CLOSE
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Ongoing Mystery of the 'Devil's Footprints'

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On February 8, 1855, the residents of Devon county in England woke up to a blanket of freshly fallen snow. But it wasn’t the precipitation that took residents by surprise—it was what they found imprinted in it. There, stretching on for more than 100 miles, was a trail of footprints.

The tracks traveled up to doors and across roofs, through haystacks and over 14-foot walls; they even crossed the River Exe. And they appeared to be made by something that was bipedal and had cloven hooves. The hooves, legend has it, cut right through the snow and nearly to the ground below—almost as if they had been burned there.

People were spooked, particularly by the prints that appeared to stop right at the threshold of their homes. Many refused to leave their houses, convinced that the devil himself was roaming Devon looking for sinners. The footprints remain unexplained to this day, but cooler heads have offered more reasonable explanations. Here are a few of the theories:

IT WAS A KANGAROO. 

Perhaps, people reasoned, a kangaroo had escaped from a nearby private zoo. It would explain the bipedal tracks, and kangaroo footprints do make an odd shape.

IT WAS A BADGER.

Badgers also make bipedal tracks, and this seems like a much more plausible explanation than an escaped kangaroo. However, it’s doubtful that a badger could have traveled that far in one night.

IT WAS A WEATHER BALLOON. 

The improbable tracks could have been made by a stray weather balloon or hot air balloon dragging an anchor. This theory helps explain the tracks on rooftops and over tall garden walls—but no lost balloon was ever reported at the time. People also argued that a balloon dragging an implement would almost certainly have gotten tangled up in a tree at some point, leaving evidence of its journey.

IT WAS RAIN.

The way the rain hit the snow and froze could have made the marks, some people theorized, but their uniform, linear pattern makes that theory seem a bit far-fetched. 

IT WAS HOPPING MICE.

A few animals, including a wood mouse native to the area, are known to hop. This can leave a hoof-type print because of how the animals hold their feet together while hopping. But it's unlikely that a mouse would sustain a hopping motion for very long, so the fact that the footprints stretched for miles makes this a suspect theory.

The mystery was reignited in 2009 when a woman in North Devon discovered footprints similar to the 1855 marks in her garden. The 5-inch long prints appeared to have been made with a pair of hooves, and by something with a stride of between 11 and 17 inches.

Biologist Graham Inglis documented the 2009 prints and shrugged off the controversy. “The footprints are peculiar, but they are not the devil’s—I don’t believe the horned one has been in Woolsery. Personally, I think it belongs to a rabbit or a hare, but quite an academic punch-up has started over it.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Animals
7 Myths About Bats
iStock
iStock

Though in China bats are said to bring good luck, and ancient Egyptians believed they could cure an array of diseases, our feelings about bats are often negative. Perhaps these rumors started because bats are so mysterious—with their nocturnal flying and dank, dark habitats, they’re hard to study! But the world’s only flying mammal isn’t nearly as bad as our fears make it out to be. Keep reading for seven misconceptions, as well as explanations of what really goes on in the batcave.

1. BATS ARE TOTALLY BLIND.

Though we love to talk about things being "blind as a bat," bigger bats can see up to three times better than humans, according to Rob Mies, executive director of the Organization for Bat Conservation. Bat vision varies across species, but none are actually blind. In addition to working peepers, bats also use echolocation (emitting sound to navigate)—which means they probably have a better idea of where they’re going than many of us.

2. BATS ARE FLYING RATS.

Bats belong to the order Chiroptera, not Rodentia; they’re actually more closely related to primates than they are to rodents. They also don’t share behavior with rodents. For example, bats don’t chew on wood, metal, or plastic, and usually aren’t nuisances. In fact, bats eat pests, which brings us to ...

3. BATS ARE ANNOYING PESTS.

Bat flying in a forest at night
iStock

Quite the opposite! According to National Geographic, bats can eat up to a thousand insects in an evening. Their bug-eating prowess is so notable it carries economic importance. A recent study showed that bats provide “nontoxic pest-control services totalling $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year”! Bats also pollinate plants and distribute seeds, and their droppings—called guano—are used as fertilizer.

4. BATS WANT TO DRINK YOUR BLOOD.

Only three of the roughly 1200 existing bat species are vampire bats, and none of them live in the United States or Canada. Vampire bats don’t even really drink blood—Mies says the feeding process is more like that of a mosquito. While mosquitos will take blood from humans, though, vampire bats primarily feed on cattle. Fun fact: a medication called draculin is currently being developed from bats’ saliva, which has unique anti-blood-clotting properties.

5. BATS WILL FLY INTO YOUR HAIR AND BUILD A NEST.

An old myth claims that bats fly into hair, get stuck, and build nests. While it’s possible this rumor started to deter young women from going out at night, bats do sometimes swoop around people’s heads. The reason isn’t because they’re shopping for a new home, however: our bodies attract insects, and bats are after their next snack. So don’t worry—your spectacular updo is safe.

6. IN FACT, BATS DON'T NEST AT ALL.

Unlike birds or rodents, bats don’t build nests. Instead, they find shelter inside existing structures. Caves, trees, walls, and ceilings are favorites, as are rafters of buildings. They don’t always hang upside down, either. According to Dr. Thomas Kunz from Boston University, bats are frequently horizontal when roosting in small crevices, not vertical.

7. BATS WILL ATTACK YOU AND GIVE YOU RABIES.

Three bats hanging upside down on a branch
iStock

Nope. Shari Clark, president of the Florida Bat Conservancy, says that statistically bats contract rabies much less frequently than other mammals. And if they do get rabies, it manifests differently than in raccoons or foxes. Rabies-infected bats become paralyzed and can’t fly or roost. This means that as long as you stay away from bats on the ground that are behaving weirdly, you’re pretty much in the clear. Phew.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Thinkstock
arrow
Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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
More from mental floss studios