Since Halloween is around the corner, it’s time to learn about some creepy critters that have been haunting cultures around the globe. It’s also time to separate fact from fiction, the latter being partially responsible for some bad reputations surrounding some incredibly innocent creatures. It’s important to note that just because certain species are portrayed as terrifying monsters in the media or fancy folklore doesn’t mean that said animals are, in fact, flesh-eating freaks of nature. In other words, the expression “don’t believe everything you hear” exists for a reason.
So without further ado, keep reading for some animal-inspired myth busting.
One look at the satanic leaf-tailed gecko and you’ll understand why this demonic reptile made the list. This master of disguise has a body that mimics a dead leaf, which protects the gecko in its native Madagascar. To trick predators, the satanic leaf-tailed gecko can also flatten its body like a pancake and deliberately shed its tail. Despite how scary this tiny reptile appears to be, it’s irrational to denounce the species for its kooky characteristics.
The Safari Park’s Lemur Walk demonstrates how curiously cute these prosimians can be. Yet the Malagasy people of Madagascar believe that lemurs embody the souls of their ancestors. In fact, the word lemur stems from the Latin word lemures, which translates to “ghosts” or “nocturnal spirits.” In Roman mythology lemures weren’t just spirits—they represented lethal, vengeful spirits, the kind nightmares are made of. This misunderstanding has threatened the lives of one subspecies in particular, the aye-aye, which is often killed on sight because it’s perceived as a bad omen. The only bad omen here is the fact that lemurs status was recently moved from vulnerable to endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species this year.
The Tasmanian devil got its moniker for its dark color and fierce temper. These nocturnal marsupials let out spine-chilling screams while feeding together at a carcass. When they feel threatened or excited, their little ears change to bright red. While their name appears to suit their style, what’s even scarier is the fact that Tasmanian devils are critically endangered. In other words, Loony Tunes’ exaggerated portrayal of Taz as a voracious lunatic may have done more harm than good. Currently, the San Diego Zoo is one of just two facilities in North America to house these little devils.
As elusive as they are stunning, snow leopards have been creatures of Nepalese myths and Buddhist culture for centuries. Luckily for them, their reputations tend to be more positive than the aforementioned animals. Their shy and mystifying ability to almost disappear in their native habitat has established snow leopards as shape-changing mountain spirits to the local people of Central Asia, who know them as “ghost cats.”
Another mysterious big cat that’s earned a prominent place in local legends is the jaguar. These cool cats are depicted in ruins throughout Central and South America, but instead of symbolizing a spooky species, jaguars represent beauty, strength, and unparalleled intelligence in the New World. In fact, some tales suggest that jaguars move between worlds because they’ve adapted to life in the trees as well as on the ground. Their ability to hunt during the day and night is equally impressive.
Most vultures depicted in cartoons, comics, or films reinforce that one-dimensional image we all have: a symbol of impending doom or death. Even though the entertainment industry has deemed this winged species as wickedly horrid, once you get past their harsh appearance, you’ll learn that some cultures actually idolize vultures. Aside from ancient mythology and rituals, vultures are crucial to habitats, as they remove dead carcasses without spreading disease. So instead of fearing vultures, we should thank them for taking care of at least one dirty job.
Another bird that’s been doomed by ancient legends and modern Hollywood is the crow. Despite the fact that the comic book series and subsequent action movie was based on a brutal story of murder and vengeance, Edgar Allan Poe’s preceding works in the mid-1800s further expanded the crow’s negative connotations. Perhaps its slick, dark plumage is to be blamed for the crow’s lack of love, but in nearly every culture’s mythological past– from Ireland to Islam–this species was associated with war, death, murder, and other terrifying nouns that keep us awake at night.
With a name like Gila monster, it’s no surprise that this species has one of the worst reputations in the reptile world. Native to northern Mexico and our southwestern states, this lizard is feared by humans for a bevy of false reasons. For starters, some people think the Gila monster can spit deadly venom, sting with its tongue, and even kill people with its poisonous breath. While the Gila monster is, in fact, venomous, a bite from one of these scaly creatures rarely causes death…in humans. Nothing to fear here.
The Komodo dragon is another victim of bad publicity. While it wins the prize for largest-living lizard in the world, people have feared the dragon because it’s believed that its saliva contains a deadly bacteria. The jury is still out on this one, so stay tuned for another blog that addresses this topic.
Join the Halloween fun! Share your spooky species or animal legends in the comments below.
Jenn Beening is the social media specialist for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, 7 Animals You Didn’t Learn In School.