Episode 313: The Wolverine and the Kakapo

This week we learn about two interesting animals from opposite parts of the world! Thanks to Felix and Jaxon for suggesting the wolverine and the kakapo.

Further reading:

Study: Wolverines need refrigerators

Kakapo Comeback [this article has some fantastic pictures!]

The wolverine likes cold weather:

So many young kakapos!

The kakapo is a really big bird:

(Photo by Matu Booth)

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to cover two animals suggested by listeners who spell their names with an X. I had already picked out these topics from the list and just now noticed both suggesters have X’s in their names. Thanks to Jaxon and Felix for these suggestions!

First, Felix suggested we learn about the wolverine. We’ve talked about it before in episode 62, but there’s a whole lot more to learn about this uncommon animal.

The wolverine is a mustelid, which is a family that includes weasels, ferrets, and other small, long, skinny animals with short legs. But the wolverine is big and broad, although its legs are pretty short. It kind of looks like a small bear and stands about 18 inches tall at the shoulder, or 45 cm. It’s light brown with darker brown or black legs, muzzle, tail, and back, and some have silvery-gray markings too. Its tail is short but fluffy. It lives in cold, mountainous areas, including northern Canada and Alaska, Siberia, and parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The wolverine is mainly a scavenger of animals that are already dead, but it will also kill and eat pretty much anything it can catch. This includes rabbits, mice, rats, porcupines, geese, and other small or relatively small animals, but it sometimes kills animals a lot bigger than it is, like deer. It will also eat eggs, berries, seeds, and anything else it can find. It’s not a picky eater.

The wolverine nearly went extinct in the 19th century due to overhunting for its fur, which is mostly waterproof and frost-proof. People used it to line winter clothes. The wolverine is also vulnerable to habitat loss and climate change, since it needs deep snow and cold temperatures to survive.

Because the wolverine lives where winters are harsh, when it finds a lot of food, it will sometimes bury it in snow to eat later. It chooses a protected area between boulders or a natural crevice in rocks to put the dead animal, then covers it with deep snow to keep it fresh for longer, just like putting meat in a freezer. Females in particular need this stored food, because they give birth in winter and need lots of food so they can produce milk for their babies.

But if you’ve ever taken food out of the freezer, you know it’s hard as a rock. How does the wolverine eat meat that’s frozen solid? Not only does the wolverine have strong jaws and teeth, it actually has a special tooth in the back of the mouth that points inward, one on each side of the upper jaw. The inward-pointing tooth allows the wolverine to tear off chunks of frozen meat more easily. Other mustelids have this arrangement of teeth too.

A male wolverine roams widely through a large territory, which can sometimes be hundreds of square miles. Pairs often mate for life although they don’t spend a lot of time together, and sometimes a male will have two or three mates. In winter, the female digs a den deep into the snow to have her babies, and while she mostly takes care of them by herself, the father wolverine will visit from time to time and bring everyone food. The babies stay with their mother for up to a year, and sometimes the half-grown wolverines will go traveling with their dad for a while.

The wolverine is sometimes called the nasty cat because it has a strong smell, which it uses to mark its territory. “Nasty cat” is the funniest name for an animal I’ve ever heard.

Next, Jaxon suggested the kakapo, which is a weird and adorable bird. It’s flightless and nocturnal, lives only in New Zealand, and is a type of parrot. A flightless, nocturnal parrot!

The kakapo is really big even for a parrot. It can grow over two feet long, or 64 cm, but since it’s flightless its wings and tail aren’t very big. Its legs are relatively short considering it has to walk everywhere. It has green feathers with speckled markings, blue-gray feet, and discs of feathers around its eyes that make its face look a little like an owl’s face. That’s why it’s sometimes called the owl parrot. Males are almost twice the size of females on average.

The kakapo evolved on New Zealand where it had almost no predators. A few types of eagle hunted it during the day, which is why it evolved to be mostly nocturnal. Its only real predator at night was one type of owl. As a result, the kakapo was one of the most common birds throughout New Zealand when humans arrived.

The Maori discovered New Zealand around 700 years ago. They killed the kakapo to eat and to use its feathers in clothing, and they also brought dogs and the Polynesian rat that also liked to kill and eat the kakapo. Then a few hundred years ago Europeans arrived, bringing all sorts of invasive animals with them, and they also chopped down forests to create more farmland.

By the end of the 19th century, the kakapo was becoming increasingly rare everywhere. When Resolution Island was declared a nature reserve in 1891, early conservationists brought kakapos and kiwis to the island in an attempt to save them. But stoats and feral cats killed them all. Attempts to establish captive breeding programs weren’t successful either. By 1970, scientists worried that the kakapo was already extinct.

Fortunately, a few of the birds survived in remote areas. By now conservationists understood that they had to provide a safe environment for the birds, and that took a lot of effort. Several islands were chosen as kakapo refuges, and then all the introduced mammals on the islands had to be eradicated or relocated. This included animals like deer that ate the same plants that the kakapo relied on, as well as predators. Then native plants and trees had to be transplanted to the islands since they’d been mostly killed off by deer and other introduced animals.

Then, finally, all the kakapos scientists could find were relocated to the islands. There weren’t very many, and most of them were males. 65 birds were introduced to four islands and monitored carefully, both to make sure they settled in well and to make sure no predators found their way to the islands.

Kakapo females only lay eggs when they have plenty of high-protein food, especially the fruit of the rimu tree that only ripens every four or five years, so the females were given extra food to encourage them to breed more often. The extra food helped, but it turns out that when the females were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, most of the eggs they laid hatched male chicks. That was the opposite of what the kakapo needed, so conservationists experimented with the amounts of extra food they gave the birds until finally the eggs were hatching equal numbers of females and males.

Many parrot species mate for life and both parents help take care of the eggs and babies, but the kakapo handles things differently. Males gather on hilltops during breeding season and each male digs out a shallow bowl well apart from other males, sometimes several bowls connected with little trails. If a male gets too close to another male, they’ll fight. Each male stands in his bowl and makes a booming call by inflating a special sac in his throat. The bowl helps amplify the sound and often the male will construct his bowl near a surface that reflects sound, like rock. His calls can be heard three miles away in good conditions, or 5 km, and the sound attracts females.

This system of males competing in one area to attract females is called lekking, spelled L-E-K. We’ve actually talked about lekking before but I don’t remember if I specifically mentioned the term. The area where the males gather is called a lekking ground or an arena or sometimes just a lek. The females walk around inspecting each male, who booms and struts to show how strong and fit he is. If a female is especially interested in one male, she’ll approach him and he starts his courtship dance. This sounds fancy but for the kakapo, it basically means he turns his tail with his wings spread, then walks backwards towards the female. Weird dance, but the female kakapo thinks it’s cool.

After a female chooses a male, they mate and then the female leaves him and walks home. She builds a nest in a hollow tree or in a hidden crevice among roots or rocks, and lays one to four eggs. She takes care of the eggs and the babies by herself, and may continue to feed the babies until they’re around six months old.

The kakapo eats nuts, seeds, fruit, leaves, and other plant material. Its legs are short but strong, and it will jog for long distances to find food. It can also climb really well, right up into the very tops of trees. It uses its strong legs and its large curved bill to climb. Then, to get down from the treetop more efficiently, the kakapo will spread its wings and parachute down, although its wings aren’t big enough or strong enough for it to actually fly. A big heavy male sort of falls in a controlled plummet while a small female will land more gracefully.

While the kakapo is doing a lot better now than it has in decades, it’s still critically endangered. The current population is 249 individuals according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Scientists and volunteers help monitor the birds, especially newly hatched chicks. If a mother bird is having trouble finding enough food for all her babies, or if any of the babies appear sick or injured, a team of conservationists will decide if they need to help out. They sometimes move a chick from a nest where the mother bird has a lot of other babies to one where there are only one or two babies. Some chicks are raised in nurseries if necessary and reintroduced to the wild when they’re old enough.

