Tag Archives: gibbon

Episode 217: Three (Small) Mystery Animals



This week we’re going to look at three small mystery animals! Well, the mysteries are small. The animals are not particularly small.

Further Reading:

Long-Extinct Gibbon Found Inside Tomb of Chinese Emperor’s Grandmother

Ancient Egypt’s Mona Lisa? An elaborately drawn extinct goose, of course

A case of mistaken identity for Australia’s extinct big bird

Bones of a mystery gibbon found in a noblewoman’s tomb:

Gibbons painted about a thousand years ago by artist Yi Yuanji:

A couple of gibbons at MAX FLUFF:

The mystery goose painting (left) compared with a modern version of the painting (middle) and a red-breasted goose (right):

All the geese from the painting:

A red-breasted goose, not historically known from Egypt:

The mystery bird rock art:

An emu (with babies):

Genyornis compared to a human:

Genyornis leg bones compared to emu leg bones (right), but on left is a comparison of a so-called Genyornis (actually not) egg and an emu egg:

A couple of megapodes in their egg field:

Show transcript:

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

We’re long overdue for an episode about a mystery animal, so this week let’s look at not one, not two, but three mysteries! They’re all small scientific mysteries, not big spooky ones, but I think you’ll find them interesting.

We’ll start at an archaeological dig in China. In 2004, archaeologists excavated a noblewoman’s tomb in northwestern China, which they dated to about 2,200 to 2,300 years old. The tomb might have been for a woman called Lady Xia, who was the grandmother of the first emperor of China. So, kind of a big deal.

The archaeologists discovered twelve pits in the tomb, and each pit contained the skeletons of various animals, some of them domesticated animals but some of them wild. Having a private menagerie was a status symbol back then, as it sometimes has been in other cultures around the world. In pit #12, they found remains of a leopard, a black bear, a crane, a lynx, and a type of small ape called a gibbon.

The gibbon remains were a surprise, because today all species of gibbon in China live only in the very southern areas and are critically endangered by habitat loss and hunting. Either a gibbon had been transported hundreds of miles over difficult terrain 2,300 years ago, or gibbons lived in the area.

Gibbons are small apes and there are 16 species alive today. They all live in southern Asia. We talked about the siamang in episode 76, and the siamang is a type of gibbon. Many gibbons, including the siamang, have inflatable resonant chambers in the throat to amplify their calls, but all gibbons make loud, often musical sounds to communicate with each other. They spend most of the time in treetops and mostly eat fruit, along with other plant material.

Because this part of northwestern China is subtropical, and because it’s been so long since the animals died, the skeletons aren’t complete. The only gibbon bones left were part of a cranium and mandible. Obviously, scientists had to be careful with the bones and couldn’t run any tests that might damage them. They made a 3D scan of the bones and used the scan to compare the gibbon’s skull and jaw with those of living species of gibbon, to determine what species it was.

It turned out that not only was it a species unknown to science, it was different enough from other gibbons that it belonged in its own genus.

According to experts in Chinese history and literature, gibbons were considered noble animals that often appeared in paintings and poetry. Various species of gibbon lived throughout much of China until around the 14th century. After the 14th century, though, habitat loss and hunting drove the gibbons farther south until now there are almost no gibbons left in China. Lady Xia’s pet gibbon is the first species known that definitely went extinct in the modern era, which makes it even more important that the gibbons still alive today are protected along with their habitats.

Speaking of ancient paintings of animals, 4,600 years ago, an artist made a painting of some geese for a tomb in Egypt. The painting is five feet long, or 1.5 meters, and is a fragment of a larger wall decoration that has been lost. It’s called the “Meidum Geese.” It’s a lovely painting and the geese are incredibly lifelike—so lifelike, in fact, that it should be easy to identify them.

But maybe not quite so easy after all.

There are three species of geese in the painting. Two are probably the graylag goose and the greater white-fronted goose. The third looks similar to the red-breasted goose, but there are enough differences that researchers aren’t sure. No red-breasted goose remains have ever been found in Egypt; it only lives in Europe and Asia.

It’s quite likely that the mystery goose is an extinct species. Other animal species depicted in Egyptian art are extinct now, even though they were common when the art was made. Egypt’s climate is much dryer than it was thousands of years ago, so naturally there were different animals back then even if you don’t factor in human activity like hunting.

The painting was discovered in 1871. One Italian archaeologist named Francesco Tiradritti claims it’s a hoax, painted by one of the curators at the Cairo Museum back when it was first found. One of the reasons he thinks it’s a hoax is that the red-breasted goose isn’t known in Egypt. This isn’t a very good argument to me. First of all, the goose doesn’t exactly match the red-breasted goose, while a hoaxer would probably work from a model or a picture to get the details right. Second of all, a hoaxer would probably have been careful to only include goose species that are known to live in Egypt. Tiradritti’s argument basically seems to be that the Meidum geese are too good and therefore could only possibly be painted by someone who had trained in Italy. In reality, though, ancient people of all cultures were perfectly capable of being masterful artists even though they were not European.

Other experts have rebutted Tiradritti’s claim and point out that he’s not an art historian and that many actual art historians have studied the Meidum geese and declared them genuine. Not only that, but scenes carved in other tombs seem to depict the same types of geese that are in the painting.

Speaking of geese and artwork, let’s move on to our final mystery animal. This one’s complicated, because it’s not just one mystery, it’s two.

Ancient artwork sometimes gives scientists useful information about when and where an animal lived and what it looked like. Sometimes, though, the artwork reveals more mysteries than it solves. For instance, some rock art found in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The art depicts two birds with long goose-like necks, drawn with a pigment called red ochre. It’s sort of a rusty color. The birds have legs that are about as long as the neck, and small heads with short, blunt bills.

At first the archaeologists studying the site thought the art depicted emus. Then they took a closer look and realized the details were wrong for emus, but they did match a different bird. Genyornis newtoni was distantly related to modern ducks and geese, but was flightless and really big. It stood seven feet tall, or over two meters. It had strong but relatively short legs, a goose-like neck, tiny wings, and a short, blunt bill. It probably ate fruit and small animals.

The finding excited the palaeontologists, because Genyornis was supposed to have gone extinct around 45,000 years ago. That meant that if the art really did depict the bird, the art had to be that old too.

The reason that researchers dated the extinction of Genyornis to about 45,000 years ago is because that’s when its eggshells stop being found, even though until then they were fairly common in ancient sand dunes.

But something didn’t add up. Genyornis was a little taller but six times heavier than the emu, but its eggs were no larger than an emu’s egg. A 2016 study suggested that the eggshells identified as Genyornis eggs were actually from a completely different bird, specifically a type of megapode.

Megapodes are birds that live in Australia and some nearby islands, including New Guinea. In fact, I think we’ll learn about some megapodes in an upcoming episode about more weird New Guinea birds. One interesting thing about megapodes is the way they incubate their eggs. Instead of keeping the eggs warm by sitting on them, megapodes build nest mounds. Most make a big mound of leaves and other vegetation, because as vegetation decays, it releases heat. The female lays her eggs on the mound and the male guards and tends the eggs, placing more leaves over them as needed or sometimes removing it to keep the eggs from getting too hot. Other megapodes lay their eggs in warm sand or even in volcanic areas where the ground stays warm. In other words, it makes sense that lots of these old eggshells would be found in what were once sand dunes, since the eggs were most likely buried in the sand to start with. Researchers think the sand dune eggs belonged to an extinct species of megapode called the giant malleefowl.

So that’s one mystery solved, but it leaves us with other mysteries. When did the Genyornis actually go extinct? How old is the rock art and does it really depict Genyornis?

Since its discovery around 2010, the so-called Genyornis rock art has been carefully studied. Geologists have determined the age of the rock face where the painting appears, and it’s not nearly as old as 45,000 years. Right about 13,800 years ago, a rock overhang collapsed, exposing a rock surface. Then some people came along and decided that rock surface would be the perfect place to paint two birds. So the painting can’t be any older than that.

A close analysis of the painting shows that there’s more than meets the eye, too. The initial painting was of a person with animal characteristics, called an anthropomorph, and at some point later someone painted the birds over it. The painting also contains the image of a barbed spear piercing one of the birds. So whatever the birds are, they were birds that people hunted.

Meanwhile, other experts were studying Genyornis. The current determination is that it went extinct around 25,000 or 30,000 years ago.

So we have rock art that cannot be older than a tad under 14,000 years old, but it appears to be art of a bird that went extinct at least 25,000 years ago. What’s going on?

It’s probable that Genyornis actually lived a lot more recently than 25,000 years ago. Scientists can only make determinations of when an animal went extinct by the fossils and subfossil remains they find or don’t find. There aren’t a lot of Genyornis fossils to start with, but the ones we do have mostly come from the same area where the rock art was found.

If the rock art really is of Genyornis, and it does seem to be, then people were most likely hunting Genyornis less than 14,000 years ago and possibly much more recently. Hopefully soon researchers will find more recent evidence so we can get a better idea of when it really went extinct and why.

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 076: The Orang Pendek



This week we’re back to Sumatra, that island of mystery, to learn about a mysterious ape called the orang pendek.

A beautiful Sumatran orangutan:

This orangutan and her baby have won all the bananas:

This picture made me DIE:

An especially dapper siamang, a type of gibbon:

Here’s a walking siamang:

The sun bear, looking snoozy:

The sun bear, standing:

Further reading:

These are the articles where I got my quotes.

