Tag Archives: otters

Episode 198: Pop Goes the Mustelid

Let’s learn about a whole lot of mustelids, including some otters, weasels, and their relations and ancestors! Thanks to Jacob for the suggestion!

Further reading:

Weasels in Stone: Mustelid Evolution

With voices joined in chorus, giant otter families create a distinct sound signature

Further watching/listening:

Video of giant river otters making noise

Giant river otters:

The least weasel is possibly the most cute:

This mink would like to keep its fur for itself please and thank you:

The Patagonian weasel:

The greater grison looks like a badger and a honey badger:

The fisher:

The Chinese ferret badger has a long nose compared to most mustelids:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’ll learn about some mustelids, better known as weasels and their close relations! Thanks to Jacob for this week’s suggestion.

The weasel is a member of the family Mustelidae. Members of the family are called mustelids, which includes wolverines and badgers, which we talked about in episode 62, otters, which we talked about in episode 37, and ferrets, which we talked about in episode 150. Most mustelids have short legs and long, slender, flexible bodies, although badgers are an exception since they’re broad-bodied. This body shape allows a mustelid to enter the burrows of other animals and kill them, because mustelids are carnivores.

But not all animals that look like weasels and ferrets are actually mustelids. The mongoose, for instance, is not a mustelid.

The study of how mustelids evolved and spread throughout much of the world is a pretty hot topic these days, which makes it confusing to summarize since so much new knowledge keeps shaking up what we know. But I’ll do my best.

The first mustelids evolved around 30 million years ago in what is now Eurasia, and spread to North America much later and eventually into South America. The oldest mustelid fossils found in North America are a group of animals called oligobunines. I read that word as oligobunnies every single time, but they didn’t look like bunnies. They probably looked like wolverines, which are related to badgers but look more like miniature bears with longer tails, but they probably spent more time underground than wolverines do.

At least one oligobunid might have grown as big as a black bear, at least a small bear. Megalictis was probably an ambush predator and lived around 21 million years ago in what is now the upper Midwest of North America. It had teeth meant for crushing bones. Another oligobunid, Zodiolestes, is one we talked about briefly in episode 103, about trace fossils. The first fossil Zodiolestes was found in a corkscrew-shaped Palaeocastor burrow, presumably because it got stuck in the burrow while it was hunting, but Zodiolestes was also adapted to dig. The oligobunids went extinct around 10 million years ago, possibly outcompeted by a new wave of modern mustelids that evolved in Asia and spread into North America.

One mustelid, Ekorus ekakeran, lived about six million years ago in what is now Africa, with fossils found in Kenya. But it didn’t look like any other mustelid. It had long legs, for one thing. It stood almost two feet tall at the shoulder, or 60 cm, and was built more like a leopard than a mustelid. It would have been a much faster runner than other mustelids as a result, although it was probably an ambush predator. Researchers think it was eventually outcompeted by big cats when they evolved as the forests changed into grasslands.

The biggest mustelid that ever lived, as far as we know, is Enhydriodon, a type of gigantic otter. It lived in Africa around 4 million years ago and may have been the size of a small bear, even bigger and heavier than Megalictis. We only have a single fossil of Enhydriodon, though, a skull, so scientists can only estimate the animal’s size compared to what we know about extinct and living otters. It probably lived on land, although that’s about as far as our knowledge of it goes.

Another giant mustelid was Plesiogulo, which evolved in Asia and crossed into North America 6 1/2 or 7 million years ago when the continents were connected by the Bering land bridge. Researchers weren’t sure for a long time if Plesiogulo was directly ancestral to living wolverines, but recent studies indicate that it probably was. It was larger than modern wolverines.

But what about living mustelids? The biggest known mustelid that’s still alive is the giant otter, which lives in much of northern and central South America, especially around the Amazon River, although it’s increasingly rare due to habitat loss, hunting for its fur, and pollution. It can grow up to 5 1/2 feet long, or 1.7 meters. It mostly eats fish but will eat other animals too, including crabs, snakes, turtles, and even small caimans. It’s a social animal that lives in family groups of up to twenty members that hunt and play together. It has short dense fur that’s usually brown or sometimes reddish, but it has white markings on its throat and upper chest. When it pops its head and neck out of the water, called periscoping, other otters can see its unique white markings and recognize who they’re looking at. It’s also really noisy as it communicates with other otters with barks, whines, growls, and softer sounds like humming. Each family group has a unique vocalization that identifies the group to other otters, and if a strange otter approaches the territory the whole family will scream at it to get out or else.

The sea otter is a little shorter than the giant otter, just under 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters, but it’s heavier than the giant otter. A big male can weight up to 119 pounds, or 54 kg. It lives along the coast of the North Pacific and while it can walk, it spends almost all its time in the water. Instead of blubber to keep it warm, the sea otter has incredibly dense fur, the densest coat ever measured. For almost two centuries people hunted it so aggressively for its fur that by 1911, there were fewer than 2,000 of them left. Fortunately, conservationists worked to get an international ban on sea otter hunting, and its numbers have rebounded although it’s still endangered.

The sea otter eats fish and anything else it can catch, especially shellfish, and it uses its front paws while hunting. It catches fish with its paws instead of with its mouth, it turns over rocks to look underneath them, and it pulls mollusks off of rocks and twists them open with its paws. This is all really unusual. No other otter uses its paws in this way. Not only that, the sea otter is a tool-user. It uses rocks to break open shellfish that it can’t twist open or bite through, and will in fact use two rocks at once for this purpose. One of the rocks it holds, but the other it keeps in a little pouch of skin under its arms to act as a hard surface to set the mollusk on. The sea otter also uses this built-in pocket to hold food. It has two pockets, one under each front leg, and it usually keeps its rock in the right pocket while it keeps its food in the left pocket. It floats on its back to eat, then rolls over and over in the water to clean its fur of any bits of food. It has to keep its fur incredibly clean for it to insulate the otter properly, so it grooms itself throughout the day. Pascal in Animal Crossing is a sea otter, by the way, and adorable.

The smallest living mustelid is the least weasel, which is native to northern North America and much of Eurasia but has been introduced in New Zealand and several islands throughout the world, where it’s an invasive species. The smallest subspecies of least weasel grow less than 10 inches long, or 26 cm, with a short tail. It’s brown with a white belly during the summer but its winter coat is completely white. It eats mice, voles, and other small rodents and will even kill rabbits although rabbits are much bigger than it is. Generally it only attacks young rabbits, though.

So that gives us some background about mustelids. Let’s talk about some interesting kinds of mustelid next, starting with the mink. You may have heard something about the mink in the news lately, because mink are kept in large numbers in fur farms and they’ve started to contract a mutated version of the Covid-19 virus. The virus is so widespread among mink in the country of Denmark that as of last week as this episode goes live, Denmark has decided to kill every single mink in captivity. That’s as many as 19 million animals. Keep in mind that these animals were eventually going to be killed anyway for their fur. That doesn’t make it any less sad, though. The same mutated virus has spread through fur farms in other countries, including Spain and the United States, leading to thousands of animals being killed to stop the spread. So far studies do not indicate that the minks are spreading the mutated version of the virus to humans. The Netherlands had already been planning to ban mink farming in a few years, but after an outbreak of the coronavirus earlier in 2020 the country decided to ban it by the end of this year. Good for them.

In the wild, where it belongs, the mink lives near rivers, lakes, or other sources of fresh water, and sometimes even along the coast. It eats fish, rabbits and other small mammals, eggs, small crustaceans like crayfish, and anything else it can catch. A big male can grow up to two feet long, or 62 cm, and it’s brown in color with a dense undercoat that helps keep it warm in cold weather. There’s a species that lives in North America and a species that lives in Europe, but while they look almost identical, they’re actually not very closely related.

If you think of weasels, you probably think of an animal that looks a lot like the mink or the ferret, with sleek fur. But the Patagonian weasel is quite different in many ways. It lives in Patagonia, which is the southern part of South America, and is the only member of its own genus. Its coat is shaggy with a bushy tail. It’s mostly white or off-white with brown patches and grows up to 14 inches long not counting its short tail, or 35 cm. We know almost nothing about the Patagonian weasel. We’re not even sure what it eats, except that it does probably eat small burrowing rodents, and it’s sometimes been kept by ranchers to kill rats the way ferrets were once used in England.

