If there's one thing that turtle tall tales seem to have in common, it's that we shouldn't underestimate these slow, steady creatures.Corbis Images
In the book "Myths and Legends of the Australian Aborigines", there's a story about how the first turtle fashioned a shallow water dish -- known as a coolamon to indigenous Australians -- from a tree, and tied the coolamon to his back for protection along with a strip of bark on his stomach.
Scientists writing in the latest issue of Current Biology, however, have a different story to tell.
The shells, the researchers found, are composed of 50 bones held together in a structure that evolved over millions of years, with its origin reaching back to before the dinosaurs. More than 45 fossils belonging to a 260-million-year-old reptile from South Africa known as Eunotosaurus show that the turtles' ancestors developed a shell as their ribs broadened and then fused together.
While there are countless myths and legends from different cultures around the globe about how the turtle and other animals acquired their unique traits, ultimately scientists pore through the available evidence in the fossil record and study the genes of animals living today to learn the real story.
If zebras evolved stripes to avoid getting bitten by flies, why didn't other equines develop similar patterns?Corbis Images
The zebra developed its stripes as a means of evading the bites of voracious, disease-carrying horse flies, according to a study published last year. Pest prevention might not be the only function of the zebra's stripes, which could also help with regulating heat and escaping large predators.
Myths surrounding the zebra's patterned pelage tell a different story. According to African bushman legend, back in the days when the Earth was young, water was scarce. A watering hole could be an important resource worth guarding, as a baboon once did, chasing off other animals who came near and building a fire to get through the nights.
One day, a zebra, which was all white at the time, confronted the baboon, and in the confrontation, got burned by the still-burning sticks from the baboon's fire. After being injured, the zebra ran into the savannah, no longer a single color but striped instead.
Baboons are known for two things: bad behavior and bright, red butts.Corbis Images
The story of how the zebra got its stripes is also the tale of how the baboon got its bright red bottom. The zebra didn't merely lose the fight and run away. Instead, it kicked the baboon as hard as it could, sending the primate flying into the air and crashing to the ground right on its butt. The legend is meant to explain not only the baboon's anatomy, but also its tempestuous demeanor.
Baboon behinds, of course, aren't the result of injury, but rather evolution, according to scientists. Baboons spend a lot of their time sitting. Given that their buttocks are composed of nerveless callouses, they have evolved to do so comfortably for hours on end.
When a female is fertile, she alerts male baboons of her readiness with her swollen, red behind. The larger the swelling, the younger and more often the female tends to breed, according to a 2001 study. So the baboon's red buttocks is not just a built-in seat, but also a signal to other primates.
Overt racism aside, Rudyard Kipling's "How a Leopard Got Its Spots" was partially correct.Getty Images
Certainly the most famous story of how the leopard got its spots comes from Rudyard Kipling. According to the British author and adventurer, the leopard first lived on the sandy High Veldt, where the cat looked much like its environment. Eventually, its prey left the High Veldt, grew stripes, spots and blotches, and headed into the forest where they could hide. Advised by a wise baboon, the leopard was told to "go into other spots" and soon realized how the other animals were evading his detection.
Kipling's story -- racist overtones omitted from this retelling aside -- wasn't too far off from how the leopard in fact did evolve spots.
Habitat and behavior, such as moving through trees or being active at night, can determine a cat coat's color and pattern, according to a study published last year in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Leopards, jaguars and cats with dark-colored coats typically are active day and night, and roam a variety of habitats. Cats with solid-colored coats tend to be active during the daytime and in open environments.
The bones of an extinct giant camel were not found in a modern desert, as you might expect, but instead in the Arctic, on Ellesmere Island in Canada.Julius Csotonyi
Kipling also had an idea of where camels got their humps.
According to his telling, like the dog, horse and ox, the camel was domesticated by humans to do work. Unlike the other animals, the camel never pulled his own weight and brushed off suggestions that he should do his job, dismissing them with a terse, "Humph."
Complaining to humans didn't get them anywhere, so instead the animals spoke with Djinn, who ruled the deserts. Djinn went to speak with the camel and told him that it was time the camel did his part. The camel, uninterested in any labor, rebuffed Djinn's demand with just the word "Humph." As a punishment, Djinn gave the camel a "humph," and sentenced him to work for three days without food or water to make up for his laziness. According to the story, the camel never did bother to make up for the days he didn't work, which is why he still has the humph, now called a hump.
Unlike the leopard story, Kipling wasn't even close on camels, according to research published this year in Nature Communications journal. Known primarily as desert-dwelling animals, camels actually evolved their humps to help them store fat when they lived in the Arctic some 3.5 million years ago. Back then, the Arctic wasn't as cold as today, and it was covered with forests instead of ice.
The same fat reserves that helped ancient camels survive long, Arctic winters allow today's camels to endure desert conditions.
White tigers today no longer exist in the wild. You can only find them in zoos.Getty Images
Given that we've already looked at how one big cat gained its spots, let's take a look at how another large cat lost its color. According to Chinese legend originating during the Han Dynasty, a white tiger in fact originally begins life as any other tiger with its distinctive color pattern.
Just like humans go gray as they grow old, a tiger grows white as it gets old, according to legend. A white tiger, therefore, is a centuries-old animal, endowing it with a mystical kind of power. And in fact, in legends predating the dynasty, the white tiger is the god of the west, god of wars, and god of fighting, capable of warding off evil and bringing good fortune.
But where does science say white tigers get their distinctive coats? A study published earlier this year in the journal Current Biology found that a single change in a known pigment gene, called SLC45A2, accounts for the incredible variation.
Bats were flightless animals before they took to their air to chase their prey, insects.U.S. Department of Agriculture
An Ojibwa legend tells the story of how a little squirrel turned into a bat. One day long ago -- as all legends begin -- the rising sun got caught in the trees. Initially, the animals assumed it was still night, until enough time passed that they knew something was up.
While all the other animals looked for the sun on the ground and in caves, a small squirrel decided to climb and search the trees. Eventually, the little squirrel found the sun, who asked the animal to help free it from the branches. The squirrel obliged, but as the sun became less tangled, it grew brighter and hotter. By helping the sun, the squirrel's tail burned away, its skin became stretched and charred, and it went blind.
Feeling sorry for the squirrel who rescued it from the trees, the sun offered the squirrel a reward. The squirrel had only one dream: to fly. But given its condition, that dream seemed impossible. The sun promised that the squirrel would be a better flier than all the birds, and it would "see" at night. And so the little squirrel fluttered its wings and became the first bat.
Bats did originally evolve from small, flightless mammals tens of millions of years ago. First, they evolved as gliders, chasing down their insect prey, who the bats eventually followed into the air. After bats evolved flight, they later developed echolocation to maneuver at night, as bats were driven to be noctural to avoid predation by avian birds, according to research published in 2008.
To Rudyard Kipling, the armadillo looked like a cross between a turtle and a hedgehog.Corbis Images
The dome-shaped armor shell, made of overlapping bone plates, of the modern armadillo protects it from larger predators, as well as the stings and bites of the animals that it preys upon. Though practical, the armor gives the armadillo an awkward-looking appearance.
A Mayan legend tells how these humble creatures came to be. Hachakyum, the Sun God, had been in a dispute with two lesser gods who were causing him pains. To settle the score, Hachakyum called all the gods of the Mayan pantheon together, instructing the two troublemakers to sit in a spot that he designated.
Hachakyum tricked the two other gods, using two armadillos as seats. Frightened, the armadillos threw the gods off their backs, allowing Hachakyum to teach a lesson in humility.