Ask a Naturalist – Creepy animal myths

c-miss Puff the Toad

In honor of Halloween, in this month’s column we will quiz you about animals that some folks find creepy or spooky.

True or False: Touching a toad will give you warts. False! Human warts are caused by the human papillomavirus. The virus is passed from person to person like any other infection, and usually enters the skin though small scrapes and cuts. Toads do not carry the virus, so touching them cannot give you warts. Toads are amphibians, closely related to frogs, but unlike most frogs, adult toads spend most of their time away from the water. The “warts” on their skin are just bumps that secrete bad-tasting compounds, which make for a nasty tasting toad for any predator trying to eat it. For this reason, and the fact that toads, like all amphibians, reptiles and birds, can carry salmonella (bacteria that cause food poisoning), always wash your hands after touching these animals.

True or False: Most snakes are poisonous. False. Actually, this statement is false in two different ways. Some snakes are venomous, not poisonous. The quick way to remember the difference is: If you bite an animal and you get sick, it is poisonous. If an animal bites (or stings) you and you get sick, it is venomous. The vast majority of snakes are non-venomous. In Minnesota we only have one species of venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake, which is quite rare. In fact, over the past 60 years they have only been found in the three southeastern-most counties in the state. They are shy and unaggressive, and usually strike only if provoked—they would rather slide away from humans if given the chance. In other parts of the world venomous snakes are more common, but only about 15 percent of snake species worldwide are considered dangerous to humans.

True or False: Bats will make a nest in your hair.  False! Bats have no interest in going anywhere near you or your hair. Bats fly in a swooping and erratic way because they are chasing insects, their prey. This may sometimes bring them close to a human’s head (or at least closer than the human would prefer). The bat is not “attacking” the human. It might be attacking the mosquito that is trying to attack the human, though! Bats also do not make nests, so even if a bat did (by some accident) land on or brush against a person’s head, it wouldn’t stay there or get tangled. While we’re debunking bat myths, they are also not blind—many bats use the amazing extra sense of echolocation, a kind of “bat radar” that makes them amazing at catching insects. In other creepy bat beliefs, no bats in Minnesota will suck your blood. Only three species of bats in the world are vampire bats that feed on blood, and they all live in Central and South America and prey mostly on livestock. All bats that live in Minnesota eat only insects, and some bats in other parts of the world eat fruit or nectar.

True or False: Earwigs will crawl into your ear and burrow into your brain to lay eggs. False! The name “earwig” is probably what gave rise to this myth. In truth, the rarely seen hindwing of the earwig, when unfolded, has the shape of a human ear. These insects actually make small holes in the soil in which to lay their eggs. Depending on the exact species, they eat plants, other insects or decaying matter. They do generally like to hide in tight moist crevices, such as under tree bark. Their large pincers do look fearsome, but are mainly used to capture prey or defend themselves. If you try to pick one up, you might get a small pinch, but otherwise these creatures are harmless.

So now you can rest easier this Halloween knowing that none of these animals are dangerous or out to get you. Kids ages 6-12 can even take a closer look when they get signed up for Creepy Crawly Creatures day camp during MEA break, October 17-19.

Stop by the Nature Center anytime to meet a toad or millipede up close. Celebrate Halloween as a family at our free Animal Masquerade Party on October 28 from 1-3:30 p.m. Come dressed as an animal (if you like) and enjoy games, dancing and fun. Disguise your identity in natural style by creating a leaf mask to complete your costume. If you have young children, come to our Nature Nuts playgroup for kids under age six and an adult to explore the outdoors and learn about seasons, plants and animals (details below).

October Public Programs

October 6 – Birding: Fall Migration: look for the last summer birds while on a naturalist-guided hike, 9-10:30 a.m., free.

October 13 – Hike: Fall into Phenology: explore seasonal changes in the park with a naturalist, 2-3 p.m., free.

October 17-19—MEA Break: Creepy Crawly Creatures Day Camp: kids can discover the gross, spooky fun of the outdoors, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., $90.

October 20—Outdoors: Soil Critters: explore the mysterious world under the surface, 1:30-2:30 p.m., free.

October 24—Nature Nuts Play Group: four weeks of adult/child nature exploration, 10:45-11:45 a.m., ages 5 and under with an adult, $16 for four weeks.

October 28—Family Funday: Animal Masquerade Party: come dressed as your favorite animal and make a leaf mask to complete your outfit, 1-3:30 p.m., free.

Find registration for these programs and more at minneapolisparks.org or call 612-370-4844. Do you have a question about nature in your own backyard? Then send it our way by emailing northmississippi@minneapolisparks.org and it could appear in a future article. This month look for something creepy or crawly in the park or your neighborhood! Create a drawing or take a picture and think about why it seems spooky. Then show and tell a naturalist at the front desk to receive a prize! Any images people would like to share will be displayed at the Center for the month of October. Like us on Facebook to stay in the loop about what is happening at your park!

 

This article was written by  Victoria Thompson, Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park