7 Pairs of Commonly Confused Animals—And How to Tell the Difference

Moth (left, iStock); Butterfly (right, iStock)
Moth (left, iStock); Butterfly (right, iStock)

It’s hard to tell some animal species apart. Is that a jaguar glaring balefully at you from the shadows, or a leopard? A lizard slithering on the ground, or a salamander? Fear not—we’ve got you covered. Here are some (almost) fool-proof methods for distinguishing between seven pairs of critters.

1. MOTHS VS. BUTTERFLIES

This one might seem like a no-brainer. Most people think of butterflies as colorful garden visitors, whereas those drab moths only emerge at night to bonk against your porch light. But not so fast.

Moths and butterflies belong to the scientific order Lepidoptera—and it’s a huge, spectacularly diverse group, with tons of species that defy your expectations. Some moths fly during the day, hovering at flowers and drinking nectar. Moths can be spectacularly colorful, like this Madagascar sunset moth. And there are plenty of dull-colored butterflies, such as the brown-grey common ringlet and the grayish Avalon hairstreak.

So how can you tell them apart? One of the best methods is to look at the antennae (those long appendages that stick out from the head). With some exceptions, butterflies have a thickened part at the end of the antennae. Moth antennae, on the other hand, are usually slender or feathery and taper to a point.

2. DOLPHINS VS. PORPOISES


Bottlenose Dolphin (left, Wikimedia Commons); Harbor Porpoise (right, Wikimedia Commons)

You might have heard people use these words interchangeably, but dolphins and porpoises are very different. First off, there are way more dolphins than porpoises. The ocean dolphin family Delphinidae contains approximately 32 species, including bottlenose dolphins (like Flipper) and killer whales (like Shamu). But there are only about seven species in the porpoise family Phocoenidae. And there may soon be just six—one species, the panda-like vaquita, is nearly extinct.

In general, porpoises and dolphins have different body shapes. Porpoises tend to have rounded faces, chunky bodies, and triangular dorsal (back) fins. Many dolphins, on the other hand, have pointy faces, slender bodies, and curved dorsal fins. But there are exceptions—Risso’s dolphins, for example, have blunt heads.

Another distinguishing feature is tooth shape. Porpoise teeth are spade-shaped and dolphin teeth are cone-shaped. But that’s pretty hard to see unless you stick your head in their mouths.

3. SHEEP VS. GOATS


Sheep (left, iStock); Goat (right, iStock)

Domestic sheep and goats are both cloven-hoofed, four-legged critters with soft muzzles and really strange eyes. Here’s an easy way to tell them apart: look at the tail. Goats usually hold their tails up, whereas sheep tails hang down.

They also have different eating habits. Sheep, like cows, are grazers—they move across a pasture like fluffy vacuum cleaners, scarfing down vegetation close to the ground. Goats, on the other hand, are browsers. They pick and choose their bites from plants that are a little higher up. They’ll even climb trees for choice morsels.

4. LIZARDS VS. SALAMANDERS


Lizard (left, iStock); Salamander (right, iStock)

Lizards and salamanders look a lot alike. They have long bodies and tails, and they generally crawl around on four legs. But looks can be deceiving. Lizards and salamanders are only distantly related; in fact, lizards are closer cousins to humans than they are to salamanders.

Lizards are reptiles, like snakes and turtles. Salamanders, on the other hand, are amphibians, like frogs. Look closely and you’ll see major differences: lizards have claws on their feet, but salamanders don't (although there are one or two exceptions). Salamanders also lack scales; their skin is often smooth, moist, and slimy. Many species lack internal lungs, so their skin functions as an inside-out lung.

5. HEDGEHOGS VS. PORCUPINES


Hedgehog (left, iStock); Porcupine (right, iStock)

Let’s start with the basics: hedgehogs and porcupines are spiny. Those spines are made of special hardened hairs with hollow centers. But that’s about all these critters have in common. They aren’t closely related, and they evolved spines separately. And here’s the strange part: there are two groups of porcupine species—New World and Old World types—and they each evolved spines on their own. It’s just a useful evolutionary strategy!

Hedgehogs’ closest relatives resemble spineless hedgehogs; they’re mammals called gymnures and moonrats. Porcupines, however, belong to the order Rodentia—they are rodents. They may not look very rodent-y, but check out their big front teeth.

