Surprised looking squirrel
Surprised looking squirrel

World Wildlife Day: 6 wildlife myths you should stop believing right now

Putting the natural world to rights.

Luke Rix-Standing
Wednesday 03 March 2021 07:30

Real life is often stranger than fiction, so we’re honestly not sure why people resort to these myths.

To celebrate World Wildlife Day (March 3), here’s a few widely-held but easily debunkable theories about animals you can stop believing today…

Myth 1: Bulls don’t like red

Not only do bulls not dislike red, they can barely even see it, as cattle are partially colour-blind and red does not fall in their spectrum. You’ve probably seen images of bullfighters goading their prey with red rags, but it’s thought to be the noise of the crowd, the spears of the picadors, and the antagonistic movements of the matador that enrage the animals, not the particular shade of fabric.

Myth 2: Lemmings commit mass suicide

There is a grain of truth to this – and we mean a grain. During their periodic mass migrations, small numbers of lemmings will occasionally fall into lakes or crevices from which they tend not to emerge. The more popular image of whole herds hurling themselves off cliffs is arrant nonsense, and probably the fault of a Disney documentary, White Wilderness, from 1958.

The film crew deliberately threw some lemmings off a cliff-top, cementing their kamikaze reputation in the process.


Myth 3: Birds are unintelligent

‘Bird-brained’ is a spectacular misnomer, as outside primates and dolphins, birds rank among the smartest species anywhere on Earth Parrots are famous for their linguistic and problem-solving abilities, crows are one of only a handful of animals to have mastered tool use, and even chickens can count, display self-awareness, and understand abstract concepts that even young humans struggle with.

Bird brains are dimensionally small, but they contain more neurons ounce for ounce than the brains of almost any mammal. Next time someone calls you ‘bird-brained’, take it as a compliment.

Myth 4: Owls can rotate their heads 360 degrees

Owls have extremely mobile necks, but they do still have necks. They can come close to full circle though, maxing out with a three-quarters-of-the-way-there 270 degrees in both directions. Since the mechanics of the process are hidden by a thick layer of feathers, the result still looks a lot like The Exorcist.

Myth 5: Camels store water in their humps

Technically they do, of course, but no more than in the rest of their bodies. Far from the anatomical reservoir described in many children’s books, a camel’s hump consists almost entirely of fat reserves, which the camel will fall back on when food is scarce.

Bactrian camel

Myth 6: Vultures circle above dying animals

There is something appealingly sinister about an ominous bird circling above a doomed person or animal, but no, vultures do not have some sort of sixth sense that tells them when something is dying. Vultures feed on the already dead, which they detect with an extraordinary sense of smell – sniffing out the sulphurous compounds in even the earliest stages of decay.

They have absolutely no way of discerning that something is dying before it is dead, and even if they did, they wouldn’t waste time waiting for their quarry to cop it when there’s plenty of good carrion elsewhere.