What’s in a name? When it comes to the great white pelican or yellow-footed tortoise, for example, what you expect is just what you’ll get. But some other animals aren’t as lucky — and that can come with consequences.
Research has proven that common names hold a lot of sway over how we view different species, and can even affect whether policies are implemented to protect them. For example, in a 2012 study conducted by George Mason University researchers, 66 percent of respondents deemed the hypothetical “great American wolf” to be more worthy of conservation efforts versus its blander alter-ego, the “Eastern coywolf.”
Sometimes, a moniker is considered so egregious that it is officially changed; in 2021, a moth whose name originally included an ethnic slur was rechristened the “spongy moth” in reference to its fluffy eggs.
And then there are the species whose common names just … don’t seem to fit, for better or worse. Some have led to a fair bit of confusion about the identity of the animal in question — perhaps you’ve even been bamboozled by one or two yourself.
We’re here to set the record straight.
1. Killer Whale
(Credit: Christian Musat/Shutterstock)
This species, also called the orca (Orcinus orca), has been in the news a lot this year thanks to its recent success sinking boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal. But even with all the extra press, plenty of people aren’t aware that the killer whale is actually a dolphin.
It likely picked up the “whale” distinction because it’s the largest species in the dolphin family. But it’s also worth noting that scientists organize all dolphins, porpoises, beaked whales, sperm whales, narwhals and belugas into one larger group — called the toothed whales.
So, technically, killer whales are both whales and dolphins, depending on how specific you want to get.
2. Slow Worm
Anguis fragilis is named after a worm and resembles a snake — but it’s actually neither. This unusual reptile is really a lizard that has lost its legs through evolution, and it’s the only one of its kind native to the U.K.
You can tell a slow worm apart from a snake by its eyelids and tiny ear openings, which slithery serpents lack. And if you get a peek at its tongue, expect it to be notched at the center rather than completely forked like a snake’s.
Like a snake, slow worms shed their skin, but they don’t stop there: When escaping a predator, A. fragilis can also shed its tail as a distraction. That comes in handy, as the creatures — as the name suggests — are admittedly slow.
(Credit: Dave Primov/Shutterstock)
This species, also known as a binturong, is well known to fans of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats. It boasts a wide, muscular body, a whiskered snout, and a tendency to purr when content.
And yet, despite its bear-like body and cat-like face and behaviors, the bearcat (Arctictis binturong) is related to neither. The species is actually a viverrid native to South and Southeast Asia, and is more closely related to other small mammals like mongooses and meerkats.
4. Honey Bear
Honey bears, also known as kinkajous, occasionally eat honey and may even remind you of Winnie the Pooh. But don’t be fooled — this tropical rainforest mammal is actually a member of the raccoon family, and isn’t a bear at all.
Native to Central and South America, the honey bear (Potos flavus) and the bearcat are interestingly the only carnivorous mammals in the world that have what’s called a prehensile tail. They use this helpful fifth limb to hold onto branches while climbing, and even while sleeping.
5. Mantis Shrimp
(Credit: Jesus Cobaleda/Shutterstock)
The mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda) is doubly misnamed. This highly intelligent sea-dweller is a crustacean, but it also happens to resemble both a shrimp and a certain carnivorous insect.
If you’re having a hard time seeing the resemblance for yourself, take a closer look at the animal’s second pair of limbs; these are postured very similarly to a praying mantis’ folded front legs, and are known for producing the strongest punch of any creature in the animal kingdom.
Read More: How Mantis Shrimp Punch So Hard
6. King Cobra
There are nearly two dozen species of cobras but, despite what its name implies, the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is not one of them. The name likely comes from the snake’s utter dominance over cobras, which can be a large part of its diet alongside other snakes — even venomous ones.
Though some types of cobras resemble the king cobra with their iconic hoods, you can distinguish the predator from its prey by its chevron neck pattern and large size. King cobras can grow up to 18 feet long, while cobras generally measure up anywhere from 2 to 10 feet long.
7. Flying Lemur
Though flying lemurs can glide from tree to tree thanks to the fur-covered membranes that connect their webbed feet, the creatures can’t technically fly. Also, they aren’t lemurs. Actually, they aren’t even primates — though they are considered the closest living relative.
Today, there are only two known species: the Sunda flying lemur (Galeopterus variegates) and the Philippine flying lemur (Cynocephalus volans). Both have an unusual evolutionary history, having diverged from other mammals more than 80 million years ago.
8. Flying Fox
(Credit: Ken Griffiths/Shutterstock)
Good news: Flying foxes do fly! Their wingspans can reach up to 5 feet long, in fact. Bad news: They aren’t foxes.
Flying foxes (Pteropus) are actually members of a group of large fruit bats; they’re so called because their big eyes, ears and noses resemble those of foxes. Additionally, while some flying fox species are black, many others have rich, red-brown patches of fur.
9. Electric Eel
Electric eels are ubiquitous in popular culture. In “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” they give Electro his shocking powers. And wherever a hero is trapped above a body of water, you can be sure that electric eels (OK, or maybe piranhas) are somewhere nearby.
But you may be surprised to learn that electric eels (Electrophorus electricus) aren’t eels at all. They’re really a type of knifefish, and are more closely related to catfish and carp. You can discern an electric eel from a true eel by its missing dorsal fin, its ability to breathe air and its tendency to lay eggs in freshwater rather than saltwater.
10. Australian Shepherd
(Credit: Jan Havlicek/Shutterstock)
The Australian Shepherd, affectionately known as an Aussie, has a secret: It isn’t Australian at all! The herding dog was actually bred in the U.S. during the 19th century.
Even its ancestors come from places beyond Australia. Many believe that shepherds from Basque, a region between Spain and France, are responsible for bringing these forebears to the U.S. to herd sheep.
So, where might the name come from? It’s possible that the sheep themselves were imported from Australia. Another theory is that the dogs’ ancestors were brought first to the land down under before continuing the journey to the states.
Either way, we’re glad they made it.