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Old Wives' Tales 

Passing down misinformation about nature is a family tradition. 
By: Carol McFeeters Thompson  
Your mom told you about it because her mom told her about it, so it must be true. It’s why you told your kids. Your dad always said it (because his dad always said it), so now you always say it, too. Call them old wives' tales, or folk beliefs. But they all have this in common: Many times they're accepted without question, and passed on, simply because…well, our parents told us so.

When it comes to folk tales about nature, there’s no shortage. Have you heard these?

The tale: Daddy longlegs are the most venomous spiders on earth. But, luckily, their mouthparts are too small to bite people.
The truth
: Daddy longlegs aren't even spiders, in the official sense. They do have eight legs so and are classified as arachnids (like spiders, ticks and scorpions), but spiders have two body parts (a cephalothorax and an abdomen) and Daddy longlegs have only one body part. Most spiders have eight simple eyes, while Daddy longlegs have only two small eyes mounted on a turret high on his back. Spiders make silk, even if they don't spin a web; but Daddy longlegs cannot. All spiders deliver venom through fangs to paralyze and eat their prey. Despite their reputation, Daddy longlegs have no venom and are equipped only with a pair of claws near their mouth. They feed, for the most part, as a scavenger on dead insects and fruit and plant juices, although they are known to kill small soft insects such as aphids and leafhoppers. Instead of sucking out its body fluids as spiders do, they chew and swallow their prey.

The tale: Touching a toad will give you warts.
The truth:
Warts are benign tumors of the epidermis caused by one of about 60 viruses in the HPV (Human Pappilloma Virus) family that only affect humans. Wart viruses are contagious and can be spread from one person to another by direct or indirect contact with a wart, but not from a toad to a person. The idea that touching a toad will cause warts probably arose from the toad's bumpy, warty-looking skin. Glands on the skin exude a mild, milky poison when the toad is alarmed. Although they do not affect the skin, these secretions irritate mucous membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth lining, effectively encouraging most mammalian predators to release them. But even that defense mechanism doesn't make a toad safe. Snakes, turtles and birds don't seem to be bothered by the poison, and skunks avoid it by rubbing the toad on the ground until the toxin is exhausted.

The tale: If you touch a butterfly's wings and it loses some scales, it will die.
The truth:
Butterfly wings are covered with hundreds of thousands of tiny scales that overlap one another like shingles on a roof. Scales protect and strengthen the translucent wing membranes and help provide lift. Drastic loss of scales will change the aerodynamics of the wing, making flight more strenuous and slower, but a butterfly can fly with most of its scales missing. (In fact, butterflies are so resilient that they can still fly after losing parts of their wings.) Slipperiness and easy detachment of butterfly scales help butterflies escape predators. Wear and tear is natural over an adult's lifetime and a few scales are lost each time a butterfly flies. Severe weather, brushes with plants and spider webs all take their toll. The longer a butterfly lives, the more likely its wings will be damaged. Scales form the colors and patterns butterflies need for mate selection, camouflage, predator avoidance and thermoregulation. Although a butterfly will not die if you touch its wings, if too many scales are rubbed off, these benefits are lost.

The tale: The holes in the ground along a stream or lake bank are "snake holes."
The truth: Snakes don't dig holes. They have nothing to dig with. Even so-called "burrowing snakes" simply bury themselves in loose soil without digging a hole. In search of food or shelter, snakes may enter holes made by small rodents so seeing one emerge simply confirms the act of trespass. Small holes in the ground near a body of water, in a wet meadow or along a ditch are usually the work of a crayfish. Breathing with gills, crayfish cannot stray too far from water. They excavate vertical or angled shafts to the water table, pushing pellets of soil to the surface and piling them neatly around the hole to create a tube or "chimney" that can be 8 inches tall. Chimneys eventually wash or are worn away. Underwater chambers at the bottom of the burrow serve as a refuge to escape predators, as a resting place during inactive periods and as a nursery for their young. Crayfish are omnivores with a diet that includes living or decaying plant material, small animals and carrion. Twenty-one species of crayfish are native to Illinois. Some live in burrows; others do not.

The tale: If you touch a molted bird feather, you'll get lice.
The truth
: Bird lice are extremely host specific not interested in humans. In other words, bird lice live on birds, human head lice live on human heads. The lice found on birds are chewing lice and do not suck blood, feeding instead on skin scales, feathers and scabs. Lice which are external parasites on mammals are sucking lice and pierce skin to draw blood. Feeding repeatedly, they make a fresh puncture each time they feed. A bird must take good care of its feathers. Not only do feathers help a bird fly, they protect it from cold and sun and rain, they give the bird its color and shape, they provide camouflage, and they help males set up territories and attract a mate. A bird uses its beak to spread oil on its feathers to waterproof them and to remove lice and other pests that hide in them. But despite frequent preening, eventually, feathers wear out and have to be replaced. The old feathers drop out and new feathers grow in. Some birds get two sets of feathers each year; some birds get only one.

When it comes to the facts of nature you might have been told as a child, are you sure you know what you know you know? Before you pass along that little tidbit of nature education your dad related, ask yourself, "Who told him?"

Carol McFeeters Thompson is the site interpreter at Weldon Springs State Recreation Area.
Blue jay feather Toad Butterfly Crayfish chimney