Episode 372: Mystery Bovids

Thanks to Will and Måns for their suggestions this week! Let’s learn about some mystery bovids, or cows and cow relations!

Further reading:

A Book of Creatures: Songòmby

Kouprey: The Ultimate Mystery Mammal

A musk ox (top) and a wild yak (bottom):

A young kouprey bull from the 1930s:

Sculpture of two grown kouprey bulls [photo by Christian Pirkl – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73848355]:

A banteng bull (with a cow behind him) [photo taken from this site]:

A qilin/kilin/kirin looking backwards:

The “purple” calf:

The Milka purple cow:

Show transcript:

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

This week we’re going to learn about some mystery bovids, or cow relations, suggested by Will and Måns, whose name I am probably mispronouncing.

We’ll start with a mystery about the musk ox, which is not otherwise a mysterious animal. Måns emailed about reading a children’s book about animals that had a picture of a musk ox in the part about the Gobi Desert. The problem is, the musk ox is native to the Arctic and was once found throughout Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. So the question is, was the book wrong or are there really musk oxen in the Gobi Desert?

We’ll start by learning about the musk ox and the Gobi Desert. The musk ox can stand up to 5 feet tall at the shoulder, or 1.5 meters. It has thick, dense, shaggy fur all over, a tiny tail only about four inches long, or 10 cm, and horns that curve down close to the sides of its head and then curve up again at the ends.

The musk ox is well adapted to the cold, which isn’t a surprise since it evolved during the ice ages. Its ancestors lived alongside mammoths, woolly rhinos, and other Pleistocene megafauna. Like many cold-adapted animals, its fur consists of a thick undercoat that keeps it warm, and a much longer layer of fur that protects the softer undercoat. The undercoat is so soft and so good at keeping the animal warm in bitterly cold temperatures that people will sometimes keep musk oxen in order to gather the undercoat in spring when it starts to shed, to use for making clothing and blankets. But it’s definitely not a domesticated animal. It can be aggressive and extremely dangerous.

A warm coat isn’t the musk ox’s only cold adaptation. The hemoglobin in its blood is able to function well even when it’s cold, which isn’t the case for most mammals. It lives in small herds that gather close together in really cold weather to share body heat, and if a predator threatens the herd, the adults will form a ring around the calves, their heads facing outward. Since a musk ox is huge, heavy, and can run surprisingly fast, plus it has horns, if a wolf or other predator is butted by a musk ox it might end up fatally injured.

The main predator of the musk ox is the human, who hunted it almost to extinction by the early 20th century. It was completely extirpated in Alaska but was reintroduced there and in parts of Canada in the late 20th century. Similarly, it was reintroduced to parts of Siberia and even parts of northern Europe, although not all the European introductions were successful.

So what about the Gobi Desert? It’s nowhere near the Arctic. Not all deserts are hot. A desert just has limited rainfall, and the Gobi is a cold desert. Parts of the Gobi are grasslands and parts are sandy or rocky, and it covers a huge expanse of land in central Asia, mainly divided between northern China and southern Mongolia. Some parts of it do get limited rainfall in the summer and limited snowfall and frost in the winter, but for the most part it’s dry and therefore has limited vegetation for animals to eat.

Animals do live in the Gobi, though. The wild Bactrian camel, which has two humps, is found nowhere else in the world and is critically endangered. The Mongolian wild ass lives in parts of the Gobi, as do several species of antelope and gazelle, wild sheep, and ibex. The Gobi bear, which is the rarest bear in the world, also lives in the Gobi, along with smaller animals like hares, foxes, polecats, marmots, and various lizards, snakes, and birds. Occasionally wolves and snow leopards visit parts of the Gobi. So do humans, specifically nomadic herders who travel through parts of the desert to find food for their animals.

Of all the animals found in the Gobi, and in central Asia in general, the musk ox is not listed on any scholarly site I could find. Despite its name, it’s not actually closely related to other cattle and is instead most closely related to goats and sheep. However, a close relation of the domestic cow and its ancestors is the wild yak, the ancestor of the domestic yak. The wild yak lives mostly in the Himalayas these days but was once much more widespread, and the domestic yak is farmed by nomadic herders in the colder, more mountainous parts of the Gobi.

The yak isn’t closely related to the musk ox, but it does have a very similar-looking long, shaggy coat. Its horns point forward and up like cattle horns, but to someone who doesn’t really know much about yaks or musk ox, it would be easy to get the two confused. This seems to be what has happened in the case of the children’s book Måns read and in various non-academic websites. I think we can call this mystery solved.

Next, let’s go on to Will’s suggestion of mystery bovids. The family Bovidae includes not just the domestic cow and its relations but goats, sheep, antelopes, and many other animals with cloven hooves who chew the cud as part of the digestive process–but not deer or giraffes, and not the pronghorn even though people call it an antelope. Many bovids have horns, usually only two but sometimes four or even six, and those horns are never branched. Sometimes only the male has horns, sometimes both the male and female. Bovids don’t have incisors in the front of the upper jaw, only in the lower jaw, and instead has a tough dental pad that helps it grab plants.

