A lot of animals are misunderstood, plagued by fallacies about their traits and behaviors. Some falsehoods are based on old legends. Others result from exaggerations, distortions, misunderstandings and even deliberate fabrications concocted by self-serving humans.
Yet even when scientific scrutiny reveals these misguided notions for what they are, many remain surprisingly hard to dispel. Chances are you're clinging to a few yourself.
The following are enduring tall tales about animals and the myth-busting truth behind them. It's time to put these myths to rest.
Bears don't actually hibernate, but enter a less intense sleep state called torpor. (Photo: Joe Giordano/Flickr)
Myth: There's an 'alpha' wolf in every wolf pack.
Reality: While seemingly true for captive wolves, wild wolf packs follow no such social order. The idea was first posited by Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviorist who observed a hierarchical pack system among wolves in Switzerland's Zoo Basel in the 1930s and 1940s. But the theory doesn't hold up when it comes to wild wolves. In nature, wolves live in family groups with parents as natural "alphas" and their offspring as "subordinates" (similar to how it works for humans and most other animal species). In other words there's a familial hierarchy that all pack members honor. What Schenkel observed were unrelated wolves living in unnatural packs, which may have spurred some jockeying for social dominance.
Myth: Bulls charge when they see the color red.
Reality: Bulls do charge at red, but they also charge at every other color, too. In fact, bulls (like all cattle) are colorblind to red and green. So it's not color that enrages them (despite the traditional use of red capes in bullfighting); rather it's the cape's movement — or any movement for that matter — that gets them fired up.
Myth: Bears hibernate in winter.
Reality: It may look like they're out cold until spring, but bears actually enter a less extreme version of hibernation called torpor in which their heart rate and breathing slows, their body temperature drops slightly and they don't eat or release bodily waste. During this time, bears can actually wake up if threatened, and females have even been known to give birth and then fall back into torpor again. True hibernators (like woodchucks and bats), on the other hand, enter a deep, almost lifeless, sleep state throughout the winter with a drastic drop in their body temperature.
Myth: Bats love human hair.
Reality: The idea that flying bats aim for your hair permeates folklore throughout the world. Yes, bats do sometimes swoop down in the dark at death-defying speeds, seemingly on a beeline for your hair. But scientific evidence shows these remarkable winged mammals, equipped with special sonar for night-time navigation, are probably nosediving for nearby mosquitos and not your tresses.
Myth: Dogs and cats are colorblind.
Reality: This is actually partly true. Dogs and cats don't view the world solely in drab shades of black, white and gray as many of us grew up believing. They see colors, just not all the colors humans see. That's because cats and dogs are like colorblind humans with only two types of photoreceptor cells called cones in their retinas that are responsive to blue and green. People who aren't colorblind have a third cone allowing them to also see red. Bottom line: Cats and dogs aren't as sensitive to red light, making it hard for them to distinguish certain colors, like red from green.
Myth: Lemmings commit mass suicide.
Reality: No, they don't. Not ever. The erroneous notion that lemmings catapult themselves off cliffs en masse apparently got major traction from a 1958 Academy Award-winning Disney nature documentary called "White Wilderness." Turns out the horrific images of lemmings hurling themselves into the sea to drown were staged by the filmmakers to mimic "real-life" behavior they couldn't seem to capture on camera. In other words, they threw the lemmings off the cliff themselves. The fallacy that lemmings are suicidal may be related to the fact that lemming populations tend to explode cyclically, pushing some to migrate to less densely populated regions. Occasionally, some of these lemmings fall off rocks and drown in rivers or lakes as a result of being on unfamiliar terrain, but not because they're ruled by some instinctual death wish.
Myth: Cats only purr when they're pleased.
Reality: Pet a cat and he's likely to purr. Or listen to a mama cat contentedly purring to her kittens. It sure sounds like a vocalization of happiness. But cats also purr when they're hungry, distressed (like when they go to the vet), and even when they're mending from an injury. Which has prompted researchers to take a deeper look at this multi-faceted mode of feline communication. Turns out cats purr (causing body vibrations) at a low sound frequency between 25 and 150 Hertz, a range known to improve bone density and promote musculoskeletal health. It may be that purring also serves as a self-healing mechanism to keep muscles and bones from atrophying during the many hours cats spend slumbering.
