Tag Archives: hippopotamus

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 048: Out of Place Animals



Happy New Year! Let’s learn about a few animals that have shown up in places where they just shouldn’t be. How did they get there, and why? Sometimes we know, sometimes it remains a mystery.

Some of Pablo Escobar’s hippos:

King Julien, the ring-tailed lemur who was discovered almost frozen to death in London:

A little alligator captured in a koi pond. In Maryland. Which is not where gators live:

A monk parakeet eating pizza in Brooklyn, because of course it is:

How did these beavers get into a Devon river? They’re not telling:

Show transcript:

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

Happy new year! Let’s ring in the new year with some out-of-place animals. Sometimes an animal shows up in a place where it just shouldn’t be, and while the animal itself isn’t a mystery, how it got there is. In this episode we’ll chase down the solutions to a few of these mysteries, and ponder a few others we can’t solve.

We’ll start with some hippos that aren’t hanging out in Africa where they belong, but are living in Columbia, South America. In this case, we do know what happened. Back in the 1980s, a guy named Pablo Escobar had a private zoo that contained four hippos, along with other animals. Escobar was not a nice person. He was a drug lord who grew obscenely rich from selling cocaine and killing anyone who didn’t agree with him. In 1993 the police raided his estate and Escobar was killed in a shoot-out. The government took over the estate and turned it into a park, and most of the animals were given to zoos. But the hippos stayed. The estate had a lake that they lived in, and they weren’t hurting anything.

But after a few decades, the four hippos turned into forty. The hippos have expanded their range from the park to neighboring rivers. Sometimes a hippo wanders into a neighboring town or ranch. Hippos can be dangerous—in fact, they’re the most dangerous animal in Africa, killing more people than any other animal. But the locals like the hippos. At this point the government is torn between needing to keep the people and environment safe from these out-of-place animals, and preserving animals that everyone agrees are really awesome. In 2010 the government started a program to castrate the males, which will stop the population from growing, although castrating a wild hippo is not easy so the program is not necessarily going to work.

This is what a hippo sounds like:

[hippo sound]

In December 2011, someone found an unusual animal in London, a ring-tailed lemur. Even if you don’t know what it is, you know what it is. The vets who treated the animal named him King Julien after the character from the movie Madagascar. Lemurs are primates, only found in the island country of Madagascar, so what was one doing in London on a below-freezing day? Poor King Julien almost died of hypothermia and dehydration.

King Julien was very tame, so had probably been someone’s pet. People are allowed to own lemurs in England, but only with a special license. Ring-tailed lemurs are popular exotic pets, and part of the reason they’re endangered in the wild is because they’re frequently captured for sale on the black market. I tried to find out what had happened to King Julien, without luck, but hopefully he recovered fully and now lives in a zoo or wildlife sanctuary where he can be properly cared for and can hang out with other lemurs.

This is what a ring-tailed lemur sounds like:

[ring-tailed lemur sound]

Unfortunately for many animals kept as exotic pets, once the people who buy them realize owning an alligator, for instance, is not as fun as it sounds, the animals are often just dumped outside to fend for themselves. The kind of person who would buy an exotic animal in the first place is probably not the kind of person who bothers to learn how to take care of it.

Back in the mid-20th century, if you took a vacation to Florida and went into a souvenir shop, you could buy a live baby alligator for a few bucks. Baby alligators are cute, like big lizards. But they grow fast, they eat a lot, they make a mess, and they often get sick because they’re not properly taken care of. I like to think I know a fair amount about animals, but I wouldn’t know how to take care of a baby alligator. And if it was 1950 and I couldn’t just look that information up online, or find it in the local library, I’d probably not do a very good job.

Now I know you’ve heard about sewer alligators. The story goes that back in the days when baby alligators were cheap pets, people would bring them home as souvenirs, realize very soon that they didn’t actually want an alligator as a pet, and would flush them down the toilet to get rid of them. Some of the flushed baby alligators survived, and grew up in the safety and relative warmth of the New York City sewers, eating rats. Every so often a maintenance worker would get the shock of shining a flashlight down a sewer tunnel and seeing the reflection of alligator eyes. In the stories, the gators were always enormous.

So did this ever happen? Did alligators ever really live in the sewers of New York or any other city? Alligators have actually been found in sewers, although it’s not known if they were survivors of being flushed or if they were released aboveground and found their way to the nearest water through storm drains. In 2010 a two-foot-long, or 60-centimeter, baby alligator was found in the sewer in New York City. In 1984 a Nile crocodile was captured in the Paris sewers. But a sewer is not a good habitat for any living thing, especially not a reptile. Any alligators found in sewers haven’t been there long—they wouldn’t survive long, and they certainly couldn’t breed in a cold, lightless environment.

But alligators don’t just turn up in sewers. They’re forever being found in people’s ponds, and not in Florida or surrounding areas like you’d think. As just one of many possible examples, in 2015 a guy in Maryland, in the northeastern United States, found a three foot, or .9 meter, alligator in his koi pond. Probably he did not have any koi left by the time police officers caught the gator and relocated it to a local zoo.

This is what an American alligator sounds like:

[alligator sound]

It’s not too unusual to find a bird somewhere outside of its natural range. While migrating birds have amazing skills at navigating long distances, sometimes a bird is blown off course by a storm, or joins a flock of closely related birds that then fly somewhere other than its usual migration route. But sometimes the presence of out-of-place birds aren’t so easy to figure out.

For instance, the Brooklyn parrots. Brooklyn is part of New York City, not a particularly welcoming place for tropical birds. But there’s a population of wild parrots called monk parakeets, or Quaker parrots, that have been living in the city for over 50 years. And no one’s sure where they came from.

The monk parakeet is from Argentina. It’s smallish, around 11 inches long or 29 cm, with a 19 inch wingspan, or 48 cm. It’s a cheerful bright green in color with pale gray forehead and breast, and some blue on the wings. It eats plants of all kinds and builds elaborate multi-family nests called apartments by weaving twigs together.

It’s also been a popular pet for a long time. It learns to mimic speech easily, is intelligent and hardy, and lives 15 to 20 years, or even longer. But because so many feral populations have developed in North America and Australia, some areas no longer allow monk parakeets as pets at all.

The Brooklyn parrots are probably escaped birds from pet stores and especially from shipping crates full of birds imported from Argentina. Thousands of the parrots were sold as pets in the United States during the 60s and 70s. The first report of parrots living in New York City comes from December 1970, when an article about them appeared in the New York Times. Since then, the origin of the parrots has achieved urban legend status, with unsubstantiated stories of heroic releases of captive birds from sinking cargo ships, a mass release of captive birds from an abandoned aviary, and so forth. In the mid-2000s, a poaching ring trapped birds to sell on the black market, but the ring was busted and the birds freed.

Populations of monk parakeets also live in Chicago, Austin TX, Brussels, Belgium, and many other cities. Because their droppings don’t harm statues and other structures the way pigeon droppings do, and studies of urban birds reveal that they aren’t a threat to native species, many cities have stopped trying to exterminate the birds. Their large nests do frequently have to be removed from power transformers.

This is what a monk parakeet sounds like:

[monk parakeet sound]

I always think of beavers as a North American animal, but the Eurasian beaver is native to—you guessed it—Europe and Asia. But like the North American beaver, the Eurasian beaver was almost driven to extinction by humans, who wanted its fur and a substance called castoreum that is still used in perfumes and cigarettes. Castoreum is produced by the beaver to scent mark their territory, and a beaver’s castor sacs is found right next to the anal glands. Another reason to quit smoking!

So by 1900, the Eurasian beaver was almost extinct throughout its range. Only a few small populations remained. In England, Scotland, and Wales it went extinct completely by the 16th century. But after conservation efforts throughout Europe and Asia, beavers have started to be reintroduced into their historic ranges. The first official reintroduction of beavers into Scotland occurred in 2009 and the animals are doing well.

In 2013, people in Devon, England started seeing beavers along the River Otter. The next year they had babies. No one had any idea where the beavers had come from—Devon is too far from Scotland for the Scottish beavers to have migrated there naturally, and anyway the Scottish beavers are closely monitored. If three had gone missing, the researchers in charge of them would know.

It led to a lot of controversy in Devon, to say the least. Fishers and farmers worried that the beavers would mess up the river, carry diseases, and in general cause havoc. And since the beavers hadn’t been officially introduced, no one knew whether these were even the right kind of beaver for England and if they were healthy. But locals liked having beavers around—they are really cute animals, after all. When the government agency Natural England announced it would capture the beavers and put them in a zoo, locals protested so strenuously that the plan was changed. Instead, the beavers were captured, examined by veterinarians to make sure they were Eurasian beavers and disease free, and rereleased. This happened in 2015. The beavers were healthy, they were the right species, and they were returned to the river. Still, no one one knows how they got there.

Beavers are actually good for fish and the local environment. Beaver ponds create winter habitat for many types of fish, and beaver dams don’t stop fish like salmon that migrate upriver to spawn. The presence of beaver dams helps reduce flooding, improves water quality, and creates cover for lots of fish and animals. And while some people believe beavers spread the giardia parasite, which causes a bacterial infection sometimes called beaver fever, giardia is actually mostly spread by humans and our domesticated animals, especially dogs. Giardiasis causes nasty diarrhea and other intestinal distress that can go on for weeks, and it’s why you don’t ever drink water that hasn’t been treated in some way.

The beavers in Devon are doing well and have spread into neighboring waterways. They got in the news again a little over a year ago, in October of 2016, when a rich guy decided he didn’t like them. Sir Benjamin Slade, who has a great name but who is clearly a prime jerk, posted a reward of 1,000 pounds to anyone who would kill the beavers who’d moved onto his estate, because he didn’t like that they were felling some of his trees. Dude, you are rich. Hire somebody to plant more trees for you. Besides, beavers have brought tourists to Devon who hope to catch a glimpse of the animals, which helps the local economy, Mr. Slade, if that IS your real name.

Anyway, this is what a beaver sounds like:

[beaver sound]

There are so many out-of-place animal reports that there’s no way to cover more than a few in one episode, so I’ll definitely revisit the topic. Until then, keep an eye out for anything unusual walking through your back yard.

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!