12 Animal Stereotypes and the Truth Behind Them

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 Do elephants really have good memories? Are owls really wise, and are sloths really lazy? Ever since the beginning of civilization, human beings have relentlessly anthropormorphized wild animals, to the extent that it can often be difficult to separate myth from fact, even in our modern, supposedly scientific age. On the following images, we'll describe 12 widely believed animal stereotypes, and how closely they conform to reality.

01
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Are Owls Really Wise?

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Folks think owls are wise for the same reason they think people who wear glasses are smart: unusually big eyes are taken as a sign of intelligence. And the eyes of owls aren't only unusually big; they are undeniably huge, taking up so much room in these birds' skulls that they can't even turn in their sockets (an owl has to move its entire head, rather than its eyes, to look in different directions). The myth of the "wise owl" dates back to ancient Greece, where an owl was the mascot of Athena, the goddess of wisdom — but the truth is that owls aren't any smarter than other birds, and are far surpassed in intelligence by comparatively small-eyed crows and ravens.

02
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Do Elephants Really Have Good Memories?

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"An elephant never forgets," goes the old proverb — and in this case, there's more than a bit of truth. Not only do elephants have comparatively bigger brains than other mammals, but they also have surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities: elephants can "remember" the faces of their fellow herd members, and even recognize individuals whom they've met only once, briefly, years before. The matriarchs of elephant herds have also been known to memorize the locations of watering holes, and there is anecdotal evidence of elephants "remembering" deceased companions by gently fondling their bones. (As to another stereotype about elephants, that they're afraid of mice, that can be chalked up to the fact that elephants are easily spooked — it's not the mouse, ​per se, but the sudden wriggling movement.)

03
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Do Pigs Really Eat Like Pigs?

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Well, yes, tautologically speaking, pigs really eat like pigs — just as wolves really eat like wolves and lions really eat like lions. But will pigs actually gorge themselves to the point of throwing up? Not a chance: like most animals, a pig will only eat as much as it needs in order to survive, and if it does appear to overeat (from a human perspective) that's only because it hasn't eaten for a while or it senses that it won't be eating again any time soon. Most likely, the saying "eats like a pig" derives from the unpleasant noise these animals make when chowing down their grub, as well as the fact that pigs are omnivorous, subsisting on green plants, grains, fruits, and pretty much any small animals they can unearth with their blunt snouts.

04
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Do Termites Really Eat Wood?

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Despite what you've seen in cartoons, a colony of termites can't devour an entire barn in ten seconds flat. In fact, not even all termites eat wood: the so-called "higher" termites mainly consume grass, leaves, roots, and the feces of other animals, while the "lower" termites prefer soft wood that is already infested with tasty fungi. As to how some termites can digest wood in the first place, that can be chalked up to the microorganisms in these insects' guts, which secrete enzymes that break down the tough protein cellulose. One little-known fact about termites is that they're a major contributor to global warming: by some estimates, wood-eating termites produce about 10 percent of the world's supply of atmospheric methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide!

05
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Are Lemmings Really Suicidal?

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True story: in the 1958 Walt Disney documentary "White Wilderness," a herd of lemmings is shown plunging heedlessly over a cliff, seemingly bent on self-extermination. In fact, the producers of a subsequent meta-documentary about nature documentaries, "Cruel Camera," discovered that the lemmings in the Disney picture had actually been imported wholesale from Canada, and then chased off the cliff by a camera crew! By that point, though, the damage was already done: a whole generation of movie-goers was convinced that lemmings are suicidal. The fact is that lemmings aren't so much suicidal as they're extremely careless: every few years, local populations explode (for reasons that haven't quite been explained), and rogue herds perish accidentally during their periodic migrations. A good — and extremely miniaturized — GPS system would put the lie to the "lemming suicide" myth once and for all!

06
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Are Ants Really Hard-Working?

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It's hard to imagine an animal more resistant to anthropomorphization than the ant. Yet people continue to do it all the time: in the fable "The Grasshopper and the Ant," the lazy grasshopper whiles away the summer singing, while the ant industriously toils away to store up food for the winter (and somewhat ungenerously refuses to share its provisions when the starving grasshopper asks for help). Because ants are constantly scurrying about, and because different members of the colony have different jobs, one can forgive the average person for calling these insects "hard-working." The fact is, though, that ants don't "work" because they're focused and motivated, but because they've been hard-wired by evolution to do so. In this respect, ants aren't any more industrious than your typical house cat, which spends most of its day sleeping!

07
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Are Sharks Really Bloodthirsty?

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If you've read this far, you pretty much know what we're going to say: sharks aren't any more bloodthirsty, in the human sense of being excessively vicious and brutal, than any other meat-eating animal. Some sharks do, however, possess the ability to detect minute amounts of blood in the water — about one part per million. (This isn't quite as impressive as it sounds: one PPM is equivalent to one drop of blood dissolved in 50 liters of seawater, about the fuel-tank capacity of a mid-sized car.) Another widely held, but mistaken, belief is that shark "feeding frenzies" are caused by the scent of blood: that does have something to do with it, but sharks sometimes also respond to the thrashing of wounded prey and the presence of other sharks — and sometimes they're just really, really hungry!

08
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Do Crocodiles Really Shed Tears?

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In case you've never heard the expression, a person is said to shed "crocodile tears" when he's being insincere about the misfortune of someone else. The ultimate source of this phrase (at least in the English language) is a 14th-century description of crocodiles by Sir John Mandeville: "These serpents slay men, and they eat them weeping; and when they eat they move the over jaw, and not the nether jaw, and they have no tongue." So do crocodiles really "weep" insincerely while they eat their prey? Surprisingly, the answer is yes: like other animals, crocodiles secrete tears to keep their eyes lubricated, and moisturization is especially important when these reptiles are on land. It's also possible that the very act of eating stimulates a crocodile's tear ducts, thanks to the unique arrangement of its jaws and skull.

09
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Are Doves Really Peaceful?

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As far as their behavior in the wild goes, doves aren't any more or less peaceful than any other seed- and fruit-eating birds — though they are arguably easier to get along with than your average crow or vulture. The main reason doves have come to symbolize peace is that they're white, and evocative of the international flag of surrender, a characteristic shared by few other birds. Ironically, the closest relatives of doves are pigeons, which have been used in warfare since time immemorial — for example, a homing pigeon named Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre in World War I (she's now stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian Institution), and during the storming of Normandy in World War II, a platoon of pigeons flew vital information to allied forces that had penetrated behind German lines.

10
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Are Weasels Really Sneaky?

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There's no disputing that their sleek, muscular bodies allow weasels to slip through small crevices, crawl unnoticed through underbrush, and worm their way into otherwise impenetrable places. On the other hand, Siamese cats are capable of the same behavior, and they don't have the same reputation for "sneakiness" as their mustelid cousins. In fact, few modern animals have been slandered as relentlessly as weasels: you call someone a "weasel" when they're being two-faced, untrustworthy, or backstabbing, and a person who uses "weasel words" is deliberately avoiding stating the unvarnished truth. Perhaps the reputation of these animals derives from their habit of raiding poultry farms, which (despite what your average farmer might say) is more a matter of survival than of moral character.

11
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Are Sloths Really Lazy?

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Yes, sloths are slow. Sloths are almost unbelievably slow (you can clock their top speeds in terms of fractions of a mile per hour). Sloths are so slow that microscopic algae grows in the coats of some species, making them virtually indistinguishable from plants. But are sloths really lazy? No: In order to be deemed "lazy," you have to be capable of the alternative (being energetic), and in this regard sloths simply haven't been smiled on by nature. The basic metabolism of sloths is set at a very low level, about half that of mammals of comparable sizes, and their internal body temperatures are lower as well (ranging between 87 and 93 degrees Fahrenheit). If you drove a speeding car straight at a sloth (don't try this at home!) it wouldn't be capable of getting out of the way in time — not because it's lazy, but because that's how it's built.

12
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Are Hyenas Really Evil?

spotted hyena
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Ever since they were cast as the heavies in the Disney movie "The Lion King," hyenas have gotten a bad rap. It's true that the grunts, giggles and "laughs" of the spotted hyena make this African scavenger seem vaguely sociopathic, and that, taken as a group, hyenas aren't the most attractive animals on earth, with their long, toothy snouts and top-heavy, asymmetrical trunks. But just as hyenas don't really have a sense of humor, they aren't evil, either, at least in the human sense of the word; like every other denizen of the African savannah, they are simply trying to survive. (By the way, hyenas aren't only negatively portrayed in Hollywood; some Tanzanian tribes believe witches ride hyenas like broomsticks, and in parts of western Africa they're believed to harbor the reincarnated souls of bad Muslims.)

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Strauss, Bob. "12 Animal Stereotypes and the Truth Behind Them." ThoughtCo, Jan. 2, 2018, thoughtco.com/animal-stereotypes-4136106. Strauss, Bob. (2018, January 2). 12 Animal Stereotypes and the Truth Behind Them. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/animal-stereotypes-4136106 Strauss, Bob. "12 Animal Stereotypes and the Truth Behind Them." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/animal-stereotypes-4136106 (accessed January 19, 2018).