Myth: Elephant trunks are like straws.
Reality: An elephant's trunk is one of the most versatile appendages ever devised by Mother Nature, used to breathe, smell, gather food and caress loved ones. The one thing it's not, though, is a straw. True, elephants do use their trunks to drink, but they achieve this by sucking water partway up and then releasing it into their mouths (or over their bodies for a shower).
Myth: Run into a skunk and you're going to end up stinky.
Reality: Not necessarily. Skunks aren't vicious beasts intent on aiming their malodorous bombs at every unsuspecting passerby. In fact, most are solitary creatures that would rather flee than fight. Instead, they rely on a number of "warning" tactics before finally resorting to their smelly spray defense. These include their stripes (designed to point out the stinky sprayer in back), as well as some foot stomping and tail slapping. Why go to all this trouble when one squirt of sulfurous scent from their special anal glands is enough to send most living things scrambling for cover? Because once released it can take days to "recharge" their smelly supply, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
Handling a baby bird won't drive its mother away for good, but it's still not a good idea. (Photo: Audrey from Central Pennsylvania, USA/Wikimedia Commons)
Myth: Touching a baby bird makes it unlovable to its mom.
Reality: This persistent urban legend isn't all bad. It actually serves a good purpose by keeping curious kids (and grownups) away from wild creatures that should be left alone. The basic idea is that once human hands have touched a hatchling, the scent will turn off the mother bird for good. The problem is, birds don't actually have a keen sense of smell. Plus, they have what all parents have – an abiding affection for their young. Meaning they don't usually abandon their babies no matter how bad they smell. What does drive them off, though, is someone disturbing their nest, so back off quietly if you happen upon one. And if you do find an infant bird on the ground, the same no-touch rule still applies. Chances are its parents are nearby, merely waiting for you to be on your way.
Myth: Ostriches bury their heads in the sand.
Reality: It's a popular myth, but untrue. These giant birds are plenty fast and can bring down even the fiercest lion with one well-aimed kick. In other words, ostriches don't need to hide their heads in fear. This hogwash about head-burying may have originated from their habit of laying eggs in a big hole in the ground. A few times a day, ostrich moms and dads dip their heads in the hole to check on things, often giving the illusion of being buried.
Myth: Owls can do a 360-degree head spin.
Reality: No, but they can swivel their heads up to 270 degrees — all without damaging blood vessels in their necks or blocking the blood supply to their brains (which would occur if humans tried it). In fact, owls have uniquely designed bone structures and blood vessel systems that allow for these Exorcist-style rotations. Why do they need to gyrate like that? Owls have tubular eyes that offer superior telescopic vision but remain fixed. That is, they have to turn their heads because their eyeballs can't rotate like ours do to see what's going on around them.
A butterfly isn't likely to die if you lightly touch its wings, but rough handling can be deadly. (Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr)
Myth: Cut an earthworm in half and it grows into two worms.
Reality: Technically, this is a partial myth. Earthworms have a distinct head and tail, and the tail end can't grow a new head or other organs. However, in some cases the head end is able to grow a new tail if it's cut behind the clitellum, a swollen band around the 14th, 15th and 16th segments where eggs are deposited. That's not to say there aren't worms that can perform remarkable feats of regeneration. Planarian flatworms, for instance, can reconstitute themselves entirely from the tiniest body pieces.
Myth: Daddy longlegs are venomous spiders.
Reality: No on both accounts. They're not venomous and they're not spiders. What most of us call daddy longlegs with their pill-shaped bodies and eight spindly legs are actually a separate order of arachnids called opilionids. These harmless creatures don't have fangs or venom and feed mostly on decomposing vegetable and animal matter. However, there is a similar-looking arachnid called a pholcid that really is a spider and venomous to boot. Not to worry, though. They rarely bite humans.
Myth: Butterflies die if you touch their wings.
Reality: Not necessarily. Of course, a lot depends on how roughly they're handled. Butterflies have delicate wings containing a system of veins. If the veins in their forewings get broken, they usually die. However, if you merely scrape off a few tiny scales (you'll see a dusting of color on your fingers) most butterflies will survive just fine. These scales give their wings color, help with air flow for flight and allow them to soak up heat so they can regulate their body temperature. It's best to maintain a hands-off policy when it comes to butterflies, but you'd have to scrape off a lot of scales to do lasting damage.
Myth: All bees only sting once and then they die.
Reality: This is true for honeybees, but not for other types. That's because honeybees have large stingers with backward facing barbs that get lodged in skin and can't be pulled out. When a honeybee tries to fly off after going in for a sting, its entire apparatus stays behind, leaving it mortally wounded with a ruptured abdomen. Other bees, and wasps, have smoother stingers that pull out intact — meaning they live to sting another day.
Reptiles and amphibians
A chameleon's color isn't camouflage, but a way to let the world know how it feels. (Photo: William Warby/Flickr)
Myth: You get warts from touching toads and frogs.
Reality: Never. Warts are caused by a type of human papillomavirus, not amphibians. The notion may come from the fact that some toads and frogs have wart-like bumps on their skin. But just because you won't sprout warts doesn't mean there aren't potential hazards. A few toad and frog species secrete skin toxins that can cause intense pain if touched. And certainly don't think about kissing one. Not only won't you conjure up a handsome prince, but some species carry neurotoxins that can be deadly.
Myth: Rattlesnakes always rattle before striking.
Reality: Rattlesnakes are fairly shy and harmless when left undisturbed. They rattle their tales as a warning that they're nearby. It means, "Don't step on me," or "Back off." But rattlesnakes don't always use this audible deterrent before striking. If you're out in areas where rattlesnakes live, be mindful and watchful. The good news is that most bites only happen when a rattlesnake is startled, harassed or picked up.
Myth: Chameleons change color to blend into their surroundings.
Reality: It sounds plausible, but these multi-hued, quick-change artists switch colors to communicate their moods via specialized cells in their skin called chromatophores. Far from offering camouflage, shade shifts reflect how combative, amorous or frightened a chameleon feels, and can also be linked to temperature and light.
Myth: Turtles don't feel pain through their shells.
Reality: A turtle's shell is constructed from dozens of bones, including its backbone, breastbone and ribs, that are covered with hard scutes made of keratin (the same stuff that forms fingernails, hair and hooves). In other words, the shell is a living — and feeling — part of a turtle's body, complete with a blood and nerve supply. Turtles feel what comes in contact with their shells, kind of like you feel something touch your fingernail. They also experience pain and can even die from infection if their shells are damaged.
Piranhas may have razor-like teeth, but these formidable-looking fish aren't likely to eat you alive – or even get close to you. (Photo: Davesh Jagatram/Flickr)
Myth: Sharks can detect a single drop of blood in the water.
Reality: Granted, sharks have a highly developed sense of smell, but it's not quite that discerning. Depending on the species, some sharks can detect blood at one part per million. That's equivalent to one drop of blood in about 13.2 gallons of water. Impressive. But not as impressive as their olfactory capabilities when it comes to other chemical scents. The lemon shark, for example, can recognize tuna oil at one part per 25 million – equal to 10 drops in a home swimming pool. Other shark species can identify prey at one part per 10 billion – comparable to one drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Myth: Goldfish can't remember what they did 3 seconds ago.
Reality: Research simply doesn't bear out this notion that goldfish are forgetful. Several studies show that far from being memory-challenged, goldfish (and other fish, too) are not only capable of learning, but they also retain what they learn for long periods of time.
Myth: Piranhas can devour a human being in seconds.
Reality: It's a terrifying image that's hard to forget once imagined — gangs of predatory piranhas stripping someone to the bone in the blink of an eye. Yes, piranhas are fearsome-looking creatures with knife-sharp teeth, but by all accounts they're shy and non-aggressive. In fact, piranhas mostly scavenge for fish, plants and insects in South American rivers and lakes where they live. The tales of flesh-gobbling probably came from Theodore Roosevelt after his 1914 trip to Brazil where he witnessed ravenous piranhas gnaw the meat off a dead cow in no time. Turns out the feeding frenzy was staged for tourists, using captive fish that were purposely left unfed for days.
Can't get enough animal myths? Check out this video exploring six more critter "facts" that simply aren't true.