Last week’s post about life lessons learned from nature resonated with quite a few of you. I am glad you enjoyed it.
This week, we’re doing pretty much the opposite. Our topic today is all about some commonly-quoted animal ‘facts’… and why I roll my eyes at them. I’ve known about these for a while, but I’ve added Snopes links to each in case you feel like doing a little further reading.
Why? Well, these four myths aren’t just misinformation. Each of these misconceptions tells a story, and in doing so, attempts to teach a lesson. As a nature lover and as a storyteller, they cheese me off. And yet, they’re not completely worthless. Behind all the layers of lies and foolishness in these tales, there lies a fascinating truth.
Let the stupidity begin.
4. Pet pythons plan a big meal…
A large pet python refuses to eat whenever its owner tries to feed it. It also takes to warming itself on the bed, beside the owner, during the night. The owner is worried for her snake’s health, and takes it to the vet. The vet tells her it has to be put down, because the snake isn’t sick – he’s just getting up an appetite for a big dinner.
And he hasn’t been warming himself on the owner’s bed. He’s been measuring her.
Snakes are sneaky. If you have one for a pet, you’re sealing your own fate.
Anorexic, overly cautious snake? Lining himself up with the lady like a big ol’ cartoon tape measure?
Picture, if you will, the jungles of Southern Vietnam. A reticulated python is stalking a fawn. The fawn hears a rustle in the leaves; looks up, blinking its shining dark eyes at the shadows. There! A snake! Wearing little spectacles and a pocket protector! The fawn is so baffled that it simply stands there while the snake lines itself up beside the youngster. The python looks back along its length, muttering to itself as it nods at each row of scales. It burps up a clipboard and pen, which it holds in its tail, and writes something down.
‘Darn,’ says the snake, checking the figures against last month’s measurement. ‘Still too big.’
The fawn has, very obligingly, stood perfectly still the entire time.
Truth is, pythons aren’t particularly smart. They don’t measure their food. They find it, they grab it, they eat it. Sometimes they swallow more than they can handle, and their stomachs burst, and they die. (You don’t want to see pictures.) They’re certainly not capable of the foresight to think, ‘Oh, I’d better forgo this convenient rat that has been pre-strangled for me, or I won’t have room for the real smorgasbord.’
The normal size of a snake’s prey is 30% of its body weight. They can swallow prey that is up to 75%-100% of their body weight, though. I don’t doubt that a snake would be capable of swallowing a human, but we’re talking a huge snake here.
As told by Snopes, this story sticks around because it plays into tired old tropes about how evil snakes are – an attitude which doesn’t help the effort to conserve these amazing reptiles.
The real lesson:
Exotic pets are a terrible idea.
I love pythons. I love them so much, I invited some to my tenth birthday party. I made one a goddess in my fantasy-novel-in-progress, The Celestial Kris. But I love them in the wild, where they belong, or at least in a professional captive breeding program. Many species of python are poached from their natural habitats for the pet trade. What’s more, exotic pets in general are very high-maintenance, often have poor health, and can turn against their owners.
Here’s a lovely interactive infographic demonstrating how many people in the United States have been killed or injured by their pet bears, big cats, primates and reptiles. It counts 543 human injuries and 75 human deaths! (I would have used Australian figures, but keeping exotic pets is uncommon and frowned upon here; you need a license just to keep a little frog.)
One of those examples does involve a man being killed by his boa constrictor, but I chased that story a little further. Turns out the snake in that story was a mere 12 kilos – nowhere near big enough to eat a man. What’s more, it was wrapped around his neck, not his ribs; he died in hospital, despite a valiant effort to save him. To me, this suggests it was simply climbing on him, got scared or stressed, and squeezed a bit too hard. The snake was rehabilitated in a zoo.
3. These wolves show what real leadership is!
Here it is in handy shareable picture form.
The alpha wolf is the strongest of them all… yet he makes sure no one is left behind.
Walking through snow is hard work. Kind of mean to make the old and sick wolves forge a path for the others, isn’t it?
What’s more, this interpretation of the photo requires that you believe the ‘alpha, beta, omega’ structure of wolf dominance. This understanding of wolf pack hierarchy was based on studies of unrelated wolves in captivity. That’s like an alien basing their knowledge of normal human social behaviour on what happens in jail.
In reality, wolf packs are based on a family structure. The ‘dominant’ pair of wolves in a pack are the breeding pair – the mother and the father of the other wolves. The other wolves are subordinate to them because they’re their kids. Designations like ‘alpha’ aren’t even that useful; much less useful than, say, ‘parents’, which tells you what the lead wolves’ roles and relationships are to the other wolves.
This shot comes from a documentary called Frozen Planet, and the true nature of wolf pack hierarchies was explained. The real hero of this picture isn’t the wolf at the back, but the wolf at the front, which is pushing a path through the snow so that the others can conserve their strength. It takes a lot to bring down the bison that these wolves are tracking, so it saves them energy if they walk single file.
And that wolf isn’t the ‘alpha male’. It’s the lead female – the mother of the pack.
The real lesson:
A true leader works harder than anyone else on the team. Or, if you prefer, a mother paves the way for her children’s success. Take whatever metaphor you like from the picture, as long as it’s based on the knowledge of what’s really happening.
2. Bees are endangered?! We’re doomed!
Oh look, here it is in handy image macro form again, for your crazy aunt to share on Facebook:
You shallow fools are too focused on your own petty troubles to realise the apocalypse has begun.
‘Bees’ are an endangered species? An entire class of insects just got listed as an endangered species? You mean to tell me that even the notoriously indestructible Africanised honeybee is teetering on the brink of extinction now?
Yeah, when I found out the truth behind this one, it was almost exactly what I thought. There are over 20,000 known species of bee in the world.
Seven species of yellow-faced bee, which are endemic to Hawaii, have recently been listed as endangered. While they’re very cute, and losing them would be a tragedy to entomologists and nature-lovers the world over, the loss of the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees would still leave us with plenty of other bee species to pollinate our food…
The real lesson:
… as long as we continue not using the pesticide that was killing them off.
A few years ago, there was a bit of a crisis with global populations of domesticated honeybee. They were dying off, and nobody knew why. It was happening across America and Europe, and was dubbed colony collapse disorder.
Many scientists now think that compounds in pesticides, neonicotinoids, were making the bees more susceptible to infestations by a parasite called the varroa mite. Regulations were passed in Europe and the US to get rid of the offending pesticides, and the bees recovered pretty fast. It helps that the honeybee breeds very quickly.
Honestly, though, the plight of the yellow-faced bees in Hawaii should still encourage us to do more to help the environment. Their survival is threatened by habitat loss, invasive species and more frequent hurricanes caused by global warming. So, yeah – save the bees.
1. You will swallow eight spiders in your sleep per year!
You’re tired. You’re comfy. You’re blissfully innocent of the world around you as the Sandman sprinkles his magic dust in your eyes. You feel safe and warm.
Here comes a spider, creeping along to the tune of The Sugar-Plum Fairy. What’s this? A cave? Oh, yes, she’d like that very much. Lots of room. Nice and warm.
Then – gulp! Spider’s gone. You just ate your worst fear.
You’re never safe from spiders. Ever.
As a family friend of ours discovered one morning when she woke up with a big stinking huntsman on her face, YOU WAKE UP WHEN A SPIDER CRAWLS ON YOUR FACE.
What’s more, your mouth offers nothing whatsoever to a spider. Your bed doesn’t offer much in the way of prey, unless you have fleas or bedbugs. You twitch and breathe and snore in your sleep. Your heartbeat, to a spider, is terrifyingly loud and causes the whole world to vibrate. A spider has no reason to crawl into a big, wet, moving, noisy hole. Really, the only reason a spider would willing crawl into your mouth would be if you were dead.
The real lesson:
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Also, you’re never safe from spiders, ever.
It should come as no surprise that this myth was made up in 1993 by a journalist, Lisa Holst. She wanted to illustrate the stupidity of some other misconceptions being circulated in chain emails at the time, and made up a list of ridiculous trivia of her own. Poe’s Law being what it is, people didn’t realise it was a parody.
But you will consume spiders in your life, whether or not you want to. Insect and spider parts end up in all sorts of processed food. It’s an unavoidable part of the manufacturing process. They’re usually crushed into a fine powder, though, and are impossible to taste. And the odd bug leg in your food is far safer for your health than the poisons that a factory would have to use to avoid getting any invertebrates in the product.
So enjoy that chocolate.