One mystery bovid is a creature from Madagascar, called the habeby. It’s supposed to look like a big white sheep with brown or black spots. It has cloven hooves and droopy ears but not horns, and it’s supposed to be nocturnal and never seen in the daytime. Its eyes are very large and staring. It’s shy and fortunately not dangerous. Bovids are almost always diurnal, so a nocturnal bovid would be quite unusual.

Since sheep and other bovids aren’t native to Madagascar, it’s much more likely that the habeby is a type of large lemur that looks enough like a sheep at a distance that people thought it was a sheep. Either it’s extinct now or it lives in such remote areas that it’s never seen anymore.

Another Madagascar mystery animal is called the songòmby, which either looks like a wild ox or a horse depending on the story. Like the habeby it has floppy ears, a spotted coat, and hooves. Some stories say it has a single horn, some stories say it has a pair of horns, and other stories say it has no horns at all. It lives in mountainous areas and can run incredibly fast uphill, but is much slower downhill because its long ears flop over its eyes and it has trouble seeing where it’s going. This is fortunate, because it’s also supposed to eat people.

One clue to the songòmby’s possible real identity comes from some stories that state it always looks backwards over its back, and is only ever seen from the side. This is reminiscent of how the Chinese kilin is often represented, and also explains why the songòmby has a varying number of horns and looks like a cow or horse but is supposed to eat people. The kilin is often depicted as having both hooves and fangs, and may have a single horn, a pair of horns, or no horns at all. Arab traders began stopping in Madagascar around a thousand years ago and would have brought Chinese goods, including some items decorated with kilins. It’s possible that the kilin artwork inspired the story of the songòmby, but it’s also so similar to the habeby in some ways that details of that animal may have been incorporated into the story of the songòmby, or vice versa.

Way back in episode 100 we talked briefly about an animal called the kouprey. It’s a wild ox native to southeast Asia, sometimes called the forest ox. It can stand over six feet tall at the shoulder, or two meters, and while bulls are dark brown, cows and calves are a lighter brownish-gray. Both have white lower legs with a dark stripe down the front of the front legs. The bull’s horns look like those of a domestic cow or wild yak, but are extremely large and curve forward, but the cow’s horns grow up and back, more like an antelope’s horns. As a bull ages, the tips of his horns start to fray and end up looking almost tassled. A bull also develops a large dewlap as he ages, which in older bulls can actually be so big it touches the ground.

By 1937, when a kouprey was sent to a zoo in Paris, the animal was probably mostly restricted to the forests of Cambodia. Before then it had been completely unknown to science, but after that, European big game hunters went to Cambodia to kill as many as possible. It was already rare and by the 1950s there were probably fewer than 500 individuals left alive. By the 1960s, there were probably no more than 100 animals left alive. The last verified sighting of one was in 1983.

Recently, some scientists have questioned whether the kouprey actually existed at all. Its description sounds a lot like another bovid, the wild banteng. A bull banteng is dark brown or black while the cows are light brown or reddish-brown. Both have white lower legs and a white patch on the rump. Some scientists started to think that either the kouprey was a misidentification of the banteng or the hybrid offspring of a banteng and a domestic cow.

A 2006 genetic study suggested that this was the case, that the kouprey was just a hybrid animal. But a follow-up study, including genetic testing of a kouprey skull that dated back to before cattle were domesticated, came to a different conclusion. The kouprey was a distinct species, not a hybrid animal. The real mystery now is whether it’s still alive or if it has gone extinct in the last 40 years.

We’ll finish with a domestic cow that’s a little bit of a mystery. A popular brand of chocolate in Europe is Milka, and since 1973 many of its advertisements have included a light purple and white cow with a bell around her neck. Well, in 2012 a calf was born in Serbia that actually looked like the Milka purple cow. It was a purple cow!

In January of 2012 a bull calf was born on a small farm in Serbia. There’s not a lot of information available about it, but it looks like it was a breed of cattle called the busa, or maybe a busa cross. The busa is mainly raised in the mountainous parts of Serbia and mostly raised as a meat animal. It’s rare these days but was once extremely popular in the area, so a lot of cattle raised in Serbia have at least some busa ancestry. The busa can be white with darker markings, or a solid color with no white or very little white. It can be red-brown, black, or gray.

In pictures, the purple calf’s mother looks to be black and white. The calf itself is white with markings that look pale blue-gray, almost lilac. The pictures aren’t very good so it’s hard to tell. The farmer was surprised when he saw the calf and called a veterinarian to make sure it was healthy, which it was. The veterinarian suggested the calf’s strange coloration was just a rare color mutation.

As it happens, a blue-gray coloration is common in a variety of busa cattle raised in Macedonia. It’s also a common coloration in other breeds of cattle. A pale version of this color can look almost like a shade of lilac. Since I can’t find a follow-up to the 2012 articles about the calf, it’s probable that as he grew up, his spots darkened to look more gray than purple. The farmer said that he would be keeping the little purple cow instead of slaughtering him to make steaks and hamburgers, so hopefully there’s still a handsome purple and white bull living his best life in the mountains of Serbia.

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. 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 156: Animals of Mongolia

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

The Hu. Oh my heart:

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

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

The saiga, an antelope with a serious snoot:

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

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

Further watching:

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

Show transcript:

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my gosh I love that song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[yak grunting]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for listening!