Tag Archives: horses

Episode 232: Almost Domesticated



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Thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” we’re going to learn about some animals that aren’t exactly domesticated but aren’t really wild either.

Further reading:

Memories of Ángela Loij

Mongolian horse and its person:

Mongolian horses:

OH MY GOSH HEART HEART HEART (photo from this website):

Dingos!

An artist’s rendition of the Fuejian dog (left) and a picture of the cuelpo (right):

The cuelpo, happy fox-like canid:

A very fancy rat:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, and before I forget again to tell you about this, I’m planning a bonus Q&A episode for August. If you have any questions about the podcast, podcasting in general, me, or anything else, feel free to email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com, or otherwise contact me through social media!

A few episodes ago I mentioned in passing that the Australian dingo is a type of feral dog. It’s a more complicated situation than it sounds, so while I didn’t want to confuse the issue at the time, I kept thinking about it. Then I remembered that a listener emailed me a while back wanting to know more about how dogs were domesticated. We covered the topic pretty thoroughly back in episode 106, but I realized that there’s an aspect of domestication we didn’t cover in that episode. So thanks to “dog freak Ruby,” here’s an episode about a few animals that are only semi-domesticated.

Domestication, after all, isn’t a switch you can flip. It’s a process, and depending on the animal species and the circumstances, it can take a really long time. It’s not the same thing as taming an animal, either. An individual animal might become tame with the right treatment, but that doesn’t mean any individual of that species would react the same way. Domesticated animals show genetic changes that their wild counterparts don’t, changes that make them more likely to treat humans as friends instead of potential predators.

Generally, a fully domesticated animal requires some level of care from a human to survive, even if it’s just feral cats living near humans so they can find and kill rodents and avoid most predators. Feral domesticated cats don’t live the same way as their wild ancestors do. But sometimes it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. While mustangs and other feral horse populations are considered domesticated animals, they live like wild animals and don’t need humans to survive. They mostly just need humans to leave them alone so they can thrive on their own. But if you capture a mustang that’s lived its whole life in the wild, with the right treatment it will eventually become tame, because its ancestors were bred for thousands of years to trust and depend on humans.

That brings us to our first semi-domesticated animal, the Mongolian horse. Yes, I’m still really into Mongolia and the Hu, and I’m excited to say I have tickets to see the Hu twice in concert this fall, if everything goes well. I’ve been listening to a program called the Voice of Mongolia in English, which is primarily a shortwave radio program but it’s also released as a podcast, and it talks about various aspects of Mongolian culture. Recently they had an episode about horses, so some of my information comes directly from that show.

Mongolia is a country in central Asia that’s mostly open steppes, which is a type of grassland. The soil isn’t right for most crops, but it’s great for horses. The people of Mongolia are traditionally nomadic, moving around from place to place to find grazing for their horses and other livestock, and about half of the current population still lives this way.

The Mongolian horse is a small, tough breed that probably hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years, possibly longer. It’s one of the oldest breeds of horse in the world and the ancestor of many other horse breeds. For a long time people assumed it was the domesticated descendant of the wild Przewalski’s horse, but genetic testing has determined that domestic horses developed from a different wild horse species that’s extinct now. Genetic testing also showed that the Mongolian horse has the highest genetic diversity of any horse breed tested. It’s incredibly strong for its size, can gallop for miles without tiring, has strong hooves that never need trimming or shoeing, and seldom needs or receives veterinary care.

The main reason for all these traits is that Mongolian horses live like wild horses in most ways. They live loose, grazing as they like, and if they get too far away from their humans, the owners will go out to find them. But they’re still domesticated. Mare’s milk is an important part of the Mongolian diet, so the mares are used to being milked, and people use their horses to ride, carry packs, and pull carts. The stallions are frequently raced. At the same time, though, they’re not really pets. Mongols don’t give their horses names, but instead refer to them with a detailed description. The Voice of Mongolia in English says the Mongolian language has over 300 words to describe horses, while Wikipedia says it’s over 500. Either way, the terminology is so precise that everyone knows exactly which horse someone’s talking about, which if you think about it is more useful than a name.

The Australian dingo is in a similar situation. It’s considered a feral dog breed, but it doesn’t need people to survive. Most feral dogs throughout the world barely scrape by, eating garbage and rats and often dying of starvation or disease. Dingos live like wild animals and do just fine. But at the same time, they’re happy to hang out with people from time to time, acting as hunting companions who are neither dependent on humans nor frightened of them.

The dingo is a strong, tough, lean dog that stands around 22 inches tall at the shoulder, or 56 cm. It has flexible joints like the Norwegian lundehund we talked about in episode 230, which allows it to climb cliffs and fences and otherwise navigate difficult terrain. It’s usually a yellowy or ginger color, sometimes with small white markings, although some dingoes are black and tan. It can survive on very little water. It often hunts in packs and will hunt animals larger than it is, like the red kangaroo.

The dingo was probably brought to Australia by humans, although we’re not sure when. Dingo fossils have been found dating to 3,500 years ago in western Australia, so it was at least that long ago. Genetic studies show that the modern dingo and the dingo of 3,500 years ago are pretty much identical. It also shows that it’s definitely a domestic dog, related to other dog breeds that were once common in Asia around 7,000 years ago, but which are rare now. It’s most closely related to the New Guinea singing dog, which makes sense since New Guinea is so close to Australia. Until somewhere between 6,500 and 8,000 years ago, New Guinea and Australia were connected when sea levels were low. Genetically the two dog breeds have been separated for about 8,300 years, which suggests that the dingo has been in Australia for at least that long.

Traditionally, Aboriginal Australians would take a dingo puppy from its den to keep as a pet, a hunting dog, or sometimes a herding animal. Sometimes the dingo would stick around when it was grown, but sometimes it would return to the wild. There’s a lot of controversy about breeding dingoes as pets, since it would be easy to breed the wild traits and behaviors out. Since the dingo has been killed as a livestock pest since white settlers arrived in Australia, in many places its numbers are in decline and there are worries that the wild dingo could go extinct. There are already problems with the dingo cross-breeding with other dog breeds. It’s a complicated topic, because while the dingo is a dog, it’s not precisely domesticated at this point but also not precisely a wild animal.

There used to be a domesticated canid in South America called the Fuegian dog, which was probably used as a hunting dog, especially to hunt otters. On cold nights, the dogs would wrap themselves around their people like living blankets so everyone stayed nice and warm.

The Fuegian dog wasn’t a dog, though. It was the domesticated form of the culpeo, also called the Andean fox. It’s actually not a fox although it looks a lot like one. It’s related to wolves and jackals, and it lives on the western slopes of the Andes Mountains all the way down to the southern tip of Patagonia. It eats small animals like rodents and introduced European rabbits. While the culpeo is sandy or tawny in color with gray on its back and a black tip to its tail, the Fuegian dog was sometimes brown and white or all white. Reportedly the Fuegian dog was not very tame in general and was an aggressive animal compared to actual dogs. It would hunt on its own and basically acted like a wild animal that just happened to hang out with humans a lot, like the dingo does today.

The culpeo is doing just fine, but the Fuegian dog is extinct. The Fuegian dog was tamed by a Patagonian people called the Selk’nam [shelknam], or ‘Ona, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They lived in such a remote part of South America that Europeans didn’t encounter them until the late 19th century when settlers showed up to raise sheep and rubber trees. We’ve talked about what happened to them in a previous episode, although I can’t remember which one. The Selk’nam didn’t understand the concept of livestock, so they figured those sheep were literally fair game. The sheep were living on their own hunting grounds, after all. The Selk’nam killed some of the sheep, and in retaliation, the European settlers murdered all the Selk’nam. I was going to tell you the name of the man who started the genocide, but I don’t think anyone should remember his name. It wasn’t just “oh, you killed my sheep, I’m going to shoot you because I’m mad,” either. There was a bounty on Selk’nam people, and that’s all I’m going to say because it’s just too awful and disturbing.

By 1930, only about 100 Selk’nam remained alive, and the very last member of the people, Ángela Loij, died in 1974. There’s a link in the show notes to a page with lots of information about her as a person.

In 1919 when Christian missionaries visited what was left of the Selk’nam, they discovered that all the dogs had been killed off by the people themselves because the dogs were too fierce and killed livestock. It sounds like a last, desperate attempt by the Selk’nam to stop the murder of their people by keeping their dogs from killing any sheep. But by then it was too late, and the genocide wasn’t really about the sheep in the end. It was racism and hatred. Remember that all people are equal, no matter what they look like or how they live. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

Okay. Let’s finish with the story of another semi-domesticated animal, one that doesn’t involve people being terrible to each other. The kind of rat you can buy as a pet is considered semi-domesticated, and it hasn’t actually been domesticated for very long. The person mainly responsible for the pet rat is a man called Jack Black. Not the actor Jack Black; this was a different guy who lived in the mid-19th century.

Jack Black was a ratcatcher in London, England who said he was the Queen’s official rat-catcher even though he wasn’t. He was definitely an extravagant character who always wore what he called his uniform, which included a big leather sash over one shoulder decorated with rats made of iron, a crown, and the initials V.R. for Victoria Regina, or Queen Victoria. He told people the queen herself gave him the sash, but actually his wife made it for him. Black also carried a big domed cage with him to hold the rats he caught.

He mainly caught rats to sell to people who were training their dogs to kill rats, which was also a popular thing to watch. I mean, that doesn’t sound like any fun to me but this was before video games were invented. Occasionally, though, Black would catch a rat that had interesting markings or that was an unusual color. These rats he would keep, tame, and breed to produce more rats with different colors and patterns. He sold the tame, pretty young rats to people as pets. He especially liked white rats, which made popular pets then and are still popular today.

Pet rats, usually called fancy rats, are a subspecies of the brown rat, or Norway rat, which we talked about in episode 143. We also talked about Jack Black briefly in that episode, but at the time I didn’t realize he wasn’t really a royal rat catcher. By 1900 fancy rats were popular pets and remain so today, and are becoming more and more domesticated. If they’re not fully domesticated they’re well on their way, all thanks to a guy who thought rats were neat.

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 Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes. There are links in the show notes to join our mailing list and to our merch store.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 116: Amazing Hoofed Animals



This week we’re taking a bunch of listener suggestions and learning about a bunch of amazing hoofed animals! Thanks to Richard E., Pranav, Grady, and Simon for all their suggestions!

A pronghorn antelope, which is NEITHER AN ANTELOPE NOR A DEER:

A musk deer, which is NOT ACTUALLY A DEER AND ACTUALLY LOOKS A LOT LIKE A KANGAROO OR RABBIT WITH FANGS:

A chevrotain, or mouse deer, which is ALSO NOT A DEER AND LOOKS LIKE A RODENT FRANKLY (lesser mouse deer on left, water chevrotain on right)

A mama pudu with her baby, WHICH ARE DEER:

A goat eating poison ivy like I told you they do:

A horse eating watermelon, because it’s adorable:

An entelodont, AKA HELL PIG:

Show transcript:

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

This week I wanted to get back into some of the excellent suggestions I’ve gotten from listeners. I looked over the list, hoping that a theme would present itself…and one did. Sort of. This week let’s learn about some interesting hoofed animals, some of them living today, some extinct. Thanks to Richard E., Grady, Pranav, and Simon for the suggestions I used in this episode, in no particular order.

First, Richard asked about the differences between deer and antelope. This is an excellent question, obviously, because I’ve been sitting here staring at the screen thinking, “Well, I know they’re not members of the same family but how closely are they related?” So let’s find out. And I’ll warn you now, this gets complicated—but in an interesting way.

Antelopes are bovids, related to cows, sheep, and goats. Deer are cervids. Both groups are related, but not very closely. They’re both members of the order Artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, because they have hooves with two toes, called cloven hooves.

At first glance, many antelopes look a lot like deer. But antelopes have horns, not antlers, and the horns are permanent. Deer have antlers, which they shed and regrow every year. And antelope horns, like the horns of goats, sheep, and cattle, don’t branch, whereas deer antlers almost always do.

So far this is pretty straightforward. But now things get complicated. Antelopes are native to Africa and Eurasia while deer live throughout the world. But there are deer that aren’t deer and there are some antelopes that aren’t antelopes. Uh oh. We’d better figure this out.

One thing to remember is that the group of bovids referred to as antelopes have all been lumped together in what’s sometimes referred to as a wastebasket taxon. Basically that means that the animals in that taxon didn’t really fit anywhere else, so scientists grouped them together for the time being. If a bovid is clearly not a cow, a sheep, or a goat, it’s put in the antelope group.

There aren’t any antelopes living in the Americas today. If you happen to live in the western part of North America, you probably just sat up and said, “Hey, you forgot about the pronghorn!” But the pronghorn antelope…is not an antelope.

Sure, the pronghorn looks like an antelope. It’s deer-like, runs extremely fast just like antelopes, and has short black horns. But look at those horns. It’s called a pronghorn because the horns of the males have a prong, or branch, so that the horn is shaped sort of like a Y, with the front branch of the Y shorter than the other, and the longer branch of the Y having a sort of hook at the top. Remember how antelopes only ever have unbranched horns? That’s a clue that the pronghorn isn’t an antelope.

But the pronghorn also isn’t a deer. Its horns are horns, not antlers, and it keeps its horns throughout its life instead of shedding them every year. Except that it kind of does shed part of the horn every year, the sheath. The inside of a horn is bone that grows from the skull, but a sheath of keratin grows over it. If you’ve ever seen an old-fashioned drinking cup made of horn, it was made of a horn sheath, usually from a bull. Most horned animals keep the sheath, which grows as the horn grows underneath, but the pronghorn male sheds the sheath of his horns every year and then grows new ones.

So what is the pronghorn related to? Are you ready? It’s related to the giraffe! I’m not even making this up. It’s not closely related to the giraffe, though, and it’s the only living member of its own family. I think I might have to revisit the pronghorn family in its own episode one day, so for now I’ll just point out that the pronghorn is the second-fastest land animal alive, with only the cheetah able to run faster. The pronghorn can run 55 mph, or 88 km/h, for half a mile, or .8 km.

So the pronghorn isn’t an antelope or a bovid, but it looks like an antelope because it shares a similar habitat and ecological niche. You know what that means! Yes, the pronghorn looks like an antelope due to convergent evolution.

Next, let’s talk about those deer that aren’t deer. Are they related to giraffes too? Are giraffe relatives taking over? No and probably no.

There are two groups of deer that aren’t actually deer. The musk deer of Asia and the chevrotains of Asia and Africa are related to deer but they’re also related about as closely to bovids like antelopes. They’re also not that closely related to each other. Just looking at them tells you that they’re different, since they don’t look like ordinary deer.

There are seven species of musk deer alive today, and while musk deer used to live throughout Eurasia, these days they’re restricted to Asia, especially the Himalayas. They’re small, no more than two and a half feet high at the shoulder, or 70 cm, with hind legs that are longer than their front legs. The back is humped more like a rabbit’s than a deer’s. This allows them to run extremely quickly. They also don’t have antlers or horns, but males do have fangs that they use to fight other males. Fangs, people! Deer-like animals with fangs! They’re not small fangs, either, they’re basically slender tusks that grow down from the upper jaw and can be up to four inches long, or 10 cm. The tusks break easily, but they grow continuously, especially during mating season.

All species of musk deer are endangered due to overhunting, especially for the male’s scent gland, called a musk gland. This gland has been used in perfumes for centuries. These days most perfume-makers use a synthetic musk instead, but the musk deer is still being hunted for its musk gland. The male uses his musk to mark his territory, which warns other males away and attracts females.

Musk deer kind of look like if you tried to draw a kangaroo but you got mixed up halfway through and forgot you were drawing a kangaroo and decided to draw a rabbit instead. Then you added fangs.

The other deer that isn’t a deer is the chevrotain, also called the mouse-deer. There are a number of chevrotain species and they all look more like little rodents than deer. They’re all small and have bulky, rounded bodies but short spindly legs. Like musk deer they have long canine teeth instead of horns or antlers. Female chevrotains have these fangs too, but they’re longer in males and are angled outward like tiny pig tusks. Males use the teeth to fight each other. Most chevrotains are brown or reddish-brown with white streaks on the throat and sometimes face.

