Tag Archives: gecko

Episode 135: Smallest of the Large

This week we’re looking at some very small animals–but not animals that we think of as small. Join us for a horrendously cute episode!

Further reading:

The Echinoblog

Further listening:

Animals to the Max episode #75: The Sea Panda (vaquita)

Varmints! episode #49: Hippos

Further watching:

An adorable baby pygmy hippo

The Barbados threadsnake will protecc your fingertip:

Parvulastra will decorate your thumbnail:

Berthe’s mouse lemur will defend this twig:

The bumblebee bat will eat any bugs that come near your finger:

The vaquita, tiny critically endangered porpoise:

The long-tailed planigale is going to steal this ring and wear it as a belt:

He höwl:

A pygmy hippo and its mother will sample this grass:

This Virgin Islands dwarf gecko will spend this dime if it can just pick it up:

Show transcript:

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

I talk a lot about biggest animals on this podcast, so maybe it’s time to look at the very smallest animals. I don’t mean algae or bacteria or things like that, I mean the smallest species of animals that aren’t usually considered especially small.

We’ll start with the smolest snek, the Barbados threadsnake. It only lives on a few islands in the Caribbean, notably Barbados. The very largest individual ever measured was only 4.09 inches long, or 10.4 cm, but most are under four inches long. But it’s an extremely thin snake, not much thicker than a spaghetti noodle.

The Barbados threadsnake mostly eats termites and ant larvae. It spends most of its time in leaf litter or under rocks, hunting for food. The female only lays one single egg, but the baby is relatively large, about half the mother’s length when it hatches.

That’s so cute. Why are small things so cute?

Remember the starfish episode where we talked about the largest starfish? Well, what’s the smallest starfish? That would be Parvulastra parvivipara, which is smaller than a fingernail decoration sticker. It grows to about ten millimeters across and is orangey-yellow in color. It lives on the coast of Tasmania in rock pools between low and high tide, called intertidal rock pools.

If you remember the Mangrove killifish from a few episodes ago, you’ll remember how killifish females are hermaphrodites that produce both eggs and sperm, and usually self-fertilize their eggs to produce tiny clones of themselves. Well, Parvulastra does that too, although like the killifish it probably doesn’t always self-fertilize its eggs. But then it does something interesting for a starfish. Instead of releasing its eggs into the water to develop by themselves, Parvulastra keeps the eggs inside its body. And instead of the eggs hatching into larvae, they hatch into impossibly tiny miniature baby starfish, which the parent keeps inside its body until the baby is big enough to survive safely on its own.

But what do the baby starfish eat while they’re still inside the mother? Well, they eat their SIBLINGS. The larger babies eat the smaller ones, and eventually leave through one of the openings in the parent’s body wall, called gonopores. Researchers theorize that one of the reasons the babies leave the parent is to escape being eaten by its siblings. And yes, occasionally a baby grows so big that it won’t fit through the gonopores. So it just goes on living inside the parent.

Next, let’s look at the smallest primate. The primate order includes humans, apes, monkeys, and a lot of other animals, including lemurs. And the very smallest one is Berthe’s mouse lemur. Its body is only 3.6 inches long on average, or 9.2 cm, with a tail that more than doubles its length. Its fur is yellowish and brownish-red.

Berthe’s mouse lemur was only discovered in 1992. It lives in one tiny area of western Madagascar, where it lives in trees, which means it’s vulnerable to the deforestation going on all over Madagascar and is considered endangered.

It mostly eats insects, but also fruit, flowers, and small animals of various kinds. Its habitat overlaps with another small primate, the gray mouse lemur, but they avoid each other. Madagascar has 24 known mouse lemur species and they all seem to get along well by avoiding each other and eating slightly different diets. Researchers discover new species all the time, including three in 2016.

