Tag Archives: coelacanth

Episode 212: The River of Giants



Thanks to Pranav for his suggestion! Let’s find out what the river of giants was and what lived there!

Further reading:

King of the River of Giants

Spinosaurus was a swimming dinosaur and it swam in the River of Giants:

A modern bichir, distant relation to the extinct giants that lived in the River of Giants:

Not actually a pancake crocodile:

A model of Aegisuchus and some modern humans:

Show transcript:

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

A while back, Pranav suggested we do an episode about the river of giants in the Sahara. I had no idea what that was, but it sounded interesting and I put it on the list. I noticed it recently and looked it up, and oh my gosh. It’s amazing! It’s also from a part of the world where it’s really hot, as a break for those of us in the northern hemisphere who are sick of all this cold weather. I hope everyone affected by the recent winter storms is warm and safe or can get that way soon.

The Sahara is a desert in northern Africa, famous for its harsh climate. Pictures of the Sahara show its huge sand dunes that stretch to the horizon. This wasn’t always the case, though. Only about 5,500 years ago, it was a savanna with at least one lake. Lots of animals lived there and some people too. Before that, around 11,000 years ago, it was full of forests, rivers, lakes, and grasslands. Before that, it was desert again. Before that, it was forests and grasslands again. Before that, desert.

The Sahara goes through periodic changes that last around 20,000 years where it’s sometimes wet, sometimes dry, caused by small differences in the Earth’s tilt which changes the direction of the yearly monsoon rains. When the rains reach the Sahara, it becomes green and welcoming. When it doesn’t, it’s a desert. Don’t worry, we only have 15,000 more years to wait until it’s nice to live in again.

This wet-dry-wet pattern has been repeated for somewhere between 7 and 11 million years, possibly longer. Some 100 million years ago, though, the continents were still in the process of breaking up from the supercontinent Gondwana. Africa and South America were still close together, having only separated around 150 million years ago. The northern part of Africa was only a little north of the equator and still mostly attached to what is now Eurasia.

Near the border of what is now Morocco and Algeria, a huge river flowed through lush countryside. The river was home to giant animals, including some dinosaurs. Their fossilized remains are preserved in a rock formation called the Kem Kem beds, which run for at least 155 miles, or 250 km. A team of paleontologists led by Nizar Ibrahim have been working for years to recover fossils there despite the intense heat. The temperature can reach 125 degrees Fahrenheit there, or 52 Celsius, and it’s remote and difficult to navigate.

For a long time researchers were confused that there were so many fossils of large carnivores associated with the river, more than would be present in an ordinary ecosystem. Now they’ve determined that while it looks like the fossils were deposited at roughly the same time from the same parts of the river, they’re actually from animals that lived sometimes millions of years apart and in much different habitats. Bones or even fossils from one area were sometimes exposed and washed into the river along with newly dead river animals. This gives the impression that the river was swarming with every kind of huge predator, but it was probably not quite so dramatic most of the time.

Then again, there were some really fearsome animals living in and around the river in the late Cretaceous. One of the biggest was spinosaurus, which we talked about in episode 170. Spinosaurus could grow more than 50 feet long, or 15 m, and possibly almost 60 feet long, or 18 m. It’s the only dinosaur known that was aquatic, and we only know it was aquatic because of the fossils found in the Kem Kem beds in the last few years.

Another dinosaur that lived around the river is Deltadromeus, with one incomplete specimen found so far. We don’t have its skull, but we know it had long, slender hind legs that suggests it could run fast. It grew an estimated 26 feet long, or 8 meters, including a really long tail. At the moment, scientists aren’t sure what kind of dinosaur Deltadromeus was and what it was related to. Some paleontologists think it was closely related to a theropod dinosaur called Gualicho, which lived in what is now northern Patagonia in South America. Remember that when these dinosaurs were still alive, the land masses we now call Africa and South America had been right in the middle of a supercontinent for hundreds of millions of years, and only started separating around 150 million years ago. Gualicho looked a lot like a pocket-sized Tyrannosaurus rex. It grew up to 23 feet long, or 7 meters, and had teeny arms. Deltadromeus’s arms are more in proportion to the rest of its body, though.

Some of the biggest dinosaurs found in the Kem Kem beds are the shark-toothed dinosaurs, Carcharodontosaurus, nearly as big as Spinosaurus and probably much heavier. It grew up to 40 or 45 feet long, or 12 to almost 14 meters, and probably stood about 12 feet tall, or 3 ½ meters. It had massive teeth that were flattened with serrations along the edges like steak knives. The teeth were some eight inches long, or 20 cm.

Researchers think that Carcharodontosaurus used it massive teeth to inflict huge wounds on its prey, possibly by ambushing it. The prey would run away but Carcharodontosaurus could take its time catching up, following the blood trail and waiting until its prey was too weak from blood loss to fight back. This is different from other big theropod carnivores like T. rex, which had conical teeth to crush bone.

Dinosaurs weren’t the only big animals that lived in and around the River of Giants, of course. Lots of pterosaur fossils have been found around the river, including one species with an estimated wingspan of as much as 23 feet, or 7 meters. There were turtles large and small, a few lizards, early snakes, frogs and salamanders, and of course fish. Oh my goodness, were there fish.

The river was a large one, possibly similar to the Amazon River. In the rainy season, the Amazon can be 30 miles wide, or 48 km, and even in the dry season it’s still two to six miles wide, or 3 to 9 km. The Amazon is home to enormous fish like the arapaima, which can grow up to 10 feet long, or 3 m. Spinosaurus lived in the River of Giants, and that 50-foot swimming dinosaur was eating something. You better bet there were big fish.

The problem is that most of the fish fossils are incomplete, so paleontologists have to estimate how big the fish was. There were lungfish that might have been six and a half feet long, or 2 meters, a type of freshwater coelacanth that could grow 13 feet long, or 4 meters, and a type of primitive polypterid fish that might have been as big as the modern arapaima. Polypterids are still around today, although they only grow a little over three feet long these days, or 100 cm. It’s a long, thin fish with a pair of lungs as well as gills, and like the lungfish it uses its lungs to breathe air when the water where it lives is low in oxygen. It also has a row of small dorsal fins that make its back look like it has little spikes all the way down. It’s a pretty neat-looking fish, in fact. They’re called bichirs and reedfish and still live in parts of Africa, including the Nile River.

There were even sharks in the river of giants, including a type of mackerel shark although we don’t know how big it grew since all we have of it are some teeth. Another was a type of hybodont shark with no modern descendants, although again, we don’t know how big it was.

The biggest fish that lived in the River of Giants, at least that we know of so far, is a type of ray that looked like a sawfish. It’s called Onchopristis numidus and it could probably grow over 26 feet long, or 8 meters. Its snout, or rostrum, was elongated and spiked on both sides with sharp denticles. It was probably also packed with electroreceptors that allowed it to detect prey even in murky water. When it sensed prey, it would whip its head back and forth, hacking the animal to death with the sharp denticles and possibly even cutting it into pieces. Modern sawfish hunt this way, and although Onchopristis isn’t very closely related to sawfish, it looked so similar due to convergent evolution that it probably had very similar habits.

The modern sawfish mostly swallows its prey whole after injuring or killing it with its rostrum, although it will sometimes eat surprisingly large fish for its size, up to a quarter of its own length. A 26-foot long Onchopristis could probably eat fish over five feet long, or 1.5 meters. It wouldn’t have attacked animals much larger than that, though. It wasn’t eating fully grown Spinosauruses, let’s put it that way, although it might have eaten a baby spinosaurus from time to time. Spinosaurus might have eaten Onchopristis, though, although it would have to be pretty fast to avoid getting injured.

But there was one other type of animal in the River of Giants that could have tangled with a fully grown spinosaurus and come out on top. The river was full of various types of crocodylomorphs, some small, some large, some lightly built, some robust. Kemkemia, for instance, might have grown up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, but it was lightly built. Laganosuchus might have grown 20 feet long, or 6 meters, but while it was robust, it wasn’t very strong or fast. It’s sometimes called the pancake crocodile because its jaws were long, wide, and flattened like long pancakes. Unlike most pancakes, though, its jaws were lined with lots and lots of small teeth that fit together so closely that when it closed its mouth, the teeth formed a cage that not even the tiniest fish could escape. Researchers think it lay on the bottom of the river with its jaws open, and when a fish swam too close, it snapped it jaws closed and gulped down the fish. But obviously, the pancake crocodile did not worry spinosaurus in the least.

Aegisuchus, on the other hand, was simply enormous. We don’t know exactly how big it is and estimates vary widely, but it probably grew nearly 50 feet long, or 15 meters. It might have been much longer, possibly up to 72 feet long, or 22 meters. It’s sometimes called the shield crocodile because of the shape of its skull.

We don’t have a complete specimen of the shield crocodile, just part of one skull, but that skull is weird. It has a circular raised portion called a boss made of rough bone, and the bone around it shows channels for a number of blood vessels. This is unique among all the crocodilians known, living and extinct, and researchers aren’t sure what it means. One suggestion is that the boss was covered with a sheath that was brightly colored during the mating season, or maybe its shape alone attracted a mate. Modern crocodilians raise their heads up out of the water during mating displays.

The shield crocodile had a flattened head other than this boss, and its eyes may have pointed upward instead of forward. If so, it might have rested on the bottom of the river, looking upward to spot anything that passed overhead. Then again, it might have floated just under the surface of the water near shore, looking up to spot any dinosaurs or other land animals that came down to drink. Watch out, dinosaur! There’s a crocodilian!

Could the shield crocodile really have taken down a fully grown spinosaurus, though? If it was built like modern crocodiles, yes. Spinosaurus was a dinosaur, and dinosaurs had to breathe air. If the shield crocodile hunted like modern crocs, it was some form of ambush predator that could kill large animals by drowning them. You’ve probably seen nature shows where a croc bursts up out of the water, grabs a zebra or something by the nose, and drags it into the water, quick as a blink. The croc can hold its breath for up to an hour, while most land animals have to breathe within a few minutes or die. The shield crocodile and spinosaurus also lived at the same time so undoubtedly would have encountered each other.

Then again, there’s a possibility that the shield crocodile wasn’t actually very fearsome, no matter how big it was. It might have been more lightly built with lots of short teeth like the pancake crocodile’s to trap fish in its broad, flattened snout. Until we have more fossils of Aegisuchus, we can only guess.

Fortunately, palaeontologists are still exploring the Kem Kem beds for more fossils from the river of giants. Hopefully one day soon they’ll find more shield crocodile bones and can answer that all-important question of who would win in a fight, a giant crocodile or a giant swimming dinosaur?

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 055: Lungfish and the Buru



Let’s learn about the LUNGFISH, which deserves capital letters because they’re fascinating and this episode took so flipping long to research! Mysteries abound!

The lovely marbled lungfish from Africa:

The South American lungfish:

The Australian lungfish CHECK OUT THOSE GAMS:

Another Australian lungfish:

Further Reading:

The Hunt for the Buru by Ralph Izzard

Show Transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about the lungfish, and I’m going in depth about some mystery lungfish later in the episode. So don’t give up on me if you think freshwater fish are boring.

Lungfish are unusual since they are fish but have lungs and can breathe air. Some fish species can get by for a short time gulping air into a modified swim bladder when water is oxygen poor, but the lungfish has real actual lungs that are more mammal-like than anything found in other fish. The ancestors of lungfish, which developed during the Devonian period nearly 400 million years ago, may have been the ancestors of modern amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is still a controversial finding, but a 2017 molecular phylogenetic study identified lungfish as the closest living relatives of land animals.

Africa has four species of lungfish, from the smallest, the gilled African lungfish that only grows around 17 inches long, or about 44 cm, to the largest, the marbled lungfish, which can grow more than six and a half feet long, or two meters. They all resemble eels, with long bodies and four thin, almost thread-like fins. They mostly eat crustaceans, molluscs, and insect larvae. The adults have small gills but breathe air through their lungs exclusively.

The South American lungfish is in a separate family from the African lungfishes, but it’s very similar in most respects. It can grow over four feet long, or 125 cm, and looks like an eel at first glance. Its fins are thread-like and not very long, and while it has small gills, they’re nonfunctional in adults. It mostly eats snails and shrimp, and like the African lungfishes, its teeth are fused into tooth plates that crush the shells of its prey easily.

Baby South American and African lungfish have external gills like newts but look more like tadpoles. After a couple of months they develop the ability to breathe air.

The African and South American lungfishes live in swamps and shallow river basins, and during the dry season, the water of their homes may dry up completely. At the onset of the dry season, the lungfish burrows a foot or two deep into the mud, or 30 to 60 centimeters, and lines the burrow with mucus to keep its body from drying out. Then it curls up in the bottom of the hole and lowers its metabolism, and stays there for months until the rains return and soak its dried mud home. This is called aestivation, and it’s related to hibernation except that it usually happens in warm weather instead of cold.

The Australian lungfish, also called the Queensland lungfish, lives in Australia and retains many features that are considered primitive compared to other lungfish species. It’s so different from the other lungfish species it’s even in a different order. Let’s learn about just how different it is and why that’s important.

In 1869 a farmer visiting the Sydney Museum asked why there were no specimens displayed of a big olive-green fish from some nearby rivers. The curator, Gerard Krefft, had no idea what the guy was talking about. No problem, the guy said, or probably no worries, he’d just get his cousin to send the museum a few. Not long after, a barrel full of salted greenish fish that looked like big fat eels arrived and Krefft set about examining them.

When he saw the teeth, he practically fainted. He’d seen those teeth before—in fossils several hundred million years old. No one even knew what fish those teeth came from. And here they were again in fish that had been pulled from a local river only days before.

The Australian lungfish doesn’t have ordinary teeth, it has four tooth plates or combs that resemble regular teeth that have fused together. Its skull is also very different from all other fish, possibly because of its feeding style. It crushes its prey with its tooth combs, so its skull has to be able to withstand a lot of pressure from the force of its own bite. Other lungfish species share this trait to some degree, but with modifications that appear more recent.

The Australian lungfish lives in slow-moving rivers and deep ponds and hunts using electroreception. Larger ones mostly eat snails and crustaceans, while smaller ones also eat insect larvae and occasionally small fish. It can grow up to about five feet long, or 150 cm. Its body is covered with large overlapping scales, and its four fins look more like flippers or paddles. Its tail comes to a single rounded point. In short, it looks superficially like a coelacanth, which is not a big surprise because it’s related to the coelacanth. While the Australian lungfish doesn’t actually get out of the water and walk on its fins, it does stand on them and sometimes walks around on them underwater.

Unlike the other lungfishes, the Australian lungfish has only a single lung instead of a pair. Most of the time it breathes through its gills, but at night when it’s active, or during spawning season or other times when it needs more oxygen, it surfaces periodically to breathe. When it does so, it makes a distinctive gasping sound. During droughts when its pond or river grows shallow, an Australian lungfish can survive when other fish can’t. As long as its gills remain moist, it can survive by breathing air through its lung. But unlike other lungfish, it doesn’t aestivate in mud.

The Australian lungfish hasn’t changed appreciably for the last 100 million years. The only real change it exhibits from its ancestors 300 million years ago is that it’s not as big, since they grew some 13 feet long, or 4 meters. Lungfish used to be widespread fish that lived in freshwater back when the world’s continents were smushed together in one supercontinent called Pangaea, some 335 million years ago. When Pangaea began to break up into smaller continents about 175 million years ago, various species of lungfish remained in different parts of the world. Now we’ve only got six species left…maybe.

A lot of mysterious eel-like fish or fish-like lizard stories might refer to lungfish. Some of the mystery animals are probably extinct, whatever they were, but some might still be around. All known lungfish were only discovered by science within the last 150 years or so, and it’s quite possible more are lurking quietly in remote swamps and rivers.

That brings me to a mystery that may or may not have anything to do with the lungfish. Occasionally when I’m researching a topic for an episode, I come across something interesting that doesn’t really belong in that episode but which isn’t enough on its own for a full episode. I sometimes spin those into bonus episodes for our Patreon subscribers. That happened recently with our Brantevik eel episode, where some blue river eels took me down a research rabbit hole that had nothing to do with eels. But a mystery animal I only covered in passing in that bonus episode suddenly has new meaning for this one.

The mystery animal is the indus worm, sometimes called the scolex. We don’t know what it was, if anything. It might have been a fable that got repeated and exaggerated over the centuries. It might have been something more akin to disinformation. It might have been both.

We have the story from multiple ancient sources, back to Ctesius’s original account in the fourth century BCE. The story goes that the river Indus, which flows through modern-day China, India, and Pakistan, contained a white worm of enormous size. It was supposed to be around 7 cubits long, or 10 ½ feet, or just over three meters, but it was so big around that a ten-year-old could barely encircle it with their arms, and that’s a straight-up quote from Ctesius only not in ancient Greek. In other words, it was a big fat eel-like creature over ten feet long, white in color. Moreover, it had weird teeth. Ctesias didn’t mention the teeth, but a few hundred years later Aelian said that it had two teeth, square and about eighteen inches long, or 45 cm, which it used to catch and crush animals that it caught at night.

This is an interesting detail that points to an animal with teeth something like a lungfish. But the indus worm was also supposed to drag animals into the water when they came to the edge to drink, which sounds like a crocodile—but the ancient Greeks were familiar with crocodiles and this clearly wasn’t one. The word crocodile comes directly from Greek, in fact. But there’s one more important detail about the indus worm that changes everything.

The indus worm was supposed to be useless except for the oil it produced. Now, all animal fat produces flammable oil, but it has to be rendered first. The indus worm was full of just plain oil. According to the ancient accounts, after an indus worm was killed—not an easy thing to do, apparently, as it required dozens of men with spears and clubs to subdue—it was hung up over a vessel, and the oil allowed to drip into the vessel from the body for a full month. One indus worm would produce about 2 ½ quarts, or almost five liters of oil. The oil was so flammable that only the king of India was allowed to own it, and he used it to level cities. Not only that, but the flame it produced couldn’t be put out unless it was smothered with mud.

This sounds like a petroleum-based flame. It might even refer to Greek fire, a deadly weapon of the ancient world. We don’t know what Greek fire was made of, but it wasn’t an animal-based oil. It could be that rulers who knew the secret of producing unquenchable flame obfuscated the knowledge by telling people the oil came from a vicious animal only found in one distant river. If so, it’s possible that the indus worm wasn’t based on a real animal at all.

I can just hear the conversation that started it all. “Hey, where do you get that oil that sticks to people and burns them up even after they jump in the water?” “Oh, um, it’s really hard to get. Yeah, totally hard. You know those little white worms that sometimes get in figs? Picture one of those that’s like, ten feet long, and it only lives in one river in India…”

Anyway, we have no way of knowing whether the indus worm was a real animal. It actually sounds kind of plausible, though, especially if you assume some of the stories are either exaggerated or confused with other animals. The Indus is a really long river with a lot of unique animal species. It’s possible there was once a lungfish that grew ten feet long and had flattened tooth plates like those of South American and African lungfishes.

Then again, there is another possibility. The rare Indus river dolphin grows to about eight and a half feet long, or 2 ½ meters. I’m probably going to do an entire episode on freshwater dolphins eventually so I won’t go into too much detail about it today, but while young dolphins have pointed teeth, when the dolphin matures its teeth develop into square, flat disks. But the dolphin isn’t white, it’s brown, and no one could look at a dolphin and call it a worm.

But there are other reports of mystery fish in Asia that may be lungfish. This is where I had to stop research for this episode until I ordered, received, and read a book called The Hunt for the Buru by Ralph Izzard. If in doubt, go back to the primary sources whenever possible. Izzard was a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Mail, and in 1948 he and a photographer accompanied explorer Charles Stonor on an expedition to find what they thought might be a living dinosaur or some other reptile. But while many cryptozoologists today think the buru might be a type of monitor lizard, zoologist Karl Shuker suggests the details given in the book sound more like a type of lungfish.

Accounts of the buru were collected in an anthropological study of the Apa Tani tribe in 1945 and ’46. The Apa Tani live in a large valley in northeastern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and were an insular people who at the time rarely traveled away from their valley. They’re characterized in The Hunt for the Buru as intelligent and practical, but not especially creative. They have no system of reading or writing, produce no art, and are efficient and knowledgeable rice farmers. The relevant parts of the study are reproduced in The Hunt for the Buru, and I’m happy to report that this was a genuine scholarly study, not a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs asking leading questions. The buru information was only collected incidentally as part of the tribe’s history and traditions, but I suspect mostly because the anthropologists found it interesting. A quick look online for more modern information about the Apa Tani point to them being really nice people. They have a festival celebrating friendship every spring that lasts an entire month. These days they’re much more mainstream but still continue their traditional practices of farming.

According to the Apa Tani, their ancestors migrated to the valley along two rivers, and accounts of their migration match up with actual places with a high degree of accuracy even though the migration took place many centuries ago. In other words, these are people with a detailed oral history, and that’s important when we come to their accounts of the buru.

When they reached the valley, it was largely flooded with a swamp and lake. In the lake was an animal they called the buru. It wasn’t an aggressive animal. It lived in deep water but occasionally came to the surface, stuck its head above water, and made a noise translated as a hoarse bellow. Occasionally a buru would nose through the mud in shallower water, and frequently waved its head from side to side. It didn’t eat fish and was described as living on mud. It was about 4 meters long, or a bit over 13 feet, and was dark blue blotched with white, with a white belly. I’ll go into more details of its appearance in a few minutes.

The Apa Tani drained much of the swamp and lake to create more farmland for rice paddies, and on four occasions, a buru was trapped in a pool of deeper water. The Apa Tani killed the burus trapped this way and buried their bodies, and the location of the buried burus are still known. The Apa Tani reported that there were no more burus in the valley.

In 1947, Charles Stonor was traveling near the Apa Tani’s valley and asked a member of a different tribe if he’d ever heard of the buru. Stonor apparently was both a trained zoologist and had at least some background in anthropology, according to Izzard. To Stonor’s surprise, the man said he not only knew about the buru, but said it lived in a swamp not too far away, called Rilo. Naturally Stonor decided to visit, and when he spoke to the nearby villagers, they said the buru did indeed live in the swamp.

Stonor recorded their accounts of the animal. It lives underwater and only comes to the surface briefly—“every now and again they come up above the surface. When one of them comes up there is a great disturbance and splashing, and the beast comes straight up out of the water, stays for a few moments only, and then disappears down again.” The buru were described as black and white, with a head as large as a bison’s but with a longer snout, and with a pair of small backwards-pointing horns. The buru was only seen in summer, when the swamp floods and becomes a lake. But no one in the Rilo village had ever seen a buru up close.

In early 1948 Izzard heard about the buru from a friend, and approached Stonor to ask if he wanted to undertake a small expedition to look for it. Stonor agreed, and in April 1948 the expedition headed out on the search.

They… didn’t find any burus. Spoiler alert: after months of careful daily watches of the swamp, they decided the buru had possibly once lived in the valley, but was now extinct, and since it had never been an animal the villagers paid much attention to, no one had realized it was gone. This sounds absurd until you realize that the village had only been settled about a decade before. Many trees had been felled, which increased erosion so that the swamp had silted up considerably and was no longer very deep even at full flood. It’s possible that the burus had died due to these changing conditions, especially if they hadn’t been very numerous to start with.

The expedition returned to civilization only to find that rumors of the buru hunt had leaked, and the papers were full of reports of a 90-foot “dinotherium” sighted in the jungle.

I find it interesting that Izzard rejected the idea that the buru was a lungfish, because, he writes, “no known fish would expose itself above water, for no practical purpose, for such a length of time.” Presumably Izzard didn’t realize that lungfish actually use their lungs to breathe air, and that they must surface briefly to do so.

So was the buru reported in the Rilo swamp the same buru that had once lived in the Apa Tani valley? Probably not. Izzard notes that while the two valleys are relatively close to each other, he does point out that they were completely separated by a ridge of mountains. Even if both burus were the same kind of animal, they were probably different subspecies at the very least considering how long the two populations must have been separated.

Let’s return to the Apa Tani buru, since the reports gathered from the mid-1940s anthropological study are clear and detailed compared to the Rilo buru reports.

The Apa Tani buru had limbs, but while some reports called them short legs that somewhat resembled mole forelegs with claws used for digging, one old man stubbornly refused to describe them as legs. The anthropologists found this confusing because they assumed he was talking about a reptile. I’ll quote from the relevant sections of the report. The old man was named Tamar.

“ ‘The buru was long: it had a long tail with flanges on the sides: they lay along it when resting, but were pushed out sideways when the beast was moving: it could twist its tail round and catch anything with it.’ The flanges were demonstrated by holding a piece of paper against a stick. We use the word ‘flange’ for want of a better expression. Tamar described them as pieces fastened on the sides of the tail. …

Q What sort of legs did it have?

A ‘It had no legs: the body was like a snake.’ Tamar then described and demonstrated that the tail flanges were grouped in two pairs, were about 50 cm long, and were as thick as a man’s arm: he added they were used in burrowing. We got the impression that he was trying to convey the meaning that they were appendages, but not limbs in the true sense of the word.”

I wonder if he was trying to explain, through an interpreter, something he himself probably didn’t fully understand, lobed fins. The Australian lungfish’s lobed fins do look like stubby legs with a frill around them that could be taken to be claws.

Tamar also described the buru as a snake-like creature. He said its head was like a snake’s with a long snout and that it had three hard plates on its head that helped it burrow into the mud. And like the other reports, he said it ate mud, not fish or animals.

This sounds a lot like a lungfish, which eats crustaceans and snails it digs out of the mud. Admittedly Tamar also said it had a forked tongue, which is not a lungfish trait. Many cryptozoologists think this forked tongue points to a type of monitor lizard, but while some monitor lizard species do spend a lot of time in the water, notably the widespread Asian monitor lizard, the buru is described as being exclusively aquatic. Monitor lizards also are very lizardy, with large, strong legs. And monitor lizards don’t stay in the mud when a swamp dries up.

To me, all this paints a picture of a large lungfish, blue and white in color, with lobed fins like an Australian lungfish and probably working gills as well as a lung or pair of lungs. It may have aestivated in the mud like African and South American lungfish during the dry season, and during the rainy season when it was spawning, it might have needed to breathe at the surface like the Australian lungfish to give it more oxygen than its gills could manage on their own.

Hopefully someone’s out there looking for burus in other remote swamps of Asia. I can’t do it myself. I’m busy.

There are brief anecdotal reports of possible new species of lungfish in Asia, Africa, and South America, although with very little to go on. But I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if someone discovered another lungfish species in a hard-to-reach swamp one of these days. Those 400-million-year-old fish are survivors.

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.

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Episode 002: The Mokele Mbembe and the Coelacanth



People have been searching for the so-called African brontosaurus, mokele mbembe, for a century without any luck. No one was looking for the extinct coelacanth until a museum curator saw one in a pile of recently caught fish. In this episode of Strange Animals Podcast we discuss the hunt for both creatures. (re-recorded episode)

Recommended reading: Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero.

The beautiful coelacanth:

Show transcript:

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

It looks like when I upload a new version of an old episode, it doesn’t spam everyone’s feed! So I’m going to try and get the first dozen or so episodes re-recorded and uploaded as quickly as possible. Here’s the new version of episode two, where I sound like a human being and not a robot reading out loud.

This week’s episode is about a couple of so-called living fossils, one that possibly never existed and one that exists like WHOA.

Legends of “lost worlds” full of dinosaurs have been around ever since people recognized that fossilized bones belonged to once-living animals. Early science fiction like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World featured explorers encountering living prehistoric creatures.

Europeans looked at a map of the world, saw that Africa was still largely unexplored—by other Europeans, anyway—and suggested maybe dinosaurs were living somewhere on that vast continent. After all, Africa was home to some of the world’s most amazing known animals.

In 1909, animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck published a book called Beasts and Men, where he shared a friend-of-a-friend story about a monster in Central Africa. It wasn’t a very satisfying story, frankly. Hagenbeck heard from one of his employees and also from a big-game hunter that “the natives” reported a “half-elephant, half-dragon” monster living in the swamps. No doubt with visions of million-dollar brontosaurus sales in his future, Hagenbeck sent an expedition to look for the monster. They didn’t find anything.

Nevertheless, the press took the story and ran with it. People were dinosaur-crazy then like nothing else, and headlines like “Brontosaurus Still Lives” whipped the public into a frenzy of excitement. The only papers that didn’t go over the top about live dinosaurs in Africa were those published in Africa, which were more skeptical.

Hagenbeck’s story placed the monster in Rhodesia, which is now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Europeans set off on expeditions to the area, found nothing, and assumed they just weren’t looking in the right place. Monsters from native folklore were cited as proof of dinosaurs just down the river or in the next lake. Bullheaded or over-enthusiastic Europeans cherry-picked information from the Africans they interviewed. They believed details about native monsters as though they were real sightings and ignored it whenever an interviewee said, “That’s an imaginary animal. It’s not real. We just tell that story to children.”

In 1919, London newspapers reported a couple of monster stories, one from a Mr. Lepage in the Belgian Congo, one from a Mr. Gapelle in “the interior of the Congo.” Both stories are about an improbable animal with a humped back, a horn on its nose, scales, and a kangaroo-like tail. But the stories fell apart very soon when people who knew David Le Page pointed out he was a known practical joker. Le Page was the source of both stories, the first under his own name, the second under an anagram of his last name. Gapelle is roughly Le Page backwards. He’d made them both up.

The stories were nonsense, but they kept being repeated. They also shifted focus from Rhodesia to the Congo. Expeditions started focusing on that area, still searching for the African brontosaurus. This went on for decades. It’s still going on, and no one has ever found anything.

At some point, the name mokele mbembe got attached to the rumors of brontosaurus-like dinosaurs living in Africa. The name is supposedly from the Lingala language and means “one who stops the flow of rivers.” Lingala is a Creole language based on Bantu, which is used as a lingua franca in the western part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Gradually the notion that the mokele-mbembe is an actual brontosaurus faded away. We know more about sauropods these days. We know they’re not going to be hiding in heavy swamps, lakes, or jungles. They were animals of open forests and scrubland where there was solid footing. So some people now think the mokele-mbembe is a smaller, sauropod-like creature that lives in or near water, maybe in underwater burrows, and is generally described as a plant-eater that is peaceful unless attacked, at which point it turns deadly.

Despite the lack of dead animals or skins, pictures, footprints, or any other proof whatsoever, it’s oddly plausible that a large unknown water reptile is living deep in the Congo. It’s such a big place! The animals we do know about are amazing! And in 2006 and 2007, researchers found a population of 100,000 previously unknown gorillas not that far from Lake Tele. What else might be hidden in the swamps and forests surrounding the lake?

But. People have been searching for the mokele-mbembe for so long that it’s actually become a revenue stream for villages around Lake Tele, where expeditions now focus although it’s 1200 miles from the site of Hagenbeck’s 1909 report. Cryptozoological expeditions hire the same paid guides and translators year after year, and the guides are like travel guides anywhere. They make sure the travelers go away with the remarkable stories they came to hear, and they make sure that the expedition leaves the villages richer. One Japanese expedition in 1981 got stranded by their guides after refusing to pay what the guides thought they should.

It’s nonsense for explorers to say breathlessly, “The natives couldn’t possibly have known what a diplodocus was but pointed to its picture!” when dozens of previous explorers have likely talked to the same individuals. And when explorers stray from Lake Tele and into areas where expeditions haven’t yet traveled, the villagers don’t report any sightings of dinosaur-like monsters.

So far, we don’t have any good reports of the mokele-mbembe. No physical proof of any kind, no genuine local stories. It’s not looking good for our living dinosaur.

And here’s where the whole legend of the mokele-mbembe veers off the rails of maybe and crashes into the chasm of what the heck. The most fervent believers in this animal, the ones who mount repeated expeditions, have a massive and bizarre axe to grind.

Young Earth creationists believe the Earth was only created about 6,000 years ago. Not only do they think that it’s perfectly plausible to have dinosaurs still around after so little time, they firmly believe that if they can find proof of a living dinosaur and present it to science, probably going “AHA! What do you think of THAT?”, somehow the entire theory of evolution will crumble. Scientists will weep and realize how wrong they all were, and probably the creationists can teach the dinosaur tricks and walk it on a leash. I don’t know.

It just proves they don’t have the slightest idea of what evolution actually is, but instead of spending fifteen minutes with a high school biology textbook and an open mind, they keep spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to look for the mokele-mbembe. To SHOW THEM ALL.

That’s not to say that everyone who hunts for the mokele-mbembe is a creationist. Heck, if anyone wants to bring me along on their non-missionary expedition, I’ll jump at the chance. I’d love to visit a beautiful part of the world and meet people whose culture is very different from my own. But I wouldn’t expect to see a dinosaur.

The coelacanth is another animal that creationists believe disproves evolution. It’s also another one that’s been called a living fossil in the media. In December 1938, a museum curator in South Africa named Marjorie Courtenay Lattimer got a message from a friend of hers, a fisherman named Hendrick Goosen, who had just arrived with a new catch. Lattimer was on the lookout for specimens for her tiny museum, and Goosen was happy to let her have anything interesting. Lattimer went down to the dock, partly to look at the catch, but mostly to wish Goosen and his crew a merry Christmas. Then she noticed THE FISH.

It was five feet long, or 1.5 meters, blueish with shimmery silvery markings, with strange lobed fins and scales like armored plates. She described it as the most beautiful fish she had ever seen. She didn’t know what it was, but she wanted it. I’m like that too, but usually with craft supplies, not dead fish.

She took the fish back to the museum in a taxi—after an argument with the taxi driver. The fish did not smell very good and it was the size of a human being, after all. Once at the museum, Lattimer went through her reference books to identify the fish.

Imagine it. She’s flipped through a couple of books but nothing looks even remotely like her fish, the beautiful weird smelly one. Then she turns a page and there’s a picture of the fish like the one the taxi driver objected to…but that fish is extinct. It’s been extinct for some 66 million years. But it’s also a very recently alive fish resting on ice in the back of her museum.

Lattimer sketched the fish and sent the drawing and a description to a professor at Rhodes University, J.L.B. Smith. But Smith was on Christmas break and didn’t get her message until January 3. In the meantime, Lattimer’s museum director told her the fish was a grouper and not worth the ice it was lying on.

But Marjorie, she loved that fish. She wasn’t going to cut it up for bait. But December is the middle of summer in South Africa, so to keep it from rotting away, she had it mounted.

Then Smith sent her a near-hysterical cable that read, “MOST IMPORTANT PRESERVE SKELETON AND GILLS.” Oops.

This is perhaps a lesson for all of us. Once I missed the opportunity to see a rare snow goose that had stopped on our campus pond over winter break. If only I’d checked my work email while I was off, I could have seen that life bird. The agony I felt at missing it was probably only a shadow of what Professor Smith felt at losing the important innards of a living fossil, though. Also, I saw a whole bunch of snow geese in December of 2018.

On February 16, 1939, Smith showed up at the museum and immediately identified the fish as a coelacanth. The story made international news. When the museum put the fish on display for one day only, 20,000 people showed up to see it.

Smith got a little obsessed about finding another coelacanth. He offered huge rewards for a specimen. But it wasn’t until December of 1952 that a pair of local fishermen on the island of Anjuan, about halfway being Tanzania and Madagascar, turned up with a fish they called the gombessa. It was a second coelacanth.

Everyone was happy. The fishermen got a huge reward—a hundred British pounds—and Smith had an intact coelacanth. He actually cried when he saw it. I didn’t cry when I saw those snow geese but I did make a horrible excited squeaking noise.

Most people have heard of the coelacanth because its discovery is such a great story. But why is the fish such a big deal?

The coelacanth isn’t just a fish that was supposed to be extinct and was discovered alive and well, although that’s pretty awesome. It’s a strange fish, more closely related to mammals reptiles than it is to ordinary ray-finned fish. The only living fish even slightly like it is the lungfish, and the lungfish is such a weird animal in its own right that it’s going to get its own episode one of these days. That episode is #55.

While the coelacanth is unique in a lot of ways, it’s those lobed fins that are really exciting. It’s not a stretch to say their paired fins look like nubby legs with frills instead of digits. Until DNA sequencing in 2013, many researchers thought the coelacanth was a sort of missing link between water-dwelling animals and those that first developed the ability to walk on land. As it happens, the lungfish turns out to be closer to that stage than the coelacanth, and both the lungfish and the coelacanth had already split off from the shared ancestor of marine and terrestrial organisms when they evolved around 400 million years ago. But for scientists in the mid-20th century, studying a fish that looked like it had little legs must have been electrifying.

But this fish story isn’t over yet. In 1997, a marine biologist on honeymoon in Indonesia found a coelacanth in a local market. And it was a different species of coelacanth. Can you imagine a better wedding gift?

Coelacanths are placid fish who do a lot of drifting, although their eight marvelous fins make them very maneuverable. They stay close to the coast and prefer rocky areas. They especially love underwater caves. They hunt for smaller fish and cephalopods like squid at night and rest in caves or hidden among rocks during the day. Sometimes sharks eat them, but for the most part coelacanths lead comfortable lives, floating around eating stuff. Sometimes they float around tail up or even upside down because they just don’t care.

Since the discovery of living coelacanths, more fossil coelacanths have been found. A 2015 paper in the Zoological Paper of the Linnaean Society describes over 30 complete specimens of 360 million years old coelacanths. The fossils were discovered about 60 miles from the mouth of the Chalumna River in South Africa, where Marjorie Lattimer found the first living coelacanth known to science. All the fossils are of juveniles, which were apparently living in a shallow, weedy bay that acted as a nursery. Living coelacanths give birth to live young, which is rare in fish, but researchers don’t know yet if young coelacanths grow up in similarly protected nurseries.

Another fossil species of coelacanth was described in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, and this one was a surprise to researchers. All the coelacanths discovered up till then, living or extinct, looked pretty much alike. Scientists have made a not unreasonable assumption that the extinct coelacanths lived much like modern coelacanths do—you know, drifting around, eating stuff, and not worrying about anything much except sharks. Then several coelacanth fossils were discovered in British Colombia, Canada, and this new species shows every sign of being a swift, vicious predator. It’s so different from other coelacanths that it’s been given its own family. It’s called Rebellatrix, which is just so awesome I can’t stand it. Rebellatrix was about three feet long, or 91 cm, and had a fork-like tail similar to a tuna’s, which allowed it to swim fast. It lived 240 million years ago, only ten million years after an extinction event at the end of the Permian. Researchers think Rebellatrix may have evolved to fill a niche left by extinct predatory fishes.

But coelacanths these days are happy enough doing the drifting thing. Sometimes they get caught by accident by night fishermen, who either throw the fish back or sell them to museums. Because here’s the best thing of all about the coelacanth: they taste horrible. Not only that, their flesh is slimy. It’s full of oil and urea. If you eat a coelacanth, you won’t die, but you’ll end up with terrible diarrhea.

So far, living coelacanths have mostly been found off the coast of Africa, but they’re much more widely spread in the fossil record. Rumors of coelacanths in other places, like the Gulf of Mexico or around Easter Island, keep popping up. Maybe one day another population of these awesome fish will be discovered.

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