If written or spread early enough, and not investigated, any myth can start to cement itself into the consciousness of human populations. All it takes to uncover the truth is to the look into real data, but we rarely look past what we think we know. In this article, I will expose 8 common animal myths, explain the origin of the story, and set the facts straight.
1. Ostriches hide from predators by putting their head in the sand
Ostriches, the largest known birds (at 2.4 meters) are rumored to bury their hands in the sand when threatened. This has led to the widespread use of the metaphor, and originated about 2000 years ago from Pliny the Elder (who wrote the first known encyclopedia) in his 10th of 37 books. In regard to ostriches, Pliny said: “…they imagine, when they have thrust their head and neck into a bush, that the whole of their body is concealed”.
In fact, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand whatsoever. They do, though, put their heads against the ground and eat stones, in order to effectively grind and digest their food (they store them in their second stomach: the gizzard). From afar, it could seem they are bury their heads, when in fact they are simply aiding digestion.
2. Dogs see the world in just black and white
For centuries, and for no clear reason, humans were under the impression dogs were fully unable to see color and perceived the world in regard how bright an object is. The fact is that dogs do only have 2 color receptors, in comparison to the 3 humans have (in general, although some men and fewer women are red-green, and even fewer are completely colorblind), and see fewer colors than we do. In fact, how dogs see is probably far more like how humans with a red-green color blindness see than black-and-white.
Research recently published in the Proceedings Of The Royal Society Of Biological Science, shows that dogs can in fact perceive different hues, or colors, and are most certainly not entirely colorblind. This is likely to change how dogs are trained.
3. Camels store all their water in their humps
Don’t get me wrong: camels do hold a lot of water (able to drink up to 30 gallons in 15 minutes) and are correctly admired for their ability to go over 100km without drinking. But, the water is distributed throughout their bodies and not concentrated specifically in their humps (which actually server as fat reserves). The story likely comes from the fact that in hard times, with little to eat, the humps shrink: likely falling in line with shortages of water.
The common house fly (Musca domestica) is rumoured to live only 24 hours, leaving most of us to scratch our heads as to why they seem to fly around for so damn long. The answer is simple: they don’t live just 24 hours. An adult house fly lives an average of 15-25 days, but can live up to 2 months in optimal conditions.
5. Daddy Longlegs are highly poisonous spiders, who are only harmless to us because they cannot puncture our skin
I heard this a few times growing up, and it always seemed suspicious. It is in fact more than suspicious: it is totally wrong. Daddy Longlegs are actually an order of spiders (as opposed to a single species) called Opilionus, which all share a seemingly fused body and long legs. The most ironic part of this myth is that opilonoids do not even have venom glands and survive primarily from decomposing plants and animals, as well as being an opportunistic predator of small insects.
6. If you cut a worm in half, it will become 2 worms
Earthworms are often rumored to regenerate into 2 worms if cut in half. Unfortunately for the cut worms: this is not true. The myth likely originates from a related family of worms: the Planaria. Planarian worms can be cut into pieces and have each piece become a full grown organism. In fact, you can cut a planarian worm into 270 pieces, and each one becomes its own worm.
7. Lemmings commit suicide, relatively frequently, by jumping off cliffs to control their population
Lemmings, widely rumored and famous for their propensity for jumping off cliffs, do not in fact frequently jump off cliffs or commit suicide whatsoever. The myth originated from a 1958 Disney program called “White Wilderness,” in which the creators deliberately manipulated both the shots and the behavior of the animals to get the footage they wanted: they literally pushed lemmings over a cliff simply so they could say lemmings are inclined to do.
When in great numbers (high population density), lemmings are inclined to go elsewhere or become aggressive, but rarely do they wander off cliffs.
8. Ants are bad for your garden
By many, ants are considered a garden pest and suspected of hurting the roots of plants. In fact, the exact opposite is true: ants live in mutually beneficial situations with the plants around their nests. Ants help protect plants from predators, increase water and space availability for the roots (by creating “air pockets”), and help disperse seeds. In turn, plants give the ants’ tunnels greater stability (and sometimes even offer a place to live while secreting nectar to attract them).