“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”

This gif was circulating reddit a few weeks back and I thought it was pretty awesome so I did some more research on the subjects of the image, Fainting Goats:

A fainting goat is a variety of goat that experiences loss of muscle control and “faints” when it feels panic. Anyone with some free time should search out more Youtube videos of them in action (or rather, inaction).

Since fainting in the face of danger is an extremely disadvantageous trait to have in the wild, these goats are only found in domestic populations and fainting goats, also called myotonic goats, are actually bred to have this unique trait.

Beccause they are so unique, they are actually identified as their own species, though they are really just a variety of the common domestic goat. The first examples of them were recorded in the late 1800s and it seems that farmers were so amused by them they purposely bred them.

All colors and patterns of them exist, just as in regular populations. They are typically kept as pets and farmers find them easy to care for because they have difficulty escaping – the excitement of jumping a fence usually causes them to faint.

All fainting goats have a condition known as myotonia congenita, or Thomsen’s disease. The exact cause of the condition is unknown, though it is highly suspected to be the result of defective chloride channels in the muscle fiber or a deficiency of acetylcholine. Chloride ions and acetylcholine are both molecules necessary for proper muscle function by causing the muscles to contract – the molecules are released into muscle fibers and the muscles contract.

After they flex, normal muscles release the molecules back out through channels in the muscle fiber.  However, when panicked the muscles of individuals with myotonia congenita cannot release the molecules right away, causing a prolonged muscle contraction where the muscles cannot relax.

With this condition, panic causes the muscles the tense, however they do not relax as quickly as they should, resulting in a 10-20 second lapse where the animal’s muscles are frozen. They never actually lose consciousness. Nor do they feel pain with this condition – an explanation that breeders often cite when confronted by animal rights activists concerned with the intentional breeding of goats with the disorder.

Also, usually the older goats learn to associate panic with “fainting” and learn to brace themselves or lean up against something to prevent falling.

Still, though some are able to somewhat control their behavior, they only exist because humans love having them as pets. In the wild, this trait would never be passed on to a new generation because any individual that faints in panic would surely be the first prey to a predator. (This also contributes to another older use for fainting goats – for the protection of more valuable members of a herd. Often in predator-prone areas, fainting goats are kept alongside sheep so that if the flock is attacked by wild animals, the sheep will escape while the goat faints and does not escape.)

But for the most part, this species of goat is kept for its amusing behavior, and there are even festivals down south that honor the unique genetic situation that results in fainting goats.

“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”
~ Finnish saying

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“If all your other friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”

If you have ever heard of lemmings, you will probably imagine those little fluffy rodents that are pretty stupid and commit mass suicides by jumping off cliffs. Their tragic story has become synonymous with blindly following a crowd, and their sad fate demonstrates the moral of any story beginning with the classic parental question of if all your other friends jumped off a bridge

Except that lemmings don’t actually gather into little fluffy lemming herds to hurl themselves off cliffs. (Disney filmographers did that once though, but we will get to that later.)

So imagine my surprise when sitting in my “Psychology of Animal Behavior” class the other day, I hear my professor use mass suicides in lemming populations as an example of a coordinated group behavior. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. My animal behavior professor did not just actually tell his class this right? I was shocked that he would use this as an example, and if he was just using it symbolically, not everyone in the class understood his humor.

So here it is: Lemming mass suicides are false. They don’t jump off cliffs to icy waters of death. They just don’t.

But the incorporation of this myth into modern-day belief is a pretty interesting story involving a nature documentary that apparently wasn’t interesting enough for the general audience without fabricating odd animal behavior (which is a sad fact if filmographers felt they needed to jazz up the wonders of nature).

In an effort to prove my professor wrong (which I enjoy far too much sometimes), I started googling and this was the best site I found: Great Moments in Science.  I took the liberty of summing up my findings below:

FACT: The 1958 Disney documentary “White Wilderness” was meant to be an accurate nature documentary filmed in Canada. It features lemmings migrating across an open tundra, then plunging to their deaths in icy rivers in a coordinated manner. The film treats this behavior as scientific fact and incorporates it nicely into the rest of the documentary about tundra wildlife.

MYTH: Lemmings are not from the region where the film was made, they were in fact brought there by the filmographers, and filmed on a snow-covered turntable to look as though they were on a massive trek across the tundra. Then a small handful of them were herded off the turntable right into a river, creating the illusion of a mass suicide. (PETA wasn’t founded until 1980, otherwise I’m guessing they would have had a strong opinion on this matter.)

This film, along with the public’s general lack of knowledge at the time, led to the spread of the myth of lemming suicides which is still a part of our culture. To be fair, the film crew (probably unknowingly) picked a good animal to perpetrate strange behavior for: there was already a medieval Nordic myth that they spontaneously generated and fell from the sky during storms. (Which, just saying, flying lemmings set against a back-drop of thunder and lightning would have made for a much more epic documentary scene – if I would good at Photoshop you would also get to enjoy this imagery, but alas, I’m not.) In light of an increase in scientific understanding, later myths acknowledged that lemmings were not created through spontaneous generation, so any in the sky were a result of wind.

All that being said, the filmographers likely based their ideas on the scientific fact that in high population surges, migrations can be dangerous for lemmings and some are bound to die by being pushed, crushed, or drowned by the sheer weight of other lemmings. So according to population dynamics, the myth has a basis of fact in that migrations can be dangerous, but with a large, large flair of artistic license.

 (I had to include this, I freaking love Gary Larsen’s Far Side comics)

And thus concludes this rant.

*Also, just an additional note: Although I have never actually seen the film, I really want to and it apparently is “visually stunning” and “one of Disney’s best documentaries” (I’m not sure what this means for Disney’s other documentaries like “Chimpanzee”, “Big Cats”, or Babies”). And it even won an Oscar for “Best Documentary” in 1960.  More info here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052389/

What’s coming soon:

So what is this cool place? What makes it famous?  Coming Soon!