The greater grison is another unusual-looking mustelid native to Central America and northern South America. It’s shaped sort of like an otter but instead of brown fur it’s gray on top and black underneath. A white stripe separates the gray and black fur on its head and the sides of its neck. Most of its face is black, then the white stripe usually just above the eyes, then gray on top of its head. It can grow up to two feet long, or 60 cm, not counting its bushy tail, which can grow up to 14 inches long, or 20 cm. Like all mustelids, its ears are small and round and its body is long with short legs. Although it looks like an otter, including having webbed toes, it’s probably more closely related to the Patagonian weasel, and like the Patagonian weasel, we don’t know a whole lot about it.

The fisher is a mustelid that lives in North America, mostly in parts of Canada and in mountainous areas of northern and western United States. It used to be more widespread, but, you guessed it, it was trapped and killed for its fur until the 1930s and even as late as the 1980s in some areas.

Despite its name, the fisher doesn’t actually eat fish very often. The name fisher comes from a Dutch word, visse, which refers to a different mustelid, the European polecat. The fisher is also sometimes called the fisher cat even though it and the polecat are not cats. It’s a big animal, too. A big male fisher can grow nearly four feet long, or 1.22 m, although females are much smaller, and part of that length is the tail that can be as much as 16 inches long, or 41 cm.

The fisher has big feet that helps it walk on snow, retractable claws, and it can even rotate its hind feet nearly completely backwards, which means it can climb down trees headfirst. It lives in forests and spends a lot of time in trees, hunting birds and other small animals, but it mostly eats showshoe hares and porcupines. Yes, porcupines! Almost nothing will bother a porcupine, but the fisher will attack it from the front, biting its less protected face repeatedly until it dies. In areas where fishers were hunted to extinction, porcupines became so numerous that they started killing trees, since in winter porcupines eat tree bark and will also eat sapling trees. Fortunately, the population of fishers has grown and conservationists have reintroduced it into parts of its former range. It’s no longer considered endangered, hurrah! This is good because they’re hard to keep in captivity and they’re also susceptible to accidental poisoning when they eat rodents that have died from eating poison.

The fisher is supposed to be a loud animal with a terrifying scream at night, but people who study fishers don’t report hearing them scream or make loud sounds at all. The calls are all probably made by the red fox, which sounds like this:

[fox sound]

There are so many mustelids that I don’t even know what other ones to feature. It’s surprising how little we know about so many of them. The Vietnam ferret-badger was only described in 2011, for instance, and only known from two specimens. It’s related to other ferret-badgers found in Asia, including the Chinese ferret-badger. As you might guess from the name, it looks sort of like a badger but also like a ferret, which is a neat trick because those two animals do not actually look very much alike. It grows around 17 inches long, or 43 cm, plus another 9 inches, or 23 cm, for its tail. It’s dark brown above and lighter brown underneath, with a white stripe on its head and neck and a black mask on its face. Its muzzle is longer than most mustelids’, who usually have quite short noses. It’s an omnivore that eats fruit as well as insects, worms, frogs, and other small animals.

In general, as I’ve mentioned over and over, mustelids have historically been killed for their fur. Sable and ermine are both names of furs that come from mustelids. At least one species was driven to extinction by fur hunters, the sea mink. It lived along the northeastern coast of North America and was related to the American mink. We don’t even know exactly how big it was, because it was driven to extinction before it could be examined by scientists, except that it was probably bigger than the American mink. We don’t even have a complete specimen, just some skull fragments and teeth. It wasn’t as aquatic as otters are, but it occupied a similar ecological niche and spent much more time in the water than its close relations. It probably went extinct in the late 19th century. Other species of mustelid may have been driven to extinction without ever being known to science too. Certainly many species came close to extinction and are still threatened by habitat loss and other factors.

That’s depressing to think about, so let’s finish with a mystery that’s a little different from our usual mystery animals. This one’s a mystery song called “Pop Goes the Weasel.” You’re probably familiar with the tune even if you’re not sure about the words. There are lots of different lyrics to the song with various versions in different places. I learned it this way:

Round and round the mulberry bush / The monkey chased the weasel / The monkey stopped to pull up his socks / Pop! Goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread / A penny for a needle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

What on earth do those lyrics mean? Do they mean anything? Why is there a weasel in the song?

The earliest lyrics known date back to at least the early 19th century in England, because the oldest versions of the song reference a famous pub in London from the time. The melody was probably much older and the words were fitted to the song at some point. By 1850 it was a popular dance, but even then no one knew what the lyrics meant.

There are lots of suggestions, some of which make more sense than others. The oldest lyrics seem to be these:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice / Half a pound of treacle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

Up and down the City road / In and out the Eagle / That’s the way the money goes / Pop! Goes the weasel.

The line “that’s the way the money goes” basically tells the story. It’s a song about how everything is a penny here, a penny there, and suddenly you’re broke. And if you’re going in the Eagle Tavern on London’s City Road too often, you’re drinking up whatever money you have left. But that still doesn’t explain the weasel.

One explanation is that to pop something was slang for pawning it, and that the term weasel is Cockney rhyming slang for a coat. You know, “weasel and stoat” rhyme with coat, therefore you can just say weasel and everyone who knows the rhyme knows that you’re talking about a coat. So if you pop a weasel, you’re pawning your coat to get a little extra money.

This sounds plausible, and there’s some evidence that the line “pop goes the weasel” was the only line of the song originally, with the other lyrics added later, which would explain why that one line is slang while the other lines aren’t. Anyway, it’s a fun song that you will not be able to get out of your head now.

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. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 059: The Onza and the Yemish

This week we’re going to learn about some more big cats, especially the mysterious onza of Mexico and the yemish of Patagonia.

And you should totally check out the charming podcast Cool Facts about Animals.

A jaguar:

A jaguarundi:

A puma, not dead:

The Rodriguez onza, dead:

A giant otter:

Further reading:

The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals by Karl P.N. Shuker

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about a couple of mystery cats that you might not have heard of, and learn about a few non-mystery animals along the way.

There are several cats native to Mexico. We’ve talked about the puma recently, in episode 52. It’s the same cat that’s also called the cougar or mountain lion, and it lives throughout most of the Americas. It’s tawny or brownish in color with few markings beyond dark and white areas on the face, and sometimes faint tail rings and mottled spots on the legs.

The jaguar is a spotted cat related to lions, tigers, leopards, and other big cats. It lives throughout much of Central and South America, and in North America as far north as Mexico, and was once common in the southwestern United States too but was hunted to extinction there. It prefers tropical forests and swamps, likes to swim, and is relatively stocky with a shorter tail than its relatives. Its background color is tawny or brownish with a white belly, and its spots, called rosettes, are darker. But melanistic jaguars aren’t especially uncommon. They look all black at first glance, but their spots are visible up close. Oh, and a big shout-out to the charming podcast Cool Facts About Animals who did a show about jaguars recently. I definitely recommend it, especially if you’ve got younger kids who love animals.

In 2011, a hunter and his daughter in Arizona took pictures of a spotted cat treed by their dogs, and alerted wildlife officials. The officials studied the photos and said yes, that’s a jaguar. Since then, he’s been monitored by trail cam and conservationists working in the Santa Rita Mountains. Since jaguars have unique spot patterns, we know it’s the same cat, a male that local elementary school kids have named El Jefe. Officials think El Jefe moved to Arizona from a nearby jaguar sanctuary in Mexico, and for years he was the only known jaguar in the United States. In late 2017, a second male jaguar was caught on camera in southern Arizona. Researchers hope that more jaguars will move into the area, which was part of their original range.

Pumas and jaguars are the two biggest cats found in Mexico. But there is a third big cat, a mystery big cat. The onza has been reported in Mexico for centuries. It’s supposed to look like a puma but more lightly built with longer legs and possibly darker fur or dark markings, especially striping on the legs.

The first problem is the name onza. The term is applied to a lot of different big cats in Mexico and other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. For instance, in Brazil the word onça means jaguar, and in fact the jaguar’s scientific name is Pathera onca. The related English word ounce was once the name of the lynx and is now sometimes used for the snow leopard, Panthera uncia. So it’s possible that old reports of onzas just refer to pumas or jaguars, or one of the many other cats that live in the area, such as the jaguarundi.

The jaguarundi sometimes lives in Mexico as far north as southern Texas, although it’s much more common in South and Central America. It’s black or brownish-grey, which is called the grey phase, or red-brown or tawny, called the red phase. In the past the two phases were thought to be separate species. Adult jaguarundis don’t usually have any markings, but cubs have spots on their bellies. That is adorable. It’s closely related to the puma but is smaller, not much bigger than a domestic cat, and unlike most cats it’s diurnal instead of nocturnal, which means it’s mostly active during the day.

The jaguarundi has a flattish head, more like an otter than a cat. A gray phase jaguarundi may be the animal referred to in the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who in the early 16th century wrote about a lion that resembled a wolf in Montezuma’s menagerie, in 1519. It also happens to be called an onza in some parts of Mexico.

Some animals labeled onzas have been killed and examined. On January 1, 1986 a big cat killed in Sinaloa State in Mexico, called the Rodriguez onza, was examined by a team of experts, including Stephen O’Brien, an expert in feline molecular genetics. They reported that the animal’s DNA was indistinguishable from that of a puma. But it definitely didn’t look like an ordinary puma. I have a picture of it in the show notes. It was long-bodied and slender with dark markings. So it’s possible that stories of onzas arose from sightings of pumas with this sort of coat color variation, or it’s possible there is a remote population of pumas with a leggier build than ordinary pumas, and every so often one wanders out where it’s seen or killed. Pumas can show considerable variance in appearance, so it wouldn’t be that unusual for an occasional individual to be born that’s longer legged than most and that also has more or darker markings than usual.

Then again, who knows? There might be a subspecies of puma or a completely different species of cat out there. If so, hopefully we’ll find out more about it soon so it can be protected and studied.

Jaguarundis make a lot of different vocalizations. Here’s one. It sounds more like a bird than a cat, but I promise you, that’s a jaguarundi.

[cat sound]

Way back in episode 22 I touched on the yemish, or Patagonian water tiger. I think it’s time to revisit it in more detail. Look, I have a fantastic book called Monsters of Patagonia so you’re going to be hearing about Patagonia on this podcast for a long, long time.

The iemisch, or hyminche, or lemisch, or some other variation, is often called a water tiger but linked not with a feline at all, but with a ground sloth. This is entirely the fault of a single man, Florentino Ameghino.

Ameghino lived in the late 19th century and died in 1911. He was from Argentina, born to Italian immigrants, and is still highly regarded as a paleontologist, anthropologist, zoologist, and naturalist, from back in the days when you could specialize in lots of disciplines and still do tons of field work. He has an actual crater on the moon named after him. You don’t get a moon crater unless you’re pretty awesome. But Ameghino had at least one bee in his bonnet, and it involved giant ground sloths like megatherium. He was convinced they were still alive in the remote areas of South America, especially Patagonia.

In an 1898 paper he wrote about the yemish in Patagonia, which he said was a “Mysterious four legged massive beast, of a terrible and invulnerable appearance, whose body cannot be penetrated by missiles or burning branches. They call it Iemisch or ‘water tiger’ and mentioning its name terrorizes them; when interrogated and asked for details, they become grim, drop their heads, turn mute or evade answering.”

I got this quote from the Monsters of Patagonia book, of course. You can find a link in the show notes if you want to order your own copy of the book. It’s a fun read, but I should point out that I do a lot of fact-checking before I include information from the book because there are some inaccuracies and fringey theories. Also, it has no index.

Ameghino said his brother Carlos, who was also a paleontologist, had sent him a piece of hide reputedly from a yemish, which he had gotten from a Tehuelche hunter. The hide had tiny bones embedded in it, called osteoderms, which are a feature of giant ground sloths. Ameghino claimed that the yemish was a giant ground sloth, which he named Neomylodon.

Mylodon, as opposed to Ameghino’s Neomylodon, was a 10 foot long, or 3 meter, ground sloth that did indeed have osteoderms embedded in its thick hide. It had long, sharp claws and ate plants, probably dug burrows, and lived throughout Patagonia and probably most of South America. The important thing here is that mylodon remains, including dung as well as dead animals, have been found in caves in Patagonia, and the remains look so fresh that the discoverers thought they were only a few years old. It turns out that they’re all about 10,000 years old, but were preserved by cold, dry conditions in the caves.

So the piece of hide was probably really from a giant ground sloth, but not one that had been alive recently. Most researchers think that the sloths of Patagonia were already extinct when the area was first settled by humans, but discoveries of what looked like recently dead animals with fearsome claws and a hide that couldn’t be pierced with arrows might very well have contributed to stories of local monsters.

But that’s beside the point, because once you get past Ameghino’s obsession with the yemish being a real live giant ground sloth, it’s clear it’s something completely un-slothlike. The exact term yemish isn’t known from any language in Patagonia, but it might be a corruption of hymché, a water monster, or yem’chen, which means water tiger in the Aonikenk language. An even closer match from the same language means sea wolf and is pronounced ee-m’cheen [iü’mchün]. Other languages in the area call the elephant seal yabich, which also sounds similar to yemish. In other words, it’s pretty clear that the yemish is a water animal of some sort.

The sea wolf is what we call a sea lion, a type of huge seal. Sea lions and elephant seals sometimes come up rivers and into freshwater lakes, which may account for some of the numerous lake monster legends in Patagonia. As for the hymché, it may have a natural explanation too that is nevertheless just as mysterious as just calling it a monster.

French naturalist André Tournouer explored Patagonia in 1900, and at one point while following a stream, he and his expedition saw what their guide called a hymché. It was the size of a large puma but with dark fur, rounded head, no visible ears, and pale hair around the eyes. It sank under the water when Tournouer shot at it, and later they found some catlike tracks in the sand along the bank.

From the description, it’s possible that the hymché was a spectacled bear. We learned about it in episode 42. It lives in the Andes Mountains of South America but was formerly much more widespread, and is usually black with lighter markings around the eyes that give it its name. Its ears are small and its head is more rounded than other bears. While it spends most of its time in the treetops, it actually does swim quite well. But as far as we know, spectacled bears don’t live in Patagonia.

So, back to the yemish. According to Ameghino’s 1898 paper, he said the Tehuelche referred to it as the water tiger. Since there is no local word for tiger in South America, since tigers live in Asia, this is probably a translation of the local word for puma. The jaguar did formerly live in Patagonia but was hunted to extinction there over a century ago. The yemish supposedly spent much of its time in the river and dragged horses and other animals into the water when they came down to drink. Its feet were flat, its ears tiny, it had big claws and fangs, and its toes were webbed for swimming. It had shorter legs than a puma but was bigger than one.

This sounds like one specific animal that does live in Patagonia, and it’s not a tiger or any kind of feline at all. It may be an otter. Flat feet with claws and webbed toes? Check. Tiny ears and scary teeth? Check. Longer than a puma but with much shorter legs? Check. Otters don’t kill animals as big as horses, of course, but this could be an exaggeration. Otters will scavenge on freshly dead animals, so the story of a mule that fell off a precipice onto a river bank, and was discovered dead and half-eaten the next morning with strange paw prints all around it, fits with an otter family having an unexpected feast delivered to their doorstep.

Not only that, but some tribes do call otters “river tigers.” Stories of monstrous otter-like animals are common throughout much of South America, not just Patagonia, and are frequently translated as “river tiger.” In Monsters of Patagonia, Whittall wonders why some tribes have two names for the otter in that case, an ordinary name and a name denoting a monster. It’s possible the monster version of the otter either refers to a folkloric beast, an animal like a sea lion that was once seen far from its ordinary home, or two kinds of otter in the area, one bigger and more ferocious than the other.

The southern river otter lives in Patagonia, both in rivers and along the seashore. It’s not especially big, maybe four feet long including the tail, or 1.2 meters. But the rare marine otter also lives along the western and southern coasts of Patagonia. Its scientific name, Lontra felina, means “otter cat, and in Spanish it’s often called gato marino, or sea cat. But the marine otter is small, typically smaller than the river otter and at the very most, around five feet long or 1.5 meters.

But if you remember episode 37, about the dobhar-chu, you may remember the giant otter. It lives in South America north of Patagonia and is now endangered, with only around 5,000 animals left in the wild after being hunted extensively for its fur for decades. It’s protected now, although loss of habitat and poaching are still big problems. It grows to around 6 feet long now, or 1.8 meters, but when it was more common some big males could grow over eight feet long, or 2.5 meters. If in the past an occasional giant otter—twice the length of an ordinary otter—strayed into the rivers of Patagonia, it would definitely be seen as a monster.

Whittall rejects the idea that the yemish is an otter, although he doesn’t mention the giant otter. He also rejects the jaguarondi as the yemish since it’s much too small, although it does like to swim and fish and, as mentioned earlier, it does look remarkably like an otter in many ways. He suggests the yemish might be an unknown giant aquatic rodent, citing as proof the existence of a cow-sized rodent that once lived in Patagonia during the ice age. I’m not convinced. Nothing about the yemish sounds like a rodent. It does sound like an otter, possibly a known otter, possibly a now extinct otter—or, maybe, a giant version of the jaguarondi, also now extinct. But maybe not.

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 037: The Dobhar-Chu

This week we’re in Ireland learning about the dobhar-chú, a vicious creature that might be an otter but might be a KING otter! Either way, it’s a killer.

The weird creature carved on Grace Connolly’s gravestone:

How can such an adorable floof be so MURDEROUS? Eurasian otter:

The giant otter (from South America) imitating a sea serpent (hmm):

Giant otter has teeth:

Further reading:

The Search for the Last Undiscovered Animals by Karl PN Shuker

Show transcript:

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

We’re one week closer to Halloween, and it’s time to learn about a mysterious, deadly animal from Ireland called the Dobhar-chú (pronounced do-war-coo). Appropriately enough, our story starts in a graveyard.

Conwall Cemetery is in the town of Drummans, near the valley of Glenade. In the cemetery is a sandstone grave marker lying flat on the ground. It’s about 4 ½ feet wide and nearly two feet high, or 1.37 by .6 meters, and is dated September 24, 1722. The name on the stone is Grace Con, wife of Ter MacLoghlin. But the main part of the stone is made up of a carving of an animal.

I’ll put a picture of the carving in the show notes. It’s not very clear, but basically, it looks like a heavy-bodied dog with limbs folded beneath it as though it’s crouching. It has a long tail although that has mostly worn off. Its head is small, with tiny ears, and its neck is folded back so that its head lies along its back. A hand holds the hilt of a sword that is plunged into the animal’s neck, with the tip of the sword just visible below the belly.

There are various stories and poems about what happened to Grace Con, or Grace Connolly, but they’re all basically the same. Incidentally, it was Gaelic custom for women to retain their maiden names, which is why Grace’s last name doesn’t match her husband’s.

One morning Grace went down to the lake either to wash or to do laundry, reports differ. When she didn’t return home, her husband Terence McGloughlan went to find her. But when he reached the lake, he found his wife’s body–with a monstrous animal, the dobhar-chú, feeding on it. Terence killed the beast, but as it died it gave a piercing whistle or squeal. The squeal was answered by another animal from the lake, which surfaced and charged Terence.

He fled home just ahead of the monster, leaped on his horse, and galloped away with the monster pursuing. Eventually his horse tired, so Terence dismounted and turned the horse sideways across the road to act as a sort of shield. When the dobhar-chú ducked to run beneath the horse’s belly, Terence stabbed it through the heart.

Dobhar-chú is an Irish term meaning water-hound. It’s used as a name for the Eurasian otter, but can also refer to something called a master otter or king otter. But before we go any farther, let’s get some background on the otters that live in Ireland and Scotland, since the legend of the dobhar-chú is known in both places.

The Eurasian otter lives throughout Europe and Asia. It’s shy, solitary, and territorial. It’s a pretty big animal, and some big adult males can grow as long as four and a half feet, or 1.4 meters, including the tail. Females are smaller. The otter’s toes are webbed, which makes it a good swimmer. It’s dark brown above, grayish-brown below, with white or cream-colored markings around the throat and cheeks. It has a long, slender body and flattened head with tiny ears and sensitive whiskers. Oh, and it’s incredibly cute. Oh my gosh is it cute.

The otter eats fish, frogs, and invertebrates like crayfish. It lives in rivers and lakes and likes plenty of cover around the water’s edge. While it prefers fresh water, it will enter the ocean, but it needs fresh water both to drink and to clean salt from its coat. It’s usually nocturnal and is especially active at dusk and dawn, although if an otter’s territory is along the coast it will be more active during the day since it forages in rock pools at low tide for fish and invertebrates. Sometimes people call otters who live along the coast sea otters, but in Great Britain and most of Europe they’re the same type of otter that lives in freshwater.

Instead of having one den, an otter’s territory has a number of places where it sleeps or just hangs out. Above-ground areas are called couches and are well hidden in dense vegetation and frequently on small islands. Underground areas are called holts. A holt might be dug into a river bank, among a big tree’s roots, or just be a crevice among fallen rocks. A mother otter will have her babies in a holt that’s fairly remote from her usual activities. She usually has two or three babies at a time, called cubs.

An otter marks its territory with droppings that actually smell nice, like new-mown hay. I have not smelled them myself so I can’t vouch for this. The droppings are called spraints. While otters were once common throughout Europe, they’re much rarer these days, mostly because they can’t live in polluted streams, and these days they are totally protected. You’re not even allowed to damage an otter’s couch or holt, much less the otter itself.

Now we know about the otter, but what’s a master otter? According to Irish and Scottish folklore, it’s basically a super-otter. It’s much larger than a regular otter and sometimes appears with scores of regular otters as though leading them, and it may have some magic powers. Carrying its pelt, or part of its pelt, is said to protect someone from injury or shipwreck. One description says it’s white except for black ear tips and a black cross on its back, another says it’s half wolf, half fish. One account from 1684 calls it an Irish crocodile and describes it as “of the pitch of an ordinary greyhound, of a black slimy skin, without hair,” and says it’s also called a water-dog or Anchu. Whatever it is, it’s rare and dangerous.

So what might it be? As it happens, there is a species of otter that sounds a lot like the dobhar-chú. It’s called the giant otter, and while these days a big male is not much more than about 5 and a half feet long, or 1.7 meters, in the past before they were nearly driven extinct for their fur, big males sometimes grew eight feet long, or 2.4 meters. Those lengths don’t even include the tail. The giant otter is brown or reddish in color, but when it’s wet it looks black. It has a white pattern on its throat that individuals use to identify each other, because unlike other otters, the giant otter is social, communicates with its clan members with whistles and other noises, is mostly active during the day, and can be aggressive. All this sure sounds like the dobhar-chú. The only problem is, the giant otter lives in South America, an entire ocean away from Europe.

Could a similar species of giant otter have once lived in Ireland and Scotland? We don’t have very many otter fossils, unfortunately–but we do have a recently discovered fossil of a new otter species from China. It’s been named Siamogale melilutra and it’s twice the size of the giant otter. From its teeth, it probably ate a lot of freshwater shellfish. The fossil dates to 6.24 million years ago, so it’s not likely that it was running around in Ireland in the early 18th century. But it’s interesting to know that really big otters did once exist in Asia, so it’s always possible that a species of rare giant otter also lived in parts of Europe until fairly recently.

Of course, it might be that the dobhar-chú really is just a folktale and not based on a real animal at all. Some accounts of a king otter say it’s the seventh cub of an ordinary otter, and the king otter’s magical attributes also push it farther into the realm of folklore than objective reality. It’s also possible that the dobhar-chú and the king otter are completely different animals, one real, one a folktale, with some confusion between the two since that’s just how people think.

I’m inclined to think that might be the case. So if we assume that the dobhar-chú is just an unusually large otter, does it fit the reported story? Do otters ever attack people?

Otter attacks are extremely rare, and usually only occur if a mother otter feels someone is threatening her cubs. In North America, where the river otter is very similar to the Eurasian otter, only 44 documented cases of an otter attacking a human have been recorded since 1875. Then again, when an otter does attack it can actually kill a human. Heck, the North American river otter occasionally kills alligators. An otter’s bite is similar in strength to that of a big dog, and it will chase people for at least a short distance if provoked. It can run 18 mph, or 30 km per hour. Usain Bolt can sprint 28 mph, or 45 km per hour, but most of us are a lot slower no matter how motivated we are.

In August of 2016, a Quebec woman swimming in a lake was attacked by an otter that repeatedly bit her legs until she managed to reach a dock with a ladder. Fortunately the otter didn’t chase her once she left the water. Needless to say, this is extremely unusual behavior for an otter, but it does happen. In 2014 an eight-year-old boy and his grandmother were swimming in a river in Washington state when an otter attacked the boy. When his grandmother came to his rescue, the otter turned on her. In 2013 a woman swimming in Yellowstone National Park was bitten and clawed by an otter. Her face, arms, and hands were bitten and some bones in her right hand broken. Fortunately, all these people recovered fully, but all of them had to spend time in the hospital.

So if Grace Connolly was in the lake back in 1733, bathing or washing clothes, and an otter took exception to her presence, it might well have killed her. The rest of the story might be embellishment or the otter might have also chased or attacked Grace’s husband before he managed to kill it. Either way, I don’t think we need to hypothesize about a rare giant otter in this case. A regular otter in a bad mood is scary enough.

Those little guys are cute as all get out, but don’t get too close. They bite.

Next week we’ll take a look at another water monster, this one from the sea–a weird and hideous two-legged fish thing–as we get closer and closer to Halloween.

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Thanks for listening!