Top 10 Animal Myths and Mysteries Explained

Animal and insect behaviors are helping to explain the origin of many popular myths and mysteries.

Animal behavior can often help explain the origin of popular myths and mysteries. Fairy circles, for example, have long puzzled onlookers. These are striking circular patches of perennial grasses with a barren center, which grow in the desert on the southwest coast of Africa. Biologist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg and his colleagues, in a Science paper, explained how termite feeding and natural rainwater storage produce the grass circles.

According to the researchers, termites feed on the grass roots, preventing growth. Rainwater, however, later stores in the sandy soil depths around the rim of the feeding, which allows some grass to survive.

Of course, new theories forever pop up to challenge existing ones. Only recently, new research has mounted a challenge to the termite theory.

Early in 2013, headlines suggested that Bigfoot was living in Oregon, after claims of strange roaring and screeching sounds coming from forests. These claims have been made for years at various locations around the world. Most experts attribute the sounds to coyotes, which vocalize in complex ways, or Barred Owls. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shares that "the Barred Owl's hooting call, 'Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?' is a classic sound of old forests and treed swamps."

What do drugged-out wallabies have to do with crop circles, those distinctive circular patterns often seen in and around Australia? According to Lara Giddings, former attorney general for the island state of Tasmania, the kangaroo-like marsupials feed in the region's many poppy fields. "Then they crash," she told the BBC. "We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high."

The wallabies literally go around in circles, eating in that pattern or trampling the crops.

"Loch Ness monster" sightings were common in Scotland, and people have reported seeing other sea monsters in waters such as Cadboro Bay, Alaska. Animal experts believe these creatures are likely a frill shark, eel or some kind of fish. Jim Covel, senior manager of guest experience at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, told Discovery News that he and others can't be more specific, though, because they "do still find new species in the oceans, perhaps allowing some to entertain ideas like this, filling in the gaps with their imaginations."

Highly endangered frill sharks do have a monster-like look, with their big toothy mouths and undulating, eel-resembling bodies.

DNA evidence reveals that reports of ghostly Chupacabra beasts are, in fact, just sick dogs and coyotes. The vampire beasts supposedly terrorized victims both north and south of the border. But studies on some of the collected animals revealed the truth: The poor mangy animals had simply lost weight and hair, giving them a ghostly appearance.

In Biblical times, people were stunned to see oceans and other aquatic systems suddenly turn bright red in large patches. Scientists say this phenomenon is due to algal blooms, rapid increases or accumulations of algae. The color is not always red, depending on the species. Some blooms look bright green, gold or other colors.

Griffins, such as the one featured in the Harry Potter books and movies, are mythological creatures with four limbs, sharp claws and a bird-like giant beak. Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University proposes that the myth began when miners in Central Asia encountered extremely well preserved fossils for Protoceratops. The Cretaceous Era dinosaur, based on its fossils, does indeed resemble the fictional griffin.

Dragons, with their wings, claws and fierce gaping mouths, appear to be a nightmarish mix of many different species. One of the strongest candidates is the Nile crocodile, thought to have had a more extensive range in ancient times. These huge reptiles sometimes enact a "high walk," where they quickly lift their trunks off the ground, causing understandable confusion with ... a dragon.

Many experienced gardeners have been confounded by the appearance of mysterious dirt piles in their yards. A large number of these piles can show up all at once over a short period of time. Entomologists have found that African black beetles cause the piles. The beetles live underground and repeatedly move back and forth to the surface when feeding on grass. This behavior leaves behind the telltale dirt piles.

The first known usage of the word "gorilla" is thought to come from the history of Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer who lived at around 500 B.C. On an expedition to the West African coast, he wrote about "a savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and who our interpreters called Gorillae." These "women" were, in fact, western gorillas native to the area.