Episode 181: Updates 3 and a lake monster!

It’s our annual updates and corrections episode, with a fun mystery animal at the end!

Thanks to everyone who contributed, including Bob, Richard J. who is my brother, Richard J. who isn’t my brother, Connor, Simon, Sam, Llewelly, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness Podcast, and probably many others whose names I didn’t write down!

Further reading:

Northern bald ibis (Akh-bird)

Researchers learn more about teen-age T. rex

A squid fossil offers a rare record of pterosaur feeding behavior

The mysterious, legendary giant squid’s genome is revealed

Why giant squid are still mystifying scientists 150 years after they were discovered (excellent photos but you have to turn off your ad-blocker)

We now know the real range of the extinct Carolina parakeet

Platypus on brink of extinction

Discovery at ‘flower burial’ site could unravel mystery of Neanderthal death rites

A Neanderthal woman from Chagyrskyra Cave

The Iraqi Afa – a Middle Eastern mystery lizard

Further watching/listening:

Richard J. sent me a link to the Axolotl song and it’s EPIC

Bob sent me some more rat songs after I mentioned the song “Ben” in the rats episode, including The Naked Mole Rap and Rats in My Room (from 1957!)

The 2012 video purportedly of the Lagarfljótsormurinn monster

A squid fossil with a pterosaur tooth embedded:

A giant squid (not fossilized):

White-throated magpie-jay:

An updated map of the Carolina parakeet’s range:

A still from the video taken of a supposed Lagarfljót worm in 2012:

An even clearer photo of the Lagarfljót worm:

Show transcript:

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

This is our third annual updates and corrections episode, where I bring us up to date about some topics we’ve covered in the past. We’ll also talk about an interesting mystery animal at the end. There are lots of links in the show notes to articles I used in the episode’s research and to some videos you might find interesting.

While I was putting this episode together, I went through all the emails I received in the last year and discovered a few suggestions that never made it onto the list. I’m getting really backed up on suggestions again, with a bunch that are a year old or more, so the next few months will be all suggestion episodes! If you’re waiting to hear an episode about your suggestion, hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

Anyway, let’s start the updates episode with some corrections. In episode 173 about the forest raven, I mentioned that the northern bald ibis was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians. Simon asked me if that was actually the case or if only the sacred ibis was considered sacred. I mean, it’s right there in the name, sacred ibis.

I did a little digging and it turns out that while the sacred ibis was associated with the god Thoth, along with the baboon, the northern bald ibis was often depicted on temple walls. It was associated with the ankh, which ancient Egyptians considered part of the soul. That’s a really simplistic way to put it, but you’ll have to find an ancient history podcast to really do the subject justice. So the northern bald ibis was important to the ancient Egyptians and sort of considered sacred, but in a different way from the actual sacred ibis.

In episode 146 while I was talking about the archerfish, I said something about how I didn’t fully understand how the archerfish actually spits water so that it forms a bullet-like blob. Bob wrote and kindly explained in a very clear way what goes on: “Basically, the fish spits a stream of water, but squeezes it so that the back end of the stream is moving faster than the front. So it bunches up as it flies and hits the target with one big smack. Beyond that, the water bullet would fall apart as the back part moves through the front part of the stream, but the fish can apparently judge the distance just right.” That is really awesome.

In another correction, Sam told me ages ago that the official pronouns for Sue the T rex are they/them, because that’s what Sue has requested on their Twitter profile. I forgot to mention this last time, sorry.

While we’re talking about Tyrannosaurus rex, researchers have IDed two teenaged T rex specimens found in Montana. Originally paleontologists thought the specimens might be a related species that grew to a much smaller size, Nanotyrannus, but the team studying them have determined that they were juvenile T rexes. To learn how old the specimens were and how fast they grew, they cut extremely thin slices from the leg bones and examined them under high magnification.

The study of fossil bone microstructure is called paleohistology and it’s a new field that’s helped us learn a lot about long-extinct animals like dinosaurs. We know from this study that T rex grew as fast as modern warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals, and we know that the specimens were 13 and 15 years old when they died. T rex didn’t reach its adult size until it was about twenty, and there are definite differences in the morphology of the juvenile specimens compared to an adult. The young T rexes were built for speed and had sharper teeth to cut meat instead of crush through heavy bones the way adults could. This suggests that juvenile T rexes needed to outrun both predators and smaller prey.

In other fossil news, Llewelly sent me a link about a pterosaur tooth caught in a squid fossil. We know pterosaurs ate fish because paleontologists have found fossilized fish bones and scales in the stomach area of pterosaur remains, but now we know they also ate squid. The fossil was discovered in Bavaria in 2012 and is remarkably well preserved, especially considering how few squid fossils we have. One of the things preserved in the fossil is a sharp, slender tooth that matches that of a pterosaur. Researchers think the pterosaur misjudged the squid’s size and swooped down to grab it from the water, but the squid was about a foot long, or 30 cm, and would have been too heavy for the pterosaur to pick up. One of its teeth broke off and remained embedded in the squid’s mantle, where it remains to this day 150 million years later.

And speaking of squid, the giant squid’s genome has been sequenced. Researchers want to see if they can pinpoint how the giant squid became so large compared to most other cephalopods, but so far they haven’t figured this out. They’re also looking at ways that the giant squid differs from other cephalopods and from vertebrates, including humans, to better understand how vertebrates evolved. They have discovered a gene that seems to be unique to cephalopods that helps it produce iridescence.

The Richard J. who is my brother sent me an article about giant squid a while back. There’s a link in the show notes. It has some up-to-date photos from the last few years as well as some of the oldest ones known, and lots of interesting information about the discovery of giant squid.

The Richard J. who is not my brother also followed up after the magpies episode and asked about the magpie jay. He said that the white-throated magpie jay is his favorite bird, and now that I’ve looked at pictures of it, I see why.

