Tag Archives: raccoon

Episode 152: The Freshwater Seahorse and Other Mystery Water Animals



This week let’s look at some (mostly) smaller mystery animals associated with water! Thanks to Richard J., Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

Further reading:

What Was the Montauk Monster?

The black-striped pipefish. Also, that guy has REALLY BIG FINGERTIPS:

The Pondicherry shark, not looking very happy:

A ratfish. What BIG EYES you have!

The hoodwinker sunfish, weird and serene:

The Montauk monster, looking very sad and dead:

Show transcript:

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

Let’s finish off the year with an episode about a few mystery animals, specifically a few mystery animals associated with water. Thanks to Richard, Janice, and Simon for the suggestions!

We’ll start off with a mystery suggested by Richard J, but not the Richard J. who is my brother. A different Richard J. Apparently half the people who listen to my podcast are named Richard, and that’s just fine with me.

Richard wanted to know if there are there such things as freshwater seahorses. We’ve talked about seahorses before in episode 130, but seahorses are definitely marine animals. That means they only live in the ocean. But Richard said he’d heard about a population of seahorses native to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, which is in South America. I put it on my suggestions list, but Richard was on the case. He sent me a link to an article looking into the mystery, which got me really intrigued, so I bumped it to the top of my list. Because I can do that. It’s my podcast.

Freshwater seahorses are supposedly known in the Mekong River and in Lake Titicaca, and sometimes you’ll see reference to the scientific name Hippocampus titicacanesis. But that’s actually not an official scientific name. There’s no type specimen and no published description. Hippocampus is the generic name for many seahorse species, but like I said, they’re all marine animals and there’s no evidence that any live in freshwater at all. Another scientific name supposedly used for the Mekong freshwater seahorse is Hippocampus aimei, but that’s a rejected name for a seahorse named Hippocampus spinosissimus, the hedgehog seahorse. It does live in parts of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, including around Australia, especially in coral reefs, and sometimes in the brackish water at the Mekong River’s mouth, but not in fresh water.

On the other hand, there’s no reason why a seahorse couldn’t adapt to freshwater living. A few of its close relatives have. There are a few species of freshwater pipefish, and in the world of aquarium enthusiasts they are actually sometimes called freshwater seahorses. The pipefish looks like a seahorse that’s been straightened out, and most of them are marine animals. But some have adapted to freshwater habitats.

This includes the black-striped pipefish, which is found off the coasts of much of Europe but which also lives in the mouths of rivers. At some point it got introduced into the Volga River and liked it so much it has started to expand into other freshwater lakes and rivers in Europe.

The pipefish is closely related to the seahorse, but while it does have bony plates like a seahorse, it’s a flexible fish. It swims more like a snake than a fish, and it can anchor itself to vegetation just like a seahorse by wrapping its tail around it. It mostly eats tiny crustaceans and newly hatched fish, since it swallows its food whole. It usually hides in vegetation until a tiny animal swims near, and then it uses its tube-shaped mouth like a straw to suck in water along with the animal. Just like the seahorse, the male pipefish has a brooding pouch and takes care of the eggs after the female deposits them in his pouch.

So where did the rumor that seahorses live in the Mekong come from? The Mekong is a river in southeast Asia that runs through at least six countries, including China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Parts of it are hard to navigate due to waterfalls and rapids, but it’s used as a shipping route and there are lots of people who live along the river. Like all rivers, it’s home to many interesting animals, including a type of giant softshell turtle that can grow up to six feet long, or 1.8 meters, a type of otter, a bunch of enormous fish, including three species of catfish that can grow up to almost ten feet long, or 3 meters, and a giant freshwater stingray that can grow up to 16 feet long, or 5 meters, and of course lots more animals that aren’t as big or as impressive, but which are still important to the river’s biodiversity. But there’s no evidence of seahorses anywhere throughout the Mekong’s 2700 mile length, or 4,350 km.

But there is a hint about where the rumor of a Mekong seahorse could have come from. One researcher named Heiko Bleher chased down the type specimens of the supposed Mekong seahorse in a Paris museum, which were collected in the early 20th century by a man named Roule. Roule got them in Laos from a fisherman who had nailed the dried seahorses to his fishing hut. The fisherman told Roule the seahorses were from the Mekong, but when they were further studied in 1999 Roule’s specimens were discovered to actually be specimens of Hippocampus spinosissimus and Hippocampus barbouri. Both are marine fish but do sometimes live in brackish water at the mouth of the Mekong. So the fisherman wasn’t lying, but Roule misunderstood what he meant.

As for the freshwater seahorse supposedly found in Lake Titicaca, that one’s less easy to explain. Titicaca is a freshwater lake in South America, specifically in the Andes Mountains on the border of Bolivia and Peru. It’s the largest lake in South America and is far, far above the ocean’s surface—12,507 feet above sea level, in fact, or 3,812 meters. It’s also extremely deep, 932 feet deep in some areas, or 284 meters. It’s home to many species of animal that live nowhere else in the world. Why couldn’t it be home to a freshwater seahorse too?

Titicaca was formed when a massive earthquake some 25 million years ago essentially shoved two mountains apart, leaving a gap—although technically it’s two gaps connected with a narrow strait. Over the centuries rainwater, snowmelt, and streams gradually filled the gaps, and these days five rivers and many streams from higher in the mountains feed water into the lake. Water leaves the lake by the River Desaguadero and flows into two other lakes, but those lakes aren’t connected to the sea. Sometimes they dry up completely. So Titicaca isn’t connected to the ocean and never was, and even if it was, seahorses are weak swimmers and would never be able to venture up a river 12,000 feet above sea level. Some 90% of all fish in the lake are found nowhere else in the world. There’s just simply no way a population of seahorses could have gotten into the lake in the first place, even if they could survive there.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any freshwater seahorses out there ready to be discovered, of course. But I don’t think you’re going to find any in Lake Titicaca. And I have no idea how the rumor got started that any live there.

From a tiny seahorse let’s move on to a small shark, another topic suggested by Richard J. The Pondicherry shark grows to about 3.3 feet, or 1 meter, and once lived throughout the Indo-Pacific, especially in coastal waters. It’s considered critically endangered, but it’s so rare these days that we hardly know anything about it except that it’s harmless to humans, eats small fish and other small animals, and was once common. But until the mid-2010s, scientists were starting to worry it was already extinct. Then in 2016 two different Pondicherry sharks were photographed in two different places—and not where anyone had expected to find it. Some tourists took a photo of one in a river called the Menik and a freshwater fish survey camera caught a photo of one in the Kumbuk River. Both rivers are in Sri Lanka. Since then researchers have spotted a few more. The shark is protected, and hopefully the excitement around the shark’s rediscovery has helped people in the area learn about it so they know not to bother it. Some sharks tolerate fresh water and brackish water quite well, so it’s not surprising that the Pondicherry shark has moved into the rivers where it has less competition from commercial fishing boats.

Our next water mystery is actually not really a mystery, just a really strange-looking fish related to sharks. This one was suggested by my aunt Janice who doesn’t actually listen to the podcast but who likes to send me links to strange animal articles that she comes across on the internet. This one is called Chimaera Monstrosa, sometimes called the rat fish.

The rat fish mostly lives in the deep sea, although it’s sometimes seen in shallower water, and can grow up to 5 feet long, or 1.5 meters. It’s mostly brown but has white markings. Its body looks more or less like a regular plump shark-like fish, but it has great big round green eyes, relatively long pectoral fins, and a very long tail that tapers to a point. The tail gives it its common name, since it kind of resembles a rat’s tail. It eats whatever it can catch on the ocean floor, including crustaceans and echinoderms.

Ratfish, and other chimaeriformes, are most closely related to sharks, and like sharks they have skeletons that are made of cartilage instead of bone. Since they’re rarely seen and look really weird, every so often someone catches one and posts about it online, and then my aunt sends me a link. They are really interesting fish, though.

Simon also sent me an article about an interesting fish a while back, the hoodwinker sunfish. We talked about the sunfish, or mola mola, in episode 96. The hoodwinker sunfish, or mola tecta, was only discovered in 2017 despite its large size. So far it’s known to live in the South Pacific around New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and Chile, but only off the southernmost parts of those countries. But in early 2019 one washed up in Southern California.

The mystery sunfish was measured at almost 7 feet long, or 2.1 meters. An intern at the University of California at Santa Barbara found it, but didn’t know what it was. But once photos of the fish were posted online, two experts from Australia recognized it immediately—but because it showed up so far out of its known range, they were cautious about IDing it from just a photo. That’s despite the fact that one of the experts, Marianne Nyegaard, was actually the person who named the species. She asked for samples and more photos, and when she got the results, it really was a hoodwinker sunfish. But what was it doing in the warm waters of the northern Pacific instead of the cold southern waters? No one knows except the sunfish.

Let’s finish with another mystery animal you may have heard of. On July 12 or 13, 2008, depending on which source you consult, three friends visited Ditch Plains Beach, two miles away from the little town of Montauk in New York state in eastern North America. It was a hot day and the beach was crowded, and when the three noticed people gathered around something, they went to look too. There they saw a weird dead animal that had obviously washed ashore. One of the three took a picture of it, which appeared in the local papers and then the local TV news along with an interview with the three. From there it went viral and was dubbed the Montauk monster.

The monster was about the size of a cat, but with shorter legs and a chunkier body, and a relatively short tail. It didn’t have much hair but it did have sharp teeth, and the front part of its skull was exposed so that it almost looked like it had a beak. Its front paws were elongated with long fingers, almost like little hands.

So what was the monster? People all over the world made guesses, everything from a sea turtle without a shell to a diseased dog or just a hoax. Some people thought it was a mutant animal that had been created in a lab on one of the nearby islands, escaped, and died trying to swim to the mainland.

But while no one knows what happened to the animal’s body, scientists have studied the photo and determined that it was probably a dead raccoon that had been washed into the ocean. The waves had tumbled the animal’s body around through the sand long enough to rub off most of its remaining fur and some of its facial features, and then it washed ashore during the next high tide. It was also somewhat bloated due to gases building up inside during decomposition. It’s the animal’s teeth and paws that made the identification possible, since both match a raccoon’s exactly. Remember that raccoons have clever front paws that help them open locking trash bins, as we learned in episode 138.

So the Montauk monster isn’t actually a mystery, except what happened to it, but don’t be discouraged. There are still lots of genuinely mysterious animals in the ocean, from misplaced sunfish to creatures no one has ever seen yet. Maybe you’ll be the one to discover them.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/strangeanimalspodcast if you’d like to support us and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 138: City Animals



This week we’re going to learn about some animals that have made their homes in cities alongside humans. Thanks to Corianne who suggested this amazing topic!

Further reading:

The BBC’s Urban Fox FAQ

Toronto vs. Raccoons

The urban fox has a favorite coffee shop and knows where to find parking downtown:

The urban raccoon’s apartment is really small but it’s in a great location:

The urban (rock) pigeon can walk to work in good weather:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to look at animals that live in cities. This is a great suggestion by Corianne, who especially suggested the pigeon. But pigeons aren’t the only animals that live in cities alongside people. In fact, in 2018 a large-scale camera trap study of animals in Washington DC and Raleigh, NC concluded that just as many mammal species live in cities as live in the countryside. That’s only mammals, though. There aren’t as many species of other animals in cities.

Different animals hang out in cities in different parts of the world. In parts of Africa and Asia, local monkeys have moved into cities and cause mischief by stealing food from markets and tourists. Gulls are also thieves of food, sometimes getting so bold as to snatch a sandwich from a person’s hands while they’re eating it, even in cities nowhere near the ocean. City parks attract squirrels and deer, decorative fountains and ponds attract geese and ducks as well as alligators, peregrine falcons move in to feast on pigeons, rats, and other small animals, and some cities have to deal with the occasional bear or leopard, wild boars, even penguins. But today we’re going to focus on three really common city dwellers, both because they’re interesting and because there are so many misconceptions out there about them.

We’ll start with urban foxes. We talked about foxes in episode 106, but while urban foxes are plain old red foxes and not a separate species or subspecies, they’ve adapted to city life easily since they’re omnivores and agile animals that can climb obstacles like fences.

Many cities throughout the world have urban foxes, but they’re especially common in the UK. They eat out of trash cans for some of their diet, but they also hunt rats and other small animals that live in cities too, along with earthworms, insects, and even plants. They especially like fruit and acorns. When a fox finds some food, it will often run off with it and bury it somewhere, then come back later to eat it.

Because an urban fox doesn’t have to worry about predators as much as ordinary countryside foxes do, it can grow larger on average than its country cousins. But it’s also in more danger of being hit by cars or infected with diseases common to dogs and other canids, like mange and distemper.

Urban foxes have a bad reputation for biting, attacking pets, and in general being a nuisance. But the fox is just being a fox and doing the best it can. In many parts of the world, the red fox’s natural habitat is fragmented more every year as cities grow larger and farmland and woodland is turned into houses. Besides, foxes have been reported in cities for a long time—over a century in London, England, where foxes are relatively common. They especially like areas with parks, or where people have gardens or lawns.

The biggest problem with urban foxes is people who treat them like they’re dogs. They’re wild animals, so while it’s okay to leave food out for them, don’t try to touch one or get too close to it. Foxes who get too used to people can become aggressive. Foxes usually don’t bother animals as large as cats, either, and they avoid dogs, but don’t leave small pets like guinea pigs or rabbits outside, especially at night, because that is just asking for trouble.

The urban fox doesn’t always live only in the city, though. One fox, nicknamed Fleet, was tagged by researchers in 2014 and tracked to see where he spent his time. To their surprise, Fleet lived up to his name and traveled from the city of Hove into the countryside across England. In 21 days he traveled 195 miles, or 314 km, and probably went farther but his GPS tracker stopped working so we don’t know how far.

This is what a fox sounds like:

[fox sound]

In the UK, foxes are frequent city animals, but in North America it’s much more common for raccoons to fill the same ecological niche. The raccoon is native to North and Central America although it’s been introduced in parts of Europe as a fur animal and briefly to Japan as a pet. The raccoon makes a really bad pet, by the way. It’s not domesticated and will tear your house up.

The raccoon is mostly gray or gray-brown with some lighter areas of fur, black rings on its bushy tail, and black markings over its eyes. It grows a little over two feet long, or around 70 cm, not counting its tail. Its legs are relatively short and it scurries instead of really running, although it can swim well. The raccoon is a great climber and can even climb down trees headfirst by turning its hind feet so that they point backwards, which gives it a better grip. It has sharp claws too, and dexterous hands although they don’t have opposable thumbs. The raccoon’s front paws have as many sensory receptors as human hands, which means it can learn a lot by just touching something. Like, for instance, how to unlock a trash bin.

The raccoon is well-known for getting into trash no matter what kind of bin it’s in. This is because raccoons are remarkably intelligent. By now you probably know that intelligence and social complexity are linked, but raccoons have a much different society than other intelligent animals. Groups of related females generally occupy the same territory and come together to eat and rest, while males usually live in small groups that are mostly separate from females.

Like the fox, the raccoon is an omnivore. It eats insects and worms, fruit and nuts as well as other plant material, bird and reptile eggs, frogs, fish, crustaceans, and other small animals. Raccoons in captivity are known to wash their food by dipping it in water, but this behavior hasn’t actually been documented in wild raccoons. Some researchers think the raccoons aren’t actually trying to clean the food, but are mimicking the motion of catching food in water, while others suggest the raccoons are stimulating the nerve endings in their hands with water to learn more about the food they’re touching.

Raccoons prefer open forests near water, since they like to catch fish and frogs. But they will eat pretty much anything, which means they raid trash bins. For years, the city of Toronto in Canada had trouble with raccoons getting into people’s trash bins. The bins were designed to be picked up and emptied by city trucks, but the raccoons had learned to break the locks. In 2015 the city redesigned the bins to be raccoon resistant, and in 2016 after extensive testing the new bins were distributed to residents. Before long the raccoons had figured out how to open them.

Researchers think that the daily puzzles urban raccoons solve to find food actually make them smarter. Since they’re pretty smart to start with, that’s kind of scary.

Like urban foxes, urban raccoons can get too used to humans. They’re rarely dangerous to people or pets, but they can cause a real mess if they get into your house and will bite if they feel threatened.

This is what a raccoon sounds like:

[raccoon sound]

We’ll finish with the ubiquitous city bird, the pigeon. It’s properly called the rock pigeon or rock dove and is native to parts of Eurasia and Africa. But these days it’s spread throughout much of the world, especially in cities.

Most people are familiar with the pigeon. It’s usually gray or brownish-gray with a white patch on its rump and two broad stripes of black on its wings. Both males and females have iridescent feathers on the neck that shine green and purple in sunlight, but the iridescence in males is much more pronounced. Pigeons with other markings are either feral domesticated pigeons or have feral domesticated pigeons in their ancestry. The domesticated pigeon was actually developed from the rock pigeon and it’s probable that most city pigeons are actually mostly feral domesticated pigeons.

The pigeon is a fairly large bird, up to 15 inches long, or 37 cm, with a wingspan over two feet, or 72 cm. It mostly eats seeds and other plant material, but will also eat small insects. City pigeons will eat bread and other foods too, but they would be happier with whole grains. Like many other birds, the pigeon stores food in its crop after swallowing it, which allows it to eat more food than it would otherwise be able to hold. The crop is a chamber at the bottom of the esophagus.

Not only do pigeons have a crop, which not all birds have, pigeon parents produce a food called crop milk or pigeon milk that they feed to babies. It’s not milk at all, of course, but the nutrient-rich lining of the crop that it sheds and regurgitates to feed its babies, which are called squabs. Both parents produce crop milk, which sort of looks like cottage cheese. The babies can’t digest anything except crop milk for the first week of life, so the parents may actually not eat anything during the first days after the eggs hatch to make sure there aren’t any seeds mixed in with the crop milk. After a few days the parents mix in food that’s been softened in the crop.

Pigeons and doves are almost the only birds that produce crop milk. The flamingo and the male emperor penguin do too, even though they aren’t related to pigeons. But that’s it, as far as we know. So if anyone asks you what the flamingo, the emperor penguin, and the pigeon have in common, now you know. Also, they’re all birds.

Pigeons live in flocks, although the flock may break up into smaller groups or pairs during part of the day. At night the birds usually roost together except for pairs who have eggs or babies in a nest. Pigeons mate for life and both parents take care of the eggs and squabs. Flock leaders find food and lead the rest of the birds to it, whether the food comes from plants growing in a park or from a person scattering birdseed.

Pigeons are actually clean animals when they have access to water. They like to bathe and preen to keep their feathers clean. If you’ve ever watched a typical bird drink water, maybe at a puddle or a birdbath, you might have noticed that the bird dips some water into its beak, then tilts its head back so the water runs down its throat. This is because most birds can’t actually swallow water the way most mammals can. I mean, if you had to you could drink water while you were upside down, although you might choke or get it in your sinuses. But some of the water at least would get into your stomach. Birds couldn’t. Except for the pigeon, which can actually drink like a mammal, keeping its head down as it swallows. The pigeon and its close relatives are the only birds known who can do this.

No one thinks of pigeons as especially smart birds, but guess what. They’re actually pretty bright. Pigeons can easily memorize images, even hundreds of them, and retain those memories for years. They not only recognize individual humans, they can learn to understand what human expressions mean. They also have keen vision and can differentiate between very similar items or pictures, which leads to pigeons being trained to do something unexpected. Wait for it. You’re not going to believe this. Pigeons can learn to identify malignant breast tissue in mammograms at least as well as humans can. Researchers train birds to identify the differences in mammogram slides, then use four birds in a team. The team can be 99% accurate in identifying malignancies that need to be treated. So pigeons can save human lives!

Not only that, but researchers can find sources of lead pollution by taking blood samples from sick or dead pigeons found in cities. Since city pigeons generally have small territories that only encompass a few blocks, researchers can measure the level of lead found in birds and know roughly where the lead exposure occurred. That helps the city find and clean up sources of lead pollution.

Pigeons are actually quite healthy birds, despite their reputation as diseased. They’re surprisingly resistant to a lot of bird diseases, including bird flu. Many people think of pigeons as dirty scavengers, but like other urban animals, they’re just living out their lives in an environment humans made. And if they’re scavengers, just think about where that food is coming from. People are dropping it on the ground, that’s where. Maybe people are the dirty ones, throwing food around. Pigeons are just cleaning it up for us.

This is what a pigeon sounds like:

[pigeon sound]

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future episodes, email us at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!