Tag Archives: deep-sea animals

Episode 193: Beebe’s Mystery Deep-Sea Fish



This week we’ll learn about five mystery fish that William Beebe spotted from his bathysphere in the early 1930s…and which have never been seen again. Thanks to Page for suggesting deep-sea fish!

Further reading:

How some superblack fish disappear into the darkness of the deep sea

The Fine Art of Exploration

Further listening:

99% Invisible “Bathysphere”

The Gulper Eel unlocked patreon episode

These two guys crammed themselves into that little bathysphere together. Sometimes they got seasick and puked in there. Also, they didn’t like each other very much:

The Pacific blackdragon is hard to photograph because it’s SUPERBLACK:

A larval blackdragon. Those eyestalks!

A painting (by Else Bostelmann) of Bathysphaera intacta (left) and an illustration from Beebe’s book Half Mile Down:

The pallid sailfish, also painted by Bostelmann:

A (dead) stoplight loosejaw. Tear your surprised eyeballs away from its weird jaws and compare its tail to the pallid sailfish’s:

A model of a loosejaw (taken from this site) to give you a better idea of what it looks like when alive. Close-up of the extraordinary jaws (seen from underneath) is on the right:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to descend metaphorically into the depths of the ocean and learn about some mystery fish spotted once from a bathysphere by famous naturalist William Beebe and never seen again. Deep-sea fish is a suggestion by Page, so thank you, Page, for a fascinating and creepy addition to monster month.

William Beebe was an American naturalist born in 1877 who lived until 1962, which is amazing considering he made repeated dives into the deep sea in the very first bathysphere in the early 1930s. We talked about bathyspheres way back in episode 27–you know, the one where I scream about them imploding and kind of freak out a little. Even today descending into the deep sea is dangerous, and a hundred years ago it was way way way more dangerous.

Beebe was an early conservationist who urged other scientists to stop shooting so many animals. Back then if you wanted to study an animal, you just went out and killed as many of them as you could find. Beebe pointed out the obvious, that this was wasteful and didn’t provide nearly as much information as careful observation of living animals in the wild. He also pioneered the study of ecosystems, how animals fit into their environment and interact with it and each other.

While Beebe mostly studied birds, he was also interested in underwater animals. Really, he seems to have been interested in everything. He studied birds all over the world, was a good taxidermist, and especially liked to study ocean life by dredging small animals up from the bottom and examining them. He survived a plane crash, was nearly killed by an erupting volcano he was observing, and fought in WWI. Once when he broke his leg during an expedition and had to remain immobilized, he had his bed carried outside every day so he could make observations of the local animals as they grew used to his presence.

In the 1920s, during an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, he started studying marine animals more closely. First he just dangled from a rope over the surface of the ocean, which was attached to a ship’s boom, but eventually he tried using a diving helmet. This was so successful that he started thinking about building a vessel that could withstand the pressures of the deep sea.

With the help of engineer Otis Barton, the world’s first bathysphere was invented and Barton and Beebe conducted dozens of descents in Bermuda, especially off the coast of Nonsuch Island. The bathysphere had two little windows and a single light that shone through one of the windows, illuminating the outside just enough to see fish and other animals. The bathysphere couldn’t descend all that deeply, although it set records repeatedly. The deepest they descended was 3,028 feet, or 923 meters, but Beebe made careful notes of all the animals he observed and published many articles and books about them. Many of these articles and books were illustrated by an artist named Else Bostelmann, who worked closely with Beebe and his team of scientists. Bostelmann even painted underwater while wearing a diving helmet, because she needed to know how colors were affected by underwater light. She used oil paints, since oil and water don’t mix so the paints wouldn’t wash away, and she tied strings to her paintbrushes so they wouldn’t float off.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in reading a really interesting article about Bostelmann or learning more about the bathysphere and William Beebe, check the show notes. I’ve included links to the article and to a 99% Invisible episode about the bathysphere.

Many of the animals Beebe saw from the bathysphere have since been identified and described by later scientists. But there are five fish that Beebe observed that have never been seen since.

Before we talk about them, let’s learn about Page’s suggestion, the Pacific blackdragon, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The Pacific blackdragon is a type of fish that lives in the Pacific, which you probably figured out without me telling you. It prefers tropical and temperate water, although since it’s a deep-sea fish the water where it lives is mostly very cold.

If you remember episode 155 about extreme sexual dimorphism, where the males and females of a species look radically different, this fish is a good example. The male never eats. He can’t eat. He doesn’t have a functioning digestive system. He survives on the yolk from the egg he develops from and never grows any larger than his larval form, about three inches long, or 8 cm. He lives long enough to mate and then he dies.

The female, however, grows up to about two feet long, or 61 cm. Her body is long and thin, and her mouth is full of sharp teeth that she uses to grab anything she can catch. She especially likes to eat fish and small crustaceans, but she’s not picky.

Her body is black, and not just regular black. It’s called superblack or ultrablack. In episode 186 we talked about the eyed click beetle and velvet asity who both have superblack markings that absorb most of the light that hits them. Well, the Pacific blackdragon is superblack almost all over to help hide in the darkness of the water, since it’s an ambush predator. Just under the fish’s skin, there’s a layer of closely packed pigment-containing structures called melanosomes, which can absorb up to 99.95% of light. As if that wasn’t enough, because a lot of the animals the blackdragon eats emit bioluminescent light, her stomach is also black to block any light from the prey she’s swallowed. But although she’s basically invisible to other animals, she does have several rows of light-emitting cells called photophores along her sides. Scientists think she uses the lights to attract a mate, but she only flashes the photophores occasionally and only for brief moments. She also has a barbel that hangs from her chin with a luminescent lure at the end, which she uses to attract prey.

While the Pacific blackdragon is a deep-sea fish, at night she migrates upward nearer the surface to catch more prey, although she still stays below about 1,300 feet deep, or 400 m. She has large eyes as a result to take advantage of any moonlight and starlight that shines down that far. During the day she stays deeper, up to 3,200 feet deep, or 1,000 m.

Speaking of the Pacific blackdragon’s eyes, larval blackdragons have eyes on long stalks—really long stalks, nearly half their body length. As the larva matures, it absorbs the stalks until the adult fish has ordinary fish eyes. The larvae are also mostly transparent.

There are two other blackdragon species known, both of them a little smaller than the Pacific blackdragon. But in 1932 William Beebe spotted a fish that he thought might be related to the blackdragons, except that he estimated it was six feet long, or 1.8 m.

Beebe named the fish Bathysphaera intacta, but there’s no type specimen so no one can study it and verify whether it’s a species of blackdragon or something else. Beebe said the fish he saw had large eyes, lots of teeth, and photophores along its sides that glowed blue, and had a barbel with a light under its chin just like the Pacific blackdragon and its cousins. But it also had another, smaller barbel with a light near the tail. Beebe saw two of the fish together. They circled the bathysphere a few times, probably attracted to its light.

Another of Beebe’s mystery fish is one he named the pallid sailfin, Bathyembryx istiophasma. He saw it twice on the same descent in 1934, and described it as about two feet long, or 61 cm, shaped like a cigar with triangular fins and a tiny tail. In fact, in his book Half Mile Down Beebe described the fish this way:

“The strange fish was at least two feet in length, wholly without lights or luminosity, with a small eye and good-sized mouth. Later, when it shifted a little backwards I saw a long, rather wide, but evidently filamentous pectoral fin. The two most unusual things were first, the color, which, in the light, was an unpleasant pale olivedrab, the hue of water-soaked flesh, an unhealthy buff. It was a color worthy of these black depths, like the sickly sprouts of plants in a cellar. Another strange thing was its almost tailless condition, the caudal fin being reduced to a tiny knob or button, while the vertical fins, taking its place, rose high above and stretched far beneath the body, these fins also being colorless.”

Beebe assigned the pallid sailfish into the family Stomiidae, the same family that Bathysphaera intacta is assigned to as well as the other blackdragons. As a group, the fish in this family are called barbeled dragonfish. Some species in this family do show a similar tail arrangement that Beebe noted, with a very small tail fin but enlarged anal and dorsal fins that are set well back on the body. This includes a weird fish with various names, including black hinge-head, black loosejaw, or lightless loosejaw, which maybe gives you an idea of what it looks like. It’s a deep-sea fish like all the barbeled dragonfish, and it’s black in color. It grows about 10 inches long, or almost 26 cm. It’s also sometimes called the stoplight loosejaw because it has two photophores on its head, one of which shines green, the other which shines red. Unlike most deep-sea fish, it can see in the red spectrum, so the green photophore may attract prey and the red photophore allows the loosejaw to see its prey even though the prey can’t see the loosejaw. But mainly, it has remarkable jaws.

The loosejaw’s jaws are hinged and extremely large compared to the body, which is fairly thin. The jaws are so large that they’re not even attached to its body, just to its head. They aren’t even connected to the body with skin. It’s hard to describe, but I have some good pictures of a model of the fish in the show notes. Basically, the jaws are just bones covered with a thin layer of skin, but no skin or muscle in between the bones. If you put your thumb under your chin, you can feel your chin bone, then move your thumb backwards and instead of bone, you feel skin over layers of fat and muscle and other tissues that make up the soft part of your jaw. Well, the loosejaw doesn’t have those soft parts. It just has the chin bone and there’s literally nothing between the jaws. It doesn’t have a throat or cheeks or anything like that. Its jaws aren’t big because it needs to swallow big things, its jaws are big so it has a longer reach to snag the small fish and crustaceans it eats. It has a lot of needlelike teeth that it uses to keep its prey from wriggling away while it maneuvers it into its gullet. It mostly eats very small animals, but it’s not going to let anything get away once it gets within jaw range.

While I was researching this episode, I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find the episode where I talked about the umbrellafish, thinking it might be related to the loosejaw. It’s not, and I finally realized the umbrellafish episode was for patrons. I’ve unlocked that Patreon episode and linked to it in the show notes if you want to go listen to it. The umbrellafish, also called the gulper eel, looks superficially like the loosejaw, but it has skin over its huge hinged jaws.

After my inability to properly describe the loosejaw’s amazing jaws, let’s move on to Beebe’s other mystery fish. One he named the three-starred anglerfish, Bathyceratias trilychnus, which he estimated was about six inches long, or 15 cm. It had three bioluminescent illicia on its head that it probably used as lures, since that’s something that other deep-sea anglerfish do and Beebe was pretty sure it was actually a species of anglerfish. Since there are over 200 known species of anglerfish, it’s not surprising that there are more that aren’t known.

Another was the five-lined constellation fish, Bathysidus pentagrammus, named for the five rows of photophores on its sides. Beebe thought it looked kind of like a surgeonfish, which is a flat, round fish shaped sort of like a pancake with fins and a tail. But surgeonfish are mostly found in shallow, tropical waters around coral reefs. They’re often brightly colored. Beebe didn’t assign his constellation fish to the surgeonfish’s family, and in fact didn’t assign it to any family since he didn’t know where it belonged.

The last of Beebe’s mystery fish was the rainbow gar, which he didn’t give a scientific name to since he had no idea what kind of fish it might be. He thought it was shaped like a gar, but it was so extraordinary he didn’t know what to think. He actually saw four of them swimming almost vertically, heads up and tails down, at about 2,500 feet deep, or 760 m. He named them rainbow gar because of their coloring: bright red head and jaws, a light blue body, and a yellow tail. They were about four inches long, or a little over 10 cm, with long, pointed jaws. They moved by fanning the dorsal fin, sort of like a seahorse.

Beebe wrote scientific articles about some of these fish and included them all in his book Half Mile Down. But it wasn’t long before other scientists started doubting the sightings. Some people thought he’d made up the fish to make his expeditions more exciting, some thought he was just mistaken. One irate ichthyologist wrote in 1933 that the constellation fish was probably just light reflecting off Beebe’s own breath fogging the window, because no fish had photophores like the ones he described. Because I guess in 1933 everything was known about fish that would ever be known, right?

Beebe seems to have been an honest scientist, though, and he didn’t really need to make anything up. He discovered dozens, if not hundreds, of fish new to science, many of which have either been found and properly described later, or which Beebe himself managed to later catch. Whenever he and Barton came up from a descent in the bathysphere, Beebe had his team on the boat send down nets, and sometimes they caught some of the animals he had seen. This allowed Bostelmann to add details to her paintings that Beebe wouldn’t have known about from just a look through the bathysphere’s windows.

Not only that, if Beebe wanted to make up a fish that would excite the general public and make them want to buy his books, he would have made up something huge and frightening. His mystery fish are mostly quite small. Only Bathysphaera intacta was large, and he only said they were about six feet long. That’s big for a deep-sea fish, but remember that the bathysphere never made it to the really crushing depths of the abyss. It descended into the mesopelagic zone, which is extremely dark but not completely lightless. There’s also a lot of life in this zone, and many fish that spend the day here migrate nearer the surface at night where they can find more food while still remaining hidden. The long-snouted lancetfish lives in this zone and it can grow seven feet long, or 2.15 m.

Plus, Beebe didn’t need to convince anyone to buy his books. They were already runaway bestsellers and he was quite famous, although it seems not to have gone to his head. He just wanted to have fun and do science. He actually seems to have been a good person by modern standards too, which is always refreshing. He disagreed with people who claimed to have scientific proof that women were inferior to men or that some races were inferior to others. He insisted that his team members work hard, but he worked hard too, and if he thought everyone was feeling too stressed, he’d announce that his birthday was coming up and they should take a few days off to celebrate. Some years he had several birthdays.

Beebe did spot one other mystery animal, but he didn’t get a good enough view to make a guess as to what it might be. This is what he wrote about it:

“…I saw its complete, shadow-like contour as it passed through the farthest end of the beam [of light]. Twenty feet is the least possible estimate I can give to its full length, and it was deep in proportion. The whole fish was monochrome, and I could not see even an eye or a fin. For the majority of the ‘size-conscious’ human race this marine monster would, I suppose, be the supreme sight of the expedition. In shape it was a deep oval, it swam without evident effort, and it did not return. That is all I can contribute, and while its unusual size so excited me that for several hundred feet I kept keenly on the lookout for hints of the same or other large fish, I soon forgot it in the (very literal) light of smaller, but more distinct and interesting organisms.

“What this great creature was I cannot say. A first, and most reasonable guess would be a small whale or blackfish. …[O]r, less likely, it may have been a whale shark, which is known to reach a length of forty feet. Whatever it was, it appeared and vanished so unexpectedly and showed so dimly that it was quite unidentifiable except as a large, living creature.”

Twenty feet is six meters, by the way. It might easily have been a whale, since many species of whale routinely dive much farther than the bathysphere descended at its deepest. Whatever it was, and whatever Beebe’s other five mystery fish were, hopefully one day a modern deep-sea vehicle will find them again.

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. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us that way. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway if you haven’t already, too! Details are on the website.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 130: Strangest Small Fish



This week we’re going to revisit a suggestion from Damian and follow up on episode 96, our strangest big fish episode. This time let’s find out about some weird small fish!

The teeny, newly-discovered American pocket shark:

The brownsnout spookfish wears its mirror sunglasses on the INSIDE:

The goblinfish with a dangerous head and basically a dangerous everything else too:

Two teeny pygmy seahorses. Can you spot them? Hint: they’re the ones with eyes.

The razorfish. Just another sea urchin spine, no fish to see here:

The much-maligned candiru:

The red-lipped batfish:

Gimme kiss:

Show transcript:

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

Ages ago, Damian suggested an episode about weird fish. We covered some weird big fish in episode 96, but now it’s time for some weird little fish.

So, think about sharks for a second. Big, scary, sharp teeth, fast swimmers, black eyes of a pitiless killer of the deep.

But have you perhaps considered that maybe the world needs a very small shark? One that actually kind of looks like a tiny whale? Like, a tiny shark, only about 5 ½ inches long, or 14 cm. Almost, you know, pocket sized. Oh, and it should glow in the dark.

That’s the American pocket shark, a real animal that was only discovered in 2010! It’s called a pocket shark not because it’s pocket sized, although it is, but because it has a sort of pocket on each side near its gills that produces luminous fluid. Researchers aren’t sure whether the shark uses the fluid for attracting prey or avoiding predators. Maybe both. Its head is bulbous and rounded, which kind of makes it look like a tiny whale.

The American pocket shark was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico while scientists were observing sperm whales and tracking them with sonar. When a whale surfaced from a dive, the research team dropped nets to the depth the whale had dived to, hoping to catch the same kind of prey the whales were eating. And one of the things they found in the net was a tiny shark new to science, found at a depth of 3,000 feet, or 914 meters.

In 2013 the tiny shark, which had been frozen for later study, was finally examined. The expert who looked at it had only seen one other shark like it before, a shark discovered in the eastern Pacific in 1979. But this tiny shark had some differences from that tiny shark, and after examining both specimens carefully, they’ve been classified as different species.

So that’s a cute start, but it’s still just a rare little shark that glows. Not really that unusual, right? Let’s look at a really weird fish next. Like, seriously weird.

It’s called the brownsnout spookfish, which is a really terrible name, but it’s not a terrible fish. I mean, it couldn’t hurt you. It grows about 7 inches long, or 18 cm, and eats copepods and other tiny crustaceans. Its snout is long and kind of pointy, its body is slender, and it has elongated pelvic fins. Because it lives in the deep sea, it has eyes that point upward, which help it see predators and prey that might be silhouetted against the far-distant surface of the ocean. But it also has something only one other fish is known to have, an extra structure to the side of the eyeball. It’s called a diverticulum and it does two things. First, it allows the fish to see downward in addition to upward, and second, it allows it to see across a really wide angle. The diverticulum does this because it contains a mirror that reflects light from the main eyeball onto the retina of the diverticulum. A MIRROR IN ITS EYEBALLS. The mirror is made up of tiny crystalline plates.

Some invertebrates like clams and crustaceans contain reflectors in their eyes, but except for the brownsnout spookfish, the only other vertebrate known to have mirrored eyeballs is the glasshead barreleye. Also a terrible name. The glasshead barreleye is a little smaller than the brownsnout spookfish, and not surprisingly, they’re related. But surprisingly, they’re not that closely related and the mirrored diverticulum appears to have evolved independently in each species.

Although the fish has been known to science for over a century, no one realized it had mirrors in its eyes until 2008 when a live one was caught by a deep-sea scientific expedition off the island of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers took pictures of the brownsnout spookfish and got a shock when they looked at the photos. The upward-pointing parts of the eye reflected light normally, the typical eyeshine you get when you use a flash to photograph most animals. But the lower parts of the eyes reflected bright light. Researchers think the fish uses its downward-pointing eyes to see the faint bioluminescent flashes of its prey, while the upward-pointing eyes watch for predators approaching from above.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. The brownsnout spookfish is mostly transparent. You can see right through it. Yeah.

After that, the goblinfish that lives around reefs off the southern coast of Australia seems practically normal. It grows up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and spends most of its time resting among rocks on the seabed. It hunts at night, eating small crustaceans, and instead of swimming it usually walks along the sea floor with its large pectoral fins.

The goblinfish gets its name from its appearance, which is frankly ugly unless you are another goblinfish. Its head looks sort of turtle-like, including a dip in its body behind its eyes and in front of its dorsal fin that looks like a turtle’s neck. Its eyes are large and orange in color. Its dorsal fin is spiny and runs most of the length of its back. It also has broad pectoral fins that it sometimes spreads like fans. It can change color to blend in with the rocks around it, which makes it hard for divers to see, which is too bad because it’s also venomous.

It’s a type of waspfish, related to scorpionfish and stonefish, all of which are venomous. Like many of those other fish, the goblinfish has venomous spines on its fins, but it also has a spine on each side of its head, underneath its eyes. Only these spines are hidden inside the fish’s head. The spine is called a lachrymal saber, and it acts like a switchblade that the fish can extend with its cheek muscles. The lachrymal saber isn’t venomous, but if you’ve just picked one up by the head and those switchblades come out, you probably aren’t going to be happy anyway. Also, why did you just pick that fish up by its head? What is wrong with you?

Next, let’s talk about the seahorse. It’s a fish although it doesn’t look like an ordinary fish. And in fact nothing about the seahorse is ordinary.

Unlike most fish, the seahorse has a flexible neck. Also unlike almost all other fish it swims vertically, with its head up and its tail down. It has a prehensile tail made up of 36 bony segments, and each segments is made of four pieces connected by tiny joints. The joints make the segments incredibly strong and able to withstand considerable pressure without breaking. The seahorse uses its tail to hold onto seaweed or other items to keep from being swept away in currents, since it isn’t a strong swimmer. It propels itself through the water by fluttering its dorsal fin, using its pectoral fins to steer. Males also fight each other by tail-wrestling and bopping their heads together. The seahorse’s body is protected with an external skeleton of bony plates, which take the place of ribs. The seahorse doesn’t have ribs. It also doesn’t have scales, just the bony plates with thin skin over them.

The seahorse lives in warm, shallow oceans throughout the world, especially in coral reefs and seagrass beds where there’s plenty of cover. The largest seahorse species grow to about 14 inches long, or 35 cm. The smallest species are barely more than half an inch long, or 15 mm. The smallest species are mostly new to science since they’re so hard to find and identify. Seahorses are well camouflaged to blend in with the plants and coral they live in.

The seahorse’s mouth is at the end of a long, tubelike snout, and it actually sucks its prey into its snout like a straw. It eats small crustaceans, larval fish, and other small animals. Oh, and its eyes can move independently of each other.

Seahorses don’t mate for life, but they do form bonds that last throughout the breeding season, and it has a long courtship period while the female develops her eggs. The pair participate in courtship dances and spend most of their time together. When the eggs are ready, the female deposits them in a special brood pouch in the male’s belly, where he fertilizes them. They then embed themselves in the spongy wall of the brood pouch and are nourished not only by the yolk sacs in the eggs, but by the male, who secretes nutrients in the brood pouch. So basically the male is pregnant. The female visits him every day to check on him, usually in the mornings. When the eggs hatch after a few weeks, the male expels the babies from his pouch and they swim away, because when they hatch they are perfectly formed teeny-tiny miniature seahorses.

If you’re wondering why I said the seahorse is almost the only fish that swims vertically, there’s some evidence that the oarfish does this too. We talked about the oarfish way back in episode 6, about sea monsters. But there’s another fish that swims vertically, the razorfish—but it swims with its head pointed down and its tail pointed up. It’s a slender fish that grows about six inches long, or 15 cm, with a pointy nose and tiny fins. Its back is protected by bony plates that extend past the tail fin in a spine. It eats tiny animals, including brine shrimp, AKA sea monkeys. When it feels threatened, the razorfish swims to the nearest sea urchin and hides among its spines, blending in with them. Schools of razorfish will swim around together, all of them head-down, because that’s just what they do.

Not all weird fish live in the ocean. A lot of freshwater fish are weird too. For instance, the candiru [kan-DEE-roo]. You’ve probably heard of this one although you may not know what it’s called. It’s native to the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America and it’s actually a type of catfish. Some species grow over a foot long, or around 40 cm, but the species we’re talking about today, Vandellia cirrhosa, grows less than two inches long, or 5 cm. Like the brownsnout spookfish, it’s mostly translucent so it’s hard to see in the water. It has short spines on its gill covers that point backwards.

Unlike other catfish, the candiru eats blood, which gives it its other name of the vampire fish. It parasitizes other fish by lodging itself in their gills and sucking their blood. But the candiru is supposed to do something else, something that happens by accident. The story goes that if someone pees while in the water and a candiru is around, it’ll swim up the stream of urine, attracted by the smell, and lodge itself in the urethra of the person peeing. It’s supposed to do this thinking it’s entering the gills of a fish. Its spines keep it locked in place, causing intense pain to the person, followed by infection and, if the fish isn’t surgically removed, death.

At least, that’s the story. There’s even a 1997 video of a man who had to have a candiru removed from his penis after he peed while wading in a river in Brazil. The doctor filmed the surgery and even kept the fish he removed, preserved in formaldehyde. So it must be true, right?

Maybe not. One study determined that the candiru isn’t interested in the chemicals present in urine and in fact it hunts by sight, not smell. And a study of medical reports throughout South America only found a single instance of anyone reporting a candiru attack. That instance is the same one from 1997 where the surgery to remove the fish was filmed.

But a further study of the surgery, photos, and preserved candiru specimen tell a different story. The human urethra is extremely narrow and the preserved fish was much too large to enter without squishing itself to death, not to mention that the candiru is just not strong enough to muscle its way into anything but a larger fish’s gills. The doctor also said he’d had to cut off the candiru’s spines before removing it, but the specimen is fully intact, spines and all. It sounds like the video may be a hoax of some kind.

Reports of candiru attacks are common in parts of South America today and have been common as far back as recorded history, but they seem to be more of a legend than something that happens a lot or maybe even at all. Still, probably better not to pee into the Amazon River, just in case.

Let’s finish with the red-lipped batfish, a type of anglerfish only found around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It lives on the ocean floor where the water is fairly shallow, and it grows about 8 inches long, or 20 cm. It’s usually a mottled brown, green, or grey with a white stomach, but its mouth is bright red. It looks like it’s wearing lipstick. It eats fish and other small animals, which it attracts using a lure on its head, a highly modified dorsal fin called an illicium.

The weirdest thing about the red-lipped batfish is actually its fins. It prefers to walk on the bottom of the ocean instead of swim, and it has modified pectoral fins called pseudolegs. The pseudolegs make it look a little bit like a weird frog with a tail, a unicorn horn, and lipstick. It’s like something out of a fever dream, honestly.

Researchers think the red lips may be a way to attract potential mates, presumably ones who are hoping for a big smooch.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 041: Comb Jellies and Sea Sponges THE CONTROVERSY



We’re learning about comb jellies this week, along with the sea sponge, and the MASSIVE CONTROVERSY ABOUT THE TWO THAT IS PITTING SCIENTIST AGAINST SCIENTIST I might be overstating it just a bit

The lovely Arctic comb jelly:

The lovely Venus’s girdle comb jelly:

A fossil comb jelly. Probably lovely when it was alive:

A sea sponge (most are not this Muppet-like):

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re revisiting jellyfish, more properly known as jellies. The first jelly episode is far and away our most popular and I can’t figure out why. I mean, I’m glad people like it. This time, we’re going to learn all about comb jellies, which are not really as exciting as true jellies. There is no ship-sinkingly enormous comb jelly lurking in the oceans of the world. But they are really interesting.

When you think of a jelly, you probably picture a roughly bell-shaped thing with long stinging tentacles. But most comb jellies are more like egg-shaped blobs, and either don’t have tentacles at all or only have relatively small tentacles that don’t sting. Although they look alike superficially, comb jellies and true jellies are so different that scientists don’t think they’re very closely related at all. Comb jellies are officially called ctenophores (TEN-oh-fours), spelled with a c-t at the beginning if you were wondering. I looked up the pronunciation. Yeah, I know, I pronounced Pliny wrong all through episode 12, but come on, it looks like it should be pronounced Pliny and not Plinny. It’s not like anyone ever came up to me and said, “Hey, what about that Plinny, what a guy.” I just read the name.

But I digress, inexplicably.

Instead of pulsing its bell to maneuver in the water, a comb jelly has rows of tiny compact filaments called cilia, fused together in combs that help it swim. The combs are also called swimming plates.

There are two main types of comb jellies, those with tentacles and those without tentacles. The ones without are called Nuda, or Beroids, and while they don’t have tentacles, they do have combs of extra-large cilia, called macrocilia, that sever prey into pieces small enough to swallow. Mostly they eat other comb jellies. Beroids also have big mouths, but a beroid can actually seal its mouth shut while it’s moving so it’s more streamlined.

Comb jellies with tentacles are divided into eight orders roughly based on body shape. The most common order, the cydippida, are egg-shaped with a pair of thin tentacles that they use sort of like fishing lines. The tentacles are long and sticky, trapping tiny organisms or particles of food. Some species have branched tentacles but none have more than two. The tentacles can retract—when you see a picture of a comb jelly with a weird spring-like thing sticking out from its bottom, that’s a retracted tentacle, not anything gross like a poop. The tentacles contain cells called colloblasts. When an organism touches a tentacle, the colloblast cells rupture and basically release glue that keeps the prey from escaping.

A cydippid comb jelly also has eight combs that run from the top of the body to the bottom, which makes it look sort of like a fancy decorated egg. Comb jelly cilia are iridescent, by the way, so they reflect light in rainbow patterns. Basically what I’m saying is, these little guys are actually really pretty.

All comb jellies are predators, but most eat plankton and other tiny food, because most comb jellies are really small—only a few inches long at most. Bigger species may eat krill and small crustaceans. The biggest comb jelly, Cestum veneris, more often called Venus’s girdle, can grow some five feet long, or 1.5 meters, but only some two inches, or 5 cm, wide. It looks like a nearly transparent or purplish ribbon and lives in tropical and subtropical seas. I wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s not exactly dangerous. In fact, it’s so delicate that a diver attempting to touch one may accidentally destroy it instead. A lot of comb jellies are that delicate, making them hard to study, so we still don’t know a whole lot about them.

Comb jellies only have one body opening, called a mouth for convenience sake although the jelly uses it for anything that requires a body opening. Until recently, researchers thought that included pooping. Yeah, now you see why it’s not exactly a mouth. But it turns out that a comb jelly has pores on the opposite end of its body from its mouth opening that it uses to release at least some particles of indigestible food. This is interesting since it helps scientists understand how the anus evolved.

There aren’t that many species of comb jellies, maybe 100 or so. But new ones are discovered occasionally, especially deep-sea comb jellies. While comb jellies that live near the surface of the ocean are usually transparent, many deep-sea species are red, since it’s a color most deep-sea animals can’t see. Most are also bioluminescent, and when threatened some species will secrete a luminescent goo. The predator may get confused and attack the goo while the comb jelly swims away as fast as its frantically waving cilia can take it.

If you’ve listened to episode 15, about the hammerhead shark and megalodon, you’ll remember that we don’t have a lot of shark fossils because shark skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone. We just have a lot of shark teeth, mostly. Now think about how big and solid sharks are, then think about how smooshy jellies are. Then try to imagine what a jelly fossil might look like. Yeah.

We do have some comb jelly fossils, though. But we don’t have many. Like, five. We have five. The oldest are from the mid-Cambrian, some 500 million years ago, but they were very different from the comb jellies living today. They had lots more combs, for one thing—between 24 and 80 instead of 8. Researchers have found other fossils that may be of comb jellies. There’s a good possibility that they were widespread throughout the oceans back then—but from genetic testing and other molecular analysis, it appears that the comb jellies alive today are all descended from a common ancestor that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction around 65 million years ago. So it’s possible that in addition to so many dinosaurs dying off, almost all comb jellies went extinct then too.

Just think, if that one species hadn’t survived and evolved into the comb jellies we have today, researchers might not have a clue what animal those comb jelly fossils represented. If you know about the Burgess shale fossils that have baffled and fascinated paleontologists for decades now, because so many of the fossils don’t resemble anything living today, then it’ll make sense to learn that a few of those five comb jelly fossils were actually found in the Burgess shale.

There are some other comb jelly fossils discovered in China and dated to 520 million years ago. But they don’t resemble the comb jellies living today at all because they had skeletons and spines. Pretty much every fossil found from the Cambrian had supportive or armored structures, even ones like comb jellies that don’t have those things today. I’ll probably do a whole episode eventually about the Cambrian period and the Burgess shale discoveries.

Anyway, there’s some controversy going on right now regarding whether comb jellies or sponges were the species that gave rise ultimately to all other animals, so let’s take a quick side trip and learn about sponges.

The sponge is a very simple animal, still around today. They don’t have any specialized structures like nerves or a digestive system or a circulatory system or organs. They’re just a sponge, basically. And if you were wondering, the sponge you use to clean your kitchen is named after the sea sponge, not vice versa, and you can still get actual dried sea sponges to use for cleaning. They’ve been used that way for millennia. It wasn’t until 1866 that scientists even realized sponges were animals and not plants.

Living sponges just hang out in the ocean or freshwater, stuck to a rock or something. Water flows through them and washes food and oxygen in and waste out. That’s it. That’s all a sponge does is let water flow through it. I feel like there’s a life lesson to be learned there, but I’m too busy doing ten things at once to figure it out.

Mostly sponges eat bacteria and other tiny food particles, although some eat small crustaceans and a few have developed a symbiotic relationship with plantlike microorganisms, which live safely in the sponge and produce enough food for both it and the sponge. Every so often a sponge will release eggs or sperm into the water. If the conditions around a sponge deteriorate, some species will create bundles of unspecialized cells called gemmules. When conditions improve, the gemmules will either grow into new sponges or, if the sponge that created them has died, it will recolonize the original sponge’s skeleton.

A sponge’s skeleton is a sponge, by the way. If you’ve got a natural sea sponge in your house, that’s what you’re cleaning your kitchen counters with, the skeleton of a sea sponge. Different sponges use different minerals to create their skeletons and most are pretty hard, but the ones sold as natural sponges are softer and throughout history have been used for everything from padding armor, applying paint, and filtering water. Loofah sponges aren’t actually made from sea sponges, though. They’re actually from the dried insides of the sponge gourd. I did not actually know that until just now.

Oh, and guess what else I just learned? There’s a small population of bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia that use sponges. The dolphins frequently hunt close to the bottom of the bay. To keep from scraping its rostrum, or bill, in the sand, a dolphin will sometimes stick a sponge under its chin. Researchers think that one especially smart dolphin figured this out and has been teaching her children how to do it ever since.

So that’s the sea sponge. Useful for many things, not much of a party animal. Compared to sea sponges, comb jellies are intellectual masterminds. Even though comb jellies don’t have brains.

Instead, comb jellies have a nerve net. The nerves are concentrated around its mouth and on its tentacles. It does also contain an organ that helps the jelly sense its orientation, basically so it knows which way is up. It usually swims with its mouth pointing upward, incidentally. But while the comb jelly’s nervous system is pretty sophisticated for such a simple animal, it’s also very different from other animals’ nervous systems. Like, super different. Its nerves are constructed from different molecules and use different neurotransmitters.

Its nerve cells are so different from other animals’ that some researchers think it actually evolved separately. Specifically, neuroscientist Leonid Moroz thinks so. He thinks that the first ancestor of comb jellies split off from the sea sponges some three quarters of a billion years ago and evolved separately from all other animals.

Since comb jellies use a different set of chemicals as other animals to accomplish the same tasks, a couple of articles I read make a big deal about how evolution must therefore follow a prescribed path—that animals must have certain traits to survive. But assuming comb jellies did split off from sponges that early and did evolve separately from other animals, they were still competing against those other animals. It’s not like they had an ocean to themselves, although that would be awesome if they did, because who knows what they might have evolved into?