There are two species of magpie jay, the black-throated and the white-throated, which are so closely related that they sometimes interbreed where their ranges overlap. They live in parts of Mexico and nearby countries. They look a little like blue jays, with blue feathers on the back and tail, white face and belly, and black markings. Both species also have a floofy crest of curved feathers that looks like something a parrot would wear. A stylish parrot. Like other corvids, it’s omnivorous. It’s also a big bird, almost two feet long including the long tail, or 56 cm.

In other bird news, Connor sent me an article about the range of the Carolina parakeet before it was driven to extinction. Researchers have narrowed down and refined the bird’s range by researching diaries, newspaper reports, and other sightings of the bird well back into the 16th century. It turns out that the two subspecies didn’t overlap much at all, and the ranges of both were much smaller than have been assumed. I put a copy of the map in the show notes, along with a link to the article.

One update about an insect comes from Lynnea, who wrote in after episode 160, about a couple of unusual bee species. Lynnea said that some bees do indeed spin cocoons. I’d go into more detail, but I have an entire episode planned about strange and interesting bees. My goal is to release it in August, so it won’t be long!

In mammal news, the platypus is on the brink of extinction now more than ever. Australia’s drought, which caused the horrible wildfires we talked about in January, is also causing problems for the platypus. The platypus is adapted to hunt underwater, and the drought has reduced the amount of water available in streams and rivers. Not only that, damming of waterways, introduced predators like foxes, fish traps that drown platypuses, and farming practices that destroy platypus burrows are making things even worse. If serious conservation efforts aren’t put into place quickly, it could go extinct sooner than estimated. Conservationists are working to get the platypus put on the endangered species list throughout Australia so it can be saved.

A Neandertal skeleton found in a cave in the foothills of Iraqi Kurdistan appears to be a deliberate burial in an area where many other burials were found in the 1950s. The new skeleton is probably more than 70,000 years old and is an older adult. It was overlooked during the 1950s excavation due to its location deep inside a fissure in the cave. The research team is studying the remains and the area where they were found to learn more about how Neandertals buried their dead. They also hope to recover DNA from the specimen.

Another Neandertal skeleton, this one from a woman who died between 60,000 and 80,000 years ago in what is now Siberia, has had her DNA sequenced and compared to other Neandertal DNA. From the genetic differences found, researchers think the Neandertals of the area lived in small groups of less than 60 individuals each. She was also more closely related to Neandertal remains found in Croatia than other remains found in Siberia, which suggests that the local population was replaced by populations that migrated into the area at some point.

Also, I have discovered that I’ve been pronouncing Denisovan wrong all this time. I know, shocker that I’d ever mispronounce a word.

Now for a lizard and a couple of corrections and additions to the recent Sirrush episode. Last year, Richard J. and I wrote back and forth about a few things regarding one of my older episodes. Specifically he asked for details about two lizards that I mentioned in episode 21. I promised to get back to him about them and then TOTALLY FORGOT. I found the email exchange while researching this episode and feel really bad now. But then I updated the episode 21 show notes with links to information about both of those lizards so now I feel slightly less guilty.

Richard specifically mentioned that the word sirrush, or rather mush-khush-shu, may mean something like “the splendor serpent.” I totally forgot to mention this in the episode even though it’s awesome and I love it.

One of the lizards Richard asked about was the afa lizard, which I talked about briefly in episode 21. Reportedly the lizard once lived in the marshes near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. Richard wanted to know more about that lizard because he wondered if it might be related to the sirrush legend, which is how we got to talking about the sirrush in the first place and which led to the sirrush episode. Well, Richard followed up with some information he had learned from a coworker who speaks Arabic. Afa apparently just means snake in Arabic, although of course there are different words for snake, and the word has different pronunciations in different dialects. He also mentioned that it’s not just the water monitor lizard that’s known to swim; other monitors do too, including the Nile monitor. I chased down the original article I used to research the afa and found it on Karl Shuker’s blog, and Shuker suggests also that the mysterious afa might be a species of monitor lizard, possibly one unknown to science. We can’t know for certain if the afa influenced the sirrush legend, but it’s neat to think about.

Next up, in cryptid news, Andrew Gable of the excellent Forgotten Darkness podcast suggested that some sightings of the White River Monster, which we talked about in episode 153, might have been an alligator—especially the discovery of tracks and crushed plants on the bank of a small island. This isn’t something I’d thought about or seen suggested anywhere, but it definitely makes sense. I highly recommend the Forgotten Darkness podcast and put a link in the show notes if you want to check it out.

And that leads us to a lake monster to finish up the episode. The Lagarfljót [LAH-gar-flote] worm is a monster from Iceland, which is said to live in the lake that gives it its name. The lake is a pretty big one, 16 miles long, or 25 km, and about a mile and a half wide at its widest, or 2.5 km. It’s 367 feet deep at its deepest spot, or 112 m. It’s fed by a river with the same name and by other rivers filled with runoff from glaciers, and the water is murky because it’s full of silt.

Sightings of the monster go back centuries, with the first sighting generally thought to be from 1345. Iceland kept a sort of yearbook of important events for centuries, which is pretty neat, so we have a lot of information about events from the 14th century on. An entry in the year 1345 talks about the sighting of a strange thing in the water. The thing looked like small islands or humps, but each hump was separated by hundreds of feet, or uh let’s say at least 60 meters. The same event was recorded in later years too.

There’s an old folktale about how the monster came to be, and I’m going to quote directly from an English translation of the story that was collected in 1862 and published in 1866. “A woman living on the banks of the Lagarfljót [River] once gave her daughter a gold ring; the girl would fain see herself in possession of more gold than this one ring, and asked her mother how she could turn the ornament to the best account. The other answered, ‘Put it under a heath-worm.’ This the damsel forthwith did, placing both worm and ring in her linen-basket, and keeping them there some days. But when she looked at the worm next, she found him so wonderfully grown and swollen out, that her basket was beginning to split to pieces. This frightened her so much that, catching up the basket, worm and ring, she flung them all into the river. After a long time this worm waxed wondrous large, and began to kill men and beasts that forded the river. Sometimes he stretched his head up on to the bank, and spouted forth a filthy and deadly poison from his mouth. No one knew how to put a stop to this calamity, until at last two Finns were induced to try to slay the snake. They flung themselves into the water, but soon came forth again, declaring that they had here a mighty fiend to deal with, and that neither could they kill the snake nor get the gold, for under the latter was a second monster twice as hard to vanquish as the first. But they contrived, however, to bind the snake with two fetters, one behind his breast-fin, the other at his tail; therefore the monster has no further power to do harm to man or beast; but it sometimes happens that he stretches his curved body above the water, which is always a sign of some coming distress, hunger, or hard times.”

The heath worm is a type of black slug, not a worm or snake at all, and it certainly won’t grow into a dragon no matter how much gold you give it. But obviously there’s something going on in the lake because there have been strange sightings right up to the present day. There’s even a video taken of what surely does look like a slow-moving serpentine creature just under the water’s surface. There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the video.

So let’s talk about the video. It was taken in February of 2012 by a farmer who lives in the area. Unlike a lot of monster videos it really does look like there’s something swimming under the water. It looks like a slow-moving snake with a bulbous head, but it’s not clear how big it is. A researcher in Finland analyzed the video frame by frame and determined that although the serpentine figure under the water looks like it’s moving forward, it’s actually not. The appearance of forward movement is an optical illusion, and the researcher suggested there was a fish net or rope caught under the water and coated with ice, which was being moved by the current.

So in a way I guess a Finn finally slayed the monster after all.

But, of course, the video isn’t the only evidence of something in the lake. If those widely spaced humps in the water aren’t a monstrous lake serpent of some kind, what could they be?

One suggestion is that huge bubbles of methane occasionally rise from the lake’s bottom and get trapped under the surface ice in winter. The methane pushes against the ice until it breaks through, and since methane refracts light differently from ordinary air, it’s possible that it could cause an optical illusion from shore that makes it appear as though humps were rising out of the water. This actually fits with stories about the monster, which is supposed to spew poison and make the ground shake. Iceland is volcanically and geologically highly active, so earthquakes that cause poisonous methane to bubble up from below the lake are not uncommon.

Unfortunately, if something huge did once live in the lake, it would have died by now. In the early 2000s, several rivers in the area were dammed to produce hydroelectricity, and two glacial rivers were diverted to run into the lake. This initially made the lake deeper than it used to be, but has also increased how silty the water is. As a result, not as much light can penetrate deep into the water, which means not as many plants can live in the water, which means not as many small animals can survive by eating the plants, which means larger animals like fish don’t have enough small animals to eat. Therefore the ecosystem in the lake is starting to collapse. Some conservationists warn that the lake will silt up entirely within a century at the rate sand and dirt is being carried into it by the diverted rivers. I think the takeaway from this and episode 179 is that diverting rivers to flow into established lakes is probably not a good idea.

At the moment, though, the lake does look beautiful on the surface, so if you get a chance to visit, definitely go and take lots of pictures. You probably won’t see the Lagarfljót worm, but you never know.

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 049: The Brantevik Eel and Friends

This week’s episode is about some interesting eels, including the Brantevik eel.

A European eel:

A leptocephalus, aka an eel larva:

A moray eel. It has those jaws you can see and another set of jaws in its throat:

Episode transcript:

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

This week, we’re going to learn about the Brantevik eel and some other eels, including an eel mystery.

The Brantevik eel is an individual European eel, not a separate species. Its friends knew it as Åle, which I’ve probably misprounounced, so I’m nicknaming it Ollie. So what’s so interesting about Ollie the eel?

First, let’s learn a little bit about the European eel in general to give some background. It’s endangered these days due to overfishing, pollution, and other factors, but it used to be incredibly common. It lives throughout Europe, from the Mediterranean to Iceland, and has been a popular food for centuries.

The European eel hatches in the ocean into a larval stage that looks sort of like a transparent flat tadpole, shaped roughly like a leaf. Over the next six months to three years, the larvae swim through the ocean currents, closer and closer to Europe, feeding on microscopic jellyfish and plankton. Toward the end of this journey, they grow into their next phase, where they resemble eels instead of tadpoles, but are mostly transparent. They’re called glass eels at this point. The glass eels make their way into rivers and other estuaries and slowly migrate upstream. Once a glass eel is in a good environment it metamorphoses again into an elver, which is basically a small eel. As it grows it gains more pigment until it’s called a yellow eel. Over the next decade or two it grows and matures, until it reaches its adult length—anywhere from two to five feet, or 60 cm to 1.5 meters. When it’s fully mature, its belly turns white and its sides silver, which is why it’s called a silver eel at this stage. Silver eels migrate more than 4,000 miles, or 6500 km, back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn, lay eggs, and die.

One interesting thing about the European eel is that during a lot of its life, it has no gender. Its gender is determined only when it grows into a yellow eel, and then it’s mostly determined by environmental factors, not genetics.

Until the late 19th century, everyone thought these different stages—larva, glass eel, elver, yellow eel, and silver eel—were all separate animals. No one knew how or even if eels reproduced. The ancient Greeks thought eels were a type of worm that appeared spontaneously from rotting vegetation. Some people thought eels mated with snakes or some types of fish. By the 1950s the eel’s life cycle was more or less understood, but many researchers thought the European eels never made it to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. It was just too far, so they thought the eels that arrived in Europe were all larvae of the American eel, which is almost identical in appearance to the European eel. The Sargasso Sea is off the coast of the Bahamas, so the American eel doesn’t have nearly as far to travel. These days we know from DNA studies that the American and European eels are different species. The European eel is just a world-class swimmer.