Some species of chevrotain like water and, like the marsh cottontail rabbit we learned about last week, will submerge in the water to hide from predators. It can hold its breath for up to four minutes. It can even walk on the bottom of the stream bed, grabbing plants with its teeth to help keep it from being swept away by the current.

The smallest chevrotain is the lesser mouse-deer, which lives across southeast Asia. It’s only about 18 inches tall at most, or 45 cm, and weighs less than 5 pounds, or 2 kg. But the smallest deer was a suggestion by Simon, and that’s the pudu. Specifically, it’s the northern pudu with the scientific name Pudu mephistophiles. I don’t know how it got this name since it’s only 14 inches tall, or 35 cm, and looks inoffensive and not devilish at all. It’s reddish-brown with big eyes, rounded ears, and little stubby antlers that only grow around four inches long, or 10 cm. It lives at high altitudes in the Andes Mountains in South America. It sheds its tiny antlers every year and regrows them, but unlike most other deer, its antlers don’t have any branches.

Because the pudu is so small, it can have trouble reaching the plants it eats. Like other deer, it’s a browser instead of a grazer, eating leaves, twigs, fruit, seeds, and bark, but not grass. It stands on its hind legs to reach leaves, but if it finds a bendy sapling, it will push it with its forelegs until the tree is bent down far enough for the pudu to reach its leaves and twigs.

The pudu is territorial and travels on little trails it makes through its territory. The southern pudu, which is only slightly larger than the northern pudu, will also build tunnels in the underbrush so it can travel without being seen by predators.

Unlike the pudu, the chevrotain hasn’t changed much in millions of years and shows primitive traits compared to modern hoofed animals. It actually shares some traits in common with pigs. While pigs are hoofed animals, they’re not closely related to chevrotains. Researchers think the chevrotain retains traits that were once common in early ruminants.

What’s a ruminant, you may be asking. Aha, this is a good question. Ruminants are hoofed animals that chew their cud, and that includes the chevrotain, the giraffe, musk deer, deer, bovids like cows, goats, sheep, and antelopes, and the pronghorn.

As I mentioned last week in the giant rabbits episode, cud-chewing is one way some animals have evolved to extract as many nutrients as possible from plants. Most plant material is tough and can be hard to digest. Ruminants have a complicated digestive system that helps with this. I bet someone at some point has told you that cows have four stomachs, and maybe you didn’t believe them. But they do. Almost all ruminants have four stomachs, or more properly, four specialized chambers that make up the stomach section of the digestive system.

This is how it works. Let’s say a goat is eating poison ivy leaves, which is something they do, and they don’t seem to have any problem with it either. The goat swallows the leaves, which go into the first two chambers of the goat’s stomach, called the rumen and the reticulum. Both these chambers contain lots of beneficial microbes and bacteria, which immediately start to ferment and break down the leaves. As this happens, the food forms into clumps of partly digested leaves called cuds. After a while, the goat regurgitates a cud and chews it thoroughly, further breaking it down, then swallows it and regurgitates another cud to do the same thing, and so on until it’s cudded everything in its rumen. Then it goes to eat some more.

After the cuds have been chewed and swallowed again, they pass through the rumen and reticulum and into the third chamber, the omasum [oh-MAY-sum]. This is where nutrients start to be absorbed. Only tiny pieces of plant are able to pass through the omasum into the fourth chamber, the abomasum [abba-MAY-sum], which is equivalent to our own stomach. This chamber adds acids to the plant material and kicks the digestive process into high gear, pushing everything on into the small intestine, where most of the nutrients are absorbed. Then what’s left of the plants goes on into the large intestine, where water is absorbed from it and the indigestible parts are packed into pellets that are pooped out.

So most ruminants have four-chambered stomachs. But not all of them. You know which ruminant only has three stomachs? That’s right, the chevrotain, the little mouse deer that kind of looks like a pig.

Pigs, by the way, aren’t ruminants. They’re omnivores and only have one stomach.

So with all this information about chewing cuds in your brain, let’s answer Grady’s question. Grady wants to know how horses digest their food.

Are horses ruminants? They eat grass and other plants. The answer is no, horses aren’t ruminants and don’t chew their cud as part of the digestive process. A horse has only one stomach but it still manages to digest grass and other tough plants just fine. This is how it works.

First, the horse chews its food really thoroughly before swallowing. Like ruminants, the horse’s teeth continue to grow throughout its life, since plants wear teeth down. The horse also produces massive amounts of saliva as it chews, and saliva contains an enzyme called amylase that helps start the digestive process. So before a horse even swallows a single bite of grass or hay, that plant material is chewed up into little bits and mixed with lots of saliva.

Oh, in case you were wondering, a male horse has forty teeth while a female only has 36. I do not know why. But ruminants don’t have front top teeth at all, just a bony pad. That helps them trim plants right down to the ground.

After a horse swallows its food, the stomach mixes it with digestive enzymes and acids that break the plant material down even more. A horse actually has a surprisingly small stomach for its body size, but typically food doesn’t stay in the stomach long. It passes into the small intestine and then into the large intestine, where most of the actual digestion takes place. Microbes in the large intestine help break down the plant material so that the horse can absorb it.

The large intestine is sometimes called the hindgut, because it’s behind the other parts of the digestive system. Horses are hindgut fermenters, which means a horse’s food is fermented, or broken down by microbes, in the hindgut, or large intestine. Ruminants are called foregut fermenters because their food is fermented, or broken down by microbes, in the foregut, or the stomach chambers that come before the rest of the digestive system. And if you’re curious, rabbits and hares are also considered hindgut fermenters.

There are lots more fascinating hoofed animals I want to talk about, but I have to stop somewhere. Don’t worry, eventually we’ll learn about some actual deer with fangs as well as antlers, and more about the pronghorn, and lots more. But we’ll finish up this week with a suggestion from Pranav, who wanted to learn about an extinct hoofed animal called the entelodont.

What’s an entelodont? It’s sometimes called the HELL PIG. Why would it be called that? Is it like the little Mephistopheles pudu who must have scared some scientist one day and ended up with a devilish name? Nope, the entelodont is called the hell pig because it was enormous and terrifying. Fortunately for us, it went extinct millions of years ago.

Despite its name, the entelodont isn’t all that closely related to the pig. It’s more closely related to the hippo and to WHALES, because whales and hippos are closely related. But the various species of entelodont were pig-like in many ways. Entelodonts lived throughout much of the world, but let’s look specifically at the biggest entelodont known, Daeodon [DIE-oh-don], which lived in North America up to about 18 million years ago.

Daeodon stood nearly six feet tall at the shoulder, or about 1.8 meters. It had long, slender legs with cloven hooves, and its body was bulky and something like 10 feet long, or 3 meters. It didn’t have a pig-like snout, and in fact its nostrils were on the sides of its nose, which probably helped it track food by scent. It had flared cheekbones with bony protrusions that probably meant it looked a lot like a modern warthog. Its tail was short and small.

Daeodon was an omnivore, which means it would eat just about anything it wanted, and it had the sharp, serrated teeth of a predator. It probably did a lot of scavenging of dead animals, but it could have hunted and killed prey too. Its jaw was so strong it could bite right through bones. And it could run quickly.

So basically, daeodon and entelodonts in general earn the nickname hell pig. It’s probably a good thing they’re not still around. I personally prefer the tiny and harmless Pudu mephistophiles.

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!


Episode 064: Updates and the Nandi Bear



It’s update week! I call myself out for some mistakes, then catch us all up on new information about topics we’ve covered in the past. Then we’ll learn about the Nandi bear, a mystery animal that is probably not actually a bear.

Check out Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast on Podbean!

Check out the Zeng This! pop culture podcast while you’re at it!

A new species of Bird of Paradise:

Buša cattle:

Further reading/watching:

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/vogelkop-superb-bird-of-paradise-05924.html

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to dig into some updates to previous episodes! Don’t worry, it’ll be interesting. We’re also going to look at a mystery animal we haven’t examined before.

First, though, a big shout-out to Sir Finn Hayes, a long-time listener who has started his own podcast! It’s called Finn’s Natural History, although now I see it’s been renamed Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast, and you can find it on Podbean. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The great thing is, Finn is just ten years old but he and his younger sister Lila are already dropping knowledge on us about animals and plants and other things they find interesting. So give their podcast a listen because I bet you’ll like it as much as I do.

Before we get into the updates, let me call myself out on a few glaring mistakes in past episodes. In episode four, I called my own podcast by the wrong name. Instead of Strange Animals, I said Strange Beasties, which is my Twitter handle. In episode 29, I said Loch Ness was 50 miles above sea level instead of 50 feet, a pretty big difference. In episode 15 I called Zenger of the Zeng This! podcast Zengus, which is just unforgiveable because I really like that podcast and you’d think I could remember the cohost’s name. There’s a link to the Zeng This! podcast in the show notes. It’s a family-friendly, cheerful show about comics, movies, video games, and lots of other fun pop culture stuff.

If you ever hear me state something in the podcast that you know isn’t true, definitely let me know. I’ll look into it and issue a correction when appropriate. As they say on the Varmints Podcast, I am not an animal expert. I do my best, but sometimes I get things wrong. For instance, in episode 60, I said sirenians like dugongs and manatees have tails in place of hind legs like seals do, but sirenian tails actually developed from tails, not hind legs. Pinniped tails developed from hind legs and have flipper-like feet.

Anyway, here are some updates to topics we’ve covered in past episodes. It isn’t all-inclusive, mostly just stuff I’ve stumbled across while researching other animals.

In episode 47 about strange horses, I talked a lot about Przewalski’s horse. I was really hoping never to have to attempt that pronunciation again, but here we are. A new phylogenetic study published in February of 2018 determined that Przewalski’s horse isn’t a truly wild horse. Its ancestors were wild, but Przewalski’s horse is essentially a feral domestic horse. Its ancestors were probably domesticated around 5,500 years ago by the Botai people who lived in what is now northern Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s horse we have now is a descendant of those domestic horses that escaped back into the wild long after its ancestors had died out. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important animal anymore, though. It’s been wild much longer than mustangs and other feral horses and tells us a lot about how truly wild horse ancestors looked and acted. Not only that, its wild ancestor is probably a different species or subspecies of the European wild horse, which was the ancestor of most other domestic horses. The next step for the team of researchers that conducted this study is figuring out more about the ancestors of domestic horses.

The mystery cattle episode also has an update. I didn’t mention Buša cattle in that episode, but I just learned something interesting about it. The Buša is a rare breed of domestic cow that developed in southeastern Europe. It’s a small, hardy animal well adapted to mountainous terrain, and it turns out that it’s the most genetically diverse breed of cattle out of sixty studied. The research team is working to help conserve the breed so that that genetic diversity isn’t lost.

Right after episode 61, where we talked about birds of paradise, researchers announced a new species of bird of paradise! The bird was already known to scientists, but they thought it was just a subspecies of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. But new video footage of a unique mating dance helped researchers determine that this wasn’t just a subspecies, it was different enough to be its own species. It’s called the Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise, and the Superb Bird of Paradise is now called the Greater Superb Bird of Paradise to help differentiate the two species. I’ll put a link in the show notes to an article that has the video embedded if you want to watch it. It’s pretty neat.

In episode 25 we learned about Neandertals, and I said we didn’t have much evidence of them being especially creative by human standards. That was the case when I did my research last summer, but things have definitely changed. In February 2018 archaeologists studying cave paintings in Spain announced that paintings in at least three caves were made by Neandertals and not humans. The paintings have been dated to over 64,000 years old, which is 20,000 years before humans showed up in the area. The precise dating is due to a new and much more accurate dating technique called the uranium-thorium method, which measures the tiny deposits that build up on the paintings. So Neandertals might have been a lot more creative than we’ve assumed. Researchers are now looking at other cave art and artefacts like jewelry and sculptures to consider whether some might also have been made by Neandertals.

New studies about human migration out of Africa have also been published since our humans episode. Human fossils and stone tools found in what is now a desert in Saudi Arabia have been dated to 90,000 years ago, when the area was lush grassland surrounding a lake. Until this finding, researchers thought humans had not settled the area until many thousands of years later.

I think it was episode 27, Creatures of the Deeps, where I mentioned the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition. Well, in only two weeks that expedition discovered more than a dozen new species of crustacean, including a crab with red eyes and fuzzy spines, collected over 12,000 animals to study, and learned a whole lot about what’s down there.

One thing I forgot to mention in episode 11 is that the vampire bat’s fangs stay sharp because they lack enamel. Enamel is a thin but very hard mineral coating found on the teeth of most mammals. It protects the teeth and makes them stronger. But vampire bats don’t chew hard foods like bones or seeds, and not having enamel means that their teeth are softer. I tried to find out more about this, like whether the bat does something specific to keep its teeth sharp, like filing them with tiny tooth files, but didn’t have any luck. On the other hand, I did learn that baby bats are born bottom-first instead of head-first, because this keeps their wings from getting tangled in the birthing canal.

Many thanks to Simon, who has sent me links to several excellent articles I would have missed otherwise. One is about the controversy about sea sponges and comb jellies, and which one was the ancestor of all other animals. We covered the topic in episode 41. Mere weeks after that episode went live, a new study suggests that sponges win the fight. Hurrah for sponges!

Simon also sent me an article about the platypus, which we learned about in episode 45. There’s a lot of weirdness about the platypus, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that platypus milk contains a unique protein so potently antibacterial that it could lead to the development of powerful new antibiotics. Researchers think the antibacterial properties are present in platypus milk because as you may remember, monotremes don’t have teats, just milk patches, and the babies lick the milk up. That means the milk is exposed to bacteria from the environment, so the protein helps keep platypus babies from getting sick.

Simon also suggests that in our mystery bears episode, I forgot a very important one, the Nandi bear! So this sounds like the perfect time to learn about the Nandi bear.

I had heard of the Nandi bear, but I had it confused with the drop bear, an Australian urban myth that’s used primarily to tease tourists and small children. But the Nandi bear is a story from Africa, and it might be based on a real animal.

It has a number of names in Africa and sightings have come from various parts of the continent, but especially Kenya, where it’s frequently called the chemosit. There are lots of stories about what it looks like and how it acts. Generally, it’s supposed to be a ferocious nocturnal animal that sometimes attacks humans on moonless nights, especially children. Some stories say it eats the person’s brain and leaves the rest of the body. That’s creepy. Also, just going to point this out, it’s extremely unlikely. Its shaggy coat is supposed to be dark brown, reddish, or black, and sometimes it will stand on its hind legs. When it’s standing on all four legs, it’s between three and six feet tall, or one to almost two meters. Its head is said to be bear-like in shape. Sometimes it’s described as looking like a hyena, sometimes as a baboon, sometimes as a bear-like animal. Its front legs are often described as powerful.

The first known sighting by someone who actually wrote down their account is from the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, published in 1912. I have a copy and I’m just going to read you the pertinent information. The account is by Geoffrey Williams. The Nandi expedition Williams mentions took place in 1905 and 1906, and while it sounds like it was just a bunch of people exploring, it was actually a military action by the British colonial rulers who killed over 1,100 members of the Nandi tribe in East Africa after they basically said, hey, stop taking our land and resources and people. During the campaign, livestock belonging to the Nandi were killed or stolen, villages and food stores burned, and the people who weren’t killed were forced to live on reservations. Anyway, here’s what Geoffrey Williams had to say about the Nandi bear, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so important than it did before I learned all that:

“Several years ago I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and, of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped on the edge of the Escarpment near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast. There was a thick mist, and my cousin and I were walking on ahead of the safari with one boy when, just as we drew near to the slopes of the hill, the mist cleared away suddenly and my cousin called out ‘What is that?’ Looking in the direction to which he pointed I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches not more than 30 yards away. Its attidue was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high. It is extremely hard to estimate height in a case of this kind; but it seemed to both of us that it was very nearly, if not quite, as tall as we were. Before we had time to do anything it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter. The grass had all been burnt off some weeks earlier and so the animal was clearly visible.

“I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us. It is in this position that I see it most clearly in my mind’s eye. In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare. This distinction was very definite indeed and was the first thing that struck us both. The head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear, as indeed was the whole animal. I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable. The colour was dark and left us both with the impression that it was more or less of a brindle, like a wildebeeste, but this may have been the effect of light.”

A couple of years later, in the same journal, a man saddled with the name Blayney Percival wrote about the Nandi bear. He said, “The stories vary to a very large extent, but the following points seem to agree. The animal is of fairly large size, it stands on its hind legs at times, is nocturnal, very fierce, kills man or animals.” Percival thought the differing stories referred to different animals, known or unknown. He wrote, “An example of a weird animal was the beast described to me in the Sotik country; the name I forget, but the description was very similar to that of the chimiset. Fair size—my pointer dog being given as about its size; stood on hind legs; was very savage. Careful inquiries and a picture of the ratel settled the matter, then out came the information that it was light on the back and dark below, points that would have settled it at once.” The ratel, of course, is the honey badger.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his seminal work On the Track of Unknown Animals that the Nandi bear was probably based on more than one animal. Like Percival, he thought the different accounts were just too different. He thought at least some sightings were of honey badgers, while some were probably hyenas.

So if at least some accounts of the Nandi bear are of an unknown animal, what kind of animal might it be? Is it a bear? Do bears even live in Africa?

Africa has no bears now, but bear fossils at least three million years old have been found in South Africa and Ethiopia. Agriotherium africanum probably went extinct due to increased competition when big cats evolved to be fast, efficient hunters.

So it’s not likely that the Nandi bear is an actual bear. It’s also not likely it’s an ape of some kind, since apes are universally diurnal and the Nandi bear is described as nocturnal. Cryptozoologists have suggested all sorts of animals as a possible solution, but this episode is already getting kind of long so I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m just going to offer my own suggestion, which I have yet to see anywhere else, probably because it’s a bit farfetched. But hey, you never know.

The family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae are extinct now, as far as we know, but they lived throughout much of the world until about two million years ago. They’re known as bear-dogs and were originally thought to be related to bears, but are now considered more closely related to canids, possibly even the ancestors of canids. They are similar but not related to the dog-bears, Hemicyoninae, which are related to bears but which went extinct about 5 million years ago. Someone needs to sort out this bear-dog/dog-bear naming confusion.

Anyway, Amphicyonids lived in Africa, although we don’t have a whole lot of their fossils. The most recent Amphicyonid fossils we have date to about five million years ago and are of dog-sized animals that ate meat and lived in what are now Ethiopia and Kenya. Generally, Amphicyonids were doglike in overall shape but with a heavier bear-like build. They probably had plantigrade feet like bears rather than running on relatively small dog-like paws—basically, canids walk on their toes while bears walk on flat feet like humans. They were probably solitary animals and some researchers think they went extinct mainly because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment and therefore different prey species, and couldn’t compete with smarter, faster pack hunting carnivores.

Maybe a species of Amphicyonid persisted in parts of Africa until recently, rarely seen but definitely feared for its ferocity. Probably not, because five million years is a long time to squeak by in an area with plenty of well-established carnivores. But maybe.

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!


Episode 047: Strange Horses



It’s the last episode of 2017 and we’re going out in style, learning about some unusual horses!

A Przewalski’s horse PHOTO TAKEN BY ME AT HELSINKI ZOO I cropped out as many poops as I could:

A Heck horse, also sometimes called a tarpan. Photo taken by *squints* Klaus Rudloff in Berlin:

A Moyle breed horse with a bossed forehead:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about an animal I’ve been bonkers crazy about since I was a kid, the horse. But not just regular horses. We’re going to learn about some strange and little-known horses, the best kind of all.

All domestic horses are the same subspecies, Equus ferus caballus, even though the various breeds may look very different. Even mustangs and other populations of wild horses—more properly called feral horses—are the same subspecies. Feral just means a domestic animal that lives like a wild animal, like a stray dog. Only one truly wild horse remains these days, Przewalski’s [pzha-VALski’s] horse, Equus ferus przewalskii. I’ve been pronouncing it Perzwalski’s horse my whole life until today. So let’s start the episode by talking about that one.

Przewalski’s horse is native to the steppes of central Asia, especially Mongolia. It’s currently considered a subspecies of horse, but some researchers think it should be its own species. It went extinct in the wild in 1969. Fortunately, in 1900 15 of the horses had been captured and sold to various zoos. Some of the pairs reproduced, but by 1945, only 13 of the descendants remained. Of those 13, two were hybrids, one of them with a domestic horse, one of them with a tarpan. More about tarpans in a minute. Nine of the 13 were used in a careful breeding program, which was so successful that by 1992, Przewalski’s horse started to be reintroduced to the wild.

I’ve seen Przewalski’s horses, by the way. They had some in the Helsinki Zoo. Check the show notes for a picture taken by me and not swiped by me off the internet.

Przewalski’s horse is stockier than domestic horses, dun in color with a pale belly, with a short, erect mane. The legs are frequently faintly striped. The average horse stands about 13 hands high at the withers, which is the shoulder hump, or four feet four inches, or 132 cm. Its social structure is pretty much the same as the domestic horse’s. It lives in bands consisting of a group of mares and their young, and a stallion that leads the band to grazing areas and water while keeping watch for danger. A solitary stallion may sometimes challenge a stallion with a band of mares, which leads to a fight, which is pretty much the basis of 80% of the horse stories I read as a kid. So exciting.