The controversy about whether sea sponges or comb jellies were basically the trunk of the tree of animal life started in 2008, when a study in the journal Nature compared DNA sequences across a number of animal species and suggested that the comb jellies were evolutionarily first. A 2013 paper published in Science by another team of researchers made the same conclusion based on the genome of a species of comb jelly called the sea walnut. That is such a cute name. Don’t you just want to cuddle the little sea walnut and make little hats for it?

All this ignited what some articles call a firestorm of controversy. I like to imagine researchers reading the articles and FREAKING OUT. Moroz’s studies of the comb jelly’s nervous system, and the complete genome of a different comb jelly, the sea gooseberry, appeared in Nature in 2014. Moroz now thinks that nervous systems have developed independently at least nine times in various different groups.

The controversy at this point appears to have several factions. Moroz’s group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges, and that everything else split off from comb jellies but developed separately in the neurological sense. Another group thinks comb jellies split off from sponges and everything evolved from comb jellies, and that comb jellies aren’t all that weird neurologically. Another group thinks comb jellies and sponges split off from a common ancestor of both that had a simple nervous system, which comb jellies retained but sponges lost, and that everything else evolved from comb jellies. But then there’s the other side, the ones who think sure, comb jellies split off from sponges, but so did everything else ultimately, and comb jellies are no more the base of all animal life than the man in the moon.

One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that we still don’t know enough about comb jellies. And they are really pretty.

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. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 038: The Canvey Island Monster



This week we’re looking at the confusing and mysterious Canvey Island Monster! Is it really a monster? Is it just a fish, and if so what kind? And who’s telling the truth about what washed up when and where?

The initial article in a Canvey Island newspaper, from CanveyIsland.org.

The photo shown on many sites, with the implication or statement that it accompanied the article above:

The photo found by Garth Haslam of Anomoly (highly recommended reading at that link!). Note the enormous difference in font between this newspaper text and the clipping above:

A monkfish:

See also the Frontiers of Zoology page (and scroll way down for the full text of the “mermaid” description).

Show transcript:

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

We’re getting closer and closer to Halloween. Things are getting weird. This week we’re going to learn about something called the Canvey Island Monster.

Canvey is a seven square mile, or 18 ½ square km, island off the southern coast of England not far from London. It’s barely above sea level and on Jan 31, 1953, a tidal surge overtopped the sea wall in the night and drowned 58 people. Its marshes are home to lots of plants and animals, including some insects that at one point were thought extinct. It was also a fashionable vacation area in Victorian times and can claim lots of ghost, such as one story told by night fishermen who sometimes see a Viking standing on the mudflats staring out to sea. He supposedly drowned while waiting for his ship to return. But Canvey Island’s big claim to fame these days is something that happened late in the same year of the big flood, 1953.

This is the story as reported pretty much everywhere. Some time in November of 1953, a body washed ashore. We don’t know exactly what day it was or who found it. It was lying in shallow water, and its finders pulled it farther ashore and covered it with seaweed, presumably so nothing would bother it and it wouldn’t wash back out with the tide. They went for the police, but the police had no idea what they were looking at. They called “the government” who sent two zoologists to identify the body. But the zoologists didn’t know what it was either. They had the body incinerated and left without making an official report.

So what did the body look like? It measured about two and a half feet long, or about 76 centimeters. It’s described as a marine animal with thick brownish-red skin, protruding eyes in a pulpy head, sharp teeth, and gills, but it also had hind legs with no forelegs. Remarkably, its feet each had five toes that together were shaped roughly like a horseshoe. The zoologists reportedly said it looked as though it would be able to walk upright on its legs.

Then, in summer of 1954, another one washed ashore. This one was bigger, almost 4 feet long or 120 cm. It weighed about 25 pounds, or 11.3 kilograms. A short article appeared on August 13, 1954 in either the Canvey Chronicle or the Canvey News. There is a clipping on CanveyIsland.org and if you look at the show notes you can see it there too, along with a photograph of the creature.

The headline reads “Fish with feet found on beach.” I’ll read the entire article since it’s very short:

“A fish with feet was found on the beach at Canvey on Tuesday by the Rev. Joseph D. Overs. He described the fish as being over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath, on its stomach, it had two feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had apparently been damaged by being washed against the rocks. A peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year and identified as a pocket or ‘fiddler fish.’”

Under that is a subheading titled SEAL TOO and the sentence “For the first time within living memory a seal was seen in Benfleet Creek, near the bridge, on Tuesday.”

All this seems pretty straightforward, but it’s not. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot more information that sheds light on the events. But first let’s take a quick detour to find out what that November 1953 body might have been. What’s a fiddler fish?

There’s a fiddler ray, sometimes called a banjo ray, which I’m delighted to learn is a type of guitarfish. Guitarfish are only slightly guitar shaped. They mostly look like little sharks if you smooshed the shark’s head flat. The fiddler ray has a rounder flattened head than a guitarfish. It lives around Australia and likes shallow, sandy bays, where it eats mostly shellfish and crabs. It’s harmless and edible. But it’s not reddish-brown, it doesn’t have sharp teeth, and it certainly doesn’t have anything that could be called legs by any stretch of the imagination.

I couldn’t find any other marine animals called fiddler fish. As for pocket fish, Google helpfully offered me an urban dictionary entry, gadgets used when fishing, stock photos of plastic fish in shirt pockets, a cookbook, and some miscellaneous entries about video games and songs I’ve never heard of. I couldn’t find an actual fish called a pocket fish.

So we’ll go with the fiddler ray as mentioned in the article. But I just can’t connect a fiddler ray with the thing that supposedly washed up onshore in 1953.

It also seems odd that the newspaper article doesn’t mention the two zoologists supposedly sent by “the government” who couldn’t identify the 1953 monster. For that matter, it doesn’t say that the 1954 fish was the same type of thing found in 1953. It just says “a peculiar fish was found in almost the same place last year”. Not the same kind of fish. The same place. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

As it happens, I didn’t have to look too hard to find out how this got so scrambled. I discovered an excellent website called Anomalies that really digs into the topic. A link is in the show notes if you want to read more.

In 1959–only about five years after the weird thing washed ashore on Canvey Island–writer and radio personality Frank Edwards published a book called Stranger Than Science. It’s since been reprinted many times and I have clear memories of reading it as a kid, although I don’t remember anything about the Canvey Island monster. It was a popular book and full of…less than stellar research.

Edwards’ book is the main source used for subsequent accounts of the Canvey Island monster, including the Wikipedia page. It’s Edwards who claims there were two such monsters, Edwards who describes the feet as having toes arranged in a U shape, Edwards who introduces us to the mysterious government-sent zoologists who tell everyone the monster is a bipedal marine animal but it’s okay, it’s harmless, hey, let’s just burn this body and tell no one.

It appears that Edwards made a lot of this up. For instance, there were no baffled zoologists. Why would you even send a pair of zoologists to look at a fish? You’d send an ichthyologist or marine biologist of some kind. Just because someone is trained in the study of animals doesn’t mean they’re good at identifying fish.

The 1954 newspaper story was picked up by the Associated Press, but the full text of the AP article is even shorter than the original, although slightly more sensational, as follows: “A grotesque sea creature four feet long and with two five-toed feet was found on the beach here Tuesday by Reverend Joseph D. Overs. He described the thing, which was dead, as ‘a sort of fish with staring eyes and a large mouth underneath. It has two perfect feet, each with five pink toes.’”

The original 1954 article says that Reverend Joseph D. Overs found the body. According to the CanveyIsland.org page, while Overs was a reverend, he wasn’t the local vicar or anything like that. Apparently he was a reverend of the Old Roman Catholic Church of Great Britain, with a handful of parishioners who met for services at his lodging house. But he was better known as the island’s photographer, and was popular and well-liked. He took the photo of the fish himself, although he may not actually have been the one to find it. The webpage suggests that the reporter included Overs’ title of reverend to give the article more zing and that Overs didn’t usually use his title.

The CanveyIsland.org site is for residents, with a chatty tone, and many of the comments are from people who knew Overs. One 2011 comment about the mystery fish monster, left by a Colin Day, reads: “I was THERE. I was a young lad of nine at the time. I noticed a group of peers in a crowd on the beach. Kids were prodding it with their spades. I ACTUALLY TOUCHED IT! I thought it was a person at first as I could only see part of it through the crowd. Its flesh was NOT fish-like scales. It was a pinkish color and looked like wobbly human flesh with cellulite, orange peel texture. I remember shouting to the other kids ‘It’s a mermaid’ over and over.”

While the fish itself is long gone–no one’s sure what happened to it, but a deep hole in the sand was probably involved, because I bet it stank–we do have that single black and white photograph. What does it show?

It’s a wide-bodied fish with a huge gaping mouth, fins or projections of some kind to either side, and a long, tapering tail. Since it’s a face-on photo, it’s hard to get a good idea of where the fins are situated. They seem to be near the massive head but might be farther back. The fish appears pale, at least in comparison to the dark ground, and we have the eyewitness description of at least one little boy that it was pink, although Edwards claims it was reddish-brown.

Locals are convinced it was an angler fish, and ichthyologists have suggested an anglerfish species known as a monkfish or a related species called a frogfish. Let’s take a look at both.

The monkfish is broad and flattish, with a tapering tail, a big wide mouth with sharp teeth, and two roughly triangular fins jutting out from its sides. It lives in the ocean around England, as well as in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It hunts among seaweed near the ocean floor, sometimes using its muscular fins to walk itself along instead of swimming. Its skin does not have scales but it is bumpy. Like other angler fish, it has a lure on its head, modified from a dorsal fin spine, that it can move around to attract small fish and other prey. When something touches the lure, YOMP, the monkfish gulps it down. Like the sabertooth fish we talked about in episode 34, the monkfish has an expandable stomach and can swallow prey as big as it is. And it can get big–almost seven feet long for a big female, or over 2 meters.

The frogfish prefers tropical and subtropical oceans, although it does live in the Mediterranean. It’s smaller than the monkfish, barely more than a foot long or around 35 centimeters, and it’s rounded rather than flattened. Some species of frogfish have elaborate filaments called spinules all over their bodies that help them blend in with seaweed and other plants. The frogfish frankly doesn’t look much like the fish in the picture, and is too small to fit the description, but it does have one thing in the plus column that the monkfish doesn’t. Many species are orange, yellow, or pink in color. The monkfish is dark.

But there are more than 200 species of anglerfish known. Many are seldom seen because they live so far down on the bottom of the ocean. In fact, the deep sea anglerfish is the one you’ve probably heard of, the one where the male bites the much bigger female and actually fuses to her body. He remains with her the rest of her life, basically just acting as a built-in egg fertilizer.

In July 1833, six men on a deep-sea fishing vessel caught a three-foot long or just under one meter long fish they claimed was a mermaid. In their sworn statement later they described it carefully, and it’s clear from the description that they had actually caught some species of anglerfish. I won’t quote the entire description here because it’s long, but I’ll link to the Frontiers of Zoology website where I found it. Its back was light gray and its front, as they said–actually the underparts of the fish–were white. They even described its lure, which they thought was some sort of hearing apparatus. So nine-year-old Colin Day was right, in a way. He’d seen a mermaid. And I’m happy to report that the fishermen who’d caught the mermaid in 1833 carefully released it back into the ocean. Because it’s bad luck to harm a mermaid.

So it’s entirely possible that the Canvey Island monster is a species of anglerfish that’s closely related to the monkfish but is pink like a frogfish. Or maybe it was just a variant color or albino. It’s too bad no one kept the fish, but at least we have a photo.

