6 Myths About Animals, Debunked

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It’s easy to think we understand animals: They’re present in every part of our culture, from the movies we watch to the clichés we use. But the way a species functions in the wild is often worlds apart from a stereotype or cartoon. This gulf between misconceptions and reality is the theme of Lucy Cooke’s new book, The Truth About Animals.

"We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence, and that trips us up and obscures the truth,” Cooke, a zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, tells Mental Floss. “I think it's time we rebrand the animal kingdom according to facts and not sentimentality.”

As Cooke examines in her book, the real world is one in which pandas are virile lovers and sloths are master survivalists. These are just a few of the myths that were debunked in The Truth About Animals.

1. PANDAS HAVE LOW SEX DRIVES.

Pandas have long been blamed for their own precarious position in the animal kingdom. The species is in danger, some people claim, because pandas are reluctant to or just plain bad at copulating. If only they would get off their furry behinds and get it on, there would be more of them.

In The Truth About Animals, Cooke debunks this modern myth. Pandas have been living in the wild for 18 million years—long before humans swooped in to act as their savior—and that wouldn’t be the case without healthy sex habits. It’s true that pandas are difficult to breed in captivity, and the several failed attempts of zoos to produce a baby panda throughout the 20th century is likely what led to this stereotype. But the bears are much more responsive to members of the opposite sex in the wild. The female chooses who she mates with, moaning from high in a bamboo tree while several males on the ground compete for her attention. Once the bears have paired off, they can have sex over 40 times in one afternoon.

2. SLOTHS ARE LAZY.

Cooke was inspired to write her book by sloths, which she describes to Mental Floss as “highly successful, highly evolved” creatures. Not everyone agrees: More than perhaps any other animal, sloths have become synonymous with laziness and sluggishness, and today they’re held up as an example of evolutionary failure.

The reality is that sloths are much more impressive than their appearance suggests. They’ve been around since 64 million years ago—earlier than wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers—and they have their slow and steady nature to thank for their success. Sloths have a remarkably slow digestive system and a low-calorie diet, so they expend as little energy as possible, not out of laziness, but out of survival instinct. A sloth is awake for more than half the day, and when necessary it can scramble up a tree at speeds approaching 1 mph. It spends most of its day in a still, seemingly trancelike state, but it isn’t wasting its potential: It’s conserving energy so it can maintain its dominant spot in the evolutionary tree.

3. PENGUINS ARE LOYAL LOVERS.

Emperor penguins, the most famous of the bird group, are known for splitting parenting duties between mated pairs, with the father incubating the egg while the mother gathers food for her family. This has led some to praise penguins as the reflection of ideal, moral family dynamics in the animal kingdom, but these people should probably find a different analog. Though the parents of any given chick may raise their offspring together, penguins aren’t monogamous: 85 percent of emperor penguins find a new partner from one breeding season to the next. Penguins are also some of the only animals known to exchange goods for sex. Adélie penguins need rocks to build up their nests during warmer months when meltwater threatens their eggs. With no parenting duties to distract them, bachelor penguins end up collecting more stones than they need, so some females will sometimes trade a one-off sex session for one of their pebbles.

4. VULTURES STALK DYING PREY.

Watch enough survival movies and you’re bound to see a shot of a hungry vulture trailing behind the starving protagonist, waiting for them to lie down and die. The myth that vultures stalk their prey while it’s still alive and have the power to predict death is a persistent one, but that doesn’t make it accurate. The scavengers have no interest in living animals and will only seek out meat from dead and decaying corpses. Rather than reaper-like premonitions of mortality, turkey vultures and greater and lesser yellow-headed vultures use their noses to locate their meals. They join kiwis and kakapos on the small list of birds with highly-developed olfactory glands. Without a strong sense of smell, other New World vultures and all Old World vultures primarily rely on sight to find food. Some New World vultures like black vultures have adopted a different strategy: They'll follow turkey vultures to their prey, taking advantage of their sensitive noses.

5. ALL BATS ARE RABID BLOOD-SUCKERS.

Bats may be the animals most closely associated with the horror genre. They crave blood, so the myth goes, and though a bat latched onto your neck won’t be able to suck you dry, it will likely infect you with a nasty case of rabies.

According to Cooke, there are many problems with the statement above. Bats are poor stand-ins for their fictional vampire counterparts; only three species of bats drink blood—the common vampire bat, the hairy-legged vampire bat, and the white-winged vampire bat—while most prefer fruit or insects. After climbing onto its prey, the vampire bat locates where the blood is flowing with the heat sensor on its nose, and then, using its sharp front teeth like shears, it cuts away any hair that might be blocking the skin. Rather than biting down and sucking like Dracula, the bat creates a small incision and laps up blood from the open wound. They can recognize an individual animal's breathing patterns and return to feed on it the following night, taking advantage of the reliable blood source.

Bats are rarely rabid, with just .05 percent of them carrying the disease—less than dogs or raccoons. The image of a bat getting tangled in your hair also has no basis in reality: Their sophisticated echolocation system signals them to turn long before they have a chance to collide with your head.

6. FEMALE HYENAS HAVE PENISES.

Hyena genitalia has been baffling scientists for centuries. Member of both sexes appear to have a penis, while in females there’s no external vagina to be found. Scientists originally thought that hyenas must be hermaphrodites, but the true explanation is even more unusual. Though it’s often referred to as a pseudo-penis, female hyena genitalia doesn’t produce sperm, technically making it a nearly 8-inch-long clitoris. This appendage is also saddled with all the same duties as a conventional female organ, including giving birth to hyena pups.

13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born on June 25, 1903, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. He was a prankster.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. He worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. He once got himself arrested. On purpose.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. He had knuckle tattoos.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. He had a goat named Muriel.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. He coined the term "Cold War."

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. He really hated American fashion magazines.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

This story has been updated for 2019.

20 Freaky Facts About the Giant Squid

Canadian Illustrated News, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Canadian Illustrated News, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Last week, scientists aboard a NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research ship in the Gulf of Mexico captured video of an elusive giant squid—the first recorded sighting in U.S. waters. In the 28-second clip, the cephalopod emerges from the blackness of the deep sea and attacks an electronic jellyfish. After wrapping its tentacles around the luminescent bait, the squid loses interest and disappears in the murk. Since ancient times, philosophers and naturalists have puzzled over this rarely seen enigma. There’s plenty we still don’t know about giant squid, but we’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years.

1. Giant squid eyes are the size of Frisbees.

Woman next to a preserved giant squid eye
Smithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A staggering 10.5 inches across, a squid’s eyeballs lack the jelly-like substance that gives ours their shape. Instead, they’re filled with water, which leaks out once the invertebrate dies. "The eyes collapse. It's like a collapsed plastic bag,” biologist Dan-Eric Nilsson told NPR in 2012.

2. Female giant squid are bigger than males.

On average, female giant squid are around twice the size of males from the tip of their beaks to the ends of their two longest tentacles.

3. Giant squid suckers can leave ugly battle scars.

The giant squid's main enemy is the sperm whale. While under attack, the squid often retaliate by inflicting large, circular wounds, courtesy of the serrated rings around each sucker.

4.The giant squid’s maximum length is about 43 feet.

At least, that’s what the available evidence tells us. Reports of 60- and 70-footers have never been verified scientifically.

5. Instead of a proper tongue, they use a radula.

This organ rests inside their beaks and is covered with seven rows of denticles—sharp, toothy, backwards-pointing protrusions.

6. There may be just one known species.

A genetic analysis in 2013 suggested that Architeuthis duxis the only species of giant squid, as revealed by a comparison of 43 specimens from around the world. The giant squid gene pool seemed abnormally shallow—all 43 subjects were pretty much indistinguishable in this regard. “It’s completely bizarre,” geneticist Thomas Gilbert said. “How can something be global but have so little variation?” Other researchers, however, argue that there may be as many as eight Architeuthis species out there.

7. Giant squid tentacles can regenerate.

One giant squid corpse found in Canada in 1968 had a partially regenerated tentacle. According to a study of the specimen in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, "the regenerated club differed in length and width, and in the size and pattern of suckers, when compared with the normal tentacular arm." Many cephalopods besides squid are capable of this feat, including octopuses.

8. An estimated 4.3 to 131 million get eaten by sperm whales each year.

The squid regularly show up inside sperm whale stomachs. Approximately 360,000 of these mammals swim the oceans. So, if every sperm whale on Earth devoured an average of one giant squid per month, that means 4.3 million would be offed annually.

But some experts think this figure is way too low. Every single day, male whales put away 300 to 400 squid of various species, while females consume an outrageous 700 to 800 squid. Should Architeuthis represent even 1 percent of their diet, then the whales eat 3.6 million daily. That’s 131 million giant squid killed annually.

9. Giant squid may have helped give rise to sea serpent legends.

In one of Moby-Dick’s more memorable chapters, an Architeuthis slithers towards Captain Ahab’s whaleboat. Apparently, Herman Melville wasn’t a fan—Ishmael describes the squid as a “vast, pulpy mass” complete with “innumerable long arms radiating from its center, curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas.” But Melville wasn't alone. Many believe that this predator’s writhing, snake-like limbs have long inspired sea serpent yarns.

10. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea grossly overestimates the giant squid’s usual weight.

Jules Verne’s 1869 masterpiece remains impressive today: his novel predicted the invention of both scuba tanks and taser guns. But there are still a few gaffes to be found, particularly during the book’s most iconic scene. When hordes of giant squid attack, the narrator, a French professor named Pierre Arronax, estimates that each one must weigh “between four and five thousand pounds.” But as far as modern scientists can tell, the heaviest animals weigh around a ton—although most are less than 1000 pounds.

11. Like all squids, giant squids have three hearts.

A median heart pumps oxygenated blood throughout the body, which it receives from two smaller ones that pump blood through the gills.

12. Architeuthis penises are about a yard long.

Nobody has ever documented a pair of giant squid getting busy. But biologists suspect that males use their sex organs like syringes, injecting sperm into a female’s skin, where she stores the cells until her eggs need fertilizing. When that happens, the mom-to-be pulls them out of storage (though we’re not sure how).

13. The first giant squid photo ever shot was taken inside of a bathroom.

First photo of a giant squid
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1873, Newfoundland minister Moses Harvey acquired a dead Architeuthis which he laid out over his shower curtain rod and preserved for posterity. He’d purchased this specimen for just $10 from a few local fishermen who’d ensnared it with their nets while out in Logy Bay.

14. Giant squid might be cannibals.

Bits and pieces of one Architeuthis showed up in a live giant squid's stomach. But this doesn’t necessarily prove that giant squid dine on one another—some scientists speculate that the squid may have accidentally swallowed a few parts of itself somehow.

15. The Smithsonian has two giant squid on display.

You can see them in the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall. The pair represents both sexes—here’s a quick look at their 25-foot female (it was probably 36 feet while alive):

16. Their brains are donut-shaped.

But that’s not the weird part. What’s truly bizarre (at least from our mammal-centric perspective) is the fact that its esophagus passes through the hole in the middle of its brain. Giant squids have to be really careful while swallowing, because if a given meal isn’t broken down into small pieces first, it can rub against the brain and cause damage.

17. Before 2004, nobody had ever snapped any pictures of a live one …

History was made by residents of the Ogasawara Islands (located 600 miles south of Japan) on September 30, 2004. Using a line baited with shrimp, zoologist Tsunemi Kubodera and whale-watcher Kyochi Mori attracted an Architeuthis about 2950 feet beneath their vessel. Five hundred still images were then snapped by a submerged camera before the squid took off—leaving behind an 18-foot severed tentacle.

18. … And the world’s first giant squid video didn’t arrive until 2006.

Kubodera would top himself that year when his crew videotaped a young female as they dragged her up to the surface. “We believe this is the first time anyone has successfully filmed a giant squid that was alive,” he said. “Now that we know where to find them, we think we can be more successful at studying them in the future.” Sadly, Kubodera’s prize died during the ordeal.

19. Jellyfish help Architeuthis hunt.

They say the enemy of your enemy is your friend. Certain jellyfish are bioluminescent, which means that they can light themselves up and illuminate the ocean’s inky depths. Predators like giant squid eat many of the fish that hunt jellyfish. So, if a bioluminescent jelly finds itself under attack, it can issue a cry for help by flashing a distress signal, in the hopes that it might attract an even larger carnivore and scare off its assailant. That was the theory behind luring the giant squid with an electronic jellyfish, as seen in the recent NOAA video.

20. It’s not the only monster-sized squid out there.

Meet Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, better known as the colossal squid. Though Architeuthis probably exceeds it length-wise, M. hamiltoni is heavier on average, has even bigger eyeballs, and wields swiveling hooks on its tentacles. This isn't a creature you’d want to mess with.

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