So what about the tarpan? It was also called the Eurasian wild horse, and it went extinct—for good, unfortunately—in 1918 at the very latest, but probably much earlier. Its scientific name is Equus ferus ferus, and it’s probably the wild horse that gave rise to the modern domesticated horse. But we don’t know for sure, because we don’t know for sure that the tarpans alive in the 18th and 19th centuries were even real tarpans. They might have been hybrids of local domestic horses and Przewalski’s horses, or just feral domestic horses.

We do know that wild horses lived throughout Europe and parts of Asia during the Pleistocene. We have cave paintings 30,000 years old that are so good, scientists can determine a lot about the wild horse’s conformation and coat patterns and colors. We know our ancestors killed and ate horses long before anyone realized how useful it would be to tame such a strong animal and let it do the hard tasks of pulling carts and plows. The horse was domesticated about 6,000 years ago in various places at different times across Eurasia, and it’s possible that different subspecies of horse were domesticated, of which the tarpan was one. But we’re not sure how many subspecies of wild horse there were. We know about Przewalski’s horse since it’s still around, and we know a fair bit about the tarpan because it survived well into modern times. There were probably others, including what might be a type of tarpan that lived in forests.

There’s an interesting etymological fact that might point to the forest tarpan as a distinct type of wild horse. This comes from Willy Ley’s marvelous book, The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn, which I’ve read numerous times since I was a kid. A lot of the information is dated since it was first published in the 1940s, but it was cutting edge at the time. Also, the book was already old when I was a kid. I’m not that old. Anyway, Ley writes that there was an unusual Bavarian insult used when someone in southern Germany wanted to call someone else stupid. In other parts of German-speaking Europe, a stupid person is called an Esel, or donkey. But the Bavarian term is Waldesel, which means forest donkey. Ordinary donkeys are called Steinesel, or rock donkey. So some researchers think, or thought 80 years ago, that the Waldesel referred to the forest tarpan. It was supposed to be gray with a black stripe down the spine called an eel stripe, and like other wild horses had a big, donkey-like head.

At some point, when horses were fully domesticated, the wild horses became a pest. They stole domestic mares and ate fodder meant for livestock. So not only were they hunted for meat, they were killed just to get rid of them. By the late 19th century, tarpans were already rare, whether they were really wild horses or hybrids of wild and domestic horses. The last one was killed in the wild in 1879 or the first few days of 1880, the last one in captivity died in the early 20th century—reports vary as to whether it was in 1909, 1917, or 1918, and there are some doubts that these last horses were actually tarpans.

The tarpan looked a lot like Przewalski’s horse: small, stocky, and with a large head, with short mane and tail. They were mostly bay in color—that’s brown with black mane and tail—but dun, black, gray, and other shades were also present. Unlike Przewalski’s horse, the mane fell across the neck like the domestic horse, but was shorter.

So is the tarpan really extinct? If you go online you can find tarpans for sale. What’s up with that?

As early as 1780, people realized the tarpan needed help to survive. That’s when the Polish government established a wildlife park to protect the tarpans living there, but it closed in 1806 and the horses were given to local farmers. A small number of tarpans were kept in zoos. In the 1930s and after, people have tried to breed a horse that closely resembles the tarpan, starting with domestic stock that probably have recent tarpan ancestors. Various breeds of horse have resulted, notably the Heck horse, often called a tarpan. It isn’t really a tarpan, but it sure is beautiful.

There are many horses in folklore, from Pegasus to the kelpie, centaurs to unicorns, but very few actual mystery horses. I looked, believe me. The kelpie, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a Scottish water spirit that sometimes appears as a pony with a sopping wet mane. Don’t try to catch it. The second you touch it, it’ll drag you into the water and drown you.

Anyway, I dug around and found not a mystery horse, but something really interesting about horses with horns—not like a unicorn’s horn, but something even stranger. Something real.

Every so often there are reports of a horse with a pair of horns on the forehead. Sometimes they’re described as tiny, although older accounts are more sensational. For instance, an 1837 account from a South American explorer talks about a horse with four-inch long horns like a bull’s, and another with horns three inches long. That would be about 8 cm to 10 cm.

Well, there are a few breeds of horse with what are called bossed foreheads. Basically this means the forehead sometimes has a pair of bony bulges or points above the eyes or near the ears that do look like tiny fur-covered horns like those seen in giraffes, or horn buds where horns could grow. Sometimes a horse will have only one of the bumps, but mostly they grow in pairs. Moyle horses, a North American breed, have the bossed forehead, as do the Datong from China and the Carthusian Andalusians. All three of these breeds are rare. Sometimes the trait appears in other breeds.

Now, these are no three- or four-inch horns. They’re just little bumps maybe a centimeter or so long, or about half an inch. It’s also not clear whether they’re real horns or just calcium deposits of some kind, but since they do seem to be situated consistently in spots where horns could reasonably expect to grow, it’s possible they are due to a genetic glitch that fails to fully suppress an ancient gene sequence that once grew horns. The problem is, as far as we know, there are no horse ancestors that ever grew horns.

While warts and bumps are as common in horses as they are in any mammal, this particular kind of horn-like bump doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else on a horse, even on those with bossed foreheads. A bossed forehead is also supposedly linked with high endurance, but as far as I know there are no real studies about the condition. So if you know someone who’s thinking about going into veterinary medicine, zoology, or a related field, suggest bossed foreheads as a particular topic of study. And then tell them to let me know their findings.

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!