Top 10 False Nature Narratives

There are many common nature beliefs our culture holds to be true that are just flat out wrong. Below is my top 10 list of nature falsehoods.

1. If you have a bad rash, it’s poison oak, not poison ivy

Poison ivy
(“Poison Ivy” courtesy Alabama Cooperative Extension System/Bruce Dupree.)

This is an easy one: poison oak doesn’t grow in Ohio! Even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from the rash. The itchy, blistery rash is an allergic reaction to a heavy oil called urushiol. It is present in both plants, so telling the difference would be like telling the difference between a burn from a match and a burn from a candle.

2. Spiders will bite you at night, leaving bumps on your face

An arboreal orbweaver spider captures its prey, wrapping it in silk.
This arboreal orbweaver spider may chomp down on its prey, but not humans.

This is just false. One, the majority of spiders don’t have mouthparts big enough or strong enough to pierce your skin. Two, why would a spider continuously bite your skin? They can’t eat you, so they’re not going to spend the time and energy biting you. Three, our breathing and heart beat creates vibrations that would warn a spider off. Bonus: You don’t swallow eight spiders per year either!

3. Toads give you warts

An American toad sits among dirt and mulch under a tree.
This bumpy toad doesn’t have any warts.

Hopefully we all know this one isn’t true. Toads will pee on you if you pick them up, but that’s only a defense mechanism. And I would think it’s pretty effective: Imagine trying to eat something that pees in your mouth. But it’s just urine, which is mostly water and harmless, nothing to fear. Toads don’t even have warts themselves. Their skin is simply bumpy.

4. We have poisonous cottonmouths, water moccasins and copperheads in our creeks

First things first: Poisonous snakes don’t exist. “What!?” you cry. They are venomous, not poisonous. “Semantics!” you retort. But it’s not semantics. Poison is ingested; venom is injected. Now that that’s out of the way … cottonmouths and water moccasins (which are the same species, actually) do not live in Ohio. Their range is far from Ohio. Could there ever be one in Ohio? I never say never, but I will say it is highly, highly unlikely. As for copperheads, they do live in Ohio, but there have been no official sightings in Hamilton County in decades. They also prefer rocky, wooded hillsides and not creeks. So what is it that we see? Northern water snakes. They are common throughout Ohio and nonvenomous.

5. Don’t touch a baby bird, the mom will smell human and abandon the baby

Most birds have a poorly developed sense of smell, and probably won’t detect your scent. But even so, bird parents spend large amounts of energy in raising their young and are not quick to give up their young to spend more energy starting over. Having said that, most baby birds you find on the ground are not abandoned. Some will fledge before they can fly. Observe them from a distance and chances are you’ll find the parents nearby still caring for their young.

6. Daddy long-legs are highly venomous – they just can’t bite you

They don’t have venom. They don’t have fangs. That is all. And to be clear, they aren’t spiders either.

7. Opossums sleep upside down, hanging from their tail

An opossum sits among tree branches.
(“Opossum at Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region.)

Cute story, but no, that doesn’t happen. Their tails aren’t strong enough to support their weight. Instead, they use it to grasp things and for balance. Side note, opossums are the only marsupial in the USA. Their family includes kangaroos, koala bears and wombats. I know, I know, opossums got the short end of the stick on cuteness. But the next time you see one and squirm, keep in mind they eat unbelievable amounts of ticks and are virtually immune to rabies due to their lower body temperature. Not a bad thing to have around in nature.

8. Porcupines shoot their quills

I wish! Their quills are a formidable defense, but only in close-range combat. Porcupines are well-armed with nearly 30,000 quills (modified hair). Easily detached and complete with rear-facing barbs, quills go in smooth, but don’t come out easy. Porcupines can be found in Ohio, but in few numbers and only in the northern-most parts of the state.

9. Woolly bear caterpillars can predict the coming winter

Banded Woolly Bear Caterpillar
Is this woolly bear caterpillar “predicting” a mild or cold winter?

Woolly bears are the caterpillar form of the Isabella tiger moth. The story goes like this: The longer the black band on the caterpillar, the longer and harsher winter will be. In reality, the caterpillar goes through six molts as it grows, shedding its outer layer each time. Each successive molt has less and less black on it. So the older the caterpillar, the less black and more red there is. Pretty simple, but not predictive.

10. Owls can turn their heads 360 degrees

A barred owl sits on a tree branch in Winton Woods. It is snowing.
This barred owl isn’t rotating its head quite all the way around.

Close, but not quite. It’s really more like 270 degrees. Owls have 14 vertebrae in their neck; we only have seven. More bones mean more flexibility. But there’s a catch: Owls can’t move their eyes independently of their heads like humans can. Their eyes are tubed-shaped, allowing larger eyes to fit in a smaller space. Larger eyes mean more light collection and better vision at night. Between our neck and independent-moving eyes, our field of vision is very similar to an owl’s with greater neck movement, but no independent-moving eyes.

Paul Seevers
Nature Interpreter, Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve