Tag Archives: frogs

Episode 204: Frogs of Many Cheery Colors



Let’s finish off a very weird year and welcome in the new year with a basket of colorful frogs!

The northern leopard frog comes in many color morphs, all of them pretty:

The starry dwarf frog is also pretty and has an orange tummy:

The astonishing turtle frog:

 

Poison dart frogs are colorful and deadly (blue poison dart frog, golden poison dart frog):

The tomato frog looks like a tomato that is also a frog:

Show transcript:

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

It’s the very last week of 2020, and good riddance. Let’s kick the old year out the back door and welcome in the new year with a basket of pretty frogs. That’s right, we’ve got a frog episode this week!

Let’s start with the northern leopard frog, with thanks to an anonymous reviewer who gave the podcast a really nice five-star review and only signed the review “norhern lepord frong.” I looked that frog up online to see what it looked like, and it’s so pretty, honestly, it’s just the prettiest frog! If you had a basket of northern leopard frogs, they might just look like friendly flowers, because while most are green or brown with darker spots, some are much brighter green with yellow markings, some are dark brown, and some are even pinkish white because of a rare albino trait. Its spots are outlined with yellow or light green and it has two folds of skin that run the length of the body and are sometimes yellow. These folds of skin are called dorsolateral folds and many frogs have them, although they’re not always as easy to spot as in the northern leopard frog.

The northern leopard frog is native to the northern part of North America, especially southern Canada and the northern and western United States. It grows up to 4.5 inches long, or 11.5 cm, measured from snout to vent. As you may recall from previous frog episodes, that’s how frogs are always measured. It basically just means nose to butt. Females are larger than males, which is also the case for most frogs.

It lives anywhere that it can find fresh water, including rivers, streams, creeks, ponds, marshes, even drainage ditches, but it prefers slow-moving or quiet water. As a result, it’s threatened by loss of habitat, pollution, and climate change, all of which affect the water it needs to live, and it’s also threatened by non-native animals and diseases. But while it doesn’t live in as many places as it used to, right now it’s doing fine overall and isn’t considered endangered.

Like most frogs, the northern leopard frog eats insects and any other small animal it can swallow. It has a long sticky tongue that it can shoot out so quickly that even an insect can’t outfly it, but it doesn’t just eat insects. It’s a big frog with a big mouth, and it’s been recorded eating other species of frog, small snakes, small birds, and even a bat. But mostly it eats insects, slugs, snails, and worms. Probably the frog that was documented as catching and eating a bat is famous in the northern leopard frog world, or at least it would be if real life was like the inside of my head and frogs had their own tiny newspapers.

The northern leopard frog was once considered a delicacy, with most frogs’ legs coming from this particular species. It’s also sometimes kept as a pet. It’s mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic, sometimes called the meadow frog because it will leave the water to hunt for food in grassy areas. It hibernates in winter but is better adapted to cold weather than a lot of frogs are.

There’s also a southern leopard frog that looks very similar to the northern leopard frog but lives farther south, which you probably guessed from the name. It’s also slightly larger than the northern leopard frog, up to five inches long, or 13 cm.

Male leopard frogs, like many other frogs, have special vocal sacs in the throat that allow a male to make a loud call in spring to attract females. Different species of frog have different calls, naturally, and the vocal sacs are shaped differently in every species. The male leopard frog, northern and southern, has two vocal sacs that he fills with air like balloons, which amplifies the sound of his voice and makes it much louder.

This is what a northern leopard frog sounds like:

[frog sound]

Another colorful frog is from India and was only discovered in 2010. A team of scientists surveying the mountains for reptiles and amphibians noticed a teensy frog in the leaf litter one night. Its back was brown with light blue dots that looked like stars in a night sky, but its belly was orange like a sunset. It’s a very pretty frog.

The researchers caught several of the frogs and thought they were pretty but not especially unusual. There are at least 400 known frogs in India and new species are found pretty frequently. The team named it the starry dwarf frog because of the blue dots and its size, less than 20 mm long, or around half an inch. That’s about the size of an adult’s thumbnail.

