People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.
1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK
There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)
2. IRISH MOSS
It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.
Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.
4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS
American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.
The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.
6. WINGED DRAGONFISH
This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.
7. NAVAL SHIPWORM
The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.
8. WHIP SPIDERS
These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.
9. VELVET ANTS
There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.
10. SLOW WORM
The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.
11. TRAVELER'S PALM
This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.
12. VAMPIRE SQUID
This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.
13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN
Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.
14. TENNESSEE WARBLER
You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.
15. CANADA THISTLE
Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.
A version of this story originally ran in 2015.
Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.
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1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49
That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.
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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98
There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.
3. SPACE STATION; $9.99
This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.
4. BE REFINED; $12.99
This pipe works best with Earl Grey.
5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93
This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.
6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95
It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.
7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99
This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.
8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40
This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.
9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75
Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.
10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95
If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.
11. HANGING OUT; $12.85
This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.
12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99
If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.
13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95
Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.
14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25
This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.
15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10
This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.
16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67
When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.
17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99
Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.
18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97
If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.