Posted : December 2013
Author : by Jason Woodcock
Animals have fired our imagination like nothing else. We love hearing facts about them and spreading them around, an activity that has become altogether more easy since the arrival of the Internet. The problem is, some of those so-called facts aren’t really facts at all – they are myths, misconceptions, misunderstandings … whatever you want to call them. And since the animals themselves don’t seem in a particular rush to correct us, maybe it’s up to us to sort the fact from the fiction.
Bees: good. Wasps: bad. It’s a view that many of us share. We convince ourselves that wasps are mean and vicious insects that like nothing better than to ruin our picnics and sting us on a whim. On the other hand, we consider bees to be friendly, hard-working members of society that make honey for our culinary pleasure and only ever sting us if we really annoy them because, hey, they’ll die if they do that. Right? Well, it depends what bee decides to sting you. If we are talking about your average, everyday honeybee, then it will (probably) die if you provoke it into stinging you. This is because they have barbs on their stingers that become lodged in an animal’s skin so, in trying to pull free, the bee tears away not only its stinger but also its venom sac and part of its digestive tract, muscles and nerves. In essence, the bee rips itself apart. Most other bees – bumblebees included – can quite happily sting more than once, however, because they have smooth stingers that don’t get caught in an animal’s skin. Oh, but even the honeybee rule isn’t completely watertight. The queen honeybee also has a smooth stinger so she can use it as much as her sadistic little mind feels like it.
9. Dolly Was the First Cloned Mammal
When we think of cloning, we automatically think of Dolly the sheep, who achieved celebrity status in 1997. However, cloning had been going on for quite a while before her birth. Indeed, the first animal successfully cloned – a tadpole – occurred way back in 1952. Nor does Dolly have the distinction of being the first cloned mammal. In 1995, a year before Dolly was born, five sheep were cloned at the same institute and two of them, Megan and Morag, even survived to adulthood. The difference between them and Dolly was that they were created using cultured cells that derived from a nine-day-old embryo, whereas Dolly originated from the cells of an adult animal. It was their creation that signified the technical breakthrough that made Dolly possible just a few months later, but unlike the cloned animals to follow, Megan and Morag sadly didn’t make many headlines when they were born.
8. There are Hundreds of Poisonous Snakes in the World
The mistake people make here is that they assume “poisonous” and “venomous” mean the same thing, but they don’t. Venom is a toxin that is injected into an animal by means of a sting or bite, whilst poison is ingested or inhaled. As such, a venomous snake and a poisonous snake are not one and the same. Whilst there are around 600 types of venomous snakes, there are only two species of poisonous snake in the world, both of which are toxic to eat. The Japanese grass snake is one of them. It acquires its poison by eating toxic toads, storing the poison in glands in the snake’s neck. This means that anything that decides to bite the snake’s neck (a common place for a predator to strike) will get a mouthful of poison. The other species is a type of garter snake from Oregon, which eats poisonous orange-bellied rough-skinned newts and once again sequesters the poison for its own use.
7. All Frogs Go “Ribbit”
You can blame Hollywood for this one. Each species of frog has its own particular and unique call, so that means only one will go “ribbit.” The species in question is the Pacific tree frog, found commonly along the west coast of North America … including Hollywood. It was recorded locally and plastered all over hundreds of movies for years, supposedly to enhance the atmosphere of wild, remote locations. Too bad the majority of those locales – ranging from the jungles of Vietnam to the Florida Everglades – simply aren’t home to the ribbit frog. Other species of frogs, meanwhile, make a variety of different noises, such as barks, grunts, trills, clucks, whistles and growls.
6. Earwigs Crawl into Your Ear (and Burrow into Your Brain)
Don’t lose any sleep over this. Earwigs don’t crawl into people’s ears any more than other insects do (which, for those who are suddenly worried, is not very often at all,) and they certainly never burrow into your brain. But if that’s the case, how did earwigs get their name? One theory is that the pincers on the rear end of the insect – called cerci – resemble the tools used for piercing ears. Another is that the insect’s original name was “ear wing” – a reference to the ear-like shape of its hind wings – but no one knows for sure. No matter the origin, though, many people through the centuries have believed the old wives tale about earwigs having an unusual attraction towards human ears. One person who certainly thought it was true was famous Greek philosopher Pliny the Elder, who decided that the recommended way of removing one from your ear was to spit into the opposite one until the earwig was forced out.
5. You are Never More Than 6 Feet from a Rat
There are two main reasons to dislike a rat. One is that they are a huge ecological pest, driving defenseless and native animal species to extinction, particularly flightless birds. But that probably isn’t keeping you up at night. The second reason – and the one that just might cause a lot more worry – is that rats are filthy, disease-ridden animals living just beneath our feet. Well, as it happens, they probably aren’t. The National Rodent Survey estimates that we are usually at least 70 feet away from our nearest rats, and possibly up to 164 feet. They are surprisingly clean animals and, while it isn’t recommended for you to find a wild rat and put it in your mouth, they carry no more diseases than any other wild mammal. And the brown rat never even carried the bubonic plague. The culprit was its cousin, the black rat, which has now paid for its (admittedly unknowing) role in the spread of the disease. It is today extremely rare in the British Isles, with only a few scattered populations on remote islands or major cities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the black rat has failed to make an appearance on any “endangered” lists. Grudges, it seems, die hard.
4. The Buffalo was Nearly Hunted to Extinction in North America
The buffalo couldn’t have been nearly hunted to extinction in North America, because it has never lived in North America. The animal in question is the American bison, which is only distantly related to the buffalo. You’d have to travel to Africa or Asia to see a real buffalo. So where does the confusion stem from? The word “buffalo” is of Portuguese origin (stemming from the Latin bubalus, or “wild ox”) and was applied to the water buffalo of Asia, which was introduced to the Mediterranean over a thousand years ago. It was later wrongly applied to the bison when Europeans first traveled to North America. The word “bison,” which was only used much later in 1774, also means “wild ox” in Latin. And if you are still unconvinced, the animal’s scientific name – Bison bison – should leave you with no doubt.
3. Cow Farts Release a Ton of Methane Gas
Ah, the cow. If there’s one animal that can rival a car in releasing unpleasant pollutants into the atmosphere, it’s this one. But the methane isn’t primarily coming from overly-flatulent individuals – in fact, 95% of it is coming from burps. That’s right, we’ve been blaming the wrong end for years. The methane expelled from cows in this way is responsible for a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and 4% of the emissions worldwide. In fact, livestock farming creates a staggering 18% of these greenhouse gases, which is far more than all the cars and other forms of transport on the planet. Work is currently underway to make a methane-reducing pill, called a bolus, which will dissolve inside a cow over several months.
2. Cockroaches Would be the Main Survivors Following a Nuclear War
Cockroaches are tough animals, make no mistake about it. They can remain submerged in water for about a day and can live without their heads for a week – but they would actually be one of the first insects to die in a nuclear fallout. Humans die at exposure to around 1,000 rads. Cockroaches, which only die at 20,000 rads, seem like mighty survivors, but this is nothing compared to some other insects, particularly certain species of parasitic wasp (Habrobracon, we’re looking at you), which can withstand a staggering 180,000 rads.
1. Brontosaurus was a Huge Long-Necked Dinosaur
As a rule, dinosaurs have long, complicated, hard-to-pronounce names. As children, we learn a few of them – Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, etc. – and they remain with us throughout our lives. They are the “high profile” dinosaurs, the famous extinct creatures we are most likely to encounter in films and other media. Well, we’ve got terrible news. Never mind extinct; the Brontosaurus never even existed in the first place. It all started during the “dinosaur wars” of the late nineteenth century, where fossil hunters competed across North America to be the first to find and name new dinosaurs. It was a frantic race and so it’s not too surprising that a few things slipped through the net. In 1877, Othniel Charles Marsh discovered a large long-necked sauropod dinosaur, which he named Apatosaurus. It was missing a head but that was fine – he just placed the head of a similar dinosaur on top to complete it. Two years later, Marsh discovered the skeleton of what he perceived to be a another long-necked dinosaur, this time more complete, and named it Brontosaurus (‘thunder lizard’). Perhaps in his eagerness to name the dinosaur before someone else got the credit, Marsh didn’t realize that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were, in fact, one and the same. Even as early as 1903, scientists discovered the mistake. Since Apatosaurus came first, that is the animal’s official name. Brontosaurus is now scientifically obsolete, yet ironically it’s the name that is better known to the public. Perhaps that’s because it was the first-ever mounted display of a sauropod skeleton. Or maybe it’s just a much better name.