Tag Archives: bears

Episode 194: The Dover Demon



It’s almost Halloween, and time for another spooky episode! Thanks to Pranav for the suggestion!

You still have time to enter the book giveaway contest, deadline October 31, 2020 at midnight! Details are here. There are also links on that page to look at the books if you want to order copies. You know, just in case.

I was a guest cohost on the Varmints! podcast again, and this time we talked about ticks! Listen here if you don’t already subscribe (but you should totally subscribe).

Further reading:

The Demon of Dover

Decades later, the Dover Demon still haunts

Bill Bartlett’s drawings and painting:

 

John Baxter’s drawing:

A baby moose (and mama moose):

A sad mangy bear:

An orangutan with cheek pads (a sign of a dominant male):

The sad mangy bear photo side by side with the (flipped) drawing of the Dover demon:

Without much hair on the feet, a bear’s claws might make the digits look elongated:

At night and at certain angles, a bear’s ears may not be very visible (also note eyeshine):

Show transcript:

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

It’s almost Halloween and I’m really excited, because we’re going to talk about a spooky encounter with a mystery creature called the Dover Demon. It’s a suggestion by Pranav that seemed perfect for monster month.

First, though, I was a guest cohost on Varmints! podcast again last week, and we talked about ticks! It’s a really funny episode so you should totally go listen to it. I’ve put a link in the show notes. You really should subscribe to the podcast, though, because all the episodes are fun and informative!

Dover, Massachusetts is a small town in northeastern North America, only about 15 miles from the city of Boston. Currently just over 6,000 people live there, up from about 5,000 people in 1977. It’s an affluent town with good schools, a small museum, and a number of historic homes. But it’s most well known for something weird that happened over forty years ago.

On the night of April 21, 1977, three seventeen-year-old boys were driving along Farm Street on the outskirts of town. Bill Bartlett was driving with his friends Mike and Andy in the car with him. This was long before the internet or video games or even cable TV were invented, so they were just driving around and talking since they had nothing better to do. It was a Thursday night and cooling down after an unusually warm day for late April in that part of North America.

Around 10:30pm, as they passed along a low stone wall on the left side of the road, Bill noticed an animal of some kind climbing on the stones. He thought it was a dog or even a cat at first, but then the car’s headlights lit it up. Bill saw the creature turn its head and stare into the light.

The creature was definitely not a dog. It had big round eyes that shone like orange marbles, as Bill described it later. He estimated it would have been four feet tall if it had been standing upright, or 122 cm. It had peach-colored skin that looked like it might have a rough texture, which Bill later described as looking like wet sandpaper or a shark’s skin. Its body was thin, its arms and legs were very long and thin, and it had a thin neck. But its head was oversized and oddly shaped. Bill described it as shaped like a melon, but to me it always sounds more like Snoopy the dog’s head. You know, Snoopy has a round head and a big oblong nose in comparison to a little body. But this creature wasn’t a cartoon character, it was real. Bill said it had long, thin fingers and toes that it wrapped around the rocks as it climbed over them. But while it did have those big glowing eyes, it didn’t appear to have ears, nose, or mouth.

The other two boys in the car were talking and didn’t notice the creature as the car passed it going somewhere around 45 mph, or 72 km/h. Bill was naturally freaked out and after about three quarters of a mile, or a little over a km, he stopped the car to tell his friends what he’d seen. They talked it over for a good 15 minutes before deciding to turn around and go back to look for the creature. But they didn’t see it again, so Bill dropped his friends off at their homes, then went home himself.

Bill’s father noticed that he seemed upset and Bill admitted that he’d seen something that had spooked him. He made a drawing of the creature and later made another drawing and a watercolor of it. Bill was a good artist and in fact when he grew up he became a professional artist. Photos of his drawings of the creature are in the show notes.

A few hours later that same night, at about 12:30 AM, another boy, fifteen-year-old John Baxter, was walking home from his girlfriend’s house on Miller Hill Road. Miller Hill Road intersects Farm Street, the road where Bill saw the creature, and John was about a quarter mile, or .4 km, away from where the two roads met when he noticed another person on the road ahead. He noticed the figure’s large head and thought it was a friend who lived nearby, a boy who actually had a deformed head due to a childhood illness. John called out to him but didn’t get a response. As John came closer, he noticed how small the other figure’s body was in comparison to its head and realized it wasn’t his friend. He thought it might be a small child.

The figure suddenly ran off the road. John heard it run down a small embankment at the edge of the road and into the trees. He chased it but stopped at the bottom of the embankment, since he hadn’t realized there was a creek at the bottom and almost fell in. The creature must have jumped the creek because John specifically mentioned that he didn’t hear it splashing through the water.

At this point John got a good look at the creature, since it had stopped about 30 feet away, or 9 m, and was looking back at him. It was in silhouette against an open field, with its head about level with John’s because of the way the ground sloped. It had a small, slender body, long, thin arms and legs with long, thin fingers and toes, and an oversized head with the same unusual shape that Bill reported. John said that the creature was standing on a rock and he could see that its long toes were wrapped around the rock, while it had also wrapped its long fingers around the trunk of a small tree.

Naturally, John got spooked at that point and backed off. He hurried to Farm Street and found someone to give him a ride home instead of walking the rest of the way. Later he made a sketch of what he’d seen.

The next night, a fifteen-year-old girl named Abby Brabham reported seeing something weird on Springdale Avenue. Springdale also joins Farm Street and is less than a mile from Miller Hill Rd. Abby was riding in the car with an eighteen-year-old friend, Will Taintor, who was driving her home, when she noticed something crouched next to the road at the edge of a bridge. I looked on street view and don’t see anything that could be called a bridge, but there are a lot of swampy areas near the road so there may have been a low bridge there in 1977. At first Abby thought she was looking at an ape, but it had a tan body without hair, a large watermelon-shaped head, and glowing green eyes. Will saw the creature too, although not as good a look as Abby. Abby estimated that the creature was the size of a goat.

And that’s that. The creature was never seen again.

OH MY GOSH THAT IS SO CREEPY.

In a case like this, where we’re presented with accounts from four people who saw something truly weird and report specific details that tally with each other, we can look at it logically this way. It’s either a hoax, a known animal that wasn’t identified at the time, an unknown animal, or something supernatural.

Let’s start with the assumption that it was a real animal, either known or unknown. (We’ll come to the other parts later.) If that’s the case, what kind of animal might it be?

People have suggested that the animal might have been a moose calf that got separated from its mother and was blundering around scaring teenagers. But a moose as the culprit doesn’t make any sense. Moose have big ears and nostrils, hooves instead of long fingers and toes, and a calf’s head actually appears small in relation to its bulky body and extremely long legs. But most importantly, there weren’t any moose living anywhere in Massachusetts in 1977. Now that there are moose in Massachusetts, you’d think that people would start seeing the Dover Demon again if it was actually a young moose, but that hasn’t happened.

A more likely possibility is a young black bear. Bears do stand and sometimes walk on their hind legs, especially young ones. But bear paws are broad and flat, and their toes are close together, sort of like a person’s toes. Not only that, bears have large ears. And, of course, they have thick black fur. Bears do get a type of mange that can cause them to lose their hair, and a young bear with a case of mange that advanced would probably also be sick and possibly very thin. But hairless bears, in addition to looking very sad, appear to have small heads, and their ears stick out even more than usual since they’re not half hidden with fur.

Could the creature be a primate of some kind? Abby said she thought she was looking at an ape at first, while in his interview John said he thought the creature might be a monkey. Obviously neither monkeys nor apes would ordinarily be found in Massachusetts, but exotic animal laws were more lax in 1977 than they are now. Not only that, there are some primate research facilities in and near Boston.

A monkey would have the long, thin limbs and slender body seen by witnesses, and it could wrap its fingers and toes around rocks. But there are problems with the monkey hypothesis. Monkeys generally have small heads, not oversized ones. Most have tails. Monkeys are also diurnal so wouldn’t be running around at night, and even if it was out at night for some reason, it would likely stay in the trees or climb a tree if someone frightened it.

Apes, of course, have no tails and they have relatively long limbs and fingers and toes. But it’s much less likely that an ape would escape from someone’s home or from a research facility and not be reported missing. For one thing, apes are expensive and can be dangerous. The research facilities I looked up didn’t seem to keep apes, just monkeys of various kinds.

It couldn’t have been a gorilla since a gorilla’s face is always gray or black with pronounced nostrils, and gorillas are much larger than what witnesses reported seeing, with a bulky body. Chimps are closer to the right size, but chimps don’t have big heads compared to their bodies—in fact, they’re proportioned more like humans but with smaller heads.

But what about an orangutan? Leaving aside the issue of where it came from and why it was never reported missing, could an orangutan have been the Dover Demon? Dominant male orangutans develop large cheek pads and throat pouches that can make their heads look quite large, and most orangs have orange fur that might look like tan textured skin in the dark. But orangutans have noticeable mouths and nostrils, plus their eyes are much closer together than the drawings indicate.

And there’s something else that indicates the Dover Demon probably wasn’t a primate. Many animals have a reflective layer in the eye that causes eyeshine at night. It’s called the tapetum lucidum and it helps animals see better at night. But humans, apes, and monkeys are diurnal animals and don’t have that particular night-time adaptation. All the witnesses said that the creature’s eyes glowed, presumably with reflected light.

That brings us to Abby’s sighting. Abby reported that the creature she saw had glowing green eyes, whereas Bill and John both said the creature they saw had orange glowing eyes. Abby refused to change her story, either, and was adamant that the eyes she saw were green.

Different animals have different-colored eyeshine, and individuals of the same type of animal may have different color eyeshine depending on lots of factors. But the color of an individual animal’s eyeshine doesn’t change from one night to the next. Is it possible that Abby didn’t see the same creature that Bill and John did? She didn’t get a good look at it, and Will barely got a glance. But I’ve always wondered why Abby said the creature she saw was the size of a goat. While that is a good description, unless Abby was familiar with goats and saw them frequently, it’s surprising that she didn’t describe it as the size of a big dog. I wonder if Abby actually saw a tan or light brown goat by the side of the road but didn’t recognize it consciously. Goats do have green eyeshine.

Then again, Abby described the creature’s head as very big and very weird, specifically watermelon-shaped, and she specified that it had a tan, hairless body and round eyes. All these things tally with what the others reported.

So if it wasn’t a known animal, could it have been an unknown animal, something new to science? Let’s assume it was, for now, and try to figure out what kind of habitat an animal of the Dover demon’s appearance would belong in.

However strange it appeared to the witnesses, the creature had four legs and a head. That means it fits the general body scheme of a tetrapod and a vertebrate. Witnesses reported seeing both fingers and toes, so it wasn’t a bird. It appeared to have a tapetum lucidum so it must be nocturnal to at least some degree. It was able to move around on land rapidly, apparently could walk on its hind legs alone if necessary since John Baxter mistook it for a person on the road, but it also seemed more comfortable when its front legs were braced against something, such as a rock or a tree. John didn’t hear it splash in the water when it ran down the embankment, so it could jump as well as run. It also didn’t escape by climbing a tree or hiding in the water when it was frightened, so we can assume it was a terrestrial animal, meaning it was most comfortable on land. It was either a mammal, a reptile, or an amphibian, but I think we can discount the amphibian hypothesis since it avoided the water. It didn’t appear to have fur, and its skin had a textured appearance, which might suggest that it was some kind of reptile instead of a mammal. But all reptiles have tails, and our creature didn’t appear to have one. That means the Dover demon was most likely a mammal.

So we have narrowed it down to a nocturnal, terrestrial mammal that either doesn’t have hair, or that was suffering from an advanced case of mange. Let’s assume that it just doesn’t have hair, or has hair that wasn’t visible at night. The hair might have been short and dense, like seal fur, so that it appeared to be textured skin, or it might have been very finely haired, sort of like a human’s body.

But the witnesses agreed that the creature was pale in color, a sort of tan or peach. That’s where it gets trickier, because that’s an unusual trait in a nocturnal animal. Pale skin or hair reflects light, which makes the animal easier to see in the darkness. That’s great if you’re a skunk and want to call attention to yourself so other animals can avoid your amazing stink powers, not so great if you’re trying to slink around unseen.

There are only a few habitats where it doesn’t matter what color an animal is, and those are habitats where the animal can’t be seen. Maybe the Dover demon ordinarily lives underground or in a cave.

Animals that live underground have to be able to dig, or else they’re not going to get very far. That means they need large claws. They also tend to have smaller eyes, since they can’t see far anyway and more dirt will get into large eyes. They also have short legs. So I think we can safely say that the Dover demon wasn’t an animal that spent much or any time burrowing underground.

But maybe it was a cave-dwelling animal. It had big eyes and a tapetum lucidum to take advantage of low light and it navigated quickly over rocks, wrapping its long fingers and toes around them. That makes sense, because those fingers and toes, as well as the long limbs, suggest an animal that can climb. Maybe it climbed around in caves.

So we seem to have found the most reasonable habitat for what we know about the Dover demon. It may be an animal adapted for climbing around in caves. Perhaps its oversized head acts as a resonant chamber to help it navigate with a type of echolocation when there’s no light, the way many whales have bulbous foreheads called melons.

But it doesn’t fit exactly, so let’s go over the drawbacks of our cave-dwelling mammal hypothesis.

First, there aren’t very many caves in Massachusetts. Only about 14,000 years ago, all of northern North America, including what is now Massachusetts, was covered with glacial ice many miles deep. The glaciers scraped away soil and the softer rock where caves form, and when they finally melted, they left exposed tough bedrock behind. What few natural caves there are in the area are quite small.

But all that side, the Dover demon was a large animal. If you’ve listened to episode 121, about cave dwelling animals, you may remember that large animals don’t live exclusively in caves because there’s just not enough food for them. There are no mammals known that live only in caves. Bats roost in caves but they come outside at night to hunt, and many other animals hibernate or sleep in caves but spend the rest of their time outside.

Now let’s look at our other two choices: either it’s a hoax or it’s something supernatural.

