7 Animal Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

iStock/TomekD76
iStock/TomekD76

Chances are, some of the “fun facts” you know about the animal kingdom aren’t actually facts at all. There are plenty of pervasive myths about animals that have little basis in reality, but still get passed off as common knowledge around schoolyards, cocktail parties, and internet lists. We've previously debunked popular myths about animals like pandas, penguins, and vultures. Now, a new book, True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods, aims to debunk even more of these misconceptions. From the authors of Does It Fart? the illustrated volume is designed to give you the true scoop on the wonders of the animal world. Here are seven myths you may have heard before that, according to True or Poo? authors Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, don’t pass the smell test.

1. ANTEATERS VACUUM UP ANTS WITH THEIR NOSES.

An illustration of an anteater sucking ants into its nose
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

None of the four species of anteater go around hoovering up ants through their long snouts, despite what cartoons may have led you to believe. They have incredibly long tongues (the giant anteater’s can measure almost 2 feet) that they use to lap up their prey. They can flick their tongues—which are covered in spiny hooks and sticky saliva to trap ants—up to 160 times a minute, eating up to 20,000 insects a day.

2. CHAMELEONS CHANGE COLOR TO BLEND IN WITH THEIR ENVIRONMENT.

Chameleons are known for blending in with their surroundings, but that’s not actually why they change colors. Instead, their skin changes its pigmentation based on temperature and arousal state. It’s all based on the arrangement of nanocrystal within reflective cells in their outermost layer of skin. When the nanocrystals are farther apart, they reflect longer wavelengths of light, like orange and red, and when they’re closer together, they reflect shorter wavelengths (blue, for example). This can help them communicate with other chameleons—like rival males—or adapt to different temperatures, turning a lighter color stay cool in the sun, for instance.

3. STANDING STILL COULD SAVE YOU FROM A T. REX.

An illustration of a mime standing next to a T. rex
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Sorry, Jurassic Park lied to you. Staying very, very still would be no defense against a raging Tyrannosaurus rex, should you happen to encounter one. The giant dinosaurs’ vision may have been even better than modern-day raptors, in fact. Even if they weren’t eagle-eyed, though, their excellent sense of smell would easily allow them to locate you no matter how still you were standing.

4. BABY SNAKES ARE EVEN MORE DANGEROUS THAN ADULTS.

People walking around in areas where they have to be mindful of snakes are often warned to be even more wary of young snakes than their adult counterparts, because they haven’t yet learned to control the amount of venom they inject when they strike you. But that’s not true at all. For one thing, scientists aren’t sure if any snake can control its venom output, and for another, in some species, a snake’s venom actually gets more potent as they get older. In general, a bite from a smaller snake will likely contain less venom than one from a larger one, no matter what their age.

5. WE ALL EAT SPIDERS IN OUR SLEEP.

An illustration of a spider crawling into a man's mouth
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Good news: You probably haven’t chowed down on any spiders during your sleep. While many spiders are nocturnal hunters, the chances that one of them would decide to go on a hunting trip in your mouth is pretty far-fetched. We can’t totally guarantee that you’ve never chowed down on an arachnid during nap time, but climbing up on a snoring, breathing human and diving into their mouth wouldn’t be an appealing activity for most spiders. Hopefully this will help to snooze more soundly tonight.

6. TOADS CAN GIVE YOU WARTS.

Though some of them may be bumpy, toads aren’t covered in warts, and you certainly can’t get warts from touching them. The bumps we see on the skin of some toad species are glands that produce defensive toxins to ward off predators. So, you still shouldn’t touch them—but they won’t infect you with the human papillomavirus (also known as HPV), which is what causes warts on people’s skin.

7. EARWIGS LAY EGGS IN PEOPLE'S EARS.

Despite the name, earwigs have very little interest in your ears. While they have a reputation for burrowing into people’s ear canals to lay their eggs, there’s no evidence that they do so, or that they end up in people’s ears any more than any bug does. Earwigs prefer to hang out in moist, dark places like in soil or under tree bark. The rumor of their love of ear canals can be traced back to the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, who also suggested that placing goat dung on an open wound could cure rabies, among other questionable ideas.