The kakapo can live for a long time. This isn’t unusual for parrots, which can live as long as a human, but the kakapo is especially long-lived. There are reports of individuals who have reached 120 years old. This means that potentially, only six kakapo generations ago, the first East Polynesian sailors, ancestors of the modern Maori, became the first humans ever to set foot on the shores of New Zealand. And there were some weird parrots there.

This is what the male kakapo sounds like when it’s booming:

[booming call]

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

Thanks for listening!

Episode 062: The Honey Badger and Its Horrible Friends

It’s badger week at Strange Animals Podcast, thanks to a suggestion by Richard E.! I knew the honey badger was something special, but I had no idea how special. And by “special” I mean “terrifying.”

Shout-out to Turn of Phrases podcast just because I love it so much. It’s a short, family friendly podcast that explains the weird idioms we say without thinking about them.

A honey badger. Look at that adorable snarl!

A wolverine and its TEETH:

An American badger:

A European badger:

Show transcript:

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

I’ve been getting a bunch of great topic suggestions and I’m falling behind on addressing them, so this week I was going to cover two or three suggestions in one big episode. I started with the honey badger, though, and soon I realized this animal and some of its close relations deserved an episode to themselves.

The honey badger was suggested by Richard, who has also sent lots of other great topic suggestions I’m working on. That’s not my brother Richard, it’s a different Richard. Hello to both of you.

The honey badger sounds like it should be a cuddly Pooh-bear kind of animal that gets its hand stuck in the honey jar and its friends have to help free it. In fact, the honey badger is a terrifyingly dangerous animal that’s related to other badgers, as well as to weasels, wolverines, and otters, although not closely. One interesting thing I just found out: the European badger is not all that closely related to the American badger. In fact, the American and European badgers are about as closely related to each other as they are to the honey badger. The European badger is more closely related to the wolverine than it is the American badger and the honey badger. We’ll look at all these animals this week.

The honey badger has short legs, a broad body, a flattish head with a stubby nose, small ears and eyes, a medium-length tail, and strong claws. That’s the same rough description of the wolverine and the European and American badgers too. Its fur is black with a broad pale gray or white stripe from the head down the back, although one subspecies of honey badger is all black. The honey badger lives in Africa, India, and Southwest Asia, and while it only stands around a foot high at the shoulder, or 28 cm, its ferocity means it basically has no predators. Its skin is so thick and tough that arrows, spears, and even machetes don’t do much damage. Even small-caliber bullets can’t fully penetrate its skin. Setting a pack of dogs on a honey badger just ends up with a lot of unhappy, or possibly dead, dogs, because in addition to being ridiculously thick, the honey badger’s skin is extremely loose. If an animal bites it, the honey badger can still twist around and attack with its massive front claws and teeth. Not only that, but the honey badger has more stamina than its attacker, guaranteed, and it will continue to fight tirelessly forever.

The honey badger eats meat, some plant material like berries and roots, and pretty much anything else it can get. Most of the animals a honey badger hunts are small, rodents and frogs and things like that. It can even bite through tortoise shells with its powerful jaws, and will kill and eat even the most venomous snakes since if it does get bitten, like the mongoose, it is naturally resistant to venom. It eats all of whatever it kills, even fur, bones, and feathers. Occasionally a honey badger will chase another animal away from its kill, including lions. Yeah, even lions don’t want to mess with the honey badger—although lions do sometimes kill honey badgers, usually when a honey badger attacks it.

The honey badger gets its name not from its sweet personality, because it’s actually an ornery animal that will attack anything that comes near its burrow, but because it raids beehives—not for its honey, but for bee larvae. Like bears, which can raid beehives without worrying too much about getting stung through its thick fur, the honey badger doesn’t usually have much problem with bee stings. But sometimes there are too many bees even for the honey badger, in which case it has a secret anti-bee weapon.

The honey badger has an anal pouch that holds secretions that are really, really stinky. Skunk stinky. It can turn the pouch inside out to release the stink, which may stun or calm the bees the way a beekeeper calms bees with smoke.

As if all this isn’t fearsome enough, the honey badger is also intelligent and shows occasional tool use, like moving a log to stand on to reach prey. It also digs extremely well. And it’s not a slow animal at all. In fact, it can be kind of frenetic like its weasel cousins. And when it attacks animals larger than itself, like lions, it goes for the scrotum.

Baby cheetahs are born with broad white stripes down their backs, and some researchers think that coloring mimics the honey badger’s coloring and helps keep potential predators away.

The honey badger is called the ratel in South Africa, because of the sound it makes. I tried really hard to find audio of a honey badger that wasn’t overlaid with music or people talking, without luck. The closest I have is a honey badger attacking a cobra, but mostly what you hear is the cobra hissing. The cobra is not having a good day. You can hear the honey badger chatter a little, but it just sounds like a couple of squeaks. Here it is, for what it’s worth.

[honey badger and cobra sounds]

The wolverine is another animal in the Mustelidae family, and like its cousin the honey badger, it has a reputation for being ferocious. It also has a way better name than the honey badger, with an X-Men character, a bunch of sports teams, and a Swedish metal band named after it. On the other hand, it’s also sometimes called a skunk bear or nasty cat because of its anal scent glands, which it uses to mark its territory. It mostly lives in Alaska and northern Canada, Siberia, and parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

The wolverine is short and broad like the honey badger and is about the same size, or a bit larger, but it looks much more like a tiny bear. It’s light brown with darker brown or black legs, muzzle, tail, and back. It eats a lot of carrion, but it will also kill animals, from squirrels and mice all the way up to moose and caribou. It will also eat some plant material, like seeds and berries. The wolverine has a thick hide like the honey badger, but it’s not quite in the honey badger’s league. Bears and wolves will sometimes kill wolverines.

The wolverine lives in cold climates. Females dig dens in the snow to have their babies in late winter and early spring. Its fur is thick and water-repellent, and in old-timey times its fur was prized and used to line parkas and other clothing. Shout-out to the Turn of Phrases podcast for putting old-timey times into my everyday vocabulary. The wolverine also has a single tooth in the back of the jaw that sticks sideways into the mouth and helps it tear off meat from frozen carcasses. A wolverine will cache carcasses at the beginning of winter, which gives it food when the snow is deep and there’s not much else to eat.

The wolverine was once much more widespread, but as the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago its range became more northerly. It’s also been trapped and killed for its fur and to stop it from killing livestock. But male wolverines in particular can range widely, and occasionally one strays farther south. In 2016 a tagged wolverine was tracked as it traveled more than 800 miles, or almost 1300 km, through Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota, where it was killed by a ranch-hand.

In 1992 and 1994 a pair of wolverines were seen repeatedly in parts of Wales and England, and a dead one was reported on the side of the road, apparently killed by a car. Only about a hundred wolverines are kept in zoos, and a zoo would notice if a couple of its wolverines disappeared. Wolverines don’t make good pets, to say the least, so they probably weren’t escaped pets. The general consensus is that they must have been escapees from a fur farm—but wolverines don’t do well in captivity and rarely breed successfully even in zoos. So where they came from is a mystery, and unfortunately no one thought to retrieve the body or even take a photograph so it could be positively IDed.

Lastly, we’ll look at the relatively mild-mannered European badger and American badger. They look very similar, but as I noted at the beginning of the episode, they’re not all that closely related. The badger has a wide body that’s mostly gray with short legs that are darker gray or black. The tail is not stubby but not especially long. The face is black with white markings. The European badger has a broad white stripe that runs from the tip of its nose to between its ears, and a white stripe on both cheeks. The American badger has a thin white stripe that starts farther back on the nose and runs over the top of the head and down the neck, and black and white striped cheeks. Both are strong diggers that live in burrows.

