13 Halloween Wildlife Myths – Debunked!

from Wildlife Promise

While you were out appreciating costumes and nighttime wildlife you may have wondered: Can owls turn their heads all the way around? Was that a bat I saw? Is the daddy-longlegs venom fatal to us? Find out the answers to these and many more questions in our Halloween MythBusters blog for the Pacific Northwest.

Becky McIntire and I co-authored this blog.

Bats

Did you know Washington is home to sixteen of the world’s 900+ species of bats? While most commonly associated with comic book superheroes or blood-sucking vampires, bats are actually a critical part of Washington’s ecosystems. They dine on hundreds of insects a night in the summer, controlling pest populations and providing fertilizer and seed dispersal for our forests and other ecosystems. Check them out on batcams, here and here.

A female Townsend's big-eared bat, Corynorhinus townsendii.

A female Townsend’s big-eared bat, Corynorhinus townsendii. Photo: J. N. Stuart

Myth: Bats only live in caves – or attics!

Fact: Bats make their homes in hollow trees and snags as well as caves. You can also put up bat houses.

Myth: Bats are flying rodents.

Fact: Bats are mammals! And they are more similar to humans than they are to rodents such as mice.

Myth: While bats on the East Coast are in trouble from White-Nose Syndrome, Pacific Northwest bats are doing just fine.

Fact: Nine of Washington’s bat species are listed as state Species of Special Concern or as Federal Candidate Category 2 species, which means we lack enough information to list them under the Endangered Species Act even though listing may be appropriate. The Townsend’s Big-eared bat, for example, is one of the rarest bats in Puget Sound. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, whole colonies of these cave-dependent species have disappeared after human disturbance.

You can help bats! By providing habitat with trees, snags, and bat houses, minimizing pesticide use, avoiding roosting bats, supporting bat research, practicing responsible bat watching, and much more, you can help sustain our beautiful and essential bat populations.

Most of this information is drawn from a wonderful website: www.batsnorthwest.org.

Owls

Owls have held a mysterious appeal for humans for thousands of years, appearing in myths, legends and superstitions, often as harbingers of death or as symbols of wisdom.  Maybe we find owls fascinating because of their large eyes, silent flight, nocturnal habits and their disconcerting

Three northern spotted owls in a tree

Threatened northern spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina, with young. Photo: Jim Thrailkill/USFWS

ability to rotate their heads. The Pacific Northwest is home to many species of owls, include the threatened northern spotted owl, a common indicator species for old-growth forest. Following our own curiosity, we learned a couple interesting facts about owls.

Myth: Owls can turn their heads around in a full 360 degree circle.

 Fact: Most sources agree that an owl can turn its head just 3/4 or 270 degrees around, which is still impressive.

Myth: Those tufts are ears.

 Fact: Nope, the ears are located on the side of the head, just like in people.  However, the ears may be uneven, allowing the birds to locate prey by triangulating with sound when  vision isn’t enough.  The tufts are thought to be useful in camouflaging the bird as well as expressing aggression.

Lamprey

If you need a costume idea for next year, consider lamprey! The lamprey is a culturally-important species for many Pacific Northwest Tribes, who harvest the fish for subsistence, ceremonial, and medicinal purposes. All three species have been suggested for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Despite their importance, myths persist about their feeding and habitat preferences.

Although mating pairs of lamprey typically construct their redds, or nest, together, this is a single female Pacific lamprey (Lampetra tridentata). Photo: USFWS Pacific (courtesy of Jeremy Monroe)

Myth: Lamprey live only in fresh water.

Fact: Four lamprey species are native to the Columbia Basin and two of them – Pacific and river lamprey – are anadromous, meaning they live in both fresh and saltwater. The other two, Western brook and Pacific brook lamprey, are freshwater species. All lamprey play an important role in the freshwater stream ecosystem, recycling nutrients by filtering microscopic plants and animals from the bottom sediments.

 Myth: Lamprey are parasites.

Fact: Pacific and river lamprey are parasitic, but only in the ocean phase of their life cycle. They are also food for sharks and sea lions! Western brook and Pacific brook lamprey are not parasites. 

Spiders

From horror movies with giant spiders to the fear of spiders known as arachnophobia, spiders are among the most feared and misunderstood creatures common to the Pacific Northwest. In truth, spiders are quite important for managing pests and generally avoid contact with us.

Myth: Daddy-longlegs venom is fatal to humans, but fortunately their fangs are too small to bite us.

Fact: Only one of the three groups called daddy-longlegs – the Pholcid spiders – has venom and there is no evidenceit is fatal. Also, what many term daddy-longlegs are actually crane

Image of giant house spider on top of funnel-type web

Is this Tegenaria gigantea, the giant house spider? It’s hard to tell without a microscope and other tools. Photo: Becky McIntire

flies or harvestmen, neither of which have venom.

Myth: Spiders found in or near drains came up through the pipes.

Fact: It seems spiders actually get stuck on the smooth surfaces common to sinks and tubs after they have come down from a wall or ceiling.

Myth: Spiders are easy to identify, for example by their markings.

Fact: Spiders are identified by their structure and a microscope is often needed to do so.

And for those of you who think spider webs are small, check out this blog to see an enormous spider web! Most of these mythbusting facts are drawn from an extensive website on Spider Myths, authored by the Burke Museum’s Curator of Arachnids Rod Crawford.

Snakes

Snakes are fascinating. I devoured every book and Discovery channel show I could find on them as a child. I learned that yes, snakes shed their skin, but no, they do not roll into a big “O” and roll away from you. I’ve even had the opportunity to hold a garter snake and feel the muscles of an albino python around my neck. My love and curiosity about snakes remains today. Here are some other cool myths and facts about snakes in the Pacific Northwest.

Common garter snake. White striped down back, dark body, orange markings. Photo: OR DFW

Common garter snakes (Thamnophus sirtalis) are quite common in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Myth: Garter snakes swallow their young to protect them from danger.

Fact: There is no evidence that garter snakes, or any of the other snakes common to the Pacific Northwest, swallow their young. Garter snakes do, however, give birth to live young. And this winter, you are unlikely to see many snakes because most species will be hibernating.

Myth: Snakes are slimy.

Fact: Snakeskin is actually dry and relatively smooth. Amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, on the other hand, have moist skin to allow water and other nutrients to pass through.

Myth: Constrictor species like pythons and boas are only found in tropical climates.

Fact: Washington is home to the rubber boa, a 14-30 inch long relative of the world’s largest snakes! It is not often seen, but may be found damp wooded areas, camouflaged by its olive-green or red to brown skin.

 

 

 

 

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