21 Misconceptions About Animals

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momnoi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

From the wide-held belief that dogs see in black and white to the common misunderstanding that opossums hang from their tails, there are a lot of false facts out there about animals. We're getting to the bottom of some common misconceptions in this article, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Misconception: Owls can spin their heads 360 degrees.

An owl sitting in a tree.
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According to the International Owl Center, it’s physically impossible for an owl looking straight ahead to turn its head 360 degrees and look forward again. Owls are limited to turning their heads 270 degrees in one direction. And because they can turn 270 degrees to the right and left, they have a 540-degree range of motion, which makes the 140-degree human range of motion—a mere 70 degrees in either direction—seem pretty puny.

2. Misconception: Giant pandas dislike sex.

A panda eating bamboo.
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It's a bit of a misconception that giant pandas dislike sex. The truth is that in their natural habitats, pandas don’t have a problem with mating. In fact, a pair might even have sex more than 40 times in just a few hours. The main issue is breeding in captivity. Female pandas aren’t getting as many choices as they’d like, and breeders tend to select mates for them based on genetic qualities rather than actual interest. Additionally, female pandas have a small window to get pregnant: Once a year, they’re fertile for between 36 and 40 hours. Scientists have tried a number of things to assist captive pandas get it on, even resorting to panda porn.

3. Misconception: Penguins are monogamous and mate for life.

Two penguins with their baby.
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Penguins aren’t monogamous, despite popular belief. In fact, 85 percent of Emperor Penguins switch partners each breeding season while around 71 percent of king penguins do the same. And according to a study of 19 Gentoo penguins, they act monogamous, but the DNA of their offspring reveals that they cheat on their partners along with one-third of female Humboldt penguins.

4. Misconception: Lobsters are monogamous.

A lobster under a rock.
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Lobsters aren't monogamous, despite what the great Phoebe Buffay from Friends once suggested.

A female lobster spends a couple weeks with a given partner, but abandons him after that (and maybe even earlier if he can’t fertilize all her eggs). And fun fact: Lobsters pee out of their faces, which is part of their mating ritual. The female pees into the male’s shelter in order to seduce him.

5. Misconception: Anteaters eat ants through their nose.

An anteater walking around.
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It’s a myth that an anteater will consume ants through its nose. Instead, anteaters use their claws to rip open anthills and then use their long tongues to eat the insects. Without teeth, they just swallow up to 20,000 ants whole each day.

6. Misconception: Tyrannosaurus rex had bad vision.

A T-rex running around, they probably had better vision then we thought.
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There are a couple of Tyrannosaurus rex misconceptions that Jurassic Park had a hand in perpetuating, like that they couldn’t see very well. In fact, one researcher at the University of Oregon determined that the T. rex may have had better depth perception than present day hawks and eagles. They also had a great sense of smell, so it wouldn’t have been hard for one to notice a person standing nearby.

7. Misconception: The T. rex could run fast.

A skeleton of a T-Rex.
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Paleontologists once believed that the T. rex was surprisingly fast and that they could possibly run up to 33 miles per hour. But, based on their structures, it’s now thought that moving faster than 12 miles per hour would have caused bone damage. However, this wasn’t very limiting because the T. rex was mostly hunting down dinosaurs that were slower than them.

8. Misconception: Vultures stalk living animals.

A vulture sitting in a tree, they tend to no where animals go to die.
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It’s not true that vultures stalk living animals that they know are about to die. In reality, they just have excellent senses, which helps them find food—which, in their case, is typically already-dead creatures. Turkey vultures have even been known to hang around leaked gas pipelines that contain chemicals that smell like decaying organic matter. Plus, vultures just know where animals tend to die, like places with limited rainfall, and they go there to find dead things.

9. Misconception: Camels store water in their humps.

A curious camel looking in the camera.
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It’s a misconception that camels store water in their humps. The humps actually contain fat, which camels can use for energy. The humps contain the equivalent of three weeks’ worth of food. The feature is also used for body temperature regulation.

However, it is true that camels can spend long periods of time between drinks of water. That water gets stored and processed in their bloodstream, kidneys, and intestines.

10. Misconception: Touching toads gives you warts.

A toad hanging out in the grass.
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It’s just an old wives’ tale that touching a toad will give you warts. And while these creatures look like they're covered in warts, those bumps are actually glands that help keep predators away by emitting toxins. Human warts happen when a person comes into contact with one of the hundred human papilloma virus subtypes.

11. Misconception: Hens don't have teeth.

A hen looking in the camera.
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You may have heard the idiom “rare as hen’s teeth,” but according to a study published in 2006, hens can grow teeth. Around 70-80 million years ago, birds had chompers. They went away, but the genes are still there—so scientists can make adjustments and reintroduce the teeth, which are even found in similar places to where mammals have them.

12. Misconception: All turkeys gobble.

Two turkeys walking in the woods.
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Not all turkeys gobble. It’s almost exclusively the males, or toms, that get their gobble on. They'll gobble to attract a hen, and have been known to do it from trees to be heard far and wide. But hens make noise too, just usually not gobbles. They can yelp, cackle, and whistle.

13. Misconception: Turkeys can't fly.

A group of turkeys in a field.
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Another turkey myth is that they can’t fly. They’re pretty much built to stay on the ground, but wild turkeys can take to the air. They usually don’t go further than 100 yards, but they can travel at 55mph. Domestic turkeys can't, though, because they’re bred with larger breasts.

14. Misconception: Only male dogs hump.

A group of puppies.
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It’s not true that only male dogs hump. Female dogs might hump other animals, humans, or random objects. Dogs do this for a multitude of reasons, including to show dominance, because of excitement or stress, or even just because they want attention. Experts say that spaying a female dog may lessen the behavior.

15. Misconception: Dogs are colorblind.

A dog with his or her head out the window.
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A second dog misconception is that they see in black and white. This has been a belief since the 1920s, but dogs can see yellow and blue, which makes them colorblind in the same way that some humans are colorblind. Their eyes have two types of color receptors, or cones, as opposed to the three that the average person does.

16. Misconception: Cats hate water and can't swim.

A cat going for a swim in a pool.
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The assumption that cats can't swim is usually based on the fact that domesticated house felines don’t like being in water. Experts believe that this aversion is probably because they’re used to staying away from natural elements and because they prefer to have all of their feet on the ground. But, pretty much every mammal, including cats, knows how to swim based on instinct. Apes seem to be the one exception to that rule.

17. Misconception: Touching a butterfly's wing causes it to lose its ability to fly.

A butterfly on a leaf.
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If you gently touch a butterfly’s wing, it won’t die or lose the ability to fly. Their wings have scales and when you touch them, some scales might shed off, but that happens naturally as well. In fact, their sheddable scales may be what can help them escape from spiderwebs.

18. Misconception: Wolves howl at the moon.

A wolf howling in the woods.
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It’s a myth that wolves howl at the moon. They do tend to howl at night, but that’s because that’s when they’re active. And they look up while doing it because it helps the sound travel. Other wolves can hear them from about six to seven miles away and that’s why they howl: to communicate. There’s even a specific sound a wolf will use when it has lost its pack.

19. Misconception: Wolf packs have an alpha leader.

A wolf pack traveling together.
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It's also a misconception that every pack has an alpha wolf. This myth is probably based on how the animals act in captivity. When wolves are put together, there’s more competition. But in the wild, on the other hand, wolves tend to stick with their families. So the elder family members naturally have higher status, but that isn’t too different from any animal family where the parent is the powerful member.

20. Misconception: Giraffes only sleep for 30 minutes.

A giraffe looking into the camera.
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It’s a popular internet misconception that giraffes only get 30 minutes of sleep every day. According to one study of seven captive giraffes, they spend about four-and-a-half-hours asleep, which isn’t unusual for animals that spend most of their active hours in the daylight. That study also found that giraffes typically laid down to sleep for less than 11 minutes at a time.

21. Misconception: Opossums hang from their tails.

An opossum hanging out in a tree.
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Virginia opossums don’t hang by their tails. In fact, once they’re fully grown, they can’t hang for more than a couple seconds because they’re too heavy to use their tails for support. In general, their tails are used for balance by holding onto tree branches during climbs. This isn’t necessarily true for other species of opossums, though—at least one wraps its tail around a branch and hangs upside-down to mate.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea … In the Middle of Rural Yorkshire

If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
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According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. This is especially true in the United States, where backyard zoos and cub petting operations are successful—if controversial—businesses. Big cat ownership is more heavily regulated in the UK than it is in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. More than 70 years ago, there was at least one pet tiger living in England.

To the people of Britain, Holmfirth, 20 miles outside of Manchester, is probably best known as the picturesque setting of Last of the Summer Wine, the BBC show that ran for a staggering 37 years from 1973 to 2010 and is now appropriately credited as being the world’s longest running sitcom. But back in the early 1940s, the village was known locally as the home of Fenella the Holmfirth Tiger.

Fenella’s story actually begins more than 8000 miles away in South Africa, where she was adopted by a family of circus performers and acrobats from Yorkshire, the Overends, in the late 1930s. While touring South Africa with a traveling circus in 1939, the Overend family was offered two newborn circus tiger cubs to rear and eventually incorporate into their act. One of the cubs died barely a week later, but the other—given the name Fenella, or “Feney” for short—survived.

The Overends were forced to return to England after the outbreak of the Second World War. They took Fenella home with them to live (albeit after a brief stay in quarantine) in the back garden of their house in Holmfirth. Although she had a specially built hut and enclosure, the tiger eventually began spending just as much time in the family house as she did in the garden, and according to her owners, soon became extraordinarily tame.

The family would take her for walks through the village, including past the local primary school, where she became a firm favorite among the pupils. When the local council began to raise questions over just how tame Fenella really was, the sight of her walking calmly while being petted by all the schoolchildren as they returned from their lunch break was all it took to quash their worries.

Holmfirth viewed from the cemetery
Holmfirth in the 21st century, with nary a tiger in sight.

Tim Green, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fenella was sometimes permitted to run in the fields around the village, where she reportedly made friends with a local cart horse—which is surprising, given she was raised on a diet of horse meat and fish (fish and chips were one of her favorite treats). She apparently also had a fondness for climbing trees to take a nap, and supposedly had a habit of dropping down from the branches and, fairly understandably, surprising passersby. But soon the sight of a fully grown 9-foot Sumatran tigress casually idling her way through the village’s cobbled streets became the norm for the people of Holmfirth.

Fenella was intended to be a performing tiger. Similar to the cub petting operations that still exist in the U.S., visitors could pay sixpence to sit and pet her while the family was on tour. She was also worked into the family’s circus performances by staging a mock wrestling match with her owner. But though the Overends put the big cat to work, they considered her a beloved family pet rather than just another part of their act.

Sadly, Fenella died of a kidney infection during one of the family’s tours in 1950 when she was just over 10 years old. She was buried in the neighbor’s garden, which was said to be one of her favorite hunting grounds. Fenella is still remembered fondly in and around Holmfirth. In 2016, she was a highlight of the Holmfirth Arts Festival, which celebrated the cat’s life with an exhibition of photographs and archival footage of her and the Overend family. Exotic pets might not have remained as popular in the UK as they once were, but Fenella’s popularity at least remains intact.

Why Are Sloths So Slow?

Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
Sloths have little problem holding still for nature photographers.
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When it comes to physical activity, few animals have as maligned a reputation as the sloth. The six sloth species, which call Brazil and Panama home, move with no urgency, having seemingly adapted to an existence that allows for a life lived in slow motion. But what makes sloths so sedate? And what horrible, poop-related price must they pay in order to maintain life in the slow lane?

According to HowStuffWorks, the sloth’s limited movements are primarily the result of their diet. Residing mainly in the canopy vines of Central and South American forests, sloths dine out on leaves, fruits, and buds. With virtually no fat or protein, sloths conserve energy by taking a leisurely approach to life. On average, a sloth will climb or travel roughly 125 feet per day. On land, it takes them roughly one minute to move just one foot.

A sloth’s digestive system matches their locomotion. After munching leaves using their lips—they have no incisors—it can take up to a month for their meals to be fully digested. And a sloth's metabolic rate is 40 to 45 percent slower than most mammals' to help compensate for their low caloric intake. With so little fuel to burn, a sloth makes the most of it.

Deliberate movement shouldn’t be confused for weakness, however. Sloths can hang from branches for hours, showing off some impressive stamina. And because they spend most of their time high up in trees, they have no need for rapid movement to evade predators.

There is, however, one major downside to the sloth's leisurely lifestyle. Owing to their meager diet, they typically only have to poop once per week. Like going in a public bathroom, this can be a stressful event, as it means going to the ground and risking detection by predators—which puts their lives on the line. Worse, that slow bowel motility means they’re trying to push out nearly one-third of their body weight in feces at a time. It's something to consider the next time you feel envious of their chill lifestyle.

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