so that the long tusk lay along the body. Possibly it only used it for display, either to show off for females or to fight other males. But we don’t know for sure.

Speaking of narwhals, if you were hoping to hear about them, you’ll need to go way back to episode five, about the unicorn. I talk about the narwhal a lot in that episode. The narwhal happens to be one of the best animals. A lot of people think the narwhal isn’t a real animal, that it’s made up like a unicorn. In fact, about a week ago, I was talking to a coworker and the subject of narwhals came up. She actually did not realize it was a real animal. Nope, it’s real, and that horn is real, but it’s actually a tusk rather than a horn. It grows through the whale’s upper lip, not its forehead. In another weird coincidence, this afternoon when I was about to sit down and record this episode, a friend sent me a link to an article that had some narwhal sounds. So we’re not really talking about narwhals in this episode, but hey, this is what they sound like.

[narwhal calls]

Another weird whale is the halfbeak porpoise, or skimmer porpoise, which lived off the coast of what is now California between 5 and 1.5 million years ago. While it probably looked mostly like an ordinary porpoise, its chin grew incredibly long. The chin, properly called a symphysis, was highly sensitive, and researchers think it used it to probe in the mud for food.

There’s still so much to learn about whales, both living ones and extinct ones. We definitely haven’t identified all the living whales yet. There are reports of strange whales from all over the world, including a baleen whale with two dorsal fins. It was first spotted in 1867 off the coast of Chile by a naturalist, and other sightings have been made since. It’s supposedly 60 feet long, or 18 meters, so you’d think it wouldn’t be all that hard to spot…but there’s a whole lot of ocean out there, and relatively few people on the ocean to look for rare whales.

Whales can live a really long time. In 2007, researchers studying a dead bowhead whale found a piece of harpoon embedded in its skin. It turned out to be a type of harpoon that was made around 1879. Bowheads can probably live more than 200 years, and may even live longer than that.

And, of course, whales are extremely intelligent animals with complex social and emotional lives, the ability to reason and remember, tool use, creative thinking and play, self-awareness, a certain amount of language use, and altruistic behaviors toward members of other species. Whales and dolphins sometimes help human swimmers in distress, dolphins and porpoises sometimes help beached whales, and humpback whales in particular sometimes rescue seals and other animals from orcas. Humans aren’t very good at thinking about intelligence except as it pertains to us, but it seems pretty clear that other apes, whales and their relations, elephants, and probably a great many other animals are a lot more intelligent than we’ve traditionally thought.

One last interesting fact about whales and their relations. Most of them sleep with half their brain at a time. The half that isn’t sleeping takes care of rising to the surface to breathe periodically, so the whale doesn’t drown. That does not sound very restful to me. But sperm whales sleep with their bodies vertical and their heads sticking up out of the water. But they don’t sleep very long, only around ten minutes at a time—and only in the hours before midnight. I’ve had nights like that.

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

Thanks for listening!