Porcupines use those chisel-like teeth to eat vegetation. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, have pointy teeth and snouts, and they’re omnivores, chowing down on frogs, insects, fruit, and more.

Hedgehog species inhabit parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia, but they’re not found in North and South America—so if you see a spiky animal in the New World, it’s a porcupine.

6. CROCODILES VS. ALLIGATORS


Saltwater crocodile (left, Wikimedia Commons); American alligator (right, Wikimedia Commons)

Alligators and crocodiles have a similar appearance, so it’s not surprising that they’re related: They belong to the order Crocodilia. One major difference is their salt tolerance. Crocodiles have special glands that help them excrete excess salt, so they’re comfortable in saltwater habitats such as coastal mangrove swamps. In alligators, those salt glands aren’t as well-developed, so gators are more likely to be found in freshwater.

Another difference is the shape of their heads. Crocodiles have longer V-shaped jaws, and alligator snouts are rounded and U-shaped. But there are exceptions; for example, the mugger crocodile of India and the surrounding region has a rounded snout like an alligator. Note that there are a couple of other members in the order Crocodilia that have EXTREMELY narrow snouts—the weird-looking false gharial and the even weirder-looking gharial.

Here’s another identification tip: take a look at the teeth. In crocodiles, the fourth tooth on the lower jaw sticks out, overlapping with the upper jaw and making the mouth look like a jigsaw puzzle gone horribly wrong.

7. LEOPARDS VS. JAGUARS


Leopard (left, Wikimedia Commons); Jaguar (right, Wikimedia Commons)

They’re both big cats, and they’re both speckled. But if you see a jaguar or leopard in the wild, it’s easy to figure out the species, because they live on separate continents. Leopards inhabit parts of Africa and Asia, and jaguars are found in South and Central America, as well as occasionally the southwestern United States.

Here are a few other ways to distinguish them. Both cats have clusters of dark spots on their fur, but jaguars have smaller spots inside each cluster. Leopards are also smaller and more slender than jaguars, and their tails are longer. You probably won’t need any of these tips, though, because these animals are notoriously secretive and hard to find.

8 Things to Know About Tiger King, Netflix's Bizarre New True Crime Docuseries

Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Netflix

Last week Netflix quietly premiered Tiger King, a seven-part documentary series that continues the streaming service’s streak of compelling true crime tales. With each increasingly outlandish episode, viewers are submerged in the world of exotic petkeeping and roadside zoos, with Oklahoman polygamist Joe Exotic trading barbs—and eventually threats—with Florida tiger rescuer Carole Baskin. The tale rapidly expands to include a suspected sex cult, alleged mariticide, Exotic’s music career, and a somewhat unreliable hitman.

If you’ve finished the series, take a look at some additional facts surrounding this eclectic cast of characters. Just be aware that many spoilers follow.

1. Carole Baskin says Tiger King misrepresented a certain meat grinder.

When viewers are introduced to big cat breeder and G.W. Zoo operator Joe Exotic in Tiger King, they get an immediate glimpse of his rivalry with big cat advocate Carole Baskin. In addition to threats of bodily harm against Baskin, Exotic goes on to assert that in 1997, Baskin murdered her millionaire husband, Don Lewis, so that she could take over his vast estate and then fed his remains to her rescued tigers. In a blog post, Baskin denied that claim and stated that the meat grinder was a rumor started by the Lewis family. “Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” she wrote. “The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”

2. "Doc" Antle has denied his zoo operates as a kind of sex cult.

Tiger King makes significant overtures that Myrtle Beach Safari zoo operator Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has used his stature in the world of big cats to recruit young women he subsequently develops personal relationships with. Antle dismissed this characterization to Vanity Fair. “There are a lot of cute girls here, because the conservation movement does draw in cute girls,” he said. “But those cute girls have nothing to do with this old fat guy running the place.” Antle went on to suggest his son was the beneficiary of any romantic entanglements. “He is a living Tarzan. He has women throwing themselves at him.”

3. There’s no federal law against owing big cats.

Central to Tiger King is the controversial premise that there’s no federal law prohibiting private citizens from owning potentially dangerous wildlife like lions or tigers. The Fish and Wildlife Service does require permits to sell endangered species across state lines, but traffickers often avoid this rule by marking transactions as “donations.” At the state level, roughly two-thirds prohibit owning a big cat. Others simply require a license, while a handful of states—including Oklahoma and Nevada, which figure prominently in the series—have no regulations at all.

4. Jeff Lowe was once sued by Prince.

Midway through the series, Joe Exotic appears to find a hope of salvation in the form of Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal enthusiast who agrees to have the G.W. Zoo put in his name to thwart the collection efforts of Carole Baskin, who had successfully sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million judgment. (Exotic had used his web presence in an attempt to make people believe Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue was associated with his own efforts to antagonize Baskin and confuse her supporters.) Lowe himself was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, musician Prince sued Lowe because Lowe was allegedly selling unauthorized Prince merchandise. And in 2008, Lowe pled guilty to mail-order fraud charges for posing as an employee of a domestic abuse charity and reselling $1 million in merchandise.

5. Joe Exotic's business partner Rick Kirkham had a nervous breakdown.

Acting as a narrator of sorts, television producer Rick Kirkham appears in Tiger King to relate his experience dealing with Exotic, with whom he had a deal for a reality television series. According to Vanity Fair, Kirkham was initially reluctant to appear in the documentary but relented when the filmmakers agreed to come to Oslo, Norway, where he currently lives and works as a journalist. Kirkham said he had a nervous breakdown after his experience with Exotic, whom he described as “evil” and “like something out of The Omen.”

6. There’s more to the story of Joe Exotic’s (third) husband’s death than the series covered.

There is no shortage of astounding footage in Tiger King, but none provokes more of a shocked reaction among viewers than the moment when Joe Exotic’s third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, walks into the G.W. Zoo’s office, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. (The surveillance camera captures the reaction of an employee, as Maldonado is not within view.) It is unclear whether Maldonado was using the firearm recklessly, as he was known to do, or whether it was suicide. According to a 2017 article in the Oklahoman, Maldonado believed the gun had a bullet in the chamber but that it would not fire without a magazine, which he had ejected. It appears his death, while self-inflicted, was accidental.

7. Joe Exotic’s zoo is still open—but it might not be for much longer.

Following Exotic’s departure from the G.W. Zoo after butting heads with Jeff Lowe, the zoo he founded is still in operation. Lowe initially renamed it the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park before calling it the Oklahoma Zoo, with plans to relocate it to Thackerville, Oklahoma in the summer. It’s currently open for business. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin expressed doubt about the zoo’s future. “All I can tell you is [Lowe] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”

8. Joe Exotic is still posting on Facebook and is asking for a presidential pardon.

In January 2020, Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years for two murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin as well as 17 wildlife charges. Exotic, who is currently being held in Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, regularly posts updates on Facebook expressing hope that Tiger King will activate supporters and help petition for a presidential pardon. “Thank you to the millions of people around the world who have watched Tiger King and see now the wrong that has been done to me,” he wrote on Monday, March 23. “It is you the people of the world who can change what has been done. Please keep this alive until someone reaches our President for a Pardon because its [sic] the right thing to do.”

Watch Fennec Foxes Exploring an Empty Chattanooga Zoo

wrangel, iStock via Getty Images
wrangel, iStock via Getty Images

Zoo animals around the country are taking advantage of their newly vacant environments. On Monday, March 23, the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee shared a video of its fennec foxes out of their enclosure and wandering halls that would normally be populated by people.

The Chattanooga Zoo closed to the public on Tuesday, March 17, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Zookeepers are still coming into work, so not much has changed for the animal residents—besides the occasional opportunity to explore new parts of their home.

"While the visitors are away, the foxes will play!" the zoo wrote in a Facebook post. "We miss our interpretive centers being full of visitors this time of year, but while they had the chance, our keepers let our foxes explore the visitor viewing area of the Deserts of the World building for some fun environmental enrichment."

The zoo may have been inspired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Last week, the aquarium allowed its rockhopper penguins to take a field trip around the facilities, showing them around the Amazon exhibit and information center. As the video above shows, the fennec foxes were able to take in their new environment much faster on four legs.

In addition to sharing clips on its Facebook page, the Chattanooga Zoo is also sharing live-streams of its animals on its website. Here are even more animal webcams to check out while social distancing.

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