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10 Common Misconceptions About Animals

Kit Walvis

There are certain animal facts that everybody seems to know. Cows can sleep standing up, goats have four stomachs; that sort of thing. But there are a lot of widely-believed animal facts that are actually not very factual at all. We’re talking about ideas like:


Sheep Are Stupid

If there’s one thing everyone knows about sheep, it’s how stupid they are. After all: if one sheep starts moving quickly, the rest of the flock will follow rather blindly. They’re generally perceived to have almost no individual instincts or motivation, and many people would rank them next to rocks in intelligence

Animal scientists, on the other hand, would rank sheep just below pigs, rodents, and monkeys. In some tests, they even come close to humans. Recent studies have found that they’re of fairly average intelligence among farm animals. They actually learn quite quickly, and can adapt to changing circumstances, create mental maps of their environment, and possibly even plan ahead. 

It’s not advanced calculus—but for an animal constantly lambasted as the dumbest of all, it’s a decent effort. 


Goldfish Are Fragile

Any parent will tell you that goldfish are a great first pet for a child. They hardly need any attention, and they won’t be around for too long. Flushing a goldfish in its first week is pretty common—it even happened to my first goldfish. But it turns out that goldfish aren’t as helpless as we all think.

In fact, the incredible survival skills of goldfish have become something of an urban legend among those who know. One fish survived for thirteen hours after jumping out of its tank, while another lived for seven hours on a stone floor (it was covered in fuzz when the owner picked it up). It turns out that when goldfish are in a low-oxygen environment, they can often slow down their bodies, much like hibernating bears in winter. When they’re returned to water their bodies speed up again, and they go right on swimming without batting an eyelid.


Pigs Are Stupid

Sure, an animal that spends most of its time rolling in its own feces probably won’t be the next Einstein—but what most people don’t realize is that pigs are more intelligent than they look. They can even respond to a given name within one week of birth. Researchers have pitted pigs against human toddlers in joystick-controlled video games involving object recognition and manipulation. The pigs consistently perform better than toddlers.

If a pig (Spamela Anderson) notices that another pig (Magnum P.I.G.) is heading for a stash of food, Spamela will follow him to the stash and try to steal it. But Magnum isn’t a complete idiot—so if he realizes that Spamela is stronger than he is, he’ll try to ditch her or lead her to a fake stockpile. The pigs are showing a theory of mind—that is, the ability to understand what other animals are thinking or desiring, a talent previously observed only in chimpanzees and dogs.


Dogs Are Moderately Intelligent

Everyone knows that dogs are intelligent, but studies have found that they’re even smarter than we think. Researchers—in a test involving human toddlers, chimps, and dogs—showed the subject two upside-down buckets, one of which had a treat underneath it. 

The experimenter would then gesture at the correct bucket by variously tapping it, pointing at it, nodding his head towards it, and even remaining completely frozen while just looking at it. Chimps and toddlers were pretty bad at picking the correct bucket, but learned well after a period of trial and error. But the dogs consistently chose the correct bucket, succeeding four times as often as the chimps and twice as often as the toddlers. That’s right: Fido can understand you better than your own child.


Males Can’t Lactate

Most mothers probably wish their husbands would help them out a little more. Whether the man of the house is working away from home or simply lazy, it would certainly be nice if he could chip in sometimes. Well, goat mothers are in luck—their husbands can grow udders and feed the children. 

It’s important to note that this is a fairly common occurrence, and has been well-documented. But it’s an udder mystery for scientists, who aren’t entirely sure why the functioning male goats have bonus lady parts. Guys, don’t you wish you could do that?


Crocodiles Are Slow and Scale-Covered

Scaly, hard-biting crocodiles are fast in the water and slow on land, right? But that’s wrong in two ways: First of all, they don’t actually have scales. The scaly appearance is actually the result of their skin cracking as they grow. Second, they’re actually pretty fast on land. They can move at speeds of more than ten miles (16km) per hour—and considering  that they don’t usually attack until their prey is very close indeed, that land speed is more than enough.

Most people also know that crocodiles are the top predator in their environment. But that’s probably because the other big animals they eat are herbivores like the water buffalo or the wild boar. What if they had to deal with a real fighter? Well, saltwater crocodiles have been observed taking down sharks. Yes, that’s even scarier than it should be. 


Animals Don’t Commemorate Death

Of course animals understand death: they have to protect themselves and their young, and many of them kill other animals for food. But it would probably surprise you to know that several species actually hold “funerals” and observe mini-rituals when others die. Baboons, for example, show increased levels of stress hormones (as do humans) and will expand their social circles and interactions with others. A red fox has also been observed burying a deceased companion.

Elephants frequently guard the bodies of their dead—even if they were not related in life. If a western scrub jay sees a dead bird of the same species, it will investigate the body and call out so that other jays in the area hear the news. It might seem like they’re only warning their friends about the danger—but strangely, the birds also stopped eating for more than a day. Either animals are more like humans than we thought, or humans are more like animals; who’s to say?


Animal Sex Is All Business

This is what most people would think—especially concerning the animals that really pump out the babies, such as rabbits and mice. But both of those animals are surprisingly poetic when it comes to love-making: they even sing a kind of song as part of their mating rituals.

Rabbits—especially does—will make soft honking noises to let their mate know when they’re ready. Mice take things one step further, though, and actually sing to their mates. The sounds they make are ultrasonic (so humans can’t hear them), but when recorded and adjusted for human ears, they actually form a coherent song. The males will only sing these songs in the presence of females, or if they’re prompted with a female’s scent. So mice are a bit classier than the dirty sex machines we took them for.


Fish Are Timid Eaters

This is usually true. Most river fish will either eat insects flying over the water, or any of the tasty-looking plant growth they encounter. 

But European catfish, in typical snooty fashion, are moving up in the world. They’re learning to hunt pigeons that come to the water to drink. They sidle right on up and then leap out of the water, chomping at a leg or wing. If they can grab one, they’ll attempt to drag the pigeon back into the water and drown it so that they can eat their meal in peace. Note to self: don’t go fishing in Europe.


Camels Must Be Constantly Sweating

Anything that lives in the desert is going to be drenched in sweat. When daily temperatures reach one hundred degrees Fahrenheit (38° Celsius), the only thing that doesn’t sweat is probably a robot—or a camel, as it turns out.

Most animals sweat to regulate their body temperature; when things get too warm, the body tries to cool itself down. But camels just let their body temperatures soar—all the way to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Their bodies have adapted to ignore the heat—because if you think about it, sweating depletes the most precious resource in the desert: water.


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