European eels are nocturnal and may live in fresh water, brackish water, or sometimes they remain in the ocean and live in salt water, generally in harbors and shallows. They eat anything they can catch, from fish to crustaceans, from insect larvae to dead things, and on wet nights they’ll sometimes emerge from the water and slide around on land eating worms and slugs. Many populations don’t eat at all during the winter.

Now, back to the Brantevik eel. Brantevik is a tiny fishing village in Sweden. In 1859, an eight-year-old boy named Samuel Nilsson caught an eel and released it into his family’s well to eat insect larvae and other pests. This was a common practice at the time when water wasn’t treated, so the fewer creepy-crawlies in the water, the better.

And there the eel stayed. Ollie got famous over the years, at least in Sweden. Its 100th well anniversary was celebrated in 1959, and children’s books and even movies featured it. But in summer of 2014, Ollie died. Its well is now on the property of Tomas Kjellman, whose family bought the cottage and its well in 1962. Everyone knew about the resident eel, which the family treated as something of a pet. In fact, they discovered it was dead when they opened the well’s cover to show the eel to some visiting friends.

Ollie’s remains were removed from the well and shoved in the family’s freezer, and later sent to be analyzed at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science’s Institute of Freshwater Research. That analysis confirmed that Ollie was over 150 years old.

In the wild, European eels don’t usually live longer than twenty years, and ten years is more likely. But in captivity, where eels don’t spawn, they can live a long time. A female European eel named Putte lived over 85 years in an aquarium at Halsinborgs Museum in Sweden.

What most people don’t know is that Ollie wasn’t alone. Another eel still lives in the well and is doing just fine, but it’s younger, only about 110 years old.

The larvae of European eels are small, only about three inches at the most, or 7.5 cm. Even conger eel larvae are small, only 4 inches long, or 10 cm, and conger eels can grow 10 feet long, or 3 meters. But on January 31, 1930, a Danish research ship caught an eel larva 900 feet deep off the coast of South Africa—and that larva was six feet 1.5 inches long, or 1.85 meters.

Scientists boggled at the thought that this six-foot eel larva might grow into an eel more than 50 feet long, or 15 meters, raising the very real possibility that this unknown eel might be the basis of many sea serpent sightings.

The larva was preserved and has been studied extensively. In 1958, a similar eel larva was caught off New Zealand. It and the 1930 specimen were determined to belong to the same species, which was named Leptocephalus giganteus. Leptocephalus, incidentally, is a catchall genus for all eel larvae, which can be extremely hard to tell apart.

In 1966 two more of the larvae were discovered in the stomach of a western Atlantic lancet fish. They were much smaller than the others, though—only four inches and eleven inches long, or 10 cm and 28 cm. Dr. David G. Smith, an ichthyologist at Miami University, determined that the eel larvae were actually not true eels at all, but larvae of a spiny eel. Deep-sea spiny eels are fish that look like eels but they’re not closely related. And while spiny eels do have a larval form that resembles that of a true eel, they’re much different in one important way. Spiny eel larvae grow larger than the adults, then shrink when they develop into their mature form.

So the six-foot eel larvae, if it had lived, would have eventually developed into a spiny eel no more than six feet long itself at the most, and probably shorter.

More recent research has called Dr. Smith’s findings into question, and many scientists today consider L. giganteus to be the larvae of a short-tailed eel, which is a true eel—but not a type that grows much larger than its larvae. So either way, the adult form would probably not be much longer than a conger eel.

But…we still don’t have an adult. So there’s still a possibility that a very big deep-living marine eel is swimming around in the world’s oceans right now.

The longest known eel is the slender giant moray, which can reach 13 feet in length, or 4 meters. Morays are interesting eels for sure. They live in the ocean, especially around coral reefs, and have two sets of jaws, their regular jaws with lots of hooked teeth, and a second set in the throat that are called pharyngeal jaws, which also have teeth. The moray uses the second set of jaws to help grab and swallow prey that might otherwise wriggle out of its mouth. The moray has a strong bite and doesn’t see very well, although its sense of smell is excellent. This occasionally causes problems for divers who think it would be fun to feed an eel and end up with a finger bitten off. Don’t feed the eels, okay? Not only that, but a moray can’t release its bite even if it’s dead, so if one bites a diver, someone has to pry the eel’s jaws open before the bite can be treated. And as if all that wasn’t warning enough to not feed wild animals, and frankly just stay out of the water entirely, research suggests that some morays are venomous. Oh, and the giant moray sometimes hunts with a fish called the roving coralgrouper, which grows to some four feet long, or 120 cm, which is a rare example of interspecies cooperative hunting.

Some people believe that at least some sightings of the Loch Ness monster can be attributed to eels—European eels, in this case. An eel can’t stick its head out of the water like Nessie is supposed to do, but it does sometimes swim on its side close to the water’s surface, which could result in sightings of a string of many humps undulating through the water. But while eels do live in and around Loch Ness, it’s unlikely that any European eel would grow much larger than around five feet, or 1.5 meters. Still, you never know. Loch Ness is the right habitat for an eel to grow to its maximum size, and while we have learned a lot about eels in general, and the European eel in particular, since Ollie was released into a well in Brantevik, we certainly don’t know everything about them.

One last note about eel larvae. Occasionally on facebook and other social media, well-meaning people will share warnings about a nearly invisible wormlike parasite that can be found in drinking water, with pictures of, you guessed it, eel larvae. Eel larvae are not parasites, are not found in fresh water at all, and even if you did accidentally swallow one, you’d just digest it and get a little protein out of the bargain. So you don’t need to worry about those clickbait warnings, the eels do.

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 046: The Other Loch Ness Monsters

There’s more in Loch Ness than one big mystery animal. This week we look at a few smaller mystery animals lurking in the cold depths of the lake.

Further reading:

Here’s Nessie: A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness by Karl P.N. Shuker

The goliath frog:

The Wels catfish (also, River Monsters is the best):

An amphipod:

Show transcript:

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

Back in episode 29, I dismissed Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, as probably not a real animal. But this week we’re heading back to Loch Ness to see what other monsters might lurk in its murky depths.

WHAAAAA? Other Loch Ness monsters???

Yes, really! See, ever since the first sightings of Nessie in the 1930s, Loch Ness has been studied and examined so closely that it would be more surprising if no one had ever spotted other mystery animals.

The source of most of the information in this episode is from zoologist Karl Shuker’s book Here’s Nessie! A Monstrous Compendium from Loch Ness. Check the show notes for a link if you’re interested in buying your own copy of the book.

Our first non-Nessie mystery dates from 1934, but it happened, supposedly, sometime in the 1880s. It appeared in the Northern Chronicle, an Inverness newspaper, on January 31, 1934. The article relates that a ship in Loch Ness hit a submerged reef called Johnnie’s Point and sank one night. Luckily no one died. The next day a local diving expert named Duncan Macdonald was hired to determine if the wreck could be raised, but he couldn’t spot the wreck during his dive.

Later that evening, some of the ship’s crew who had heard stories about strange creatures living in Loch Ness asked Macdonald whether he’d seen anything unusual. After some urging, Macdonald finally admitted that he had seen a frog-like creature the size of a good-sized goat sitting on a rock ledge some 30 feet, or 9 meters, underwater. It didn’t bother him so he didn’t bother it.

There are a lot of problems with this account, of course. For one thing, we don’t know who wrote it—the article has no byline. It’s also a secondhand account. In fact, the article ends with this line: quote “The story, exactly as given, was told by Mr Donald Fraser, lock-keeper, Fort Augustus, who often heard the diver (his own grand-uncle) tell it many years ago.” unquote

Plus, of course, frogs don’t grow as big as goats. The biggest frog is the goliath frog, which can grow over a foot, or 32 cm, in length nose to tail, or butt I guess since frogs don’t have tails, which is pretty darn big but not anywhere near as big as a goat. The goliath frog also only lives in fast-moving rivers in a few small parts of Africa, not cold, murky lakes in Scotland, and its tadpoles only feed one one type of plant. In other words, even if someone did release a goliath frog into Loch Ness in the 1880s—which is pretty farfetched—it wouldn’t have survived for long.

The biggest frog that ever lived, as far as we know, lived about 65 million years ago and wasn’t all that much bigger than the goliath frog, only 16 inches long, or 41 cm. It had little horns above its eyes, which gives it its name, devil frog. Its descendants, South American horned frogs, also have little horns but are much smaller.

So what might Mr. Macdonald have seen, assuming he didn’t just make it all up? Some species of catfish can grow really big, but catfish aren’t native to Scotland. It’s always possible that a few Wels catfish, native to parts of Europe, were introduced into Loch Ness as a sport fish but didn’t survive long enough to establish a breeding population in the cold waters. Catfish have wide mouths, although their eyes are small, and might be mistaken for a frog if seen head-on in poor light. Plus, the Wels catfish can grow to 16 feet long, or 5 meters.

Then again, since the article was published during the height of the first Loch Ness monster frenzy, it might all have been fabricated from beginning to end.

A 1972 search for Nessie by the same team that announced that famous underwater photograph of a flipper, which later turned out to be mostly painted on, filmed something in the loch that wasn’t just paint. They were small, pale blobs on the grainy film. The team called them bumblebees from their shape.

Then in July of 1981, a different company searching not for Nessie but for a shipwreck from 1952 filmed some strange white creatures at the bottom of the loch. One of the searchers described them as giant white tadpoles, two or three inches long, or about 5 to 7 cm. Another searcher described them as resembling white mice but moving jerkily.

The search for the wreck lasted three weeks and the white mystery animals were spotted more than once, but not frequently. Afterwards, the company sent video of them to Dr. P Humphrey Greenwood, an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Since this was the 1980s, of course, the film was videotape, not digital, but Dr. Greenwood got some of the frames computer enhanced. Probably on a computer that had less actual computing power than my phone. Anyway, the enhancement showed that the animals seemed to have three pairs of limbs. Dr. Greenwood tentatively identified them as bottom-dwelling crustaceans, but not ones native to Loch Ness.

Over the years many people have made suggestions as to what these mystery crustaceans might be. I’m going out on a limb here and declaring that they are not baby Loch Ness monsters. Karl Shuker suggests the white mice footage, at least, might be some kind of amphipod.

We’ve met amphipods before in a couple of episodes, mostly because some species exhibit deep-sea gigantism. Amphipods are shrimp-like crustaceans that live throughout the world in both the ocean and fresh water, and most species are quite small. While they do have more than three pairs of legs—eight pairs, in fact, plus two pairs of antennae—the 1981 videotape wasn’t of high quality and details might easily have been lost. Some of the almost 10,000 known species of amphipod are white or pale in color and grow to the right size to be the ones filmed in Loch Ness. But no amphipods of that description have ever been caught in Loch Ness.

New amphipods are discovered all the time, of course. They’re simply everywhere, and the smallest species are only a millimeter long. But because they’re so common, it’s also easy to transport them from one body of water to another. A rare amphipod discovered in Alpine lakes only a few years ago is already threatened by a different, more common species of amphipod introduced to one of the lakes by accident. So it’s possible that the white mice crustaceans in Loch Ness traveled there on someone’s boat.

That’s certainly the case with another creature found in Loch Ness in 1981, but we know exactly what this one is. It’s a flatworm native to North America, a bit over an inch long, or 3 cm, and only about 5 millimeters wide. It attaches its cocoons to boat bottoms, and in this case it was brought to Loch Ness by equipment used to hunt for Nessie. Spoiler alert: they didn’t find her.

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 029: Two Lake Monsters

This week we investigate a couple of famous lake monsters, Nessie and Champ. Don’t worry, there are more lake monster and sea monster episodes coming in the future!

Most lake monster pictures look like this. Compelling! This was taken in Loch Ness:

The famous Mansi photograph taken in Lake Champlain:

Beluga whales are really easy to spot. Look, this one has a soccer ball!

Further reading:

Hunting Monsters by Darren Naish

Abominable Science! by Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero

Show transcript:

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

Back in March, we released an episode about sea monsters. For a long time it was our second most downloaded show, behind the ivory-billed woodpecker, although the jellyfish and shark episodes have taken over the top spots lately. I always intended to follow up with an episode on lake monsters, so here it is.

Let me just say going in that I think most lake monster sightings are not of unknown animals. On the other hand, I also firmly believe there are plenty of unknown animals in lakes—but they’re probably not very big, probably not all that exciting to the average person, and probably not deserving of the name monster. But who knows? I’d love to be proven wrong. Let’s take a look at what people are seeing out there.

One of the biggest names in cryptids is Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. She and Bigfoot are the superstars of cryptozoology. But despite almost a century of close scrutiny of Loch Ness, we still have no proof she exists.

Loch Ness is the biggest of a chain of long, narrow, steep-sided lakes and shallow rivers that cut Scotland right in two along a fault line. Loch Ness is 22 miles long with a maximum depth of 754 feet, the biggest lake in all of the UK, not just Scotland. It’s 50 feet above sea level and was carved out by glaciers. During the Pleistocene, Scotland was completely covered with ice half a mile deep until about 18,000 years ago. And before you ask, plesiosaurs disappeared from the fossil record 66 million years ago.

Loch Ness isn’t a remote, hard to find place. All the lochs and their rivers have made up a busy shipping channel since the Caledonian Canal made them more navigable with a series of locks and canals in 1822, but the area around Loch Ness was well populated and busy for centuries before that. Loch Ness has long been a popular tourist destination, well before the Nessie sightings started. There have been stories of strange creatures in Loch Ness and all the lochs, but nothing that resembles the popular idea of Nessie. Rather, the stories were of water monsters of Scottish folklore like the kelpie, or of out-of-place known animals like a six-foot bottle-nosed dolphin that was captured at sea and released in the loch as a prank in 1868.

Then, in August of 1933 a couple on holiday from London, Mr. and Mrs. George Spicer, reported seeing a quote “dragon or prehistoric animal” unquote crossing the road 50 yards or so in front of their car near the loch. Mr. Spicer said quote “It seemed to have a long neck which moved up and down, in the manner of a scenic railway, and the body was fairly big, with a high back.” unquote. The creature was gray and seemed to be carrying a lamb or other animal at its shoulder. Spicer described it as 25 to 30 feet long, with no feet or tail visible although Spicer said he thought the tail must be curved around behind the body.

You know what else happened in 1933? King Kong was released in April of that year. If you haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, there’s a long-necked dinosaur in the movie that overturns a raft and kills the men aboard. The movie was a sensation unlike anything today, and that dinosaur looks identical to what George Spicer described seeing, right down to the details of the hidden feet, tail curved behind the body, and even the lamb or other animal it was carrying, since in the movie, the monster plucks a man from a tree and shakes him in its mouth at precisely the angle Spicer describes. In fact, Spicer admitted in an interview a few months after his sighting that he had seen King Kong and that his monster strongly resembled the dinosaur in the movie.

Spicer’s story hit the newspapers and spawned dozens of similar reports, along with a huge influx of tourists hoping to see the monster. Locals took advantage of the situation by branding everything in sight with Nessie, from beach toys to floor polish. By 1934 Nessie had appeared in a talkie called The Secret of the Loch, not to mention in radio shows, cartoons, popular songs, and basically everything. Her popularity hasn’t faded since.

One good thing has come from Nessie’s popularity. Loch Ness has been studied far more than it would have been otherwise. The water is murky with low visibility, so underwater cameras aren’t much use. However, submersibles with cameras attached have been deployed many times in the loch. In 1972 a dramatic result was reported, with a clearly diamond-shaped flipper photographed from a submersible, but it turned out that the flipper was basically painted onto two photos that otherwise show nothing but the reflection of light on silt or bubbles. Sonar scanning has been done on the entire lake repeatedly, in 1962, 1968, 1969, twice in 1970, 1981 through 1982, 1987, and 2003. They found no gigantic animals. The 1987 scan resulted in three hits of something larger than the biggest known salmon in the loch, but much smaller than a lake monster. It’s possible that the hits were only debris such as sunken boats or logs. From all the scans, though, we know there are no hidden outlets to the sea under the lake’s surface.

There are lots of known animals in and around the loch, from salmon to otters, and lots and lots of birds. Seals frequently visit, coming up the shallow River Ness through its locks. Any of these animals, especially the seals, may have contributed to Nessie sightings over the years, together with boats seen in the distance and floating debris such as logs. The lake doesn’t contain enough fish to sustain a population of large mystery animals even if they had somehow eluded all those sonar scans. No bones or dead bodies have been found, and no clear photographs have ever been taken of an unknown animal.

So that’s that. Sorry, Nessie. But what about other lake monsters?

Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont in the United States and part of Quebec in Canada, is supposedly home to a monster called Champ. Lake Champlain is bigger than Loch Ness but not as deep, around 125 miles long but no more than 14 miles wide at any point, and only about 400 feet deep. Like Loch Ness, it’s above sea level, in this case around 100 feet above. In summer the water is warm, while in winter part or even all of the lake may freeze over.

Lake Champlain has been around in one form or another for about 200 million years, when a big chunk of bedrock fell into a fissure between two faults, forming a canyon that filled with water from streams. Around 3 million years ago during the Pleistocene—that’s the ice age, remember—the entire region was covered with a mile-thick sheet of ice.

Ice is heavy, and since the continental ice sheets sat on the area for three million years, their weight pressed the rock down so that it was below sea level. When the ice melted around 12,000 years ago, it took a few thousand years before the rocks rose to their current levels—a process known as isostatic rebound. Between the time the ice sheets stopped blocking the ocean to the time the area rose above sea level, waters from the Atlantic flowed in and formed a shallow inland sea. Geologists call it the Champlain Sea.

The Champlain Sea was only around for about 2,000 years, and while it was connected to the Atlantic, the water wasn’t as salty as the ocean since there was so much runoff from melting glaciers. The sea shrank steadily as the land rose, until finally the ocean inlet was cut off. Fresh water flushed out the salt, creating the lake we see today.

The lake is home to a lot of genuinely big fish, including sturgeon, salmon, gar, pike, and some introduced game fish species like European carp. Naturally it’s a busy lake, with lots of anglers and tourists. Even the shipwrecks are a tourist draw, with divers required to register yearly for permission to explore the wrecks.

Many people quote Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 journal entry as the first sighting of the monster. But the famous quote about a 20-foot serpent thick as a barrel is a fake published in the summer 1970 issue of Vermont Life. A genuine quote from Champlain’s journal is less monstery. It’s clear he’s talking about a fish. Here’s the quote: “[T]here is also a great abundance of many species of fish. Amongst others there is one called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh, and had a head as large as my two fists, with a snout two feet and a half long, and a double row of very sharp, dangerous teeth. Its body has a good deal the shape of the pike; but it is protected by scales of a silvery gray colour and so strong that a dagger could not pierce them.”

This description is probably that of the longnose gar, which can grow over six feet long and has a lot of sharp teeth in a very long jaw. It’s usually brownish or greenish but can appear silvery in color, and it has overlapping scales that are quite thick.

Whatever Champlain was talking about, it wasn’t Champ. It’s not until 1819 that a real monster is reported in the lake. The account appeared in the July 24, 1819 newspaper the Plattsburgh Republican, and is an account of a Captain Crum from a few days before. I looked up the original, which is available online in a pretty good scan—I could read the whole article except for one word—and guess what? It’s not real. It’s not even a hoax. It’s just one of those jokey space-fillers from back in the olden days when everyone apparently had the same sense of humor found in old Reader’s Digests. It’s short so I’m just going to quote you the whole dang thing exactly as it appears.

Mr. Printer,
On Thursday last, the inhabitants on the shore of Bulwagga Bay, were alarmed by the appearance of a monster, which from the description must be a relation of the Great Sea Serpent.
Captain Crum, who witnessed the sight, relates that about eight o’clock in the morning when putting out from shore in a scow, he discovered at a distance of not more than two hundred yards, an unusual undulation of the surface of the water, which was somethinged by the appearance of a monster rearing its head more than fifteen feet and moving with the utmost velocity to the south—at the same time lashing with its Tail two large Sturgeon and a Bill-fish which appeared to be engaged in pursuit. After the consternation occasioned by such a terrific spectacle had subsided, Capt. Crum took a particular survey of this singular animal, which he describes to be about 187 feet long, its head flat with three teeth, two in the under and one in the upper jaw, in shape similar to the sea-horse—the color black, with a star in the forehead and a belt of red around the neck—its body about the size of a hogshead with bunches on the back as large as a common potash barrel—the eyes large and the color of a pealed onion. He continued to move with astonishing rapidity towards the shore for about a minute, when suddenly he darted under water and has not since been seen, altho’ many fishing boats have been on the look out. Capt. Crum informs me that he has sent an express to Capt. Rich, of Boston, communicating this intelligence, but is fearful that before his arrival this disturber of our waters may be changed to a pickerel. Mr. *******, the celebrated engraver of the Battle of Plattsburgh, is now at this place, prepared to take a sketch of his terrific majesty, should he again make his appearance.
I am, sir, with great respect,
your ob’t serv’t.


It isn’t until 1873 that some seemingly real sightings show up. During that year there were two reports of a water serpent—estimated by one witness, a sheriff, at around 30 feet. The idea of a lake monster began to gain traction. PT Barnum even offered a reward for the monster’s skin.

The best evidence for Champ’s existence is a 1977 photo taken by Sandra Mansi. She and her family had stopped by the lake and her kids were paddling in the shallows when Mansi spotted the monster. She says she was terrified and rushed to get her children out of the water, but she took one picture. But she didn’t show the photo to anyone until 1981 when a friend pointed out how important it was. By then the negative was lost.

I’ll put the picture in the show notes. At first glance it’s stunning, clearly showing a monster with a slender neck curved away from the viewer, its skin gleaming with water in the sun. Part of its sloped back is visible above the water. Its head is small and in shadow.

But look more closely and things start to appear less clear. The photo is grainy, without a lot of detail. There appears to be something else in the water near the monster’s neck, far enough away and of such size that it can’t be a flipper or tail, but the same color as the monster. There’s also a little bump at the base of the monster’s neck that doesn’t look very biological. It almost looks like a root.

General consensus, and I agree, is that the picture shows nothing more exciting than a half-submerged tree stump with one curved root sticking up out of the water. And Mansi’s story doesn’t hold up either. For a long time she claimed she couldn’t remember where the picture was taken although she’s familiar with the area, but in more recent interviews she says she’s withholding information about the site so no one could find and kill the monster. She claims she never kept photo negatives—in his excellent book Hunting Monsters, Darren Naish calls this “a peculiar habit,” but back before digital cameras I never kept negatives either. But Mansi’s husband said in an interview that that particular negative had been specifically destroyed—either burnt or buried—because of the bad feelings Mansi had about the encounter. Since Mansi claimed at various times that the photo itself was either in an album or actually hung in the kitchen, she can’t have been too upset about it. If she was upset, why didn’t she destroy the picture at the same time as the negative?

Various people have pinpointed the spot where the picture was taken. It’s in Missiquoi Bay, which is no more than 14 feet deep, and the spot where the monster appears in the photo is only six feet deep with a fast current. In other words, a big lake monster is unlikely to be swimming in such shallow water, but a tree stump with roots might be tumbled there by the current.

There are plenty of other photos and videos taken at the lake, none of them convincing. But there is a mystery associated with the lake that may or may not have anything to do with Champ. I mentioned this in our strange recordings episode, episode eight. Squeaks, squeals, and loud clicking that sounds like echolocation was recorded underwater in Lake Champlain in 2003 by the Discovery Channel and in 2014 by local Champ enthusiasts. Fish-finding sonar and other artificial sources have been ruled out due to the irregularities in the sounds. In March 2010 the article “Echolocation in a fresh water lake” appeared in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, written by Elizabeth von Muggenthaler. The journal is about the field of acoustics, not a biological studies journal. Recent articles include one about laser-driven hearing aids, one about soundscape evaluations, and others that are so technical I don’t even know what they’re talking about, like “Solving transient acoustic boundary value problems with equivalent sources using a lumped parameter approach.” It’s not about whales, at least. On the other hand, Von Muggenthaler is a bioacoustician who was part of the Discovery Channel scientific team that recorded the clicking in 2003. Her work includes discoveries in infrasound made by giraffes and rhinos. She returned to Lake Champlain in 2009 for further research, although I haven’t discovered any reports of their findings.

The 2003 recording has been examined by Dr. Lance Barret Lennard, head of the cetacean research program at Vancouver aquarium. He doesn’t think the sounds are mammalian in origin and has doubts that they’re echolocation. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t being made by an animal. Around the same time as the Discovery Channel recordings but on the other side of the world, Snake-neck turtles in Australia were discovered to be making underwater percussive sounds that resemble echolocation as well as squeaks, chirps, and many other noises.

A lot of people think the 2003 and 2014 Lake Champlain recordings sound like beluga whales. We know whales and other marine animals lived in the Champlain Sea because we’ve found their remains, but whales can’t survive long in fresh water and even if they could, they’d be easily spotted when they came up to breathe. Beluga whales in particular are easily identified since they have round white heads that look like big eggs popping up to the surface of the water. But what if something else, something unknown, lived in the Champlain sea and stayed there after its access to the Atlantic was cut off? What if it was able to tolerate the increasingly freshening water and lives there still?

This would be awesome. It might also explain the clicking sounds recorded in the lake. But don’t forget how busy this lake is. Whatever unknown animal might be hiding in the lake, it simply can’t be gigantic, no matter how shy. We’d have definitive proof by now, probably by an astonished fisherman who hauled it up on his line, or a body washed ashore like the 7-foot sturgeon found in August of 2016, dead of natural causes. A diver might have seen it, or a commercial fisherman running sophisticated sonar.

My guess is the clicking is made by a fish, reptile, or maybe an amphibian that’s already known to science, but no one realizes it makes these noises. Whatever animal makes it, and whether or not it’s actual echolocation, it’s exciting. If I was in charge of investigations into the recordings, I’d take a good hard look at what might be hiding in the mud, especially turtles. I’d also order pizza for the team every night! And donuts with sprinkles! Good work, team.

Here’s a sample of the squeaks and clicks recorded in 2014.


We’d be here all night and day if I were to go over every lake monster ever reported. Almost every body of water has its own monster. I grew up near Norris Lake, which was formed in the 1930s when the Clinch River was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. When I was a kid, it was “common knowledge” that there were catfish at the base of the dam as big as VW Bugs. Yeah, I don’t think so. But stories of monstrous fish, huge water snakes, and gigantic unidentified reptilian creatures are a staple of local legends everywhere. We want to tell scary stories about what might be under the water! That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters out there, but it also doesn’t mean every story is true.

The problem with lake monsters is twofold. Firstly, a lake is a confined body of water. It’s not like the ocean, where any number of huge creatures can hide completely unknown to humans except for rare chance encounters. Even a big lake has limited space and resources compared to the ocean. A small lake simply can’t support a viable breeding population of giant animals, and since lakes are usually well populated by humans, it’s impossible to imagine that anything large living in the water wouldn’t be seen clearly and regularly by boaters and locals—not to mention that it would impact the ecology of its lake, which would definitely be noted by researchers.

Secondly, the reports we do have don’t make up a clear picture of one type of unknown animal. This sighting talks about a long-necked dinosaur-like monster crossing the road, but this other sighting describes a serpentine monster swimming in the lake, while a third sighting is just a triangular head or fin visible above the water. They can’t all three be the same animal, but one small lake simply can’t support three gigantic animals.

It’s clear, then, that a lot of the genuine sightings (that is, ones that aren’t hoaxes) have to be of known animals or floating debris that witnesses misidentified. This is just plain human nature, too. If you’re visiting Loch Ness or Lake Champlain, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the local stories—honestly, you can’t not be familiar with them. Nessie and Champ are local mascots. If you then spot something strange in the water, your first thought is that you’ve seen the monster. Later you might think it over and realize maybe that was just a big sturgeon at the surface. But by then your monster sighting has made it into the papers and onto the cryptozoological websites as genuine.

That said, I’m totally open to the possibility of unknown animals hiding in lakes. New species are discovered all the time—most of them small, but sometimes we get surprises. A new species of freshwater stingray was discovered a few years ago in Brazil, and it’s four feet long.

It’s pretty clear that I need to revisit lake monsters in a future episode, just as I have plans to explore sea monsters again. There’s just too much to cover in one episode. But that’s it for now. Until next week, keep your ears open for weird clicking sounds and if anyone is rude to you, feel free to shout, “HORSE MACKEREL, SIR”. I know I’m going to.

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

Thanks for listening!