15 Animals With Misleading Names

The animal kingdom is full of creatures whose monikers are both inaccurate and confusing.
Koala bear, mantis shrimp, maned wolf, and king cobra are all misnomers.
Koala bear, mantis shrimp, maned wolf, and king cobra are all misnomers. / ImagePatch/Moment/Getty Images (koala bear), Paul Starosta/Stone/Getty Images (mantis shrimp), Joe McDonald/The Image Bank/Getty Images (maned wolf), Pierre von Rahmel/500px/Getty Images (king cobra), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)
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The animal kingdom is filled with a vast collection of wonderful creatures—maybe 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

Binturong (Arctictis binturong), also known as the bearcat,...
A sleeping binturong (‘Arctictis binturong’), also known as the bearcat. / Marcos del Mazo/GettyImages

Officially known as the binturong, this scruffy treetop resident has no relation to the bear and only the most distant connection to cats; its closest living relatives are fellow branch-dwelling mammals like the civet and the genet. Its genus name, Arctictis, translates to “bear weasel,” which is also inaccurate.

2. Electric Eel

Electric eel.
The electric eel isn’t an eel at all. / Mark Newman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Though this animal isn’t an eel at all, it 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 eels. 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

A red panda (Ailurus fulgens) resting in a branch during a...
A red panda (‘Ailurus fulgens’) resting in a branch. / Marcos del Mazo/GettyImages

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 related. The Himalayan omnivore occupies its own family (Ailuridae), and its closest relatives are weasels, raccoons, and skunks.

Surprisingly, these auburn fluff balls didn’t swipe the panda name from the grayscale bears of China. The red panda got the moniker—which is believed to derive from the second part of the Nepali term Nigálya-pónya—first, 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

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A King Cobra (‘Ophiophagus hannah’). / Matt Cardy/GettyImages

Although it may boast etymological authority over the cobra species, the so-called king cobra is actually a different type of snake: It’s the only snake in the genus Ophiophagus (true cobras belong to the genus Naja) and probably got its name because its main food source is other snakes. A king cobra is marked by a much narrower hood than true cobras; other differences include body size, color, scale makeup (especially around the face), diet, reproductive patterns, habitat, and venom content and toxicity.

5. Mountain Goat

Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) at Logan Pass in Glacier...
A mountain goat (‘Oreamnos americanus’). / Wolfgang Kaehler/GettyImages

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

6. Killer Whale

Killer whale hunting
An orca (‘Orcinus orca’) hunting. / Alexis Rosenfeld/GettyImages

Known both as the killer whale and the blackfish, Orcinus orca is actually a dolphin (and the world’s largest dolphin at that). They reportedly came by the former moniker because sailors of yesteryear saw them hunting and killing large whales.

7. Honey Badger

This feisty animal—which is native to parts of Africa and Asia and is properly known as a ratel—might look superficially like a badger, but it belongs to a different subfamily, Mellivorinae, of which it’s the only living species. Its genus name and common name come from its love of honey.

8. Mantis Shrimp

Odontodactylus scyllarus (peacock mantis shrimp)
A peacock mantis shrimp (‘Odontodactylus scyllarus’). / Paul Starosta/Stone/Getty Images

These sea dwellers aren’t shrimp or mantises. They occupy a unique order of marine crustacean, Stomatopoda. Characteristics that distinguish the mantis shrimp from other crustaceans include a 50-mph punch and an incredibly complex optical structure, allowing for a more sophisticated comprehension of color than any other known animal.

9. American Buffalo

Bison grazing in front of the Teton Mountains.
Don’t call them “buffalo.” / Danny Lehman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There’s 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 in the genera Syncerus and Bos hail naturally from Central and Southern Africa and the Indian subcontinent, 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. Flying lemurs can’t fly; much like the flying squirrel, they glide and swoop. And though they’re closely related to primates, the animal—which is also known as a colugo—isn’t a lemur, either: It’s a completely separate creature occupying its own order (Dermoptera) and family (Cynocephalidae) with two extant species living in southeast Asia.

11. Maned Wolf

Maned wolf walking
Maned wolf (‘Chrysocyon brachyurus’). / Joe McDonald/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Genetic sequencing has shown that this South American canine isn’t a wolf, and though it looks like a tall fox, it isn’t one of those, either. In fact, it has its own genus, Chrysocyon, which translates to “golden dog.” It's a separate category from the genera Canis (including wolves, coyotes, and dogs) and Vulpes (true foxes),

12. Horned (or Horny) Toad

Close up of horned toad
Horned toad. / Fotosearch/Getty Images

These desert denizens aren’t toads, or even frogs—they’re actually 14 species of lizards covered in sharp horns, spines, and scales. The reptiles do have the flat face and stout body you’d more likely find on a toad than a lizard, and its genus name translates to “toad body,” which could explain its confused nomenclature.

13. Koala Bear

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This is not a bear. / Lisa Maree Williams/GettyImages

Many people are well aware that Australia’s sleepy, eucalyptus-chomping marsupial is not a bear—in fact, just about the only thing the two creatures have in common is that they’re both mammals. The koala is the only extant animal in the family Phascolarctidae (the name translates to “pouched bear”), and its fellow Aussie the wombat is 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) distinct from 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 misnomers is this frog that goes by the name chicken. The endangered amphibian—which is officially known as the giant ditch frog (Leptodactylus fallax)—was once abundant across several Caribbean islands but now can only be found on Dominica. There are a few theories as to how the frog came by its common name: According to one, it was often eaten by locals and was said to taste like chicken; others relate to its size (it can weigh up to 2 pounds) or its vocalizations, which kind of sound like a chicken squawking.

A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.