Tag Archives: saiga

Episode 156: Animals of Mongolia

In honor of my new favorite band, The Hu, let’s learn about some animals from their country, Mongolia! (You can also watch the “Wolf Totem” video with English lyrics.)

The Hu. Oh my heart:

If you need the podcast’s feed URL, it’s https://strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net/feed/podcast/

A handsome prize-winning domesticated yak and rider (photo taken from this site):

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

A Bactrian camel (photo by *squints* Brent Huffman, looks like):

The taimen, a fish that would swallow you whole if it could:

Further watching:

A clip from the TV show Beast Man showing how moist the soil is in parts of the Gobi

Show transcript:

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

Recently, podcaster Moxie recommended a band she liked on her excellent podcast Your Brain on Facts. The band is called The Hu, spelled H-U, and she mentioned they were from Mongolia. I checked the band out and FELL IN LOVE WITH THEM OH MY GOSH, so not only have I been recommending them to everyone, I also want to learn more about their country. So let’s learn about some interesting animals from Mongolia.

But first, a quick note. About six months ago I had to migrate the site to an actual podcasting host, since I’d run out of memory on my own site. Well, there doesn’t seem to be any point to keep the old site open anymore since all the podcasting apps I checked appear to have the new feed and everything is on the new website. So in another week or two, the old site will close. If you suddenly stop receiving new episodes, please email me at strangeanimalspodcast@gmail.com and let me know what app you use for podcast listening, so I can get it updated. In the meantime, if your app gives you the option of entering a podcast feed manually, I’ve made a new page on the website, strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net, where you can copy and paste the feed URL. It’s also in the show notes. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if something isn’t working. Now, back to Mongolia and its animals.

Mongolia is located in Asia, north of China and south of Russia, with the Gobi Desert to the south and various mountain ranges to the north and west. You actually probably know some Mongolian history without realizing it. You’ve heard of the Great Wall of China, right? Well, it was built to keep out the Mongols, who would ride their horses into China and raid villages. Genghis Khan was the most famous Mongol in history, a fearsome warrior who conquered most of Eurasia in the early 13th century.

While you’re thinking about that, here’s a short clip of my favorite Hu song, called “Wolf Totem.” There’s a link in the show notes if you want to watch the official video.

Oh my gosh I love that song.

Anyway, Mongolia has short summers but long, bitterly cold winters. Many people are still nomadic, a traditional culture that’s horse-based. A lot of Mongolia is grassland referred to as the steppes, which isn’t very good for farming, but which is great for horses. Domesticated animals include horses, goats, and a bovid called the yak. Let’s start with that one.

The yak is closely related to both domestic cattle and to bison, and is a common domesticated animal in much of Asia. The wild yak is native to the Himalaya Mountains in Eurasia. It’s a different species from the domesticated yak and is larger, with a big bull wild yak standing up to 7.2 feet at the shoulder, or 2.2 meters. A big bull domesticated yak is closer to 4 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or almost 1.4 meters. The wild yak is usually black or brown, but domesticated yaks may be other colors and have white markings. Occasionally a wild yak is born that has golden fur.

Both male and female yaks have horns, although the males usually have larger horns with a broader spread than the females. The male also has a larger shoulder hump than the female, much like bison, and males are also larger and heavier. The reason the domesticated yak is so popular in the mountains and in areas where winters are long and cold, like Mongolia, is that it has long, dense hair with a soft undercoat that keeps it warm. It’s also naturally adapted to high altitudes where there’s less oxygen, with large lungs and heart. As a result, it doesn’t do well in lower altitudes and can even die of heat if it gets too warm, since it can’t sweat.

The yak is domesticated for its meat and milk, to pull plows, as a riding animal, and for its soft undercoat which is combed out in spring and used to make yarn. Even the yak’s droppings are useful, since they’re mostly undigested plant fibers that burn really well once they’re dry, so they can be used instead of wood to build fires.

In Mongolia, yak milk is used to make butter, cheese, and yogurt. And vodka. Yak races and yak festivals are increasingly popular as tourist attractions, but yak herding is a tradition dating back thousands of years.

The wild yak is a protected species where it still lives, mostly in China, India, and Tibet, but it’s still threatened by poaching and habitat loss due to domesticated yak herds pushing out their wild cousins. In the wild, the yak prefers to live in elevations too high for trees to grow. It eats grass and other plant material and can survive on a diet too poor to sustain cattle. This is because it has a larger rumen and the plants it eats can stay in its digestive tract for longer to extract as many nutrients as possible.

It’s rare for a domesticated animal to also be endangered, but yak herding in Mongolia is in steep decline, with 70% fewer yaks raised now than there were twenty years ago. There are a number of reasons for the decline. More people are moving to cities in Mongolia since they can make more money there instead of farming. Some farmers have started raising cattle or yak-cattle hybrids instead of yaks, since cattle and cattle hybrids produce more milk and meat even though they eat considerably more than yaks do. Worse, cloth made of sheep’s wool and other fibers is being exported by Chinese farmers labeled as Mongolian yak wool, which has caused the market for actual yak wool to crash. Yak wool is as soft and warm as cashmere, which comes from goats, but yaks are much better for the fragile mountain environment in Mongolia than goats are. Hopefully, increased tourism, including yak festivals, will help farmers make money from their traditional ways of life.

Instead of mooing like a cow, the yak grunts, although wild yak are usually silent. This is what a domesticated yak sounds like:

[yak grunting]

Another bovid, this one found only in Mongolia, is the Mongolian saiga. Some researchers consider it a subspecies of the saiga that was once found throughout Eurasia while others consider it a separate species. It’s critically endangered, possibly with as few as 5,000 animals left in the wild, threatened by poaching and competition with livestock. But the saiga frequently has twins instead of just one baby at a time, which helps its numbers increase quickly as long as people stop shooting the males for their horns. Some people think have medicinal qualities. They don’t, of course. The saiga almost went extinct back in the 1920s, but it recovered, so it can recover again as long as people leave it alone.

The saiga stands nearly three feet tall at the shoulder, or 81 cm, and its coat is usually a sandy pale brown in color. In winter it grows a long coat to keep warm. It’s also rather stocky in shape compared to other antelopes, which helps keep it warm too. But the main adaptation it has for cold weather is its nose. The saiga has a remarkable snoot. It almost looks like it has a little trunk. Its muzzle is considerably enlarged to make plenty of room for large nasal passages, which warms air before it reaches the lungs and also filters dust from the air. The nostrils point downward. The males have pale-colored horns that can grow nearly nine inches long, or 22 cm, although the closely related Russian saiga has horns that are almost twice that long. The horns grow upward and slightly back. The saiga migrates across the steppes and lives in herds that are sometimes quite large.

Another animal that’s domesticated but still lives wild in some parts of southern Mongolia and northern China is the Bactrian camel. That’s the camel that has two humps instead of just one. Like the yak, the domesticated and wild Bactrian camels are different species although they’re closely related. The wild Bactrian camel is smaller with a flatter head. A domesticated Bactrian camel can stand up to 7 ½ feet high at the shoulder, or 2.3 meters.

The wild Bactrian camel is critically endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, although it’s protected in both Mongolia and China. There may be only 1,000 of them left in the wild, and some of those are hybrids of wild and feral domesticated Bactrian camels. Since they’re different species, offspring of wild and domesticated Bactrian camels are often infertile. A wild Bactrian captive breeding program in Mongolia is underway and has been successful so far.

When you think of a camel, you probably think of a hot desert. Camels of all kinds are well adapted to desert life. The one-hump camel is a dromedary, which is a domesticated animal native to the Sahara Desert in northern Africa and other arid regions. But the two-humped Bactrian camel is adapted to a different kind of desert, the cold desert. Although it can get hot in the Gobi Desert in summer, winters are long and very cold, but mainly a desert just doesn’t get much rain. In the case of the Gobi, what little moisture it receives in winter is mainly from snow and frost, although it also gets an average of almost 8 inches of rain in the summer, or 19 cm.

The wild Bactrian camel, therefore, has to be able to survive without a lot of water. Some people think camels store water in their humps, but the humps are actually made up of fat. Fat is full of water, though, and when the camel can’t find any food or water, its body will reabsorb the fat to keep itself alive. If you see a camel with floppy or skinny humps, you know it’s not had much to eat recently and has had to use up its fat stores.

The wild Bactrian camel grows thick fur in winter to keep it warm in temperatures that can drop to -27 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, or -32.8 Celsius, but it sheds a lot of this heavy coat in summer when temperatures can soar to 99 F, or 37 C. Unlike most animals, it can safely eat snow without risking hypothermia, where the body core temperature falls to dangerous levels. It can also safely drink water that’s even saltier than the ocean. It lives in small herds that travel across the desert from one water source to another, since if it stayed in one area it would soon eat all the food available. It eats any plants it can find.

Mongolia has several rivers and lakes, so naturally it has some interesting water animals too. The taimen [TIE-min] is a large fish sometimes called the Eurasian river trout or Siberian giant trout, but it’s actually more closely related to the salmon. It lives in parts of Mongolia and Russia but is threatened by overfishing and water pollution. Until recently in Mongolia, people didn’t eat much fish, plus the taimen was considered the offspring of an ancient river spirit so was left alone. These days, unfortunately, not only are more people eating fish in Mongolia, sport fishing has become a big tourist draw. Conservationists are encouraging anglers to practice catch and release to save the remaining population.

The taimen grows up to six feet long, or two meters, and is a vicious predator. It will eat anything it can catch, including smaller taimen, and in fact will occasionally try to swallow a fish that’s too big, and will suffocate and die as a result. It lives in swift-moving water but is sometimes found in lakes. It grows slowly and lives a long time, and there are rumors of it hunting in packs. As a result, it’s sometimes called the river wolf. Stay away from anything called the river wolf, that’s my advice.

It wouldn’t be an episode about Mongolian animals if we didn’t talk about a mystery animal called the Mongolian death worm. We talked about it once before way back in episode ten, about electric animals, but that was a long time ago so let’s look at it again now.

The story goes that a huge wormlike creature lives in the western or southern Gobi Desert, and most of the time it stays below ground. During the rains of June and July it sometimes comes to the surface. It’s generally described as looking like a sausage or an intestine, red or reddish in color, as thick as a person’s arm, and as long as three or four feet, or up to about 1.5 meters. Its head and tail look alike, sort of like a giant fat earthworm, although some reports say it has some pointy bristles or spines at one end. Touching a death worm is supposed to lead to a quick, painful death, because why would you name something a death worm if it didn’t kill you? Some people report that it can even spit venom or emit an electrical shock that can kill people or animals at a distance.

The National Geographic Channel has a show called Beast Man, or used to, I don’t know, but in 2018 it aired an episode about the Mongolian death worm. I didn’t watch the whole episode, just clips, and while they didn’t actually find one, it was interesting. One lady they interviewed, who saw a death worm when she was a little girl, said it was about two feet long, or 60 cm, reddish in color, and its head and tail looked the same. This matches up with what other people have reported. In one clip, the show’s host tests the soil moisture content in the southern Gobi and is surprised that underneath the dry surface, the ground is actually quite moist. I’ll put a link to that one in the show notes.

There are actually earthworms that live in parts of the Gobi, including two species described in 2013. The earthworms don’t resemble reports of the Mongolian death worm, but if an earthworm can survive, other soft-bodied creatures can too. That’s assuming that the death worm is actually a worm and not a reptile or amphibian of some kind.

The best suggestion for what the death worm might be is an animal called the amphisbaenian. It’s sometimes also called the worm lizard, and while it’s not any kind of lizard, it is a reptile. Amphisbaenians live in many parts of the world, including most of South America and parts of North America, parts of Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. But since amphisbaenians live almost all of their lives underground, it’s very likely that species unknown to science live in other places. And much of Mongolia is extremely remote and probably not very well explored by scientists.

Amphisbaenians resemble snakes but they also resemble worms. The eyes are tiny and can be hard to spot, and the head and tail look very similar as a result. Many species are pink or reddish in color, although some are blue or other colors, including spotted, and many have scales that grow in a ringed pattern that make it look even more like an earthworm. But they’re not big animals, generally around six inches long, or 15 cm. Also, they’re slender like an earthworm, not as big around as someone’s arm. And they’re completely harmless to humans and large animals.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a big amphisbaenian living in the remote parts of the Gobi, rarely seen even by the people who live there. Or, of course, the Mongolian death worm might be a completely different kind of animal, one totally unknown to science—maybe one that’s related to the amphisbaenian but radically different in appearance. Or it might be a mythical monster, although there are enough plausible-sounding witness sightings to think there’s something in the Gobi that looks like a big fat red horrible worm, even if it’s not actually dangerous.

What worries me, though, is that there don’t seem to be any sightings from recent times. Only old people report having seen a death worm back when they were young. Considering that so many Mongolian animals are endangered, it could be that the death worm is also declining in numbers so that fewer of them are around to be seen. Let’s hope Mongolian scientists are out there looking for the death worm and that they figure out what it is so it can be protected and studied in its natural habitat.

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 061: The Qilin and the Phoenix

This week we’re going to find out some surprising possible inspirations for the qilin, sometimes called the kirin or the Chinese unicorn, and the phoenix! Strap in, kids. We’re going to do history!

A qilin:

A giraffe:

My beautiful art of tsaidamotherium, both subspecies, with their weird horns:

A saiga antelope

A takin:

A bird of paradise:

Another bird of paradise:

Further reading:

Dale Drinnon’s Frontiers of Zoology about the qilin

An online Bestiary. This is where I got the quotes from Herodotus.

The Book of Beasts, trans. T.H. White

The Lungfish, The Dodo and the Unicorn by Willy Ley

Extraordinary Animals Revisited by Karl P.N. Shuker

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about two animals that most people consider mythological—but they might be based on real animals that are as extraordinary as the folktales surrounding them.

The first is the qilin, also called the kirin or some other close variation. These days it’s usually depicted with a pair of antlers like a deer, but in older legends and artwork it often only had one horn, so is sometimes called the Chinese unicorn. It can resemble a dragon with cloven hooves, or a bull-like or deer-like animal with scales or a scaly pattern on its body. In Japan it’s usually depicted with one horn that curves backwards from its forehead.

The qilin legend is thousands of years old, with the first references dating back to the 5th century BCE. It has traditionally been considered a gentle animal whose appearance foretold the birth or death of a great ruler, or if it appeared to a ruler, it foretold a long, peaceful reign. Supposedly it first appeared to the Emperor Fu Hsi 5000 years ago as he walked along the banks of the Yellow River. A single-horned animal emerged from the water and walked so daintily that its cloven hooves didn’t leave prints in the mud. A scroll on its back was miraculously not wet, and when Fu Hsi unrolled the scroll he saw a map of his kingdom and written characters that taught him written language.

In 1414, explorer Zheng He brought a giraffe to China for the first time and presented it to the emperor as a qilin. The emperor wasn’t fooled, but it was a good PR move to treat the animal as a qilin. But the qilin was never depicted with a long neck before then, and even after, long-necked qilins were rare in art and sculpture. On the other hand, the Japanese word for giraffe is kirin, so there was some overlap.

The qilin was supposed to be solitary and lived high in the mountains and in deep forests. It ate plants and was described in various ways, as having a deer’s body and a lion’s head, or a horse’s body with a dragon’s head, or some other combination. It always had cloven hooves.

In 398 BCE, so more than 2,400 years ago, Greek historian Ctesias wrote a book about India, including the animals found in that land. Ctesias had never actually visited India, although he had traveled to a lot of other countries. This is what he wrote about the animal we now know as the unicorn: “There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length.” Then he talks about the horn for a few more sentences, especially its supposed ability to cure diseases and neutralize poisons. If you’re interested in this aspect of the unicorn legend, I go over it at length in episode five, about the unicorn.

Most researchers think Ctesias was talking about the rhinoceros. But maybe he was referring to another animal, one that possibly contributed to both the unicorn legend and also to the legend of the qilin.

Tsaidamotherium was a bovid that lived during the late Miocene, around half a million years ago. Its fossils have been found in Northwestern China. It was probably most closely related to the musk ox and was adapted for life in cold mountainous regions. It had a high nasal cavity, which would have helped warm air before it reached the lungs. Other bovids found in cold areas tend to have similar structures. The Saiga antelope has a bulbous-looking face due to its large nasal passages, as does the takin, both of which also live in and around the Himalayas. But both the saiga and the takin have a pair of clearly separated horns. The saiga’s horns are long and look like typical antelope horns, while the takin’s horns resemble those of a musk ox, curving to the sides in a sort of U shape.

The really striking thing about Tsaidamotherium is its horns, and no animal living today has horns even slightly like it. It had a pair, but only the right horn grew large. The left one was much smaller, so that from a distance it looked like it only had one large horn on its head. These are not slender unicorn horns, though. They’re not even bull-like cow horns. There are actually two species of Tsaidamotherium that we know of, and they had differently shaped horns. T. hedini had thick horns that grew upward from the head like cones. The other, T. brevirostrum, with fossilized remains only described in 2013, had the same mismatched horns but both were short and squat and probably bent forward. I’ll put a couple of drawings in the show notes to give you an idea.

There are hints that Tsaidamotherium may have survived well into the modern era, probably in isolated pockets in the Himalayan Mountains. Until the mid-19th century there were reports of animals matching T. hedini’s description in Tibet, although even there it was considered rare to the point of near-legend. The first fossilized remains of Tsaidamotherium weren’t discovered until the early 20th century, in 1932. One interesting note is that the larger horn of T. hedini would probably have resembled the conical Yeti skullcaps sometimes found in monasteries in the Himalayas, although that’s probably a coincidence.

The Tsaidamotherium as Qilin is a theory put forth by Dale Drinnon, and I’ll link to the relevant post in the show notes if you want to read more.

Like the unicorn legend, which in one form or another has spread throughout much of the world, the phoenix has a long and complicated history. The modern story is still very close to what people believed in the middle ages and even before. It’s a mythical bird that every so often, usually every 500 years, would burst into flame, burn to ashes, and be reborn from those ashes into a new phoenix. There is only ever one phoenix. It’s usually depicted as eagle-like but not an eagle, and is usually red or gold.

Medieval writers loved the phoenix, because its cycle of rebirth from its own dead body practically wrote itself as a strong allegory to the Christian idea of redemption and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In T.H. White’s translation of a 12th century bestiary, The Book of Beasts, the phoenix was supposed to live in Arabia and its big event is described like this:

“When it notices that it is growing old, it builds itself a funeral pyre, after collecting some spice branches, and on this, turning its body toward the rays of the sun and flapping its wings, it sets fire to itself of its own accord until it burns itself up. Then verily, on the ninth day afterward, it rises from its own ashes!”

After drawing the parallel with Christian symbolism, the book repeats itself with more detail, it makes a coffin for itself of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, into which, its life being over, it enters and dies. From the liquid of its body a worm now emerges, and this gradually grows to maturity, until, in the appointed cycle of time, the Phoenix itself assumes the oarage of its wings, and there it is again in its previous species and form!”

Note that the second version of the story doesn’t mention fire. Instead of a fire, the phoenix builds itself a coffin from spices and dies inside it. Frankincense and myrrh are both plant resins used to make perfume and incense, by the way.

All this is interesting, but is the phoenix based on a real bird? People have been trying to figure that out for centuries. The problem is that the story is so old, so widespread, and so entrenched in popular culture that it’s hard to know what details point to real birds and what details are pure human imagination.

Some researchers even suggest that the phoenix might be based not on a bird at all, but a palm tree. In Greek the word phoenix also means palm tree. There are a lot of phoenix palms, including the kind that produce dates, and dates are delicious, so the tree may have been given a special status by associating it with the phoenix story. In ancient Egypt the symbol for the word benu was a stork-like bird that represented the sun but could also indicate a palm tree.

The word Phoeniceus was once a term for the color purple, so T.H. White thought the phoenix might be based on the purple heron, which he also thought might be the bird the Egyptians called benu. He suggested its rebirth story came about from its connection with the sun, which can be said to die every night and be reborn every morning.

Back in the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the phoenix in Egypt. He said, “The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible: that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry; then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then exactly the same weight as the first; so he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun.”

This just sounds like a weird version of the phoenix story, about the phoenix making its own coffin out of myrrh and other spices. But there may be some strange truths hidden in the middle of this story and the others. It’s about the bird of paradise.

The bird of paradise is a real bird—or, rather, 42 species of real bird. You can go look them today in zoos and in their native homes in eastern Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea. They’re actually related to crows, although not closely, but they don’t look a thing like crows. Where crows are somber goth birds, the various birds of paradise are glorious in their coloring and plumage. Males of many species grow cascades of brightly-colored feathers during breeding season, which they display for the females in mating dances.

It was once thought that birds of paradise were unknown outside their home range until the early 16th century, when Magellan’s fleet limped back to Spain with a lot of exotic items, including the skins of some birds of paradise. The skins were apparently complete, except that they had no legs and appeared never to have had legs. Since almost nothing was known of the birds, people assumed they were so beautifully adapted to the air that they didn’t need legs, that the birds never landed.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists actually saw living birds of paradise, complete with feet. It turns out that the natives of New Guinea were masters of preparing bird skins, removing the feathered skins from the body so skillfully that the bird appeared intact even though the legs had been removed.

Not only that, Australian researchers discovered during in-depth 1957 study of the bird of paradise skin trade, the natives of the region had been preparing birds for a long, long, long time—as far back as 1000 BCE. And they’d been trading them with seafarers who visited their islands long before Magellan was even born. The skins were prized for their beauty and transported all over, including to Phoenicia, a country famous for its purple dye. This is all starting to come together, isn’t it?

But it gets better. The bird of paradise skins were delicate, naturally, as were the long plumes still attached to the skins. To preserve them during voyages, they were packaged by the New Guinea natives like this: each skin was carefully wrapped in myrrh to make an egg-shaped parcel, and this was put in a larger parcel padded with burnt banana leaves.

Aromatic ashes containing an egg-shaped coffin made of myrrh, in which is the body of a glorious unknown bird? That sounds like a phoenix to me.

Like so many other legends, the phoenix is far more than just its original inspiration. Many birds probably inspired details of the story, just as many animals probably inspired stories of the qilin. Human imagination did the rest.

The legend of the phoenix and that of the qilin tell us as much about the people who have shared their stories for millennia than they tell us about any bird or animal. Humans are storytellers, no matter what culture and no matter how far back you look. After thousands of years, we’re still talking about the phoenix and the qilin, and we’ll continue to talk about them for thousands of years more. That’s an immortality worthy of the phoenix itself.

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!