This is a genre that thrived back before the Internet (mostly between 1930 and 1960) when connoisseurs of weirdness and misinformation had only bound books to turn to. Its heroes include Osmond P. Breland (author of the classics “Animal Facts and Fallacies”, “Animal Friends and Foes”, and “Animal Life and Lore”) and Alan Devoe (who gave us “Speaking of Animals” and “This Fascinating Animal World”).
Here’s a six-question quiz I compiled from these books.
- Can a toad live for years sealed up in solid rock?
- Can a dog procreate with a skunk?
- Do snakes swallow their young to protect them from danger?
- Can salamanders live in fire?
- Is the rattlesnake a gentleman?
- Can male animals lay eggs?
Scoring: Give yourself 1 point for each “no” answer. (The answers, in fact, are all “no”.) If your score is between 0 and 5, you are mentally disturbed. If your score is 6, you might not be.
While these questions might seem to have been generated by a monkey at a typewriter, at least some of them appear to have been taken seriously by actual human beings. Take for example the distinguished Toad Scientist William Buckland of Oxford University. I learn from “Animal Life and Lore” that in 1825, Reverend Buckland took the trouble to seal 24 toads in solid rock to see what would happen. After a year, the toads were exhumed and all 12 of the toads that had been sealed in nonporous sandstone were dead. Remarkably, some of those who had been sealed in porous limestone were alive. (It was suspected that air, insects and moisture had all made it through the pores.) Therefore, Buckland sealed them back up for another year, after which they were all good and dead. (In the 19th century, science was a serious endeavor, and there were no People for the Ethical Treatment of Toads to impede its progress.) According to Breland:
Buckland’s experiments prove that it is impossible for toads to live for any great length of time completely sealed in solid rock.
Who could argue?
Buckland’s experiments aside, the preponderance of “no” answers to these questions is due primarily to the fact that they are mostly of the form “Is it true that animal X does Y?”, where no sane person would ever have thought to imagine that animal X does Y. Not always, though. In “This Fascinating Animal World” I find the question: “Is a bat the only animal that can fly?”. The answer is “yes”.
(In fairness, Devoe has warned us, 50 pages earlier, that in this section of the book—though not in later sections—he will use the word “animal” to mean “mammal”. He does not, however, take the opportunity to remind us of this usage. Somewhat oddly, he does not use the word “mammal” to mean “sheep”.)
Those of you raised in the Internet era might think that the tone, quality and reliability of these books have a familiar ring to them. In some ways, though, they are products of an entirely different time. When Osmond Breland asks “What can you do with a walrus?”, his answer is: Pretty much nothing. I bet the Internet will tell you different.