Sunday, August 9, 2015

Wildlife Myth Busting: Separate Fact from Fiction

Contrary to popular belief, handling
toads does not cause warts.
(Photo courtesy of Evan O’Donnell)
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Myths abound in every culture. Stories of fairies, snow monsters and mermaids are great entertainment, but it is important to be able to separate fact from fiction.

Wildlife animals are the topics of many myths. While these myths often just cause confusion and misunderstanding in people, they can sometimes result in undeserved harm to animals. So let’s use the facts to bust some common wildlife myths.

Snakes probably suffer more than any other animal group because of the myths that surround them. Only a handful of the many snake species in the Southeast are venomous. Even if they are venomous, no snake here will chase you down to eat you! With the exception of some exotic snakes, such as pythons released into the wild, native snakes prefer smaller, easier-to-swallow foods like rats, mice, birds, insects and lizards. People are too big and dangerous to be of any interest to snakes, so these reptiles would prefer to simply avoid humans altogether.

Here are some fun, but false, myths about snakes: snakes do not have bones (they actually have a lot of them); snakes can roll like a hoop (they can’t, but some can climb up a tree trunk); snakes hunt down those who kill their partners (they don’t pair for life, and they aren’t smart enough to plot revenge).

Bats are also the victims of many myths. Contrary to the stories, bats do not fly into hair, they are not blind, and they don’t all have rabies. Most bats in the U.S. are insect eaters, or insectivores. Some eat nectar and pollen. So, unless you have mosquitoes, moths or flowers living in your hair, there is nothing to worry about. Bats are probably thought to be blind because they are active at night and they use sound rather than sight to track and catch flying insects. But bats are also able to see. Finally, rabies is found in less than 1 percent of bats. Raccoons, skunks, foxes, and household cats and dogs also carry the disease. To be safe, avoid close contact with all wild animals and unfamiliar pets, especially if they are behaving strangely.
Some wildlife myths don’t cause persecution of their “star” species, but they are still worth busting. The nine-banded armadillo, most often seen as a victim of highway death, is thought to be able to roll up like a ball. In fact, only one of the 20 armadillo species in the world uses this strategy to deter predators, and it is not the nine-banded armadillo commonly found in Mississippi.

The Virginia Opossum, or possum, is famously shown sleeping while hanging upside down by its tail. An opossum’s tail is prehensile and capable of gripping branches to help the animal keep its balance when climbing. However, the tail can’t hold the animal’s weight for very long, especially if it is asleep. It is true that opossums will instinctively fall down into a coma-like state when very stressed, although they are not truly “playing dead.”

Perhaps it started with Bambi, but deer families -- a buck, a doe and a couple of fawns -- are common in movies and lawn statues. But this is another myth. Bucks and does come together to mate and then part ways. A doe raises its fawns without help from the male.

Finally, the lowly toad gets a bad rap because people think toads cause warts. In truth, a toad simply has bumpy skin that helps it camouflage itself with the soil and shady places it calls home. Warts on human skin are caused by the herpes virus.

Myths, fables and stories can be fun. Knowing the truth about the wonderful complexity of nature can be just as fun.

For more information on wildlife, go to

By Leslie Burger
Assistant Extension Professor
Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture
Mississippi State University