The cover of 'True or Poo?'
From True or Poo?: The Definitive Field Guide to Filthy Animal Facts and Falsehoods by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2018 by Nick Caruso and Dani Rabaiotti

Can’t get enough animal myths? You can get a copy of True or Poo on Amazon for $11.

Whiten Your Teeth From Home for $40 With This Motorized Toothbrush

AquaSonic
AquaSonic

Since many people aren't exactly rushing to see their dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's become more important than ever to find the best at-home products to maintain your oral hygiene. And if you're looking for a high-quality motorized toothbrush, you can take advantage of this deal on the AquaSonic Black Series model, which is currently on sale for 71 percent off.

This smart toothbrush can actually tell you how long to keep the brush in one place to get the most thorough cleaning—and that’s just one of the ways it can remove more plaque than an average toothbrush. The brush also features multiple modes that can whiten teeth, adjust for sensitive teeth, and massage your gums for better blood flow.

As you’d expect from any smart device, modern technology doesn’t stop at functionality. The design of the AquaSonic Black Series is sleek enough to seamlessly fit in with a modern aesthetic, and the charging base is cordless so it’s easy to bring on the go. The current deal even includes a travel case and eight Dupont replacement heads.

Right now, you can find the AquaSonic Black Series toothbrush on sale for just $40.

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This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.


10 Facts About Argentine Ants

A pile of genetically-related Argentine ants
A pile of genetically-related Argentine ants
Marc Matteo, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A supercolony of invasive Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) stretches for 560 miles beneath California, from San Diego to San Francisco. The billions of Argentine ants are unlike other ants in many ways—and they are virtually indestructible. Along with their supercolonies in Europe, Japan, and Australia, L. humile’s global domination is rivaled only by that of human beings. Here’s what you should know about these prolific pests.

1. Argentine ant colonies are ruled by hundreds of queens.

Most ant colonies revolve around a single queen. Growing much larger than the worker drones, she is programmed to mate as quickly as possible, then to leave her nest of origin and establish a new one. In some species, a single queen can lay millions of eggs in a lifetime, producing an army of worker drones and future queens who will go off to build their own nests. But unlike most ants, Argentines are polygynous: Each nest contains multiple queens. In some, they can form up to 30 percent of the population.

2. Argentine ants move their nests frequently.

Nest types vary from ant species to ant species, but those who live in soil commonly dig tunnels and chambers deep into the earth that will protect the colony throughout the life of the queen. L. humile, though, is transient and ever shifting. Argentine ants frequently pack up their eggs and move the entire colony, queen and all, to a new nest, even when there is no apparent threat. Biologist Deborah Gordon told Ars Technica that the ants typically have 20 to 30 shallow nests at any one time, which can be built up in a matter of just weeks.

3. Argentine ants traveled the U.S. before settling down in California.

Argentine ants arrived in the United States from Northern Argentina in the late 19th century, when the first recorded Argentine ant was found in Louisiana in 1891. Researchers believe that the ants hitched a ride to North America in Argentinian shipments of coffee or sugar off-loaded at the Port of New Orleans. From there, they traveled—most likely by train—across the South and into California. Enticed by the Mediterranean climate, one similar to that of its original home in South America, the ants set up shop. By 1907, they’d displaced local native ants and begun their first steps towards total soil domination along 560 miles of California coastline.

4. California’s Argentine ants are more laid-back than their South American cousins.

In side-by-side comparisons of Argentine ants from their South American homeland and California, researchers have found that those from the West Coast are far more mellow than those from Argentina. In studies, it was typical for two ants from different nests to fight when placed in the same vial in Argentina, but in California, ants from different nests rarely fought, even when they were collected from locations several hundred miles apart.

A DNA study of ants from both locations in 2000 revealed a stark difference. In the ants from Argentina, microsatellites—short, uniquely patterned DNA sequences passed down from generation to generation—had more than twice as much variation as the microsatellites of the Californian ants. When two individuals from different nests in California were placed together, they recognized one another as family. The ants from Argentina didn’t, making them more likely to display territorial aggression.

The difference is rooted in the genetic bottleneck the ants encountered on their arrival to the Golden State over a century ago. According to biologist Neil D. Tsutsui, who conducted the DNA study, the ants in California today are all descendants of that founding colony. “It would be as if all of the people in the United States were descended from the Pilgrims who came here in 1620,” he told the Stanford Report in 2004. Instead of competing with one another, generation after generation has worked together to take out native ants and build an immense California colony.

5. Argentine ants protect other insects in exchange for sweet, sweet honeydew.

Argentine ants
Two Argentine ants share a tiny blob of honeydew.
Davefoc, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Argentine ants love to feed on sweet nectar, but flowers and suburban kitchens aren’t the only source of such desirable foodstuffs. Insects that feed on plant sap, like mealybugs, scales, and aphids, naturally excrete sugar-rich liquid “honeydew” from their butts. To secure a steady flow of the sticky-sweet substance, Argentine ants will fight off the predators of their insect chefs, including soldier beetles and midges. They’ll even relocate their honeydew producers to better food sources or microclimates to get the most they can out of their anal secretions.

6. The California Argetine ant supercolony is one-sixth the size of Southern Europe’s.

The California supercolony, which scientists have named the “Californian large,” is only the second-biggest conglomeration of Argentine ants in the world. The biggest colony is found along Southern Europe’s Mediterranean coast, where it stretches 3700 miles from northern Italy to the Atlantic coast of Spain. The ants, introduced around 80 years ago, now number in the billions. Smaller supercolonies also exist in Japan and Australia.

7. Argentine ants are second only to humans in their scale of world domination.

In 2009, researchers discovered that Argentine ants from three of the world’s largest supercolonies (Southern Europe, California, and Japan) are so closely related that they actually form a single mega-colony. The study, led by Eriki Sunamura from the University of Tokyo, found that when placed together, ants from the three supercolonies refused to fight. Instead, they rubbed antennae in greeting the way L. humile does when interacting with genetically-related individuals.

The researchers believe that the Argentine ant mega-colony isn’t just the largest insect colony ever identified; it rivals that of human colonization around the globe. Presenting their findings in the journal Insect Sociaux, they wrote, “the enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.”

8. A mass execution of Argentine ant queens takes place every spring.

Each spring, just before mating season begins, worker ants go on a killing rampage and assassinate 90 percent of their queens. Entomologists aren’t sure exactly why the large-scale execution occurs, but one hypothesis, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology in 2001, suggests that it is a “spiteful behavior” to kill the queens that are less related, on average, to the workers.

In their study, researchers from the University of Lausanne hypothesized that Argentine ants are regularly separated from direct family members through free exchange among the nests. Before mating season begins each year, those that are genetically related band together to kill more distantly related queens. Doing so decreases the nest’s genetic diversity and allows it to be rebuilt with a queen who is directly related to the greatest majority of workers.

The study’s results were inconclusive and the question remained unanswered, yet researchers learned something unexpected in the process. Instead of finding genetic diversity among worker ants, those belonging to each nest were actually a homogenous population. Only the queens were genetic outliers with relatively few familial relationships in each nest.

9. Climate change is making Argentine ants more of a nuisance to humans.

Argentine ants thrive in a Mediterranean climate where winters are cool and wet and summers are warm and dry. When conditions are ideal, they largely keep to themselves, but when conditions are drought-like or extremely wet, the ants move indoors in search of more hospitable climes. Experts at survival, Argentine ants can find food or water that’s been left unguarded in just minutes.

With the climate crisis, conditions in California are becoming more extreme. Hot days, no longer relegated just to the summer months, are becoming more numerous and prolonged. Droughts are becoming more frequent. While these changes are unlikely to harm much of the California supercolony, they are likely to drive the residents of urban nests more frequently into people's homes, making the ants a major nuisance for residents from San Diego to San Francisco.

10. Argentine ants are almost impossible to eradicate.

Individual Argentine ants are easy enough to kill, but an Argentine ant colony is a different story. The California colony has no natural predators and, thanks to their high levels of cooperation and massive numbers, L. humile has effectively destroyed possible competitors and disrupted the ecological balance of native species in the process. Insecticides, which are unable to penetrate into the underground nests, aren’t particularly effective. And because the ants can pick up and move their entire nest so quickly, neither are household control measures such as ant bait. After just over a century in California, Argentine ants are now virtually invincible.