I don’t like to label mystery animals as supernatural. You’re not solving a mystery by labeling it as a different mystery. Some people have suggested that the Dover demon was actually an extraterrestrial that got separated from its space ship, and I considered this hypothesis carefully. But the Dover demon acted like an animal and has the body plan of an animal that is from Earth. If it hadn’t look so spooky—if it had fur—no one would have thought it was especially unusual.

So, was it a hoax? The witnesses all went to the same high school and lived in the same small town, although Abby was actually from another small town adjacent to Dover. Bill and Will were good friends, but Bill and John only knew each other slightly. None of them went to the newspapers or tried to make a big deal of their sightings. There’s some confusion as to when they realized they’d all seen the same thing and compared stories, but it seems to have happened either the next day when Bill and Will gave John a ride, on Saturday when John and Bill both attended the same party, or the following Tuesday at school.

I’ve put a link in the show notes to a really good site where I took a lot of my information, which itself is taken directly from the original interviews and report by a group of cryptozoologists, including Loren Coleman, who was the one who started calling the creature the Dover demon. There’s a long quote from John Baxter, and the way he describes what happened sounds authentic to me. I also read a 2006 interview with Bill Bartlett and he still claims the sighting was authentic.

Could it have been a thin person or a little kid with a big mask on, out at night to scare people? Of course this is possible, but why did the person quit after just three separate sightings on two nights? Reports of the sightings didn’t make it to the newspapers until the following month, so it’s not like there were people out hunting for the creature and the hoaxer was afraid they’d be caught.

There is one detail that concerns me about the sightings. April 18, 1977 was a new moon, which means that April 21 would have been quite dark, with only a thin crescent moon. Yet both Bill and John reported seeing the creature’s long fingers and toes wrapped around rocks. Bill did see the creature in his car’s headlights, but John was looking at it through the trees. I checked Google Maps street view again and Miller Hill Road doesn’t appear to have streetlamps, so I don’t know how John could have seen the creature’s fingers and toes so clearly from 30 feet away on a nearly moonless night.

I wish we had better information about when John made his drawing. His drawing is very, very similar to Bill’s, so much so that I wonder if John saw Bill’s first and used it as a reference. While John did obviously have some artistic ability, his lines aren’t as sure as Bill’s and he may have been uncertain both about the details he’d seen and about his ability to draw the details accurately. He might have filled in the gaps in his memory by looking at Bill’s drawing.

It does seem suspicious that three of the four witnesses were close friends: Bill and Will were buddies, and Abby was Will’s girlfriend. John knew the others but wasn’t friends with them, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have asked him to be part of the joke. Bill and Will were older and John might have looked up to them, and he might have been flattered to be part of the hoax.

I keep coming back to Bill’s drawings of the creature. He made several, apparently illustrating what he’d seen since the poses are all similar. But I’m an artist myself, and sometimes when you draw something really interesting you redo it several times because you like it and you want to improve it. You can get really attached to a character you doodled randomly. I wondered for a while if Bill’s drawings came first, and the story came second as a way to get more people to look at his drawings and appreciate the character he created. Or he might have been illustrating Gollum, the creature from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The books were really popular even then and the drawing does look a lot like the way Gollum is described in the books.

But I finally rejected this. From what we know of Bill’s character, this wasn’t something he would do. His friends all vouched for him being honest and apparently he was genuinely shaken by the sighting. I think he kept drawing and painting the creature because he was trying to figure out what it was.

So if it wasn’t a hoax, and it wasn’t a known or unknown animal, and it probably wasn’t something outside of the realm of science, what’s left? That’s the trouble, we don’t have enough information to know for sure. All we know is that four teenagers saw the creature over the course of about 24 hours, and then it was never seen again.

The more I think about it, the more I come to a single conclusion. If you look in the show notes at the photo I’ve posted of the sad mangy bear, and compare it to Bill’s drawings and painting I also posted, you’ll note some interesting similarities. The body is short, the limbs long in proportion. The legs are shaped the same way in both pictures. There’s no tail. The bear’s head, turned toward the viewer, has the same shape as the Dover demon’s head, it’s just not as large and it has big ears. But Bill didn’t get a good look at the animal, and he saw it briefly in the glare of his headlights on an extremely dark night. He saw the general shape of an animal climbing over rocks, staring into the light with its eyes reflecting the light brightly. Bears do have orange eyeshine and the placement of a bear’s eyes in its face matches what Bill drew.

Here’s what I think happened, maybe. Bill saw a small, thin bear with an advanced case of mange. This meant it had very little hair left and its skin was probably inflamed from scratching. Mange is caused by a mite that burrows under the skin of an animal and causes intense itching. The skin and what was left of the fur would look textured and mottled. The bright eyeshine drew his attention and exaggerated the size of the head in his memory, or it’s possible the poor bear had a swollen face from a bee sting or another malady that made it look much larger than it really was.

John encountered the same bear later that night. It’s not clear from John’s description if the Dover demon was actually walking toward him or just standing in the road. John might not have been able to tell. Bears stand on their hind legs to see better, and the bear was probably alarmed at John’s approach and was trying to decide what to do. When John got too close, the bear ran into the trees, then stopped to look back. That’s when John saw it in silhouette, realized he was seeing something weird, and retreated.

The next evening, the creature was supposedly spotted again by Abby as Will drove her home, and it’s possible that’s what they saw. But by that time Bill had undoubtedly told Will about the bizarre creature he’d seen and shown him his drawing, and Will had undoubtedly told Abby. This could easily have influenced her brief sighting of a goat or other animal, and she thought she had seen the same thing as Bill had. She may even have seen his drawing too. Remember, as I frequently say, people see what they expect to see. We don’t do it on purpose; our brains take what we know of a situation or object or animal and fill in the gaps of what we see so we can make faster decisions about what to do.

I also think John had already seen Bill’s drawing when he made his own drawing, which is why they look so much alike. I just can’t believe that John could have seen the creature’s toes wrapped around rocks at that distance, under the trees, in near-total darkness. I think he was influenced by Bill’s drawing and added the detail without realizing he hadn’t actually seen it. Bill had probably misinterpreted what he saw: namely, the bear’s long claws, which might have looked like part of long fingers, especially if the bear had very little fur on its paws.

My theory certainly doesn’t fit all the facts, primarily the presence of big bear ears which should have been quite noticeable. I did look at a lot of trail cam pictures of bears taken at night, though, and at some angles the bear’s ears don’t show very much or at all. I don’t think my scenario is necessarily what happened, though, just a guess that mostly fits. We would need a lot more information to make a real identification of what creature the teenagers saw that night, and so much time has passed that it’s impossible to get that information now.

So the Dover demon remains a mystery. But even though I’m mostly satisfied that the Dover demon was a sad mangy bear, that has not stopped me from being really jumpy on my usual evening walks. Because I might be totally wrong and I’ll never know.

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 us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend. Don’t forget to contact me if you want to enter the book giveaway contest, too! Details are on the website, but basically if you want to enter, just contact me any way you like and let me know.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 124: Updates 2 and a new human



It’s our second updates and corrections episode! Thanks to everyone who sent in corrections and suggestions for this one! It’s not as comprehensive as I’d have liked, but there’s lots of interesting stuff in here. Stick around to the end to learn about a new species of human recently discovered on the island of Luzon.

The triple-hybrid warbler:

Further reading:

New species of ancient human discovered in the Philippines: Homo luzonensis

Show transcript:

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

Yes, it’s our second updates episode, but don’t worry, it won’t be boring!

First, a few corrections. In episode 45 I talked about monotreme, marsupial, and placental mammals, and Tara points out that the placenta and bag of waters are different things. I got them mixed up in the episode. The bag of waters is also called the amniotic sac, which protects and cushions the growing baby inside with special amniotic fluid. The placenta is an organ attached to the lining of the womb, with the bag of waters inside the placenta. The umbilical cord connects the baby to the placenta, which supplies it with all its needs, including oxygen since obviously it can’t breathe yet.

Next, I covered this correction in in episode 111 too, but Judith points out that the picture I had in episode 93 of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly was actually of an atlas moth. I’ve corrected the picture and if you want to learn more about the atlas moth, you can listen to episode 111.

Next, Pranav pointed out that in the last updates episode I said that the only bears from Africa went extinct around 3 million years ago–but the Atlas bear survived in Africa until the late 19th century. The Atlas bear was a subspecies of brown bear that lived in the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa, and I totally can’t believe I missed that when I was researching the nandi bear last year!

Finally, ever since episode 66 people have been emailing me about Tyrannosaurus rex, specifically my claim that it was the biggest land carnivore ever. I don’t remember where I found that information but it may or may not be the case, depending on how you’re defining biggest. Biggest could mean heaviest, tallest, longest, or some combination of features pertaining to size.

Then again, in 1991 a T rex was discovered in Canada, but it was so big and heavy and in such hard stone that it took decades to excavate and prepare so that it can be studied. And it turns out to be the biggest T rex ever found. It’s also a remarkably complete fossil, with over 70% of its skeleton remaining.

The T rex is nicknamed Scotty and was discovered in Saskatchewan. It lived about 68 million years ago, and turns out to not only be the biggest T rex found so far, it was probably the oldest. Paleontologists estimate it was over 30 years old when it died. It was 43 feet long, or 13 meters. This makes it bigger than the previously largest T rex found, Sue, who was 40 feet long, or 12.3 meters. Scotty also appears to be the heaviest of all the T rexes found, although estimates of its weight vary a lot. Of course some researchers debate Scotty’s size, since obviously it’s impossible to really know how big or heavy a living dinosaur was by just looking at its fossils. But Scotty was definitely at least a little bigger than Sue.

Scotty is on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada.

Way back in episode 12, I talked about snakes that were supposed to make noises of one kind or another. Many snakes do make sounds, but overall they’re usually very quiet animals. A snake called the bushmaster viper that lives in parts of Central America has long been rumored to sing like a bird. The bushmaster can grow up to ten feet long, or 3 meters, and its venom can be deadly to humans.

Recently, researchers discovered the source of the bushmaster’s supposed song. It’s not a snake singing. It’s not a bird singing. It’s not even a single animal–it’s two, both of them tree frogs. One of the frogs is new to science, the other is a little-known frog related to the new one.

I tried so hard to find audio of this frog, and I’m very bitter to report that I had no luck. The closest I could find was not great audio of this frog, whose name I forgot to write down, which I think is related to the new frogs.

[frog sound]

Now let’s do some quick, short updates, mostly from recent articles I’ve happened across while researching other things.

A triple-hybrid warbler, its mother a golden-winged/blue-winged hybrid (also called a Brewster’s warbler) and its father a warbler from a different genus, chestnut-sided, was sighted in May of 2018 by a birder in Pennsylvania. Lowell Burket noticed it had characteristics of both a blue-winged and a golden-winged warbler but sang like a chestnut-sided warbler. He contacted the Cornell Evolutionary Biology Lab about the bird with photos and video of it, and they sent a researcher, David Toews, out to look at it. Toews caught the bird, measured it, and took a blood sample for analysis. I think a listener told me about this article but I didn’t write down who, so thank you, mystery person.

Red-fronted lemurs chew on certain types of millipedes and rub the chewed-up millipedes on their tails and their butts. They also eat some of the millipedes. Researchers think the millipedes secrete a substance called benzoquinone, which acts as an insect repellant and may also help the lemurs get rid of intestinal parasites. Other animals rub crushed millipedes on their bodies for the same reasons.

A recent study of saber-toothed cat fossils show that many of the animals with injuries to their jaws and teeth that would have kept them from hunting properly survived on softer foods like meat and fat. Researchers think the injured cats were provided with food by other cats, which suggests they were social animals. The study examined micro-abrasions on the cats’ teeth that give researchers clues about what kinds of food the animals ate.

Simon sent me an article about a 228 million year old fossil turtle, Eorhynchochelys [ay-oh-rink-ah-keel-us]. It was definitely a turtle but it didn’t have a shell. Instead, its ribs were wide, which gave its body a turtle-like shape. Turtle shells actually evolved from widened ribs like these. Researchers are especially interested because Eorhynchochelys had a beak like modern turtles, while the other ancient turtle we know of had a partial shell but no beak. This gives researchers a better idea of how turtles evolved. Oh, and in case you were wondering, Eorhynchochelys grew over six feet long, or over 1.8 meters.

The elephant bird, featured in episode 51, was a giant flightless bird that lived in Madagascar. Recently new research about elephant birds has revealed some interesting information. For one thing, we now know what the biggest bird that ever lived was. It’s called Vorombe titan and grew nearly ten feet tall, or 3 meters, and weighed up to 1,800 lbs, or 800 kg. It was first discovered in 1894 but not recognized as its own species until 2018.

There’s also some evidence that at least some elephant bird species may have been nocturnal with extremely poor vision. This is the case with the kiwi bird, which is related to the elephant bird. Brain reconstruction studies of two species of elephant bird reveal that the part of its brain that processed vision was very small. It resembles the kiwi’s brain, in fact. One of the species studied had a larger area of the brain that processed smell, which researchers hypothesize may mean it lived in forested areas.

Another study of the elephant bird bones show evidence that the birds were killed and eaten by humans. But the bones date to more than 10,000 years ago. Humans supposedly didn’t live in Madagascar until 4,000 years ago at the earliest. So not only is there now evidence that people colonized the island 6,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers now want to find out why elephant birds and humans coexisted on the island for some 9,000 years before the elephant bird went extinct. Hopefully archaeologists can uncover more information about the earliest people to arrive on Madagascar, which may help us learn more about how they interacted with the elephant bird and other extinct animals of the island.

Speaking of humans, humans evolved in Africa and until very recently, evolutionarily speaking, that’s where we all lived. Scientists rely on fossils, archaeological materials, and studies of ancient DNA to determine when and where humans spread beyond Africa. But at the moment, the DNA that researchers have studied doesn’t overlap entirely with what we’ve learned from the other sources. Basically this means that there are big chunks of data we still need to find to get a better picture of where our ancestors traveled. Part of the problem is that DNA preserves best in cold, dry areas, so most of the viable DNA recovered is from middle Eurasia. Fortunately, DNA technology is becoming more and more refined every year.

