Somewhere in the world right now, someone is quoting an animal ‘fact’. And by ‘fact’, I mean something that is commonly believed to be true but is completely and utterly false. These shreds of nonsense are perhaps gleamed from persistent stories and wives-tales, old cartoons or unreliable websites and then passed around by word of mouth as if gospel. ‘Facts’ such as…
1. Ostriches bury their heads in the sand
The Greek known as Pliny the Elder wrote in his ancient encyclopedia, Naturalis Historia, that ostriches buried their head in the sand when threatened. He stated that the birds, by concealing their heads underground, thought themselves invisible to predators.Since then, this myth has persisted and has even become a metaphor for a person or party who is being willfully naïve or ignorant about an issue.
Of course, if the ostrich did bury its head in the sand, it would soon suffocate. This myth may have arisen because ostriches sometimes lie down in their nests with their necks stretched out flat in front of them when threatened, perhaps to make their humped back look like a mound of earth, or maybe even a shrub from a distance. If a predator gets closer, the ostrich will run away at over 40 mp/h.
2. Elephants are scared of mice
You can blame Pliny the Elder for this one as well. In his book, he wrote, ‘Of all other living creatures, they [elephants] cannot abide a mouse or rat.’ Elephants do not seem more bothered by mice than any other creature, although they will usually avoid standing on them if they can.
Pliny also declared that the slightest squeal of a pig will startle an elephant; that African elephants are afraid to look in the eye of an Indian elephant; that they can live to be 300 years old; and that the breath of an elephant attracts snakes from their holes. He even claimed that Indian elephants are constantly fighting with a huge serpent that can encircle an elephant in its coils. Unsurprisingly, no evidence of this supposed giant snake has ever been discovered.
3. If you cut an earthworm in half, you will get two worms
You’ve just encountered an earthworm in the garden as a child. You’ve cut it in two because, you know, that’s what kids do. ‘Will it die?’ you ask a grown-up. Maybe you’re starting to regret attacking the poor thing with your toy spade. ‘No, both ends will heal and you’ll get two worms,’ an adult tells you – and adults are always right. So now you can go around the garden, chopping worms in half to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that, if anything, you are helping to boost their numbers.
Actually, you’re just slaughtering a great many worms. You wouldn’t expect other animals to survive being cut in half, much less regrow into two separate entities, so why should an earthworm? This myth probably started because earthworms do have some regenerative capabilities and they can survive having their tail end cut off, just so long as it’s not too far along its body. If it can regrow an anus, it might live. The severed tail end dies and certainly doesn’t grow into a new worm. The fact that both ends wriggle around if you perform this rather cruel experiment is merely down to lingering nerve signals; if anything, it’s just thrashing around in the throes of death.
4. Lemmings commit suicide
We’ve all heard the tale: huge swarms of lemmings throw themselves off cliffs to commit mass suicide. Maybe those of us who grew up in the 1980s or 90s played the video game Lemmings, whereby your surprisingly addictive mission was to stop the eponymous critters from mindlessly marching over cliffs or into traps. But just think about it for a second. Any animal that is instinctively driven to kill itself wouldn’t exist – there would be no more lemmings. So, if it’s not true, where did it all start?
The early twentieth century seems a good a place as any. Author Arthur Mee wrote a series of children’s encyclopedias whereby he explained that the lemming population often exploded in size and then suddenly and dramatically declined. Apparently, he could find no scientific reason for this so he decided that ‘mass suicide’ must be the cause. This misconception was repeated a few times in books and comics over the decades, but it didn’t really hit the mainstream audience until Walt Disney came along.
In 1958, Walt Disney filmed a documentary called White Wilderness, which seemed to feature lemmings migrating and running head-long over a ledge to their demise. It was this that greatly propagated the lemming myth. Only in 1982 did an investigation from the Canadian Broadcasting Company reveal that the Disney film makers had faked the entire sequence using imported lemmings and a snow-covered turntable on which a few dozen lemmings were forced to run. The filmmakers even literally threw lemmings into the river to show the alleged suicides. What the filmmakers didn’t realise was that the North American species, which they were using to showcase this ‘behaviour’, don’t even migrate, much less commit mass suicide.
Norwegian lemmings, however, do migrate. These creatures are phenomenal breeders; they can have several large litters within a year and their young are sexually mature and ready to mate themselves after just three weeks or so. As their population continues to grow, so there is less and less food to sustain them all. At this point, one of two things can happen: either the population will crash or the lemmings will migrate in search of more food.
Panic sets in. The lemmings are starving and running madly around unfamiliar territory. They sometimes invade homes and gardens. If they reach a body of water that they must cross to find food, they will start to swim. Lemmings are good swimmers but, due to sheer numbers, many are pushed underwater and drown. Others gather on cliffs or shores, but as more lemmings arrive behind them the first ones get pushed into the water in the chaos, thus giving the idea that they are deliberately committing suicide.