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In The Country

Creature Court

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(4/2014) On the first day of April we humans have a rich history of playing practical jokes on one another in a light hearted jest of making each other appear a fool. As it turns out we humans need little help in this department when it comes to our understanding of the animal kingdom. We are a very gullible species. We often believe what we are told or initially observe without further investigation, and as a result have a very misinformed and skewed understanding of our surroundings. This is where science and some of our more skeptical brethren have done some heavy lifting to shine light on concepts we think we understand. You can be sure that as youíre reading this there is probably some adult imparting hearsay wisdom to some child and the misinformation chain begins anew. Letís take some of these myths to creature court and see what the verdict is. Hopefully we can take a crack at some of the more predominate animal myths you may have encountered and set the record straight.

Think back to a point in your childhood where you were outside playing. There you were minding your own business getting grass stains in your jeans, knocking over ant hills, meticulously pulling petals off flowers to see if were in fact loved by that special someone then ĖBAM! A baby bird was lying on the ground, perhaps at the base of a tree, and then you reach, as the valiant hero you are, to return this helpless bird to itsí rightful nest. Only just as youíre about to cement your nine year old Nobel Peace Prize an adult steps in and tells you "Leave it alone! If you touch it the mother bird will abandon it." They, in due course, explain that it has something to do with smelling human scent on it. While it is good practice not to interfere with wildlife, the premise is unfounded. Most birds have an underdeveloped sense of smell (if any at all), so human scent has absolutely no bearing on a mother bird helping her young. Chances are this bird is learning to fly or the mother is only away temporarily. Housing, feeding, or caring for any baby wildlife will more than likely kill it or make it dependant on humans and never be able to care for itself. Picking up the baby bird could be detrimental to its long term ability in learning to fly, but wonít stop a mother bird from caring for her child. Consider this myth busted as false.

In hindsight this next myth seems rather a sadistic experiment that many have probably tried or at the very least heard of. The accusation is that cutting an earthworm in half will create two worms. If youíve been witness to a worm being severed youíll have astutely seen that both sections continue to wiggle. Some adult may have even happened along in this instance and said something encouraging like "You know eventually both ends will grow back and then youíll have two worms!" This myth probably arose from a simple misunderstanding. Worms, like many other invertebrates, do have some regenerative ability. The ability to re-grow body parts differs enormously between them, although tails are generally easier to re-grow. So if you cut part of an earthworm's tail off, it might be able to regrow a stunted replacement. However, it is highly likely that the worm will lose the tail section permanently, or even perish. In reality it makes about as much sense as cutting a raccoon in half and expecting it to regenerate a head and hind section for the remaining halves. So the wiggling you see is really only a result of the final moments of agony the poor creature will endure until it suffers no more. Do our annelid (worm) friends a favor and leave them in one intact piece because verdict for this myth has been ruled false.

Next up on the docket is that touching a frog or toad will give you warts. A lot of frogs and toads have bumps on their skin that some people think are contagious. Some think that coming in contact with these bumps will cause you to have warts. The ruling on the bench is that this myth is false. Dermatologist Jerry Litt says, "Warts are caused by a human virus, not frogs or toads." These bumps, or parotid glands, contain a toxic poison that can cause irritation of the skin to predators and humans if touched. If a predator tries to make a snack out of these little critters they will often experience a foul unpleasant taste, may begin to foam at the mouth, or even die. While it may not transmit warts to people, depending on the species it may just be best to leave well enough alone and not touch them.

Justice may be blind, but the next accusation is that bats are too. Itís often said that when someone canít see they are "as blind as bat." This myth may have arisen because of the sonar used by bats to hunt prey. However, contrary to popular belief bats are not blind. Bats can see, and some rely solely on their vision to hunt and travel. Bats are broken down into two categories Ė mega (they eat fruit) and micro (they eat insects). "Mega" bats rely solely on vision, and while "micro" do have poorly developed eyes they can still see and will use sight for long distance navigation. Some bats can even see in ultraviolet light, which helps them hunt and navigate. The scales of justice have tipped in favor of not guilty for this myth because it is untrue.

The next defendant is hungry for justice, because Praying Mantises have had enough of scandalous rumors about their copulative behavior. The female Praying Mantis is known for devouring the head of the male after the act is complete. However, this is not necessarily always the case. After much research entomologist realized that this only occurs about a third of the time. Researchers still are unsure of the reasoning behind this behavior, but it is likely to provide nutrition for the newly expecting mother. Others think itís simply because the female gets confused and mistakes the male for prey. Either way, females will usually only perform sexual cannibalism when starving. This practice mostly occurs in captivity. Researchers usually donít see the same behavior in the wild, so there could be other underlying causes as well. Consider the Praying Mantis only acquitted from this myth.

Hopefully our little creature court has been able to clarify some common myths and justice has prevailed. With even a little more understanding our natural world can become an even more wonderful and miraculous place. Now that the weather is beginning to become more favorable I encourage everyone to get out into their public lands or even their very own yards and explore their surroundings and soak up some sun. These myths arenít the only things that can make us fools, so do a little sleuthing for yourself and see if you can witness some of our newly exonerated friends in action.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson