Nature Myths, Debunked

From wart-inducing toads to food-washing raccoons, our correspondant examines a number of persistent nature myths.

| April/May 2006

  • nature myths - toad
    The truth is that touching toads won’t give you warts, but that particular nature myth is repeated so often it’s hard not to let the thought cross your mind.
    Photo by Corbis
  • nature myths - beaver
    A beaver surfaces and proudly shows off its multipurpose tail. Contrary to what you may have seen in cartoons, beavers do not use their tails to pack mud for their dams.
    Tom Uhlman
  • nature myths - raccoon
    Though it may seem that raccoons prefer to wash their food before meals, they’re actually just locating and identifying aquatic prey.
    Lynn M. Stone
  • nature myths - porcupine
    The average portly porcupine has about 30,000 quills, which it can raise or lower, but not shoot. This spiked defense is one of the best in nature.
    Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures
  • nature myths - cottonmouth
    Found in the Southeast and lower Midwest, the poisonous cottonmouth swims with its head held well above water.
    Lynn M. Stone

  • nature myths - toad
  • nature myths - beaver
  • nature myths - raccoon
  • nature myths - porcupine
  • nature myths - cottonmouth

When a bee buzzes, it’s getting ready to sting you. There’s no telling where I got that notion as a child—from my imagination, most likely. But because I believed it, any sudden buzzing would toss me into a blind terror. Heart leaping to my throat, the metallic taste of fear at the back of my mouth, I’d run pell-mell away from that dreaded sound as fast as my little legs could carry me. All the while, I was convinced, a crazed human-hating bee followed in hot pursuit barely more than a stinger’s length away.

Of course, I know now there are countless buzzing insects, and although some do indeed buzz to warn off intruders, relatively few can actually sting—and fewer still are inclined to do so even when provoked.

But to tell you the truth, an unexpected buzzzz from an unnoticed insect still sends a jolt of adrenaline coursing through my veins.

That’s the trouble with long-held or oft-repeated myths, half-truths and other misbegotten beliefs. They tend to persist, despite common sense or scientific knowledge to the contrary. Here are some examples, with explanations.

“If you touch a toad, you’ll get warts.” Of course we all know it’s not true. But have you ever picked up a toad without the wart story coming to mind? Those lumps on a toad’s body do look a lot like warts. And that liquid that oozes from the toad’s skin if you grasp it too firmly ... eck.

Actually, that liquid is a poison, and it does come from the toad’s warty skin and from the two largest lumps—called parotoid glands—located just behind the amphibian’s eyes. But the toxin is merely a defense mechanism, emitted by the glands only under outside pressure—such as that from a would-be toad-eater’s unsuspecting mouth. Most animals immediately spit toads out, though hawks and snakes gobble them with apparent impunity. Raccoons and skunks eat toads after batting them around on the ground to release and rub off the poison.

8/8/2008 9:48:18 PM

What a wonderful article. Your writing style draws in the reader's attention and won't let it go. Great to know the reality of those childhood myths that still go through our head each time we encounter them.

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