Animal Myths: Busted!

By Dan Paley; Art by Brian White

An ostrich buries its head in the sand. A camel stores water in its hump. A bull gets mad when he sees the color red. What do these weird animal behaviors have in common? They’re all myths. And it’s time to bust them!

ostrich art by Brian White

MYTH: When in danger, an ostrich buries its head in the sand.
BUSTED An ostrich is the fastest animal on two legs. So, when there’s a threat nearby, why would it stop and stick its head in the sand? It wouldn’t. Here’s how the misunderstanding got started: Ostriches have big bodies but tiny heads. And the giant birds make their nests in shallow holes in the ground. So, from far away, when an ostrich has its head down in its nest, taking care of its chicks, it may look as if its head were buried in the sand!


bull art by Brian White

MYTH: Bulls rage at the color red.
BUSTED Bulls don’t get mad when they see red. How do we know? Because they CAN’T see red! They can see only yellow, green, blue, and violet. The myth comes from bullfighting, a tradition in some places that many people now think is cruel. Bullfighters have flashy red capes. And when a bullfighter waves his cape, the bull charges toward him. But a bullfighter could use any color of cape. It’s the movement of the cape that gets a bull’s attention.

bat art by Brian White

MYTH: Bats are blind.
BUSTED Bats actually have great eyesight. Their sensitive eyes let them see clearly in even dim light. People once thought bats were blind because of the way they swoop close to objects when they fly. But bats probably do that because they’re curious and want to get a closer look. The winged mammals also make high-pitched squeaks that bounce off objects and echo back to the bats’ ears. This is called echolocation, and it helps them “see” by hearing. But not because they can’t see with their eyes!


MYTH: Camels store water in their humps.
BUSTED Camels live in the desert where there isn’t much water, so they must slurp it up when they can and store it in those humps, right? Nope!

Like many animals, camels stuff themselves with food whenever they can find it. That extra food turns into fat. And that fat is stored in their humps. When food is scarce, the fat supplies the camels with the energy they need.

So, what about water? Camels drink lots of it when they can—up to 20 gallons at a time. But they store it in their blood, not their humps.


bee art by Brian White

MYTH: Bees sting once and then die.
BUSTED It’s true that honey bees sting once and die. But it’s not true for the 20,000 other species of bees. More than 500 bee species don’t sting at all!

A honey bee’s stinger has tiny barbs that get stuck when they pierce the skin. That stinger is connected to the inside parts of the bee, which get ripped out when it flies away. That almost always kills the honey bee. But all the other bees that sting—as well as all wasps and hornets—have smooth stingers that can enter skin over and over.


MYTH: Toads give you warts if you touch them.
BUSTED The bumps you see on toads aren’t warts at all. And they certainly won’t give YOU warts. Most of those lumps and bumps are glands that ooze gross-tasting stuff. When an animal tries to eat a toad, it might get a nasty mouthful and spit it back out. That helps keep toads safe.

Even if toads didn’t have that yucky ooze, it’s still not a good idea to pick them up. They can carry germs. They can also get hurt when you handle their sensitive skin or when they jump out of your hands and fall to the ground.


baby bird in tree art by Brian White

MYTH: If you touch a baby bird, your scent will cause the parents to abandon it.
BUSTED Most birds have a poor sense of smell. So they probably couldn’t smell you at all. Even if they could, they wouldn’t abandon their nests for that reason. Birds spend too much time building nests and caring for their eggs and young to give up so easily!

So, if you see a helpless baby bird on the ground, it’s OK to put it back in the nest if you can. You can even replace the nest if it has been knocked down. Just be careful when you do so.

And what if you find an older baby bird that may have left the nest on its own? It’s best to just leave it alone. Its parents are almost always nearby, doing their best to keep it safe.


opossum art by Brian White

MYTH: Opossums hang by their tails while they sleep.
BUSTED Tails help opossums keep their balance when they climb or walk along narrow places, such as fences. But those useful tails aren’t strong enough for adult opossums to hang by. (Young opossums may hang by their tails for a short time, but they can’t snooze in that position.) You may be happy to hear that another popular idea about opossums is absolutely true: They play dead to avoid predators. An opossum that’s “playing ’possum” doesn’t just lie still. Its heartbeat and breathing slow way down, making it seem dead!


porcupine art by Brian White

MYTH: Porcupines shoot their quills.
BUSTED Most of the time, the sharp quills on a porcupine lie flat. But when the spiky animal is threatened, it raises its quills to say, “Leave me alone!” But it doesn’t shoot the quills.

So how do dogs, bears, and other animals end up with quills stuck in them? When an animal tries to bite or claw at a porcupine, the quills stick into the attacker’s mouth or paws. The quills have barbs on the ends that hold tight. So, when the animal jerks backward in pain, the quills pull out of the porcupine and stay stuck in the attacker’s skin. Then the porcupine walks away unharmed.


chameleon art by Brian White

MYTH: Chameleons change color to blend in with their surroundings.
BUSTED Chameleons do change color. And sometimes their color does match the world around them. But it’s not why the colors change. That has more to do with keeping cool, keeping warm—or showing off. A lighter chameleon reflects more of the sun’s heat, and a darker one absorbs it. And a brightly colored chameleon may catch the eye of a mate!


mice art by Brian White

MYTH: Mice love cheese.
BUSTED Mmm . . . cheese. YOU may love the creamy, tasty stuff. But most mice actually prefer sweet foods, seeds, and grains. Some like meat or peanut butter. But cheese—especially the stinky kind—is near the bottom of the mouse menu. Before refrigerators existed, people had to hide food from mice and rats. They hung meat from the ceiling where rodents couldn’t reach it. They sealed grain in barrels. But they left cheese out in the open to ripen. When humans found mice eating their cheese, the myth was born. But for the mice, it was simply the only food around.


As you can see, most animal myths are a mix of a little reality . . . and a lot of imagination!
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