This brings us to a suggestion by Nicholas, who told me about a newly discovered hominin called Homo luzonensis. Homo luzonensis lived on an island called Luzon in the Philippines at least 50,000 years ago. It wasn’t a direct ancestor to Homo sapiens but was one of our cousins, although we don’t know yet how closely related.

No one thought humans could reach the island of Luzon until relatively recent times, because of how remote it is and because it hadn’t been connected to the mainland for the last 2 ½ million years. But when Homo floresiensis was discovered in 2004 on the island of Flores in Indonesia, which you may remember from episode 26, suddenly scientists got interested in other islands. Researchers knew there had been human settlements on Luzon 25,000 years ago, but no one had bothered to search for older settlements. In 2007 a team of paleoanthropologists returned to the island and found a foot bone that looked human. In 2011 and 2015 the team found some teeth and more bones from at least three different individuals.

We don’t know a whole lot about the Luzon humans yet. The discoveries are still too new. The Luzon hominins have a combination of features that are unique, a mixture of traits that appear more modern and traits that are seen in more ancient hominins. They’re also smaller in stature than modern humans, closer to the size of the Flores people. Homo luzonensis apparently used stone tools since researchers have found animal bones that show cut marks from butchering.

Researchers are starting to put together a picture of South Asia in ancient times, 50,000 years ago and more, and it’s becoming clear that there were a surprising number of hominins in the area. It’s also becoming clear that hominins lived in the area a lot longer ago than we thought. Researchers have found stone tools on the island of Sulawesi that date back at least 118,000 years. Even on Luzon, in 2018 researchers found stone tools and rhinoceros bones with butcher marks that date back over 700,000 years ago. We don’t know who those people were or if they were the ancestors of the Luzon people. We just know that they liked to eat rhino meat, which is one data point.

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 042: Mystery Bears



This week we’re going to learn about bears, including a bunch of m y s t e r y  b e a r s!

Hi! I am a panda bear!

A polar bear:

A spectacled bear:

A baby spectacled bear OMG LOOK AT THAT BABY:

The giant short-faced bear was indeed giant:

Further reading:

Shuker Nature

Show transcript:

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

I’m in the mood for a bona fide mystery animal, and I bet you are too. So this week let’s learn about some mystery bears.

There are eight species of bears alive today that we know of: brown, polar, spectacled, sloth, sun, Asian and American black bears, and the giant panda. The other ones you may have heard of, like grizzlies, are subspecies of those eight. For a long time pandas were not considered bears at all, but more closely related to raccoons. These days they’re definitely in the bear box, but they’ve evolved in a completely different direction from other bears for some 19 million years, which is why they’re so different.

Before we get into the mysteries, let’s talk about just how different pandas are from other bears. As you probably know, the panda eats bamboo almost exclusively, unlike all other bears which are either omnivorous or, in the case of the polar bear, carnivorous. To survive on bamboo, the panda has evolved a lot of unusual adaptations. The front paws, for instance, have five toes just like all bears, and also a thumb. The thumb is actually a modified wrist bone that juts out from the base of the paw and helps the panda hold bamboo stalks as it eats the leaves.

Bamboo is not very nutritious. It’s certainly low in protein, especially considering that while the panda eats almost nothing but bamboo, it still has the digestive system of a carnivore. Special microbes in the panda’s intestines help break down the bamboo so the panda can digest it, but it takes a lot of bamboo to provide the energy a panda needs. A panda eats 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo leaves, stems, and shoots every day, or 9-14 kg, which means it also poops a whole lot. Seriously, it poops something like 40 times a day. And it still doesn’t have a lot of energy. It mostly just sits around eating and pooping. But while the panda just chews leaves all the time, it still has bear fangs and it will eat meat and eggs when it can. Researchers think that the panda only became exclusively a bamboo eater about two million years ago.

The panda lives in the mountains of China in only a few places. It used to also live in the lowlands but farming and other development drove it into more remote areas. There are about 50 pandas in captivity these days and somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 pandas in the wild, with the population finally increasing after laws protecting pandas from poaching started to be enforced.

The people of China knew about the panda for centuries, although they were considered rare and elusive even in the olden days, but it wasn’t until 1869 that anyone from outside of China had a clue that gigantic roly-poly black and white bamboo-eating six-toed bears were real. Seriously, would you believe that? In 1869 a French missionary and naturalist bought a dead panda from some hunters, dissected it to study, and sent the skin to a zoologist friend in Paris.

So it’s possible that there are other mystery bears out there, known to the locals who don’t realize their bears are special, just waiting to be spotted by someone who knows a thing or two about bears.

In 1920 a Swedish scientist named Sten Bergman was shown the pelt of a bear by locals during an expedition to the Kamchatka Peninsula. That’s in the very eastern part of Russia on the Pacific coast and is sparsely populated. It’s mountainous with a cluster of active volcanos and it’s well known for the brown bears that live in the area. The Kamchatka brown bears are among the largest brown bear subspecies in the world, almost the size of the closely related Kodiak brown bear. When it stands on its hind legs it can be almost ten feet tall, or 3 meters. It’s mostly harmless to humans. Mostly. It hardly ever kills people. Just, you know, occasionally. The Kamchatka brown bears have long brown fur, sometimes pale brown but usually a sort of medium brown. They’re certainly not black. But the pelt that Dr. Bergman was shown was jet black and had short fur. But it was definitely a bear pelt, and the pelt was definitely enormous—much larger than a brown bear pelt. Bergman also saw a huge skull supposedly from one of the black bears, and a paw print 15” long and 10” wide, or 38 cm by 25 ½ cm.

Unfortunately none of the giant black bears have turned up since, living or dead. It’s possible that the bear was an unusually large brown bear with anomalous fur. Brown bears do have considerable variability in both the color and length of their fur, so it’s not out of the question that occasionally a brown bear is born that is actually black. It’s also possible that this black bear is actually a different species of bear, but that it’s either gone extinct or is extremely rare and only lives in far remote areas of Siberia these days.

But the Kamchatka Peninsula has another mystery bear for us to ponder. In 1987 a hunter named Rodion Sivolobov bought a giant white bear skin from locals. It looked like a big polar bear pelt, but the locals assured him it was from a very specific, very rare type of local bear.

They called it the irkuiem and described it as large but with a relatively small head, relatively short hind legs, and an unusual method of running. It supposedly runs in a sort of rocking motion, bringing both hind legs up to the forelegs, then throwing the forelegs forward together to start a new stride–more like a rabbit’s bounding run than a bear’s typical gait.

Sivolobov sent samples of the pelt to various zoologists in Russia, but they said there wasn’t much they could determine without a skull. But with DNA testing so much more advanced these days, it would be REALLY NICE if Sivolobov would get right on that and get his white bear pelt tested. If it really exists and if he’s not scared he was sold a marked-up polar bear skin with a tall tale.

The polar bear lives in the Arctic and is so closely related to the brown bear that the two species occasionally crossbreed when their range overlaps. Technically polar bears are marine mammals since they hunt seals on sea ice and spend a lot of time in the water. Sometimes a polar bear will drift for long distances on a piece of sea ice, or may swim for days, crossing hundreds of miles of ocean.

Polar bear feet are huge, around 12 inches wide or 30 cm, which helps keep the bear from sinking in the snow since its weight is more widely distributed on broad paws. Think snowshoes. Broad feet also helps it swim faster. The paw pads are bumpy so it’s less likely to slip on ice, and the claws are short and strong for digging in snow and ice. The polar bear stays warm because its body is heavily insulated with fat, plus its fur is thick with a soft undercoat that insulates so well that polar bears really are virtually invisible to heat-sensing radar. Male polar bears grow long fur on their forelegs, apparently because lady polar bears find that attractive. Unlike most other bears, polar bears don’t hibernate.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was a German naturalist who took part in explorations of Kamchatka Peninsula and other areas. He’s the guy that Steller’s sea-cow is named after and one day it’s getting its own episode. Anyway, in 1751 Steller wrote a book called, in English, Beasts of the Sea, and in it he mentions a report of a white sea-bear. He didn’t see it himself, but here’s his account, which I’ve taken from Karl Shuker’s excellent blog ShukerNature. I’ll link to it in the show notes.

Here’s the quote:

“Report, as I gather from the account of the people, has declared that the sea-bear, as it is called by the Rutheni and other people is different. They say it is an amphibious sea beast very like a bear, but very fierce, both on land and in the water. They told likewise, that in the year 1736 it had overturned a boat and torn two men to pieces; that they were very much alarmed when they heard the sound of its voice, which was like the growl of a bear, and that they fled from their chase of the otter and seals on the sea and hastened back to land. They say that it is covered with white fur; that it lives near the Kuril Islands, and is more numerous toward Japan; that here it is seldom seen. I myself do not know how far to believe this report, for no one has ever seen one, either slain or cast up dead upon the shore.”

Shuker suggests that this report may actually be of a fur seal, which is found in the area and has sometimes been called a sea-bear. Then again, fur seals aren’t white. They’re gray or brown and would appear darker in the water.

The Kuril Islands are a string of 56 volcanic islands that stretch between the northeastern tip of Hokkaido, Japan to the southern tip of Kamchatka Peninsula, a distance of about 810 miles, or 1300 km. Some of the largest islands are inhabited by brown bears, but it’s far from the Arctic. Polar bears get overheated easily in warmer areas, so a population of polar bears—or even a stray one—is unlikely that far south.

There are also stories of pure white bears in the forests of Hubei province in China. It’s always possible this is a garbled account of the panda, but maybe not.

In 1864, Inuit hunters supposedly killed a huge bear with yellowish fur. Naturalist Roderick McFarlane acquired the skin and skull and sent them to the Smithsonian, which promptly lost them. That’s the story, anyway. In fact, the Smithsonian did misplace the skin and skull for a while, but zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam found and examined them. He decided it was a new species of bear due to the skull’s odd shape and the light tan color of the fur.

Older polar bears do tend to have yellowish fur so maybe that’s all this bear was. But it might have been something else. As I mentioned earlier, polar bears and various subspecies of brown bear do sometimes crossbreed and produce fertile young. It’s rare, but it happens occasionally both in the wild and in captivity. The resulting babies show traits of both polar bears and brown bears, and tend to be pale brown or tan in color with darker brown paws. Then again, there’s a MonsterQuest episode that I haven’t actually seen where a paleontologist examines the McFarlane skull and states it’s just that of a young female brown bear.

For having only eight species, bears are remarkably widespread and vary considerably in diet and appearance. The sloth bear mostly eats insects, for instance. It lives in India and has shaggy black fur with a pale muzzle and white claws, big floppy ears, and a white V-shaped mark on the chest. It lacks upper incisors, which helps it slurp up insects.

Sloth bears are actually pretty darn awesome. Males often help raise the cubs and mothers carry their babies around on their backs. The sloth bear doesn’t hibernate, probably because it doesn’t really get cold where it lives.

The spectacled bear lives in South America. It’s the last close relative of the giant short-faced bear that went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The spectacled bear is mostly black, although some individuals may appear brown or reddish, and most but not all have lighter markings on the face and chest. Its head is much less bearlike than other bears, with a rounded face and short snout. It mostly eats plants and lives in the Andes Mountains and surrounding areas. It spends a lot of time in trees, and will even build a little platform in a tree to sleep on or store food on.

And you know what? Paddington Bear is modeled on the spectacled bear.

The spectacled bear is not especially scary. Its relative, the giant short-faced bear, was another story. It lived in North America, especially in California, and its remains have been found in the La Brea tar pits. But it also lived as far south as Mississippi. And it was huge. It was simply enormous. It stood up to 6 feet at the shoulder, or 1.8 meters, and twice that when standing on its hind legs. One website I read pointed out that regulation height for a basketball rim is ten feet, which means a giant short-faced bear could dunk the ball every time without doing anything more strenuous than standing up. It was probably an omnivore like most modern bears, but we have mastodon bones that show tooth marks from the short-faced bear.

Naturally, as with just about any extinct animal, people keep hoping they’re not really extinct and occasionally someone reports seeing a giant short-faced bear. Some cryptozoologists speculate that the Kamchatka Peninsula mystery bears may actually be short-faced bears, but since short-faced bear fossils have only been found in North America, it’s probably not likely that there would be any living in Russia. Besides, the short-faced bear would have looked very different from the brown bear, probably shaped more like a colossal spectacled bear. Locals would definitely notice the difference. Moreover, it’s not likely to live in the same area that already has a population of brown bears, since both animals would then be competing for the same resources.

Personally, while the giant short-faced bear is awesome to imagine, I’m perfectly happy with it not wandering around in the forests. Because I like to hike. And I worry enough about the relatively small and harmless American black bear as it is.

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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 035: The Yeti (Bigfoot part 1)



It’s October, MONSTER MONTH! We’re starting it off right with an episode about the Yeti! I literally could have made this episode an hour long without even touching on half the information out there, but no one wants to listen to me talk for that long. If you’re intrigued and want to hear more about our big furry friend from the Himalayas, check out the fine podcasts listed below.

The Himalayas, in map form:

A Himalayan brown bear (tongue blep alert!):

A bear standing up (this is a brown bear from Alaska but I like the picture. Bears stand up a lot):

Recommended listening:

Museum of Natural Mystery – episode 14: “Backtracking with Bigfoot” – highly recommended for information about North American bigfoot/Sasquatch lore and history. It’s family friendly and not very long. I heart it.

MonsterTalk – episode 116 “Yetipalooza” – lots of Yeti information and some terrible, terrible puns

Strange Matters Podcast – “Legendary Humanoid Creatures” – a good overview of a lot of different bigfoot type monsters, including the Yeti

Hidden Creatures Podcast – Episode Six A “Yearning for the Yeti’s Discovery” and Episode Six B “The Yeti…Again” – lots of info on the Yeti

All of the above should be family friendly, with possible mild language.

Resources/further reading:

The Historical Bigfoot by Chad Arment

Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Show transcript:

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

It’s October and that means monsters. Let’s jump right in with one of the biggest stars of cryptozoology, bigfoot!

As part of my research for this episode, I listened to other podcasts that have covered bigfoot and his kin. One of those was the Museum of Natural Mystery’s episode 14, Backtracking with Bigfoot. I was more than a little dismayed when I listened to that one, because it’s exactly what I had hoped to do with this episode. In fact, while Museum of Natural Mystery covers other topics than just animals, when they do focus on animals they scratch the same itch I created Strange Animals podcast to scratch. If I’d discovered them earlier, the podcast you’re listening to now would probably be about music or something, not animals.

There’s a link to Backtracking with Bigfoot in the show notes and I highly recommend you go listen to it. It focuses mainly on the Bigfoot phenomenon in North America, from Sasquatch to skunk apes. Rather than cover the same ground, my focus here is going to be on bigfoot legends from other parts of the world. There’s so much fascinating information out there that I had to break the episode into two parts. This week we’re looking at the yeti.

But first, some background. There are a couple of starting places for the modern concept of bigfoot. In 1921, the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition found tracks in the snow resembling a bare human foot. They realized the tracks were probably made by wolves, the front and rear tracks overlapping and the snow melted enough to obscure the paw pads. Expedition leader Charles Howard-Bury wrote that the expedition’s Sherpa guides claimed the tracks were made by a wild hairy man.

At about the same time, the 1920s, British Columbian schoolteacher John W. Burns was collecting reports of Native encounters with giant wild people. He coined the term Sasquatch by anglicizing a couple of different words from several different Native dialects.

Burns published his stories in magazines. Howard-Bury talked to reporters about his Everest expedition. The idea of bigfoot took shape and took off in the public imagination. It merged with giant apes and ape-men in popular culture, like King Kong in 1933 and the movie Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932, both of which were huge hits.

Before this, from the early 19th century to around the 1940s, newspaper reports that would today be called bigfoot sightings were attributed to wild men or occasionally to escaped gorillas or other apes. Some were hoaxes, some seem to concern real humans living outside of society, and some are probably misidentifications of bears and other real animals. Very few suggest the wild man in question was a creature unknown to science. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any legit sightings of an actual bigfoot mixed in, just that bigfoot wasn’t yet a common concept.

But by 1967, year of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, the notion of bigfoot as a huge, hairy, upright ape was firmly planted in western culture. Most of us know a fair amount about North American Sasquatches just from popular culture. ‘Squatch-hunters on TV stumble around in the woods at night, which by the way I never understood since apes are not nocturnal. Bigfoot appears in TV commercials, movies, and is the subject of documentaries that are all pretty much identical. But most of us are less familiar with the Yeti.

The English-speaking world first learned about the Yeti after a 1921 expedition to Mount Everest. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, the expedition members recognized that a line of huge human-like prints they spotted in the snow above 20,000 feet probably belonged to wolves or some other four-legged animal. The forepaw and hind paw prints overlapped, making a double track of what looked like long, relatively narrow footprints. Then the snow partially melted, obscuring the details and enlarging the prints. Colonel Howard-Bury, the expedition leader, was very clear about this in the London Times in October 1921, and dismissed as superstition the Sherpas’ statement that the tracks belonged to a hairy wild man.

Maybe all that was true, but if you’re a journalist hoping to sell papers, which story are you going to run with? After the expedition returned to India, journalist Henry Newman interviewed the porters and published a sensational account of their stories. He translated their name for the wild man, Metoh kangmi, as “abominable snowman.” Maybe you’ve heard of it.

As it turns out, Metoh kangmi means something closer to man-bear. In fact, it means man-bear, man-bear, because both mi-te and kangmi mean the same thing.

The peoples who live in and around the Himalayas speak a lot of different languages. They also have a lot of different names for what we call the Yeti. Yeti is a corruption of a Sherpa term, yeh-teh, meaning “animal of rocky places,” although it may be related to the term meh-teh, which means man-bear. Other terms translate to wild man, cattle bear, brown bear, and white bear. I’m going to refer to all these creatures as the Yeti for convenience sake.

While the pop culture version of the Yeti is a white bigfoot striding through the snow, actual sightings of Yetis are of brown, black, or even reddish creatures. Local Yeti lore throughout the Himalayas doesn’t describe a specifically upright apeman or even a particularly human-like monster, either. To locals, yetis are fairly amorphous, and when they are described, they tend to have bear-like or even big-cat-like characteristics.

As an example, here’s a quote from one of the earliest Yeti reports, from 1889. I’m taking the quote from the book Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero. Links to all the books I used in my research are in the show notes, of course. Anyway, the quote itself comes from a book called Among the Himalayas by Laurence A. Waddell:

“Some large footprints in the snow led across our track, and away up to higher peaks. These are alleged to be the trail of the hairy wild men who are believed to live amongst the eternal snows, along with the mythical white lions, whose roar is reputed to be heard during storms. The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved itself into something that somebody heard tell of.”

Waddell goes on to declare that the wild man was nothing more than a bear, then says that the people of the area are just superstitious ignoramuses.

I dislike that most descriptions and discussions about Yetis are filtered through European experiences, and that the older reports especially have a high-handed tone that ruffles my feathers—not just racist, but classist as well. Brown people and poor people are not stupid, and what someone from one culture dismisses as a superstition may be a deeply held religious belief in another culture. Moreover, as anthropologist John Napier wrote in 1973, the superstitious sherpas that white explorers sneer at may actually have been having a sly joke at their employers’ expense—that or they’re just being polite and telling their employers what they think they want to hear. Or both, heck. People are complicated.

But consider what has happened when Europeans eager to discover the “truth” of the Yeti encounter Buddhist monks with Yeti relics. In 1959 Tom Slick, a rich Texas oilman who liked to indulge his hobby of bigfoot hunting—we met him in the giant salamander episode, you may remember—funded an expedition to Nepal to hunt for the Yeti. This was his fourth Yeti hunt, and some historians suspect he and many other explorers in the area had CIA connections. This was during the cold war, remember. But Slick’s interest in the Yeti was genuine, and during his 1958 expedition he had tried to buy a mummified Yeti hand from a Buddhist monastery in Pangboche, Nepal. The hand, along with a Yeti scalp, was a sacred relic and definitely not for sale. So in 1959 Slick arranged for explorer Peter Byrne to go back to the monastery and steal a finger from the hand. Supposedly Byrne replaced the missing finger with a human finger he had brought with him. Where on earth do you even get a human finger? Anyway, as Byrne reports, to get the finger out of Nepal he gave it to the actor Jimmy Stewart, who was one of the expedition’s backers. Stewart’s wife Gloria smuggled the Yeti finger out of the country in her lingerie case. It was later analyzed and found to be a human finger.

Everything about this story is horrible. First of all, it is not cool to steal sacred relics. Second, it’s not cool to swap out human body parts to cover your theft. And third, you know what they did with the stolen Yeti finger that turned out to be human? They lost it, that’s what they did. For decades no one knew where it had gone. Fortunately, it was rediscovered in a London museum in 2008, and DNA analysis confirmed it was human. The BBC interviewed Byrne in 2011 and his story had changed somewhat about his acquisition of the finger. He now says he paid the monastery for it. Mmhm. Sure. Someone stole the rest of the hand from the monastery in the 1990s, along with a yeti skull-cap.

Other Yeti remains have been analyzed more ethically. Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who first summited Everest, and zoologist Marlon Perkins mounted an expedition in 1960 through ‘61, and went back to the Pangboche monastery to examine their relics. But this time, no one stole anything. In fact, the expedition paid for some repairs to the monastery, and paid for a village elder to accompany a Yeti scalp they were allowed to borrow, which they sent to be analyzed. They also raised money to construct schools and medical clinics in remote villages, among other good works.

The Yeti scalp, and others like it, turned out to be made from the shoulder skin of a goat-like wild animal called a serow. In fact, the Hillary-Perkins expedition was able to make its own Yeti scalps with serow skins dried over a conical wooden mold. It sent its homemade scalps with the borrowed scalp for analysis without telling the lab that some were not authentic. The results came back that all the scalps were made from the same type of animal skin.

In 1986 mountaineer Reinhold Messner had a terrifying encounter with an unknown animal. I’m going to quote it at length because it’s pretty awesome. It’s from his book My Quest for the Yeti, but I have taken the quote again from Abominable Science.

“Making my way through some ash-colored juniper bushes, I suddenly heard an eerie sound—a whistling noise, similar to the warning call mountain goats make. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the outline of an upright figure dart between the trees to the edge of the clearing, where low-growing thickets covered the steep slope. The figure hurried on, silent and hunched forward, disappearing behind a tree only to reappear again against the moonlight. It stopped for a moment and turned to look at me. Again I heard the whistle, more of an angry hiss, and for a heartbeat I saw eyes and teeth. The creature towered menacingly, its face a gray shadow, its body a black outline. Covered with hair, it stood upright on two short legs and had powerful arms that hung down almost to its knees. I guessed it to be over seven feet tall. Its body looked much heavier than that of a man of that size, but it moved with such agility and power toward the edge of the escarpment that I was both startled and relieved. Most I was stunned. No human would have been able to run like that in the middle of the night. It stopped again beyond the trees by the low-growing thickets, as if to catch its breath, and stood motionless in the moonlit night without looking back.”

Messner finishes the sighting by saying it rushed up the slope out of sight on all fours. Messner fled to the nearest village.

After that he spent the next ten years searching for more information on the Yeti. He examined Yeti remains in various monasteries and in all cases found they were either taxidermied creations made from various known animals, or the pelts of bears. In 1997 in the peaks of the Nanga Partains, he and his guide Rozi Ali saw what the locals called a dremo. That’s a Tibetan word commonly used for both the yeti and the Himalayan brown bear. Here’s his description:

“One afternoon, after a long trek, we encountered another dremo. He fled when he saw us, but then seemed to stop and rest in a hollow. I approached the spot from behind some ridges so that he wouldn’t pick up my scent. Rozi Ali followed me. When I began to climb down to where the animal was sleeping in the grass, Rozi Ali tried to stop me. I broke free from his grasp and came within twenty yards of the animal, where I took some good pictures. Rozi Ali, crouching some way back, begged me to make a run for it. He was sweating with fear.

“The animal woke up and looked at me in the way a startled child would a stranger. It was a young brown bear.”

He also says they saw another dremo later, while in Kashmir, and it was “running away on two legs. From a distance it looked uncannily like a wild man”. But it too was a brown bear.

Messner concluded, not unreasonably, that the Yeti was a bear. Many others agree. As it happens, I agree too, and I wonder if a bear that walks upright like a person is perhaps considered to have supernatural traits. After all, Messner found it eerie even when he knew what he was seeing. That might explain the overlap between terms for yeti and terms for bears, and would also explain why so many words translated as yeti actually mean man-bear. But I’d be delighted if a strange upright animal lives in the remote parts of the world, even if that strange animal just turns out to be a new species of bear.

In 2014, geneticists from Oxford University analyzed hair samples from a Himalayan bear and determined that the DNA was similar to that of a 40,000 year old polar bear. But a new analysis in 2015 by geneticists from the Smithsonian and the University of Kansas was a lot less exciting, determining that the hair belonged to a native brown bear after all—but probably to a rare, endangered subspecies of brown bear that lives in parts of the Himalayas, sometimes called the Tibetan blue bear. It’s not blue, by the way. It’s brown. I don’t know why it’s called a blue bear.

The Himalayan brown bear usually lives above the timber line in the mountains and like other bears is omnivorous. That means it eats both plants and meat. It especially likes to eat marmots, a chubby rodent related to squirrels that looks a lot like a prairie dog.

Many cryptozoologists think the Yeti and other bigfoot-type creatures must be either an unknown offshoot of the human family, like a Neandertal, or another unknown great ape that has developed an upright stance, such as a descendant of Gigantopithecus. They even propose that different types of bigfoots are different species of upright ape, all unknown to science.

I do think there are a lot of unknown animals out there, but I’m definitely skeptical that somehow we’ve overlooked multiple living species of giant apes, and not only that, that we haven’t even found fossil or subfossil remains of any of them. Gigantopithecus, by the way, is RIGHT out as a possibility. It was huge, sure, and an ape, sure, but it disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago and ate mostly bamboo. Some researchers think it died out due to competition with pandas, in fact. It was related to orangutans and probably looked more like a big gorilla than a human, and would not stand upright. Remember that among all mammals, humans are the only ones who have developed true bipedalism, and we’ve sacrificed a lot in exchange. For instance, we have weak backs, childbirth is much more difficult, and we frequently die from falling off our own feet and cracking our heads, despite our massively thickened skulls. Other apes would not have developed bipedalism unless they faced the same intense evolutionary pressures that our ancestors did millions of years ago. But we have found no evidence whatsoever that other apes developed bipedalism.

So what about the Yeti being the descendants of Neandertals or other close human relatives? That’s a stronger argument, but if you’ve listened to episode 25 about our close cousins, you’ll remember that they were wearing jewelry and making tools before disappearing from the fossil record only around 30,000 years ago. They didn’t have fur and wouldn’t have been walking around in the snow with bare feet. Our cousins basically looked and acted a whole lot like we do. Remember also that the ancestors of humans and our close relations have been painting our bare skins with ochre and other minerals for 300,000 years for social reasons. We’re not going to go back to sprouting thick fur coats and wandering the mountains in solitude, not without many millions of years of selective evolutionary pressures. But bears are already big hairy solitary animals, and bears can and do walk upright for stretches, especially younger animals.

I could talk about the Yeti for the next hour and still not cover all the material available, so if you’re a Yeti enthusiast who’s sputtering about me skipping all the best evidence, there are a ton of excellent podcasts who’ve covered the topic in much more detail and come up with much different conclusions than I have. I’ve included links to a bunch of them in the show notes for anyone who’s interested in digging a lot deeper into the Yeti’s history.

Next week we’ll be visiting other remote areas of the world to look at more obscure bigfoot-type legends, from Australia’s bunyip and yowie to the giants of Patagonia. Until then, remember to sample the candy you bought to give out on Halloween, to make sure you made good choices. It’s okay if you have to get more later.

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