Animal Myths: AIR

Everyone loves a fun animal fact (check out our Fun Facts here for some examples), but sometimes these “facts” contain more fiction than truth. As scientists, part of our objective is to bring truth to the forefront, so we are tackling some of the most common animal myths and misconceptions.

We solicited some help from our local scientific community – both to collect misconceptions and confirm truths – and this three-part debunking series came to be. After gathering our favorite myths, we decided to break them up by primary habitat: Air, Land, and Water.

Now let’s take a flying leap and debunk some classic myths concerning the many creatures of the sky!

1.”Blind as a bat”

Bats are perhaps most known for using echolocation to hunt their prey. It is likely this non-visual sensing mechanism that has led to the myth that bats are blind. In truth, when the sensory system of these flying mammals is examined, even bats that rely on echolocation have the prerequisites for daylight vision, dichromatic color vision (i.e. the vision type of dogs, or colorblind humans), and UV vision [1]! So, while a bat’s color vision may be limited (by human standards), many can see in the ultraviolet range – a spectrum of light where humans are blind!

2. All bees make honey


Perhaps surprisingly, only about 5 percent of bee species produce honey! Honeybees – while not the only bee species that produce honey – make up only 7(ish) species of the 20,000+ known species of bees [1]. Honey is produced to serve as a food source during the colder winter months. However, most bees don’t live more than a few weeks, so making and storing honey isn’t necessary for their survival. Alternatively, honeybee queens can live for 3-4 years; these bees spend much of the fall collecting nectar from various flowers. This nectar, after mixing with an enzyme in the bees’ mouth, is then stored in honeycombs (waxy, hexagonal cells). The nectar goes through a concentration process (sometimes aided by the bees themselves) and loses much of its water content. This evaporation process is essential for giving honey the antimicrobial properties that allow it to be stored almost indefinitely. These honey stores can then feed the colony throughout the winter months [2].

3. If you touch a baby bird, your scent will lead to its abandonment

This myth likely originated to keep children from picking up baby birds – a generally good idea – but is the reasoning scientifically accurate? Let’s start with the physiology. Most birds – with a few notable exceptions (see these articles on vultures, seabirds, and kiwi) – are not known for their keen sense of smell. Additionally, chick abandonment from human touch is extremely rare – just ask any of the many scientists who handle chicks daily in their research! Basically, birds don’t seem to care about the scent of humans on their offspring, if they can detect our odor at all. However, this does not mean you should pick up baby birds! Instead, check out the flowchart below to learn how to appropriately respond to a chick on the ground. In most cases, you can either (a) return the bird to the nest, or (b) let it be.

Image (c) bird and moon comics

4. Bumblebees can’t fly

A bumblebee, in flight.

Another bee “fact”! This fascinating myth seems to have originated in the early 1900s – perhaps at a dinner party – after an unknown someone calculated the lift that would be required for a bumblebee to fly.  It was determined that bumblebees, given their tiny wings and hefty bodyweight, should not be able to attain the lift needed for flight [1]. And yet…it takes a simple walk outside to know that bumblebees do, in fact, fly. This myth has persisted for decades – a constant sting in the side of bee researchers everywhere- all because a simple (and incorrect) assumption was made: that bumblebee flight resembles the flight mechanics of an airplane. Ultimately, all this calculation actually shows is that bumblebees don’t glide like planes. Research conducted at Cambridge University has since unveiled the long-time mystery of insect flight mechanics (more here), bringing physics to the same conclusion that we’ve known to be true all along: bumblebees are fully capable of flight [2].

5. Owls can rotate their heads in a full circle

This myth is closer to true than most on this list, but is still misleading. While owls cannot rotate their heads in a full circle, they do come close: these birds can rotate their heads an impressive 270° in either direction (see figure below). That’s the equivalent of turning your head to the right and looking out over your left shoulder. While this flexibility in rotation may seem incredible to humans, owls are limited by another type of movement that we take for granted: the ability to move our eyes. Owls’ eyes are so large in their skulls that most have lost most of the musculature needed to rotate their eyes within their sockets. That means to look at something to their right, owls need to turn their head to see it. Research conducted at Johns Hopkins University has uncovered some of the amazing adaptations that allow owls this extreme range of motion; a 270° twist in a human neck would cause decapitation! There are changes in owls’ vertebrae structure as well as the arteries running through the neck that help prevent damage from occurring when these raptors turn their heads [1].

From first place winner of 2012 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge

Stay tuned for the next two installments of our “Animal Myths” series….

Ryane Logsdon in a member of the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. Her Ph.D. research aims to understand the influences of social and structural environments on courtship behavior in the Greater sage-grouse.

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