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Is an Owl Really Wise? Four Animal Myths Debunked

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Fables are as ubiquitous in childhood as our favorite toys and the hide-and-seek game are. These stories are told all over the world, usually involving animals with humanlike natures—a wise owl as the narrator, or a cunning fox who’s constantly scheming. As kids, we learn important moral lessons from them, but we also learn to associate animals with these character traits. Such stereotypes permeate our culture, so it becomes hard to distinguish which are based in reality and which are simply fables. But is there any truth to the way we often think of certain creatures? 

1. Does an elephant never forget?
Elephants have the largest brains of any land mammal around (which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen an elephant). But within that giant brain is a highly organized and developed olfactory area, which is tied to sense of smell. Elephants have an extremely adept ability to pinpoint and recall a number of scents, helping them determine who’s family and who’s a stranger when an unfamiliar elephant comes around. They can recognize relatives by smelling their urine, even after several years without contact. 

Matriarch elephants, the females who control the herds, are especially good about remembering details that increase survival chances. In 2008, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London studied elephant mortality rates following a particularly severe drought in Tanzania’s Tarangine National Park. They found that the mothers who led their elephant families out of the park, and thus had higher survival rates, were old enough to remember the last terrible drought—which happened thirty-five years prior to the drought in Tarangine. The elephants who stayed in the park (and comprised 63 percent of the deaths) were too young to know about the previous drought. Elephants do have an astounding memory for what’s necessary to survive, especially when it’s fueled by their even more astonishing sense of smell. 

2. Are all dolphins as friendly as Flipper?
Dolphins have a great reputation among humans for the most part, thanks to popular TV shows and movies. And well before these mediums existed, stories about dolphins’ saving humans circulated for hundreds of years. More recently, in 2007, a school of bottlenose dolphins encased a Monterey, California, surfer in a protective circle to rescue him from a great white shark attack. 

These sea mammals are thought to be smart and sociable, but remember that such characteristics can vary by species—and there are over thirty in the dolphin category. Just as they differ in size and shape, they can vary in temperament and curiosity levels, too. Some will be playful, but others might feel provoked and turn aggressive. Dolphins sometimes kill their own young and porpoises for reasons unknown. Some have even tried to mate with people who happen to wander by in the water, creating a dangerous and harmful situation for humans. So, even though dolphins can be helpful and friendly, they’re still wild animals and should be treated accordingly. 

3. What does “crazy like a fox” mean?
Foxes are often thought to be especially crafty and entrepreneurial. That’s where the famous phrase comes from—it implies that they’re always thinking of ways to stay on top and succeed, despite what their behavior implies. Foxes do think ahead; they actually keep hunting for extra food after they’ve eaten so that they can store it for future hunger. They’re also exceptionally astute, thanks to sharp eyesight, smell, and hearing. Their ears are so powerful that, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service Web site, they can hear an earthworm moving on the ground. 

Foxes are some of the most opportunistic animals around, in that they adapt to whatever homes they can find. That’s why they live everywhere from forests to mountains to the outskirts of farms. Their eyes function well in low and bright lights. They’ll eat anything, including garbage or pet food. Clearly, foxes are as clever and cunning as the cliché suggests. Each move they make is calculated to achieve the ultimate goal—survival. 

4. Are owls all that wise?
It’s hard for me to imagine owls as anything other than intelligent, because that’s how I was raised to see them. The ancient Greeks considered them wise and paired them with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. But in India, they’re thought of as dumb because of their blank expressions. (That’s interesting, since owls’ big eyes “see all” and therefore make them wise in Western culture.) As it turns out, storytellers in India might be onto something—owls aren’t nearly as brainy as we give them credit for. They’re great hunters and can see and hear remarkably well at night; the feathers on their wings allow them to fly silently, catching prey by surprise. But in terms of bird brains, they don’t score too highly on the smarts scale. 

Louis Lefebvre, an animal behaviorist at Montreal’s McGill University, concluded after much research that a bird’s intellect is tied to how big its brain is compared with its body. He found crows to be the smartest. Owls, with their relatively large bodies and puny brains, aren’t as intelligent; they can’t learn tricks as astutely as hawks or parrots can, for example. What brain power they do have is devoted to hunting, a sport at which they best even hawks. Owls aren’t wise in general, but you could argue that they’re smart about the important stuff. 

It’s fascinating to think how different our perceptions of animals would be if we didn’t grow up inundated with particular images of them. For instance, the owl’s piercing stare signals knowledge to some and a Vacancy sign in the head to others. But even their real-life characteristics can teach us essential lessons if we take the time to learn about them—namely, that we should focus on remembering the stuff that really matters, that there’s such a thing as too much curiosity, that it’s possible to make the best of any situation, and that we’d hunt more successfully by growing feathers to mask the sound of air against our moving bodies. Okay, we may not need that last one.

Updated January 25, 2011


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