Last October we had an episode about bats, specifically macrobats that have wingspans as broad as eagles’. But the smallest bat is called the bumblebee bat. It’s also called Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, but bumblebee bat is way cuter. It’s a microbat that lives in western Thailand and southeast Myanmar, and like other microbats it uses echolocation to find and catch flying insects. Its body is only about an inch long, or maybe 30 millimeters, although it has a respectable wingspan of about 6 ½ inches, or 17 cm. It’s reddish-brown in color with a little pig-like snoot, and it only weighs two grams. That’s just a tad more than a single Pringle chip weighs.

Because the bumblebee bat is so rare and lives in such remote areas, we don’t know a whole lot about it. It was only discovered in 1974 and is increasingly endangered due to habitat loss, since it’s only been found in 35 caves in Thailand and 8 in Myanmar, and those are often disturbed by people entering them. The land around the caves is burned every year to clear brush for farming, which affects the bats too.

The bumblebee bat roosts in caves during the day and most of the night, only flying out at dawn and dusk to catch insects. It rarely flies more than about a kilometer from its cave, or a little over half a mile, but it does migrate from one cave to another seasonally. Females give birth to one tiny baby a year. Oh my gosh, tiny baby bats.

So what about whales and dolphins? You know, some of the biggest animals in Earth’s history? Well, the vaquita is a species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf of California, and it only grows about four and a half feet long, or 1.4 meters. Like other porpoises, it uses echolocation to navigate and catch its prey. It eats small fish, squid, crustaceans, and other small animals.

The vaquita is usually solitary and spends very little time at the surface of the water, so it’s hard to spot and not a lot is known about it. It mostly lives in shallow water and it especially likes lagoons with murky water, properly called turbid water, since it attracts more small animals.

Unfortunately, the vaquita is critically endangered, mostly because it often gets trapped in illegal gillnets and drowns. The gillnets are set to catch a different critically endangered animal, a fish called the totoaba. The totoaba is larger than the vaquita and is caught for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in China and is exported on the black market. The vaquita’s total population may be no more than ten animals at this point, fifteen at the most, and the illegal gillnets are still drowning them, so it may be extinct within a few years. A captive breeding plan was tried in 2017, but porpoises don’t do well in captivity and the individuals the group caught all died. Hope isn’t lost, though, because vaquita females are still having healthy babies, and there are conservation groups patrolling the part of the Gulf of California where they live to remove gill nets and chase off fishing boats trying to set more of the nets.

If you want to learn a little more about the vaquita and how to help it, episode 75 of Corbin Maxey’s excellent podcast Animals to the Max is an interview with a vaquita expert. I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Next, let’s talk about an animal that is not in danger of extinction. Please! The long-tailed planigale is doing just fine, a common marsupial from Australia. So, if it’s a marsupial, it must be pretty big—like kangaroos and wallabies. Right? Nope, the long-tailed planigale is the size of a mouse, which it somewhat resembles. It even has a long tail that’s bare of fur. It grows to 2 ½ inches long not counting its tail, or 6.5 cm. It’s brown with longer hind legs than forelegs so it often sits up like a tiny squirrel. Its nose is pointed and it has little round mouse-like ears. But it has a weird skull.

The long-tailed planigale’s skull is flattened—in fact, it’s no more than 4 mm top to bottom. This helps it squeeze into cracks in the dry ground, where it hunts insects and other small animals, and hides from predators.

The pygmy hippopotamus is a real animal, which I did not know until recently. It grows about half the height of the common hippo and only weighs about a quarter as much. It’s just over three feet tall at the shoulder, or 100 cm. It’s black or brown in color and spends most of its time in shallow water, usually rivers. It’s sometimes seen resting in burrows along river banks, but no one’s sure if it digs these burrows or makes use of burrows dug by other animals. It comes out of the water at night to find food. Its nostrils and eyes are smaller than the common hippo’s.

Unlike the common hippo, the pygmy hippo lives in deep forests and as a result, mostly eats ferns, fruit, and various leaves. Common hippos eat more grass and water plants. The pygmy hippo seems to be less aggressive than the common hippo, but it also shares some behaviors with its larger cousins. For instance, the pooping thing. If you haven’t listened to the Varmints! Episode about hippos, you owe it to yourself to do so because it’s hilarious. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that one too. While the hippo poops, it wags its little tail really fast to spread the poop out across a larger distance.

Also like the common hippo, the pygmy hippo secretes a reddish substance that looks like blood. It’s actually called hipposudoric acid, which researchers thinks acts as a sunscreen and an antiseptic. Hippos have delicate skin with almost no hair, so its skin dries out and cracks when it’s out of water too long.

The pygmy hippo is endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching, but fortunately it breeds successfully in zoos and lives a long time, up to about 55 years in captivity. For some reason females are much more likely to be born in captivity, so when a male baby is born it’s a big deal for the captive breeding program. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a video where you can watch a baby pygmy hippo named Sapo and his mother. He’s adorable.

Finally, let’s finish where we started, with another reptile. The smallest lizard is a gecko, although there are a lot of small geckos out there and it’s a toss-up which one is actually smallest on average. Let’s go with the Virgin Islands dwarf gecko, which lives on three of the British Virgin Islands. It’s closely related to the other contender for smallest reptile, the dwarf sphaero from Puerto Rico, which is a nearby island, but while that gecko is just a shade shorter on average, it’s much heavier.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko is only 18 mm long not counting its tail, and it weighs .15 grams. A paperclip weighs more than this gecko. It’s brown with darker speckles and a yellow stripe behind the eyes. Females are usually slightly larger than males. Like other geckos, it can lose its tail once and regrow a little stump of a tail.

The Virgin Islands dwarf gecko lives in dry forests and especially likes rocky hills, where it spends a lot of its time hunting for tiny animals under rocks. We don’t know a whole lot about it, but it does seem to be rare and only lives in a few places, so it’s considered endangered. In 2011 some rich guy decided he was going to release a bunch of lemurs from Madagascar onto Moskito Island, one of the islands where the dwarf gecko lives. Every conservationist ever told him oh NO you don’t, rich man, what is your problem? Those lemurs will destroy the island’s delicate ecosystem, drive the dwarf gecko and many other species to extinction, and then die because the habitat is all wrong for lemurs. So Mr. Rich Man said fine, whatever, I’ll take my lemurs and go home. And he did, and the dwarf gecko was saved.

Look, if you have so much money that you’re making plans to move lemurs halfway across the world because you think it’s a good idea, I can help take some of that money off your hands.

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 020: The Shoebill and Geckos

We’ve reached the big two-oh! Episode 20 catches us up on listener suggestions.

Crossover University podcast wants to know about geckos and Bearly Ready Broadcast wants to know about the shoe-billed stork! Your wish is my command! Also those are some neato animals.

Behold the majestic shoebill!

12/10 would pet softly:


Adorable crested gecko, aka eyelash gecko:

Alain Delcourt and stuffed giant gecko. I bet they both hate this picture:

Further reading:

A page all about the shoebill

Show transcript:

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

This week we have two more listener suggestions. The hosts of Crossover University suggested geckos as a topic because they have a leopard gecko named Lockheed, after the X-Men character, as their podcast mascot. The hosts of Barely Ready podcast want to hear about the shoe billed stork. I’m not sure if they have a pet shoebill as a mascot. Both are awesome fun pop culture podcasts. I’ll put links in the show notes so you can check them out.

The shoebill is commonly called the shoe-billed stork. Originally researchers thought it was related to storks, but DNA analysis shows that it’s actually more closely related to pelicans. I was going to go into details of the confusion about where the bird fits in the avian family tree, but basically it’s just two groups of scientists shouting back and forth, “Storks!” and “Pelicans!” Probably not that interesting to most people.

