Tag Archives: seals

Episode 225: Talking Animals



Talking animals! It’s not what you’re thinking about. No parrots here, just mammals.

Our new logo is by Susanna King of Flourish Media! If you’d like to JOIN OUR MAILING LIST!, I’ll be sending out a discount code soon for merch with our logo on it–but only for people on the mailing list (and patrons).

Further listening:

The MonsterTalk episode about Gef the Talking Mongoose (this episode has no swearing that I recall but some other episodes may have a little bit of salty language)

Mongolian Throat Singing

Further reading:

‘Talking’ seals mimic sounds from human speech, and validate a Boston legend

How do marine mammals produce sounds?

Elephant communication

Hoover the talking seal:

Janice, a gray seal who learned to mimic human speech and song:

Wikie, the orca who mimics human speech:

Kosik, an elephant who mimics human speech:

Gef the “talking mongoose”:

Show transcript:

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

Before we get started, I have some announcements! First, you may have noticed we have a new logo! It’s by Susanna King of Flourish Media, who did a fantastic job! Susanna is also a listener, which is awesome. I’ve put a link to Flourish Media in the show notes if you have a company or something that needs professional graphic design.

If you’re interested in getting a shirt or mug with the new Strange Animals Podcast logo on it, I’m figuring out the best company to use for merch. If you sign up to our mailing list, as soon as merch is available I’ll be sending an email out about it, and I’ll include a discount code you can use to save some money! I’ve linked to the mailing list in the show notes, and it’s also linked on the website and my social media, but if you can’t find it, just send me a message and I’ll reply with the link.

The final announcement is that my cat Poe is finally home and recovering from a scary illness. He developed what’s called pyothorax, which is an infection in the chest, and in Poe’s case we still don’t know what caused it. After a week in the veterinary intensive care unit, he’s finally home and getting better all the time. That’s why last week’s episode was so short, and if you messaged me this week about something and I seemed impatient when I replied, that’s why. I just haven’t had any mental energy to concentrate on anything but Poe. Thank you to everyone at the Animal Emergency and Specialty Center of Knoxville for taking such good care of him.

We’ve got something fun and a little different this time, inspired by two things. First, I saw a tweet about a captive beluga whale who had apparently learned to mimic human speech and one night told a diver in his pool to get out. Then the awesome podcast BewilderBeasts had a segment about a harbor seal in Maine who was rescued by a fisherman as a pup, which reminded me of a similar situation with another harbor seal in Maine, Hoover the Talking Seal. That’s right, it’s an episode about mammals that can talk, including one of my favorite cryptozoological mysteries ever.

Before we learn about talking animals, we need to learn a little bit about how humans talk. Humans produce most vocal sounds using our larynx, which is sometimes called a voicebox. The human larynx is situated at the top of the throat, and it helps us breathe, helps keep food from going down the wrong tube and into the lungs, and enables us to make sounds. It consists of cartilage, small muscles, and flaps of tissue called vocal folds or vocal cords. There are two kinds of vocal folds: the true vocal folds that are connected to muscles and actually produce sound, and the false vocal folds that don’t have any connected muscles and just help with resonance.

Usually resonance just makes the sound louder, but humans have learned to do amazing things with our voices. Some cultures use the false vocal folds to create a secondary tone. It’s called overtone singing, throat singing, or harmonic singing. I’m still completely in love with the Mongolian folk metal band the Hu and am now delighted that I can mention them again, because they use throat singing in their music. Throat singing produces overtones with various different sounds, depending on the technique used, but it can be hard to pick them out of a song if you’re not sure what you’re hearing. So instead of playing a clip of a Hu song, here’s a clip of a musician demonstrating various kinds of throat singing while also playing along on the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. The morin khuur only has two strings so the drone and whistle sounds you’re hearing are not from that instrument, they’re made by the musician’s voice. [Musician is Zagd Ochir AKA Sumiyabazar.]

[clip of throat singing]

When you think of animals that could potentially talk in human language, naturally you’d assume our closest relatives, the great apes, could learn to talk. But while apes have larynxes that are similar to ours, they don’t have the fine control over their vocal cords that humans do. But the larynx isn’t the only part of the body involved in human speech, it’s just the part that makes noise. We use the tongue and lips to form sounds into words, which takes a lot of fine control over very small muscles. Apes don’t have that kind of control of the mouth muscles. More importantly, they don’t have the same language centers in the brain that humans do. Apes can learn to use very simple versions of sign language or indicate words on a computer, but they aren’t able to use speech and language the way we do. In the wild, apes communicate with sounds, but they also communicate a lot more with gestures and body language, so they don’t need to speak words.

In the 1940s and 50s, a human couple who were both primate biologists worked with a young chimpanzee named Viki, trying to teach her spoken language as well as signs. While Viki was a quick learner and showed high intelligence, she only managed to ever speak seven words, and only four of those clearly. Those four words were mama and papa, cup, and up. I found a clip of Viki saying the word ‘cup,’ and while the audio was really bad, I don’t think she was actually vocalizing the word, just making the consonant sounds with her mouth.

But there are other animals that can mimic human speech, even if they don’t necessarily understand what they’re saying. Parrots and some other birds are the prime examples, of course, but we’re talking about talking mammals today.

Back in episode 23 I mentioned Hoover the talking seal and played this clip of his voice, one of only a few recordings we have of him.

[talking seal recording]

That may sound like a gruff man with a strong accent, but it’s a seal. In spring of 1971, in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine, which is in the extreme northeastern United States, a man found a baby harbor seal. He and his brother-in-law George Swallow hunted around for the seal pup’s mother, but sadly they found her dead body. George Swallow decided to take the baby seal home and see if he could keep him alive.

The baby seal ate so fast that Swallow and his wife named him Hoover, after the vacuum cleaner brand. Hoover stayed in a pond in the back of their house, and he not only survived, he did really well. Swallow basically treated Hoover like a dog and the two hung out together all the time. If Swallow had to go somewhere, Hoover rode along in the car. Before long, Hoover started imitating Swallow’s speech.

Finally, though, Hoover got so big and was eating so much fish that the Swallows couldn’t keep him. The New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts agreed to take him in, and there Hoover stayed, happy and healthy until he died in 1985. When Swallow brought Hoover to the aquarium, he mentioned that the seal could talk. No one believed him. I wish I could have seen the keepers’ faces when Hoover first said, “Hello there!” in a voice that sounded just like George Swallow’s.

Here’s another clip of Hoover talking:

But if a chimpanzee can’t manage to speak human words, how can a seal? Seals of all kinds have a larynx that’s very similar to the human larynx, which allows a seal to physically imitate human vowel sounds. It also has the mental drive to imitate sounds and the mental flexibility to do a good job imitating sounds that aren’t normal seal noises. Seals are highly social animals and communicate with each other with a complex range of sounds.

A study published in 2019 focused on a trio of young gray seals, named Janice, Zola, and Gandalf, who learned to imitate vocal tones, even tunes, proving that Hoover’s ability to imitate his caregiver wasn’t just a fluke. The seals were released into the wild after a year. This is a clip of one of them singing in response to a computerized tune:

[clip of seal singing]

It’s not a coincidence that animals learn to imitate human speech while in captivity. Seals and other animals who communicate with sound learn to imitate what they hear most often. In wild animals, that’s almost always the calls of other animals of their own species, but animals in captivity often hear humans most of the time.

In the case of Wikie, an orca, or killer whale, she was taught to imitate human sounds by researchers. Wikie was born in captivity in 2001 and in 2018, researchers reported that they had taught her to imitate several words, including hello.

Whales and other cetaceans have very different anatomy from seals. They make lots of sounds, from clicks and whistles used for communication and navigation, to the incredibly loud, complex songs that some baleen whales use to attract mates. But they don’t always make those sounds with their larynx.

Toothed whales, including dolphins, make a lot of sounds with the blowhole, which is the specialized nostril at the top of the whale’s head that allows it to take a breath without having to stop moving or put its head out of the water. Toothed whales have specialized air sacs near the blowhole that allow a whale to make high-frequency sounds for echolocation, and it uses its larynx to make whistles and other noises. It may also clap its jaws together and slap the water with its tail or flippers to make sounds, especially ones that signal aggression.

Baleen whales have an inflatable pouch called the laryngeal sac that allows a whale to make extremely loud sounds with its larynx. Many animals have something similar to the laryngeal sac, including some primates. If you remember episode 76, where we talked about the siamang, a type of gibbon, it has a throat pouch called a gular sac that increases the resonance and loudness of its voice.

Orcas in particular imitate sounds made by other orcas, so much so that when an orca pod moves into new territory, it will adopt the sounds made by the local orcas. They will also imitate the sounds made by sea lions and bottlenose dolphins. It’s not surprising, then, that Wikie was able to learn to imitate human words. Here’s some audio of Wikie saying hello (sort of):

[orca speech]

Another mammal that can learn to imitate human speech, at least occasionally, is the elephant! One famous talking elephant is Kosik [koh-shik], an Indian elephant in South Korea who has learned to say yes, no, sit, and several other words, in Korean of course. Kosik puts the tip of his trunk in his mouth and exhales while moving his trunk around to produce the sounds.

The elephant does use its larynx to make sounds, but it also has the option to use its trunk as a resonant chamber to make the sounds deeper. Some of the sounds an elephant makes are below the range of human hearing, as are many sounds baleen whales make. The elephant’s larynx is especially flexible too compared to most mammals, and as if its trunk wasn’t enough, it also has a pharyngeal pouch at the base of the tongue that it uses to produce low frequency calls.

This pharyngeal pouch is different from the baleen whale’s laryngeal sac and the siamang’s gular sac, although all three are used for similar purposes. The elephant actually stores water in the pouch, several liters of water. If an elephant can’t find water and is thirsty, it will stick its trunk deep into its mouth and into the pouch, then constrict the muscles around the pouch to push the water up. Then it can drink the water. It’s like having a built-in water bottle that also allows you to make deep noises.

Batyr was another elephant who reportedly learned to imitate some words and phrases, these in Russian and Kazakh. He lived in a zoo in Kazakhstan until his death in 1993. Like Kosik, Batyr produced the words by sticking his trunk in his mouth, with one keeper reporting that he actually moved his tongue into place with his trunk to make the right sounds. It’s possible that’s exactly what he was doing, since an elephant’s trunk is much more dexterous than an elephant’s tongue. He would also sometimes imitate other animals heard in the zoo.

All the animals we’ve discussed so far were only imitating human words. While they may have learned to use the words appropriately, for instance saying the word water when they wanted a drink, there’s no evidence that any of these animals truly understood the meaning of the words they learned to imitate. But there is one talking animal that was supposed to understand every word he said, a strange and elusive animal only seen by a few people but heard by many more. He’s called Gef the talking mongoose, and he’s one of my very favorite cryptids.

Gef’s story starts in 1931 on the Isle of Man, a British island in the Irish Sea. A family lived in a remote farmhouse near the village of Darby: James Irving (who went by Jim), his wife Margaret, and their twelve-year-old daughter Voirrey. They also had a sheepdog named Mona. The house was a big stone one with wood paneling inside, but with a gap between the stone and wood. These days that would be where the insulation would go to keep the house warmer, but this was before modern insulation and as far as I’ve read the gap was empty. The house didn’t have electricity either.

One night in 1931 the family heard an animal rustling and scratching around inside the gap. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, since there are mice and rats on the Isle of Man along with stoats and ferrets. Any of those might decide to investigate the house and make a little home in the gap between the outer and inner walls.

In this case, though, the animal started out making little animal sounds but soon started trying to talk. At first it sounded like a baby babbling, but within a few weeks it was speaking clearly in English.

The family didn’t know what to think. At first they actually tried to poison the animal, but before long they made peace with it and named him Gef. They rarely saw Gef, just talked to him through the walls. Occasionally they’d see a bright eye peering at them through a knothole or see Gef outside, whisking across the fields. He wasn’t very big, only about a foot long, or 30 cm, including his bushy tail. He was yellowish in color with a slender ferret-like body, and his tail had a black tip. But he wasn’t a ferret, and apparently his front feet were shaped more like tiny human hands than like an animal’s paws. Gef described himself as a mongoose, specifically, “a little extra, extra clever mongoose.”

The weird thing is, there were mongooses on the Isle of Man at the time even though the mongoose is native to Africa, southern Asia, and southern Europe—but only where it’s warm most of the time. They certainly don’t live on the Isle of Man ordinarily. A man who owned a neighboring farm had imported some to kill rabbits, since there are no foxes on the island to keep the rabbit population down. There are even occasional sightings of what might be mongooses on the island today. The mongoose resembles mustelids like weasels and ferrets, but isn’t very closely related to them, and some species are yellowish in color. But the mongoose is much larger than Gef and has a more tapered tail. Also, mongooses don’t actually talk.

The meerkat is a type of mongoose, so if you ever watched Meerkat Manor you know a lot about mongooses already.

Anyway, Gef was clearly not actually a mongoose. The question is whether he was a real animal at all. In many ways, he had more in common with supernatural entities like poltergeists and brownies than with ordinary animals. He sometimes seemed to know about things before they happened, he seemed able to vanish when he didn’t want to be seen, and he made fantastic claims about his history. He also sprinkled words and phrases from other languages into his speech.

At the time, most people on the island thought Voirrey had invented Gef for attention, or maybe in an attempt to get her family to move somewhere more comfortable. She didn’t like living on a farm where the nearest neighbor was two miles away. But Voirrey claimed to the very end of her life—and she lived until 2005—that she hadn’t invented Gef and in fact Gef had ruined her life in some ways. She was teased about him in school and hated all the attention surrounding him, so much so that when she grew up and moved away, she actually changed her name to try and avoid any further publicity. She almost never gave interviews about Gef, and her family certainly never made any money off their resident talking animal even though they were very poor.

These days, a lot of suspicion focuses on Voirrey’s father, Jim Irving. Almost all of the information we have about what Gef said and did comes from Jim’s diaries and letters. He wrote a lot about Gef and apparently planned to write a book about the family’s experiences. The famous investigator of mysterious phenomena, Harry Price, told Jim there was no money in a book about Gef—and then promptly published his own book about Gef, which was a mean trick. Harry Price thought Voirrey was speaking as Gef by somehow throwing her voice, probably by using the acoustic properties of the double-walled house.

It’s possible, of course, that Gef was invented by Jim as a way to make Voirrey happier about having little animals scrabbling about in the walls. It might have started as a family joke that got out of control when people outside the family heard about it. Jim sounds like he was a little bit of a showman and had big dreams. He might have decided that his little family in-joke about Gef the talking mongoose would make a good book, and started spreading the story around as though it was real. Before long, people were swarming to his farmhouse to listen for Gef, Voirrey was being teased and blamed for the phenomenon, and people were demanding proof that Gef was real. Jim couldn’t admit he’d made the whole thing up and risk everyone getting angry.

Jim had traveled widely when he was younger and knew a smattering of words from other languages—the same words that Gef sprinkled into his speech. And remember, Jim is the main source of information about Gef. I wonder if Voirrey understood that her father had painted himself into a corner by telling people about Gef, because she tried to help prove the talking mongoose was real. She produced some hairs she said came from Gef, but when analyzed they were found to be identical to Mona the sheepdog’s fur. Voirrey produced some footprints and tooth prints supposedly made by Gef in plasticine, but they look a lot like they were made by someone poking designs into the plasticine with a sharp stick.

Gef became less and less active over the years, disappearing for months at a time, and by 1939 he was pretty much gone. Voirrey was grown by then and probably long tired of the joke. Jim died in 1945.

Whatever or whoever was behind the talking mongoose story, it’s definitely fun to think about. Gef was snarky, clever, sometimes funny, always weird. For instance, when Jim told Gef “We are having a dictaphone to record your voice,” Gef replied, “Who’s we? Is it that spook man Harry Price? Why, I won’t speak into it. I’ll go and smash his windows. I’ll drop a brick on him as he lies in bed. Me, at the age of 83?” Gef claimed he was born in India on June 7, 1852. Sometimes he said he was an earthbound spirit, sometimes he said he was not a spirit, just a mongoose. Once he said, “I am a ghost in the form of a weasel, and I shall haunt you with weird noises and clanking chains.” Mostly, though, he just recounted village gossip and demanded treats. Occasionally he killed a rabbit and left it for Voirrey like a pet cat leaving a mouse for its owner.

If my cats could speak, I’m pretty sure Poe would be complaining nonstop about having to be in the hospital for a whole week. Actually, he is complaining nonstop about it, just not in actual words. But I understand him anyway.

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 that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 162: Some Seals and the END OF THE WORRRRLLLDDDD



Thanks to Kim and Pranav for their unsettling suggestions for this episode! I swear the reason I decided to do this episode this week was to celebrate getting over my cold, but then I realized I needed to address the virus everyone is talking about right now. I hope you all stay well and safe out there!

The Hawaiian monk seal OMG LOOK YOU CAN SEE ITS BELLY BUTTON, SO CUTE:

Show transcript:

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

I’m finally over my cold, so to celebrate let’s do a little bit of an unusual episode. Last year Kim suggested we do an episode about zoonotic diseases and diseases found in polar ice, and Pranav suggested an episode about what happens after humans go extinct. Those two topics seemed to go together, muahahaha.

Zoonotic diseases are diseases that humans can catch from other animals. Rabies is a good example, since it affects all mammals and is passed from one animal to another. In fact, let’s learn a little bit about rabies since naturally people are afraid of catching it but most people don’t know much about it.

Rabies is caused by a virus, specifically the lyssavirus. It acts on the body’s central nervous system, eventually infecting the brain. After that, it infects the salivary glands in order to be transmitted to other animals through a bite wound.

When an animal is infected with rabies, it may not show symptoms for a long time—sometimes years, although it’s more usually a few days to a few months. It starts as a fever and a headache, which are also symptoms of many other diseases. But within a few days of the first symptoms, the animal becomes aggressive, attempting to bite any other animal that it encounters. It has difficulty swallowing, which is why in cartoons animals with rabies are shown foaming at the mouth. This actually happens, but it doesn’t look like shaving cream and you’re not fooling anyone. The foam is just saliva that the animal can’t swallow. In the old days, rabies was called hydrophobia, which means fear of water, because in addition to not being able to swallow, the infected animal actually shows a fear of water. This all happens because the virus wants to be transmitted to other animals, and it does so through contact with infected saliva. If an infected animal could swallow its saliva and drink water, it would be much less likely to transmit rabies. So the virus hijacks the central nervous system to make the animal afraid of water and unable to swallow.

Of course, mammals can only live a few days without water, so once an animal reaches this stage it dies within a few days. Occasionally a human who contracts rabies and starts showing symptoms is rushed to the hospital and treated, but once they’ve reached the final stages of hydrophobia, it’s extremely rare that they survive even with the best medical care available.

So that’s horrifying. Some species of mammal are resistant to rabies and while they may get sick, they don’t usually die from it, including the vampire bat and the Virginia opossum. Birds can catch rabies but usually don’t show symptoms and recover without spreading it. Rabbits and hares, and many small rodents like guinea pigs and rats, almost never catch rabies and as far as researchers know, don’t pass the disease to humans.

And, of course, a vaccine was developed as long ago as 1885, with a more effective vaccine developed in 1967. The vaccine is mostly given to dogs, cats, and other pets, but humans who work with certain wild animals, like bats, are also given the vaccine. In some areas with widespread rabies among wild animals, vaccine-laced baits left for animals to find and eat have helped limit the spread of the disease.

If you are bitten by an animal, even if the animal doesn’t show symptoms of rabies, you should get the rabies vaccine and treatment as soon as possible. Rabies is most commonly spread to humans by dogs, especially stray dogs.

Feeling nervous yet?

What about diseases that spread from animals to humans that aren’t as well-known as rabies, or which appear to be new diseases? This is what has happened with the COVID-19 virus, also called the coronavirus, that has people worried at the moment. If you’re listening to this long after it came out and have no idea what COVID-19 is, at the time of release it’s March of 2020. Also, what’s the future like? Do we have flying cars yet?

The COVID-19 virus was first reported in China and researchers think it may have originated in bats, since it’s very similar to another coronavirus found in bats. There’s also some discussion that it may have originated in pangolins, or that there may be two strains of the disease. It’s still so early in the disease’s study that we don’t know for sure, but it does appear to be a zoonotic disease.

But how would a bat virus get into a human? It’s not like rabies where infected animals are trying to bite and infect others. I mean, when’s the last time a bat sneezed on you? Well, in parts of China people still catch and eat wild animals, including bats. Most of the initial cases of COVID-19 were in people who had gone to a market where bats and other animals were for sale as meat.

Wildlife trafficking is a source of many zoonotic diseases, and it doesn’t matter whether the animal is caught to be shipped live or killed and sold as meat or body parts. Not only is it really bad for endangered species, and of course for the individual animal killed, it also puts people at risk. China has put some stricter guidelines in place to limit the practice, and hopefully other countries will do the same.

COVID-19 is a virus with flu-like symptoms, spread the same way colds and flu are spread. While most people who catch it recover after a few weeks, it can be especially dangerous for people who already have other health issues. I know you’ve been told this constantly the last few weeks, but wash your hands with soap and hot water before you eat or rub your eyes or chew on that fingernail or pick your nose. Your mouth, nose, and eyes are lined with mucus membranes, which are easy for viruses to penetrate. Regular skin is too tough for the virus to get through. That’s also why you should cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, so no one breathes in the germy droplets you just sneezed out. Hopefully it won’t be long before a vaccine is developed, but until then, if you feel sick the best thing is to stay home and take care of yourself, and not go out and potentially get other people sick.

Right, that’s enough about your run-of-the-mill zoonotic diseases because we’re all feeling icky and nervous now. Let’s move on to diseases found in polar ice!

As you probably also know, right now the earth’s overall global temperature is rising. This is causing more ice to melt at the poles, including some of what’s called the permafrost. The permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen and never thaws out, or at least it doesn’t thaw completely for years—sometimes thousands and thousands of years. That kind of permafrost is mostly found near the north and south poles. But now that the earth is warming, more permafrost is starting to melt. That means everything in the permafrost is thawing out too. That includes bacteria and viruses that were frozen thousands of years ago.

Some bacteria and viruses can remain dormant in ice, then thaw out and be just fine. Researchers have found active viruses in dead bodies that are thawing after sometimes hundreds of years. The only known outbreak so far has been a case of anthrax in Siberia that spread to living reindeer from a thawed corpse of a reindeer that died some 75 years ago. The infected reindeer herd then spread the disease to some people living nearby, and one twelve-year-old boy died.

But anthrax is a well-known disease that’s still around today. What makes us all uneasy about this is that there might be unknown diseases or especially dangerous strains of known diseases that could spread to animals and people. So could that happen? Are we all DOOMED?

No, we’re not all doomed, no matter what you keep hearing on the news. Even if a virus or bacterium is fine after being thawed out, it still needs to find a host quickly or it will degrade and die anyway. The reason the anthrax virus was able to infect reindeer was because they were grazing in the area where the dead reindeer thawed out. That virus got lucky, but most don’t. The areas of the world with permafrost are ones that are difficult to live in, so there aren’t as many animals around in the first place. There are even fewer people. Instead of being worried about catching a disease from permafrost, we should probably worry about other issues stemming from climate change. If you’re like me, of course, you can manage to worry about EVERYTHING at once, but you can put polar ice diseases near the bottom of the list.

Of course, there is another aspect of melting ice and disease. In 2004 some sea otters in Alaska were diagnosed with a version of distemper that was only known from eastern North America and Europe. This population of sea otters had never been anywhere but in Alaska, so how did they catch the virus? It wasn’t until researchers noticed that outbreaks of distemper corresponded with the melting of Arctic sea ice that they realized that infected animals from other parts of the country were moving west into newly ice-free territories, spreading the virus to otters that wouldn’t have been exposed otherwise. This particular strain of distemper affects otters, seals, and other marine mammals. It’s dangerous enough that conservationists are now vaccinating Hawaiian monk seals against distemper just in case it spreads to them, since only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals are alive to start with.

We haven’t talked about any particular kind of animal yet this episode, so let’s learn about those seals. The Hawaiian monk seal lives around the Hawaiian islands in the Pacific Ocean, but its closest relatives, the Mediterranean monk seal and the extinct Caribbean monk seal, are both native to the Atlantic Ocean.

Hawaii, of course, is an archipelago of 137 volcanic islands, most of them quite small, that span 1,500 miles, or 2,400 km. Seven of the eight biggest islands are the ones where humans live, and many of the islands are part of a protected marine wildlife reserve. The oldest island in the archipelago is probably 28 million years old, while the youngest, which is actually called Hawai’i or just the Big Island, is only about 400,000 years old and is still volcanically active. There’s another volcanic island southeast of Hawai’i that’s still growing underwater, too.

All the islands are so far away from any continent that there are only two mammals native to the area, the Hawaiian monk seal and a species of bat. The bat probably colonized the islands after being blown there by storms, but how did seals whose ancestors were native to the Atlantic reach these islands in the middle of the Pacific? The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are separated by two big continents on either side. Even humans didn’t settle on Hawaii until 1700 years ago at most.

Before around 3 or 4 million years ago, though, North America and South America were separate continents with a seaway between. It wasn’t until around 3 million years ago that the Isthmus of Panama formed as two tectonic plates collided, forming volcanic islands and pushing the land up. When the oceans were finally separated by this new land, it stopped marine animals from being able to pass back and forth, but of course it also allowed land animals to pass between North and South America, the Great American Interchange which we’ve talked about in previous episodes from time to time. The Hawaiian monk seal’s ancestors probably lived in the shallow seaway between North and South America, and around three million years ago one population was cut off from the rest. That population eventually migrated to the Hawaiian islands and evolved into the seals that live there today.

The Hawaiian monk seal mostly lives around the smaller islands, although sometimes it comes to the larger ones. It’s gray with a pale belly, and a big female can grow up to 8 feet long, or 2.4 meters, while males are a little smaller. Babies are born with black hair. Most of the time the seal is in the water, hunting fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans, but for about ten days out of the year it spends most of its time on land because that’s when it molts. It doesn’t just shed its hair, it also sheds the outer layer of its skin. This is probably itchy and uncomfortable until the new hair and skin grow back. The seal can hold its breath for up to 20 minutes and can dive deeply, but it usually hangs out in shallow water around the islands. It usually sleeps on the beach but sometimes in underwater caves where there’s trapped air to breathe. It also gives birth on the beach. I have to say, it sounds like it has a pretty sweet life, except the part where sharks eat it.

In the 19th century many species of seal, including the Hawaiian monk seal, were either driven extinct or nearly driven extinct by hunters. The hunters wanted the oily fat that seals produce to keep them warm in cold water, which burns really well. Fortunately, once electricity was invented and became widespread, no one wanted to burn stinky whale and seal oil for light. But many species of seal, just like many species of whale, are still having trouble recovering. The Hawaiian monk seal is so endangered that conservationists provide veterinary care when appropriate, especially to young seals that are injured by aggressive older males and by fishing equipment. And, of course, they also provide vaccines to protect the seals from diseases like distemper.

Let’s finish up with Pranav’s question. What will happen after humans go extinct?

That won’t happen for a very, very long time—hopefully millions of years, if we’re careful with our resources and wash our hands. But everything ends eventually. One day we’ll all be gone but the earth will continue without us until the sun burns out and becomes a red giant, destroying the inner planets of our solar system. That won’t be for another 5 billion years or so, so you don’t need to lie awake and worry about it happening any time soon. The earth is only about 4 ½ billion years old now so it’s probably not even halfway through its lifespan.

In the meantime, continental drift will continue to happen just as it always has. Australia will eventually crunch into eastern Asia. Africa will merge into Europe. The Americas might end up squished up with Europe and Africa again, or they might end up merging with Asia on the other side of the landmass. Either way, there will probably be another supercontinent for a while, until the tectonic plates start separating again in their constant, slow dance. Oceans will expand and contract, mountains will build up and wear down, and through it all, for thousands of millions of years, animals of all kinds will continue to evolve.

When I was a kid, I had a book called After Man by Dougal Dixon, which speculated about what animals would look like in the future. I remember being kind of disappointed that they mostly didn’t look too different from the animals we have today. Rabbits were going to do well, I remember that. But of course that’s just speculation, and we can’t possibly know what will evolve in the future. It is fun to wonder, though. Mammals have been going strong for a long time now, but that doesn’t mean they always will. Various extinction events will occur as they always have, wiping out the dominant species and opening up ecological niches for new species to evolve. It might be birds next instead of mammals. It might be reptiles again. It might be something else that hasn’t even evolved yet.

I know we all secretly want to go back in time to see what dinosaurs and other extinct animals really looked like. But we’re very lucky to be alive right now. Travel is reasonably safe, quick, and inexpensive compared to how it used to be in the olden days, so we can go to different parts of the world and see animals where they live. If we can’t travel far, we can go to zoos where animals are usually kept in habitats that mimic their natural habitats as much as possible. We can watch high-quality videos of animals in the wild. We can listen to podcasts that talk about how we’re all going to die one day, sorry about that. We even happen to live at the same time as the largest animal ever known to live, the blue whale, which always just blows my mind. We are so lucky that the blue whale is still around and wasn’t killed off for whale oil along with all those seals!

And, best of all, we know a lot more about how the world works these days. We know the mistakes we’ve made in the past, like killing whales and seals for oil, and we know how to make things better in the future for everyone, people and animals alike. So instead of worrying too much about what horrible things might happen, do your best to make the world a better place every day and wash your hands with soap and warm water. Whenever you do start to worry, just think about a blue whale swimming around in the ocean happily eating krill, or a Hawaiian monk seal lounging on a sunny Hawaiian beach. I think I need a vacation.

