Tag Archives: penguins

Episode 278: Gender Diverse Animals



This week is Connor’s episode, and we’re going to learn about some animals that don’t conform to “typical” gender roles, one way or another.

I’ll be at ConCarolinas this week, from June 3 through 5, including recording a live crossover episode with Arcane Carolinas!

Further reading:

Species of algae with three sexes that all mate in pairs identified in Japanese river

How a microbe chooses among seven sexes

Facultative Parthenogenesis in California Condors

The sparrow with four sexes

Chinstrap penguins make good dads:

Laysan albatrosses make good moms:

Black swans make good dads:

Some rams really like other rams (photo by Henry Holdsworth):

New Mexico whiptail lizards are all females:

California condor females don’t always need a male to produce fertilized eggs:

Clownfish change sex under some circumstances:

The white-throated sparrow essentially has four sexes:

You are awesome (photo by By Eric Rolph)!

Show transcript:

“Hey y’all, this is Connor. Welcome to a very special Pride Month edition of the Strange Animals Podcast.”

This week we have Connor’s episode! We decided to make it the very last episode in our Kickstarter month so that it’s as close to the month of June as possible, because June is Pride Month and our episode is about gender-diverse animals! Don’t worry, parents of very young children, we won’t be discussing mating practices except in very general terms.

Pride month celebrates people’s differences when it comes to gender expression and sexuality. That’s why its symbol is the rainbow, because a rainbow is made up of all different colors the same way there are different kinds of people. Sometimes people get angry when they hear about Pride month because they think there are only two genders, and that those two genders should only behave in certain ways. Pffft. That’s not even true when it comes to animals, and humans are a lot more socially complicated.

For instance, let’s start by talking about a humble creature called algae. If you remember episode 129, about the blurry line between animals and plants, you may remember that algae isn’t actually a plant or an animal. Some species resemble plants more than animals, like kelp, but they’re not actually plants. In July of 2021, scientists in Japan announced that a species of freshwater algae has three sexes: male, female, and bisexual. All three sexes can pair up with any of the others to reproduce and their offspring may be male, female, or bisexual at random.

Even though the algae has been known to science for a long time, no one realized it has three sexes because most of the time, algae reproduces by cloning itself. The research team thinks that a lot of algae species may have three sexes but researchers just haven’t been looking for it.

Yes, I realize that was a weird place to start, but it’s also fascinating! It’s also not even nearly as complicated as a protozoan called Tetrahymena thermophila, which has seven sexes.

Let’s look at a bird next, the penguin. You’ve probably heard of the book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who adopt an egg and raise the baby chick together. For some reason some people get so angry at those penguins! Never trust someone who doesn’t like baby penguins, and never trust someone who thinks animals should act like humans. The events in the book are based on a true story, where two male chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo formed a pair bond and tried to hatch a rock, although they also tried to steal eggs from the other penguins. A zookeeper gave the pair an extra penguin egg to hatch instead.

The most interesting thing about the story is that same-sex couples are common among penguins, in both captivity and in the wild, among both males and females. Since penguins sometimes lay two eggs but most species can only take care of one chick properly, zookeepers often give the extra eggs to same-sex penguin pairs. The adoptive parents are happy to raise a baby together and the baby is more likely to survive and be healthy. Occasionally a same-sex penguin couple will adopt an egg abandoned by its parents.

If you remember episode 263 a few months ago, where we talked about animals that mate for life, you may remember the Laysan albatross. In that episode we learned about a specific Laysan albatross named Wisdom, the oldest wild bird in the world as far as we know. While I was researching Wisdom, I learned something marvelous. As many as 30% of all Laysan albatross pairs are both females. Sometimes one of the females will mate with a male and lay a fertilized egg, and then both females raise the baby as a couple. Sometimes one of the females lays an unfertilized egg that doesn’t hatch. There are many more Laysan albatross females than males, which may be the reason why females form pairs, but it’s perfectly normal behavior. It’s also been a real help to conservationists. Sometimes an albatross pair will nest in an area that’s not safe, like on an airfield. Instead of leaving the egg to be smashed by an airplane, conservationists take the fertilized egg from the unsafe nest and use it to replace the unfertilized egg of a female pair. The egg is safe and the chick has adoptive parents who raise it as their own.

Many other birds develop same-sex pairs too. This is especially common in the black swan, where up to a quarter of pairs are both male. One or both of the males will mate with a female, but after she lays her eggs the males take care of them and the cygnets after they hatch. Cygnets raised by two dads are much more likely to survive than cygnets raised by one mom and one dad. The males are stronger and more aggressive, so they can defend the nest and babies more effectively.

Birds aren’t the only animals that form same-sex pair bonds. Many mammals do too. It’s been documented in the wild in lions, elephants, gorillas, bonobos, dolphins, and many more. In species that don’t typically form pair bonds, homosexual behavior is still pretty common. It’s so common among domestic sheep that shepherds have to take into account the fact that up to 10% of rams prefer to mate with other rams instead of with ewes. Some rams show attraction to both males and females. This happens in wild sheep too, where rams may court other rams the same way they court ewes. Some ewes also show homosexual behavior.

The New Mexico whiptail is a lizard that lives in parts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It can grow over nine inches long, or 23 cm, and is black or brown with yellow racing stripes. It eats insects and is an active, slender lizard that’s common throughout its range. And every single New Mexico whiptail lizard is a female.

The lizards reproduce by a process called parthenogenesis. That basically means an animal reproduces asexually without needing to have its eggs fertilized. The lizards do mate, though, but not with males. Females practice mating behaviors with each other, which researchers think causes a hormone change that allows eggs to develop. Females who don’t mate don’t develop eggs.

Female birds can sometimes reproduce asexually too. It’s been documented in turkeys, chickens, pigeons, finches, and even condors. A study published in late 2021 detailed two instances of parthenogenesis in California condors in a captive breeding program. In both cases the females were housed with their male mates, and in both cases the pairs had produced offspring together before. But in both cases, for some reason the females laid eggs that hatched into chicks that were genetically identical to the mothers. It’s possible parthenogenesis is even more common in birds than researchers thought.

In many species of reptile, whether a baby is a male or female depends completely on how warm its egg gets during incubation. For example, the American alligator. The mother gator builds a nest of plant material and lays her eggs in it. As the plant material decays, it releases heat that keeps the eggs warm. How much heat is generated depends on where the mother alligator builds her nest and what plants she uses, which in turns affects the eggs. If the temperature in the nest is under 86 degrees Fahrenheit, or 30 Celsius, during the first few weeks of incubation, most or all of the eggs will hatch into females. If the temperature is 93 F or 34 C, most or all of the eggs will hatch into males. If the temperature is between the two extremes, there will be a mix of males and females, although usually more females.

Because climate change has caused an overall increase in temperatures across the world, some already vulnerable reptile populations, especially sea turtles, are hatching almost all males. Conservationists have to dig up the eggs and incubate them at a cooler temperature in captivity, then release the babies into the ocean when they hatch.

Other animals change from male to female or vice versa, depending on circumstances. The clownfish, for example. Clownfish start out life as males but as they grow up, most become females, although only the dominant pair in a colony actually reproduces. Clownfish live in colonies led by the largest, most aggressive female, with the largest, most aggressive male in the group as her mate. If something happens to her, her former mate takes her place, becoming a female in the process. The largest juvenile male then becomes her mate and remains male even though he puts on a growth spurt to mature quickly. If Finding Nemo was scientifically accurate, it would have been a much different movie.

Another group of fish that live around reefs are wrasses, which includes the famous cleaner fish that cleans parasites and dead tissue off of larger fish. Wrasses hatch into both males and females, but the males aren’t the same type of males that can breed. Those develop later. When the dominant breeding male of the group dies, the largest female or the largest non-breeding male then develops into a breeding male. But sometimes a non-breeding male will develop into a female instead.

The term for an animal that changes sex as part of its natural growth process is sequential hermaphroditism. It’s common in fish and crustaceans in particular. Other animals have the reproductive organs of both a male and a female, especially many species of snail, slug, earthworm, sea slug, and some fish. We talked about the mangrove killifish in episode 133, and in that episode I said it was the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite. That’s actually not accurate, although I was close. It’s the only known vertebrate hermaphrodite that can self-fertilize. Almost all mangrove killifish are females, although they also produce sperm to fertilize their own eggs. The eggs hatch into little clones of the mother.

We’ve talked about seahorses before too, especially in episode 130. Seahorse pairs form bonds that last throughout the breeding season. The pair participate in courtship dances and spend most of their time together. When the eggs are ready, the female deposits them in a special brood pouch in the male’s belly, where he fertilizes them. They then embed themselves in the spongy wall of the brood pouch and are nourished not only by the yolk sacs in the eggs, but by the male, who secretes nutrients in the brood pouch. So basically the male is pregnant. The female visits him every day to check on him, usually in the mornings. When the eggs hatch after a few weeks, the male expels the babies from his pouch and they swim away, because when they hatch they are perfectly formed teeny-tiny miniature seahorses.

Let’s finish with a little songbird that’s common throughout eastern North America, the white-throated sparrow. It has a white patch on its throat and a bright yellow spot between the eye and the bill. There are two color morphs, one with black and white stripes on its head, one with brown and tan stripes on its head. Both males and females have these head stripes. The male sings a pretty song that sounds like this:

[white-throated sparrow call]

A 30-year study into white-throated sparrow genetics has revealed some amazing things. The color morphs are due to a genetic difference that affects a lot more than just feather colors. Black morph males are better singers, but they don’t guard their territory as well or take care of their babies as well as brown morphs do. They also aren’t as faithful to their mates as the brown morph males, which are fully monogamous and are diligent about helping take care of their babies. Despite their differences in raising offspring, both morphs are equally successful and equally common.

All this seems to be no big deal on the surface, maybe just pointing to the possibility that the species is in the process of splitting into two species or subspecies. But that’s not the case.

Black morphs always mate with brown morphs. A black morph male will always have a brown morph mate, and vice versa. Genetically, the two morphs are incredibly different—so different, in fact, that they seem to be developing a fully different set of sex chromosomes. In other words, there are male and female black morph birds and male and female brown morph birds that are totally different genetically, but still members of the same species that only ever breed with each other. In essence, the white-throated sparrow has four sexes.

Usually I try to end episodes with something funny, but today I’m going to speak directly to you. Yes, you! If you’re listening to this or reading the transcript, my words are meant just for you. You are an amazing person and I love you. You deserve to be happy. If anyone has ever told you there’s something wrong with the way you are, or the way you wish you were or want to be, they’re wrong. They probably also don’t like penguins, so you don’t have to believe anything they say. If you’ve ever read books by Terry Pratchett, you may recognize this quote: “Be yourself, as hard as you can.”

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 265: Penguins!



Thanks to Page for suggesting we talk about penguins this week!

A big birthday shout-out to EllieHorseLover this week too!

Further reading:

March of the penguins (in Norway)

Rare Yellow Penguin Bewilders Scientists

Giant Waikato penguin: school kids discover new species

An ordinary king penguin with the rare “yellow” king penguin spotted in early 2021 (photo by Yves Adams, taken from article linked above):

Show transcript:

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

I was looking over the ideas list recently and noticed that Page had suggested we cover a specific bird way back in 2020! It’s about time we get to it, so thanks to Page we’re going to learn about penguins this week, including a penguin mystery.

But first, we have a birthday shout-out! Happy birthday to EllieHorseLover, whose birthday comes right before next week’s episode comes out. Have a fantastic birthday, Ellie, and I agree with you about horses. They are awesome and so are you.

Also, a quick correction from last week’s episode about Dolly the dinosaur. If you listened to episode 264 the day it came out, you heard the incorrect version, but I was able to correct it and upload the new version late that day. Many thanks to Llewelly, who pointed out that Dolly hasn’t actually been identified as a Diplodocus, just as a sauropod in the family Diplodocidae. Paleontologists are still studying the fossil and probably will be for some time. Also, I said that sauropods aren’t related to birds but that’s not the case. Sauropods share a common ancestor with birds and that’s why they both have the same kind of unusual respiratory system.

So, speaking of birds, it’s time to learn about penguins! We’ve talked about penguins twice before, but not recently at all. It’s about time we really dug into the topic.

Penguins live in the southern hemisphere, including Antarctica. The only exception is the Galapagos penguin, which we talked about in episode 99, which lives just north of the equator. Penguins are considered aquatic birds because they’re so well adapted to swimming and they spend most of their time in the ocean finding food. Instead of wings, their front limbs are flippers that they use to maneuver in the water. They’re incredibly streamlined too, with a smooth, dense coat of feathers to help keep them warm in cold water without slowing them down.

One of the ways a penguin keeps from freezing in the bitterly cold winters of Antarctica and in cold water is by a trick of anatomy that most other animals don’t have. The artery that supplies blood to the flippers crosses over the veins that return blood from the flippers deeper into the body. The arterial blood is warm since it’s been through the body’s core, but the blood that has just traveled through the flippers has lost a lot of heat. Because the veins and the arteries cross several times, the cold venal blood is warmed by the warm arterial blood where the blood vessels touch, which means the blood returning into the body’s core is warm enough that it doesn’t chill the body.

Penguins groom their feathers carefully to keep them clean and spread oil over them. The oil and the feathers’ nanostructures keep them from icing over when a penguin gets out of the water in sub-zero temperatures. The feathers are not only super-hydrophobic, meaning they repel water, their structure acts as an anti-adhesive. That means ice can’t stick to the feathers no matter how cold it is. In 2016 researchers created a nanofiber membrane that repels water and ice with the same nanostructures found in penguin feathers. It could eventually be used to ice-proof electrical wires and airplane wings.

Penguin feathers also trap a thin layer of air, which helps the penguin stay buoyant in the water and helps keep its skin warm and dry.

While a penguin is awkward on land, it’s fast and agile in the water. It mostly eats small fish, squid and other cephalopods, krill and other crustaceans, and other small animals, and it can dive deeply to find food. The emperor penguin is the deepest diver, with the deepest recorded dive being over 1,800 feet, or 565 meters. The gentoo penguin has been recorded swimming 22 mph underwater, or 36 km/hour.

Penguins are famous for being mostly black and white, but in 2010, a study of an extinct early penguin revealed that it looked much different. The fossil was found in Peru and is incredibly detailed. The flipper shape is clear, proving that even 36 million years ago penguins were already fully aquatic. Even some of the feathers are preserved, allowing researchers to reconstruct the bird’s coloration from melanosomes in the fossilized feathers. They show that instead of black and white, the extinct penguin was reddish-brown and gray. The bird was also one of the biggest penguins known, up to five feet long, or 1.5 meters.

Another species of extinct penguin was discovered in 2006 in New Zealand by a group of school children on a field trip. The New Zealand penguin lived between about 28 and 34 million years ago and while it wasn’t as big as the Peru fossil penguin, it had longer legs that made it about 4.5 feet tall, or 1.4 meters. It was described as a new species in September of 2021 and somehow I missed that one when I was researching the 2021 discoveries episode.

The smallest penguin alive today is the fairy penguin, which only grows 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the southern coasts of Australia and Chile, and all around New Zealand’s coasts. It’s also called the little blue penguin because its head is gray-blue. The largest penguin is the emperor penguin, which lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm.

The king penguin looks like a slightly smaller version of the emperor penguin, which makes sense because they’re closely related. It can stand over 3 feet tall, or 100 cm. Its numbers are in decline due to climate change that has caused some of the small fish and squid the penguins eat to move away from the penguin’s nesting grounds. Large-scale commercial fishing has also reduced the number of fish available to penguins. As a result, the penguins have a hard time finding enough food for themselves and their babies. King penguins are protected, though, and conservation efforts are in place to stop commercial fishing near their nesting grounds. A ban on commercial fishing around Robben Island in South Africa, where the endangered African penguin nests, increased the survival of chicks by 18%, so hopefully the same will be true for the king penguin.

In early 2021, a Belgian wildlife photographer named Yves Adams was leading a group of photographers on an island where king penguins live. They spotted a group of the penguins swimming nearby when Adams noticed that one of the penguins seemed really pale. It was yellowish-white instead of black and white, although it did have the yellow markings on its head and breast that other king penguins have. It and the other penguins came ashore and Adams got lots of pictures of it. Ornithologists who have studied the pictures aren’t sure what kind of genetic anomaly has caused the penguin’s coloration, but with luck scientists will be able to find it again and take a genetic sample.

The king penguin is also the subject of a small penguin mystery, but the mystery starts with the great auk. As we talked about in episode 78, the name penguin was originally used for a bird also called the great auk or gairfowl, which lived in the northern hemisphere. It was common throughout its range until people decided to start killing them by the thousands for their feathers and meat. By 1844, the last pair of great auks were killed. The great auk was a black and white aquatic bird that looked a lot like a penguin due to convergent evolution.

The story goes that in the late 1930s people started seeing great auks on the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway. Since this was 70 years after the great auk officially went extinct, the reports caused a flurry of excitement.

While a small, scattered population of great auks probably did persist for years or even decades after their official extinction, once an expedition investigated the Lofoten Islands they discovered not auks but penguins. Specifically, a small group of king penguins. How did the penguins get there from their natural range in various sub-Antarctic islands on the other side of the world?

Some reports say whalers captured some penguins as pets and later released them, but it actually appears that the introduction of nine king penguins to two islands off the coast of Norway was done by the Nature Protection Society, backed by the Norwegian government, in 1936. The penguins were still there until at least 1944, with the last sighting coming from 1954.

These weren’t the only penguins released in the islands. In 1938 the Norwegian government released around 60 other penguins from various species onto the islands. The goal was to establish penguin breeding colonies in Norwegian waters in a confused attempt to claim the Antarctic for Norwegian whaling. The real mystery is why they thought that would work.

Very occasionally, a stray penguin is found in the northern hemisphere with no idea how it got there. In the past, people assumed the penguin got lost and swam the wrong way or got pushed away from its homeland by storms, but these days biologists think these lost penguins were transported by fishing boats. Sometimes a penguin will get tangled in a fishing net and hauled aboard by accident, and the fishers will untangle it and keep it as a pet for a while before setting it free. It would be better if the penguin was set free immediately so it could return to its home, but it’s better than being killed. Just ask the penguin.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Podchaser, or just tell a friend. We also have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us for as little as one dollar a month and get monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 099: Island Life



Those of us in the northern hemisphere are thinking a lot about island life right about now, where it’s warm and sunny. But there are islands everywhere, not just the tropics, and the animals on islands often evolve to look strange and different from their mainland cousins. Thanks to Richard E. and Lucy for their suggestions this week!

A fossa:

A tamaraw, miniature water buffalo:

A Socotra starling, my new favorite bird:

Adorable little Galapagos penguin:

A dragonblood tree, good grief!

A blue baboon. It’s not a baboon but it is blue:

A ground dragon:

Further listening:

The unlocked Patreon bonus episode about vampire finches on the Galapagos Islands

Show transcript:

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

In a lot of episodes, we talk about animals from islands like the Galapagos and the Canaries. There’s a reason why islands give rise to strange animals. This week we’ll focus on island life—how island habitats lead to unique animals and how introduced animals can destroy an entire island ecosystem in a matter of a few years. Massive thanks to listener Richard E., who suggested the topics of introduced animals and island life!

Islands, of course, are surrounded by water and isolated from larger landmasses as a result. Some are close to the mainland so it’s easy for animals to swim or float across to the island. In cold areas, animals can sometimes walk across ice to islands. But other islands are more remote, or used to be close to the mainland but were pushed farther away by tectonic forces.

Once a piece of land is cut off from the mainland, the animals and plants on that piece of land start to evolve independently of the larger population of animals and plants on the mainland. If the island is isolated enough that potential predators can’t get to it, the animals already living on the island start to adapt to life with no or few predators. As a result, they may appear tame when humans arrive.

And that is where the problems start. Humans don’t just arrive alone. We bring other animals with us, either on purpose, like dogs, cats, and livestock, or by accident, like rats and mice. And these animals, along with humans, can destroy an entire island habitat really easily.

I’ll use one of Richard’s examples, since it’s a good one and not one you’d think of when thinking of islands. The red squirrel is native to Europe and parts of Asia, but it also lives in the UK and Ireland. It’s usually red-brown in color, although some populations can be brown, gray, or even black. The belly is white. It has long ear tufts and a poofy tail. It lives in trees and eats seeds, nuts, berries, fungi, and occasionally eggs or baby birds.

But remember, Ireland and the UK are islands. And in the 1870s, someone thought it would be really great to import eastern gray squirrels from North America and release them in parks in the UK. In Ireland, in 1911 someone gave a bunch of gray squirrels as a wedding gift, which is not a great gift, honestly, and they got loose because of course they did. They’re squirrels.

Grey squirrels are larger than red squirrels and don’t have ear tufts. They eat the same foods red squirrels do. They also carry a disease called squirrel parapoxvirus that doesn’t bother them but which kills red squirrels. The population of red squirrels has dropped substantially as introduced gray squirrel populations climb in the UK and Ireland. The red squirrel is now protected, with conservation efforts in place that are making a difference. But that just goes to show how easy it is to lose even a well-established species on large islands when an outside species is introduced.

On islands, especially smaller islands, small animals tend to grow larger overall and big animals tend to grow smaller overall. This is called Foster’s rule. It comes about partly because there are fewer predators but limited resources. Small animals don’t need to hide as carefully from predators, large animals may not be able to get enough to eat, but medium-sized animals are able to survive short famines without starving and can take advantage of some resources smaller or larger animals couldn’t use.

One example of island gigantism is the fossa, a predator from Madagascar. If you’ve seen the Madagascar movies, you might remember the fossa as a scary predator that looks something like a big cat. Well, the fossa is a real animal, but it’s not related to cats. It’s related to the mongoose, which is a weasel-like animal, but the fossa is generally much larger than a mongoose. It grows some five feet long, or 1.5 meters, including its tail, although its legs are short compared to those of a similarly-sized cat. It spends a lot of time in trees, where it uses its long tail to help it balance. It’s reddish-brown with a paler belly and eats lemurs and other mammals, birds, insects, crabs, lizards, and even fruit.

An example of island dwarfism is the tamaraw from the island of Mindoro in the Philippines, also called a Mindoro dwarf buffalo. It looks like its close relative, the water buffalo, but is much smaller, only about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, or 105 cm. It’s like a pocket-sized water buffalo. It has V-shaped horns and is black with some white markings on the legs. It prefers to live in mountainous forested areas with water nearby, and it eats grass, young bamboo shoots, and wild sugarcane. It’s a solitary, shy animal.

Famously, Charles Darwin worked out the theory of evolution after examining the differences in finches living on the various Galapagos Islands. He had actually already started thinking along these lines before he’d really examined the finches, but they supported his ideas and helped him work out the details. Basically, as Darwin eventually determined, a type of finch had colonized the islands at some point in the far distant past. Each island had slightly different ecology, so although the finches could fly, over the years populations living on separate islands began to adapt to better fit the resources available on those islands. For instance, the large ground finch has developed a short, heavy bill to crack nuts, while the closely related vampire ground finch has a thinner, sharper bill that it uses to eat insects, seeds, and the BLOOD OF OTHER BIRDS. I am totally not making this up. In fact, I covered the vampire finch in a patreon bonus episode earlier this year. It’s already unlocked for anyone to listen to, so if you haven’t listened to it and want to, I’ll put a link in the show notes.

Remember that squirrel disease I mentioned earlier? There’s a bird disease called avipoxvirus, or avian pox, that has affected the Galapagos finches since 1898. Researchers think it was probably spread by humans who brought infected domestic birds with them on ships. Fortunately, it hasn’t driven any finches or other birds to extinction.

Another problem brought to the Galapagos Islands by humans, this one spread more recently by tourist boats, is a parasitic nest fly that kills baby birds. Researchers have started leaving cotton balls treated with a mild insecticide where the flies are known to attack endangered finches. The parent finches use the cotton balls to line their nests, which helps protect the babies once they hatch. The nest flies lay their eggs in the nests, and the larvae bite babies and mother birds and drink their blood, which can kill the babies. So far the treatment has helped reduce the number of larvae that hatch.

There’s another bird that lives on the Galapagos that is unique to the islands, and that’s the Galapagos penguin. Thanks to Lucy, who suggested it as a topic, and a shout-out to Lucy’s sister Willa too!

Lucy also wanted to hear about King and Gentoo penguins, so let’s start with them. Both species mostly nest on islands.

The King penguin is almost as big as the Emperor penguin and looks very similar, not surprising since they’re closely related. It stands over three feet tall, or 100 cm. It eats small fish, squid, and krill. Females lay one egg at a time and after the egg hatches, the baby spends its first month or so of life sitting on one parent’s feet while the other parent forages. After that both parents leave the baby in a communal nest, called a crèche, while both go foraging. A young king penguin won’t be able to fish for itself until it’s more than a year old.

The Gentoo penguin lives off the southern tip of South America, and it’s almost as tall as the king penguin, but it’s not closely related to the king and emperor penguins. The Gentoo penguin has a reddish bill and a white stripe on its head above its eyes. The female usually lays two eggs in a nest made of round stones. Gentoo penguins value good nesting stones, and a male may court a female by offering her high-quality stones. Sometimes he has stolen those good stones from other penguin nests. Watch out, ladies. The Gentoo penguin eats krill and other small crustaceans for the bulk of the diet, and also eats fish and squid.

So that gives us a sort of baseline of ordinary penguins to compare to the Galapagos penguin. All other penguins all live in the southern hemisphere, usually not all that far from Antarctica. Part of the Galapagos Islands are in the northern hemisphere, although just barely. Penguins are adapted to severe cold, so how do Galapagos penguins thrive near the equator? As it happens, the waters around the Galapagos are actually quite cold, with various oceanic currents bringing cold water north from the Antarctic and bringing cold water from the depths to the surface in the area. Unlike other penguin species, which often travel widely to find food, the Galapagos penguin stays near the islands where the water is comfortably cool and there’s enough food. On hot days, penguins go into the water to stay cool.

The Galapagos penguin is only about 19 inches tall, or 49 cm. It’s almost the smallest penguin and is definitely the rarest penguin, with only about 1,000 breeding pairs. It mates for life and females lay one or two eggs, making sure to lay eggs in the shade so they won’t get too hot in the sun. If both eggs hatch, the weaker baby usually dies as the parents concentrate on feeding the stronger one. Then again, in good years, grown babies who have moved out of the nest may continue to beg their parents for food and sometimes get fed. I know some people like that. In addition to ordinary predators like seals and hawks, the Galapagos penguin is also vulnerable to introduced predators like cats.

We’ve talked a lot about the Galapagos Islands, but every island has its own unique ecosystem. For example, the island of Socotra lies in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Yemen. It’s only 82 miles long, or 132 km, and 31 miles wide, or 50 km. There are three other, smaller islands nearby. It’s been so isolated for so long that even its trees are bizarre-looking, like the dragon’s blood tree that has dense branches with leaves sticking up at the very top so that it looks like grass growing on top of a weird tree-shaped cliff. The tree also has red sap that has been traditionally used as a dye or varnish.

Humans have lived on the Socotra for 2,000 years, so many endemic species have gone extinct due to habitat loss, hunting, and competition or predation by introduced animals like cats and cattle. But there are still a lot of unusual animals that are found nowhere else in the world. The island has only one native mammal species, a bat, and no amphibians, but it has lots of reptiles and some birds found nowhere else in the world. For instance, the Socotra starling. It’s a large, beautiful songbird with a black body and soft gray head and neck, a heavy black bill, and a black eye with a thin white eye ring. It eats insects and fruit. Socotra is also surrounded by coral reefs with lots of unique fish and crabs.

One interesting animal that lives on Socotra Island is called the blue baboon. But it’s not a baboon or any other kind of primate. It’s not even a mammal. It’s a tarantula, and it’s beautiful! It’s a lovely indigo blue in color with white hairs on the abdomen and the top joints of the legs. Its legspan is about five inches across, or 12 cm, and males are smaller than females. Unlike most other tarantula species, it tolerates others instead of being solitary, so people often keep them as pets. Fortunately, it’s become so popular in captivity that there are lots of captive-bred blue baboons readily available, so the market for illegally collected wild specimens has diminished.

I’ve talked a lot about how animals in island habitats can be driven to extinction very easily, but there are success stories too. For instance, the island of Redonda. It’s a tiny island in the Caribbean, only about a mile long, or 1.6 km, with no source of fresh water and land that’s basically just rock. For centuries no one bothered Redonda because no one wanted to live there, but in the late 19th century it was mined for bird guano, or bird poop, which was used as fertilizer. This went on until 1914, and then in 1929 a hurricane destroyed what was left of the mining equipment. The few people who lived there left, but there were still rats and feral goats that ate everything they could find.

Redonda might have become a wasteland with nothing but rats, goats, and a few birds, but an ambitious conservation effort is paying off. First, the rats and goats were trapped and removed from the island. The rats were mostly killed, but the goats were taken to nearby Antigua where they’ve found homes. Then—and this is important—people left the island alone. Without introduced species and without human interference, the population of endemic animals have begun to rebound. Native plants and trees have started growing back. Rare seabirds nest there again. Instead of a big rock, the island now appears green again.

And the population of lizards on the island is rebounding like crazy. In just a year, the number of ground dragons has almost doubled. Ground dragons are lizards only found on the island. They’re shiny black with long tails and eat pretty much anything they can catch, including young ground dragons.

Sometimes all it takes for nature to be set right is to just leave it alone to do what it does best. Sometimes humans have to help by restoring keystone species to a habitat. This has happened with giant Aldabra tortoises, which were once common on the island of Mauritius, the same island where the dodo once lived. A species of ebony tree had nearly been driven extinct by logging, but even after logging was stopped in the 1980s, the trees hadn’t rebounded. Researchers determined that giant tortoises had once eaten the ebony tree fruit and pooped out the seeds, much like the dodo and the rare dodo tree palm. When giant tortoises were reintroduced to Mauritius, new ebony trees started to sprout.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.com. We’re on Twitter at strangebeasties and have a facebook page at facebook.com/strangeanimalspodcast. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 078: The Great Auk and Penguins



Let’s learn about the great auk this week, along with some lookalike birds, penguins!

A great auk, as painted by Audubon:

A razorbill, the auk’s closest living relative:

A fairy penguin, so tiny:

An emperor penguin, so big:

Tony Signorini wearing his Hoax Shoes:

Show transcript:

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

This week’s topic is one I’ve had on my list to cover for some time, and a couple of people whose names I forgot to write down also suggested. It’s the great auk, and while we’re at it we’re going to learn about penguins too.

Picture this bird in your mind. It’s big, close to three feet tall, or 85 cm, black with a white belly and white spots over the eyes during breeding season. It has a big dark bill and eats fish and crustaceans. Its feet are webbed and it’s flightless, because instead of flying, it swims, fast and agile in the water but clumsy on land. It’s social, nesting in big colonies and laying one egg, which both parents incubate. Both parents also help feed the chick when it hatches. Pairs mate for life. And it lives in cold waters of the North Atlantic from eastern Canada to Greenland and Iceland over to the western coast of Europe.

Wait a minute, you say, knowledgeably, because you know a thing or two about penguins. Penguins live in the southern hemisphere. What is going on??

The great auk is going on, my friend. And while the similarities between the great auk and the various species of penguin are striking, they’re not closely related at all. The great auk’s scientific name is Pinguinus impennis, and it was sometimes called a penguin, but the penguin is named after the auk because of the similarities between the two. The most obvious difference between the great auk and the penguin is the bill. Penguins have relatively small, sharp bills, but great auk bills were much larger and heavier, grooved and with a hook at the end.

So is the great auk still around? I sure made it sound like it was still around, didn’t I? Unfortunately, no. The last known great auks were killed on June 3, 1844, with a few sightings in the years after. The last probable sighting of a great auk was in 1852. But it had been a really common bird for a long time. What was it like, and what happened to it?

The great auk lived almost its whole life in the water. It only came out to breed and lay eggs, one egg per couple. Its babies grew fast and took to the sea when only a few weeks old, but the parents continued to feed their baby and care for it in the water. Sometimes a young auk would ride on its parent’s back as it swam.

It was incredibly at home in the water. It could hold its breath for something like 15 minutes, could dive deeply and swim so quickly that it could shoot up out of the water to land on ledges well above the ocean’s surface. Because of its swimming ability and its size, it wasn’t scared of very many animals. Polar bears, orcas, and a few other large predators sometimes ate it, but its main predator was these aggressive apes called humans. Maybe you’ve heard of them.

People killed the great auk for food, for feathers, and to use its skin and bones as decorative items. Its remains have been found at Neandertal campsites too. And because it was a large, plentiful bird, people hunted it and hunted it and hunted it. The great auk was already nearly extinct around Europe by the mid 16th century, since it was killed for its down, which was used to stuff pillows. Auk eggs were also collected for food. And as the bird became rarer, museums decided they had better get specimens while they could. The last great auks were killed so they could be stuffed and mounted.

So if there’s a great auk, is there a lesser auk? There is, and it’s still around! The little auk is only about 8 inches long, or 21 cm, but unlike the great auk it can fly. It eats small fish, crustaceans, and invertebrates. But the razorbill is a much closer relative.

The razorbill has a lot in common with the great auk but it’s much smaller, only up to 17 inches high, or 43 cm. It also flies. It was once hunted for its meat and feathers, but after it was protected in 1917 its numbers rebounded. Its primary problem these days is pollution of its breeding sites.

There was once a group of even bigger auks than the great auk. The Mancallinae were flightless and lived on the western North American coast. The largest species was Miomancalla howardae, which went extinct almost 5 million years ago. It stood more than three feet tall, or 1 meter, but was heavier and bulkier than the great auk.

As for penguins, fortunately, they’re still around although they’re all threatened due to pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. They have no natural fear of humans, probably because they have no land predators in Antarctica. Polar bears and walruses live near the Arctic, which is in the northern hemisphere, and sled dogs aren’t allowed in Antarctica. I did not know that until just now. I mean, I knew the polar bears and walruses part, not the dog part.

The smallest penguin is called the fairy penguin, and it’s only 16 inches tall at most, or 40 cm. It lives off the coast of Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Its head is blue, which is why it’s also called the little blue penguin. Like other penguin species, it eats fish, cephalopods like squid, and crustaceans such as krill. It especially likes jellyfish.

The largest penguin is, of course, the emperor penguin, famous from March of the Penguins. If you haven’t seen that documentary, you’ll learn lots of things about emperor penguins and will also cry. The march in the  title is the migration the penguins take to breeding colonies, where they may walk over the ice up to 75 miles, or 120 km. Penguins are not very good at walking, either. Once they’ve reached the breeding colony, each female lays one small egg, which has a thick shell. The male has a brood pouch to keep the egg warm, basically a fold in his skin above his feet. The egg sits on his feet with the rest of it in the brood pouch. After that, the female leaves to go hunting, because making her egg takes a lot out of her and she needs to replace her body reserves. The male incubates the egg by himself.

It gets really cold in the Antarctic during winter. Seriously, really cold, as cold as -40 degrees. Negative 40 is the same temperature in Celcius and Fahrenheit, which is kind of neat. Emperor penguins choose breeding colonies that are protected from the wind as much as possible, but they still have to deal with wind gusts of 90 mph, or 145 km per hour. To withstand the cold, penguins have dense feathers and a thick layer of blubber. Males huddle together for warmth, with every penguin getting a turn to be on the inside of the crowd where it’s warmer, and spending their fair share of time on the edges of the crowd where it’s colder. During the two months after eggs are laid, males don’t eat anything. When his egg hatches, the male feeds the baby with crop milk, which you may remember from episode 19, about the dodo. Crop milk isn’t milk at all, but a nutritious substance formed from a parent bird’s esophagus. Only male emperor penguins produce crop milk.

A short time after the eggs hatch, female emperor penguins return from hunting. The female takes over care of the chick, feeding it with regurgitated food, so the male can leave to go hunting. Males and females trade off in this way for a couple of months, until the chick is old enough and big enough to be left alone for stretches.

The emperor penguin lives in Antarctica and can grow over four feet tall, or 130 cm, which is just ridiculously large. It can also weigh up to 100 lbs, or 45 kg. In other words, it’s as big as a small person and much bigger even than the great auk was. It’s a strong swimmer and can dive deeply—the deepest recorded dive was well over 1800 feet, or 565 meters, which is whale diving depth.

But the emperor penguin isn’t the biggest penguin that ever lived. Anthropornis went extinct around 33 million years ago, and it was a penguin that was actually the height of a tall human, some six feet tall, or 1.8 meters. It lived off the coast of what is now New Zealand and Antarctica. The New Zealand giant penguin probably lived around the same time as Anthropornis, and was around five feet tall, or 1.6 meters, but probably weighed more. Neither were direct ancestors of modern penguins, but they probably looked and acted very similar. Just, you know, enormous.

A newly discovered giant penguin, also from New Zealand, lived much earlier than the others. It was already almost five feet tall, or 1.5 meters, and well adapted to the water 61 million years ago. Remember that the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event occurred around 66 million years ago. Some researchers hypothesize that penguins had already begun evolving when dinosaurs were still alive, and that they survived the extinction event.

Another extinct penguin, one that was more directly related to modern penguins, lived around South America some 36 million years ago. Icadyptes was almost as tall as the other giant penguins and had a bill that was much longer and pointier than modern penguin bills, more like a heron’s bill. It also lived in much warmer waters than most modern penguins.

Back in the 1920s and 30s, when fossils of giant penguins were first described, they caught the public’s imagination. Giant penguins appeared in science fiction of the day, including Jules Verne and HP Lovecraft. Starting in February of 1948, people in Florida began finding enormous three-toed tracks in sand on a few beaches and along the Suwannee River. The footprints were over a foot long, or 35 cm, and the animal’s stride was measured at between 4 and 6 feet long, or 1.2 to 1.8 meters. Cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson examined the tracks in November of 1948. After weeks of study he reported gravely that they’d been made by a penguin 15 feet tall, or 4.5 meters.

It turns out, though, that it was all a hoax. Two men named Tony Signorini and Al Williams had made gigantic iron feet they could wear as great big shoes, and walked in the sand overnight leaving trails of monstrous tracks ready to be discovered by beachcombers. They actually intended the tracks to be taken for dinosaur or sea monster footprints, but a giant penguin was even better. Each foot weighed about 30 lbs, or 13.5 kg, and Signorini used the weight to swing along in a sort of controlled bound that made his stride remarkably long without too much effort. Williams died in 1969 but Signorini didn’t come clean about the hoax until 1988.

He still has the feet.

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!