The American badger is found throughout western and central North America, from parts of Canada to northern Mexico. It eats a lot of mice, groundhogs, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, and basically any little animal it can dig up from its burrows. It also eats lots of snakes, including rattlesnakes. Like its cousin the honey badger it likes to eat bee larvae and honey, and it will eat some plant material too. It also will eat skunks. Not many things want to eat skunks.

Occasionally a badger will team up with a coyote to hunt. That’s not scary at all. Badgers are aggressive, but certainly nowhere near as ferocious as a honey badger or even a wolverine. It’s a bit smaller than the honey badger and wolverine.

In 2017, a research team studying scavenging behaviors of various animals inadvertently learned a lot about the badger. The team had staked out calf carcasses and set up camera traps to document which animals came to eat the carcasses. One of the cameras recorded a badger burying a calf carcass deep enough that it would be safe from other scavengers and would remain cool underground for the badger to eat it later. It took the badger five days and a lot of work, but since the calf was considerably larger and heavier than the badger, it would have a lot of meat to snack on later in the winter. Another of the cameras caught a different badger attempting to bury another calf carcass, but that badger wasn’t successful. Researchers suspect this caching activity may be common among badgers, but no one knew about it because badgers are mostly nocturnal. While ranchers typically dislike badgers, burying large carcasses is beneficial to ranchers since it minimizes the spread of disease to cattle and other livestock.

The European badger is much more social than its American cousin, which is mostly solitary. It lives in groups in complex burrows called setts. A badger doesn’t just poop wherever it happens to be, it uses a latrine, and it may have more than one latrine in its territory just as it may have more than one sett. It also likes to change out the bedding material in its burrows, taking old bedding out and bringing in clean, fresh bedding. In winter, when good bedding material isn’t available, it may take its old bedding out on sunny days to air, then retrieve it later. It’s like this animal was invented to star in children’s storybooks. If you told me badgers routinely wear little flowered aprons and use tiny brooms to sweep their burrows, I wouldn’t bat an eye. Sometimes a red fox will live in part of a badger’s burrow, and I picture the fox wearing a neat tweed suit. He probably pays rent to the badger family.

The badger hibernates during the worst part of the winter, although when winters are mild, it may only sleep for part of the winter or not at all.

The European badger does eat meat, but it also eats a lot of plant material, especially fruit and grains, but also clover and even grass if it has to. It mostly eats earthworms, but will also catch insects, small mammals like mice, hedgehogs, and young rabbits, snails and slugs, and tortoises. It also likes bee and wasp larvae and will eat wasp nests, ignoring the stings it receives. Sometimes a badger will kill a lamb or break into a chicken coop and kill lots of chickens, but that’s rare and usually only happens when other food is scarce.

Unfortunately, the badger has a bad reputation in Great Britain as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. It does carry the disease, but recent studies show that it doesn’t appear to infect cattle. Cattle catch TB from other cattle, not from badgers. Culling badgers to stop the spread of TB among cattle doesn’t help either the cattle or the badgers, since after a badger cull, other badgers move into the dead badgers’ former territory, bringing TB with them. It’s very difficult to eradicate a disease from a wild animal population, but it is completely possible to eradicate a disease from domestic animals. In Wales and Scotland, cattle tuberculosis is on the decline due to frequent testing for the disease, while in England, where the primary treatment for TB is to go out and kill a bunch of badgers, it’s on the rise. So leave the badgers alone. Mrs. Badger is busy busy washing linens and hanging them to dry on tiny clotheslines while Mr. Badger is repairing the white picket fence where he grows his prize-winning dahlias, and the Badger children are helping Auntie Badger make scones for Mr. Fox’s tea.

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