Pick from the Past
Natural History, February 1940





Animal Fables

How many commonly accepted superstitions
about animals could you confidently deny?




[Editor’s Note, 2007: Born in Germany, Willy (or Willie) Ley (1906–1969) was the author of The Lungfish and the Unicorn: An Excursion into Romantic Zoology (Modern Age: New York, 1941) and other books on natural history myth and fact; he also wrote on rocketry and space travel.]


FEBRUARY SECOND is the day made famous by the ground hog. Each year we are reminded of his reputation for retreating underground at sight of his shadow, and we wonder, momentarily at least, whether the legend may not after all be true. It is no discredit to the ground hog or to Nature in all her in mysterious workings that it is not. But we may well take it as a reminder that we should periodically take stock of our natural history beliefs to see how well we know the true from the false.

All of us have been told sometime that toads cause warts, that shaving encourages the growth of hair, and that a person’s fingernails keep on growing after he is dead. None of these beliefs is true, but they are lively superstitions.
All of us have been told sometime that toads cause warts, that shaving encourages the growth of hair, and that a person’s fingernails keep on growing after he is dead.
Hair that is freshly shaven may be sharper, and therefore, feel longer, and the fingernails of a mummy may appear longer than normal because the flesh has shrunken; but there is no real growth.

Likewise we are familiar with the story of the unfortunate white parents who gave birth to a coal black baby, because one of them, perhaps without knowing it, had “one drop of Negro blood.” From the prevalence of this belief, one might suppose the occurrence to be reasonably common. But the laws of heredity make it practically an impossibility for white parents to give birth to a black child, and it is doubtful if an example to fit the story ever occurred.

Fear or other strong emotion is often the food on which superstitions feed long after intelligent reasoning shows them to be without further foundation. Strange superstitions of nature have always been plentiful and they are characteristically obstinate, doubtless because truth in nature is often stranger than fiction.

Belief that an ostrich when frightened sticks its head in the sand has been traced clear back to Roman times. Through 20 centuries and in the face of all reason, millions of people have defended this belief, while the ostrich, unmindful of the excellent example he has given man, goes about his business without ever thinking of sticking his head in the sand.

In the stern world of facts, where lions and other predatory animals are ready to eliminate a bird so foolish, the ostrich would in all probability long ago have disappeared from the earth if it actually did this at the approach of danger.

But animals have just as readily supplied man with illustrations of astonishing ingenuity. We have the example of the hungry rat which, after searching vainly, finds one of his favorite foods, a hen’s egg. Unable alone to transport it to safety, he is confronted with a difficult engineering problem. But fortunately for the rat’s needs, as well as for our love of the picturesque, he finds a way. He lies down on his back and holds the egg with all four paws; then he allows one or two of his brothers to drag him by the tail like a sled. Are we to believe this or not?

The same method is ascribed to beavers and badgers for the carrying of hay or wood, and in this form the story dates from Roman times. It appears for the first time in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and was even then taken from older sources we cannot trace. As applied to the rat, it probably appeared first in European literature in 1678 in La Fontaine’s fable, “The Two Rats, the Fox, and the Egg.” La Fontaine was blamed for having freely invented this fable to contradict the philosophy of Descartes and to convince people that animals are capable of intelligent action. He did not invent it, however, but probably got it from India [Mathias Tresch, La Fontaine naturaliste dans ses fables (1902)].

Dr. E. W. Gudger has investigated the facts of this story. He discovered another early version in a Persian manuscript, written by one otherwise unknown Ibn Bakhtishu and entitled Manafi al-Hayawan, “Description of Animals,” which was finished in 1291 a.d. In this manuscript, now in Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, there is even a picture of two rats transporting an egg in the manner described. But he found a number of fairly recent and apparently sincere reports in various journals.