Or do we? We don’t actually know that that photo accompanied the 1954 article. The Anomalist researcher, Garth Haslam, has tried repeatedly to contact a librarian, reporter, or the author of the CanveyIsland.org site to verify the photo’s presence with the original newspaper article, but no one has replied. The Canvey Island library does have archives of one of the two newspapers from that era…but the 1954 papers are missing. Haslam is understandably frustrated and points out that the original description of the fish doesn’t mention its tail, which is quite long and would have been notable. He suggests the picture may actually accompany a different article entirely. He has managed to track down a bigger clip of the fish photo which includes part of a different article’s text next to it…and you know what? The font type is completely different from the font used in the 1954 article. I think Haslam’s right. I don’t think that photo is of the Canvey Island Monster at all.

This was where I was going to laugh like a vampire and wish you a happy Halloween. But then I went and found an article from the Londonderry Sentinel from August 12, 1954. I used up one of my free introductory British Newspaper Archive page accesses to read it, so you’re going to hear the entire thing even though most of it is identical to the Canvey Island newspaper article. But there is one very important addition at the end.

The headline reads ‘Clergyman Finds Fish with Feet’ and the article reads:

“A large fish with feet was found washed up on the beach at Canvey Island, Essex, on Tuesday, by Reverend Joseph D. Overs, a local clergyman. ‘It was over four feet long with staring eyes and a large mouth. Underneath it had two perfect feet, each with five toes. It was dead and had been damaged by being washed against rocks,’ said Mr. Overs. A similar fish was found almost in the same spot at Canvey last November. Mr. Overs said later that the fish had been identified as a pocket fish.

“The fish, which is also known as angler, sea devil, frog or toad fish, and fishing frog, is a British fish, and the name Angler is said to have been derived from its preying on small fish, which it attacts by moving worm-like filaments attached to the head and mouth.”

Now we know that Frank Edwards didn’t completely invent that November 1953 fish. But even if the newspaper picture didn’t come from the 1954 article—and I’m pretty sure it didn’t—it seems clear from this article that we’re talking about anglerfish anyway. Even the 1953 fish’s identification as a fiddler fish isn’t too surprising, since the fiddler ray does superficially resemble an anglerfish in that it has a large head but a much slenderer body that tapers in a long tail. The angler fish’s fins are strong and thick, and if the body was damaged as Overs reported, the ends of the fins may have been frayed to resemble toes.

But I do have one last thing to add. Remember how in Stranger Than Science, Frank Edwards describes the fish as having five toes arranged in a U shape? Where on earth did that come from? Well, for some reason Edwards was convinced that the Canvey Island Monster was the same thing that left hoofmarks in the snow all over Devonshire in February of 1855. No one else has made that connection and I have no idea why Edwards decided to link them. Devon and Canvey are over 200 miles apart, or about 360 kilometers. But if Edwards wanted to use the Canvey Island Monster to solve the mystery of the devil’s footprints, he had to make people believe not only that the fish was bipedal but that it had feet whose prints would resemble hooves.

I don’t think the Canvey Island monster was out cavorting in the snow in 1855, leaving hundreds of miles of hoofmarks on roofs and in walled gardens. But something left those hoofmarks. But to learn more about the devil’s footprints, you’re going to have to wait for next week.

[thunder crash muahaha!]

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. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 033: Dunkleosteus, Helicoprion, and their weird-toothed friends



This week we’ll learn about some terrifying extinct fish, the armored dunkleosteus and the spiral-toothed helicoprion, plus a few friends of theirs who could TEAR YOU UP.

Dunkleosteus did not even need teeth:

Helicoprion had teeth like crazy in a buzzsaw-like tooth whorl:

Helicoprion’s living relatives, chimaeras (or ghost sharks) are a lot less impressive than they sound:

Helicoprion probably looked something like this:

But helicoprion has been described in all sorts of wacky ways over the years:

So what are the odds this rendition of edestus is correct? hmm

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ve got a listener suggestion! Will B. suggested placoderms, which were armored fish that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. He especially recommended Dunkleosteus. I looked it up and went, “Oh holy crap,” so you bet we’re going to learn about it today. I’m also pairing that terrifying fish with a really weird shark relation called Helicoprion. And we might even take a look at a few other fishes while we’re at it. Creepy extinct fish for everyone! Oh, and Will asked that I include more metric conversions. [heavy sigh] okay I guess

If you had happened to live around 350 million years ago when Dunkleosteus was alive, you would be a fish. Well, you would probably be a fish. I don’t know for sure. That was during the Late Devonian period, and the Devonian is remembered as the “age of fish” by undergraduate geology and palaeo students everywhere. While land plants were evolving like crazy, developing true roots and seeds, fish were even crazier. Ray-finned fish evolved during the Devonian and so did lobe-finned fish like coelacanths. The first amphibious critters developed in shallow lakes and started to spend time on land, and in the ocean there were early sharks, lots of trilobites, and a whole lot of armored fish. Including, eventually, dunkleosteus.

Dunkleosteus terrelli was the biggest species of placoderm. It probably grew over 30 feet long OR TEN METERS, WILL, which made it bigger than a great white shark. But dunkleosteus didn’t have teeth. And before you think, oh, it must have been a filter feeder or something, oh no. It didn’t need teeth. Instead it had bony plates like a gigantic beak. It could open and close its jaws incredibly fast—something like one 50th of a second—and could bite through armor and bone no problem. One article referred to its jaws as sheet-metal cutters. Scientists think its bite was as powerful as that of a T rex, although it didn’t quite match that of megalodon, but since T rex and megalodon both lived many millions of years later than Dunkleosteus, it’s useless to speculate who would win in a fight. But my money’s on Dunkleosteus.

Dunkleosteus wasn’t a fast swimmer. Its head was covered in heavy armor that probably served two main purposes. One, the armor plates gave its massive jaw muscles something substantial to attach to, and two, it kept its head safe from the bites of other placoderms. That’s right. Dunkleosteus was a cannibal.

We actually don’t know exactly how long Dunkleosteus was or what most of its body looked like. The only fossils we’ve found were of the head armor. We do have complete fossils and body impressions of other, much smaller placoderms, so since all placoderms seemed to have the same body plan we can make good guesses as to what Dunkleosteus looked like.

One surprising thing we do have associated with Dunkleosteus fossils are some remains of its meals. These are called fish boluses, and they’re basically just wads of partially-digested pieces of fish that either get horked up by whatever ate them or pass through the digestive tract without being fully digested. From the fish boluses, we know that Dunkleosteus probably preferred the soft parts of its prey and didn’t digest bones very well.

In 2013, a fossil fish over 400 million years old was described that combines features of a placoderm skeleton with the jaw structure that most bony fishes and four-footed animals share. Some other early bony fishes discovered recently also show some features of placoderm skeletons. What does that mean? Well, until these discoveries, researchers had thought bony fishes weren’t very closely related to placoderms. Now it looks like they were. And that means that placoderm jaws, those fearsome cutting machines, were actually the basis of our own jaws and those of most animals alive today. Only, in our case they’re no longer designed to shear through armor and bone. Maybe through Nutter Butters and ham sandwiches instead.

So what happened to dunkleosteus? Around 375 million years ago something happened in the oceans—not precisely an extinction event, but from our perspective it looks like one. Even without human help species do go extinct naturally every so often, and when that happens other species evolve to fill their ecological niches. But during the late Devonian, when species went extinct in the ocean… nothing took their place.

We don’t know what exactly was going on, but researchers have theories. One suggestion is that, since sea levels were rising, marine environments that were once separated by land got joined together. Species that had evolved in one area suddenly had access to a much bigger area. They acted like invasive species do today, driving native species to extinction and breeding prolifically. They kept new species from developing, and caused a breakdown in the biodiversity of their new territories. This only happened in the oceans, not on land, which adds credence to the theory.

It took a long, long time for the oceans to fully recover. For example, coral reefs disappeared from the fossil record for 100 million years as corals almost died out completely. But the animals that had already started evolving to take advantage of life on land survived and thrived—and that led to us, eventually. Us and our little unarmored jaws.

From Dunkleosteus and its sheet-metal cutter beak let’s go to another fish that looked like a shark but had teeth that are so bizarre I can’t even understand it. Helicoprion and its tooth whorl have baffled scientists for over a century.

The various species of Helicoprion lived around 290 million years ago. Like sharks, only its teeth are bony. The rest of its skeleton is made of cartilage, which doesn’t preserve very well.

So what’s a tooth whorl? It resembles a spiral shell, like a snail’s, only made of teeth. I’m not even making this up. Originally people actually thought they were some kind of weird spiky ammonite shell, in fact. Then someone pointed out that they were made of teeth, but no one could figure out what earthly use a circular saw would be if you were a fish and just wanted to eat other fish. Where would you even keep a circular saw of teeth?

Various suggestions included putting the tooth whorl at the very end of the lower jaw, just sort of stuck out there doing nothing; putting the tooth whorl way in the back of the throat where I guess it would cut up fish as they went down; on the snout, on the back, or even on the tail, which are not places where teeth typically do much good. Originally researchers thought the tooth whorl was probably a defensive trait, but now it’s accepted that it was used the way the rest of us use our teeth, which is to eat things with.

The smallest teeth in a tooth whorl are on the inside curls and the biggest are on the outside. Eventually researchers realized the small teeth were from when the individual was a baby fish and had little teeth. Like sharks, helicoprion kept growing teeth throughout its life. Unlike sharks, it didn’t lose its old teeth when the new ones grew in. The older, smaller teeth were just pushed forward along the curve of the whorl and eventually were buried within the animal’s jaw, with only the biggest, newest teeth actually being used.

In 1950 a crushed tooth whorl was found with some cranial cartilage, so scientists knew that the whorl was associated with the head and wasn’t, for instance, on the dorsal fin. That fossil was found in Idaho and consisted of 117 teeth. The whorl was 23 cm in diameter, or about 9 inches across, although slightly larger ones have been found. In 2011 the fossil was examined with a state-of-the-art CT scanner and a 3D computer model generated of the animal’s skull.

Researchers think they have a pretty good idea of what a living helicoprion’s head and jaws looked like. The tooth whorl was fused with and extended the full length of the lower jaw. It grew inside the mouth roughly where the tongue would be if it had a tongue, which it did not. Helicoprion didn’t have teeth in its upper jaw, so the tooth whorl acted less like chompers than like a meat slicing machine. When it closed its mouth, the tooth whorl was pushed back a little and would therefore slice through any soft-bodied prey in the mouth and also force its prey deeper into its mouth. Helicoprion probably ate small fish, cephalopods, and other soft-bodied organisms.

Since we don’t have any fossils or impressions of helicoprion’s body, we don’t know for sure what it looked like, but researchers estimate it probably grew to around 13 feet or 4 meters, but may have possibly exceeded 24 feet or 7.5 meters.

For a long time researchers thought helicoprion was a shark, but it’s now classified as a type of chimaera, which are small weird-looking shark-like fish known also as ghost sharks, spookfish, ratfish, and rabbit fish. I’m going to call them ghost sharks because that’s awesome. They’re not that closely related to sharks although they do have cartilaginous skeletons, and most species like the ocean depths. Ghost sharks have been spotted at depths of 8,500 feet, or 2,600 meters. The longest any species grows is around 5 feet, or 150 cm. Unlike helicoprion, they don’t have exciting teeth. They don’t really have teeth at all, just three pairs of tooth plates that grind together. Some species have a venomous spine in front of the dorsal fin.

While we’re talking about shark-like fish with weird teeth, let’s discuss Edestus, a genus of shark-like fish with weird teeth that lived around 300 million years ago, around the same time as dunkleosteus. It was related to helicoprion but it didn’t have a tooth whorl. Instead it had one curved bracket of teeth on the lower jaw and one on the upper jaw that meshed together like pinking shears. You know what pinking shears are even if you don’t recognize the name. Pinking shears are scissors that have a zigzag pattern instead of a straight edge, so you can cut a zigzag into cloth but not paper because do not dare use my pinking shears for anything but cloth. It dulls them.

