Photo: Flipper / Universal Pictures

The Dumbest Things We Believe About Animals Thanks To Pop Culture

Voting Rules
Vote up the most misleading things we believe about animals because of their onscreen portrayals.

The world is full of animal myths, thanks to movies, books, and TV. Unfortunately, children’s misconceptions about animals can stick with them well into adulthood, when it's much harder to change their mind about every silly, scary, and sad fact they hear

We might think we're animal experts based on the movies we loved as kids, but those were meant to entertain, not educate. It's time to do some real research about animal behaviors to find out which pop culture animal facts are real and which ones are absurd. Odds are, you still believe most of these facts to this day.

Photo: Flipper / Universal Pictures

  • Dolphins Are Friendly, Smiley Companions
    Photo: Flipper / Universal Pictures

    Films like Flipper showcase a happy, friendly side of dolphins. It makes every kid wish they could have a dolphin as a friend, too. Therefore, the world tends to see dolphins as friendly, intelligent companions who don't have a bad bone in their body.

    While these cetaceans are smart creatures that behave kindly when performing tricks, they also have a lesser-known dark side that many people would find unsettling.

    The Truth Is: Male dolphins are often aggressive and dangerous, especially to females and calves. 

    Breeding season is when a dolphin's true colors especially show. Male dolphins will do anything to find a mate, and sadly, that often includes harassing females. They will aggressively herd females, oftentimes in groups of multiple males. They have been reported to lead these chases for up to 85 minutes, refusing to take "no" for an answer. In most cases, the females are clearly not happy about it, because the males will charge at them, bite them, and even slam into them with their body or tail. 

    "They are very intelligent, but just like humans can be nasty and conniving," says Richard Connor of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and co-director of the Dolphin Research Alliance.

    As if that wasn't bad enough, male dolphins have also been reported to take the lives of dolphin calves. They will sometimes toss calves with the intent of killing them, so the mom will mate again. Male dolphins also have no boundaries when it comes to relatives. They've been known to mate even with their own daughters. Of course, these aggressive behaviors will never appear in a cute dolphin movie.

    303 votes
  • Whales In Captivity Will Thrive If They're Freed
    Photo: Free Willy / Warner Bros.

    Free Willy convinced kids in 1993 that all whales should be free, regardless of the circumstances. While it's always good to release animals into the wild if possible, there are many instances when the animals can no longer survive on their own. In the film, it makes it seem as if whales will be the happiest and healthiest once they're set free, but unfortunately, it doesn't paint a realistic picture for young viewers. 

    The Truth Is: Long-term captive animals often have a lower survival rate in the wild.

    The real-life orca from Free Willy was named Keiko. Keiko played Willy in the movie, even though he had been kept in captivity for the past 10 years. After the film gained popularity, viewers rallied to free the real-life whale. Due to all the public pressure, researchers felt they had no choice but to set the whale free.

    He was slowly transitioned to the waters of Iceland, but unfortunately, his ending wasn't happy like the movie's version. Researchers still had to help care for Keiko once he was released, and he eventually passed in 2003 because he couldn't seem to fully reintegrate into the wild. 

    280 votes
  • Disney's Tangled features one of the cutest animal characters of any film: Pascal the chameleon. Like most chameleon characters, he changes colors to blend in with his surroundings, such as to hide among the paintings on the wall and to match the color of the fruit he's eating.

    One of the most notable traits of a real chameleon is its ability to change colors, but it's not for the reason many people think. While their color changing can sometimes coincidentally be related to their surroundings, that's not the main reason it occurs.

    The Truth Is: Chameleons change color to match their emotions, not their surroundings.

    When light hits a chameleon's skin, their cells react and change colors based on how they're feeling. These colors can be influenced by the temperature and environment, but it's ultimately an indication of how the chameleon feels or reacts to something. They have a layer of crystals beneath their pigmentary skin cells. If the distance between the crystals increases, it indicates that they're excited. On the other hand, if the space between them decreases, the chameleon could feel scared or threatened. 

    When a chameleon is calm or resting, they're typically green. If a chameleon doesn't want to seem like a threat, their color will darken to avoid getting into fights with other chameleons. If a chamelon is excited, aggressive, or looking for a mate, they will display brighter colors like orange, yellow, or red. 

    203 votes
  • Sharks Will Straight-Up Devour Humans
    Photo: Jaws / Universal Pictures

    The 1975 film Jaws has made people fearful of swimming in the ocean ever since. The film created rumors that certain sharks would develop a taste for human blood and intentionally hunt them. Unfortunately, this misconception has caused humans to only see sharks as the enemy. Thus, many people see no problem with eliminating sharks, despite many shark species being in danger of extinction.

    According to Dr. Christopher Neff, a lecturer in public policy at Sydney University, “Jaws led to public acceptance that the state stepping in to kill sharks after shark bites was the right thing to do... The mistake in Jaws was seedy politicians not killing the shark sooner. The message was clear, killing sharks saves lives. And unfortunately we are still fighting this myth."

    The Truth Is: Sharks prefer to feed on small fish, not humans.

    Sharks do not go out of their way to hunt humans. Their typical diet consists of smaller fish and invertebrates. Some larger sharks will also eat sea mammals like seals and sea lions, but no amount of human blood will change these natural diets.

    While shark attacks have happened before, it's usually due to a shark becoming confused or curious. In most cases, they're more scared of humans than anything else, so they will not go out of their way to harm a person. 

    286 votes
  • Piranhas Will 'Skeletonize' Whatever Gets Put In The Water Near Them
    Photo: Piranha / New World Pictures

    The 1978 film Piranha and the 2010 remake Piranha 3D capitalized on the fear that piranhas can strip a living creature to bones in only a minute. In the movies, the humans have to rush to safety before these vicious fish instantly finish them off. But this idea of fish consuming people within minutes wasn't just some made-up story; it was based on the experience of former US President Theodore Roosevelt.

    Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition in 1913 when he saw a horrific sight. He was sitting on the bank of the Amazon River when he saw piranhas devour a cow in what he claimed to be only minutes. Right in front of him, he watched the cow resurface as a pile of bones. For many people, this story was enough for them to develop an irrational fear of piranhas. 

    The Truth Is: Piranhas only strip large creatures to the bone under rare circumstances.

    When researchers took a look at Roosevelt's encounter, they quickly realized that this was no ordinary occurrence. After all, cows come near the Amazon River often, but cow skeletons are not a frequent sight. As it turns out, piranhas are only capable of devouring a cow within minutes if they're in large groups of over 100 - and if they're starving. Both of those factors rarely occur at once. So, the event seemed too coincidental.

    In reality, the scene that Roosevelt witnessed was staged. His tour guides wanted to make sure he had incredible experiences during his visit. So, they released a massive group of piranhas who had been starved for a long period of time. When the cow entered the water, these famished piranhas were able to skeletonize it with no problems. It was nothing more than a cruel way to impress a guest, and sadly, it's the reason many people around the world developed an irrational fear for these fish.

    239 votes
  • Hyenas Are Cowardly Scavengers
    Photo: The Lion King / Buena Vista Pictures

    Disney's The Lion King has had one of the biggest influences on the hyena's reputation. In the film, they're portrayed as cowardly scavengers who can barely take down small animals. Then, when a massive lion like Mufasa comes along, they bow down to him immediately without putting up a fight. That might work well in cartoons, but that's not quite how these animals act in real life.

    The Truth Is: Hyenas are capable hunters.

    Despite popular belief, hyenas almost always hunt down their own food instead of scavenge. In fact, lions are just as likely to scavenge off the prey of hyenas as the other way around. Lions might look like the tougher or more 'regal' of the two, but the species are much more alike than The Lion King makes them out to be. 

    "There is no population, anywhere in Africa, where they don't hunt down at least 50% of their own food," says spotted hyena expert Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI.

    238 votes