After the expedition, though, when the team examined the frogs more closely, they realized they had something different from other frogs. It didn’t seem to be related to any other frog species in India or anywhere else. A genetic analysis indicated that the starry dwarf frog is literally not closely related to any frog alive today. For millions of years India was a big island after it separated from Madagascar and Africa but before it collided with mainland Asia, so many species evolved independently from species in other parts of the world. Scientists hope to learn more about the starry dwarf frog to learn more about how other frogs evolved.

Let’s move on to another colorful frog, and a very weird one, the turtle frog. Simon brought this one to my attention, so thank you, Simon! This frog gets its name because it sort of looks like a tiny turtle without a shell.

The turtle frog lives in western Australia in areas that are much dryer than most frog habitats. Its body is bulbous with strong, stubby legs that allow it to burrow into the sand. Generally, when a frog burrows into sand or mud it does so by moving backwards, digging itself deeper with its strong hind legs. But the turtle frog digs forward, using its front legs to dig. Turtles are also forward diggers. Unlike most other frogs, the turtle frog doesn’t have long hind legs that it uses for jumping. It just has short legs in front and back.

It ranges in color from brown to reddish-brown to pink and it grows up to 2 inches long, or 5 cm. Its head is small, rounded, and distinct from the body, like a baby turtle’s head sticking out from its shell–but without a shell, without a beak, and with small black-dot eyes.

Obviously the turtle frog isn’t related to the turtle at all. Turtles are reptiles while frogs are amphibians. The turtle frog has adapted to a semi-arid climate and a diet of termites by evolving the ability to dig deep burrows, some of them almost four feet deep, or 1.2 meters, and the ability to break into termite nests. As a result, its body plan is different from most other frogs.

That’s not all that’s different, though. Most frogs lay eggs in water, which hatch into tadpoles that live in the water until they metamorphose into small frogs. The turtle frog doesn’t have that kind of luxury. It doesn’t have a lot of water most of the time, so it hatches into a tiny froglet instead of a tadpole.

The most colorful frogs in the world live in the tropics, especially the poison dart frogs of Central and South America. Poison dart frogs are diurnal, meaning they’re most active during the daytime, and they’re fairly small, with the biggest species growing to no more than about two and a half inches long, or 6 cm. Different species of poison dart frogs are different colors and patterns, ranging from a lovely bright blue to red or yellow. These little frogs need to be brightly colored so that predators know to leave them alone, and the reason they should leave them alone is that poison dart frogs are incredibly toxic.

You may have heard the story that natives of South America would rub the tips of their darts or arrows on these frogs to transfer the frogs’ toxic secretions to the weapons. That’s where the name poison dart frog comes from. That’s sort of true, but not completely true. Not all poison dart frogs were used in this way, just four of the largest species that are especially toxic.

One of these four species is the golden poison dart frog, which lives in the rainforests of Colombia. It’s usually bright yellow with black eyes, although some individuals are a minty green or orange. It looks cheery, but a single frog has enough poison to kill two African elephants, not that it would because it lives in South America and not Africa and the elephants would not try to eat the frog. One frog has enough poison to kill 10 to 20 humans, though, so don’t try to eat one. In fact, don’t even touch it, because poison dart frogs store their poison in skin glands and if a frog feels threatened, it will secrete a tiny amount of the poison. If that poison gets into your body, you will die.

So why do people keep golden poison dart frogs as pets? That would be like having a pet stick of dynamite, right? Actually, it turns out that frogs born in captivity don’t develop the toxins that wild frogs have. Frogs that are captured in the wild and kept in captivity will eventually lose the toxins, although it may take several years. This is because the frog doesn’t manufacture the toxins itself but retains toxins found in some insects it eats, although researchers aren’t sure yet which insect or insects.

The golden poison dart frog lays its eggs on the ground. This sounds weird until you remember that it lives in a rainforest and the ground is covered with dead leaves that are constantly wet from rain. When the eggs hatch into tadpoles, though, they need more than just wet leaves, so the parent frogs squat down and the tadpoles wriggle onto the parents’ backs. They stick there and the parents carry them not to a pond but up into the trees. Water collects in the middle of large leaves of some rainforest tree species, and of course there are always little hollows and holes in tree trunks that can fill with rainwater. The frogs deposit the tadpoles into these little puddles, where the tadpoles eat mosquito larvae and algae. But even then, the parents don’t abandon their babies. Golden poison dart frogs are social animals, not generally a trait you associate with frogs, and they live in little groups of around half a dozen individuals. When the tadpoles finish developing and metamorphose into adult frogs, the parents lead their babies to other golden poison dart frogs so they can join a group.

Finally, our last colorful frog of the episode and the very last animal we’ll cover for 2020 is the tomato frog. As you might have guessed, the tomato frog is red-orange in color. It lives in Madagascar and a big female can grow up to 4 inches long, or 10.5 cm. Males are much smaller and are more yellow than red. But the tomato frog doesn’t use its coloring to hide among tomato plants. Its coloring advertises that it’s toxic, although its toxin is much different from those found in poison dart frogs and not deadly.

The tomato frog mostly eats worms and termites, which it finds by digging around in the leaf litter. It also catches insects with its sticky tongue. It’s not a very good swimmer, surprisingly, and spends most of its time on land or in swampy areas. It’s a mostly nocturnal frog.

If a tomato frog feels threatened, it will puff itself up to appear larger, which also incidentally makes it look even more like a tomato. It will also secrete a sticky white toxin that irritates a predator’s mucus membranes and can cause serious allergic reactions in humans. The toxin is so sticky that it will remain in the predator’s mouth for days. So if you live in Madagascar and have a tomato garden, carefully examine every tomato before you take a bite.

This is what a tomato frog sounds like:

[tomato frog croaking]

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 148: Gastric Brooding and Other Frogs



Thanks for Merike for suggesting the gastric brooding frog and to Hally for suggesting newly-discovered frogs!!

The Gastric brooding frog:

Darwin’s frog, round boi:

The Surinam toad carries her eggs and tadpoles in the skin of her back:

Kermit the frog and a newly discovered glass frog:

Show transcript:

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

This week we have another fantastic listener suggestion, about frogs! Merike is a herpetologist from Estonia, who suggested the gastric brooding frog, and another listener, Hally, also wanted to learn about some of the new frog species discovered recently.

The gastric brooding frog is native to eastern Australia, specifically Queensland. There are two species, and both of them live in creeks in separate rainforests. The habitat is specific and small, and unfortunately both species went extinct less than forty years ago. Researchers aren’t sure why they went extinct, but it was probably due to pollution and habitat loss.

The gastric brooding frog was a slender frog, with the northern gastric brooding frog being about three inches long, or about 8 cm, while the southern gastric brooding frog was about half that size. Females were larger than males. It was grey or brown-gray in color with some darker and lighter patches on the back with a lighter belly. During the day it spent most of its time at the water’s edge, hidden in leaf litter or among rocks, although it generally only fully came out of the water when it was raining. It ate insects and may have hibernated in winter.

As you may have guessed from its name, the gastric brooding frog had a unique way of taking care of its eggs. After the eggs were fertilized, the female would actually swallow the eggs and keep them in her stomach while they developed. Even after the eggs hatched into tadpoles, they stayed in the mother’s stomach. As they grew larger, the stomach also grew larger, until it pretty much filled up the mother’s insides, to the point where she couldn’t even use her lungs to breathe. Fortunately many frogs, including the gastric brooding frog, can absorb a certain amount of oxygen through the skin. Finally the tadpoles metamorphosed into little frogs, at which point the mother regurgitated one or a few of them at a time, or sometimes all of them at once if she felt threatened.

So how did the mother keep from digesting her own eggs or tadpoles? How did she eat when her stomach was full of babies? How did the babies eat?

The jelly around the gastric brooding frog’s eggs contained prostaglandin E2, also called PGE2, which causes the stomach to stop producing hydrochloric acid. That’s a digestive acid, so once the eggs were inside the stomach, the stomach basically stopped stomaching. There is some speculation that the first eggs the mother frog swallowed actually got digested, but then the acid production stopped and the rest of the eggs remained. Once the eggs hatched, the tadpoles also produced PGE2 in the mucus in their gills.

The tadpoles continued to live off the yolk sac from their eggs as they developed, and in fact their mouths weren’t even connected to their gut yet. As for the mother, she just didn’t eat until the babies were developed and released into the water on their own, which took about six weeks.

