Mythconceptions About Animals

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.

You may not have known it, but there’s a myth out there about arachnid urine. We looked into that— and some other animals myths, too.

 Myth: Wolves howl at the moon.

How it spread: People all over the world developed myths involving wolves and the moon. (In Norse mythology, for example, the wolves Skoll and Manegarm chase the sun and moon around the sky, and will do so for eternity.) It’s not hard to see why such myths came to be: Wolves are nocturnal, doing their hunting— and howling— at night. Over the eons people came to associate these feared and respected night hunters with that other great symbol of the night, the moon. Not only that, but wolves point their snouts to the sky while they howl, which makes them look like they are “howling at the moon.”  

The truth: Wolves howl to communicate with other wolves, whether there’s a moon out or not. Scientists who study wolves say their howls can mean different things, including a call for the pack to gather, or a message to rival packs to stay away.

Myth: Peonies need ants to open their flowers.

How it spread: This is a popular myth among gardeners. It spread because it’s common to see ants swarming peony buds in the morning, and before and while they’re opening.

The truth: Peonies can open just fine without ants. Ants swarm the flowers because peonies secrete a nectar that ants love to eat. (The same myth is also associated with hibiscus flowers— and it’s untrue in that case, too.)

Myth: Elephants love peanuts.

How it spread: Peanuts became a popular food in the United States in the mid-1800s, and they became a staple treat at the many circuses traveling the country at the time. Around this same time, elephants started being introduced to circuses.

People walking around with bags of peanuts naturally tried to feed them to the elephants, and the elephants often ate them. So the idea spread: Elephants really like peanuts!

The truth: Elephantologists say elephants have no particular affinity for peanuts— they eat them simply because they’re offered. Elephants much prefer the foods they eat in the wild— primarily grasses, leaves, shrubs, fruit, and especially tree bark.

Myth: Camels store water in their humps.

How it spread: This myth is thousands of years old, and probably came from a simple mistaken inference made by people observing some obvious camel characteristics: 1) camels can go for a long time without drinking water— about seven days on average; 2) when they finally get water they can drink enormous amounts— up to 30 gallons in one go; and 3) they have humps. Combine these things and it’s not too hard to see how this myth came to be.

The truth: Camels’ humps don’t store water, but are made up primarily of fat, which allows for another camel characteristic that you rarely hear about: they can go for just as long, or longer, without eating as they can without drinking— all because of that extra fat stored in their humps. The real reason they go so long without water is because their liver and kidneys are extremely efficient when it comes to water usage, which also accounts for the fact that camels can go many days without urinating. When they finally do go, their urine is as thick as syrup. Plus, camels’ red blood cells are oval, rather than circular, like most other mammals. This more streamlined shape allows the vital cells to continue to circulate even in a very dehydrated state, making them yet another key characteristic regarding the camel’s ability to go so long without water.

Myth: Bees make honey.

How it spread: This one spread because, well, bees do make honey.

The truth: However, only a small number of bees make beeswax hives and fill them with honey. In fact, there are only seven species of true honeybees— out of the approximately 22,000 species— on the planet. Several other species not considered true honeybees make and store honey, too, but not in the amounts that honeybees do. Some of the remaining bee species make tiny amounts of honey to feed to their young, but most make no honey at all and don’t even live in hives. (Most bees are solitary, and make nests in the ground.)

 

Myth: Elephants are afraid of mice.

How it spread: This is another very old myth, with its first recorded mention going all the way back to AD 77, when Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote, “The elephant hates the mouse above all other creatures.” Pliny’s work was read and respected for centuries in the Western world, and the elephant and mice myth became “common knowledge,” even to this day.

The truth: Modern biologists have tested this myth numerous times, and elephants appear little more than bored at the sight of a mouse. Experts say the myth may come from the fact that elephants have poor eyesight and usually barely notice something as small as a mouse until it’s right on top of them, at which point they may be surprised by the tiny creature’s smell.

Extra: It should be noted the Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters also tested this myth in 2007. The two elephants they observed actually seemed putoff by the sudden appearance of a white mouse and went out of their way to walk around it. So maybe this needs more testing after all?

Myth: Some spiders have 10 legs.

How it spread: This has probably been around as long as people thought to count spider legs, and it’s still something that arachnologists are regularly asked about.

The truth: All known spider species— all 40,000 and more of them— have eight legs. The answer to why some people think they’re seeing 10 legs lies in basic spider anatomy: All spiders have pedipalps, a pair of appendages that grow from the front of their heads and are segmented in roughly the same way spiders’ legs are. Except they’re not legs— they’re mouthparts. Pedipalps are used for holding prey, not for walking. They’re also usually very short, much shorter than legs, though in some species, especially the tarantula, pedipalps can be as long or longer than the spiders’ legs. So sometimes it looks like spiders have 10 legs.

Myth: Spiders can cause skin ulcerations similar to those caused by bites… just by peeing on you.

How it spread: According to Rod Crawford of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington, this myth started in Central America, and in recent years has made its way to the United States. And it originally had to do with horses, not humans. Crawford wrote: In Guatemala this myth (still going strong in 2008) centers on a tarantula species locally called araña de caballo (horse spider), which is said to cause severe hoof and leg trouble in horses and other livestock by urinating on them.

The truth: For starters, spiders don’t urinate in the way we think or urination— they actually combine urine and fecal matter inside their bodies and emit it as one fairly solid mass. And, says Crawford, it can’t cause skin ulcerations. It’s made primarily of guanine, which, as one of the main ingredients in DNA, is actually present in every single cell in your body.

Myth: Sprinkling salt in your cupboards will keep ants away.

How it spread: The origins of this myth are uncertain, but it is extremely widespread and probably goes back many centuries. The logic behind the salt and ant myth, as explained today, varies. Some say it’s because salt is hard for ants to walk on or that ants don’t like the smell of salt or that everybody knows ants like sweets— which means they must not like salt.

The truth: There is no proof that salt has any ability to keep ants away. In fact, recent studies have shown that ants living in areas where there is not a lot of natural salt in the soil actually like salt, and will go out of their way to find it. So if you sprinkle salt in your cupboards, you may actually be attracting ants.

Bonus: If you have an ant problem and were just about to try some salt— don’t worry! You can still try some of the other substances that loads of people swear will keep them away. These include pepper, cinnamon, chili powder, coffee, talcum powder, rice, vinegar, mint apple jelly, tea bags, soapy water, grits, Bounce fabric softener, and ground unicorn horn. We should note that, as with the salt myth, there is no proof any of these actually work. (Except the ground unicorn horn, of course…)

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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