Episode 368: The Bison

Thanks to Jason for suggesting this week’s topic, the bison!

Further reading:

New research documents domestic cattle genetics in modern bison herds

Higgs Bison: Mysterious Hybrid of Bison and Cattle Hidden in Ice Age Cave Art

A cave painting of steppe bison and other animals:

An American bison [photo by Kim Acker, taken from this site]:

Some European bison [photo by Pryndak Vasyl, taken from this site]:

The bison sound in this episode came from this site.

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about the bison, a suggestion from Jason. There are two species of bison alive today, the American bison and the European bison. Both are sometimes called buffalo while the European bison is sometimes called the wisent. I’m mostly going to call it the wisent too in this episode so I only have to say the word bison 5,000 times instead of 10,000.

Bison are herd animals that can congregate in huge numbers, but these big herds are made up of numerous smaller groups. The smaller groups are made up of a lead female, called a cow, who is usually older, other cows, and all their offspring, called calves. Males, called bulls, live in small bachelor groups. The American bison mostly eats grass while the European bison eats a wider selection of plants in addition to grass.

The bison is a big animal with horns, a shaggy dark brown coat, and a humped shoulder. The American bison’s shoulder is especially humped, which allows for the attachment of strong neck muscles. This allows the animal to clear snow from the ground by swinging its head side to side. The European bison’s hump isn’t as pronounced and it carries its head higher. The bison looks slow and clumsy, but it can actually run up to 35 mph, or 55 km/hour, can swim well, and can jump obstacles that are 5 feet tall, or 1.5 meters.

The American bison can stand over six and a half feet high at the shoulder, or 2 meters, while the European bison stands almost 7 feet tall at the shoulder, or 2.1 meters. This is massively huge! Bison are definitely ice age megafauna that once lived alongside mammoths and woolly rhinos, so we’re lucky they’re still around. Both species almost went extinct in recent times and were only saved by a coordinated effort by early conservationists.

The American bison in particular has a sad story. Before European colonizers arrived, bison were widespread throughout North America. Bison live in herds that migrate sometimes long distances to find food, and many of the North American tribes were also migratory to follow the herds, because the bison was an important part of their diet and they also used its hide and other body parts to make items they needed. The colonizers knew that, and they knew that by killing off the bison, the people who depended on bison to live would starve to death. Since bison were also considered sacred, the emotional and societal impact of colonizers killing the animals was also considerable.

In the 19th century, colonizers killed an estimated 50 million bison. A lot of them weren’t even used for anything. People would shoot as many bison as possible from trains and just leave the bodies to rot, and this practice was actually encouraged by the railroads, who advertised these “hunting” trips. The United States government also encouraged the mass killing of bison and even had soldiers go out to kill as many bison as possible. Bison that escaped the coordinated slaughter often caught diseases spread by domestic cattle, and the increased plowing and fencing of prairie land reduced the food available to bison. By 1900, the number of American bison in the world was probably only about 300.

As early as the 1860s people started to sound the alarm about the bison’s impending extinction. Some ranchers kept bison, partly as meat animals and partly to just help stop them from all dying out. The Yellowstone National Park had been established in 1872, and 25 bison survived there, although many others were poached by hunters. Members of various Plains tribes, who had been forced onto reservations by the United States government so the government could give their land to colonizers, collected as many bison as they could to keep them safe.

These days the American bison is out of immediate danger, although its numbers are still very low. Because there were so few bison when conservation efforts started, the genetic diversity is also low. Bison will also hybridize with domestic cattle and the resulting female calves are fertile, so the main goal of modern conservationists is to genetically test herds to determine which bison have a larger percentage of cattle genes, and mainly only breed the ones that have the least. A 2022 study determined that there is no population of American bison alive today that doesn’t have at least a small percentage of cattle genes. Cattle are domesticated animals, and it’s never a good thing when a wild animal ends up with the DNA of a domestic counterpart. Bison need their wildness in order to survive and stay safe.

There are two living subspecies of American bison, the wood bison and the plains bison. I’m happy to report that the scientific name of the plains bison is Bison bison bison. The wood bison mainly lives in Canada, where it’s classified as threatened.

