7 Animal Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

iStock/TomekD76
iStock/TomekD76

Chances are, some of the “fun facts” you know about the animal kingdom aren’t actually facts at all. There are plenty of pervasive myths about animals that have little basis in reality, but still get passed off as common knowledge around schoolyards, cocktail parties, and internet lists. We've previously debunked popular myths about animals like pandas, penguins, and vultures. Now, a new book, True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods, aims to debunk even more of these misconceptions. From the authors of Does It Fart? the illustrated volume is designed to give you the true scoop on the wonders of the animal world. Here are seven myths you may have heard before that, according to True or Poo? authors Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, don’t pass the smell test.

1. ANTEATERS VACUUM UP ANTS WITH THEIR NOSES.

An illustration of an anteater sucking ants into its nose
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

None of the four species of anteater go around hoovering up ants through their long snouts, despite what cartoons may have led you to believe. They have incredibly long tongues (the giant anteater’s can measure almost 2 feet) that they use to lap up their prey. They can flick their tongues—which are covered in spiny hooks and sticky saliva to trap ants—up to 160 times a minute, eating up to 20,000 insects a day.

2. CHAMELEONS CHANGE COLOR TO BLEND IN WITH THEIR ENVIRONMENT.

Chameleons are known for blending in with their surroundings, but that’s not actually why they change colors. Instead, their skin changes its pigmentation based on temperature and arousal state. It’s all based on the arrangement of nanocrystal within reflective cells in their outermost layer of skin. When the nanocrystals are farther apart, they reflect longer wavelengths of light, like orange and red, and when they’re closer together, they reflect shorter wavelengths (blue, for example). This can help them communicate with other chameleons—like rival males—or adapt to different temperatures, turning a lighter color stay cool in the sun, for instance.

3. STANDING STILL COULD SAVE YOU FROM A T. REX.

An illustration of a mime standing next to a T. rex
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Sorry, Jurassic Park lied to you. Staying very, very still would be no defense against a raging Tyrannosaurus rex, should you happen to encounter one. The giant dinosaurs’ vision may have been even better than modern-day raptors, in fact. Even if they weren’t eagle-eyed, though, their excellent sense of smell would easily allow them to locate you no matter how still you were standing.

4. BABY SNAKES ARE EVEN MORE DANGEROUS THAN ADULTS.

People walking around in areas where they have to be mindful of snakes are often warned to be even more wary of young snakes than their adult counterparts, because they haven’t yet learned to control the amount of venom they inject when they strike you. But that’s not true at all. For one thing, scientists aren’t sure if any snake can control its venom output, and for another, in some species, a snake’s venom actually gets more potent as they get older. In general, a bite from a smaller snake will likely contain less venom than one from a larger one, no matter what their age.

5. WE ALL EAT SPIDERS IN OUR SLEEP.

An illustration of a spider crawling into a man's mouth
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Good news: You probably haven’t chowed down on any spiders during your sleep. While many spiders are nocturnal hunters, the chances that one of them would decide to go on a hunting trip in your mouth is pretty far-fetched. We can’t totally guarantee that you’ve never chowed down on an arachnid during nap time, but climbing up on a snoring, breathing human and diving into their mouth wouldn’t be an appealing activity for most spiders. Hopefully this will help to snooze more soundly tonight.

6. TOADS CAN GIVE YOU WARTS.

Though some of them may be bumpy, toads aren’t covered in warts, and you certainly can’t get warts from touching them. The bumps we see on the skin of some toad species are glands that produce defensive toxins to ward off predators. So, you still shouldn’t touch them—but they won’t infect you with the human papillomavirus (also known as HPV), which is what causes warts on people’s skin.

7. EARWIGS LAY EGGS IN PEOPLE'S EARS.

Despite the name, earwigs have very little interest in your ears. While they have a reputation for burrowing into people’s ear canals to lay their eggs, there’s no evidence that they do so, or that they end up in people’s ears any more than any bug does. Earwigs prefer to hang out in moist, dark places like in soil or under tree bark. The rumor of their love of ear canals can be traced back to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who also suggested that placing goat dung on an open wound could cure rabies, among other questionable ideas.

The cover of 'True or Poo?'
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Can’t get enough animal myths? You can get a copy of True or Poo on Amazon for $11.

A Newly Discovered Species of Prehistoric Shark Was Named After the Video Game Galaga

Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum
Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

Dinosaurs weren’t the only fearsome creatures who called North America their home millions of years ago. The recent discovery of pointy, fossilized teeth in rock that had been left over from an excavation in the ‘90s has led scientists to declare a new—yet long-extinct—shark species, Smithsonian reports.

North Carolina State University professor Terry Gates, who led the study published in the Journal of Paleontology, named the shark species Galagadon nordquistae after its triangular teeth, which he thought resembled the shape of the battleships in the video game Galaga. The second part of the name pays homage to Karen Nordquist, the retired chemist and volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum who found the fossils in the first place.

Galagadon lived in what we now know as South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, an area known for having rocks and fossils that date back at least 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period. It’s the same place where scientists unearthed Sue the T.rex—the most complete skeleton of its species ever discovered. Not only did the shark live at the same time as Sue, but it also “lived in a river Sue probably drank from,” the Field Museum, where Sue can be seen on display, said in a press release.

In fact, the excavation that led to Sue’s discovery in 1990 is what enabled this latest find. The sediment that encased Sue’s bones, known as matrix, was removed and stored in an underground unit at the Field Museum. Scientists and museum volunteers have only recently begun to sift through it in search of smaller fossils.

Shark tooth fossils
Terry Gates, Journal of Paleontology

Sharks’ skeletons are primarily made of cartilage, which deteriorates over time. But the tiny teeth, measuring just a millimeter wide, helped scientists figure out what the shark looked like. "Galagadon was less than 2 feet long—it's not exactly Jaws," Pete Makovicky, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

The species is believed to be similar to bamboo sharks, which can be found today in southeast Asia and Australia. This connection surprised researchers, who are now questioning their understanding of the area where Sue was found, which was thought to be a lake formed from a partially dried-up river. This latest discovery, however, indicates that there “must have been at least some connection to marine environments," Makovicky says.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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