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22 Brilliant Old Nicknames For Animals

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Dogs have been called pooches since the early 1900s. Rabbits have been called bunnies since the 18th century. And the earliest reference to a puss rather than a "cat" dates back as far as 1533. Not all animal nicknames like these survive from one generation to the next however, and the 22 listed here are amongst the most unusual that the English language has long since forgotten.

1. ARSEFOOT

Since Tudor times, a number of different water birds have been nicknamed arsefoot on account of their legs being positioned so far back on their bodies. The name was apparently first applied to the great crested grebe, but throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it came to be used of various species of ducks, loons, and even penguins—in his History of the Earth (1774), the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith explained how penguins, “like Indian canoes, are the swiftest [birds] in the water by having their paddles in the rear. Our sailors, for this reason, give these birds the very homely but expressive name of arse-feet.”

2. BALANCE-FISH

A 2nd century Roman poem about fishing, the Halieutica, makes reference to “the monstrous balance fish, of hideous shape.” It’s not entirely clear from the context what fish the poem is actually referring to, but the name eventually stuck as a nickname for the hammerhead shark and remained in use long into the 19th century.

3. BOBBY-DAZZLER

Bobby-dazzler is an old British English expression for anything of exceptionally good quality or striking appearance, like a doozy or a humdinger. According to The English Dialect Dictionary (1898), however, bobby-dazzler began life as a local name for a butterfly; bobby is an equally old-fashioned English dialect word for a plant covered in insects.

4. CANDLE-FLY

In his English Dictionarie, or An Interpreter of Hard English Words (1626), the lexicographer Henry Cockeram defined a candle-fly as “a flie that, hovering about a candle, burns itself”—in other words, a moth.

5. CARRY-CASTLE

In the Middle Ages, elephants were nicknamed carry-castles on account of their enormous size and strength. The image of the castle-carrying elephant is a particularly ancient one, no doubt inspired by tales of terrifying war-elephants from history (more on those later), and is nowadays used on various coats of arms and crests as a symbol of strength and resilience.

6. DUMBLEDORE

If you thought JK Rowling made the name “Dumbledore” up, think again—dor is an Old English word for a flying or buzzing insect, and dumbledore is actually an 18th century nickname for a bumblebee. In an interview in 1999, Rowling herself explained that she gave the wise old headmaster of Hogwarts the name because of his love of music: “Dumbledore … seemed to suit the headmaster,” she said, “because one of his passions is music, and I imagined him walking around humming to himself.”

7. EGG-SUCKER

The toucan was once nicknamed the egg-sucker because, according to one 19th century description, “it chiefly feeds on the eggs found in other birds’ nests.” Actually toucans chiefly feed on fruit, but they are nothing if not adaptable and have indeed been known to eat eggs and even nestlings—as well as insects, lizards, amphibians and small mammals—when the opportunity arises.

8. ESSENCE-PEDDLER

An old name for a travelling salesman who sells perfume and scent, in the late 19th century essence-peddler came to be used as a humorous nickname for the skunk. As an article in New York’s Knickerbocker magazine explained in 1860, “It is a vulgar mistake that the porcupine has the faculty of darting his quills to a distance, as the essence-peddler has of scattering his aromatic wares.”

9. FOX-APE

In the mid 17th century, a “fox-ape” that had been captured in Virginia and brought back to England was presented to the Royal Society in London. So called because it appeared to be “of a middle nature, between fox and ape,” according to the Society’s records, the creature had a “remarkable pouch … in the belly, into which, upon any occasion of danger, it can receive its young.” Today the fox-ape is called the opossum, an Algonquin name that literally means “white dog.”

10. HOTCHI-WITCHI

Hotchi-witchi is an old gypsy nickname for the hedgehog. Precisely what the name means is unclear, but it’s likely that the first part is an alternation of urchin (another old English name for the hedgehog) while the second is probably an old Romany word meaning something like “woodland,” or “forest.”

11. LUCANIAN OX

In 280BC, the Greek leader Pyrrhus invaded the Roman province of Lucania in an attempt both to liberate its people and to establish his own empire on Roman soil. Besides some 30,000 infantrymen, Pyrrhus brought with him 20 war elephants on loan from Ptolemy II of Egypt, which were dressed in thick armor and carried groups of archers high on their backs. The sight of Pyrrhus’s enormous war elephants unsurprisingly terrified the local Roman soldiers (and their horses), causing chaos on the battlefield and ultimately securing a Greek victory. With no idea of what these enormous creatures could be, the Romans called them Lucanian oxen, a name that remained in use for years to come.

12. MONKEY-BEAR

Because of their habit of climbing trees—and because they were once mistakenly believed to be bears rather than marsupials—koalas were known as monkey-bears in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were also once known as monkey-sloths, kangaroo-bears, and, among English immigrants in Australia in the early 1800s, native-bears.

13. MOULDWARP

Mould or mold is an Old English word for loose earth or rubble, while warp is an equally ancient word meaning to throw, or to scatter around. Put together, mouldwarp is an old nickname for a mole

14. ONOCROTALUS

Onos is the Ancient Greek word for an ass or a donkey (as in onocentaur, a centaur with the body of an ass rather than a horse), while a crotalus is another name for a castanet, or the clapper inside a bell. This literally makes an onocrotalus an “ass-clapper,” but despite appearances it’s actually an old nickname for the pelican. A footnote to the 1425 edition of the Wycliffe Bible helpfully explains that, “the Onocrotalus is an unclene bird, and hath a face like an ass.” Although the word has long since vanished from the language, the scientific name of the great white pelican is still Pelecanus onocrotalus.

15. PISMIRE

Many species of ants naturally produce formic acid, an irritant that they use in various ways to deter would-be predators or attackers. As if that weren’t unpleasant enough, formic acid smells faintly of urine, and so ants have been nicknamed pismires since the 14th century at least.

16. POLTROON TIGER

Poltroon tiger—alongside sneak-cat, pampas cat, Indian devil, catamountain, deer tiger and even bender lion—is an old 18th century name for the puma. Admittedly, no one is quite sure where the name comes from: a poltroon is a coward, so the name could be intended refer to how shy pumas are, or else to the fact that they can’t roar like other big cats. A poltroon can also be a mean-spirited or wicked person, which could refer to its stealthiness or dangerousness. But perhaps the most likely explanation is that the name refers to the puma’s ability to retract its claws, as in the 18th century a poltroon was a hawk or falcon that had had its talons clipped off.

17. QUICKHATCH

Derived from a vague English interpretation of its Cree name, kwĭkkwâhaketsh, the wolverine has been known as the quickhatch since the early 1600s. It’s also known as the skunk bear, the carcajou and the glutton, on account of its voracious appetite.

18. SPARROW-CAMEL

The Ancient Greeks called the ostrich the strouthokamelos, or “sparrow-camel,” apparently in reference to its long camel-like neck. The name was adopted into Latin (the scientific name for the ostrich is Struthio camelus) and eventually into English—a 19th century guide to natural history, Noah’s Ark, or Mornings In The Zoo (1882), explains that “the sparrow-camel … hardly deserves to be called a bird, and it is certainly not a beast.”

19. SULFUR-BOTTOM

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael describes a species of whale he calls the “sulfur bottom,” which has “a brimstone belly,” and is “seldom seen except in the remoter southern seas, and then always at too great a distance to study his countenance.” While Moby-Dick itself is a sperm whale, here Ishmael is describing the blue whale, which has been known as the sulfur-bottom or sulphur-bottomed rorqual since the mid 18th century on account of the yellowish color of its underside.

20. WASHING-BEAR

Because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it, raccoons were once widely known as washing-bears. According to The Illustrated Natural History (1865), “when engaged in this curious custom [the raccoon] grasps the food in both its forepaws, and shakes it violently back and forward in the water.” The name was probably first adopted into English from Germany, where raccoons are still known as Waschbären, or “wash-bears.”

21. WINK-A-PUSS

Wink-a-puss is an old English nickname for an owl, but it was also once used as “an opprobrious appellation, in allusion perhaps to a mangy cat,” according to one 19th century glossary of The Devonshire Dialect (1837).

22. WITCH’S HORSE

In Scandinavian folklore, witches are often depicted as riding around on the backs of wolves, and hence wolves have been nicknamed witches’ horses since the early Middle Ages. The earliest English record of the name comes from a 13th century account of the death of the Harald III of Norway during a failed attempt to claim the English throne in 1066.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Animals
15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons
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Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.

1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.

The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.

2. THEY WON OVER CHARLES DARWIN—AND NIKOLA TESLA.

Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.

In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.

4. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.

A pigeon flying in front of trees.
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The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.

5. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.

Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.

6. TWO PIGEONS ALMOST DISTRACTED FROM THE DISCOVERY OF EVIDENCE OF THE BIG BANG.

In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

7. YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BE ART SNOBS …

Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.

8. … AND TO DISTINGUISH WRITTEN WORDS.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.

9. FLUFFY PIGEON FEET MIGHT ACTUALLY BE PARTIAL WINGS.

A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.
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A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."

10. SOME PIGEONS DISTRACT FALCONS WITH WHITE RUMP FEATHERS.

In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.

11. DODOS WERE RELATED TO TODAY'S PIGEONS.

Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.
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Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.

12. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.

13. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.

According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.

14. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE "MILK."

Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)

15. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY'RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.

We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

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