The gastric brooding frog is the only frog known to raise its babies this way, but other frog species have interesting variations of the usual way frogs reproduce. Most female frogs lay their eggs, and then the male fertilizes them. But about a dozen species of frog have developed internal fertilization, where the female retains the eggs in her body until the male fertilizes them. The tailed frog from California in the United States, in North America, gets its name from a structure that looks like a tail, but is actually an extension of the cloaca. That’s the opening used for both excretion and reproduction. Only males have the tail, and it works like a penis to fertilize the female’s eggs without her needing to lay the eggs first. Once they’re fertilized, she can choose just the right spot to lay the eggs.

Another weird way frogs take care of their eggs is something that Darwin’s frog does. Darwin’s frog lives in Chile and Argentina in South America, and grows to a little over an inch long, or 3 cm. It has a pointy snout that gives its head a wedge  shape something like a leaf, which helps keep it camouflaged on the forest floor. The female lays her eggs in damp leaf litter, and after the male fertilizes them he guards them for several weeks. When they start to move as they develop, the male swallows them—but instead of his stomach, he stores them in his vocal sac. That’s the expandable sac in the frog’s throat that males use to make their croaking sounds by filling the sac with air.

The eggs hatch into tadpoles, which the male carries around as they grow. They live off their egg yolks, but they also eat secretions from the lining of the vocal sac. Once the tadpoles metamorphose into little frogs, they hop out of the male’s mouth and are on their own. Until then, the male doesn’t eat.

The Surinam toad is a species of frog. Remember that all toads are frogs but not all frogs are toads. It lives in wetlands and forests in northern South America, and has a radically different way of keeping its eggs safe. The Surinam toad is a flattened, broad toad that can grow up to 8 inches long, or 20 cm, and looks a lot like a dead leaf. It lives in slow-moving water. Unlike other frogs it doesn’t have a tongue, so instead of catching insects with its sticky tongue, it grabs them with its hands. It’s sometimes called the star-fingered toad because its long, thin fingers have tiny star-shaped appendages that help it catch prey. Instead of croaking, male Surinam toads make a clicking noise by moving a small bone in the throat back and forth.

When the female is ready to lay her eggs, a male clasps her around the middle like most frogs do while mating. But instead of just releasing her eggs and letting the male release sperm to fertilize them, the female makes a sort of flipping movement in the water as she releases a few eggs at a time. The male fertilizes them, then presses them onto her back. The skin of the female’s back grows up over the eggs, embedding them in the skin in little pockets. When the tadpoles hatch they stay in these little pockets as they develop. They only leave when they’ve metamorphosed into tiny toads, at which point they emerge and live on their own. The mother then sheds the layer of skin on her back where her babies lived.

A frog described in 2014 that lives in parts of South Asia gives birth to tadpoles instead of laying eggs. It’s a species of fanged frog, which are frogs that do actually have teeth unlike most frogs. Limnonectes larvaepartus grows about 1 ½ inches long, or just under 4 cm. The eggs are fertilized internally, but instead of laying them the female keeps them in her oviducts until they hatch. They remain inside her until they no longer have any yolk left to nourish them, at which point the mother releases them into a slow-moving stream.

Lots of other interesting frogs have been discovered recently. A new frog discovered in southern India in 2018 was recently determined to be a member of its own genus. It’s called the narrow-mouthed frog and had gone unnoticed even though it lives in an area that’s been extensively explored by scientists. It only comes out into the open for less than one week out of the year during the short breeding season, and the rest of the time it hides. Obviously, we don’t know much about it yet.

In 2016 in the same area as the narrow-mouthed frog, researchers discovered a new species of frog with a tadpole that burrows through sand. It’s a member of the Indian dancing frog family, and not only do the tadpoles burrow through wet sand at the bottom of streams, they have ribs that help them move around more easily. Tadpoles are usually just squidges without bones. Dancing frogs get that name because the males wave their feet to attract females during mating season.