This one has some general information.

This one is by Debbie Martyr herself.

Show transcript:

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

The island of Sumatra is a place that keeps popping up in our episodes. We’ve barely scratched the surface of weirdness in Sumatra and nearby islands, but this week’s episode is about a Sumatran mystery ape called the orang pendek. That means “short person” in Indonesian.

The story goes that a human-like ape lives in the forests of western Sumatra. It walks on two legs, has short black, gray, or golden fur on its body with longer hair on its head, human facial features, and is shorter than a human but not by much. The people of the remote Sumatran villages where the orang pendek is reported say that it’s enormously strong, and has small feet and short legs but long arms. It mostly eats plants and will raid crops occasionally, but it also eats insects, fish, and river crabs.

Many people think the first report of the orang pendek outside of the Sumatran people is from a 14th century traveler called John of Florence, who visited China around 1342 and many other countries afterwards, including either Java or Sumatra. He reported seeing hairy men who lived on the edges of the forest, but since he also said that the hairy men planted crops and traded with the locals, it’s possible he was talking about a tribe of people who lived on the outskirts of mainstream society.

The various native groups in Sumatra have stories of creatures that sound like the orang pendek, including a demon-like entity called the hantu pendek, which means short ghost. But as I’ve said before in other episodes, it’s a mistake to treat folktales as if they were scientific observations. People tell stories for lots of reasons, only one of which is imparting knowledge about a particular animal. Plus, those aren’t the only stories of strange people told in the area. There are stories of giants, of people with tails, and many others. For instance, the orang bati is a bat-winged man that’s supposed to live in extinct volcanic craters in Seram, Indonesia, and who flies out at night and steals babies.

The Dutch colonized Indonesia in the early 19th century, around 1820, after centuries of varying levels of control in what was known as the Dutch East Indies. Colonists reported seeing apes or strange small people in the forest too. One fairly typical report is this one from 1917, from a Mr. Oostingh, who saw what he took to be a man sitting on the ground in the forest about 30 feet away from him, or nine meters. He said,

“His body was as large as a medium-sized native’s and he had thick square shoulders, not sloping at all. The colour was not brown, but looked like black earth, a sort of dusty black, more grey than black.

“He clearly noticed my presence. He did not so much as turn his head, but stood up on his feet: he seemed quite as tall as I. Then I saw that it was not a man, and I started back, for I was not armed. The creature took several paces, without the least haste, and then, with his ludicrously long arm, grasped a sapling, which threatened to break under his weight, and quietly sprang into a tree, swinging in great leaps alternately to right and to left.”

Expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s found nothing out of the ordinary. Interest trailed off until around 1990, when a journalist named Debbie Martyr decided she was going to get to the bottom of the mystery. She had traveled to Sumatra in 1989 for a story she was writing, and while she was there she learned about the orang pendek. She spent the next fifteen-odd years interviewing witnesses and setting up camera traps, but without uncovering any proof. She did spot what she thought might be an orang pendek at least once, but got no clear photos, no remains, no conclusive footprints. Martyr states that the ape she saw had much different proportions than an orangutan, much more human-like.

Other people have searched for the orang pendek too, also without success. National Geographic set up camera traps between 2005 and 2009 without getting any photos of unknown apes. One expedition found some hairs that they later sent for DNA testing, but the results were inconclusive due to the hairs’ poor quality and possible human contamination.

Interest in the orang pendek spiked after remains of the Flores little people were found in 2003, and after anthropologists made connections between those remains and local stories about small, mischievous people called the ebo gogo. As you may remember if you’ve listened to episode 26, researchers initially thought the Homo floresiensis remains were only some 12,000 years old. More recent studies have pushed this back to around 50,000 years old. But the island of Flores is not all that far from the island of Sumatra, so it’s not out of the question that the Flores little people also lived on other islands.

Sumatra is a big island with a lot of animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. It’s certainly a big enough island to hide a population of shy apes or small human relations. But the only proof we have that the orang pendek exists, after a couple of decades of intensive searching, are a bunch of witness reports, some blurry photos and video, inconclusive plaster casts of footprints, and some ape hairs too degraded for DNA testing. If the orang pendek was a real animal, no matter how elusive, you’d think we’d at least have one good clear photo by now.

There have been hoaxes in the past. A “young orang pendek” turned out to be a dead langur monkey with its tail cut off. A video released in 2017 that purports to show a group of motorbikers who startle an orang pendek is probably a hoax. I’ve sent an alert to Captain Disillusion. If he covers the video I’ll let y’all know.

Despite the hoaxes and the lack of evidence, people are obviously seeing something. Witnesses include forest rangers, zoologists, hunters, and other people who know the local animals well. So what could they be seeing? Let’s take a look at some of the animals of Sumatra that might be mistaken for an orang pendek, at least some of the time.

The orang pendek is supposed to have small feet, about the size and shape of a human child’s foot. This sounds like the tracks of the Malayan sun bear. In fact, a footprint found in 1924 that was supposed to belong to an orang pendek was identified as that of a sun bear once it was seen by an expert.

The sun bear has sleek black fur, although some are gray or reddish, and a roughly U-shaped patch of fur on its chest that varies in color from gold to almost white to reddish-orange. Its muzzle is short and its ears are small. It’s the world’s smallest bear, only around three feet long from head to tail, or 150 cm, and four feet tall when standing on its hind legs, or 1.2 meters. It has long front claws that it uses to climb trees and tear open logs to get at insect larvae, which it licks up with its long tongue. It also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit. It’s mostly nocturnal.

Orangutans also live on the island, but currently only in the northern part of the island, although they lived all over Sumatra and in Java until the end of the 19th century. The Sumatran orangutan is one of only three orangutan species in the world, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss. It’s slenderer than the other species, with pale orange fur. Like the sun bear, it eats a lot of insects and fruit; unlike the sun bear, it uses tools it makes from sticks to gather insects, honey, and other foods more easily. It also uses large leaves as umbrellas. It communicates not by sound, like other orangutans, but by gestures. In short, it sounds like a pretty awesome ape. Orangutan means “forest person,” if you were wondering.

Other apes and monkeys live on the island too, including several species of gibbon. Gibbons are apes, but they’re not considered great apes, only lesser apes. They look more like monkeys, although they don’t have tails. They’re also fairly small, generally about two feet long, or 60 cm, and quite slender. They live in the treetops and swing from branch to branch, which is called brachiation. Orangutans brachiate sometimes too, but they’re much heavier than gibbons and move much more slowly and cautiously. Gibbons can move. They also have loud voices and melodic calls.

The Siamang, a type of gibbon, has a throat pouch called a gular sac which, when inflated with air, enhances the voice and helps it resonate. Family groups of siamangs sing together. The siamang has shaggy black fur and is a little larger than other gibbons, around 3 feet tall, or one meter. Its arms are long, its legs short, and it mostly eats plants, especially fruit, although it also eats insects. Like orangutans and many other animals on Sumatra, it’s threatened by habitat loss.

There’s one thing that the sun bear, the orangutan, and the siamang all sometimes do that is suggestive of the orang pendek. All three sometimes walk on their hind legs. Bears usually only stand on their hind legs to get a better view of something, but they can certainly walk on their hind legs if they want to. While the orangutans of Sumatra spend most of their time in trees, since the Sumatran tiger likes to eat orangutans, it can and does come down to the ground sometimes. Males in particular sometimes walk upright for short distances. Siamangs walk upright along branches, and occasionally on the ground, usually with their long arms held above their heads for balance but not always.

So we have three animals that when seen clearly, really don’t look much like the orang pendek is supposed to look. None have especially human faces, although I’ve just spent half an hour looking at pictures of orangutans and siamangs, and those are some handsome apes. But they all have a number of features that sound like orang pendek features. They’re all the right size, they can all walk upright, their fur is black, gray, or golden, and they eat the things the orang pendek is supposed to eat.

At least some orang pendek sightings are mistaken identity of these three animals, I guarantee it. Even the most knowledgeable zoologist or forest ranger can make a mistake, especially if they only catch a glimpse of the animal or see it in poor light. And, as I often point out, people tend to see what they expect to see. In a 1993 article, Debbie Martyr herself says that when she first started studying the orang pendek sightings, people in Sumatra laughed at the thought that the orang pendek was a real animal. But, she writes, “Times have changed in Sumatra. The officials of the Kerinci Seblat have become, if not converts to the orang pendek cause, then at least openly curious about the animal. Pak Mega Harianto, director of the park, admitted, ‘We now have too many sightings, from all over the national park. It is always the same animal. Always the same description.’”

In other words, as the legend becomes more and more popular, more and more people report seeing a mystery animal that fits the orang pendek’s description. And yet, there is no more proof now than there was in 1925 of the animal’s existence.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t an unknown ape living in Sumatra, of course. I just don’t think that’s what people are seeing. It would be fantastic if the orang pendek did turn out to be a real animal. It would focus more attention on the loss of rainforest and other habitats in Sumatra, and would probably bring more tourists to the island, which would help the local economy. But until someone actually finds a body or captures a live orang pendek, I have to remain skeptical.

I’m sure we’ll revisit Sumatra and other parts of the Malay Archipelago soon to learn about other little-known and mystery animals. Until then, remember that you now know at least one word of the Indonesian language. ‘Orang’ means person, whether it’s an ape-type person or a ghost-type person.

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

Thanks for listening!