Nature Myths Busted

By Brett Dufur | Illustrations by Mark Raithel | March 1, 2016
From Xplor: March/April 2016

April Fools is right around the corner, but that’s no reason to get fooled. Let’s shed light on some long-lived nature myths. Sometimes an answer can be simple on the surface but more complicated the deeper we dig. Maybe that’s how these myths developed. But enough foolin’ around, let’s get straight to the facts!

Myth: Missouri’s armadillos can roll up into a ball. Myth busted.

This myth has a tricky answer. Missouri’s nine-banded armadillos cannot roll up into a ball. However, other kinds of armadillos in other countries can. Those out-of-country armadillos have the unusual ability to roll up into a ball, using their hardened plates to protect themselves like a bowling ball. Missouri’s armadillos have other cool tricks, though. They can jump high when frightened and can run surprisingly fast.

Myth: groundhogs can predict the end of winter. Myth busted.

Are groundhogs our best furry forecasters? No. Supposedly, if they see their shadows on Groundhog Day in early February, we are in for six more weeks of winter. Groundhogs, also called woodchucks and whistle pigs, are among our longest hibernators, settling down as early as October and remaining in their burrows as late as April. No matter what a groundhog may appear to tell us on Groundhog Day, it’s a safe bet the groggy weather watcher just wants to go back to sleep.

Myth: a frozen frog is a dead frog. Myth busted.

Brrr! Some frogs, such as Cope’s gray treefrogs and spring peepers, can freeze and survive. But a frog doesn’t just turn into a block of ice. The frog’s liver releases chemicals that keep cells from drying out and shrinking. Then the frog’s heart stops, and the frog appears to be dead. Scientists aren’t sure what tells the heart to start beating again once the frog thaws out. A frog can survive all winter like this, freezing then thawing out. But if it gets too cold for too long, it’ll croak.

Myth: birds can’t smell. Myth busted.

Birds can smell, although even the experts can’t agree how well they smell, despite more than a 100 years of research and debate. Since food odors quickly blow away, most birds probably don’t have well-developed noses, even though they do have the glands to process smells. However, scientists have studied the turkey vulture’s ability to smell dead meat (wow, sounds like fun), and they say that without a doubt vultures can smell great, although what they smell probably smells awful!

Myth: a worm cut in two becomes two worms. Myth busted.

Even though the outside of an earthworm looks like one sleek little wriggling noodle, there’s a lot going on inside. There are five beating hearts, and the worm’s organs are carefully laid out. If you cut a worm in two, really what you’ve done (if you’re lucky) is just cut its tail off, which would eventually grow back. The tail half would die. If old stubby’s main organs are still all together in one half, that half has a fighting chance.

Myth: holding a toad gives you warts. Myth busted.

Holding a toad doesn’t give you warts. Warts on people are actually caused by a human virus. A toad’s bumpy skin helps camouflage it. The wartlike bumps behind a toad’s ears can be mildly dangerous. The bumps release a nasty substance that irritates the mouths of some predators and sometimes human skin.

Myth: moss only grows on the north side of trees. Myth busted.

Lost? Don’t follow the moss. Generally, the north side of a tree gets less sunlight and tends to be cooler and damp — the perfect place for moss to grow. But don’t expect moss to help you find True North. Lots of things can create shady conditions that moss likes, so don’t ditch your compass just yet!

And More...

This Issue's Staff

Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White