As for the European bison, or wisent, it was once common throughout much of Europe and Asia. As the human population increased after the ice age, the wisent’s numbers decreased until it was mostly restricted to a few areas of Russia, Transylvania, Poland, and Lithuania. Even as early as the 16th century, people were aware it was endangered. Local rulers declared it a protected animal in most of its range.

During World War I, German troops occupying Poland killed hundreds of wisents, and as the troops retreated at the end of the war, they shot as many of the bison as they could find and left them to rot. Only nine individuals remained alive and by 1921 they had died too. By 1927, the very last wisent in the wild was killed by a poacher.

But 12 animals remained, kept in various zoos. In 1923 a preservation society was set up, modeled after the one in the United States that had helped save the American bison from extinction. Poland in particular worked hard to increase the wisent’s numbers and re-introduce it to its forest home, although its efforts were interrupted by World War II. These days the wisent is out of danger of extinction, although like the American bison its numbers are still relatively low.

American and European bison are related and can crossbreed, but they’re not as closely related genetically as was once thought. Genetic studies are ongoing, but it appears that the wisent is most closely related to domestic cattle while the American bison is most closely related to the yak.

We recently talked about the steppe bison in episode 357, which is about mammoth meat. The steppe bison is an ancestor of the American bison and lived throughout Europe and Asia across to North America, during the Pleistocene when Asia and North America were connected by the land bridge Beringia. It only went extinct around 3,000 years ago. It had much larger horns than modern bison, with a horn spread of almost seven feet across, or over 2 meters.

About 17,000 years ago, in a cave in what is now France, an ancient artist picked up a stick of charcoal and made a drawing of a bison alongside many other bison drawings made by many artists over the years. According to a study published in 2016, there are two different types of bison depicted in the cave. One type is the steppe bison, but the other is distinctly different. After a genetics study of bison in Europe, researchers made a surprising discovery. The second type of bison depicted in the cave is actually a hybrid animal. Hybrids come about when two species of closely related animals interbreed. The more closely related the species are, the more likely they are to interbreed where their territories overlap, and the more likely that the offspring will be fertile. This is exactly what happened toward the end of the Pleistocene, when climate change made it harder for the steppe bison to survive. Instead, a hybrid of steppe bison and the aurochs, the wild ancestor of the domestic cow, not only became common throughout much of Europe, eventually the hybrid species was so numerous that it became a distinct species of its own.

This hybrid bison had small horns and a smaller hump than the steppe bison, although it was still a really big animal. Eventually it gave rise to the modern European bison while the steppe bison gave rise to the antique bison, which itself is the direct ancestor of the American bison. So many bison!

This is what a bison sounds like, specifically an American bison recorded in Yellowstone National Park:

[bison sound]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 064: Updates and the Nandi Bear

It’s update week! I call myself out for some mistakes, then catch us all up on new information about topics we’ve covered in the past. Then we’ll learn about the Nandi bear, a mystery animal that is probably not actually a bear.

Check out Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast on Podbean!

Check out the Zeng This! pop culture podcast while you’re at it!

A new species of Bird of Paradise:

Buša cattle:

Further reading/watching:

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/vogelkop-superb-bird-of-paradise-05924.html

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to dig into some updates to previous episodes! Don’t worry, it’ll be interesting. We’re also going to look at a mystery animal we haven’t examined before.

First, though, a big shout-out to Sir Finn Hayes, a long-time listener who has started his own podcast! It’s called Finn’s Natural History, although now I see it’s been renamed Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast, and you can find it on Podbean. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The great thing is, Finn is just ten years old but he and his younger sister Lila are already dropping knowledge on us about animals and plants and other things they find interesting. So give their podcast a listen because I bet you’ll like it as much as I do.

Before we get into the updates, let me call myself out on a few glaring mistakes in past episodes. In episode four, I called my own podcast by the wrong name. Instead of Strange Animals, I said Strange Beasties, which is my Twitter handle. In episode 29, I said Loch Ness was 50 miles above sea level instead of 50 feet, a pretty big difference. In episode 15 I called Zenger of the Zeng This! podcast Zengus, which is just unforgiveable because I really like that podcast and you’d think I could remember the cohost’s name. There’s a link to the Zeng This! podcast in the show notes. It’s a family-friendly, cheerful show about comics, movies, video games, and lots of other fun pop culture stuff.

If you ever hear me state something in the podcast that you know isn’t true, definitely let me know. I’ll look into it and issue a correction when appropriate. As they say on the Varmints Podcast, I am not an animal expert. I do my best, but sometimes I get things wrong. For instance, in episode 60, I said sirenians like dugongs and manatees have tails in place of hind legs like seals do, but sirenian tails actually developed from tails, not hind legs. Pinniped tails developed from hind legs and have flipper-like feet.

Anyway, here are some updates to topics we’ve covered in past episodes. It isn’t all-inclusive, mostly just stuff I’ve stumbled across while researching other animals.

In episode 47 about strange horses, I talked a lot about Przewalski’s horse. I was really hoping never to have to attempt that pronunciation again, but here we are. A new phylogenetic study published in February of 2018 determined that Przewalski’s horse isn’t a truly wild horse. Its ancestors were wild, but Przewalski’s horse is essentially a feral domestic horse. Its ancestors were probably domesticated around 5,500 years ago by the Botai people who lived in what is now northern Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s horse we have now is a descendant of those domestic horses that escaped back into the wild long after its ancestors had died out. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important animal anymore, though. It’s been wild much longer than mustangs and other feral horses and tells us a lot about how truly wild horse ancestors looked and acted. Not only that, its wild ancestor is probably a different species or subspecies of the European wild horse, which was the ancestor of most other domestic horses. The next step for the team of researchers that conducted this study is figuring out more about the ancestors of domestic horses.

The mystery cattle episode also has an update. I didn’t mention Buša cattle in that episode, but I just learned something interesting about it. The Buša is a rare breed of domestic cow that developed in southeastern Europe. It’s a small, hardy animal well adapted to mountainous terrain, and it turns out that it’s the most genetically diverse breed of cattle out of sixty studied. The research team is working to help conserve the breed so that that genetic diversity isn’t lost.

Right after episode 61, where we talked about birds of paradise, researchers announced a new species of bird of paradise! The bird was already known to scientists, but they thought it was just a subspecies of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. But new video footage of a unique mating dance helped researchers determine that this wasn’t just a subspecies, it was different enough to be its own species. It’s called the Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise, and the Superb Bird of Paradise is now called the Greater Superb Bird of Paradise to help differentiate the two species. I’ll put a link in the show notes to an article that has the video embedded if you want to watch it. It’s pretty neat.

In episode 25 we learned about Neandertals, and I said we didn’t have much evidence of them being especially creative by human standards. That was the case when I did my research last summer, but things have definitely changed. In February 2018 archaeologists studying cave paintings in Spain announced that paintings in at least three caves were made by Neandertals and not humans. The paintings have been dated to over 64,000 years old, which is 20,000 years before humans showed up in the area. The precise dating is due to a new and much more accurate dating technique called the uranium-thorium method, which measures the tiny deposits that build up on the paintings. So Neandertals might have been a lot more creative than we’ve assumed. Researchers are now looking at other cave art and artefacts like jewelry and sculptures to consider whether some might also have been made by Neandertals.

New studies about human migration out of Africa have also been published since our humans episode. Human fossils and stone tools found in what is now a desert in Saudi Arabia have been dated to 90,000 years ago, when the area was lush grassland surrounding a lake. Until this finding, researchers thought humans had not settled the area until many thousands of years later.

I think it was episode 27, Creatures of the Deeps, where I mentioned the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition. Well, in only two weeks that expedition discovered more than a dozen new species of crustacean, including a crab with red eyes and fuzzy spines, collected over 12,000 animals to study, and learned a whole lot about what’s down there.

One thing I forgot to mention in episode 11 is that the vampire bat’s fangs stay sharp because they lack enamel. Enamel is a thin but very hard mineral coating found on the teeth of most mammals. It protects the teeth and makes them stronger. But vampire bats don’t chew hard foods like bones or seeds, and not having enamel means that their teeth are softer. I tried to find out more about this, like whether the bat does something specific to keep its teeth sharp, like filing them with tiny tooth files, but didn’t have any luck. On the other hand, I did learn that baby bats are born bottom-first instead of head-first, because this keeps their wings from getting tangled in the birthing canal.

Many thanks to Simon, who has sent me links to several excellent articles I would have missed otherwise. One is about the controversy about sea sponges and comb jellies, and which one was the ancestor of all other animals. We covered the topic in episode 41. Mere weeks after that episode went live, a new study suggests that sponges win the fight. Hurrah for sponges!

Simon also sent me an article about the platypus, which we learned about in episode 45. There’s a lot of weirdness about the platypus, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that platypus milk contains a unique protein so potently antibacterial that it could lead to the development of powerful new antibiotics. Researchers think the antibacterial properties are present in platypus milk because as you may remember, monotremes don’t have teats, just milk patches, and the babies lick the milk up. That means the milk is exposed to bacteria from the environment, so the protein helps keep platypus babies from getting sick.

Simon also suggests that in our mystery bears episode, I forgot a very important one, the Nandi bear! So this sounds like the perfect time to learn about the Nandi bear.

I had heard of the Nandi bear, but I had it confused with the drop bear, an Australian urban myth that’s used primarily to tease tourists and small children. But the Nandi bear is a story from Africa, and it might be based on a real animal.

It has a number of names in Africa and sightings have come from various parts of the continent, but especially Kenya, where it’s frequently called the chemosit. There are lots of stories about what it looks like and how it acts. Generally, it’s supposed to be a ferocious nocturnal animal that sometimes attacks humans on moonless nights, especially children. Some stories say it eats the person’s brain and leaves the rest of the body. That’s creepy. Also, just going to point this out, it’s extremely unlikely. Its shaggy coat is supposed to be dark brown, reddish, or black, and sometimes it will stand on its hind legs. When it’s standing on all four legs, it’s between three and six feet tall, or one to almost two meters. Its head is said to be bear-like in shape. Sometimes it’s described as looking like a hyena, sometimes as a baboon, sometimes as a bear-like animal. Its front legs are often described as powerful.

The first known sighting by someone who actually wrote down their account is from the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, published in 1912. I have a copy and I’m just going to read you the pertinent information. The account is by Geoffrey Williams. The Nandi expedition Williams mentions took place in 1905 and 1906, and while it sounds like it was just a bunch of people exploring, it was actually a military action by the British colonial rulers who killed over 1,100 members of the Nandi tribe in East Africa after they basically said, hey, stop taking our land and resources and people. During the campaign, livestock belonging to the Nandi were killed or stolen, villages and food stores burned, and the people who weren’t killed were forced to live on reservations. Anyway, here’s what Geoffrey Williams had to say about the Nandi bear, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so important than it did before I learned all that:

“Several years ago I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and, of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped on the edge of the Escarpment near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast. There was a thick mist, and my cousin and I were walking on ahead of the safari with one boy when, just as we drew near to the slopes of the hill, the mist cleared away suddenly and my cousin called out ‘What is that?’ Looking in the direction to which he pointed I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches not more than 30 yards away. Its attidue was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high. It is extremely hard to estimate height in a case of this kind; but it seemed to both of us that it was very nearly, if not quite, as tall as we were. Before we had time to do anything it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter. The grass had all been burnt off some weeks earlier and so the animal was clearly visible.

“I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us. It is in this position that I see it most clearly in my mind’s eye. In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare. This distinction was very definite indeed and was the first thing that struck us both. The head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear, as indeed was the whole animal. I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable. The colour was dark and left us both with the impression that it was more or less of a brindle, like a wildebeeste, but this may have been the effect of light.”

A couple of years later, in the same journal, a man saddled with the name Blayney Percival wrote about the Nandi bear. He said, “The stories vary to a very large extent, but the following points seem to agree. The animal is of fairly large size, it stands on its hind legs at times, is nocturnal, very fierce, kills man or animals.” Percival thought the differing stories referred to different animals, known or unknown. He wrote, “An example of a weird animal was the beast described to me in the Sotik country; the name I forget, but the description was very similar to that of the chimiset. Fair size—my pointer dog being given as about its size; stood on hind legs; was very savage. Careful inquiries and a picture of the ratel settled the matter, then out came the information that it was light on the back and dark below, points that would have settled it at once.” The ratel, of course, is the honey badger.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his seminal work On the Track of Unknown Animals that the Nandi bear was probably based on more than one animal. Like Percival, he thought the different accounts were just too different. He thought at least some sightings were of honey badgers, while some were probably hyenas.

So if at least some accounts of the Nandi bear are of an unknown animal, what kind of animal might it be? Is it a bear? Do bears even live in Africa?

Africa has no bears now, but bear fossils at least three million years old have been found in South Africa and Ethiopia. Agriotherium africanum probably went extinct due to increased competition when big cats evolved to be fast, efficient hunters.

So it’s not likely that the Nandi bear is an actual bear. It’s also not likely it’s an ape of some kind, since apes are universally diurnal and the Nandi bear is described as nocturnal. Cryptozoologists have suggested all sorts of animals as a possible solution, but this episode is already getting kind of long so I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m just going to offer my own suggestion, which I have yet to see anywhere else, probably because it’s a bit farfetched. But hey, you never know.

The family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae are extinct now, as far as we know, but they lived throughout much of the world until about two million years ago. They’re known as bear-dogs and were originally thought to be related to bears, but are now considered more closely related to canids, possibly even the ancestors of canids. They are similar but not related to the dog-bears, Hemicyoninae, which are related to bears but which went extinct about 5 million years ago. Someone needs to sort out this bear-dog/dog-bear naming confusion.

Anyway, Amphicyonids lived in Africa, although we don’t have a whole lot of their fossils. The most recent Amphicyonid fossils we have date to about five million years ago and are of dog-sized animals that ate meat and lived in what are now Ethiopia and Kenya. Generally, Amphicyonids were doglike in overall shape but with a heavier bear-like build. They probably had plantigrade feet like bears rather than running on relatively small dog-like paws—basically, canids walk on their toes while bears walk on flat feet like humans. They were probably solitary animals and some researchers think they went extinct mainly because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment and therefore different prey species, and couldn’t compete with smarter, faster pack hunting carnivores.

Maybe a species of Amphicyonid persisted in parts of Africa until recently, rarely seen but definitely feared for its ferocity. Probably not, because five million years is a long time to squeak by in an area with plenty of well-established carnivores. But maybe.

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 058: Mystery Cattle

Join us this week to learn about the aurochs, the gaur, some mystery cattle of Patagonia, a farting monster cow, and a ghost cow that turned out to be not so ghostly!

The aurochs:

An aurochs skull:

A gaur. Holy cow (heh) those things are enormous!

A heck cow:

The bonnacon, famous for stink. I love how this one looks awfully embarrassed:

Show transcript:

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

We’re going to learn about some unusual cattle this week. You may not think cows are very interesting, but I think I can change your mind.

We’ll start with the aurochs, also sometimes called the urus. It was the wild ancestor of domestic cattle and also ancestor of the European bison. The European bison is still around and is sometimes called the wisent, but the aurochs is extinct.

The aurochs was a type of Ice Age megafauna. A big bull aurochs could stand almost six feet tall at the shoulder, or 180 cm, and some researchers estimate it could weigh as much as 3,300 lbs, or 1500 kg. Both cows and bulls grew horns. In shape the aurochs looked roughly like modern cattle, but the legs were longer, it was overall more muscular, and cows had small udders that weren’t especially visible. From cave paintings of aurochs, we know that calves were born reddish-brown with a lighter muzzle, but as they grew older, the bull calves became either dark brown or black, with a white stripe along the spine called an eel stripe.

The aurochs was strong, fast, and could be very dangerous. Bulls sometimes killed each other when fighting, and they were famously ferocious when hunted.

Sometime between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE—and BCE just means “before common era” and takes the place of the old term “before Christ” to make history a little more inclusive—a group of scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This is the book that makes up the Christian Old Testament. The scholars were known as the Seventy, and they had to make a lot of decisions during their translation. In the case of the re’em, they mistranslated it as monokeros, which in English is unicorn. They didn’t know what the re’em was because it was already extinct in many parts of its former range. If you’ve guessed that it was the aurochs, pat yourself on the back.

The aurochs had started to go extinct in various places due to overhunting and habitat loss as early as the fifth century BCE. As it became rarer, only nobility were allowed to hunt it. But it was a tough animal that had once been common throughout much of Eurasia and the middle east, and even north Africa. It hung on for millennia, but by 1564, only 38 aurochs remained, all of them in one herd in Poland. The last one died in 1627 of natural causes.

If you listened to episode 47, about strange horses, you may remember the heck horse that was bred in the 1920s to look like the extinct wild horse. There’s also a heck cow bred by the same brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck. Heck cattle resemble aurochs in many respects, although it’s still a domestic breed and not a perfect match. More recent projects to breed cattle that are as similar as possible to aurochs include ongoing genetic de-extinction attempts as well as more refined back-breeding projects than the heck cattle breeding.

There are a number of wild relatives of cattle, known as bovids overall and bovines for their closest relatives. Water buffalo, yak, gaur, bison, and many others are all bovids, and many of those species have been domesticated too. Some antelopes are also considered bovids.

The largest living bovid is the gaur, also called the Indian bison. It’s a wild cow native to southeast Asia, although it’s threatened due to habitat loss and overhunting. It’s protected these days, but poaching is still a problem. A big bull can grow over seven feet high at the shoulder, or 220 cm, and if you count the muscular hump just behind the shoulder, it’s even taller. It’s an incredibly heavy, massive animal in addition to being tall. Only elephants, rhinos, hippos, and giraffes are heavier. It lives in forests and eats leaves, flowers, fruit, some types of grass and clover, and the bark of some trees.

Now let’s talk about some mystery cattle in one of my favorite places, Patagonia, which is the southern section of South America.

In the early 16th century, our old friend Antonio Pigafetta sailed around the world with Magellan and wrote a detailed account of the voyage once he returned to Spain in 1522. Pigafetta reported that the natives of Patagonia told him about devils with two horns and long hair, that breathed fire and also farted fire. These interesting fire details aren’t reported by anyone else, so it’s possible that Pigafetta added them to make the story better. He also would have been familiar with the bonnacon, an animal found in bestiaries at the time and written about by Pliny the Elder. I have learned that PLY-nee is an acceptable alternate pronunciation of his name, although it’s too late for me. They both sound wrong now.

The bonnacon was described as a bull with a long mane like a horse and horns that curled backwards. Because its horns couldn’t be used for defense, it was supposed to run away from danger and fart so prodigiously that the fumes would set fire to everything nearby, and poop would be scattered across three acres. Medieval bestiaries played this for laughs, with pretty epic illustrations, but people also believed it. It’s possible that Pigafetta thought the Patagons were describing the bonnacon. It’s also likely, incidentally, that the bonnacon was a type of buffalo or bison, many of which have small curved horns. Many hoofed animals will void their bowels when stampeding away from predators, so this could be the start of the story.

But while the farts of flame seem to be Pigafetta’s invention, it is definitely the case that many Patagonian tribes have stories of horned animals and spirits that seem remarkably bovine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a man named Lucas Bridges collected many traditional stories of the people in Tierra del Fuego, which is at the very tip of Patagonia and which is remote even now, and was certainly remote a century ago. He reported that the Selk’nam people told stories about Hachai, a horned man with white fur and red stripes who acted as a fierce and powerful protective spirit along with his two sisters. Bridges witnessed a pantomime of Hachai that was a remarkable imitation of cow-like behavior. But the man performing it had never even seen a cow. Because here’s the thing: there is no known bovid native to South America. Tierra del Fuego doesn’t even have deer.

The Selk’nam were a nomadic people who hunted throughout southern Patagonia until the late 19th century, when British settlers moved in to raise sheep. The Selk’nam didn’t understand that the sheep belonged to anyone. They considered the sheep fair game, literally. In retaliation, the sheep ranchers paid armed militia to kill the Selk’nam—all of them. Lucas Bridges was one of the few who tried to help them by allowing them to live on his land without interference. But by the turn of the 20th century only a handful of Selk’nam survived. They are all gone now and all we have left are stories and traditions collected by anthropologists and missionaries.

Oh man.

So if the Selk’nam had never seen the cattle introduced by the Spanish, and there are no native bovids in Patagonia, how did they imitate cattle so perfectly? Bridges wasn’t the only one to remark on this. In 1833, in southern Chile, a man of the Chono tribe visited a ship and while there, he saw two powder-horns. He put them to his head and bellowed like a bull. Moreover, while in much of South America the local native languages borrow the word for cattle from Spanish, native Patagonian languages have their own words for cattle.

There are two theories. The first has to do with a shipwreck. In 1540 a ship belonging to the Bishop of Plasencia’s fleet sank in the Strait of Magellan. It carried livestock, and we know that some sheep survived. A 1557 expedition reported sheep in the area, and in 1741 some natives brought three freshly killed sheep to the leader of another expedition. It’s entirely possible that some cattle survived long enough to make an impression on the local population, and many stories of horned water monsters have been collected in Patagonia. But if we take Pigafetta’s report of the fire-farting horned spirit as inspired by cattle sightings, the shipwreck happened a few decades too late.

The other theory posits that there was once a bovid that lived in Patagonia. There are a few small hints that this may have been the case. A 1586 Spanish document refers to a buffalo-like animal with “horns with their tips curved backwards which this witness guesses must be buffalo and that they say that the males are black and the females white and that they have soft wool.” In 1598 explorer Oliver van Noort reported animals like stags and buffalo at Puerto Deseado. The stags were guanaco, which are related to llamas, but we don’t know what his buffalo might have been.

But we have no fossil remains. Bovids originated in Eurasia and entered North America relatively late, and as far as researchers can tell none ever made it as far as South America. None ever made it farther south than Mexico, in fact, until domestic cattle were brought to South America by the Spanish. By the mid-1500s cattle had been introduced into the Pampas, a vast prairie north of Patagonia, and feral herds may have made their way to Patagonia by the end of the century.

The Spanish cattle were tough and adaptable, and a small population still lives wild in the Andes. They have adapted to life in forests and to bitterly cold weather, including growing long fur in winter. And their horns are often described as resembling the horns of the aurochs. And with that, we have come full circle.

But we’re not done yet, because I’ve got a cow mystery that you’re going to just love. You know how one of the most frustrating things about cryptozoology is that no one gets good photographs of mystery animals? Well, listen to this story.

There’s a town in central New Jersey called Griggstown, and the Griggstown Cow was a legend told in the area. On foggy nights or rainy days, it was said, a solitary hunter or hiker might see a ghost cow in the mist near a canal outside of town. Occasionally someone would take a picture of the ghost cow, but the photos were all blurry, and no tracks or manure were ever found. The legend persisted for thirty years until November 23, 2002, when someone called the canal park office to report that the Griggstown Cow was stuck in a muddy ravine near the canal.

And sure enough, it was. It was a real live Holstein bull that had been living wild for decades after the area dairy farms closed, but he was old now and wasn’t strong enough to get out of the ditch. Rescuers managed to hoist him out and he was left lying on the grass to recover. But after two days he still hadn’t managed to stand, so the park brought in a veterinarian to examine him. Unfortunately it turned out he was in such poor condition that the vet euthanized him so he wouldn’t suffer, and he was buried in the park.

It’s a sad ending, but a thirty-year-old cow has lived a good long life. And if the Griggstown ghost cow can turn out to be a real animal, maybe other cryptids are real animals too.

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Thanks for listening!