Inquiry soon brought support for these in eyewitness accounts, one of which came from Mr. Arch E. Scott at Stony Point, on the Hudson River [E. W. Gudger, “How Rats Transport Eggs,” Scientific Monthly, May, 1935]. In September, 1929, the continued disappearance of eggs and the frequent appearance of broken shells around the door of the henhouse led to the suspicion that rats were the culprits. Mr. Scott chose a bright moon-light night to keep watch from an overhead beam. As bait a very white egg was put out. In about an hour two rats appeared. The egg was in a box seven inches deep, and rat A, on the edge of the box, apparently lifted rat B, which was clutching the egg to his belly, out of the box and lowered him to the floor. “Rat A jumped down, took the tail of rat B crosswise in his mouth and dragged rat B across the six feet of illuminated space. In doing this, rat A walked forward and had the tail of rat B over his shoulder and the body of rat B close beside him.”

Regarding the rat-egg-transport, Doctor Gudger faithfully and accurately reports the evidence he has gathered and says, “Believe it or not.” To see whether any additional evidence could be found in other countries, the present writer published a short summary of all this in the European magazine, Kosmos. Out of 35 letters received within a few weeks, three contained eyewitness accounts, while others referred to narratives of close friends or relatives.

One of the eyewitnesses was a lady in Syke near Bremen, Germany. She had seen the rat-egg-cart in her backyard in 1933 from a distance of about 15 feet. The second eyewitness had seen such a transport in Baden in about 1910; and the third, a school teacher in Innsbruck, had seen it as a boy in his city in about 1906.

When confronted with a wall too high or smooth to climb, rats have also been said to build “stepladders” or pyramids, one animal climbing on top of another. They were believed to form living chains to descend from high places; and when unable to get honey or other food out of a narrow-necked bottle, to use their tails as a child uses its finger. But these stories lack proof and are not to be swallowed whole.

The correspondence I just mentioned brought some evidence for the pyramid, and several persons mentioned the use of the tail in bottles, but without having actually seen it. The living chain was almost unanimously called a fable.

The “living chain” has also been ascribed to monkeys. The story is that a band of monkeys are stopped by a river. One monkey firmly anchors itself on a stout branch of a tree; another grips its legs, and so on until a long chain is formed. The chain then begins to swing
Aelian, a Roman writer who flourished about 120 a.d., told that wolves, when trying to cross a fast-flowing river, bite each other’s tails to make sure that none is carried away.
like a pendulum and the monkey at the lower end is finally able to get hold of a branch on the other side. The remainder of the band, mainly females and young, cross the living bridge. Finally the bridge is broken by the first monkey letting go.

It seems too bad that this pretty story has to be labeled untrue, but the combined weights of such monkeys would make a burden unbearable for the first link [E. W. Gudger, “The Myth of the Monkey Chain,” Natural History Magazine, February, 1919].

A somewhat similar story, that of the elephant bridge, goes clear back to Aelian, a Roman writer who flourished about 120 A. D. He told that elephants, if they want to cross a deep ditch, use one of their number as a steppingstone. A large elephant was supposed to jump into the ditch allowing the others to pass, stepping on its back. After all had passed, they were said to throw dry branches, or whatever they could find, into the ditch to give the first an opportunity to crawl out. While this story is almost certainly a fable, the African explorer, Wissmann, did observe that an elephant cow threw branches into a pit in which a young one had been caught.

Aelian also told that wolves, when trying to cross a fast-flowing river, bite each other’s tails to make sure that none is carried away. This makes a nice picture but is unconfirmed and far from probable.

One creature, at least, can be safely credited with the ability to build bridges, both pontoon and suspension: the ant. A stream cannot stop a horde of Anomna when they are on their hunting expeditions in Africa, as explained by Auguste Forel [Auguste Forel, The Social World of the Ants (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Ltd., 1928), II, p. 97]. From some object projecting from one bank they link themselves together in a chain and find some support on the opposite bank—a stone, twig, or grass blade. Making fast to this object, the chain spreads out, and the whole greedy robber-army passes over the living bridge, to continue their depredations on the other side.

A remarkable suspension bridge is formed on occasion by certain ants of the subfamily Formicinae when the leaves between which they are building their nest are too far apart for a single ant to reach. The engineering is the more wonderful when we realize that the adult ants themselves do not produce the silk with which they ultimately join the two leaves but utilize their own larvae for this, as a weaver uses his shuttle. Every worker seizes a larva, which under gentle pressure of the mandibles emits the fluid that hardens into a thread on contact with the air. Thus equipped, the squad attacks the problem of joining the leaves. The ants form chains, each ant taking hold of another at the slender abdominal segment, until the first is able to hold one end of one leaf-edge in her mandibles, and the last to hold the other edge between her six legs. They then pull the two leaves toward each other, and the squad of weavers undertakes construction of the silken nest between, using the bridge to cross back and forth when necessary [Auguste Forel, The Social World of the Ants, II, p. 277].

More than two centuries ago a scientist studied the life of the bumblebees. When out walking one early dawn, he found a nest of bumblebees in the ground. He watched and saw to his surprise that one especially large and strong bumblebee was sitting alone at the entrance of the nest and beating its wings noisily. It did not fly away, just sat and beat its wings for about half an hour. Other bumblebees appeared, as if aroused by the noise, and began to go about their daily tasks. When everyone seemed awake, the first bumblebee folded its wings and crawled inside as if exhausted.

The scientist was greatly surprised. He observed again the next morning that the result was the same. This justified his announcement of the “bumblebee bugler,” the bumblebee that wakes up first and then makes noise until the whole nest is awake.

The announcement created considerable interest. Some observers declared that, however hard they looked, they could not find the “bugler”; others pointed out that various members of the community were already awake and busily working when the “bugler” started beating its wings. It took some time for the controversy about the bumblebee “bugler” to be finally settled. The facts are right, but they had been misinterpreted. It was exactly as if bumblebees observing humanity would report that the humans make electric fans to enjoy the sound they produce. What the “bugler” really does is to ventilate the nest which has been dampened by dew. The noise made by the ventilator is only incidental, although it might conceivably help to arouse the others.

Many animal fables or superstitions have essentially the same origin as the story of the bumblebee “bugler,” namely misinterpretation.

Dramatic or melodramatic literature has done much to popularize ideas about animals, both true and false. We have, for instance, the story of the caravan dying in the desert for lack of water. When all else fails, the travelers slaughter their faithful camel to drink the several gallons of cool, fresh water contained in its marvelous multiple stomach.

When Alfred E. Brehm came to Egypt, he inquired about that story from old caravan guides who of all people should know everything about the “ship of the desert.” They energetically denied it. Just to be certain,
It has always been a human tendency to divide animals into two classes: the “stupid” ones (like the ostrich) and the “cunning” ones (like the fox).
Dr. Brehm had the stomach of a camel opened. Although the animal had drunk plenty of fresh water only the previous day, its stomach contained nothing drinkable.

It has always been a human tendency to divide animals into two classes: the “stupid” ones (like the ostrich) and the “cunning” ones (like the fox). Of the latter, the scorpion is prominent if one considers its alleged ability to anticipate death. For the scorpion is said to be the only animal that commits suicide when trapped. The story dates from classical times: if a scorpion is placed in a circle of glowing coals from which it can find no avenue of escape, it finally commits suicide by stinging itself in the head.

As may be imagined, a good many people in countries where scorpions are abundant must have made the experiment. The English scientist, W. G. Biddie, experimented with Indian scorpions in Madras. He placed them in bright sunlight under a glass bowl so that they could not run away and began to burn them by means of a reading lens. They were finally burned to death, not even trying to commit suicide. But Dr. C. J. Wills reported quite different results from Shiraz, Persia. He placed scorpions inside a circle of burning coals. Every one of them stung itself and died quickly.

These reports prompted one Dr. G. Budde to perform a fairly long series of experiments with several varieties of scorpions. His first specimens were Scorpio europaeus from Italy. As a preliminary test he stung one of the scorpions with its own stinger. The scorpion became weak, but recovered, proving that it is not totally immune to its own poison. Then he proceeded to construct the fiery circle of the ancients. Its center was not too warm for his finger. A scorpion which was put in the middle grew agitated and suddenly ran in the direction of the largest and brightest coal.
Most people have never even heard of the ants’ “fire brigade,” and if they have, they are likely to dismiss it without further inquiry.
Trying to crawl under it, it burned itself to death. These and other experiments in Istanbul led Doctor Budde to a clue to the origin of the myth. While the bodies of the scorpions were burning, their tails thrashed around wildly and several spectators, acquainted with the story, exclaimed repeatedly: “Look, now it has stung itself!”

It is strange that entirely wrong notions of folklore have found wide publicity for centuries while some of the really remarkable facts are practically unknown. If there were as many ant stories as there are scorpion stories, it would be understandable. But most people have never even heard of the ants’ “fire brigade,” and if they have, they are likely to dismiss it without further inquiry.

A number of years ago, an Austrian amateur scientist by the name of Friedrich Gedde set out with simple equipment to see how ants behave in the presence of fire. He chose an anthill in the Austrian Alps for his experiment, and stuck a candle in it. The ants, of the common red variety Formica rufa, came at once to investigate the as yet unlighted candle and, after discovering that they could chew the stuff, began to carry particles of it away. Then the candle was lighted. The flame was about one and one-half inches high and about the same distance above the surface of the anthill. All the ants in the vicinity stopped at once in their tasks and looked at the flame. A few approached it and jumped into the fire, probably trying to bite the flame and thereby burning themselves to death. After about a dozen of them had died, the ants changed tactics. Large individuals climbed up on the candle, and at the rim reared themselves on their four hind legs. In this position they sprayed the fire with their abdominal fluid.

Although their legs and antennae were scorched in the process, they took time to aim carefully. Meanwhile a few hundred ants were busy building a ramp of dried pine needles for a better approach. Some of the needles caught fire, but were extinguished quickly. Not quite five minutes after lighting the candle, it went out; the ants had soaked the wick with their liquid. They rescued their dead, repaired the damage done to the hill, and tried to bury the candle.

Half an hour later the candle was relighted and the ants repeated the procedure. It took them hardly half a minute to extinguish the flame the second time.

This experiment proves conclusively that ants do fight fires, although it seems reasonable to doubt that they do so with full knowledge of what they are doing. The natural weapon of the ants for enemies out of reach of the mandibles is their liquid, which happens to be effective as a fire extinguisher. It is also very probable that there is not a special “fire brigade” since all the workers can eject the liquid.

An article on fabulous animal stories would certainly be incomplete without a few references to snakes.

No other group of animals, not even the bats, ever received a more adverse reputation than the snakes. One fable credits snakes with a “hypnotic gaze” supposed to root the prey to the spot so that it cannot escape. It is mainly the very large snakes that are said to possess the ability of “charming.” The legend not only occurs in Asia but is also current among certain tribes of American Indians. James Adair preserved such a tale, told to him by his Cherokee friends, about some very old and large rattlesnakes in a hidden valley. “They are so large and unwieldy,” he wrote, “that they take a circle almost as wide as their length to
One fable credits snakes with a “hypnotic gaze” supposed to root the prey to the spot so that it cannot escape.
crawl around in their shortest orbit; but bountiful nature compensates them for the heavy motion of their bodies; for, as they say, no living creature moves within reach of their sight but they can draw it to them.”

Needless to say the “hypnotic gaze” is nothing but a legend. So are most of the other snake yarns, like that of the whip snake, supposed to whip its prey to death with its tail—no snake ever used its tail in such a manner, although some of the larger lizards make it a weapon—or the milk snake that is supposed to milk the cows. That story is told in America about Lampropeltis triangulum and in Europe about several varieties of harmless snakes which can all be found in barns, where they go occasionally, probably to catch mice or to keep warm.

Of all the fabulous stories none are as deeply imbedded as those about snakes. If you run across someone who has heard that camels carry a fresh water supply in their stomachs, you will be able to convince him that an animal’s stomach is no icebox. And you may be able to separate him from the idea that the ostrich buries its head. But if you start to explain to a hardened woodsman that snakes don’t jump, and don’t milk cows, that they don’t move in hoops and, most important, that the Great Horned Serpent has never been verified—you might as well stop before you have started. Because—well, because people just like to believe them.


See these other Picks from the Past:

Return to Web Site Archive, Picks from the Past.