Your Weird Animal Questions Answered

Have a mad question about March hares? Something about squirrels driving you nuts? Want the poop on dung beetles?

Welcome back to Ask Your Weird Animal Questions, in which we answer a few of your awesome animal inquiries each week. Let’s jump right in, because the first question is about dolphins.

Do Dolphins Send Us Out to Sea?

Matt in Florida asked:

We hear of occasional stories of dolphins saving a swimmer, but we don’t seem to hear about any who take a hapless victim further out to sea. Does this happen?

A photo of a dolphin
A bottlenose dolphin off Grand Bahama Island. Photograph by Dan Clements, National Geographic Your Shot

Short answer: Probably not. Do a quick Web search and you’ll find stories about dolphins circling endangered swimmers, as in this video from the Today show about a surfer surviving a shark attack, partly due to dolphin intervention.

Blair Irvine, president of the Dolphin Biology Research Institute, which supports the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, told us that during his fieldwork in the 1970s he “came across multiple anecdotal accounts of dolphins saving humans from sharks or pushing humans towards shore,” but never accounts of the reverse.

It also might seem like fun to interact with dolphins, but it’s illegal to feed or approach them. It’s also bad for them to get habituated to us, a problem well illustrated in the SDRP’s video about Beggar, a bottlenose dolphin whose bad habit of hanging with humans might have led to his untimely end.

So it might sound like a corny aphorism, but if you love something, sometimes it’s better to leave it the heck alone.

What Is a Honey Badger?

One animal most of us wouldn’t probably be in a hurry to interact with is the honey badger, who catapulted to stardom when a Nat Geo Wild video was redubbed with some nouveau narration.

A photo of a honey badger.
A honey badger (Mellivora capensis) in Israel. Photograph by Eyal Bartov, SuperStock/Corbis

S. Turner writes that during a PBS program on honey badgers, “a statement was made that honey badgers are not actually badgers, but weasels … aren’t all badgers members of the Mustelidae family, which also includes weasels? Are honey badgers actually badgers or not?”

Honey badgers are mustelids. But, the website of Keith and Colleen Begg, who took the original Nat Geo footage, says the honey badger got its name from its “superficial resemblance to the Eurasian badger, but the two species are not closely related.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica says the animal’s proper name is ratel, and that they’re a “badger-like member of the weasel family.”

So honey badgers are more weasel than badger.

Animal misnomers are annoying, aren’t they? Prairie dogs are rodents, not dogs. The antlion isn’t ant or lion (watch video: “Antlion’s Death Trap”). A titmouse is a bird, not a mouse or … well, it’s not a mouse, anyway.

Why Aren’t All Cuttlefish Toxic?

Come to think of it, a cuttlefish isn’t a fish or especially cuddly.

A photo of a cuttlefish.
A cuttlefish swims in the Great Barrier Reef’s clam garden. Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic

Which brings us to Grace M., who asks, “Why is it that there is only one species of toxic cuttlefish? All the other species of cuttlefish aren’t toxic, but the flamboyant cuttlefish is.”

We took this to someone with one of the coolest job titles ever: a venomologist. (Read more about venom in National Geographic magazine.)

“All cuttlefish are toxic,” said Bryan Grieg Fry, associate professor for the Venom Evolution Lab at the University of Queensland, Australia. “The flamboyant is the only one people are most familiar with.

“Ironically, it’s never been studied enough to confirm that it’s actually toxic, even though it’s logical to conclude that it is, since we have shown toxicity to be a shared characteristic of cuttlefish, octopus, and squid.

But “this is not to be confused in regards to being toxic in having a poison in their flesh, like the blue ring octopus. There is absolutely no evidence that flamboyant cuttlefish have a tetrodotoxin like blue ring octopus,” which is dangerous to humans. (Watch a video of the blue ring octopus.)

How Do Spiders Avoid Sticking to Their Webs?

Spiders can be dangerous to humans, and they’re definitely dangerous to insects via those sticky webs. (See “Photos: World’s Biggest, Strongest Spider Webs Found.”)

So why don’t the spiders themselves get stuck there? Good question, Yaman from the United Arab Emirates!

2012 study from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Costa Rica found three elements that keep spiders from getting stuck in their own webs: a chemical coating that prevents sticking; slow, careful movements that lessen the arachnid’s contact with the sticky material; and hairlike structures on their legs that help any adhesive drip off them.

That’s it for this week: Leave your weird animal questions in the comments or tweet me at @LizLangley.

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Meet the Author
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at