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Rebecca O'Connell (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (iStock)

15 Animals With Misleading Names

Rebecca O'Connell (iStock)
Rebecca O'Connell (iStock)

The animal kingdom is filled with a vast collection of wonderful creatures—perhaps too many for any hopeful zoologist to commit to memory. But doing so would be much easier if so many species didn't have such misleading names! With dolphins masquerading as whales, lizards as toads, and marsupials as bears, it can be tough to keep track of which animals are which. Here’s a rundown of some of the worst offenders in the taxonomical misnomer game.

1. BEARCAT

Officially known as the binturong, this scruffy resident of the Southeast Asian treetops sports almost no relation to the bear or the cat. Its closest living relatives are fellow branch-dwelling mammals like the civet and the genet. The little guy’s genus name Arctictis translates to “bear weasel,” which is also rather inaccurate.

2. ELECTRIC EEL

Though not an eel at all, the critter in question has gained a monopoly on our connotations with the word. In fact, the electric eel is a type of knifefish (the common term for the order Gymnotiformes), and only earned its name due to the snakelike appearance it shares with the eel. Unlike true eels, the electric eel breathes air, lays its eggs in fresh (not ocean) water, and has no teeth or dorsal fin.

3. RED PANDA

There’s a reason that the bronze-furred, bushy-tailed, catlike red panda looks almost nothing like its much larger black-and-white namesake: They’re not even remotely related. The Himalayan omnivore occupies its own family (Ailuridae), and its closest relatives are the weasel, raccoon, and skunk.

Surprisingly enough, these auburn fluff balls should not be condemned for swiping the panda name from the grayscale bears of China, but the other way around. The red panda pioneered the moniker—which is believed to derive from the Nepali word “ponya,” which would have referred to the shape of the animal’s wrists or feet—following its original classification in the 1800s. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century that the giant panda, newly (and incorrectly) assumed to be a relative of the former, borrowed the handle … and has kept a tight hold on it ever since.

4. KING COBRA

Although it may boast hierarchal authority over the cobra race, the so-called king is actually a different type of snake altogether. A king cobra is marked by a much narrower hood than that for which its cobra colleagues are known. Other differences include body size, color, scale makeup (especially around the face), diet, reproductive patterns, habitat, and venom content and toxicity.

5. MOUNTAIN GOAT

The North American native is close enough in relation to your common goat to forgive this particular infraction. But all true goats, wild and domesticated, commune under the genus Capra, whereas the so-called mountain goat is the sole living species belonging to the genus Oreamnos.

6. KILLER WHALE

Here’s one species that can’t catch a break. Known both as the killer whale and the blackfish, the Orcinus orca is neither a whale nor a fish, but a dolphin (and the world’s largest dolphin at that). A paramount factor that distinguishes Shamu and company as dolphins rather than whales: teeth.

7. HONEY BADGER

Despite its recent outburst of Internet notability, this feisty animal is still victim to widespread misrepresentation as a badger. Upon original discovery, this native of Africa and Southern Asia was grouped among the badger subfamily Melinae due to superficial similarities. It has since been relocated to its own subfamily (Mellivorinae), and is now considered far closer in relation to the marten than to the badger.

8. MANTIS SHRIMP

This especially unsightly sea dweller is not a shrimp, not a mantis, and not a locust (as its Assyrian nickname, the locust shrimp, might suggest), but a unique order of marine crustacean: Stomatopoda. True shrimp, lobster, and crab belong to the Decapoda order. Characteristics that distinguish the mantis shrimp from other crustaceans include a 50-miles-per-hour punch and an incredibly complex optical makeup, allowing for a more sophisticated comprehension of color than any other known animal.

9. AMERICAN BUFFALO

Blame Buffalo Bill Cody, or at least whoever gave him that nickname, for this one. There is in truth no such thing as an American buffalo, as the furry beast that roamed the frontier of our very own Old West was actually a bison. Buffalo hail naturally from Central and Southern Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and certain parts of Italy, and are marked by much larger horns and leaner bodies than the American bison.

10. FLYING LEMUR

Let’s get the real disappointment out of the way first: This thing can’t fly. Much like the flying squirrel, it is relegated to a life of gliding and swooping, never able to take to the wild blue yonder in earnest. Furthermore, the flying lemur is not really a lemur, but a completely separate and biologically distant—albeit admittedly similar looking—creature occupying its own order (Dermoptera) and family (Cynocephalidae). The lemur, on the other hand, is one of many animals that fall under the primate umbrella, making it a closer cousin to you than to this winged imposter.

11. MANED WOLF

While this Brazilian canine is not too distant a relative to the wolf we’re all familiar with, it prides itself on its very own genus, Chrysocyon (as opposed to the wolf’s Canis). The maned wolf is a closer relative to fellow South Americans like the forest fox (or crab-eating fox) and the bush dog.

12. HORNY TOAD

If your primary association with this desert denizen is the occasional flustered exclamation of one Yosemite Sam, then you might not realize that the creature in question is no toad at all, nor even a frog. It’s actually a lizard, and one (appropriately) covered in sharp horns, spines, and scales. The diminutive reptile does sport the flat face and stout body you’d more likely find on a toad than a lizard, explaining its confused nomenclature. But nothing is more baffling than its propensity to shoot blood from its eyes as a means of defense.

13. KOALA BEAR

The best known offender is also one of the most egregious. Many people are well aware that Australia’s sleepy, eucalyptus-chomping marsupial is not in fact a bear, but the taxonomical distance between the koala and the common bear is downright tremendous—about the only thing the two creatures have in common is the fact that they’re both mammals. The koala is the only extant animal housed under the Phascolarctidae family, but calls its fellow Aussie the wombat its closest living relative.

14. LOTS OF ANIMALS WITH “FISH” IN THEIR NAMES

One of the only creatures whose name is even more zoologically inaccurate than the koala bear’s is the jellyfish, which isn’t even in the same phylum (and that’s as far back as you can go without leaving the animal kingdom) as the fish. Despite being one of an impressive 10,000 sea creatures living under the Cnidaria phylum, the pesky beach stinger is still branded with the all-purpose, ever-oppressive “fish” label. And it’s not the only one.

Other creatures wrongly called fish are starfish and cuttlefish, each one a member of a phylum (Echinodermata and Mullosca, respectively) altogether distinct from that of all fish.

Taxonomically speaking, fish are actually more closely related to humans than they are to either jellyfish or starfish—fish and humans both belong to the phylum Chordata, along with all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians … but not jellyfish, starfish, or cuttlefish!

15. MOUNTAIN CHICKEN

The mother of them all: a frog that goes by the name “chicken.” This endangered amphibian lives only in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Montserrat, where it is hunted and eaten regularly by the locals thereof. Its popularity as a culinary dish is what earned it its befuddling alias.

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NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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Joe Raedle, Getty Images
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Animals
10 Things You Might Not Know About Grizzly Bears
Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Ursus arctos horribilis is better known by the more casual term of grizzly bear. These massive, brown-haired predators have a reputation as one of nature’s most formidable killing machines. Standing up to 8 feet tall and weighing 800 pounds, these fierce mammals have captivated—and frightened—humans for centuries. Keep your distance and read up on these facts about their love for munching moths, eating smaller bears, and being polar-curious.

1. THEY’RE ACTUALLY PRETTY LIGHT EATERS.

Grizzlies—more accurately, North American brown bears—are strong enough to make a meal out of whatever they like, including moose, elk, and bison. Despite their reputation for having carnivorous appetites, their diet also consists of nuts, berries, fruits, and leaves. They’ll even eat mice. The gluttony doesn’t kick in until they begin to exhibit hyperphagia, preparing for winter hibernation by chomping down enough food to gain up to three pounds a day.