Anyway, like helicoprion Edestus didn’t shed its teeth but it did grow new ones throughout its life, so like helicoprion it had a bunch of teeth it no longer needed. In Edestus’s case we don’t have any bits of skull or jaw cartilage to give us a clue as to how its teeth sat in its jaw. A lot of scientific art of Edestus shows a shark with a pointy mouth, where the upper point curves upward and the lower point curves downward with teeth sticking out from the middle. Sort of like an open zipper, if the zipper part was teeth and the non-zipper side was a shark’s mouth. To me that looks sort of ridiculous, and I suspect in reality Edestus looked a lot more like helicoprion. The downward and upward curved parts of the tooth arc was probably buried within its jaw, not sticking out. But that’s just a guess based on about 30 minutes of research.

Researchers estimate that the largest species of Edestus probably grew to about 20 feet long, or 6 meters. No one’s sure how or what it ate, but one suggestion is that if its teeth did project out of its mouth, it might have slashed at prey with its teeth sort of like a swordfish slashes prey with its elongated beak. Hopefully scientists will find a well preserved specimen one day that will give us some clues as to what Edestus looked like, at which point I bet the drawings we have now will look as silly as helicoprion with a tooth whorl perched on its nose.

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. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 027: Creatures of the Deeps



This week is our six-month anniversary! To celebrate, we’ll learn about some of the creatures that live at the bottom of the Mariana Trench’s deepest section, Challenger Deep, as well as other animals who live in deep caves on land. We also learn what I will and will not do for a million dollars (hint: I will not implode in a bathysphere).

A xenophyophore IN THE GRIP OF A ROBOT

A snailfish from five miles down in the Mariana trench:

The Hades centipede. It’s not as big as it looks, honest.

The tiny but marvelous olm.

Show transcript:

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

For this week’s episode, we’re going to find out what lives in the deepest, darkest places of the earth—places humans have barely glimpsed. We’re not just talking deep sea, we’re talking the abyssal depths.

Like onions and parfaits, the earth is made up of many layers. The core of the earth is a ball of nickel and iron surrounded by more nickel and iron. The outer core is molten metal, but the inner core, even though it’s even hotter than the outer core—as hot as the surface of the sun—has gone through the other side of liquid and is solid again. Surrounding the core, the earth’s mantle is a thick layer of rocks and minerals some 1900 miles deep, and on top of that is the crust of the earth, which doesn’t actually sound very appealing but that’s where we live and we know it’s really pretty, with trees and oceans and stuff on top of it. The upper part of the mantle is broken up into tectonic plates, which move around very slowly as the molten metals and rocks beneath them swirl around and get pushed up through cracks in the mantle.

Under the oceans, the crust of the earth is only around 3 miles thick. And in a few places, there are crevices that actually break entirely through the crust into the mantle below. The deepest crack in the sea floor is the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. At its deepest part, a narrow valley called Challenger Deep, the crack extends seven miles into the earth.

The pressure at that depth is immense, over 1,000 times that at sea level. Animals down there can’t have calcium carbonate shells because the pressure dissolves the mineral. It’s almost completely dark except for bioluminescent animals, and the water is very cold, just above freezing.

The trench is crescent shaped and sits roughly between Japan to the north and Papua New Guinea to the south, and the Philippines to the west. It’s caused by the huge Pacific plate, which is pushing its way underneath the smaller Mariana plate, a process called subduction. But near that activity, another small plate, the Caroline plate, is subducting beneath the Pacific plate. Subduction around the edges of the Pacific plate is the source of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and active volcanos known as the Ring of Fire. Some researchers think there’s a more complicated reason for Mariana Trench and other especially deep trenches nearby, though. There seems to be a tear in the Caroline plate, which is deforming the Pacific Plate above it.

Challenger Deep is such a deep part of the ocean that we’ve barely seen any of it. The first expedition that got all the way down was in 1960, when the bathyscape Trieste reached the bottom of Challenger Deep. This wasn’t an unmanned probe, either. There were two guys in that thing, Jacque Piccard and Don Walsh, almost ten years before the moon landing, on a trip that was nearly as dangerous. They could see out through one tiny thick window with a light outside. The trip down took almost five hours, and when they were nearly at the bottom, one of the outer window panes cracked. They stayed on the bottom only about 20 minutes before releasing the weights and rising back to the surface.

The next expedition didn’t take place until 1995 and it was unmanned. The Kaiko could collect samples as well as record what was around it, and it made repeated descents into Challenger Deep until it was lost at sea in 2003. But it not only filmed and collected lots of fascinating deep-sea creatures, it also located a couple of wrecks and some new hydrothermal vents in shallower areas.

Another unmanned expedition, this one using a remotely operated vehicle called the Nereus, was designed specifically to explore Challenger Deep. It made its first descent in 2009, but in 2014 it imploded while diving in the Kermadec Trench off New Zealand. It imploded. It imploded. This thing that was built to withstand immense pressures imploded.

In 2012, rich movie-maker James Cameron reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Deepsea Challenger. He spent nearly three hours on the bottom. Admittedly this was before the Nereus imploded but you could not get me into a bathysphere if you paid me a million dollars okay well maybe a million but I wouldn’t do it for a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. Anyway, the Deepsea Challenger is currently undergoing repairs after being damaged in a fire that broke out while it was being transported in a truck, which is just the most ridiculous thing to happen it’s almost sad. But it’s still better than imploding.

In addition to these expeditions, tethered cameras and microphones have been dropped into the trench over the years too. So what’s down there that deep? What have these expeditions found?

The first expedition didn’t see much, as it happens. As the bathyscape settled into the ooze at the bottom of the trench, sediment swirled up and just hung in the water around them, unmoving. The guys had to have been bitterly disappointed. But they did report seeing a foot-long flatfish and some shrimp, although the flatfish was more likely a sea cucumber.

There’s actually a lot of life down there in the depths, including amphipods a foot long, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, various kinds of worms, and bacterial mats that look like carpets. Mostly, though, there are Xenophyophores. They make big delicate shells on the ocean bottom, called tests, made from glued-together sand grains, minerals like lead and uranium, and anything else they can find, including their own poops. We don’t know a lot about them although they’re common in the deep sea all over the world. While they’re unicellular, they also appear to have multiple nuclei.

For the most part, organisms living at the bottom of the Challenger Deep are small, no more than a few inches long. This makes sense considering the immense water pressure and the nutrient-poor environment. There aren’t any fish living that deep, either. In 2014 a new species of snailfish was spotted swimming about five miles below the surface, a new record; it was white with broad fins and an eel-like tail. Snailfish are shaped sort of like tadpoles and depending on species, can be as small as two inches long or as long as two and a half feet. A shoal of Hadal snailfish were seen at nearly that depth in 2008 in the Japan Trench.

While there are a number of trenches in the Pacific, there aren’t very many deeps like Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep—at least, not that we know of. The Sirena Deep was only discovered in 1997. It’s not far from Challenger Deep and is not much shallower. There are other deeps and trenches in the Pacific too. But like Challenger Deep, there aren’t any big animals found in the abyssal depths, although the other deeps haven’t been explored as much yet.

In 2016 and early 2017, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Oregon State University dropped a titanium-encased ceramic hydrophone into Challenger Deep. To their surprise, it was noisy as heck down there. The hydrophone picked up the sounds of earthquakes, a typhoon passing over, ships, and whalesong—including the call of a whale researchers can’t identify. They think it’s a type of minke whale, but no one knows yet if it’s a known species we just haven’t heard before or a species completely new to science. For now the call is referred to as the biotwang, and this is what it sounds like.

[biotwang whale call]

But what about animals that live in deep places that aren’t underwater? It’s actually harder to explore land fissures than ocean trenches. Cave systems are hard to navigate, frequently extremely dangerous, and we don’t always know how deep the big ones go. The deepest cave in the world is Krubera Cave, also called Voronya Cave, in Georgia—and I mean the country of Georgia, not the American state. Georgia is a small country on the black sea between Turkey and Russia. So far it’s been measured as a mile and a third deep, but it’s certainly not fully explored. Cave divers keep pushing the explored depth farther and farther, although I do hope they’re careful.

We’ve found some interesting animals living far beneath the earth in caves. The deepest living animal ever found is a primitive insect called a springtail, which lives in Krubera cave and which was discovered in 2010. It’s pale, with no wings, six legs, long antennae, and no eyes. There are a whole lot of springtail species, from snow fleas to those tee-tiny gray bouncy bugs that live around the sink in my bathroom no matter how carefully I clean. All springtails like damp places, so it makes sense that Krubera cave has four different species including the deepest living one. They eat fungi and decomposing organic matter of all kinds. Other creatures new to science have been discovered in Krubera cave, including a new cave beetle and a transparent fish.

A new species of centipede was described in 2015 after it was discovered three-fourths of a mile deep in three different caves in Croatia. It’s called the Hades centipede. It has long antennae, leg claws, and a poisonous bite, but it’s only about an inch long so don’t panic. Also it lives its entire life in the depths of Croatian caves so you’re probably safe. There are only two centipedes that live exclusively in caves and the other one is named after Persephone, Hades’ bride. It was discovered in 1999.

A cave salamander called an olm, which in local folklore was once considered a baby dragon, was recently discovered 370 feet below ground in a subterranean lake, also in Croatia. It’s a fully aquatic salamander that only grows a few inches long. Its body is pale with pink gills. It has eyes, but they’re not fully developed and as it grows, they become covered with layers of skin. It can sense light but can’t otherwise see, but it does have well-developed electroreceptor skills, hearing, smell, and can also sense magnetic fields. It eats snails, insects, and small crustaceans and has very few natural predators.

In 1952 researchers created an artificial riverbed in a cave in France that recreates the olm’s natural habitat as closely as possible. The olms are fed and protected but not otherwise interacted with by humans. There are now over 400 olms in the cave, which is a good thing because in the wild, olms are increasingly threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and unscrupulous collectors who sell them on the pet trade black market.

Olms live a long, long time—probably 100 years or longer. Some individuals in the artificial riverbed are 60 years old and show no signs of old age. Researchers aren’t sure why the olm lives so long. We don’t really know a whole lot about the olm in general, really. They and the caves where they live are protected in Croatia.

There are a few places in the world where people have drilled down into the earth, usually by geologists checking for pockets of gas or water before mining operations start. In several South African gold mines, researchers found four new species of tiny bacteria-eating worms, called nematodes, living in water in boreholes a mile or more deep. After carefully checking to make sure the nematodes hadn’t been introduced into the water from mining operations, the researchers theorized the nematodes already lived in the rocks but that the boreholes created a perfect environment for them. Nematodes are well-known extremophiles, living everywhere from hot springs to the bellies of whales. They can withstand drought, freezing, and other extreme conditions by reverting to what’s called the dauer stage, where they basically put themselves in suspended animation until conditions improve.

The boreholes also turned up some other interesting creatures, including flatworms, segmented worms, and a type of crustacean. They’re all impossibly tiny, nearly microscopic.

If you go any deeper, though, the only living creatures you’ll find are bacteria and other microbes. In a way, though, that’s reassuring. The last thing we want to find when we’re poking around in the world’s deepest cracks is something huge that wants to eat us.

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. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 016: Jellyfish



If you look at this episode and think, “Oh, ho hum, think I’ll skip this one because snore, jellyfish,” you are so wrong! Jellies are fascinating, creepy, and often beautiful. Come learn all about our squishy friends in the sea!

A Portuguese man o’war. Creepy as heck:

A lion’s mane jelly. You do not want this guy on your ship. Incidentally, a lot of the photos you find of divers with enormous lion’s mane jellies are fakes that make the jellies look gigantic.

The cosmic jelly, a deep-sea creature:

The creepy Stygiomedusa gigantea, guardian of the underworld:

A newly discovered golden jelly.

Further reading:

Jelly Biologist (I’ve been enjoying browsing this site)

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode is about jellyfish—also called jellies, which is more accurate since they’re not fish at all.

Originally, I was going to focus on the Portuguese man o’war, another in the ongoing feature of “animals that scared me as a kid” and technically not even a jelly. But there’s so much to learn about jellies that we’re going to cover a whole lot more than that.

Jellies are interesting animals, to say the least. Their bodies have radial symmetry, meaning they’re the same in all directions. While the body shape varies, most jellies have a bell-like shape. The bell is generally rather thin, made up of an external covering, an internal covering, and an elastic gel-like material in between. Inside, the jelly has a digestive cavity with four to eight oral arms surrounding the mouth and long tentacles hanging beneath. The jelly also has a simple nerve net that can detect light and react to other stimuli, and which takes the place of a brain.

Jellies don’t have brains. They don’t have hearts, specialized sensory organs, or much of anything else. But they’ve been around for some 650 million years, possibly much longer, so clearly it all works.

The jelly’s life cycle is pretty weird. Most start out as polyps that stick to rocks or shells and use their little tentacles to catch microscopic organisms. A polyp can bud, producing new polyps that are clones of the original. Eventually, a polyp will constrict its body and develop into a stack of larvae. Each larva develops into a tiny jelly, which separates from the stack and swims away.

Once it’s grown, a jelly reproduces by releasing sperm, if it’s male, which the water carries to the female to fertilize her eggs. Some female jellies have brood pouches on the oral arms, some just carry the fertilized eggs inside the body while they develop. The embryos develop into swimming larvae called planula, which leave the female and attack themselves to something firm, where they transform into polyps.

This seems needlessly complicated, but again, it works for the jelly.

Polyps can live for years, while adult jellies, which I’m delighted to report are called medusas, usually only live a few months. The immortal jellyfish throws another step into this process. It can transform back into a polyp from any stage of its life if it needs to. As a polyp, the immortal jellyfish is tiny, only about a millimeter long. As a full-grown medusa it’s not all that much bigger, less than four millimeters in diameter. Because it can transform back into a polyp as many times as it needs to, apparently without any kind of degradation or injury, the immortal jellyfish is effectively, well, immortal.

Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that there’s not a whole lot of research into the immortal jellyfish yet. It’s not even known if they will transform back into polyps in the wild, since it’s only ever been observed in captivity.

Almost all jellies have stinging cells, usually concentrated on the tentacles or oral arms, which they use to stun and kill prey. The stinging cells contain venom-filled nematocysts, which are coiled structures that uncoil and sting when touched. Humans are not jelly prey, but jelly stings can still be uncomfortable—and sometimes fatal—to humans.

You’ve probably heard of the infamous box jellyfish, the most dangerous species of which is common around Australia. Unlike most jellies, box jellyfish have true eyes and a relatively well-developed nervous system. They’re active, hard for humans to detect while swimming since they’re nearly transparent, and in the case of Chironex fleckeri, their venom can kill a human in as little as two minutes. Most fatalities occur in children, but most stings don’t result in death.

Another vicious and occasionally fatal stinger is the Portuguese man o’war, although it isn’t actually a jelly. It’s not even a single animal, it’s a colony. One member is the float, another the feeding polyps, and so forth. The man o’war takes its name from a type of ship, which the float somewhat resembles. The float is bluish or purplish, generally under a foot long [30 cm], and filled with gas. Underneath the float are feeding polyps from which hang purple tentacles, typically around 30 feet long [9 m] but sometimes up to 200 feet long [61 m]. If something attacks the man o’war, it can vent some of the gas in its bladder and submerge temporarily.

When I was a kid, my family occasionally went to the beach in North Carolina. Man o’wars are tropical animals but they do occasionally drift farther north. I was fully aware of this as a kid and did not want to get in the water farther than my waist. My grandfather and one of my aunts reassured me that they’d both been stung by a man o’war once, and it wasn’t any more painful than a wasp sting.

That did not make me feel any better. In fact, it made me even more scared because then I KNEW there were man o’wars out there. I wasn’t afraid of being stung, I was afraid of touching those creepy tentacles.

As it happens, my grandfather and Aunt Barbara probably had not encountered a Portuguese man o’war but a smaller animal called a by-the-wind sailor, which is now my favorite name of anything. It has a blue bladder float like the man o’war, but its sting is much milder, A man o’war sting is incredibly painful, more of a shock, that can lead to intense muscle and joint pain, open wounds on the skin at the sting site, headache, chills and fever, nausea, and can cause victims to faint and drown. Occasionally the venom travels to the lymph nodes and causes even more serious symptoms, including swelling of the larynx, an inability to breathe, and cardiac distress. Even a dead man o’war can sting if you touch its tentacles. Why would you touch its tentacles.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about man o’wars, clearly, because one of its other names if the floating terror. That sounds like the title of a pulp science fiction novel.

The bluebottle is a smaller related species found in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The man o’war is found in those oceans and the Atlantic. A few weeks ago, in early May 2017, hundreds of man o’wars washed ashore in Georgia and South Carolina. Man o’wars are pretty common around Florida, especially in winter, and occasionally they wash ashore in the thousands.

The man o’war eats fish and other organisms that get caught in the stinging tentacles, but there are some fish that live among the tentacles, even feeding on them, like the man o’war fish and the clownfish. Not a lot of things eat Portuguese man o’wars, but the loggerhead turtle and ocean sunfish do. I like them both. The blanket octopus is immune to the man o’war’s venom and may carry broken-off tentacles to deter predators.

If you’re stung by a man o’war, treat the sting the same way you’d treat other jelly stings. Rinse with vinegar to remove any remaining bits of tentacle or nematocysts, then apply heat for 45 minutes, either with a hot pack or by immersing in hot water. Don’t rinse with urine or vodka; it can make the stings worse—and definitely don’t rinse with fresh water. If you don’t have vinegar, rinse with sea water, but keep in mind that you may be pouring nematocysts back onto the patient with the water. This treatment is from a very recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, released only a few weeks ago as this episode goes live, so if you’ve heard differing advice for jelly stings, it may be out of date.

Jellies are related to some surprising things: coral, sea anemones, a rare parasitic worm, the freshwater hydra—a ten mm long tubular animal with stinging tentacles at one end that it can stretch four or five times the length of the body to catch its tiny prey. Like jellies, the hydra can regenerate parts of its body if they’re injured or bitten off. And the hydra doesn’t appear to age, making it biologically immortal, although in a different way than the immortal jellyfish.

So what’s the largest jelly known, not counting ridiculously long tentacles like the man o’war’s? That would be the lion’s mane jellyfish. Its bell can have a diameter of over seven feet [2 m] and it has pretty darn long tentacles, too—sometimes over 120 feet long [36.5 m]. It likes cold water and the biggest individuals live where it’s coldest. While small individuals are brown or tan in color, the big ones are usually red or purple. The sting of a lion’s mane jellyfish isn’t usually that bad, but it has a lot of tentacles, so it can inflict thousands of stings upon contact.

In 1973, the Australian ship Kuranda collided with a huge jelly in the South Pacific while traveling through a storm on her way to the Fiji Islands. The jelly was so enormous that the deck was covered in jellyfish goo and tentacles up to two feet deep [61 cm]. One crew member died after getting stung. The weight of the jelly was so great, an estimated 20 tons [18 metric tons] that it started to push the ship nose-down and the captain, Langley Smith, sent out an SOS. The salvage tug Hercules arrived and sprayed the Kuranda’s deck with a high-pressure hose, dislodging the jelly. Samples were sent to Sydney and tentatively identified as a lion’s mane jelly.

But remember, lion’s mane jellies don’t live in the warm waters near Fiji and Australia. There are other reports of lion’s mane jellies seen in the area, though, so it’s possible there’s a gargantuan warm-water variety that hasn’t been discovered yet.

Most jellies live near the surface of the ocean, but there are some deep-sea species known, with more being discovered every year. A gorgeous jelly, dubbed the cosmic jellyfish by the press, was spotted 9,800 feet [2987 m] below the surface near American Samoa this February. It has an umbrella-like bell with short tentacles that point both downward and upward. You may have seen it in the news described as looking like a flying saucer, which it does. A similar jelly was discovered in the Mariana Trench in 2016, almost two and a half miles underwater [4 km]. These are lovely jellies with translucent bells and glowing red and yellow innards, but there are less lovely ones down there.

The big red jellyfish discovered in 2002 is an ugly cuss. It lives in waters up to 4900 feet deep [1493 m] and is over a foot in diameter [30 cm]. It’s dull red in color and doesn’t have tentacles, just thick oral arms.

Stygiomedusa gigantea, also known as the guardian of the underworld by at least one website, and now by me, isn’t so much ugly as horrifying. Its bell is some three feet across [1 m], and while it doesn’t have tentacles or even stinging cells, it does have four 30-foot-long [9 m] oral arms that resemble dark brown or reddish strips of cloth that drift in the ocean currents.

Some deep-sea jellies don’t have tentacles or oral arms. Deepstaria enigmatica, a rare jelly described in 1967, basically just looks like a big mesh bag. Its close relative, Deepstaria reticulum, is very similar, but it’s reddish instead of whitish. The Deepstaria hangs motionless in the deep with its three-foot-wide [1 m] bell open, waiting for something to swim into it. When it does, the bell contracts like a bag, the fish or other organism is stung by nematocysts lining the bell, and the jelly pushes its stunned prey into its mouth with tiny cilia inside the bell.

Isopods, which are small crustaceans, frequently hitch rides inside Deepstaria bells. It’s not known if they’re parasites or confer some benefits to the jellies, but they don’t seem to be affected by the stings.

There are plenty of mysteries associated with enormous jellies, although the two most famous ones I dug into started to seem less and less likely once I got closer to the primary sources. According to Eric Frank Russell in his 1957 book Great World Mysteries, in 1953 a diver testing a new type of deep-sea diving suit in the South Pacific saw an enormous jelly-like monster kill a shark. The diver had been testing how deep he could dive in the suit and noticed a fifteen-foot [4.6 m] shark following him down. I’m going to quote the relevant section instead of paraphrasing, because it’s pretty amazing.

“The shark was still hanging around some 30 feet [9 m] from me and about 20 feet [6 m] higher, when I reached a ledge below which was a great black chasm of enormous depth. It being dangerous to venture farther, I stood looking into the chasm while the shark waited for my next move. Suddenly the water became distinctly colder. While the temperature continued to drop with surprising rapidity, I saw a black mass rising from the darkness of the chasm. It floated upwards very slowly. As at last light reached it I could see that it was of a dull brown color and tremendous size, a flat ragged-edged thing about one acre in extent. It pulsated sluggishly and I knew that it was alive despite its lack of visible limbs or eyes. Still pulsating, this frightful vision floated past my level, by which time the coldness had become most intense. The shark now hung completely motionless, paralyzed either by cold or fear. While I watched fascinated, the enormous brown thing reached the shark, contacted it with its upper surface. The shark gave a convulsive shiver and was drawn unresisting into the substance of the monster. I stood perfectly still, not daring to move while the brown thing sank back into the chasm as slowly as it had emerged. Darkness swallowed it and the water started to regain some warmth.”

I am skeptical, I admit. Eric Frank Russell was primarily a science fiction writer and this sounds like something from a novel, probably one called The Floating Terror. If he described the monster as 20 feet across or even 30 or 40 [6, 9, 12 m], I’d be going, “Hmm, but hey, the deep sea is full of amazing things.” But an acre? That’s 208 feet 9 inches across. 43,450 square feet. A lot of meters [4,046 square meters]. It’s three times the size of my yard, which takes me like an hour to mow. It’s just too big to believe, not without corroborating details—like a first-hand account of the actual diver. We don’t even know his name. And what about the diver’s buddy? Divers don’t go down alone, although maybe they did back in 1953. The whole story is just too thin, too fantastical to be believed.

The other promising mystery I looked into is a supposed legend from Chile, a sea monster that resembles a cow hide stretched flat but with eyes all around the edges and four big eyes in the middle. It rises to the ocean’s surface and swallows animals it encounters.

At first glance this sounds ridiculous, until you realize that many jellies have semi- or fully transparent bells and their internal organs, such as they are, may resemble eye-like blobs in the center of their bodies. Some jellies do have light-sensitive eye spots near their edges too. But the research I did to follow up this story, which I took from Karl Shuker’s blog, but which is originally from Jorge Luis Borges’ 1969 book called The Book of Imaginary Beings, indicated that the actual legend is much different and much less jelly-like.

El Cuero is a cowhide monster called Threquelhuecuvu among the Mapuche of Patagonia. It lives in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. It’s nearly circular, has claws around its edges, and one pair of red eyes. It also has tentacles on its head and a mouth in its middle, which it uses to suck bodily fluids from its prey. It’s supposed to come out of the water and come on land, and when an animal steps on it, it wraps its body around the animal and suffocates it. Then it drags its prey into the water to eat it. The only way to kill it is to throw cacti into the water. When the monster grabs the cacti, it’s pierced through with spines and dies.

It’s generally supposed that the monster is based on freshwater stingrays, although they’re not known to live in Patagonia. But in 1976, after a bus full of tourists ended up on the bottom of Lake Moreno, divers who retrieved the drowned victims reported enormous rays in the depths.

There is a freshwater stingray species in South America which has thorn-like denticles on its body and a closely related species, also with denticles, sometimes travels upriver from the ocean off the Chilean Patagonian coast. That might be the source of the cowhide monster.

So those two mysteries are almost certainly bust. But don’t feel discouraged. Not only was that 20-ton ship-sinking 1973 lion’s mane jelly a real, documented thing that happened, there are lots of jelly species being discovered all the time.

Not all are deep-sea species. In 2013, a fisherman in northeast Italy hauled up a net full of golden jellies he’d never seen before. He contacted the local university, and a researcher came out and determined that the lovely golden jellies were completely unknown to science. In 2015, a 9-year-old boy caught a new species of box jelly that’s only around an inch long [3 cm].

There are freshwater jellies too, but not a lot is known about them. To add to the confusing and complex life cycle of marine jellies, many freshwater jellies also have a dormant stage where they basically turn into tiny jelly seeds, tough and capable of surviving even if dried out.

And back in the Cambrian era, some 500 million years ago, some jellies actually had skeletons. Fossil impressions show plates, spines, and spokes from comb jellies, which today are completely soft-bodied. Comb jellies are different from the kind of jellies I’ve mostly talked about in this episode, and not even closely related to them. I’d dig into them next, but we’re already pushing 20 minutes and there’s a limit to how much jellyfish information I can expect my listeners to tolerate in one sitting. We’ll save the comb jellies for another episode.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 011: The Vampire Squid and the Vampire Bat



This week we’re going all goth in April for the vampire squid and the vampire bat. They’re so awesome I want to die.

The vampire squid looking all menacing even though it’s barely a foot long.

“I love you, vampire bat!!” “I love you too, Kate.”

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Show transcript:

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

I thought about waiting to run this episode in October, but that’s a really long way away. So we’ll have Halloween in April and talk about the vampire squid and the vampire bat.

The vampire squid has one of the coolest Latin names going, Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which means “vampire squid from hell.” It’s a deep-sea squid and until recently, not a lot was known about it. It was discovered in 1903 and originally classified as an octopus. Its body is about six inches long [15 cm], with another six inches or so of tentacles, which are connected with webbing called a cloak. Actually I’m not sure if scientists refer to this as a cloak, but if you’ve called your animal the vampire squid from hell, you can’t complain if podcasters, for instance, refer to web-connected octopus legs as a cloak.

So is it an octopus or a squid? It’s both, in a way. The vampire squid is the last surviving member of its own order, Vampyromorphida, which shares similarities with both.

The vampire squid’s color varies from deep red to velvety black. The inside of its cloak is black and the parts of its legs inside the cloak are studded with spines. Its beak is white. Basically the only thing this little guy needs to be the world’s ultimate goth is a collection of Morrissey albums.

It lives in the lightless depths of the ocean below 3,000 feet [914 meters]. There’s not a lot of oxygen down there so there aren’t very many predators. The vampire squid doesn’t need oxygen because it’s a vampire—or at least it can live and breathe just fine with oxygen saturations as little as 3%. Its metabolic rate is the lowest of any cephalopod.

The vampire squid doesn’t move a lot. It drifts gently, aided in buoyance because its gelatinous tissues are roughly the same density as seawater. Adults have two small fins sticking out from their mantle, which they flap to propel them through the water.

If something threatens a vampire squid, it brings its legs up to expose the spiny insides of its cloak and hide its body. If something really threatens a vampire squid, even though it doesn’t have ink sacs, it can eject a cloud of bioluminescent mucus, and can flash its photophores in a dazzling display of lights. These photophores are concentrated on the outside tips of its arms. If the end of an arm is bitten off, the vampire squid can regenerate it.

So we have a creepy-looking, if small, cephalopod that lives in the deep, deep sea called a vampire squid. WHAT. DOES. IT. EAT?

I hate to disappoint you, but the vampire squid eats crap. In fact, it eats the crap of animals that eat crap. There’s not a lot of food in the ocean depths. Mostly there’s just a constant rain of fish poop, algae, bits of scales and jellyfish, and other waste. Lots of little creatures live on this stuff and their poop joins the rain of barely-food that makes it down to the abyssal depths where the vampire squid waits.

The squid had two retractable filaments—not the same thing as the two feeding tentacles true squids have, but used for feeding. The filaments are extremely long, much longer than the vampire squid itself. It extends the filaments, organic detritus falls from above and sticks to them, and the vampire squid rolls the detritus up with mucus from its arm tentacles into little sticky balls and pops the balls into its mouth.

That’s not very goth. Or it might be incredibly goth, actually.

Most cephalopods only spawn once before they die. A 2015 paper in Current Biology reports that the vampire squid appears to go through multiple spawning phases throughout its life. It may live for a long time too, but we don’t know for sure. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the vampire squid.

Because squids and octopuses are soft bodied, we rarely find them in the fossil record. In 1982, though, a beautifully preserved octopus body impression was found in France in rocks dating to 165 million years ago. And guess what kind of octopus it turned out to be! Yes, it’s related to the vampire squid.

If the vampire squid is the kind of pensive goth who listens to The Smiths and reads Poe in cemeteries, the vampire bat is out clubbing with its friends, blasting Combichrist, and spending its allowance in thrift shops. There are three species of vampire bat, but they’re different enough from each other that each belongs to its own genus. They’re native to the Americas, especially tropical and subtropical environments, although they haven’t been found any further north than Mexico. And yes, vampire bats do actually feed on blood. It’s all they eat.

Vampire bats are small, active, and lightweight. They’re only about 3 ½ inches long [9cm] with a 7-inch wingspan [18 cm], and weigh less than two ounces [57 grams]. They live in colonies that consist of big family groups: a small number of males and many more females and their babies. Males without a colony hang out together and probably never clean up their apartments.

Vampire bats belong to the leaf-nosed bat family, and like other leaf-nosed bats they sleep during the day and hunt at night. But the vampire bat doesn’t actually have a nose leaf. That’s a structure that aids with echolocation, and vampire bats don’t need the high level echolocation ability that insect-eating bats do. They get by with a reduced ability to echolocate, but they have another highly developed sense that no other mammal has: thermoreception. They use it to determine the best place to bite their prey. The warmer, the better. That’s where the blood is.

The vampire bat also has good eyesight, a good sense of smell, and hearing that’s attuned to the sound of breathing. A bat frequently remembers the sound of an individual animal’s breathing, and returns to it to feed night after night. What vampire bats don’t have is a very good sense of taste. They don’t really need it. In fact, they don’t have the kind of bad food avoidance that every other mammal has. In a study where vampire bats were given blood with a compound that tasted bad and made them throw up, the next time they were offered the bad-tasting blood, they ate it anyway.

Most bats are clumsy on the ground. They’re built for flying and for hanging from perches. But vampire bats are agile. They crawl around and even run and jump with no problems.

Two species of vampire bat prey mainly on birds, while the third—the common vampire bat—feeds on mammals. Bird blood has a much higher fat content than mammal blood, which is higher in protein. But results of a study released in January 2017 found that hairy-legged vampire bats, which usually prey on large wild birds, had started feeding on domestic chickens as their wild prey became scarcer—and then they started feeding on human blood.

A vampire bat doesn’t suck blood. It makes a small incision with extremely sharp fangs and laps up the blood with its grooved tongue. It may even trim hair from the bite site first with its teeth. Its saliva contains an anti-coagulate called draculin that keeps the blood flowing. The bat doesn’t eat much, because let’s face it, it’s just a little guy. In order to hold more blood, as soon as it starts to feed its digestion goes into overdrive. Within some two minutes after it starts to eat, the bat is ready to urinate in order to get rid of the extra fluid so it can hold more blood. A feeding session may last about 20 minutes if the bat isn’t disturbed, and the bat may drink about an ounce of blood in all.

A vampire bat needs to eat at least every two days or it will starve. A bat that hasn’t found prey in two nights will beg for food from its colony mates, which often regurgitate a little blood for the hungry bat to eat. New mother bats may be fed this way by her colony for as much as two weeks after she’s given birth so that she doesn’t have to hunt. Baby vampire bats drink their mother’s milk just like any other mammal.

If a mother bat doesn’t return from hunting, other colony members will take care of her baby so it won’t die. Colony members groom each other and are generally very social. Even the male bats that aren’t part of the colony are allowed to roost nearby. Nobody fights over territory. These are nice little guys.

Vampire bats do sometimes carry rabies, but it’s pretty rare compared to infection rates in dogs. They are more dangerous to livestock than to humans. Attempts to kill off vampire bat colonies to stop the spread of rabies actually has the opposite effect, since bats from a disturbed colony will seek out another colony to join.

Vampire bats have considerable resistance to rabies and frequently recover from the disease, after which they’re immune to reinfection, and there’s some preliminary evidence to suggest that native human populations in areas where vampire bats are common may also have developed some resistance to rabies. Researchers hope that this finding will lead to better treatment of rabies in the same way that the draculin anticoagulant in vampire bat saliva led to advances in blood-thinning medications.

I like to imagine a vampire bat hanging out with a vampire squid. The bat would sip blood from a tiny wineglass and fidget with its jewelry while it tries to conversation. The squid would just stare at the bat. Then it would eat a globule of crap. The bat would pee on itself and the whole evening would just be a bust. Also, one of them would drown but if I can imagine a tiny wineglass I can imagine a tiny bat-sized bathysphere or something. Never mind.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 006: Sea Monsters



This week’s episode is all about sea monsters: mysterious sightings, possible solutions, and definitely discovered monsters of the world’s oceans!

The giant oarfish! Try to convince me that’s not a sea serpent, I dare you.

The megamouth shark. Watch out, krill and jellyfish!

The frilled shark. Watch out, everything else including other sharks!

A giant isopod. Why are you touching it? Stop touching it!

Sorry, it’s just a rotting basking shark:

Recommended reading:

In the Wake of Bernard Heuvelmans by Michael A. Woodley

In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents by Bernard Heuvelmans

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker