10 False Animal Facts Most People Think Are True

A student studying a goldfish

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Whether by fable, fallacy, or fairy tale, there are many things we think we know about animals that are just plain wrong. As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks! And as a leopard goes from infant to adult, it really does change its spots.

The following myths are some of the more widely believed, but in truth, they’re actually more fiction than fact.

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Ostriches bury their heads in the sand

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The ostrich is the largest known bird – and one that can run up to 40 mph and has a kick powerful enough to bend steel rods — but it does not bury its head in the sand as a defense mechanism. When threatened, along with running and kicking, these creatures do try to hide, but they do so by laying flat on the ground. That said, from a distance their tiny heads can appear to be buried when they are lifting themselves up from the ground. But is the head actually inserted into the sand? Not at all.

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Opossums hang by their tails

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While it’s true that opossums have mighty tails and use them with great facility, they do not generally hang from them and they certainly don’t sleep in such a position. While a baby may hang from its tail for a few seconds, adults are too heavy to do the same. And although opossums can't hang from their tails, they do have opposable "thumbs" to make up for it.

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Touching a toad can give you warts

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Frogs and toads may have lumpy skin, but they can’t give you warts. It’s a human virus, not amphibian skin, that causes warts. But it's a good idea to avoid touching them anyway — some toads’ wart-like bumps contain parotoid glands, which contain a poison that can be rather irritating ... so be careful where you kiss them.

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Lemmings engage in group suicide

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Since at least the 19th century we’ve believed that lemmings engage in cult-like suicidal behavior and jump off cliffs en masse during migration. While it’s true that during population explosions, lemmings seek out new habitat and occasionally fall off cliffs on unfamiliar turf, but group suicide? Nope. Curiously, mass plunges aren't even the strangest false fact that poor lemmings have to endure. The 16th-century geographer Zeigler of Strasbourg proposed that lemmings fell out of the sky during storms, and then suffered mass extinctions when the spring grass began to sprout. Impressive.

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An earthworm split in half becomes two worms

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First of all, ew. Second of all, if an earthworm is cut in two it will not become two worms. The head end of the worm may live and regenerate its back end if it was severed behind the clitellum; but the old tail will die. However, the super fascinating planarian flatworm – a tiny freshwater worm from a different phylum than earthworms – is able to reform its entire body from slivers as teensy as 1/300th of the critter's original body size.

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The color red makes bulls aggressive

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The much-believed premise behind bullfighting is that the red cape gets the bull revved up and makes him charge at the matador. In reality, cattle are dichromatic (colorblind) and don’t see red as a vivid color. What they are responding to is the movement of the cape and the overall threat of the situation. (We don’t blame them, we’d be mad too.)

On a happier note, pictured here is Spanish torero Jose Tomas during the last bullfight in Catalonia before the government prohibition of bullfighting took place in 2011.

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Bats are blind

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Many bats may have small eyes, and about 70 percent of the species augment their vision with echolocation which helps them hunt at night – but blind? No way. Merlin Tuttle, founder and president of Bat Conservation International, confirms the truth in no uncertain terms: “There are no blind bats. They see extremely well.” So there.

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Koalas are a type of bear

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While the impossibly cute creatures that have inspired many an Australian souvenir may have an ursine appearance, they are surely not bears; they are marsupials. Once born, the baby is carried in the mom’s pouch for about six months. When the infant emerges, it rides on momma koala's back or clings to her belly accompanying her everywhere until it’s a year old. Awwww.

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Goldfish have a 3-second memory

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It would be nice to think that every time Goldie swims around the bowl it’s a new adventure, since we all know that fish have no memory. But, no. Studies have shown that goldfish are capable of remembering and learning. Research at Plymouth University concluded that goldfish have a memory span of up to three months and can even learn when to expect lunch. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that fish are just as intelligent as birds and many mammals.

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Sloths are lazy

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The etymology of the word “sloth” reveals roots pertaining to slow speed; but somehow the poor sloth garnered a reputation for being a constant committer of one of the seven deadly sins. In fact, sloths are slow — very slow — but not lazy. They simply are unable to move any faster. Sloths are cursed – or blessed, depending on your perspective – with a metabolism that is only 40 to 45 percent of what most animals of comparative size have. With so little to power their movement, it's no wonder that they can only climb 6 feet per minute.