2. THEY USE “CPR” TO GET AT YOUR FOOD.

A grizzly bear eats fruit in Madrid, Spain
Dani Pozo, AFP/Getty Images

More than 700 grizzlies live in or near Yellowstone National Park, which forces officials to constantly monitor how park visitors and the bears can peacefully co-exist. Because bears rummaging in food containers can lead to unwanted encounters, the park’s Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center tests trash cans and coolers to see if they’re bear-resistant. (Nothing is truly bear-proof.) Often, a bear will use “CPR,” or jumping on a canister with its front legs, in order to make the lid pop off. Containers that can last at least 60 minutes before being opened can be advertised by their manufacturers as being appropriate for bear-inhabited environments.

3. THEY CAN CLIMB TREES.

It's a myth that grizzlies can't climb trees. Though their weight and long claws make climbing difficult [PDF], and they need support from evenly-spaced branches, grizzlies can travel vertically if they choose to.

4. THEY’LL EAT OTHER BEARS.

Two grizzly bears play in a pool at a zoo in France
Jean-Francois Monier, AFP/Getty Images

In addition to being omnivorous, grizzlies can also be classified as cannibals. They’ve been spotted eating the carcasses of black bears in Canada. Calling it a “bear-eat-bear world,” officials at Banff National Park in Alberta said the grizzlies are “opportunistic” and more than willing to devour black bears—sometimes just one-fifth their size—if the occasion calls for it. And it’s not just black bears: One study on bear eating habits published in 2017 recorded a 10-year-old male eating a 6-year-old female brown bear.

5. THEY LOVE MOTHS.

Although grizzlies enjoy eating many insects, moths are at the top of the menu. Researchers have observed that bears are willing to climb to alpine heights at Montana’s Glacier National Park in order to feast on the flying appetizers. Grizzlies will turn over rocks and spend up to 14 hours in a day devouring in excess of 40,000 moths.

6. A PAIR OF THEM ONCE LIVED ON WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.

A grizzly bear appears at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenseburg, Colorado
John Moore, Getty Images

In what would be considered an ill-advised decision, explorer Zebulon Pike decided to gift his friend President Thomas Jefferson with two grizzly cubs in 1807. Jefferson reluctantly accepted them and kept them in a cage near the north entrance to the White House, and later re-gifted the cubs to museum operator Charles Willson Peale. Sadly, one of them got shot after getting too aggressive with Peale’s family.

7. THEY CAN RUN FASTER THAN USAIN BOLT.

The bears we see in fiction or lazing about in the wild tend to look cumbersome and slow, as most anything weighing nearly a half-ton would. But in a land race, even Olympic champions would be on the losing end. Grizzlies can reportedly run 35 mph, and sustain speeds of up to 28 mph for two miles, faster than Usain Bolt’s 27.78 miles per hour stride (which he can only sustain for a few seconds).

8. THEY MATE WITH POLAR BEARS.

A grizzly bear is shown swimming at a pool in an Illinois zoo
Scott Olson, Getty Images

In parts of Alaska and Canada where grizzlies and polar bears converge, there are sometimes rare sightings of what observers call “grolar bears” or “pizzlies.” With large heads and light-colored fur, they’re a hybrid superbear birthed from some interspecies mating. Typically, it’s male grizzlies who roam into those territories, finding female polar bears to cozy up with. Researchers believe climate change is one reason the two are getting together.

9. THEY KNOW HOW TO COVER THEIR TRACKS.

When it comes to intellect, grizzlies may not get all the same publicity that birds and whales do, but they’re still pretty clever. The bears can remember hotspots for food even if it’s been 10 years since they last visited the area; some have been observed covering tracks or obscuring themselves with rocks and trees to avoid detection by hunters.

10. THEY’RE NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET.

A grizzly bear and her cub walk in Yellowstone National Park
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

For 42 years, grizzlies at Yellowstone occupied the endangered species list. That ended in 2017, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that a rise in numbers—from 150 in the 1970s to more than 700 today—meant that conservation efforts had been successful. But overall, the grizzly population is still struggling: Fewer than 2000 remain in the lower 48 states, down from 50,000 two centuries ago.

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