15 Animals With Misleading Names

Rebecca O'Connell (iStock)
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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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.