The shoebill is a big bird, four or even five feet high, mostly due to its long legs. Its wingspan can be almost nine feet. It lives in swampy areas in east central Africa and its toes are really long, which distributes its weight over a large surface so it can stand on floating vegetation without sinking even though it doesn’t have webs between its toes. Its feathers are slate gray and it has a little floofy tuft on the back of its head. But the most memorable part of its appearance is its bill. It’s a great big heavy bill with a hook on the end. It looks like the shoebill could kill crocodiles with that thing, and guess what?

Well, okay, not full-grown crocs, but it will eat baby crocodiles. It also eats lizards, snakes, frogs, small birds and mammals when it can catch them, and lots of fish. It especially likes lungfish and will dig in the mud with its bill to find them.

The shoebill has a reputation as kind of an idiot bird. It spends most of its time creeping up on its prey very, very slowly, but when it attacks, a lot of times it just throws itself at its prey like a maniac. Since the shoebill prefers to live in papyrus and reed swamps, it frequently ends up flailing around in the water, covered in rotten vegetation and mud, with a catfish or whatever swinging from its massive beak. But hey, it works for the shoebill.

The shoebill occasionally does something that is really rare in birds. It sometimes uses its wings to push itself upright after it lunges after prey. This may not sound unusual, but birds almost never use their wings like forelegs or arms.

The shoebill doesn’t like to fly very far, but it certainly can fly and it looks really impressive when it does. In fact, it’s possible that flying shoebills are responsible for the occasional report of living pterodactyls in Africa.

That brings us to the kongamato, a flying cryptid reported from east central Africa and generally identified by cryptozoologists as a type of living pterodactyl. Pterosaurs died out more than 60 million years ago, but that doesn’t stop people from seeing them from time to time. Most likely the sightings are misidentifications of known birds, especially big wading birds like the shoebill. When I was a kid I used to pretend great blue herons flying overhead were pterodactyls.

In 1923, Frank H. Melland published a book called In Witch-Bound Africa, a title that tells you a lot about Mr. Melland. Maybe his publisher made up the title. Anyway, according to Melland, the kongamato was a big reddish or black lizard with batlike wings and a long beak with teeth, which was supposed to overturn boats. The natives, Melland reported gravely, were terrified of it. When shown pictures of animals, he said local people always pointed at the pterodactyl and said it was the kongamato. It was supposed to live along rivers.

Sporadic reports of the kongamato, or at least of pterosaur-like animals, trickled into the press throughout the 1940s and 50s, but no photos have ever been taken and no remains found. Writer Dale Drinnon says that the kongamato was originally reported as a water monster. He suggests that a big stingray of some kind may be the boat-tipping culprit. Since all the information I can find online about the kongamato leads back to Melland’s 1923 book, I’m definitely skeptical about assigning any kind of possible identity to the animal. But I don’t think it’s a pterodactyl.

Shoebills don’t make a lot of noise ordinarily, but they do clatter their bills like pelicans_

Here’s what that sounds like, and then we’ll go on to learn about geckos.

[shoebill clattering bill]

Geckos are gorgeous lizards, ranging in size from about half an inch to over two feet long depending on species. They’re the lizards that can walk up walls and even across ceilings. For a long time scientists weren’t sure how the gecko stuck to surfaces, but recent studies show that most geckos’ toe pads are covered with tiny bristles that actually make the toes into adhesive devices. The gecko doesn’t even have to be alive for it to stick to surfaces. Dead geckos hang on just as securely. The gecko has to be alive to release its hold on the surface, though, helped by a fatty lubricant secreted by the toes that helps the gecko move its foot instead of it being stuck to one place for the rest of its life. Not all geckos have adhesive toe pads. It depends on the species.

Geckos are also the lizards that lick their eyeballs.

Some species can glide using flaps of skin that help keep them aloft when they jump from somewhere high up. Many gecko species have the ability to drop their tails when threatened. The tail detaches from the body and thrashes around while the now-tailless gecko beats feet to safety. The tail will usually grow back, but it’s just a little stumpy tail that can’t be lost a second time.

There is a type of gecko that can lose more than its tail if something tries to grab it. There are a number of fish-scaled geckos that can lose their scales, which are big. If an animal tries to bite a fish-scaled gecko, it’s likely to get a mouthful of scales while the gecko runs off. The scales grow back eventually and can be lost again. A newly-discovered variety of fish-scaled gecko is so good at dropping its scales and growing them back quickly that researchers have trouble catching them without ending up with a bunch of nude and irritated geckos.

There are more than 1,600 species of gecko throughout the warmer areas of the world and more are discovered all the time. There are so many that it’s easy to lose track of some of them. The crested gecko is a handsome little lizard, usually orangey or yellowish in color, with a broad head, tiny claws, and tiny spines that run along its shoulders and above its eyes. The spines above its eyes give it its other name, the eyelash gecko. It was discovered in 1866 in New Caledonia, a group of islands east of Australia, but after a few decades it appeared that the species had gone extinct. Then, in 1994, a German herpetologist out looking for specimens after a tropical storm found a single crested gecko. It turns out that the geckos had been just fine all along. Captive-bred crested geckos are now sold as pets.

Similarly, in 1877 a British naturalist in India discovered the Jeypore ground gecko under a rock. It’s a beautiful lizard, orangey or brown with chocolate brown blotches. But after that first sighting, no one saw the gecko again until a team went looking for it in 2010. They found it, too. Unfortunately, it’s not doing as well as the crested gecko. It’s only found in two small areas that together amount to barely eight square miles, and those areas are in danger of being destroyed due to development and mining. Conservationists are working to increase awareness of the gecko so hopefully its remaining habitat can be protected.

Most geckos are pretty small—no bigger than the length of your hand or thereabouts. But Delcourt’s giant gecko is a whole lot bigger, some two feet long. Unlike the other geckos I’ve talked about, Delcourt’s giant gecko really is extinct—at least, as far as we know. And until 1986, researchers didn’t know it had ever existed. In 1979 a herpetologist named Alain Delcourt, working in the Marseilles Natural History Museum in France, noticed a big taxidermied lizard in storage and wondered what it was. It wasn’t labeled and he didn’t recognize it, surprising since it was brown with red longitudinal stripes and the biggest gecko he’d ever seen. He sent photos to several reptile experts and they didn’t know what it was either. Finally the specimen was examined and in 1986 it was described as a new species.

No one knew anything about the stuffed specimen, including where it was caught. At first researchers thought it might be from New Caledonia since a lot of the museum’s other specimens were collected from the Pacific Islands. None of the specimens donated between 1833 and 1869 had any documentation, so it seemed probable the giant gecko was donated during that time and probably collected not long before.

Finally, researchers decided it was probably native to New Zealand. Not only does it resemble some smaller gecko species found there, the Maori people in New Zealand have local lore about a big lizard called the kawekaweau. The legends were known to Europeans as early as 1777 when Captain Cook interviewed the Maori and collected stories about the kawekaweau. In 1873 a Maori chief told a visiting biologist that he had killed a kawekaweau in 1870, and described it as “about two feet long and as thick as a man’s wrist; colour brown, striped longitudinally with dull red.” That was the last known sighting of the gecko and the last anyone in the scientific community thought about it until the stuffed specimen caught Delcourt’s attention.

I really like this story. It warms my skeptical cryptozoologist’s cold cold heart. Unlike accounts of the kongamato, it has everything a good cryptozoological mystery should have: the remains of an unknown animal, good scientific and historical work, and the support of a scientific hypothesis by local reports. The only way it could be a better story is if Delcourt’s giant gecko aka the kawekaweau was found alive and well in remote areas of New Zealand. It’s not likely, but there are a few reported sightings, so maybe one day a lucky herpetologist will make the discovery of a lifetime.

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, give us a rating and review on iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a PAYtreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include exclusive twice-monthly episodes and stickers.

Thanks for listening!