There are so many recently discovered frog species that it’s hard to know which ones to highlight. You know, like the new glass frog from Costa Rica described in 2015 that honestly looks just like Kermit the Frog, if Kermit had a translucent belly that showed his organs. Scientists don’t know why glass frogs have no pigmentation at all on their bellies. Or the three tiny frog species discovered in Madagascar and described earlier in 2019, all of them smaller than your thumbnail, that belong to a new genus, Mini. Their scientific names are therefore Mini mum, Mini scule, and Mini ature. The three are related to one of Madagascar’s biggest frogs, which grows over four inches long, or 10.5 cm, as opposed to the Mini frogs which top out at about 15 mm long. Hally sent me an article about eleven new species of frog discovered recently in the Andes, including the multicolored rain frog. It’s sometimes yellow, sometimes brown, sometimes green, speckled, splotched, spotted–so variable that at first scientists thought they were different related species. All eleven of the Andes frogs lay their eggs on land, and instead of hatching into tadpoles the eggs hatch into tiny froglets.

Frogs and other amphibians are sensitive to environmental change, which means a lot of species have either recently gone extinct or are critically endangered. Habitat loss and an amphibian fungal disease that has spread around the world are also making things hard for frogs and their relations. Scientists have been working hard lately to find species that are rare, suspected to be extinct, or are unknown to science, to learn about them while we can and do our best to preserve the species, either in the wild or in captivity. There are even multiple genetic resource banks, or biobanks, to preserve genetic material of frogs and other animals so that future scientists might be able to clone them.

There’s always the possibility that the gastric brooding frog isn’t actually extinct. The southern gastric brooding frog hasn’t been seen since at least 1981 despite extensive searches, though, with the last captive individual dying in 1983. The northern gastric brooding frog was only discovered in 1984 but hasn’t been seen since 1985.

But even if there aren’t any left in the wild, all hope isn’t lost. The gastric brooding frog is a good candidate for de-extinction, and cloning has actually been successful to a limited degree already. In 2013 a living embryo was produced from preserved genetic material, although it didn’t survive. Researchers are still working to clone the frogs and keep them alive. With luck the attempt will be successful, and not only can a population of the frogs be kept in captivity, they can be reintroduced to their former habitat one day.

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 140: Rains of Fish and Frogs (and other things)



We’re starting off October (you know, MONSTER MONTH) with accounts of animals that fall from the sky like rain, mostly fish and frogs! Is this a real thing that actually happens, and if so, what causes it?

Further reading:

Raining Frogs

Recent observations of “mystery star jelly” in Scotland appear to confirm one origin as spawn jelly from frogs or toads

Not a real photo of an octopus falling in a storm:

This photo is probably real, two shrimp/prawns on a windshield in the same storm as above (in 2018):

A photo of people picking up fish in the street but I have no idea where it was taken:

An arctic lamprey found in someone’s yard:

Some of the stuff called star jelly, star rot, or star snot:

A walking catfish:

Show transcript:

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

It’s finally October, and that means monsters and other spooky stuff! I have lots of fun episodes planned this month, but first, an important announcement!

A few weeks ago I got a message from someone on Podbean, and I feel terrible because I can’t reply or even see the whole message or who it’s from! Podbean does not like me. I get an email with the first couple of lines of the message but when I click through and log in to Podbean to see the whole message and respond, Podbean goes, “Message? What message? You don’t have any messages.” So please, person who messaged me with a suggestion I can’t see, I’d love it if you email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com! And if anyone else has ever messaged me somewhere but never received a reply, email is the best way to get hold of me. I always reply, so if you don’t get an answer it means I never saw your message and you should totally send it again. Thanks!

So, back to the October fun! Let’s start off the month right with a strange phenomenon that’s been reported for untold centuries all over the world. Do fish and frogs and other animals actually sometimes fall from the sky like rain?

It seems pretty certain that while this is a rare event, and not all reports are of animals that actually fell from the sky, it does sometimes happen. In fact, lots of weird stuff falls from the sky from time to time. For instance, after a heavy rain over Punta Gorda, Florida at the end of August 1969, the streets were full of golf balls, dozens of them if not hundreds. But there wasn’t a golf course near the town.

Sometimes colored rain falls instead of ordinary clear water. This happens because raindrops form around tiny specks of dust or pollen in the air. When the dust is colored, the rain will be too. Red rains come from dust blown into the atmosphere from the Sahara while yellow rain results from dust from the Gobi Desert. Volcanic eruptions, soot, and other pollutants in the air can cause black rain. And a red rain that fell in Kerala, India in July 2001 was analyzed and the color found to be due to fungal spores. Snow is occasionally colored too, just like rain.

But sometimes frogs, fish, or other small animals do apparently fall from the sky, with or without rain. Here’s a typical report of a rain of frogs. It comes from the book The Unexplained by zoologist Karl Shuker, whose honesty and scholarship I trust. Not only that, it’s something that happened to his own grandmother, Gertrude Timmins. In 1902, Gertrude was only eight years old. She and her mother were walking across a field in the West Midlands in England when it started to rain. They opened their umbrellas, but a moment later Gertrude noticed that amid the regular pattering of rain on an umbrella there were some heavier thumps. Then she noticed that the thumps were caused by small frogs falling onto her umbrella and bouncing off onto the ground. Gertrude was frightened at first, naturally, because that’s just a weird thing to happen to anyone. But her mother told her not to be scared, it was just a rain of frogs.

Remember, Gertrude and her mother were walking across a field. There weren’t any trees or buildings around that the frogs might have fallen from. So where did they come from?

The main hypothesis is that the animals are picked up by a water spout or small tornado and carried on the wind until they’re dropped elsewhere, miles away. When I was a kid I thought this was a dumb suggestion. If a dissipating water spout dropped everything it had picked up out of a pond, why do people just report one kind of frog falling from the sky or one kind of fish? Where’s the algae, water plants, turtles, mud, and other stuff presumably also picked up and carried out of a pond?

The answer may be pretty simple. When the wind velocity is high, the tornado or water spout can carry heavy objects, but as the wind slows and loses energy, it starts to drop the heaviest items. But the wind is still moving, so as it moves across the land and slowly loses more and more energy, it drops the heaviest items first, then the next heaviest items, then the next heaviest, and so on.

It might not even be a tornado or water spout. A powerful updraft, which is often associated with storms, can lift light items like sticks, leaves, and pool toys and drop them miles away. Small frogs often weigh no more than a penny does and during breeding season can be incredibly common in a small area, hopping everywhere. It’s reasonable to assume that sometimes these little frogs get lifted from one area by a strong updraft and dropped elsewhere, astonishing anyone who happens to see it. If you doubt the strength of an updraft, keep in mind that storms can also generate downdrafts and they can be so powerful they destroy or uproot trees.

No one has witnessed frogs or other animals get sucked up into the air and dropped elsewhere, so we don’t know if it actually happens this way. But the animals are obviously getting into the air somehow.

Frogs aren’t the only animals witnessed to fall from the sky. Fish are actually probably the most common animals that fall with rain. It doesn’t even have to be raining.

On October 23, 1947 fish fell over Marksville, Louisiana in the United States. A biologist was having breakfast with his wife in a local restaurant when the server said that fish were falling from the sky. Naturally he went to look. He identified the fish as several different freshwater species common in the area, including two species of sunfish, a type of bass, and a few others, all ranging from 2 to 9 inches long, or 5 to 23 cm. It was a foggy but calm morning with no reports of tornados or strong winds in the area.

It’s possible that a small waterspout formed over one of the many nearby lakes, sucked up whatever fish happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deposited them a few miles away. Waterspouts form the same way tornados do except that it happens over water. The inside of a waterspout, like the inside of a tornado, is a low-pressure tunnel inside a high-pressure cone of air. It acts like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up water as it moves, and anything that’s in the water near the surface gets sucked up too.

There are two types of waterspouts. Tornadic waterspouts are tornados that happen to touch down over water instead of land. They can be dangerous and are usually reported in the local news and weather if they’re spotted. But fair-weather waterspouts aren’t associated with storms, although they do form ahead of developing storm systems. They’re typically smaller, much less dangerous, and much less likely to be reported to the news. So it’s possible that the 1947 fish fall was the result of a fair-weather waterspout.

This phenomenon isn’t something that used to happen in the olden days and doesn’t happen now. In June of 2009, there were tadpole rains in parts of Japan on two different days in slightly different areas. One man saw over a hundred dead tadpoles on car windshields in one parking lot after a rain shower.

On June 13, 2018, shrimp and possibly other sea creatures fell on the coastal city of Qingdao [zhing-daugh], China during a storm. The media reported it as a “seafood rain” since people posted photos of octopus, squid, starfish, mollusks, and shrimp that they claimed had fallen during the storm. Some of the photos are hoaxes, especially the ones of octopuses flying through the air, but at least some of them are real. Some people speculate that the source of the animals may have actually been a market stall, but since the city is on the coast of the Yellow Sea and the storm’s winds were measured at 77 mph, or 125 km per hour, it’s just as likely that the animals were lifted into the air from shallow water as from a market stall.

Sometimes we can figure out what the cause is of falling animals. In 2015 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game received four separate calls from people who’d found arctic lampreys on their property, including the parking lot of a store and someone’s front yard. If you remember from waaaaay back in episode 3, where we talked about the sea lamprey, lampreys are jawless fish with suckerlike mouths. They latch onto a fish and use their rasping teeth to parasitize it. The arctic lamprey grows to about a foot long on average, or 30 cm, but occasionally one will grow twice that long. It lives in cold freshwater lakes and rivers in the arctic, although it’s found as far south as Japan. An investigation revealed that all four lampreys found on land had cut marks and bruises in a specific pattern, which indicated that they’d been picked up in the beak of a seagull and then dropped, probably by accident when the lamprey wriggled too much. In 2015 there were an unusually high number of arctic lampreys in the Chera River, near where the four lampreys were reported on land.

A substance often referred to as star jelly or star rot has been seen in various parts of the world for centuries, usually connected in folklore with comets and shooting stars. In late 2008 through February 2009 the BBC’s Scotland Outdoors website collected photos and accounts of star jelly people had encountered in Scotland and other places. People reported finding lumps of the usually clear or white, jelly-like substance in their gardens, on walkways, on fence posts, stumps lawns, on the side of the road, in pastures, on rocks, and so on. One person found a lump of it on his tractor, another on a 3rd floor balcony.

Even hundreds of years ago some people suspected star jelly had something to do with frogs. At least some of it looks like the jelly-like matrix that surrounds the eggs of many frog and toad species. This is backed up by the presence of small black eggs in some star jelly that look like frog eggs. But it’s clearly not exactly frog spawn and is often found in places where a frog would never lay its eggs, even if it could for instance get up onto a third floor apartment balcony.

Many samples of star jelly have been examined by scientists and found to be the spawn jelly of frogs and toads, which is produced by the female to surround the eggs and keep them damp. As the female lays her eggs, each one is coated with a layer of spawn jelly, which absorbs water in the environment and increases in volume. Sometimes when a predator tears a frog or toad into pieces to eat it, the reproductive tract is torn open and its contents falls to the ground. When the spawn jelly is exposed to the air, it starts to absorb moisture from whatever it’s touching. This will make it swell up and become much more noticeable to people, especially if it’s rained and the spawn jelly has absorbed a lot of water.

Often an animal will eat a frog or toad, then later regurgitate the less digestible parts. This includes spawn jelly and some parts of the reproductive tract, specifically the oviducts since they contain the spawn jelly. Sometimes eggs are mixed in too. Star jelly has been examined and tested frequently, although most DNA testing has been inconclusive since samples are contaminated with bacteria. But a 2015 DNA test determined that the star jelly was from a frog. The test also found traces of magpie DNA, so we can probably guess what ate the frog.

Some star jelly doesn’t have anything to do with amphibians, though. Instead, some are slime molds or a type of freshwater algae-like bacteria known as nostoc. Neither slime molds nor nostoc fall from the sky but they can appear suddenly, so people may assume that’s what happened. Many birds that eat frogs and toads will eat them in midair, and may also regurgitate the indigestible portions while flying, so at least some star jelly does fall from the sky.

Sometimes people assume an animal has fallen from the sky when it actually hasn’t. For instance, the walking catfish will wriggle across dry land to find water when its pond dries up. It can grow up to 1 ½ feet long, or half a meter, and is usually grayish-brown with little white spots. Its skin is covered with mucus that helps keep it from drying out when it’s out of water. It’s native to parts of Southeast Asia, but it’s been introduced to other places, including southern Florida. In places where it’s not native, people may not be familiar with its ability to breathe air and move around out of the water, so when they see the walking catfish on land they may assume it fell from the sky.

