How Many Spiders Do You Really Swallow in Your Sleep?

iStock
iStock

The “you eat X number of spiders” factoid changes depending on who you ask. Some people says it’s three, others eight, and still others might say as many as several dozen. Ask someone who really knows their spiders, though, and the number of ingested creepy crawlies drops right to zero.

Think about it this way, says Rod Crawford, Curator of Arachnids at Seattle’s Burke Museum and a dedicated buster of spider myths: To swallow even just one spider in your sleep, a number of very unlikely circumstances all have to happen at once.

The first, Crawford says, is that your mouth needs to be open. Sure, some people sleep that way, but not everyone. No open mouth, no swallowed spiders.

Second, the spiders have to get in your bed. “A totally normal, neatly made bed,” Crawford says, “has maybe one or two spiders cross it per year.” Add some humans to the bed, and spiders really don’t want anything to do with it. “Most people roll around in their sleep,” write doctors Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman in their book, Don't Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health. “This rolling would probably scare the spiders from wandering anywhere close to your face.”

Third and fourth, Crawford says, the spider would have to just happen to cross your body where your mouth is and be so bold as to enter an orifice that’s exhaling warm breath. “Just try blowing on a spider and see how they react to that!” Crawford says. “It’s not attractive to them!”

Finally, you’d have to swallow the spider while sleeping, and Carroll and Vreeman point out that, “we do not automatically swallow every time something goes into our mouths.”

The odds are pretty clearly stacked against you swallowing any one spider, let alone multiple ones over the years. “The chance that all of these things would happen together—that there would be a wandering, potentially suicidal spider in close vicinity to your mouth and that they would actually wander in to the wet dark breathing space and trigger your swallowing reflex,” Carroll and Vreeman write, “is really incredibly small.”

However unlikely, something like this still could happen, but we don’t have any solid proof that it has. Plenty of people watch other people sleep, says Crawford, but he’s never seen or heard a single good eyewitness account of a spider climbing into a sleeping person’s mouth or of someone watching them sleep keeping it from almost happening.

What’s more, says Crawford, “Every time you hear this story, the teller has a different number of spiders and a different length of time in which they are supposed to be swallowed. So even if one version had been correct, nearly all the tellers would still have to be lying!”

But Wait, There’s More!

There might actually be another layer of BS to this urban legend. Many stories that debunk the spider statistic point to an article written in the early 1990s about misinformation on the early World Wide Web as its origin. The article on the spider story at Snopes.com, for example, reads:

Fear not. This "statistic" was not only made up out of whole cloth, it was invented as an example of the absurd things people will believe simply because they come across them on the Internet.

In a 1993 PC Professional article, columnist Lisa Holst wrote about the ubiquitous lists of "facts" that were circulating via e-mail and how readily they were accepted as truthful by gullible recipients. To demonstrate her point, Holst offered her own made-up list of equally ridiculous "facts," among which was the statistic cited above about the average person's swallowing eight spiders per year, which she took from a collection of common misbeliefs printed in a 1954 book on insect folklore. In a delicious irony, Holst's propagation of this false "fact" has spurred it into becoming one of the most widely-circulated bits of misinformation to be found on the Internet.

All well and good, except that a web search doesn’t turn up much of anything about Lisa Holst or PC Professional that isn’t directly related to the genesis of the spider myth and saying pretty much the same thing as Snopes. The columnist, the column and the magazine don’t seem to exist, or were at least lost to history before everyone and everything had some presence on Google. A few people, including a guy named Nick who runs the blog “Eight Spiders,” have gone a little further in search of the source, but to no avail. Even the Library of Congress said they had no record of the magazine when Nick called them up. The story about how the story got made up may itself be made up. Whoa. Meta.

What’s That Thing That Hangs Off a Turkey’s Face?

iStock.com/JZHunt
iStock.com/JZHunt

That thing is called a snood. And it's there to let the other turkeys know that its owner is kind of a big deal.

When a male turkey—known as a tom—wants to mate, he faces two hurdles. One is his potential mates, the female turkeys (a.k.a. hens). In the realm of turkey mating, the hens wield the power of choice and the toms have to get their attention and win the opportunity to reproduce. Come mating season, a tom will strut around, gobble, puff out his chest, fan his tail, and drag his wings to attract the hens, who then pick which of the toms they’ll mate with.

The second problem for a tom looking for love is the other toms in the area. They’re all competing for the same limited number of hens. Sometimes a good mating display isn’t enough to win a mate, and toms will attack and fight each other to secure a hen. 

This is where the snood comes in. That goofy-looking piece of dangling flesh helps a tom both with choosy hens and with competition from rival males. Having a long snood almost always means that a hen will want to mate with him and that another tom will back down from a fight.

DUDES AND THEIR SNOODS

When two toms are trying to establish dominance, they’ll size each other up. Then they'll either fight, or one will flee.

In the late 1990s, Richard Buchholz, an animal behaviorist who focuses on turkeys, wanted to figure out which, if any, characteristics of a tom turkey could predict how they fare in dominance fights. That is, did bigger turkeys tend to win more scuffles? Did older ones? He also wanted to see if the turkeys used any of these predictive cues when sizing each other up. He looked at various characteristics of dominant toms that fight and win, and compared them to those of subordinate toms that lose fights or run from them. Of all the characteristics he looked at, only “relaxed snood length” seemed to be a reliable predictor of how a tom would do in bird-vs-bird combat. The dominant males, the ones who won fights and got a choice mate, had longer snoods.

With that in mind, Buchholz looked at how toms reacted to other toms with snoods of varying sizes. The birds tended to avoid confrontation with other males with longer snoods, and wouldn’t even feed near them. A big snood, this suggests, says to the other turkeys that this is a tom you don’t want to tangle with. Buchholz noted that snood length correlates with age, body mass, and testosterone, so, to competitors, the snood could be a good indicator of a tom’s aggressiveness, age/experience, size, and overall condition and fighting ability.

IN THE SNOOD FOR LOVE

Once the males have established who’s going to have a chance to mate, the final choice goes to the hen. While the mating display is the main draw for getting a hen to check him out, a tom’s snood helps him out again here.

Like it did for the other males, a tom’s snood signals a lot of information to a female assessing potential mates—it indicates how old and how big he is, and even says something about his health. In another study, Buchholz found that longer-snooded toms carried fewer parasites. If a hen wanted to choose a mate with good genes that might help her offspring grow large, live long, and avoid parasites, a tom’s snood is a good advertisement for his genes. In that study, hens showed a clear preference for toms with longer snoods. In another experiment years later, Buchholz found that healthy hens again showed a strong preference for long snoods and that hens with their own parasite problems were less picky about snood length and checked out more potential mates—perhaps, Buchholz thinks, because the hens recognized their own susceptibility to infection and were willing to invest more time searching for a tom with genes for parasite resistance that would complement their own—but still showed some preference for longer ones.

While a snood might look goofy to us, for a turkey, it’s integral to the mating game, signaling to other toms that they should get out of his way and letting hens know that he’s got what they’re looking for.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2013.

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

iStock
iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER