Animal name misconceptions

10 Animal Names You’ve Been Getting Wrong: Debunking Common Misconceptions

What’s in a name? When it comes to the great white pelican or the yellow-legged turtle, for example, what you expect is exactly what you get. But some other animals aren’t so lucky—and that can have consequences.

Research has shown that common names have a big impact on how we see different species and can even influence the implementation of policies to protect them. For example, in a 2012 study conducted by researchers at George Mason University, 66 percent of respondents believed the hypothetical “great American wolf” was more worthy of conservation efforts than its milder alter-ego, the “eastern coyote.”

Sometimes the nickname is considered so rude that it is officially changed; in 2021, a moth whose name originally included an ethnic slur cross “sponge moth” regarding his fluffy eggs.

And then there are species whose common names just… don’t seem to fit, for better or worse. Some have led to quite a bit of confusion as to the identity of the animal in question – you may even have been fooled by one or two yourself.

We’re here to clear things up.

1. Orca

This species, also called killer whale (Orcinus orca), has been in the news a lot this year thanks to its recent success sinking boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal. But even with all the extra press, many people don’t know what an orca actually is dolphin.

It probably received the distinction of “whale” because it is the largest species in the dolphin family. But it’s also worth noting that scientists organize all dolphins, porpoises, beaked whales, sperm whales, narwhals and belugas into one larger group — called toothed whales.

So, technically, killer whales are both whales and dolphins, depending on how specific you want to get.

Read more: Killer whales have social tendencies like us, and this one can become dangerous for boats

2. Slow worm

Anguis fragilis it is named after a worm and looks like a snake, but is actually neither. This unusual reptile is actually a lizard that has lost its legs as a result of evolution, and is the only one of its kind native to the UK

You can tell the slowworm from the snake by its eyelids and the small ear openings that slippery snakes lack. And if you take a peek at its tongue, expect it to be slit down the middle, not completely split like a snake’s.

Like a snake, slowworms shed their skin, but they don’t stop there: when fleeing a predator, A. fragilis may also fling its tail as a distraction. This is useful since the creatures are – as the name suggests – slow.

3. Bear cat

(Credit: Dave Primov/Shutterstock)

This species, also known as the binturong, is well known to fans of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. It boasts a broad, muscular body, a whiskered muzzle, and a tendency to purr when pleased.

Yet despite a bear-like body and cat-like face and behavior, the bear cat (Arctictis binturong) is not related to either. The species is actually a viverrid native to South and Southeast Asia and is more closely related to other small mammals such as mongooses and meerkats.

4. Honey bear

(Credit: Piu_Piu/Shutterstock)

Honey bears, also known as kinkajou, sometimes eat honey and may even remind you of Winnie the Pooh. But make no mistake—this rainforest mammal is actually a member of the raccoon family and not a bear at all.

Native to Central and South America, the honey bear (Potos flavus) and the bear cat are interestingly the only carnivorous mammals in the world that have what is called catching tail. They use this useful fifth limb to hold on to branches while climbing and even while sleeping.

5. Mantis shrimp

(Credit: Jesus Kobaleda/Shutterstock)

The mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda) is doubly misnamed. This highly intelligent sea creature is a crustacean, but it also resembles both a shrimp and a certain carnivorous insect.

If you have a hard time seeing the resemblance yourself, take a closer look at the animal’s second pair of limbs; they are positioned much like the folded front legs of a praying mantis and are known for producing the strongest kick of any creature in the animal kingdom.

Read more: How do Mantis shrimps hit so hard

6. King cobra

There are almost two dozen species of cobra, but despite what its name suggests, the king cobra (Ophiophage Hana) is not one of them. The name probably comes from the snake’s complete dominance over cobras, which can be a large part of its diet along with other snakes – even venomous ones.

Although some cobra species resemble the king cobra with their iconic hoods, you can tell the predator from its prey by its chevron neck pattern and large size. King cobras can grow up to 18 feet long, while cobras typically reach lengths of 2 to 10 feet.

7. Flying lemur

Although flying lemurs can glide from tree to tree thanks to the fur-covered membranes that connect their webbed feet, the creatures technically cannot fly. Also, they are not lemurs. In fact, they are not even primates – although they are considered the closest living relative.

Today there are only two known species: the Sunda flying lemur (Galeopterus variegates) and the Philippine flying lemur (Cynocephalus volans). Both have an unusual evolutionary history, having diverged from other mammals more than 80 million years ago.

8. Flying fox

Good news: Flying foxes do fly! In fact, their wingspan can reach up to 5 feet in length. Bad news: They’re not foxes.

Flying Foxes (Pteropus) are actually members of a group of large fruit bats; they are so called because their large eyes, ears and noses resemble those of foxes. Additionally, while some flying fox species are black, many others have rich red-brown patches of fur.

9. Electric eel

Electric eels are ubiquitous in popular culture. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, they deliver Electro his shocking powers. And wherever a character is caught over a body of water, you can be sure that electric eels (well, or maybe piranhas) are somewhere nearby.

But you might be surprised to learn that electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) are not eels at all. They are really a type of knife fish and are more closely related to catfish and carp. You can tell an electric eel from a true eel by its missing dorsal fin, its ability to breathe air, and its tendency to lay its eggs in fresh water rather than salt water.

10. Australian Shepherd

The Australian Shepherd, affectionately called Aussie, has a secret: she’s not Australian at all! The shepherd dog was actually bred in the US in the 19th century.

Even his ancestors came from places outside of Australia. Many believe that shepherds from the Basque Country, a region between Spain and France, were responsible for bringing these ancestors to the US to herd sheep.

So where could the name come from? It is possible that the sheep themselves were imported from Australia. Another theory is that the ancestors of dogs were brought to earth first before continuing their journey to the states.

Either way, we’re glad they made it.

Read more: Dogs have co-evolved with humans like no other species

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