The walking catfish is an invasive species in many areas. It’s an omnivore and can tolerate all kinds of habitats, including stagnant water where other fish can’t survive, since it can breathe air. Fish farmers in areas where the walking catfish lives have to put fences up around their ponds to keep walking catfish out. And if you see one, don’t pick it up. Its fins have spines that help stiffen them so it can use them to move more effectively on land, but that make them sharp.

We obviously don’t know everything about animals that fall from the sky, so let’s finish with a real mystery. It’s called the Kentucky Meat Shower and it happened on March 3, 1876 in a tiny community called Olympia Springs, Kentucky.

Olympia Springs is east of Lexington, Kentucky, in the southeastern United States. These days it’s in the Daniel Boone National Forest and just outside of the Olympia State Forest, so there’s not much in the area except wilderness. This was probably also the case in 1876 except that in 1876 there probably wasn’t a Dairy Queen restaurant a ten minute drive away. Wikipedia says it happened in a community named Rankin in the same county, but most other sources say Olympia Springs. Either way, it was an isolated, remote area at the time.

On this particular day, a woman only identified as Mrs. Crouch was in the yard, making soap. It was a perfectly clear day, not a cloud in the sky, when suddenly it started raining meat. She said it fell like big snowflakes all around her, but presumably not as pretty as snow, and lasted for several minutes. It was fresh meat, looked like beef or other red meat, and the pieces were irregularly shaped and gristly. Some were as big as 4 inches across, or 10 cm, but most about half that size. The meat landed all around, including on fences, in an area estimated to be about 100 yards across and 50 yards wide, or 91 by 46 meters.

Mrs. Crouch and her husband were understandably shaken by this event, and records don’t report whether the soap got finished that day but I suspect not. The next morning, the meat was still lying around, but it had dried out overnight and was starting to spoil. A couple of men stopped by and actually tasted it—ugh, I hope they at least cooked it first—and said they thought it might be venison or mutton. That’s meat from deer and sheep, respectively.

Samples of the meat were sent to various experts who examined it. Keep in mind that this was 1876 so they couldn’t do much more than look at it under an old-timey microscope. Two samples were identified as lung tissue, two as cartilage, and three as muscle.

As soon as the story hit the newspapers, people were quick to offer solutions that didn’t actually fit the reported facts. One person suggested that it was just nostoc that hadn’t actually fallen from the sky, it had been on the ground all along but that rain had made it swell up, which is something nostoc does. Never mind that nostoc is a slimy bacteria that looks nothing like meat—remember, it’s sometimes identified as star jelly—and that it wasn’t raining at the time and that Mrs. Crouch actually saw it fall and that pieces of it were found draped over fences. Plus, nostoc doesn’t taste like venison or mutton. Plus, samples were identified as actual meat.

The main suggestion is that some vultures were flying overhead and had disgorged some meat they had eaten, which had been caught by the wind and fell across a wide area. But while even nowadays people claim that is what must have happened, it has one big flaw. Vultures don’t disgorge meat while they’re flying. They disgorge it as a way to deter predators approaching their nest, and they may disgorge if a predator approaches while they’re feeding so they can get into the air quickly, but not while flying. Not only that, but any meat disgorged by a vulture would smell and taste horrible, since it would have already been rotting before the vulture ate it, and it would then be coated with caustic vulture digestive juices.

So what might have caused the Kentucky Meat Shower? If it wasn’t a newspaper hoax, which were really common in the late 19th century, it might have been the result of some poor animal that was swept up by a tornado, torn apart, and the smallest pieces dropped over the Crouch’s farm after the winds had dissipated. Presumably the heavier pieces, like bones, fell earlier and probably landed in the forest where no one saw them fall. I looked for a weather report for Kentucky for that day, but couldn’t find one. Eastern Kentucky is not too far north from where I live in East Tennessee, so I can verify that March can be a very warm month with unsettled weather. It wouldn’t be at all unusual to have a storm strong enough to generate a small but powerful tornado in March, although this usually happens at night after a hot day.

I don’t know if I believe the Kentucky Meat Shower really happened or if it was a hoax. But either way, we can stop blaming vultures.

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 124: Updates 2 and a new human



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

The triple-hybrid warbler:

Further reading:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[frog sound]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!