We have all heard the sayings before: cats hate water, toads can give you warts, bats are blind and owls can turn their heads in a complete circle. As children, we readily believe these tales and enjoy sharing our wisdom with others. As adults, we tend to laugh them off but secretly wonder if there might be some truth to these myths. Sure, we know that cats don't really have nine lives, but there are many of us who do cringe a bit when a black cat crosses our path. So how exactly did these myths come about? And more importantly, could any of them carry a small bit of truth?
It is easy to understand how the myth that toads can give you warts started, even though most people realize that it isn't true. Toads have small, raised bumps resembling warts that cover their backs and legs. These bumps are actually glands that provide moisture to the skin of the toad and allow it to live farther away from water than most amphibians. Amphibians in general must live close to water since their skin is like a sponge that constantly needs to be wet. By having these special raised glands in their skin, toads can survive extremely dry conditions. Some toads are even able to survive in deserts, although they all must return to water to lay their eggs. Warts on humans are actually caused by a virus that can be transmitted from person to person, but not from toad to person.
The myth that an owl can turn its head a full 360 degrees also is false. Again, it is obvious how this rumor was started, since an owl appears to be able to swivel its head all over the place. However, the actual range for an owl is 270 degrees, which is not quite a full circle, but still much greater than the 180 degrees of a human head. Owls can turn their head much farther than we can due to extra vertebra in their necks. Their eyes are so large that there is not enough room in the skull for muscles to move the eyes back and forth. Therefore, owls have stationary eyes and must turn their entire head in order to see.
Cats have numerous myths and superstitions surrounding them as well. Cats do not have nine lives, but many are similar in coloration and size and, therefore, what appears to be one cat with nine lives is actually just nine different cats that all look alike. The superstition that black cats cause bad luck also is not true. This myth might have been developed when stories of witches and their cat familiars became popular. It is often thought that cats hate water when, in fact, some cats, especially tigers and Asian fishing cats, actually enjoy water and spend a good deal of time swimming and soaking in ponds. Domestic cats generally do not enjoy a surprise dunking or being sprayed by a squirt gun, but then, many humans don't like it much either. And lastly, the myth that cats always land on their feet is actually true. When dropped with their backs toward the ground and their legs and belly pointing up, cats will usually twist themselves into a feet-first position in mid-air and arch their backs to absorb the impact of the fall.
Then there are all the rumors and legends involving bats. Bats are not blind and can actually see well in darkness. Even though they do have good vision, they mostly rely on echolocation when hunting, a technique involving sending out sound waves and listening as the waves bounce back to them from various objects. Bats are not dirty and disease-ridden animals. They can carry rabies like all mammals, but humans are much more likely to get rabies from ground-dwelling animals (such as raccoons, opossums, etc.) than from bats, and even rabies from ground-dwelling animals is rare. Obviously, bats do not change into vampires that resemble humans, but there are a few that do drink blood. Even though vampire bats often get a bad rap, they are mostly harmless to humans and other animals. When feeding, they make a tiny incision near the foot of a sleeping animal, lap up about a tablespoon of blood, then fly away without ever waking up their food source.
The list of animal myths could go on and on. From the creative to the scary to the downright gross, there is no denying that animals are mysterious creatures that inspire humans to use their imaginations. Sometimes the myths are true, and sometimes they are merely fiction. But before you believe that daddy-long-leg spiders are the most dangerous spider in the world but are too small to bite you, or that ostriches bury their heads in the sand, it might be a good idea to do a bit of research and become a myth buster for yourself. You may be surprised at what you learn!
Visit our award-winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo.