MYTH AND MISCONCEPTIONS By Karyl Carmignani STAFF WRITER SDZG PHOTOGRAPHER ANIMAL LORE LIVES IN EVERY CULTURE. It is taught to the littlest of children and stalks people into adulthood. With a lexicon of lingering “facts” about animals far and near, language is peppered with creature fallacies. Some species are so steeped in misinformation that they strike terror into the hearts of many. Consider bats. Vampire movies viewed at a formative age can lead to a lifetime of serious chiroptophobia (fear of bats). Books cook up tales of sticky, squeaking bats tangled in women’s hair. And who hasn’t uttered the bouncy descriptor “blind as a bat”? But not one of the over 1,200 bat species seeks your jugular vein or your tresses, nor are these flying mammals blind. If anything, “blind as a bat” should imply that you can fly really fast and quiet in the pitch dark! Another species that gets a bad rap is the largest, heaviest, and most awkward-looking avian species, the ostrich. This flightless bird nests on the ground in a communal nest. Males and females take turns incubating their three-pound eggs, which would be a nutritional bonanza for predators. If an ostrich detects danger, it will sometimes lie flat on the ground, laying its head on the sand and remaining still to blend in with the landscape and hide its charges. Other times, the bird will bend down to adjust the eggs in the nest. Never does this creature bury its head in the sand! And let’s face it, head burying would not be a sensible way to avoid danger. But we still use this “myth-information” to refer to someone who refuses to deal with an unpleasant situation. Some animal myths are based on a shred of truth but used in a pejorative sense, projecting human disdain for (or fear of) a species. Take crocodile tears. These mighty reptilian predators do indeed produce tears to lubricate the eyes. Crocodiles (and alligators) also have a nictitating membrane, which glides over the eye to help clean 24 ZOONOOZ MARCH 2014 SHUTTERSTOCK Photos by Ken Bohn PHOTO BY RON GARRISON, SDZG Sifting Fact from Fiction in the Animal Kingdom it; tears keep its watchful gaze clear. On land, when the animal’s body dries out, the tears are more conspicuous, and that nictitating membrane in the corner of the eye can resemble tears forming. This gave rise to the ancient belief that crocodiles weep for their victims or that they use tears to dupe a sympathetic target. Both notions are false. But if a person is “crying crocodile tears,” it means they are displaying an insincere show of sorrow or remorse. Perhaps the most damaging legend concerns a fierce, but cute, gerbil-like creature found in and around the Arctic tundra: the lemming. Populations of this subniveal (living under the snow) rodent fluctuate wildly, with frequent die-offs and population booms. The phenomenon was (and is) not well understood, so folks decided the lemmings were overly altruistic during times of overpopulation and that thousands of them boldly died by mass suicide for the good of the group. This misperception was reinforced by the 1958 Disney movie White Wilderness, whose filmmakers bought lemmings from Inuit children and staged a cliff death-plunge sequence by herding the little guys over a small cliff into a river. To this day, when “lemming” is used to describe someone’s behavior, it means they lack originality and would rather follow the group, even to certain death, than think for themselves. In reality, if you’re behaving like a lemming, you are excellent at camouflage, with your fur changing from mottled brown in summer to snow white for winter; you can have a litter of pups every five weeks or so; you are a master tunnel builder; and you even, on occasion, outsmart the wily Arctic fox and live to see another day. We are surrounded by animal myths, but before you get “mad as a March hare,” take time to flush out the truth. You don’t want to “myth out” on the real magic of animals.