Thursday, April 1, 2010

Be careful what you joke about today

I was tempted to try to pull off some kind of April Fool's joke on the blog today.  But then I thought about a presentation that I attended at the Entomological Society of America last fall.  One university entomology department learned the hard way that online tricks can backfire.  I can't now recall the specific details of the hoax, but it involved Adobe Photoshop and doctoring some pictures to look like a new pest that infested people's bodies.

Of course once you let something loose, especially about creepy animals parasitizing humans, it never dies.  The entomology blog's post went viral and the picture ended up in lots of scary places with no April Fool's dateline or explanation that it was just a joke.  It's one way that urban legends in the age of cyberspace get started.

Instead I thought I might briefly share just a few of the urban legends that I've encountered.  These are stories and myths that are already going around, so keep in mind they didn't start here.
  • The daddy longlegs is the world's most poisonous animal.  False.   First, we'll ignore the problem that the moniker "daddy longlegs" is one of those unfortunate common names that are difficult to connect with a real arthropod, illustrating the value of scientific names.  Depending on what part of the world you're from, "daddy longlegs" can refer to a long-legged fly (Tipulidae), a true spider (cellar spider, Pholcidae) or one of the Phalangiidae (also called harvestmen), eight-legged arthropods that are not true spiders.  The latter creatures are what I learned to call daddy longlegs growing up in the Midwest.  See the University of California at Riverside for more information about this urban myth.
  • Women die after being bitten by a spider that lives under toilet seats.  False, but imaginative and really scary.  Every few years this hoax gets perpetrated on a new generation of gullible email recipients.  Called the "American blush spider" in one version, the story usually goes that three women have recently died under mysterious circumstances.  Investigation traces a common thread among the women back to a restroom visit at a specific restaurant.  Health department inspectors collect a spider under the toilet seat called "Arachnius gluteus" that supposedly has an extremely toxic, delayed action venom.  The emails always end with the ominous warning, "It's now believed that these spiders can be anywhere in the country.  So please, before you use a public toilet, lift the seat to check for spiders.  It can save your life.  And please [here's the kicker] pass this information on to everyone you care about."  It's hard to understand someone who gets their kicks thinking about all the people they've persuaded to lift toilet seats and convince their friends to do the same.  For the full hoax see the article.
  • Earwigs are so-called that because they crawl into people's ears at night and gnaw into your brain.  False, well at least the eating into the brain part. This is a hybrid of two common myths: the myth of the earwig and the more generalized myth of earwigs, ants, cockroaches, flies, etc. entering someone's ear and chewing their way into their brain.  The origin of the name "earwig" is a little cloudy, as explained by this article by May Berenbaum, University of Illinois.  But it may go back as far as early, first century writer known as Pliny the Elder.  Though insects do occasionally crawl into, and get stuck in human body orifices, there appear to be few verified cases of "brain drain" caused by insect invasions through the ear, especially by earwigs.
  • There's a new Star Wars laser device that zaps mosquitoes in the bedroom.   Partly true.  My entomology colleague, Salvador Vitanza, told me about this one this week. At this year's TED conference, researchers from a group called the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory demonstrated a  laser gun designed to track and shoot mosquitoes in flight. Incredibly, the device was crafted from parts purchased on eBay by scientists at the laboratory. Presenter Nathan Myhrvold, of IVL, showed the conference a video depicting mosquitoes being zapped for real in flight. The device is not yet commercially available but their goal is to design something that could be produced cheaply enough to make it practical for malarial infected villages in places like Africa.  Personally, I'm still skeptical that technology will ever be practical, but check out this spoof video from YouTube for a good April Fool's Day laugh.
So, enjoy your April Fools, but don't do it on the Internet.

1 comment:

Wizzie Brown said...

Great post Mike! I also saw that presentation at ESA and really enjoyed it (since it didn't happen to me...).