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 for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 155: Extreme Sexual Dimorphism



Many animals have differences between males and females, but some species have EXTREME differences!

The elephant seal male and female are very different sizes:

The huia female (bottom) had a beak very different from the male (top):

The eclectus parrot male (left) looks totally different from the female (right):

The triplewart seadevil, an anglerfish. On the drawing, you can see the male labeled in very small letters:

The female argonaut, also called the paper nautilus, makes a delicate see-through shell:

The male argonaut has no shell and is much smaller than the female (photo by Ryo Minemizu):

Lamprologus callipterus males are much larger than females:

The female green spoonworm. Male not pictured because he’s only a few millimeters long:

Show transcript:

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

I still have a lot of listener suggestions to get to, and don’t worry, I’ve got them all on the list. But I have other topics I want to cover first, like this week’s subject of extreme sexual dimorphism!

Sexual dimorphism is when the male of a species looks much different from the female. Not all animals show sexual dimorphism and most that do have relatively small differences. A lot of male birds are more brightly colored than females, for instance. The peacock is probably the most spectacular example, with the males having a brightly colored, iridescent fan of a tail to show off for the hens, which are mostly brown and gray, although they do have iridescent green neck feathers too.

But eclectus parrot males and females don’t even look like the same bird. The male is mostly green while the female is mostly red and purple. In fact, the first scientists to see them thought they were different species.

Males of some species are larger than females, while females of some species are larger than males. In the case of the elephant seal, the males are much larger than females. We talked about the northern elephant seal briefly last week, but only how big the male is. A male southern elephant seal can grow up to 20 feet long, or 6 meters, and can weigh up to 8,800 pounds, or 4,000 kg. The female usually only grows to about half that length and weight. The difference in this case is because males are fiercely territorial and fight each other, so a big male has an advantage over other males and reproduces more often. But the female doesn’t fight, so her smaller size means she doesn’t need to eat as much.

Another major size difference happens in spiders, but in this case the female is far larger than the male in many species. For instance, the body of the female western black widow spider, which lives throughout western North America, is about half an inch in length, or 16 mm, although of course that doesn’t count the legs. But the male is only half this length at most. Not only that, the male is skinny where the female has a large rounded abdomen, and the male is brown with pale markings, while the female is glossy black with a red hourglass marking on her abdomen. Female western widows can be dangerous since their venom is strong enough to kill many animals, although usually their bite is only painful and not deadly to humans and other mammals. But while the male does have venom, he can only inject a tiny amount with a bite so isn’t considered very dangerous in comparison.

The reason many male spiders are so much smaller than females is that the females of some species of spider will eat the male after or even during mating if she’s hungry. The smaller the male is, the less of a meal he would be and the less likely the female will bother to eat him. In the case of the western black widow, the male prefers to mate with females who are in good condition. In other words, he doesn’t want to spend time with a hungry female.

If you remember episode 139, about skunks and other stinky animals, we talked about the woodhoopoe and mentioned the bill differences between males and females. The male woodhoopoe has a longer, more curved bill than the female because males and females eat a slightly different diet of insects so they won’t compete for the same food sources.

But a bird called the huia took beak differences to the extreme. The huia lived in New Zealand, although it officially went extinct in 1907. It was a wattlebird, which gets its name from the brightly colored patch of skin on either side of the face, called wattles. In the case of the huia, the wattles were orange, while the feathers over most of the body were glossy black. It also had a strip of white at the tip of the long tail. The male’s beak was fairly long and pointy, although it also curved down slightly. But the female’s beak was much longer and more slender, curving downward in an arc.

The huia lived in forests in New Zealand, where it ate insects, especially beetle grubs that live in rotting logs. People used to think that a mated pair worked together to get at grubs and other insects. The male would use his shorter, stouter bill to break away pieces of rotting wood until the grub’s tunnel was exposed, and then the female would use her longer, more slender bill to fish the grub out of the tunnel. But actual observations of the huia before it went extinct indicate that it actually didn’t do this. Like the woodhoopoe, males and females preyed on different kinds of insects. The male did break open rotting wood with its beak in a way that’s very different from woodpeckers, though. Instead of hammering at the wood, it would wedge its bill into a crevice of the wood and open its beak, and the muscles and other structures it used to do so were so strong that it could easily break pieces of wood off. This action is known as gaping and other birds do it too, but the huia was probably better at it than any other bird known.

The huia went extinct partly due to habitat loss as European settlers cleared forests to make way for farming, and partly due to overhunting. Museums wanted stuffed huias for display, and the feathers were in demand to decorate hats. And as a result, we don’t have any huias left.

Sometimes the size difference between males and females reaches extreme proportions. We’ve talked about the anglerfish several times in different episodes, and it’s a good example. It’s a deep-sea fish with a bioluminescent lure on its head that it uses to attract prey. Different species grow to different sizes, but let’s just talk about one this time, the triplewart seadevil.

The triplewart seadevil is found throughout much of the world’s oceans, preferably in medium deep water but sometimes in shallow water and sometimes as deep as 13,000 feet, or 4000 meters. The female grows to about a foot long, or 30 cm. It’s black in color, although young fish are brown. Its body is covered with short spines and it has a lure on its head like other anglerfish. The lure is called an illicium, and it’s a highly modified dorsal spine that the fish can move around, including extending and retracting it. At the end of the illicium is a little bulb that contains bioluminescent bacteria. Whatever animals are attracted to the glowing illicium, the fish gulps down with its great big mouth.

But that’s the female triplewart seadevil. The male is tiny, only 30 mm long at the most. The male doesn’t have an illicium; instead, his jaws and teeth are specialized for one thing: to bite onto the female and never let go. When a male finds a female, he chooses a spot on her underside to latch on, and once he does, his mouth and one side of his body actually fuse to the female’s body. Their circulatory and digestive systems fuse too. Before the male finds a female, he has great big eyes, but once he fuses with a female his eyes degenerate because he no longer needs them. He’s fully dependent on the female, and in return she always has a male around to fertilize her eggs. But this attachment is actually pretty rare, because it’s hard for deep-sea fish to find each other.

Another sea creature where the females are much larger and very different from the males is the argonaut, or paper nautilus. The argonaut is an octopus that lives in the open ocean in tropical and subtropical waters. Instead of living on the bottom of the ocean, though, the paper nautilus lives near the surface, and while the female looks superficially similar to a nautilus, it’s only distantly related.

The female argonaut generally grows to about 4 inches long, or 10 cm, although the shell she makes can be up to a foot across, or 30 cm. In contrast, males are barely half an inch long, or 13 mm. The female’s eight arms are long because she uses them to catch prey, with two of her arms being larger than the others. She grabs small animals like sea slugs, crustaceans, and small fish and bites it with her beak, and like other octopuses she can inject venom at that point too. But the male has tiny little short arms except for one, which is slightly larger.

Like other cephalopods, the male uses one of his arms to transfer sperm to the female so she can fertilize her eggs. In most cephalopods that means an actual little packet of sperm that the male places inside the female’s mantle for her to use later. But in the argonaut, the male’s larger modified arm is called a hectocotylus, and it has little grooves that hold sperm. The male inserts the hectocotylus into the female’s mantle, then detaches it and leaves the arm inside her. Then he leaves and regrows the arm, as far as researchers know. We don’t actually know for sure since it’s never been observed, but octopuses do have the ability to regenerate lost arms. The female usually keeps the hectocotylus and sometimes ends up with several.

At that point the female creates a shell by secreting calcite from the tips of her two larger arms. The shell is delicate, papery, and white, and it resembles the shell of the ammonite, which we talked about in episode 86. The female lays her eggs inside the shell, then squeezes inside too, although she can come and go as she likes.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the argonaut, but we know more than we used to. In the olden days people thought the female used her two larger arms as sails at the surface of the water. Eventually scientists figured out that was wrong, but they were still confused as to why there only seemed to be female argonauts. They didn’t know that the males were so small and so different, and in fact when early researchers found hectocotyluses inside the females, they assumed they were parasitic worms of some kind. Eventually they worked that part out too.

But still, for a very long time researchers thought the argonaut’s shell was just for protecting the eggs, but it turns out that the female uses the shell as a flotation device. She can control how much air the shell contains, which allows her to control how close to the surface she stays. In a 2010 study of argonauts rescued from fishing nets and released into a harbor, if the shell doesn’t contain enough air, the argonaut will jet to the surface and stick the top of its shell above the water. The shell has small openings at this point so air can get in, and once the argonaut decides it’s enough, she seals the holes by covering them with two of her arms. Then she jets downward again until she’s deep enough below the surface that the pressure compresses the air inside the shell and cancels out the weight of the shell. This means the argonaut won’t bob to the surface but she also won’t sink, and instead she can just swim normally by shooting water from her funnel like other octopuses.

A species of cichlid fish from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, Lamprologus callipterus, also differs in size due to a shell, but not like the argonaut. Instead, the male is much larger than the female. The male can be up to five inches long, or nearly 13 cm, while the female is less than two inches long, or 4 ½ cm. The females lay their eggs in shells, but not shells they make. The shells come from snails, so the male needs to be larger so he can pick up and carry a big empty shell. The female, though, still needs to be small enough to fit inside the shell.

A moth called the rusty tussock moth is also sexually dimorphic. Its caterpillar grows around 1 to 1.5 inches long, or 3 to 4 cm, with females being a little larger than male caterpillars but otherwise very similar. But after the caterpillars pupate, they’re much different. The male moth has orangey or reddish-brown wings and a wingspan of about 1.5 inches, or almost 4 cm. The female doesn’t have wings at all. She emerges from her cocoon and perches next to it, and releases pheromones that attract a male. After the female mates, she lays her eggs on her old cocoon and dies, as does the male.

Let’s finish up with an animal you may never have heard of, the green spoonworm. It’s a marine worm that lives throughout much of the Mediterranean and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. It lives on the sea floor in shallow water, partly buried in gravel and sand. The female grows up to about six inches long, or 15 cm, and sort of looks like a mostly deflated dark green balloon, although it may also look kind of lumpy. It also has a feeding proboscis that it can extend several feet, or about a meter.

As a larva, the green spoonworm floats around in the water, but whether it becomes male or female depends on where it settles. If it lands on the seafloor it transforms into a female and starts secreting a toxin called bonellin. Bonellin is what gives the green spoonworm its dark green color. The bonellin is mostly concentrated in the feeding proboscis and allows the spoonworm to paralyze and kill the tiny animals it eats.

But if the larva happens to land on a female green spoonworm, contact with the bonellin causes it to become a male. And the male is only a few mm long, doesn’t produce bonellin, and can’t even survive on its own. The female sucks the male into her body through the feeding proboscis, but instead of digesting him, he lives inside her and fertilizes her eggs. In return she provides him with all the nutrients he needs. A female may have more than one male living inside her, making sure that her eggs will always be fertilized.

There are lots more animals that show extreme sexual dimorphism, of course, but that at least gives you an idea of how different animals evolve to fit different environmental pressures. Weird as they seem to us, to the animals in question, it’s just normal–and it’s our appearance and how we do things that would seem weird to them. Perspective is everything.

You can find Strange Animals Podcast online at strangeanimalspodcast.blubrry.net. That’s blueberry without any E’s. If you like the podcast and want to help us out, leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you listen on. 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 and get twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 067: More Sea Monsters



Finally, it’s the follow-up to our first sea monsters episode that sounds so terrible now that I know how to put a podcast together!

Here’s the published drawings of a strange animal seen from the HMS Daedalus:

Here’s Drummond’s sketch of what he saw:

Here’s a sketch of the HMS Plumper animal sighted:

And here’s a sei whale rostrum sticking up out of the water while it’s skim feeding:

Sei whales are neat and have gigantic mouths:

The rotten “sea serpent” that’s actually a decomposing baleen whale:

The Naden Harbour Carcass. It’s the black thing on the table with a white backdrop. It doesn’t look like much, but you probably wouldn’t look like much either after being eaten by a sperm whale:

Unexpected seal says “Hello, I am not a sea serpent, I am a stock photo”:

Hagelund’s sketch of the little animal he caught:

A pipefish with a lollipop tail and some drawings of pipefish:

The strange animal seen from the Valhalla:

Show transcript:

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

Recently I listened to episode six, about sea monsters. It’s climbed to our third most popular episode and when I heard it again, oh man, I winced. I was still really new to podcasting then and that episode sounds like someone reading a book report out loud to the class. So it’s time to do a new sea monsters episode and explore more mysteries of the world’s oceans, hopefully with a lot more vocal expression.

On August 6, 1848, about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, the captain and some of the crew of HMS Daedalus saw something really big in the water. The ship was sailing between the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena on the way back to England from the East Indies. It was an overcast day with a fresh wind, but nothing unusual. The midshipman noticed something in the water he couldn’t identify and told the officer of the watch, who happened to be walking the deck at the time with the captain. Most of the crew was at supper.

This is what the captain, Peter M’Quhae, described in his report when the ship arrived at Plymouth a few months later.

“On our attention being called to the object, it was discovered to be an enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and, as nearly as we could approximate, by comparing it with the length of what our main-topsail yard would show in the water, there was at the very least sixty feet of the animal à fleur d’eau [that means at the water’s surface], no portion of which was, to our perception, used in propelling it through the water, either by vertical or horizontal undulation. It passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter, that had it been a man of my acquaintance, I should easily have recognized his features with the naked eye; and it did not, either in approaching the ship or after it had passed in our wake, deviate in the slightest degree from its course to the S.W., which it held on at the pace of from twelve to fifteen miles per hour, apparently on some determined purpose.

“The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was, without any doubt, that of a snake; and it was never, during the twenty minutes that it continued in sight of our glasses, once below the surface of the water; its colour a dark brown, with yellowish white about the throat. It had no fins, but something like a mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed, washed about its back.”

The original Times article also mentioned large jagged teeth in a jaw so large that a man could have stood up inside the mouth, but this seems to be an addition by the article’s writer, not the captain or crew.

The officer of the watch, Lieutenant Edgar Drummond, also published an excerpt from his own journal about the sighting, which appeared in a journal called the Zoologist in December 1848. It reads, “In the 4 to 6 watch, at about five o’clock, we observed a most remarkable fish on our lee quarter, crossing the stern in a S.W. direction; the appearance of its head, which, with the back fin, was the only portion of the animal visible, was long, pointed, and flattened at the top, perhaps ten feet in length, the upper jaw projecting considerably; the fin was perhaps twenty feet in the rear of the head, and visible occasionally; the captain also asserted that he saw the tail, or another fin about the same distance behind it; the upper part of the head and shoulders appeared of a dark brown colour, and beneath the under jaw a brownish white. It pursued a steady undeviating course, keeping its head horizontal with the surface of the water, and in rather a raised position, disappearing occasionally beneath a wave for a very brief interval, and not apparently for purposes of respiration. It was going at the rate of perhaps from twelve to fourteen miles an hour, and when nearest, was perhaps one hundred yards distant. In fact it gave one quite the idea of a large snake or eel. No one in the ship has ever seen anything similar, so it is at least extraordinary. It was visible to the naked eye for five minutes, and with a glass for perhaps fifteen more. The weather was dark and squally at the time, with some sea running.”

To translate some of this into metric, 60 feet is a little more than 18 meters, the 15 inch diameter the captain reported of the neck just behind the head is about 38 cm, and the speed of 13 mph is almost 21 km per hour.

A lot of people wrote in to the Times to discuss the sighting and suggest solutions. One writer claimed the animal couldn’t be a snake or eel, since a side to side undulating motion would have been obvious as the animal propelled itself with its tail. Another said it had to have been a snake but the undulations were only in the tail, which was below the water. Yet another article suggested it was a monstrous seal or other pinniped. Captain M’Quhai took exception to that one and wrote back stressing that he was familiar with seals and this definitely had not been one. Other suggestions included a basking shark or some other unknown species of shark, a plesiosaur, or a giant piece of seaweed.

Other similar sightings are on record, including a very similar one from the very end of 1849 off the coast of Portugal. In that one, an officer on HMS Plumper reported seeing “a long black creature with a sharp head, moving slowly, I should think about two knots, through the water, in a north westerly direction, there being a fresh breeze at the time, and some sea on. I could not ascertain its exact length, but its back was about twenty feet if not more above water; and its head, as near as I could judge, from six to eight. I had not time to make a closer observation, as the ship was going six knots through the water, her head E. half S., and wind S.S.E. The creature moved across our wake towards a merchant barque on our lee-quarter, and on the port tack. I was in hopes she would have seen it also. The officers and men who saw it, and who have served in parts of the world adjacent to whale and seal fisheries, and have seen them in the water, declare they have neither seen nor heard of any creature bearing the slightest resemblance to the one we saw. There was something on its back that appeared like a mane, and, as it moved through the water, kept washing about, but before I could examine it more closely, it was too far astern.”

Illustrations of the Daedalus sea serpent, which M’Quhai approved, were published in the Times. But the original sketch made by Drummond in his journal the day he saw the animal gives us a much better idea of what it looked like and what it probably was. The sketch accompanying the Plumper sighting reinforces the solution. It’s probable that both sightings, and probably many others, were of a sei whale skim feeding.

The sei is a baleen whale that’s generally considered the fourth largest whale, with some individuals growing almost 65 feet long, or nearly 20 meters. Females are larger than males. It lives all over the world although it likes deep water that isn’t too cold or too hot. It’s a mottled dark grey. Its fins are relatively short and pointed, its dorsal fin is tall and fairly far back on the animal’s body. Its tail flukes aren’t usually visible. Its rostrum, or beak, is pointed and short baleen plates hang down from it. The sei whale’s baleen is unusually fine, with a fringe that is curly and white and looks something like wool.

Unlike some whales, it doesn’t dive very deeply or for very long, and it’s usually relatively solitary. It spends a lot of its time at or near the surface, frequently skim feeding to capture krill and other tiny food. It does this by cruising along with its mouth open, often swimming on its side. It has throat pleats that allow its huge mouth to expand and hold incredible amounts of water. The whale closes its mouth and raises its huge tongue, forcing the water out through its baleen plates. Whatever krill and fish are caught by the baleen, the whale swallows.

A lot of baleen whales skim feed occasionally, but the sei is something of a skim feeding specialist. And it has a narrow, pointed rostrum that often sticks up out of the water as it skim-feeds, with pale baleen hanging down. This might easily look like a long snakey animal with a small head held up out of the water, especially in poor viewing conditions when the people involved are convinced they’re looking at a sea serpent. The sei whale is a fast swimmer too, easily able to cruise at the speeds described by the Daedalus and Plumper crews.

It’s not a perfect match, of course. The sei whale’s dorsal fin is pretty distinctive and if seen properly would have immediately told the crew they were looking at a whale. No one reported seeing anything that could be considered a whale’s breath either, sometimes called a spout. Since whales exhale forcefully and almost empty their lungs when they do, the cloud of warm air expelled looks like steam and is a tell-tale sign of a whale. Whales also don’t have hair on their rostrum that could wash around like a mane on a sea serpent’s neck. So while it seems likely that the Daedalus and Plumper sightings were of sei or other baleen whales skim feeding, we can’t know for sure.

Incidentally, the sei whale wasn’t fully protected from whaling until 1986. Japan still hunts sei whales, supposedly for scientific purposes but no one’s really fooled. The whales they catch are sold for meat. In 2010, a restaurant in Los Angeles closed after being caught serving sei whale meat. The sei whale is still endangered but if people would stop killing it maybe it would be doing better. Whalers reported that when harpooned, sei whales would cry audibly, which apparently disturbed the whalers. Maybe if your job involves making animals cry you should go back to school and get a degree in nursing or teaching or something else that will make the world a better place, not worse.

Another whale is responsible for a mystery carcass washed up in the Philippines in 2017. The carcass looks like a dragon-like sea monster, but that’s due to decomposition. It’s actually a baleen whale, probably a gray whale, that had apparently been floating around for a while, getting nastier and more nibbled on every day.

Speaking of nasty, nibbled-on dead things, and whaling, in 1937 a sperm whale brought to Naden Harbor Whaling Station on a small Canadian island for processing turned out to have something so extraordinary in its stomach that the whalers took pictures of it. It was about ten feet long, or three meters, with a head said to be horselike or camel-like in shape with a drooping nose. Its body was long and thin, and it had short pectoral flippers and a single fluke or spade-shaped end on its tail. Its skin was either smooth or furry depending on which witness you believe, and there were signs it may have had baleen or gill rakers.

The carcass wasn’t kept, but pieces of it were reportedly sent to the British Columbia Provincial Museum, whose museum director suggested it might be a fetal baleen whale. Locals thought it might be a young cadborosaurus, a sea serpent occasionally sighted off the coast of British Columbia. It gets its name from Cadboro Bay, and is usually called Caddy. Caddy is generally described as 5 to 15 meters long, or 16 to almost 50 feet long, with a horse-like or camel-like head, big eyes, and a tail with horizontal flukes like a whale’s. Some witnesses say it has brown fur and horns or ears of some kind.

In 1992, a retired museum researcher named Ed Bousfield found three photos of the Naden Harbor carcass, long believed lost. This sparked up lots of debate, naturally, and lots of suggestions as to what the animal might be—a basking shark, a sea lion or other pinniped, an eel, an oarfish, and many others.

The problem, of course, is that the pictures aren’t very clear, we don’t have the actual body to examine, and the carcass had spent some time in the belly of a sperm whale so was in the process of being digested. But the whalers who found it had never seen anything like it before.

In 1968, a man called William Hagelund was yachting with his family when he heard splashing and saw a strange creature in the water. It was small, only about 16 inches long, or 40 cm, so he lowered a dinghy and caught it in a net. It had what appeared to be armored plates on its back, its flippers were odd-shaped, its snout was elongated but widened at the end, and it had a downy yellow fuzz or fur underneath. Hagelund put it in a bucket but it was so frantic to get out that he worried it would die. He made a drawing of it and released it.

Hagelund thought he’d caught a baby Caddy. But he didn’t share his story until twenty years later, when he wrote a book called Whalers No More.

But while Hagelund’s creature probably wasn’t a baby Caddy, it might have been something almost as strange. The pipefish is a fish related to the seahorse, and it resembles a seahorse that has straightened out. Some species have prehensile tails, some have little paddles at the end of their tails. Some are stripey. Like seahorses, the pipefish male has a brood pouch where he broods the female’s fertilized eggs. Not only does he protect the eggs, he supplies them with nutrients from his body while they grow. Because the female can lay more eggs than the male can hold in his brood pouch, females of some species of pipefish will have more than one mate. Pipefish rarely grow longer than around 16 inches, or 40 cm and have armored plating. The yellow fuzz Hagelund reported might have been algae.

It’s probable that at least some Caddy sightings are of moose swimming to or from one of the many small islands in the area. Moose will also dive to reach aquatic plants. Other Caddy sightings are probably of the Northern sea lion or Northern elephant seal, both of which are common in the area for at least part of the year.

Pinnipeds, in fact, may be the biggest factor to consider in any sea serpent or sea monster sightings. I learned this interesting fact after doing the research for the previous sea monster episode, but pinnipeds will stand vertically in the water to look around above the surface, and a big elephant seal can raise its head over three feet, or one meter, out of the water. If you’re in a boat and a big head and neck pops up out of the water nearby, your first thought is not going to be, “Oh, that’s an unexpected seal.” It’s going to be, “THIS GIANT ANIMAL IS GOING TO EAT ME.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t definite sea monsters out there. Far from it. On December 7, 1905, two naturalists spotted an animal they couldn’t recognize off the coast of Brazil.

The pair were Michael Nicholl and Edmund Meade-Waldo, part of a research team on the Valhalla. The ship was about 15 miles, or 24 km, from the mouth of the Parahiba River. At 10:15 a.m. Nicoll spotted a dorsal fin above the water that he didn’t recognize, about 100 yards away, or 91 meters. He asked Meade-Waldo to take a look, and he couldn’t identify the fish either. The fin was roughly rectangular, close to two feet high and six feet long, or 61 cm and 1.8 meters, and dark brown with an edge Meade-Waldo described as crinkled.

Meade-Waldo was looking at the fin through his binoculars when a head and long neck emerged from the water in front of the fin. He estimated it as 7 or 8 feet high, or over 2 meters, with a brown, turtle-like head. The animal moved its neck from side to side. They watched it until it was out of sight as the ship sailed away, but early the next morning, around 2 am, three crew members spotted what they thought was the same animal swimming underwater.

Nicholl and Meade-Waldo published their report in 1906. We still have no idea what they saw.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 064: Updates and the Nandi Bear



It’s update week! I call myself out for some mistakes, then catch us all up on new information about topics we’ve covered in the past. Then we’ll learn about the Nandi bear, a mystery animal that is probably not actually a bear.

Check out Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast on Podbean!

Check out the Zeng This! pop culture podcast while you’re at it!

A new species of Bird of Paradise:

Buša cattle:

Further reading/watching:

http://www.sci-news.com/biology/vogelkop-superb-bird-of-paradise-05924.html

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to dig into some updates to previous episodes! Don’t worry, it’ll be interesting. We’re also going to look at a mystery animal we haven’t examined before.

First, though, a big shout-out to Sir Finn Hayes, a long-time listener who has started his own podcast! It’s called Finn’s Natural History, although now I see it’s been renamed Finn and Lila’s Natural History and Horse Podcast, and you can find it on Podbean. I’ll put a link in the show notes. The great thing is, Finn is just ten years old but he and his younger sister Lila are already dropping knowledge on us about animals and plants and other things they find interesting. So give their podcast a listen because I bet you’ll like it as much as I do.

Before we get into the updates, let me call myself out on a few glaring mistakes in past episodes. In episode four, I called my own podcast by the wrong name. Instead of Strange Animals, I said Strange Beasties, which is my Twitter handle. In episode 29, I said Loch Ness was 50 miles above sea level instead of 50 feet, a pretty big difference. In episode 15 I called Zenger of the Zeng This! podcast Zengus, which is just unforgiveable because I really like that podcast and you’d think I could remember the cohost’s name. There’s a link to the Zeng This! podcast in the show notes. It’s a family-friendly, cheerful show about comics, movies, video games, and lots of other fun pop culture stuff.

If you ever hear me state something in the podcast that you know isn’t true, definitely let me know. I’ll look into it and issue a correction when appropriate. As they say on the Varmints Podcast, I am not an animal expert. I do my best, but sometimes I get things wrong. For instance, in episode 60, I said sirenians like dugongs and manatees have tails in place of hind legs like seals do, but sirenian tails actually developed from tails, not hind legs. Pinniped tails developed from hind legs and have flipper-like feet.

Anyway, here are some updates to topics we’ve covered in past episodes. It isn’t all-inclusive, mostly just stuff I’ve stumbled across while researching other animals.

In episode 47 about strange horses, I talked a lot about Przewalski’s horse. I was really hoping never to have to attempt that pronunciation again, but here we are. A new phylogenetic study published in February of 2018 determined that Przewalski’s horse isn’t a truly wild horse. Its ancestors were wild, but Przewalski’s horse is essentially a feral domestic horse. Its ancestors were probably domesticated around 5,500 years ago by the Botai people who lived in what is now northern Kazakhstan. The Przewalski’s horse we have now is a descendant of those domestic horses that escaped back into the wild long after its ancestors had died out. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important animal anymore, though. It’s been wild much longer than mustangs and other feral horses and tells us a lot about how truly wild horse ancestors looked and acted. Not only that, its wild ancestor is probably a different species or subspecies of the European wild horse, which was the ancestor of most other domestic horses. The next step for the team of researchers that conducted this study is figuring out more about the ancestors of domestic horses.

The mystery cattle episode also has an update. I didn’t mention Buša cattle in that episode, but I just learned something interesting about it. The Buša is a rare breed of domestic cow that developed in southeastern Europe. It’s a small, hardy animal well adapted to mountainous terrain, and it turns out that it’s the most genetically diverse breed of cattle out of sixty studied. The research team is working to help conserve the breed so that that genetic diversity isn’t lost.

Right after episode 61, where we talked about birds of paradise, researchers announced a new species of bird of paradise! The bird was already known to scientists, but they thought it was just a subspecies of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. But new video footage of a unique mating dance helped researchers determine that this wasn’t just a subspecies, it was different enough to be its own species. It’s called the Vogelkop Superb Bird of Paradise, and the Superb Bird of Paradise is now called the Greater Superb Bird of Paradise to help differentiate the two species. I’ll put a link in the show notes to an article that has the video embedded if you want to watch it. It’s pretty neat.

In episode 25 we learned about Neandertals, and I said we didn’t have much evidence of them being especially creative by human standards. That was the case when I did my research last summer, but things have definitely changed. In February 2018 archaeologists studying cave paintings in Spain announced that paintings in at least three caves were made by Neandertals and not humans. The paintings have been dated to over 64,000 years old, which is 20,000 years before humans showed up in the area. The precise dating is due to a new and much more accurate dating technique called the uranium-thorium method, which measures the tiny deposits that build up on the paintings. So Neandertals might have been a lot more creative than we’ve assumed. Researchers are now looking at other cave art and artefacts like jewelry and sculptures to consider whether some might also have been made by Neandertals.

New studies about human migration out of Africa have also been published since our humans episode. Human fossils and stone tools found in what is now a desert in Saudi Arabia have been dated to 90,000 years ago, when the area was lush grassland surrounding a lake. Until this finding, researchers thought humans had not settled the area until many thousands of years later.

I think it was episode 27, Creatures of the Deeps, where I mentioned the South Java Deep Sea Biodiversity Expedition. Well, in only two weeks that expedition discovered more than a dozen new species of crustacean, including a crab with red eyes and fuzzy spines, collected over 12,000 animals to study, and learned a whole lot about what’s down there.

One thing I forgot to mention in episode 11 is that the vampire bat’s fangs stay sharp because they lack enamel. Enamel is a thin but very hard mineral coating found on the teeth of most mammals. It protects the teeth and makes them stronger. But vampire bats don’t chew hard foods like bones or seeds, and not having enamel means that their teeth are softer. I tried to find out more about this, like whether the bat does something specific to keep its teeth sharp, like filing them with tiny tooth files, but didn’t have any luck. On the other hand, I did learn that baby bats are born bottom-first instead of head-first, because this keeps their wings from getting tangled in the birthing canal.

Many thanks to Simon, who has sent me links to several excellent articles I would have missed otherwise. One is about the controversy about sea sponges and comb jellies, and which one was the ancestor of all other animals. We covered the topic in episode 41. Mere weeks after that episode went live, a new study suggests that sponges win the fight. Hurrah for sponges!

Simon also sent me an article about the platypus, which we learned about in episode 45. There’s a lot of weirdness about the platypus, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that platypus milk contains a unique protein so potently antibacterial that it could lead to the development of powerful new antibiotics. Researchers think the antibacterial properties are present in platypus milk because as you may remember, monotremes don’t have teats, just milk patches, and the babies lick the milk up. That means the milk is exposed to bacteria from the environment, so the protein helps keep platypus babies from getting sick.

Simon also suggests that in our mystery bears episode, I forgot a very important one, the Nandi bear! So this sounds like the perfect time to learn about the Nandi bear.

I had heard of the Nandi bear, but I had it confused with the drop bear, an Australian urban myth that’s used primarily to tease tourists and small children. But the Nandi bear is a story from Africa, and it might be based on a real animal.

It has a number of names in Africa and sightings have come from various parts of the continent, but especially Kenya, where it’s frequently called the chemosit. There are lots of stories about what it looks like and how it acts. Generally, it’s supposed to be a ferocious nocturnal animal that sometimes attacks humans on moonless nights, especially children. Some stories say it eats the person’s brain and leaves the rest of the body. That’s creepy. Also, just going to point this out, it’s extremely unlikely. Its shaggy coat is supposed to be dark brown, reddish, or black, and sometimes it will stand on its hind legs. When it’s standing on all four legs, it’s between three and six feet tall, or one to almost two meters. Its head is said to be bear-like in shape. Sometimes it’s described as looking like a hyena, sometimes as a baboon, sometimes as a bear-like animal. Its front legs are often described as powerful.

The first known sighting by someone who actually wrote down their account is from the Journal of the East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, published in 1912. I have a copy and I’m just going to read you the pertinent information. The account is by Geoffrey Williams. The Nandi expedition Williams mentions took place in 1905 and 1906, and while it sounds like it was just a bunch of people exploring, it was actually a military action by the British colonial rulers who killed over 1,100 members of the Nandi tribe in East Africa after they basically said, hey, stop taking our land and resources and people. During the campaign, livestock belonging to the Nandi were killed or stolen, villages and food stores burned, and the people who weren’t killed were forced to live on reservations. Anyway, here’s what Geoffrey Williams had to say about the Nandi bear, which suddenly doesn’t seem quite so important than it did before I learned all that:

“Several years ago I was travelling with a cousin on the Uasingishu just after the Nandi expedition, and, of course, long before there was any settlement up there. We had been camped on the edge of the Escarpment near the Mataye and were marching towards the Sirgoit Rock when we saw the beast. There was a thick mist, and my cousin and I were walking on ahead of the safari with one boy when, just as we drew near to the slopes of the hill, the mist cleared away suddenly and my cousin called out ‘What is that?’ Looking in the direction to which he pointed I saw a large animal sitting up on its haunches not more than 30 yards away. Its attidue was just that of a bear at the ‘Zoo’ asking for buns, and I should say it must have been nearly 5 feet high. It is extremely hard to estimate height in a case of this kind; but it seemed to both of us that it was very nearly, if not quite, as tall as we were. Before we had time to do anything it dropped forward and shambled away towards the Sirgoit with what my cousin always describes as a sort of sideways canter. The grass had all been burnt off some weeks earlier and so the animal was clearly visible.

“I snatched my rifle and took a snapshot at it as it was disappearing among the rocks, and, though I missed it, it stopped and turned its head round to look at us. It is in this position that I see it most clearly in my mind’s eye. In size it was, I should say, larger than the bear that lives in the pit at the ‘Zoo’ and it was quite as heavily built. The fore quarters were very thickly furred, as were all four legs, but the hind quarters were comparatively speaking smooth or bare. This distinction was very definite indeed and was the first thing that struck us both. The head was long and pointed and exactly like that of a bear, as indeed was the whole animal. I have not a very clear recollection of the ears beyond the fact that they were small, and the tail, if any, was very small and practically unnoticeable. The colour was dark and left us both with the impression that it was more or less of a brindle, like a wildebeeste, but this may have been the effect of light.”

A couple of years later, in the same journal, a man saddled with the name Blayney Percival wrote about the Nandi bear. He said, “The stories vary to a very large extent, but the following points seem to agree. The animal is of fairly large size, it stands on its hind legs at times, is nocturnal, very fierce, kills man or animals.” Percival thought the differing stories referred to different animals, known or unknown. He wrote, “An example of a weird animal was the beast described to me in the Sotik country; the name I forget, but the description was very similar to that of the chimiset. Fair size—my pointer dog being given as about its size; stood on hind legs; was very savage. Careful inquiries and a picture of the ratel settled the matter, then out came the information that it was light on the back and dark below, points that would have settled it at once.” The ratel, of course, is the honey badger.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans wrote in his seminal work On the Track of Unknown Animals that the Nandi bear was probably based on more than one animal. Like Percival, he thought the different accounts were just too different. He thought at least some sightings were of honey badgers, while some were probably hyenas.

So if at least some accounts of the Nandi bear are of an unknown animal, what kind of animal might it be? Is it a bear? Do bears even live in Africa?

Africa has no bears now, but bear fossils at least three million years old have been found in South Africa and Ethiopia. Agriotherium africanum probably went extinct due to increased competition when big cats evolved to be fast, efficient hunters.

So it’s not likely that the Nandi bear is an actual bear. It’s also not likely it’s an ape of some kind, since apes are universally diurnal and the Nandi bear is described as nocturnal. Cryptozoologists have suggested all sorts of animals as a possible solution, but this episode is already getting kind of long so I’m not going to go into all of them. I’m just going to offer my own suggestion, which I have yet to see anywhere else, probably because it’s a bit farfetched. But hey, you never know.

The family of carnivores called Amphicyonidae are extinct now, as far as we know, but they lived throughout much of the world until about two million years ago. They’re known as bear-dogs and were originally thought to be related to bears, but are now considered more closely related to canids, possibly even the ancestors of canids. They are similar but not related to the dog-bears, Hemicyoninae, which are related to bears but which went extinct about 5 million years ago. Someone needs to sort out this bear-dog/dog-bear naming confusion.

Anyway, Amphicyonids lived in Africa, although we don’t have a whole lot of their fossils. The most recent Amphicyonid fossils we have date to about five million years ago and are of dog-sized animals that ate meat and lived in what are now Ethiopia and Kenya. Generally, Amphicyonids were doglike in overall shape but with a heavier bear-like build. They probably had plantigrade feet like bears rather than running on relatively small dog-like paws—basically, canids walk on their toes while bears walk on flat feet like humans. They were probably solitary animals and some researchers think they went extinct mainly because they couldn’t adapt to a changing environment and therefore different prey species, and couldn’t compete with smarter, faster pack hunting carnivores.

Maybe a species of Amphicyonid persisted in parts of Africa until recently, rarely seen but definitely feared for its ferocity. Probably not, because five million years is a long time to squeak by in an area with plenty of well-established carnivores. But maybe.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 060: Steller’s Menagerie



This week we’re going to learn about all sorts of animals first described by Georg Wilhelm Steller in the mid-18th century and named after him, from the common Steller’s jay to the mysterious Steller’s sea ape.

Steller’s jay. It looks like someone photoshopped a frowny line over its eye:

A male Steller’s eider in breeding plumage, looking spiffy:

Steller’s sea eagle will MESS YOU UP:

Steller’s sea lions. Looks like the cover of their latest album:

A drawing of a Steller’s sea cow, one of the only drawings that was probably made from an actual animal before it went extinct:

An alive dugong, just to show you what Steller’s sea cow probably looked like, only bigger and fatter because it lived in colder water:

A Northern fur seal not taking any of your crap:

Baby Northern fur seal, just because it’s so cute:

A shih-tzu. Look at those whiskers! Also, adorable topknot:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about animals named after Georg Wilhelm Steller. Steller was a German botanist and zoologist who lived in the 18th century. In 1740 he was part of an expedition to the Bering Sea between Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, which you may remember from our mystery bears episode, and Alaska. On the way back from an unscheduled trip to Alaska after they got lost, they were shipwrecked on what is now called Bering Island, where half the crew died of scurvy, and the other half managed to build a boat from the wreck of their ship and sailed it back to Kamchatka. During the several years of this expedition, Steller took careful notes on the animals and plants he encountered.

A number of animals are named after Steller. We’ll look at a bunch of those today. Four are still around, one is extinct, and two… are mysteries.

Let’s start with the birds. Steller’s jay is closely related to the blue jay. The bottom half of the bird looks a lot like a blue jay, blue with black banding on the wings and tail, but with blue underneath instead of white. The top half of the bird looks like a completely different bird, gray with a darker head, white or blue streaks on its face, and a tall floofy crest. It lives in western North America as far north as Alaska, and a bluer version also lives in Central America. It likes forests although like blue jays, it lives around people comfortably and eats pretty much anything, from acorns, seeds, and berries to bugs, small animals, and the eggs and babies of other birds.

Next, Steller’s eider is a type of sea duck that lives off the coasts of Alaska and eastern Siberia. The hen ducks are brown and black like the females of most duck species, but the drake is a lot more interesting to look at. His tail is black, wings are iridescent purply-black laced with white, his breast is cinnamon brown with a black spot on the sides, and his head is white with a black eye ring, a dark green tuft of feathers on the back of his head, and a black throat band. That is one flashy duck. Of course, that’s just during spring and early summer when the males are trying to attract mates. The rest of the year, males look a lot more like females. The term for the opposite of breeding plumage is eclipse plumage.

Steller’s eider dives for its food, mostly crustaceans, clams and mussels, and insects. In the winter, it gathers in huge flocks, and all the ducks in the flock will dive and surface at the same time, creating a huge splash and spray of water. It likes tidal flats, bays, and shallow lagoons, and builds its nest on the edge of ponds.

Steller’s sea eagle is closely related to the bald eagle. It’s a big, stocky bird that’s dark brown with white leg feathers and tail, and white on the shoulders of its wings. It has a heavy yellow bill and huge yellow talons. It lives off the coast of northeastern Asia most of the year, but nests around eastern Russia and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. It mostly eats fish, especially salmon, although it also eats a lot of water birds like gulls and ducks, small mammals, and carrion. Its wingspan is as much as 8 feet across, or 2.5 meters, but there are reports of some birds with wingspans over nine feet across, or 2.8 meters. That’s not much bigger than a bald eagle’s wingspan, but Steller’s sea eagle is much heavier and larger-bodied than the bald eagle. Steller’s sea eagle lives up to the bald eagle’s reputation of being kind of a jerk, though, because it steals food from other Steller’s sea eagles.

Both Steller’s eider and Steller’s sea eagle are threatened by habitat loss. Fortunately, Steller’s jay is doing just fine.

There’s another bird named after Steller that has never been definitively identified, Steller’s sea-raven. During the winter he spent shipwrecked on Bering Island, Steller wrote in his journal about a bird he called a white sea-raven. He didn’t say much about it, just that it was new to him and that it only landed on cliffs along the island’s coast, so he couldn’t get a close look at it. No one knows what bird he was talking about.

A lot of people have made suggestions, of course. One researcher thinks it might be a type of cormorant, since the word for cormorant in German means sea-raven, and in fact that’s what the word cormorant means in the original Latin too—corvus marinus. Cormorants are black birds with usually small white markings, so the cormorant Steller saw might be a white or mostly white species that is now extinct, or he might have seen an albino bird flying around. Then again, the bird might have been something else entirely. Since we don’t have more to go on than this brief description of a white sea-raven that likes ocean-facing cliffs, it’s hard to know what to look for.

Now let’s move on to mammals. Steller’s sea lion is a giant pinniped, the word for members of the seal family. It lives along the coasts of Russia and Alaska as far south as central California. Females grow to about ten feet long, or 3 meters, and males are a little longer and much heavier. Males have thick manes around the neck, which is why it’s called a sea lion. It mostly eats fish and sometimes swims up rivers to feed on salmon and trout. Commercial fishermen used to kill Steller’s sea lions, because clearly no one but humans should be allowed to catch fish, and that and overfishing led to a steep decline in sea lion numbers in the late 20th century. Fortunately, though, after it was listed as a protected species its numbers started to recover.

Steller’s sea cow was not so lucky. It was a sirenian, related to dugongs and manatees. Sirenians evolved around 50 million years ago and share a common ancestor with elephants. Their front flippers have toenails that look like elephant toenails, which is neat. They’re fully aquatic like whales, have a tail instead of hind legs like seals, and like both they’re mammals that breathe air. They live in shallow water and graze on aquatic plants. Occasionally they do eat a jellyfish, but who hasn’t accidentally eaten a jellyfish, right? The sirenians living today grow to around 13 feet long at most, or 4 meters, but Steller’s sea cow was more than twice that length, up to 30 feet long, or 9 meters.

Steller’s sea cow was a type of dugong, and had a whale-like notched tail instead of a rounded tail like a manatee’s. Instead of teeth, it had chewing plates made of keratin that it used to chomp lots and lots of kelp and other plants. Its hide was thick with a thick layer of blubber underneath to keep it warm in the cold water. It had a long upper lip covered in bristles that helped it grab plants. Its forelegs were flipper-like and small.

Like the mysterious sea-raven, Steller discovered the sea cow while he was shipwrecked on Bering Island in 1741. It lived there and around some of the other islands in the Bering Sea, although fossil and sub-fossil remains have been found that indicate it used to be much more widespread. Unfortunately, once it was discovered by Europeans, it was hunted to extinction within 30 years of its discovery, killed for its oil-rich blubber and for food. But Steller’s sea cows have occasionally been spotted after that, although no one has provided actual proof. Many of the sightings may have been of hornless female narwhals, which live in the area and are about the same color and shape as the Steller’s sea-cow when seen from the surface. But in 1962, some whalers spotted six animals in shallow water off the coast of Kamchatka, and whalers can probably be relied upon to recognize a whale when they see it. These animals looked like dugongs. In 1976, a sea-cow carcass reportedly washed up on shore not that far from where the whalers’ sighting had taken place. Some workers at a nearby salmon factory went out to look at it and described it as more like a dugong than a whale, but no one thought to keep the body. After that there were a couple of expeditions to look for surviving Steller’s sea-cows, but while none were found, the coast of Kamchatka and its numerous islands are rugged and hard to explore.

The last animal we’ll talk about is the real mystery, called Steller’s sea ape. He only saw it once off the Shumagin Islands in Alaska on August 10, 1741, but he did watch it for more than two hours and took careful notes. I’ll quote part of his description.

“It was about two ells in length; the head was like a dog’s head, the ears pointed and erect, and on the upper and lower lips, on both sides, whiskers hung down which made it look almost like a Chinaman The eyes were large; the body was longish, round and fat, tapering gradually towards the tail. The skin was covered thickly with hair, gray on the back, reddish white on the belly, but in the water it appeared entirely reddish and cow-colored. The tail was divided into two fins, of which the upper, as in the case of sharks, was twice as large as the lower. Nothing struck me more surprising than the fact that neither forefeet as in the marine amphibians nor, in their stead, fins were to be seen… For over two hours it swam around our ship, looking, as with admiration, first at the one and then at the other of us. At times it came so near to the ship that it could have been touched with a pole, but as soon as anybody stirred it moved away a little further. It could raise itself one-third of its length out of the water exactly like a man, and sometimes it remained in this position for several minutes. After it had observed us for about half an hour, it shot like an arrow under our vessel and came up again on the other side; shortly after, it dived again and reappeared in the old place; and in this way it dived perhaps thirty times.”

Two ells would be somewhere around five feet long, maybe a bit more, or just over 1.5 meters.

This description sounds a lot like a seal of some kind, but all seals have forelimbs. One suggestion is that it was a young Northern fur seal, and that either Steller missed seeing its forelimbs or it was an individual born without them. I’m not sure why the suggestion is that it was a young seal, though. Baby Northern fur seals are black at birth and lighten to brown as they grow, with older males having some gray patches. All appear black in the water, not reddish. Adult females only grow to about 4 ½ feet long, or 1.4 meters, and males about seven feet long, or 2.1 meters, so at five feet long Steller’s animal was already a fully grown female or a nearly full-grown male. Young and female Northern fur seals don’t have the long whiskers Steller describes, although males do—but only when full grown.

So while it’s possible Steller’s sea ape was a small male Northern fur seal with no front flippers or flippers that Steller inexplicably didn’t see, there is one other issue. Steller would have known perfectly well what a Northern fur seal looked like. They’re threatened now due to overhunting and habitat loss, but in the mid-18th century they were plentiful throughout the Bering Sea.

So either Steller saw a Northern fur seal that was so malformed that Steller didn’t recognize it, or he described a different animal. Or, as deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler suggests, it was a hoax.

Here’s the situation: Steller and the Danish captain of the ship St. Peter, Vitus Bering, did not get along. The expedition was primarily for charting and exploring the region, not describing new animals, and Bering considered Steller primarily the ship’s physician. When the ship got lost from the rest of the expedition and ended up off the coast of Alaska, Steller had to beg Bering to let him explore this new land. He only got ten hours to do so. And when the crew was stricken with scurvy, Bering refused to allow Steller to treat the crew. I don’t know why he didn’t think the ship’s physician shouldn’t be allowed to do his job. This was before people understood what vitamins were, and while many cures for scurvy were available, no one knew why they worked. When people don’t know how things work, sometimes they’re suspicious of them.

We have Steller’s journals so we know how he described Bering. It wasn’t flattering. Steller’s sighting of the sea ape was only about six weeks after his ten-hour shore leave, and the description of the animal was similar in many ways to his description of Bering. Three months later the ship wrecked and the crew was marooned for eight months. Steller spent the time turning his notes into a book. Bering spent the time dying of scurvy. Steller didn’t include the sea ape in his book.

Thaler points out that Steller didn’t just name his mystery animal a sea-ape, he named it the Danish sea ape, Simnia marina danica. Bering was Danish, the only Dane on the ship in fact.

I have no doubt that Steller was poking fun at Bering in the name, but I’m hesitant to say he made the whole sighting up. For one thing, the details not only point to a real animal, they aren’t malicious or even humorous. He described the sea ape playing with some kelp, swimming back and forth under the ship, things like that.

I think Steller sighted a real animal and took notes, probably because he was so bored he would have taken detailed notes on anything. Maybe he knew he was watching a Northern fur seal and amused himself by comparing it to Bering. Maybe he didn’t know what the animal was but some aspects of it reminded him of Bering. Maybe he left it out of his book because he knew it was a caricature. Maybe he left it out of his book because he didn’t have enough information to include it. Maybe he meant to add it later, when he hopefully would sight more of the animals. I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is that someone else saw a Steller’s sea ape in 1965.

In June of 1965, a British man named Miles Smeeton, which was apparently his real name, was sailing his yacht near the Aleutian Islands when he, his wife, his daughter, and a friend all saw a strange animal they couldn’t identify. It was around five feet long with reddish-yellow fur, a dog-like head, and long whiskers like a shih-tzu. It dived underwater when the ship got near. No one saw any limbs and they were all convinced it wasn’t a seal or a sea otter.

So who knows? Maybe there’s a limbless mammal swimming around in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, just waiting to be discovered.

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 059: The Onza and the Yemish



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

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

A jaguar:

A jaguarundi:

A puma, not dead:

The Rodriguez onza, dead:

A giant otter:

Further reading:

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

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[cat sound]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!


Episode 044: Extinct and Back from the Brink



Our episode this week is about some causes of extinction, but to keep from getting too depressing we’ll look at a lot of animals that were brought back from the brink of extinction by people who saw a problem in time to put it right. We’ll learn a lot about the passenger pigeon this week especially. Thanks to both Maureen and Emily for their suggestions! I didn’t mean to lean so heavily on North American animals in this episode–it just happened that way. I try to mix it up a little more than this ordinarily.

The passenger pigeon (stuffed):

The tiny black robin. It fights crime!

The Tecopa Pupfish is not happy about being extinct:

The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel SO CUTE:

This is what the Golden Lion Tamarin thinks about habitat destruction:

A rare Amur tiger dad hanging out with one of his cubs:

The Organization for Bat Conservation

Episode transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about how animals go extinct, with examples of lots of animals who’ve gone extinct and others that have been saved from extinction by human intervention. Both topics were suggestions by Maureen, who also suggested several of the animals I included. I could have kept adding to this episode until it was 24 hours long, but I had to stop somewhere, and now that I’m recording I realize there are aspects of extinction I didn’t address at all.

Extinction means that a population of life forms have all died. That sounds pretty definitive, but it’s also hard to know exactly when it’s happened for any given species. Sometimes you can look online and find the specific day that the very last animal of a species died. In the case of the passenger pigeon, that was September 1, 1914, when a captive bird called Martha was found dead in her cage. Martha had been kept in the Cincinnati Zoo long after the last wild passenger pigeon was shot around 1901. But we don’t know for sure that she was the very last passenger pigeon alive at that point. Passenger pigeons were spotted in the wild for years after Martha died.

The passenger pigeon looks similar to the mourning dove, which is a common and very pretty dove throughout most of North America, but it’s not all that closely related. The passenger pigeon was a swift and elegant flyer but was awkward on the ground. And while mourning doves have a soft, musical call, the passenger pigeon apparently didn’t sound very musical at all. Its calls were mostly loud, harsh clucks that were described as deafening when one of the massive flocks of birds took off in alarm.

So what caused the passenger pigeon to go extinct? As is often the case, it wasn’t just one thing. We’ll come back to the passenger pigeon later, but for now let’s discuss one rather unusual cause that contributed to its extinction.

The passenger pigeon was famous for its numbers. There may have been as many as five billion birds alive at any given time, in flocks that numbered millions of birds each. I’m not exaggerating, either. A single flock could take an entire day to fully pass overhead and literally darkened the sky, there were so many individual birds. With so many birds, it wasn’t that hard for hawks and other hunting birds to catch as many pigeons as they could eat—but there are only so many hawks, and millions upon millions of pigeons. The passenger pigeon also nested in a relatively small area within its eastern North American range. Its nesting colonies were so huge they were called cities. A female laid one or two eggs, which both parents incubated. Sometimes there were so many pigeons in a tree that limbs would break off. By the end of nesting season, pigeon poop underneath roosts could be as deep as a foot, or 30 cm.

And while millions of adult birds were tending millions of eggs and babies, predators gorged themselves on pigeon. Hawks, eagles, owls, and other birds of prey naturally caught lots of pigeons, but other animals moved in to take advantage of the buffet. Bears, foxes, wolves, mountain lions, and smaller animals like possums and raccoons would all eat as much pigeon as they could catch. But there were so many birds that there literally weren’t enough predators to make a dent in the population before the babies could fly and the flocks left the nesting grounds for another year. I mean, birds sometimes just laid their eggs directly on the ground. They were not very hard to catch.

The problem was that once the passenger pigeon’s numbers fell due to other factors, the predators’ yearly glut of pigeon eating started making a difference. The once enormous flocks grew smaller and smaller. And since the passenger pigeon was adapted to thrive in huge colonies, where individuals worked together to gather food and feed babies communally, once the flocks dropped below a certain number, the birds weren’t able to raise their young effectively.

This is depressing, so let’s cleanse the palate with a bird that was saved from certain extinction not too long ago. There are actually a number of species I could have chosen, but I decided on the black robin because it’s tiny, jet black, and has a name that sounds like an alternate-universe DC comic book character.

When I say robin, my North American listeners think of a big thrush-type bird that always looks like it’s frowning, and my European listeners think of a tiny round ball of floof. The black robin is the round ball of floof type, but it’s not from Europe. It’s found only on a few small islands off the coast of New Zealand—really small islands. In 1980, the entire population of black robins lived on Little Mangere Island, which is 279 acres in size, or 113 hectares. Of course, the entire population of black robins in 1980 was five individuals, only one of which was a female. That bird was called Old Blue, and she basically saved her species. A team of conservationists led by Don Merton established a breeding program and today there are more than 250 of the birds.

The black robin was almost driven extinct mainly by introduced predators like cats, rats, and dogs. That’s a common problem, especially in island habitats. Like the dodo, the black robin had never had to deal with mammals that wanted to eat it. It isn’t entirely flightless but it spends most of its time on the ground, digging through brush and dead leaves for insects, and isn’t a very strong flier.

Habitat loss is another huge cause of extinction, and if I wanted to spend all year on this one topic I could. But I won’t, because that would be really grim and not fun at all. One of the factors contributing to the passenger pigeon’s extinction was habitat loss. It mainly ate acorns and small nuts, insects, and seeds found in forests, and when European settlers decided they wanted to turn huge sections of North American woodland into farms and towns, the passenger pigeon soon didn’t have enough forested areas to sustain its massive population. It would have had a hard time as a result even if all other factors had been in its favor.

Habitat loss doesn’t just mean cutting down trees. It can mean polluting a river, bottom dredging in the ocean, diverting water to farmland, and filling in wetlands. It also isn’t always caused by humans. Natural causes like forest fires and volcanoes can lead to habitat loss and extinctions. And many of the dinosaurs, of course, were killed off by a massive meteor impact and its long-term repercussions on climate.

I could choose any of literally thousands of examples of animals that went extinct due to habitat loss, but here’s just one. I mainly chose it because it has a cute name. The Tecopa pupfish was an awesome little fish that lived in California, specifically in the Mojave desert, which is not a place you’d ordinarily expect to find any fish. There are hot springs in the Mojave, though, and the pupfish lived happily in water that was 110 degrees F, or 43 C, or even a little warmer. That’s the temperature of a comfortably warm bath. It ate algae but it also gobbled up mosquito larvae, and it was only about an inch and a half in length, or 4 cm. It didn’t live in the actual hot springs pools, which were too hot, but in a pair of outflows, basically streams that flowed away from the pool down to the Amargosa River.

The problem is, humans really like hot springs. In the 1950s and 60s, people flocked to the Tecopa Hot Springs to soak in the water. Bathhouses were built, the hot springs pools were enlarged, and in 1965, both outflows from the springs were diverted into a single newly dug channel. After that, the water flowed faster. That meant it remained too hot for the pupfish unless the fish moved downstream, and when it moved downstream to where it was comfortable, it had to compete with another subspecies of pupfish, the Amargosa River pupfish. It also had to compete with introduced species of fish.

By 1966, almost no Tecopa pupfish remained. In 1970 it was put on the endangered species list, but by then it was far too late. By 1972 there were no Tecopa pupfish.

Oh my gosh, that’s so depressing. I need another success story. The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel is an adorable and fascinating rodent, a subspecies of the more common northern flying squirrel, but it lives only in the highest elevations of the central Appalachian Mountains. During the ice ages, it was isolated from other flying squirrel populations by glaciers and developed separately. It has a broad, flat tail and loose folds of skin that connect its forelegs to its hind legs along its sides. When it jumps from a branch, it holds its legs out to pull the skin folds taut, which allows it to glide through the air.

But it almost died out completely due to industrial logging. By 1985, only ten individuals were found in four different areas of its range. It was listed as a protected species in 1985, and that together with the conservancy of its mountaintop habitats, allowed it to increase to a small but healthy population today.

The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel was lucky because its habitat became protected and started to recover from heavy logging, so the flying squirrels were able to stay put and lead their ordinary squirrelly lives. Other species aren’t as fortunate. The Golden Lion Tamarin, for instance, has been snatched from the jaws of certain death but still faces an uphill battle due to habitat destruction.

The golden lion tamarin is a monkey native to the coastal forests of Brazil. It’s a gorgeous monkey with golden-orange fur that grows long around the face so it looks like a lion’s mane. The golden lion tamarin is only around 10 inches long, or 25 cm, not counting its long tail, and it lives in trees where it runs and leaps and climbs a lot like a big golden squirrel.

The problem, of course, is that the Atlantic Forest of Brazil keeps getting cut down. What used to be nearly unbroken forest that stretched for thousands of miles has now shrunk to only around 8% of its original size, and it’s in little bits and pieces widely separated from each other. By 1969, there were only 150 tamarins left.

Fortunately for everyone, especially the tamarins, an aggressive conservation program was well underway by 1984. Zoos throughout the world started breeding golden tamarins for reintroduction into protected wilderness in Brazil. As it happens, while I was still researching this episode, I got an email from a listener that is just so perfect, I have to share it. Emily wrote,

“I used to volunteer at the zoo and I was in charge of making sure the Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys didn’t escape their habitat. There were no fences around it, since they were trying to simulate natural conditions enough so that they could eventually be released back into the jungle. So my job was to walk around the enclosure and shoot them with a water gun. It was set on “very soft.” Just a gentle aquatic nudge to get back in the tree! They were tiny, luxurious creatures and I hated it when my scheduled changed and I had to stop volunteering.”

I love this so much. Thank you, Emily, for sharing the story with me and agreeing to let me use it on the show. I feel like I should pause for a moment so everyone listening can just imagine how awesome it would be to walk around spritzing beautiful little monkeys with water.

Anyway, the population of golden lion tamarins is now over 3,000. And even better, the Brazilian government has made an effort to develop protected wilderness corridors connecting what used to be separate sections of forest. This will help not just the tamarins but lots of other animals too.

Now I feel great. But we’re not done talking about causes of extinction, and unfortunately we’ve reached the worst part: overhunting by humans.

That was the main cause of extinction for the passenger pigeon. People would just shoot up into the air at the seemingly endless flocks of birds. They didn’t even have to aim. Every shot would bring down a rain of dead and injured birds. Almost no one imagined the passenger pigeon could possibly go extinct—there were just too many of them. Even when the flocks were noticeably smaller and the birds’ range had shifted away from the more populated eastern states, professional hunters and trappers continued to follow the flocks and kill as many birds as possible. The dead pigeons were shipped by train to big cities as cheap meat—so cheap that by 1876 it actually cost more to ship a barrel of pigeons on ice than it cost to buy the pigeons when they arrived. By 1878, only one large nesting site remained—and 50,000 pigeons were killed there every single day. No babies survived from that nesting and the surviving adults were killed when they tried to start new nests in another area.

It was senseless. It makes me so mad. But while the passenger pigeon was a great big lesson on how quickly a species can be driven to extinction from an enormous, thriving population, it happens on a smaller scale all the time.

The Caribbean Monk Seal, sometimes called the wolf seal, grew to about 8 feet in length, or 2.5 meters, and had sleek dark gray fur that sometimes looked greenish due to algae growing on it. They were curious, friendly animals that didn’t fear humans, and you can see where this is going. The first European to see the Caribbean monk seal was Christopher Columbus, whose men killed eight seals. The next European to see the Caribbean monk seal was Ponce de Leon, whose men killed 14 seals. Things didn’t get any better from then on.

Seals provided oil from their fat, much like oil made from whale blubber. It could be used to grease machinery or burn in lamps—remember, this was before petroleum products and electricity. Hunting the seals for oil, meat, and skins wasn’t the only problem, though. Conservation back in the 19th century wasn’t all that great. Scientific expeditions usually just killed as many animals as they could find, because that was how they were studied. In only four days, an 1886 expedition specifically made to study seals killed 42 animals and captured a newly born pup that died a week later.

The Caribbean monk seal held on for decades despite the slaughter, but the last one was spotted in 1952 and that was it. Not only were the seals hunted nearly to extinction, the fish and crabs the seals ate were also overhunted. What seals remained had almost nothing to eat and frequently starved to death.

We need a big success story after that one. Let’s talk about the California condor.

The California condor is an enormous bird with a wingspan ten feet wide, or over 3 meters. It’s a scavenger so it looks superficially like a vulture, with a bald head. Its feathers are black with white patches under the wings, and it has a floof of feathers around its neck that looks precisely like it’s wearing a really fancy opera cape. By 1987, the entire world population of the California condor was 27 birds. And those 27 birds were not going to survive long without help. Poaching and habitat loss had almost wiped them out, along with poisoning from lead bullets—the birds would eat the bullets frequently left in the discarded guts after a hunter field dressed a kill.

So all 27 birds were captured and placed into a breeding program, although only 14 birds were able to breed. By 1991 there were enough condors that individuals started to be released into the wild again. Currently there are almost 450 birds total.

Fortunately, in 2019 California hunters will no longer be allowed to use lead bullets at all, and a lot of hunters have already started using lead-free ammunition. This will allow more condors to be released in areas of California where they used to live but were hunted to extinction over a century ago. Lead poisoning is a big problem for all scavengers, including bald eagles.

Our last success story is the Amur tiger, also called the Siberian tiger. It had a lot of names in the past because its range was so large, from Korea to northeastern China, eastern Mongolia, and parts of Russia. It’s a big tiger, as big as the Bengal tiger in the past although the remaining population of Amur tigers is overall smaller than Bengal tigers today. Its head is broad, with a skull similar to a lion’s. Its coat color and markings vary considerably, and its winter coat grows very long and shaggy.

The Amur tiger was already under pressure from hunting and habitat loss when the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917. Tigers were either killed by accident during the fighting, or killed by soldiers on patrol, almost wiping out what animals remained. And after that, tiger hunting wasn’t prohibited until 1947, at which time only a few dozen tigers were left.

Fortunately, it survived. In 2007 the Russian government even set aside a national park just for the Amur tiger. No human activity is allowed in most of the park and tiger numbers are climbing. In 2015, a logging company agreed to dismantle abandoned logging roads so they couldn’t be used by poachers. Bridges were removed, trenches dug, and some areas were simply bulldozed so that vehicles can’t get through. That’s the same year that camera traps got rare photos of an adult Amur tiger male, a female, and three cubs. Since male tigers are usually solitary, that was pretty awesome.

Genetically the Amur tiger is very similar to the extinct Caspian tiger. There’s a possibility that as the Amur tiger’s population grows, it could be reintroduced to parts of Asia where the Caspian tiger once lived.

That brings me to something I meant to mention in last week’s episode. If you listened to the recent Relic: The Lost Treasure podcast episode where I was a guest, you heard me absolutely mangle an explanation of what a subspecies is. So here’s my attempt to clarify what I was trying to say. A subspecies develops when an animal population becomes isolated from the rest of the population for long enough to start evolving in different ways from the parent population. A subspecies can still produce fertile offspring with the parent species and other subspecies of the same species, and may look almost the same, but on a molecular level it’s different enough that if given enough time, it will continue to develop into a different species.

It’s a complicated topic and I said the word species too many times. But hopefully that gives you an idea. Technically humans are a subspecies of Homo sapiens, by the way. Our official scientific name is Homo sapiens sapiens. The extra sapiens indicates that we’re a subspecies and that we’re extra smart, because sapiens means intelligent. All tigers are subspecies of the species Panthera tigris, and the Bengal tiger is called Panthera tigris tigris, because I guess they’re extra tigery.

Anyway, it’s important to remember that while a subspecies may look almost identical to the parent species, it’s developing in different ways due to different evolutionary pressures in its specific habitat. The dodo’s ancestor was a type of pigeon that decided to stay on the island of Mauritius. It probably continued to look like a pigeon for a long time before its evolutionary changes started to show. It’s easy to think that a subspecies going extinct isn’t as important as a full species going extinct, but that’s not the case.

Thinking about extinction can make us feel angry and helpless. But there are lots of things you can do to help, simple things like picking up trash when you’re out hiking, remembering to bring your reusable bags into the grocery store, and using a refillable water bottle instead of buying a new plastic bottle of water. If you have some extra money, there are lots of good conservation organizations that can use a donation. One I try to donate to every year is the Organization for Bat Conservation. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes if you’re interested. If you don’t have extra money but can donate your time to a local organization, that’s just as good. Although you probably won’t be lucky enough to get to spritz monkeys gently with water.

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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 036: Patagonian giants, Yowie, and Bunyip (Bigfoot part 2)



Part two of the Bigfoot episode sort of got away from me. We start with giants of Patagonia and end up, inexplicably, with seals in Australia. But it’s a fun ride along the way, where we learn about real giants in Patagonia, folkloric giants in Patagonia, the Yowie of Australia, and the Bunyip of Australia. And Southern elephant seals.

Some map giants:

Yowie candy, because it’s getting close to Halloween:

A drawing of the bunyip geoglyph:

A map showing where the geoglyph was located. Old maps are neat:

The southern elephant seal. Look at that magnificent snoot!

Further reading:

Monsters of Patagonia by Austin Whittall

What to make of the Yowie?” By Darren Naish

“Buckley’s Bunyip” by Paul Michael Donovan, in The Journal of Cryptozoology, Vol. 4 (Dec 2016)

Further listening:

The Folklore Podcast December 15 2016 episode “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed

Show transcript:

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

We’re one week closer to Halloween and deep in monster lore. Last week we learned about the Yeti. This week we’re going to learn about bigfoot-type legends from other parts of the world—specifically, Patagonia and Australia.

Patagonia isn’t a country but a region at the southern tip of South America. Part of it is in Chile, part in Argentina. It includes the Andes Mountains, and the southern end is only 600 miles from Antarctica. People have lived in the area for at least 13,000 years and there are many different indigenous cultures still living there today.

Much of South America was originally populated by the little-known Clovis People, who migrated into the Americas from Asia once the glaciers retreated from Alaska. The Clovis People are supposed to have arrived around 13,000 years ago, but archaeologists have dated some non-Clovis sites in both North and South America to much earlier than that. One theory is that an earlier human migration reached South America by sea from the South Pacific, although this is controversial. DNA studies of First Nations people suggest that there may have been an earlier migration from Asia into North America, possibly 20,000 years ago, before the Clovis People arrived.

The first Europeans to visit Patagonia were Magellan and his crew on their voyage around the world. They spent the winter in Patagonia in 1520, and Magellan is the one who named the area. Specifically, he named its people Patagons, and reported that they were giants.

Antonio Pigafetta was one of only 18 survivors of the expedition. When he got home, he wrote about his adventures. He described the Patagons as nine to twelve feet tall, or 2 and three-quarters to over 3 and a half meters tall.

Soon everyone in Europe knew Patagonia was the land of giants. Maps of the region included illustrations of bearded men nearly twice as tall as the explorers greeting them. It would be easy to dismiss the accounts of giants as inventions to sell a few books, except that other explorers were reporting the same thing.

A priest from a Spanish expedition reported that in 1525 he saw native men who were 13 spans tall, or 9 feet, or 2.75 meters. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake visited Patagonia, and later his chaplain reported seeing giants 5 cubits tall, or 7 ½ feet, or 2.3 meters. In 1579 another Spanish expedition started a short-lived settlement in the Strait of Magellan, which ended up being renamed Port Famine, and maybe they wouldn’t have starved if they hadn’t started off by killing one of the giant locals. According to the expedition leader, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, it took ten men to capture the native. Only one settler survived the bitter winters and lack of provisions. He was rescued by an Englishman, Sir Thomas Cavendish, who didn’t see any giants but did see footprints he reported as 18” long, or almost 46 centimeters.

The reports of giants continued, in 1591, 1599, 1614, 1641, and so on well into the 18th century. In 1615 two men dug up some stone cairns and underneath found human skeletons they said were ten or eleven feet long, or a bit over 3 meters. In 1642 Dutch admiral Henry Brewer reported more 18” footsteps in Tierra del Fuego.

All this sounds definitive. But other expeditions didn’t report seeing giants, including those from 1535, 1540, a land exploration from 1557 to 1559, 1618, another land expedition from 1623 to 1624, 1670, and so on. Tellingly, after a 1741 shipwreck on the southern Chilean coast, a survivor, John Bulkeley, claimed he encountered gigantic men in the area—but Thomas Pascoe, a member of the same fleet, disagreed. He said the people in the area were average-sized—and, incidentally, not wild cannibals as Bulkeley claimed. Pascoe called them “harmless, civil, and inoffensive.”

So what’s going on? Are all these people, hundreds of sailors, soldiers, priests, and even naturalists, from different eras and nations, all liars?

In 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis, apparently fed up with the conflicting reports about giants, sailed to Patagonia with a measuring rod. There he measured some very tall people, for sure, but not giants. The tallest man he measured was 6 feet 7 inches, or 2.01 meters, with several others only an inch or two shorter. But, he reported, most were between 5 feet 10 inches and six feet tall, or 1.78 to 1.83 meters. And their feet, he mentioned, were quite small.

Several subsequent European measuring expeditions revealed the same proportions among the Tehuelche, a large and varied group of nomadic people who lived throughout Patagonia. The Tehuelche were among the tallest people in the world. Since the average height of a northern European in the 16th century was 5’ 6” or 1.67 meters, and the average height of a southern European was only 5 feet or 1.5 meters, a group of people whose average height was 6’1” or 1.86 meters would seem like giants. The rest was likely due to exaggeration.

The Tehuelche were almost completely destroyed in the late 19th century, and those who survived warfare and introduced diseases were mostly absorbed into other groups. Only about 6,000 Tehuelche remain scattered across South America.

But were the Tehuelche the only so-called giants in Patagonia? Various Europeans reported another group called the Tiremenen or the Caucauhue, who were not just tall, but stout and muscular mountain people last seen around the 1700s. They were supposedly bigger than the Tehuelche, warlike and dangerous. According to various stories, the Tehuelche finally killed the last of them after a fierce battle. Survivors of the battle took refuge in a cave, where the Tehuelche lit fires and asphyxiated them with thick smoke.

So far, all these giants are people, not furry Bigfoots. But there are plenty of stories from various indigenous groups of wild men and monsters in Patagonia, especially in the forests and mountains. According to the Alakuf, the Mwono was a snow man that lived among the glaciers and high mountains and left tracks in the snow. Over a thousand miles north, or 2,000 km, the Mapuche told a similar story. The Carcancho were hairy solitary men who lived in the mountains. They could stand almost 7 feet tall, or over 2 meters, and left large footprints in the snow. The Mapuche also believed that a giant with fiery red hair and beard, called a Trauko, lived along the Collón Curá River.

While the Mapuche people have lived in what is now Chile and Argentina for some 2500 years, they differ genetically from other indigenous peoples of Patagonia. When they moved into Patagonia, they conquered and absorbed many other tribes, and it’s possible many of their stories of the olden days come from those tribes. They say that giant animals once lived in the area but that their ancestors killed most of them, along with the evil giants that once lived there too. It’s hard not to speculate that the giant animals were megafauna like giant ground sloths. But all the people who migrated to the Americas were humans—no Neandertals or other of our relations made it there as far as we know—and until humans arrived, there were no members of the ape family in the Americas.

So what about other primates? Researchers aren’t sure how monkeys made it to South America, but they’ve been there for some 37 million years. They lived first in the Amazon basin and spread slowly throughout South and Central America. But there are no species of monkey in Patagonia and there hasn’t been for millions of years. The few species of monkey that had spread into Patagonia had already gone extinct long before our first human ancestor started walking upright, so it’s not likely that the first human settlers of Patagonia encountered monkeys. Of course, you never know what fossils might come to light in the future, and there are scattered stories about tribes of men with tails in Patagonia.

In his marvelous book The Monsters of Patagonia, author Austin Whittall suggests that the Patagonian wild man legends, as well as other story elements, may be connected to Australian Aboriginal legends. If the original settlers of Patagonia did arrive by sea from Austronesia, which is by no means established, they would have adapted their stories to their new home. Whittall also suggests that one story in particular may be related to Homo erectus, our direct human ancestor who probably went extinct when humans began competing with them for resources. The ancestors of the Australian Aborigines probably did encounter Homo erectus. Maybe that was the source of the Yowie legend.

I probably don’t need to point out that this is fringey, fringey stuff. But it’s fun to think about.

The Yowie in Australian Aboriginal lore is a man-like monster that’s seven or even as much as 12 feet tall, or around 2 to 3 and a half meters. It has big feet, although some stories say its feet are backwards so people tracking it are actually going the wrong way. Sometimes the Yowie is said to have long white hair. Modern interpretations of the Yowie are a lot like the Sasquatch, with brown or reddish hair all over and arms that hang to its knees.

Many older accounts by European settlers refer to this creature by various other names, including wood devil, Australian gorilla, and Yahoo. I don’t know if Yahoo was an attempt at pronouncing an unfamiliar Aboriginal word or if 19th century pop culture was still drawing on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In Swift’s story, yahoos are brutish but human-like creatures much despised by the narrator, who prefers the company of the intelligent horses that treat the yahoos as servants. Oh, the satire was subtle back in 1726.

These days, the Yowie is as firmly entrenched in Australian culture as Sasquatch is in North American culture. Yowies sell chocolates and toys, appear in cartoons, and like Sasquatch hunters, Yowie hunters run around in the Australian bush and make plaster casts of big footprints.

Let me tell you something important about plaster. It’s a terrible way to make casts of footprints or anything else. Not only does it produce tiny ridges along its edges as it dries, which have been interpreted as dermal ridges of bigfoot feet, it also generates heat as it dries, which has the potential to alter the prints it’s supposed to be faithfully representing. These days, field scientists use dental stone or latex to take casts. Plaster is cheap and readily available, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best.

Anyway, the earliest colonial reports of the Yowie are from around the early 19th century. European settlers sometimes treated the Yowie as a real animal that had yet to be discovered, sometimes as an amusing Aboriginal superstition. Reported Yowie sightings were relatively uncommon until the 1970s. At that point, cryptozoologist Rex Gilroy, whom I disparaged in episode 32 for being secretive about his findings and data, started showing up in the Australian media with big plaster casts of what he claimed were Yowie tracks.

The problem with the Yowie is that Australia, even less so than Patagonia, has never been home to any animal that stands upright the way humans do. Most of Australia’s large mammals are marsupials so they aren’t even remotely related to apes.

It’s possible that the Aboriginal tales of the Yowie are old, old memories of Homo erectus or other human relatives, as I suggested about the Patagonian wild men. But it’s also possible that the Yowie is a monster of human imagination. Cultures from around the world have stories of big people and little people who sometimes help, sometimes cause mischief, or are sometimes just plain menacing. It seems to be a human trait to people the landscape with giants and dwarves.

The more research I do about any cryptid, as opposed to animals we know exist or used to exist, the more I realize cryptozoology is actually about people. It’s the study not so much of unknown animals, it’s the study of how humans interact with the unknown. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I trace a fascinating story back to its primary source and discover it’s not as mysterious as later versions of the event make it out to be. But sometimes I come across something so purely human that I don’t even care that the mystery has evaporated.

So let me tell you about the Bunyip. This is another Australian monster, one that sometimes gets confused with the Yowie in popular culture, or sometimes gets lumped in with lake monsters. I learned about this from an article by Paul Michael Donovan in the 2016 Journal of Cryptozoology, called “Buckley’s Bunyip.” Shortly after I read the article, I happened to listen to the “Bunyip: Devil of the Riverbed” episode of the Folklore Podcast. That episode was an interview with none other than Paul Michael Donovan about the same material his article covered, so if you want more information, check the show notes for a link to that episode.

The bunyip is supposed to be a monster that attacks and eats people who come too near the waterholes or lagoons where it lives. Descriptions vary, but it’s sometimes said to be gray and covered with feathers, with a peculiar two-tone bellow that it uses to warn people away. By about the 1850s the word bunyip had been adopted into Australian English as a term meaning something like humbug or poser.

There was an Aboriginal sacred site near Ararat, Victoria where the outline of a bunyip was carved into the ground and the turf removed from within the figure. Every year the local indigenous people would gather to re-carve the figure so it wouldn’t become overgrown, because it symbolized an important event. At that spot, two brothers had been attacked by a bunyip. It killed one of the men and the other speared the bunyip and killed it. When he brought his family and others back to retrieve his brother’s body, they traced around the bunyip.

The bunyip carving is long gone, since eventually the last Aborigine who was part of the ritual died sometime in the 1850s and the site was fenced off for cattle grazing. But we have a drawing of the geoglyph from 1867. A copy of it is in the show notes. It’s generally taken to be a two-legged sea serpent type monster with a small head and a relatively short, thick tail. Some people think it represents a bird like an emu.

But if you turn it around, with the small head being the end of a tail, and the blunt tail being a head, suddenly it makes sense. It’s the shape of a seal.

The Southern elephant seal lives around the Antarctic, but it is a rare visitor to Australia. It’s also enormous, twice the size of a walrus, six or seven times heavier than a Polar bear. The males can grow over 20 feet long, or over six meters, while females are typically about half that length. The male also has an inflatable proboscis with which it makes horrible roaring sounds. This is a clip of what it sounds like, although these calls are from Northern elephant seals, which are much smaller than Southern elephant seals. Still pretty darn big, though.

[seals honking]

The elephant seal is also an aggressive carnivore. If an elephant seal strayed inland up a river or stream, which does sometimes happen, the Aboriginal people of the area would definitely take notice of the monster.

So the bunyip is, in the end, a true monster. And the bunyip’s story is a deeply human one. A man’s brother died. His family mourned, and commemorated the event with a carving that withstood who knows how many years. Oh, and the carving’s size? It was about eight meters long. That’s 26 feet.

I’m not entirely sure how I ended up talking about seals when we started out talking about giants of Patagonia. But hey, the southern elephant seal lives in Patagonia too.

I could easily do two or three more episodes about bigfoots around the world, but I’m ready for something else. Next week we’ll learn about a four-footed monster from Ireland, a Halloween story if I ever heard one since it starts with a gravestone.

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 iTunes or whatever platform you listen on. We also have a Patreon if you’d like to support us that way. Rewards include stickers and twice-monthly bonus episodes.

Thanks for listening!


Episode 023: Nonhuman Musicians



This week’s episode is about nonhuman musicians. It’s rarer than you’d think.

The palm cockatoo. Nature’s drummer. In possibly related news, I know what my next tattoo is going to be.

Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo.

Members of the Thai Elephant Orchestra at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center:

Further reading:

Kinship with Animals by Dave Soldier

Show transcript:

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

This week’s episode about nonhuman musicians was inspired by an article about palm cockatoos. The male cockatoos drum on tree trunks or hollow logs as part of their courtship display, which doesn’t sound all that unusual until you learn that they use special crafted sticks to drum. A male will select a stick, trim it down the way he wants it, and hold it in his claw to drum. Sometimes he’ll use a hard seedpod instead. The resulting beats are not only consistently in rhythm, each individual has a personal style. Some drum quickly, some slowly, some throw in little flourishes. Sometimes females will drum too, and if a female likes a male’s drumming, she may imitate him or join in.

Here’s a little clip of a male drumming. He’s also whistling.

[palm cockatoo drumming]

The palm cockatoo is an awesome-looking bird. It looks like a drummer. It’s up to two feet long, or 61 cm, smoky gray or gray-black with a heavy gray beak, red cheek patches that flush when the bird is upset or excited, and a messy crest of feathers. It’s native to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the very northern tip of Australia, Cape York Peninsula. Only the Australian birds are known to drum. Unfortunately, the Australian birds are the ones most threatened in the wild due to habitat loss.

The palm cockatoo eats nuts and seeds, and like all parrots it can live a long time. And yes, you can get them as pets—and now I’m desperate for one even though the last thing I need is a pet cockatoo. I have a coworker with a pet parrot who she says is incredibly neurotic. He tends to get overexcited and starts screaming, and she has to put him in his cage and cover it so he’ll shut up. Her kids found the parrot when they were young. He plopped down in her yard when they were playing outside, and they put an empty laundry basket over him to trap him. No one claimed him, so my coworker has now been stuck with a neurotic parrot for over twenty years. She’s pretty sure he survived in the wild by hanging out with crows, because one of the things that will set off his excited screaming is hearing crows outside. And while cockatoos and parrots in general are typically affectionate and make good pets, palm cockatoos are not. They’re considered “difficult.” When parrot fanciers call a type of bird difficult, it’s difficult.

Anyway, the really unusual thing about the palm cockatoo’s drumming isn’t its tool use, which is well known among many types of birds, especially parrots and their relations. It’s the rhythm.

Most animals can’t keep a beat. Synchronization to an external rhythm is called rhythmic entrainment. Humans are really good at it and recognize a beat automatically, but responding in time to a rhythm is a learned skill. Small children have to learn to keep a beat by moving their bodies, speaking, or singing, and they learn it best in social settings. That’s why music, dance, and rhythmic play activities are so important to preschool children. And as a drummer myself, I promise you, humans of any age can learn to improve their rhythm.

But most animals don’t seem to have the ability to distinguish rhythmic beats, although it hasn’t been studied all that much until fairly recently. Some researchers think it may have something to do with the ability to mimic vocal sounds.

That would explain why many birds show rhythmic entrainment, varying from species to species. A sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball was internet-famous for a while in clips where the bird danced to music. As a result, Snowball became the subject of a rhythmic entrainment study that shows he can adapt his dancing to changing tempos.

But not all animals who show rhythmic entrainment can mimic vocally. California sea lions aren’t exactly the parrots of the sea animal world, but they can be trained to move to a beat. On the other hand, closely related seals are vocal learners. In fact, one famous harbor seal who was raised by a fisherman who found the orphaned pup could imitate the fisherman so well he was known as “Hoover the Talking Seal.”

Here’s the only clip I would find of Hoover. The first time I listened to it, I couldn’t figure out when the seal was talking. All I could hear was some gruff-sounding guy talking really fast. Well, that’s Hoover.

[Hoover the talking seal]

That is Hoover the talking seal talking. It’s creepy as heck.

It’s possible that sea lions still retain neural pathways that allow vocal mimicking even if they no longer use them. Then again, some researchers now believe that vocal mimicking ability may only be a skill related to rhythmic entrainment, not the source of the ability, and that the neural pathways for rhythmic entrainment may be very old. Some species can express entrainment, others appear to have lost it.

Studies on human brains show that when music plays, pretty much the entire brain lights up in response. That’s because we have special neural connections that help coordinate motor planning, speech, and other skills with the perceived beat. Brains of parrots and other birds are very similar. But monkeys are not. Monkeys can’t dance. Poor monkeys.

One study with rhesus monkeys who were trained to tap in rhythm with a metronome determined that they couldn’t anticipate the beat but could tap just after it, responding to it, even after years of training. Many rhythmic entrainment studies focus on great apes, since it’s reasonable to suppose that humans’ close cousins might share our rhythmic ability.

Patricia Grey, a bio-music researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, taught a group of captive bonobo apes to play a drum along with a beat. But it wasn’t as simple as showing a bonobo how a drum worked and seeing if it could keep a beat. She had to encourage the apes in a social setting, just like with human children. Also, she had to design a drum that could take a whole lot of abuse. I love that she went to Remo, a company that manufactures drums and drumheads, to have the drum made.

Her experiment started by accident. In 2010, Grey was at the Great Ape Research Center in Des Moines waiting for an experiment to be set up, and while she waited she idly tapped the glass on the bonobo enclosure. A bonobo named Kanzi came over and tapped her hand on the glass in response, matching Grey’s tempo. Intrigued, Grey continued tapping to see how long Kanzi would keep it up. Kanzi didn’t stop, even when her snack time came. She ate her snack lying on her back so she could continue to tap with her feet.

Wild chimpanzees and bonobos drum on logs and their own bodies to make rhythmic noise during play and dominance activities. Dominant male chimps do a particularly exaggerated slow display when thunderstorms approach, called a rain dance by researchers, that involves drumming. A variation of the rain dance has been seen when wildfires are approaching a troupe of chimps. Naturally it’s called a fire dance, and it includes a vocalization heard at no other time.

Chimps are pretty chill when it comes to fire, by the way. They understand how it spreads and how to avoid it without panicking.

Another animal that can keep the beat? Elephants! Asian elephants are vocal mimics and their ability to keep a beat is extremely precise. In 2000, the Thai Elephant Orchestra was created with elephants at a conservation center in Thailand, who learned to play oversized versions of traditional Thai percussion instruments.

The elephants learned the instruments easily, taking to it so quickly and so well that the orchestra’s founders were astonished. The great thing is, the elephants actually create much of the music themselves. The orchestra’s founders, neuroscientist Dave Soldier and elephant conservationist Richard Lair, wanted the elephants to have fun and enjoy making music. So for most songs, the animals are only signaled when to start and stop playing. Occasionally human musicians play along.

The orchestra released three albums between 2002 and 2011, which were all well received—not as novelty albums, but as actual improvisational compositions. Some of the songs are arranged, with the elephants trained to play traditional Thai music. The orchestra performs live for visitors at the conservation center.

The orchestra varies in size from five to fourteen elephants. One particularly talented drummer, Luk Kop, could play three drums at the same time and set up complex rhythms. Unfortunately he was also a dangerous elephant, and that’s not good for a band or an elephant orchestra, so he had to drop out.

The elephants prefer non-dissonant tones and learn to strike the properly resonant parts of their instruments without even being taught. The elephants at the center also enjoy playing harmonicas. The tip of an elephant’s trunk has a fingerlike projection, so an elephant can hold a harmonica and blow through it with its trunk. Soldier reports that one morning he arrived at the center early when the elephants were heading down to the river for their morning bath. Almost all the elephants had brought their harmonicas and were playing together as they walked.

Most of the elephants at the center are former logging animals, and many of their handlers, known as mahouts, once worked with them when they were logging. Mahouts traditionally sing to their elephants, which is supposed to keep them calm. So the elephants in the orchestra are familiar with traditional Thai music.

Locals who have heard the orchestra play say the music sounds like the music in Buddhist temples. Soldier, a musician and composer himself, transcribed an original elephant piece which was then played by a human orchestra in New York. The audience didn’t know it was composed by elephants. Some guesses as to who the composer might be included John Cage, Dvorak, and Charles Ives.

Whether or not you like improvisational Thai music played by elephants, or you think it’s just a stupid gimmick, it’s clear the elephants are having a lot of fun. Here’s a clip of some of their music recorded at the conservation center. That’s some mighty fine percussion for animals who don’t even have hands.

[elephant orchestra]

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 for as little as one dollar a month.

Thanks for listening!