The 6 Most Frequently Quoted Bullshit Animal Facts
For those of us here at Cracked, there are basically three types of animals: ones we'd like to keep as pets, ones that taste delicious and ones we only know a couple of things about. Sometimes these categories overlap, but that's another story.
Anyhow, the category we're concerning ourselves with in this article is the last one: animals that we know one, maybe two things about. Now, these are by no means obscure facts; you probably learned them when you were 10, and, as should surprise no one who has read the title, these "facts" are completely, totally wrong.
Lemmings Commit Mass Suicide
Why You Know This "Fact":
Calling people a bunch of lemming is like calling them "sheeple." The small, furry lemmings are known for being mindless followers who will even commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. They've shown up in cartoons, commercials and video games doing exactly that.
Too bad none of it is true.
This rumor was probably started in the early 19th Century. Scientists would see sudden bursts of the lemming population that would just as suddenly shrink, and they couldn't figure out why. In 1908 a man named Arthur Mee decided that "mass suicide" seemed as good an answer as any and published it in his The Children's Encyclopedia.
Arthur Mee refused to shelter children from the harsh realities of the shit he totally made up.
Mee concludes that the self-inflicted almost total annihilation of lemmings is "sad and terrible, but if the dismal exodus did not occur lemmings would long ago have eaten Europe bare." This means that Mee believes that lemmings kill themselves out of an instinctual drive to preserve Europe at the expense of killing themselves, and everyone reading along at home said, "Yeah, that sounds right."
Still, Mee's pointless nerd book and all the myths therein would have faded into obscurity, if it wasn't for Walt Disney.
In 1958, Disney filmed the groundbreaking nature documentary White Wilderness, where they managed to capture lemming suicide on film for the first time. We spend a few hours watching an entire lemming migration and cap the whole film off with shots of lemmings diving off a cliff to their deaths.
And, for the few kids out there who aren't into encyclopedias or nature documentaries wherein cute rodents kill themselves, game designer Psygnosis spread the myth even further, with Lemmings, an incredibly addictive video game where the player had to save the adorably stupid green-haired protagonists from certain death. Thankfully, the game was recently, ported to the PS3 keeping the lie alive for another generation at the very least.
Why It's Bullshit:
Lemmings are good at two things: eating and fucking. A female lemming is capable of birthing 80 baby lemmings a year, a staggering number that most of them reach because when you're a lemming you've got shit else to do.
The end result of a bunch of hungry lemmings with their sex organs set to "Super Fuck" is what we call a "population problem." When this happens, the lemmings empty their surroundings of all possible food and have to go search for more, out in the world. Now you've gone from too many lemmings in a lemming habitat to too many starving lemmings frantically running around in unfamiliar territory.
As you would expect, panic sets in and they make rash decisions. Sometimes this means absentmindedly falling off a cliff or being accidentally bumped into a river by one of the other hundreds of lemmings. It's not mass suicide. Think about it. If that was the case, there wouldn't be any more lemmings. A creature that's instinctively driven to kill itself isn't designed for longevity; it's as simple as that.
As for the "groundbreaking nature documentary" White Wilderness, it turns out that it's total bullshit. The creators of the film simply grabbed up about a dozen lemmings and sent them to Canada. The film assured us that we were seeing an entire lemming migration when, in reality, they were filming the same handful of lemmings over and over again.
So how do you make 12 of the same lemmings running around into family friendly entertainment? Well, if you're Disney, you toss the lemmings off a cliff and tell your audience it was a suicide. That. Happened. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science was so outraged that they gave White Wilderness an Oscar for Best Documentary.
Ostriches Stick Their Heads in the Sand
Why You Know This "Fact":
The famous Roman thinker, Pliny the Elder, came up with this bit of nonsense in the year 79 AD for Natural History, the epic encyclopedia he created as a home for all of the world's knowledge (including the not real parts). He wrote that the ostriches would bury their heads in the sand on the belief that, when the head is hidden, "the whole of their body is concealed."
Here's an artist's rendering of Pliny making shit up
The reason that this myth has stuck around for as long as it has is that it's an incredibly versatile political metaphor. Do you want to imply that President Obama is being naive about the war in Iraq? Say he's sticking his head in the sand. Do you want to revitalize an unpopular political party? Say you're taking your head out of the sand. Do you want to assert that Hillary Clinton is blindly appeasing a foreign country, while expressing that opinion as confusingly as you can? Say she's sticking the USA's head in Pakistani soil. Whenever you want to say that any person, party or organization is being willfully ignorant about a single issue, draw a picture of an ostrich with its head in the sand and scribble the party name on the ostrich's torso. It has never been easier to be a political cartoonist.
Why It's Bullshit:
Just like the lemming, the fact that the ostrich isn't extinct from sheer stupidity should have been your first clue that this wasn't even close to being true. Any animal that thinks hiding its head in the sand makes it invisible to predators is an animal too dumb to survive.
In reality, they'll get all up in your grill.
The truth is that while ostriches can't fly, they're the fastest animal in the world on two legs, capable of reaching speeds of 45 miles-per-hour (twice the top speed of a human), and maintaining that speed for up to a half-hour. So if the ostrich sees a leopard off in the distance, it doesn't bother hiding, it just runs, much in the same way that you'd run away from a wheelchair-bound serial killer instead of, say, putting your hands over your eyes in an attempt to disappear.
There are two possible reasons why people might believe this myth and, unfortunately, both of them are as stupid as the ostrich is supposed to be. First, the ostrich occasionally pecks at the ground for stones, which it uses to digest its food.
Try it some time.
(Note from Cracked.com's legal department: This site will not be held responsible if you do, in fact, "try it some time." Retard.)
Second, the ostrich sleeps laying down. In either case, the argument is: "Hey, from far away, it looks like the ostrich has its head buried in the sand. I'm content to believe this is true and further conclude that ostriches think they're invisible, this matter requires no further investigation." This is why, today, we base our animal facts on actual experiments and field research, and not the simple What Things Look Like To Pliny the Elder method of animal classification.
St. Bernards Carry Beer/Brandy Around Their Necks
Why You Know This "Fact":
It's all because of an English painter named Edwin Landseer, in 1820.
Edwin also may have been Wolverine .
Landseer was a bit of a child prodigy, beloved by both Queen Victoria and the masses for his landscapes and animal portraits. When, at age 17, he painted "Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler," (Edwin was not the kind of artist who forced you to interpret his meaning), he decided to make it approximately 50 times more awesome by adding a barrel of brandy around the necks of the Alpines (St. Bernards). And the people ate it up.
One dog is going for the jugular, while the other isn't sure what he's stepping on. Some rescue.
Now, we know that, as members of the Cracked audience, you're incredibly well-versed and always up-to-speed on popular art throughout the ages, but how did your average John Q. Public hear about this myth? Probably the way they learn about everything else, by which we mean old Looney Tunes cartoons (see 2:30). Yep, once Looney Tunes decided to depict the St. Bernard-as-bartender (inspired by Landseer's painting), the myth was cemented in pop culture history.
What's interesting about this myth is that it wasn't as if Landseer once knew a St. Bernard that carried brandy, and it's not like the dogs regularly carried supplies and Landseer wrongly assumed it was brandy; there was no genuine excuse for Landseer to depict the dogs this way apart from "I felt like it." He was just a 17-year-old kid who thought dogs would be cooler if they were also bars (he's right), and the world just decided to take his word as gospel.
Why It's Bullshit:
Sadly, the world isn't that cool; there are three simple reasons why letting a St. Bernard carry brandy around would be absolutely irresponsible (that's "people die" irresponsible, not "throwing a party while your parents are gone" irresponsible). First, burdening a rescue animal with a heavy keg would obviously slow it down. Second, since Brandy is 36-60 percent alcohol, sub-zero (oF) temperatures could make it slushy or freeze it solid. If you're thinking that would be the best slushy ever, remember that when you're freezing to death, the last thing you want is a snow cone, even if it is beer-flavored.
There are worse ways to die, though.
Finally, and most importantly, alcohol actually causes you to lose heat faster, which means giving brandy to someone suffering from hypothermia would be about as effective as shoving ice cubes up their asshole.
Piranhas Will Strip a Cow to the Bone in Under a Minute
Why You Know This "Fact":Teddy "Motherfucking" Roosevelt.
As you can tell by this, this, this, this and this, here at Cracked we're big fans of Teddy Roosevelt as he is without a doubt the most awesome person ever to live. Basically, any factoid about Teddy's life contains enough testosterone to kill an ox, and this is no different.
Archive photo of Roosevelt using Thor's magic hammer to battle Satan in the final days of WWII.
The year was 1913, and Teddy was touring the Brazilian Amazon. At this point, his reputation for badassery had become globally recognized, and the Brazilians realized that to impress someone like Roosevelt, they had to step it up a notch and show him something incredible. So before he came, they roped off a small lake and tossed a couple hundred piranhas in without any food; by the time Teddy arrived, the fish were starving and completely crazy.
When the guides lowered in a juicy cow, the piranhas went after it like tiny guided missiles and reduced it to bones in a little less than 60 seconds. Teddy was quite impressed, and wrote about the ferocity in his 1914 book Through The Brazilian Wilderness, which is how everyone else learned about it (when Teddy Roosevelt tells you something, you fucking pay attention.)
We like to imagine that as soon as Teddy returned to the U.S., he started breeding his own piranhas in an attempt to finally find an animal that could stand up to him in a fight. Like all other such attempts, this was doomed to failure from the start.
Plenty of cartoons and short stories took Roosevelt's report and ran with it, portraying any body of water rumored to have piranhas as a cross between a hot tub and a garbage disposal. Dip your toe in, on come the boiling piranha jacuzzi jets, and off comes everything but bone. Hollywood picked this myth up in 1978 and created Piranha and Piranha 2, which outfitted the piranhas with fucking wings.
Why It's Bullshit:
Piranhas are really freaking good at eating shit, there's no question about that. In a large school, they specialize in efficiently organized group-eating that utilizes a system of constant rotation. They're also very fast eaters but, even with all of that in mind, they're still very small, and they still dine almost exclusively on other fish. (For a fish, growing dependent on eager-to-impress Brazilians lowering cows into your home isn't the most reliable dietary plan.)
Waiting for cows--they're already dead.
Yes, despite their fearsome faces, piranhas are just scavengers, going after the weak and sick and destroying them. If you're wondering, technically, in cases of extreme drought, schools of piranhas can turn into those swarms of pointy teeth we've all heard about. But (and this is a big but) every animal faced with starvation will do the same thing. In Roosevelt's case, the group of piranhas was much larger than an average school and the Brazilians intentionally starved them.
Also, like all animals, piranhas are inherently predisposed to want to impress Roosevelt. You may act all above piranhas, but if Teddy Roosevelt walked into your house, you'd eat the shit out of a live cow if you thought it might make the big guy smile.
Bumblebees Violate the Laws of Aerodynamics
Why You Know This "Fact":
It all started at a college dinner in Gottingen, Germany. Unsurprisingly, plenty of strong German beer was served, and, as the professors and scientists got drunker and drunker, one aerodynamicist decided to work out the principles behind bee flight as a party trick. He did some quick figuring, a few calculations and, astonished, announced that bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly at all, as they simply didn't generate enough lift relative to their size. Preferring the "BEES ARE WITCHES" theory to the slightly more conventional, "Look, they're flying so they probably have it figured out" principal, a biologist started shouting this discovery from the rooftop for all to hear.
Science? More like lience! Get it?
The next morning, when the aerodynamicist woke up and realized his mistake (getting incredibly drunk and talking about bees), it was too late. The excitable biologist had already spread the story around like wildfire.
I did what with a bumblebee? Oh, shit.
Since then, this myth has become a staple of motivational speeches, as it shows that you should never give up, no matter what anyone says about you. It's also popped up in all sorts of random places, from Doctor Who to the Jerry Seinfeld animated vehicle Bee Movie, which would be disastrous to the bumblebees's reputation, had anyone seen that movie.
Why It's Bullshit:
It's confusing how something with such a comically rotund body can even get off the ground with such tiny wings, never mind fly. And it's true that, compared with birds, there's no way a bumblebee should be able to fly at all. But that's exactly the point: The bumblebee isn't like a bird, a plane or even Superman. As it turns out, the bumblebee has a lot more to do with a helicopter than anything else; and when you start thinking of its wings as miniature propellers, everything makes sense aerodynamically. So the bumblebee isn't a buzzing example of scientific failure after all (though that biologist up above certainly is).
You win this time, science.
The funny thing is, physicists figured out bumblebee flight 80 years ago, realized there was nothing special about it, and went back to work, figuring that the controversy would blow over. A half-century later one of them took his nose out of a textbook long enough to realize that people still believed that shit, and promptly disproved it by showing that the bumblebee's "propeller wings" created a "low-pressure vortex" to produce lift, which we think means that bumblebees can create mini-tornadoes which, if true, carries a lot more horrifying possibilities than arguments about lift and body weight.
Chameleons Change Color to Blend in With Their Environment
Why You Know This "Fact":
This lie was first started by a Greek named Antigonus of Carystus. The odd thing is, the considerably more famous Greek philosopher Aristotle had correctly linked chameleon color change with emotion a century before, so there's no reason anyone should have believed Antigonus. But apparently the word of a Antigonus carries more weight than Aristotle, despite the fact that, according to The Book of General Ignorance, Antigonus was famous for his "entertaining stories" based on personal observation and, according to the world, Aristotle was famous for "discovering fucking everything."
Stone cold badass.
No one really knows why this particular myth happens to be so pervasive, but, as we always do, we choose to blame Culture Club's song "Karma Chameleon" and its delightfully androgynous singer Boy George.
Just to give you some context, Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" made it to #65 on the US Billboard, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made it to #6 and John Lennon's "Imagine" peaked at #3. "Karma Chameleon" made it to #1. Where it stayed.
Normally we would make a joke about this, but we're just too outraged.
If It Were True:
Chameleons would be the ninjas of the animal world. Able to instantly blend into their surroundings, they could sneak into and out of any high-security location virtually undetected; the only indication they had ever been there would be a sudden lack of flies, and possibly a lack of precious jewelry as well. There could be a chameleon standing right in front of you right now, and you wouldn't notice until your keyboard started typing itself.
Why It's Bullshit:
Chameleons can change color; in fact they do it all the time. But it has nothing to do with camouflage. As you learned above from Aristotle (as everyone else should have learned a billion years ago), the color of a chameleon depends on what emotional state it's in: If he sees a lovely lady lizard, he turns a shade of light blue, while when he's furious he goes jet black. If you're thinking that last one sounds kind of badass, just remember that this makes the chameleon nature's mood ring.
The opposite of badass.
In fact, now that we think about it, being a chameleon would suck in that everything you think literally shows up on your face. So if, for example, your creepy, annoying uncle tells you he's going to die soon and you turn bright green with happiness, you can count on not getting any bugs from his will. Similarly, if your wife confronts you about cheating on her with that bug-eyed beauty on the tree next door and you turn dark pink with guilt, you'll probably be looking for a new mate come morning.
Occasionally, chameleons change color because of light or temperature, so if you are caught in either of of those two scenarios, you could pass it off by saying, "It's just the heat." But we doubt anyone would buy that.
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For more ways that your younger years were a complete lie, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught In History Class and Your Mom Lied: 5 Common Body Myths Debunked.
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We have some bad news: lemmings don't commit suicide en masse, Ostriches are more badass than velociraptors and your favorite book sellers are now taking pre-orders for a text book written and illustrated entirely by the Cracked team! Hitting shelves in October, Cracked's De-Textbook is a fully-illustrated, systematic deconstruction of all of the bullshit you learned in school.
It's loaded with facts about history, your body, and the world around you that your teachers didn't want you to know. And as a bonus? We'll bust all your most frequently quoted bullshit human myths.