From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

10 animals with the wrong names

Common names for animals are often easier to remember than their Latin names, but they can often lead to confusion. Here are 10 animals with some very misleading names.

Published: August 20, 2022 at 6:38 am
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Animals tend to have not one, but at least two names: a common name, and a scientific name.

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Formal scientific names, although sometimes humorous or plain silly (see animals named after celebrities and Star Wars characters), give you information about the species in question. The first part tells you the genus (a taxonomic group) the species belongs to, and the second tells you the specific name that distinguishes the animal within the genus. In doing so, scientific names imply biological, genetic relationships between similarly named animals. They tend to give useful and accurate information.

In contrast, common names - due to confusion, ignorance, or physical similarity between only distantly related species- may be anything but useful and accurate. They can end up being quite misleading. Here are ten of our favourite animal misnomers.

Animals with misleading names

Honey bear (Potos flavus)

The honey bear or ‘kinkajou’ is doubly misleading. Not only is in fact a member of the racoon family, but it doesn't even really eat honey! Thought to be given the name because they occasionally raid bee’s nests, and may use their long extensible tongues to lick up honey, honey bears are actually primarily frugivorous (fruit-eating), with as much as 90% of their diet consisting of ripe fruits. Why they have been called bears is harder to know, because there is not much resemblance!

Kinkajou (Potos flavus), Central or South America. © Getty

Red panda (Ailurus fulgens)

Another mistaken ‘bear’ is the red panda (of Master Shifu fame in the Kung-Fu Panda films). Red pandas are not pandas at all, or at least not closely related to the giant panda (which is a member of the bear family). They are instead the only living members of their own taxonomic family, Ailuridae, and are more closely related to racoons, skunks, and badgers. The name ‘panda’ is however thought to come from the Nepali word ‘ponya,’ which means bamboo or plant-eating animal, which is perfectly accurate.

A red panda in the treetops. © Getty

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)

Names can often lead to confusion when they are given in relation to a physical characteristic, such as size, rather than in reference to a familial relationship. This is true of the whale shark, which is not a whale, just as big as some. This species of shark (and therefore a fish) has been known to grow up to 18.8 m in length, comparable to a sperm whale, and is the largest non-cetacean (the whale and dolphin group) animal in the world. As well as size, it is similar to whales in another regard, being a filter feeder in a manner similar to baleen whales.

Learn more about this fascinating fish in our whale shark guide.

Whale sharks, the world's largest fish, are native to tropical seas around the world. © Getty

Guinea pig (Cavia porcellus)

Being neither from Guinea nor a pig, it is hard to understand how these little rodents got their misleading name. One theory is that they were brought to England via Guinea, leading people to believe that they were from there. Another is that they were sold for the price of a guinea - although this does not check out, as the name predates the use of the coin. As for pig, there isn't really even a physical resemblance for it to be attributed to, although the noises they make are perhaps a little similar?

It is not just the English that found some likeness to pigs, however, with reference being made in multiple languages. In German, they are known as Meerschweinchen ("little sea pig") and in Polish świnka morska (“sea pig”).

A guinea pig. © Getty
The Spix's macaw is now considered to be Extinct in the Wild. © Al Wabra Wildlife Preservation

Bearcat (Arctictis binturong)

As you can probably guess, this animal is not a bear, nor a cat, nor closely related to either. Like the red panda, it is out there on its own, being the only living species in its genus Arctictis. The cat-like face and bear-like body do perhaps belie the name, however. Commonly also known as Binturongs, these South and Southeast Asian mammals are only one of two carnivores to have a prehensile tail – a tail that has evolved to be able to grasp or hold objects (the other being the honey bear).

Bearcat (Arctictis binturong) © Getty

Flying fox (Pteropus genus)

It is quite easy to see how this ginger-haired bat acquired its misleading name. Its face and colouring really are quite reminiscent of a fox. The massive wings, however, less so.

There are actually about 60 species in this ‘megabat’ genus, of varying size. The largest is the aptly named ‘large flying fox’, which can have a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres, the longest of any bat species! Flying foxes are fruit eaters, and eat a lot of it, consuming as much as 35% of their body weight daily.

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Lyle's flying fox Pteropus lylei Male Bat Sleeps on the tree. © Getty

Want to find out more? Check out BatFest: what it is, when it's on, and how to take part.

Killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Okay, this one is not nearly so misleading as some, as killer whales (or orcas) are really very closely related to whales, and belong to the same order, Cetacea. But technically, they are dolphins, not whales, being the largest members of the Delphinidae family. The shape and size do give this relationship away somewhat, as orcas have more physical resemblance to other dolphins than they do whales, with their beak-shaped mouths and compact, curved bodies. Although big for dolphins, they are also on the smaller end of the scale when compared to whales. The largest whale, the blue whale, can grow to nearly 30 metres in length, for example, making even the largest orca of 7 metres look puny in comparison!

Photo taken in Tofino, Canada

Flying lemur

One big clue that this name is not quite trustworthy is that flying lemurs are not found on the island of Madagascar. As you may or may not know, true lemurs are only found in Madagascar. They are not even primates, which lemurs (and monkeys and apes, including us) are – although they are the primates’ closest evolutionary cousins.

And guess what? They don't fly either. They glide impressively through the trees using large membranes of skin between their front and hind limbs – not wings.

Learn more about true lemurs here.

Malayan Colugo, the Sunda flying lemur (Photo by Getty Images)

Mountain chicken (Leptodactylus fallax)

Now I bet you couldn't guess what kind of animal this would be from the name alone. You may well be thinking, this frog looks nothing like a chicken! And you would be right, it doesn't. It does however apparently taste a little like one, being particularly large and meaty.

Mountain chicken (Leptodactylus fallax) frog © Getty

The hefty mountain chicken is an amphibian found only on the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Montserrat, and due to its unfortunate distinction of until recently being the national dish on the islands, as well as habitat loss and disease, it is critically endangered. Hunting mountain chicken is now prohibited in an effort to rescue the species from extinction.

Learn how conservationists are trying to save the mountain chicken here.

Starfish

Starfish are just one of many many types of animals that have been misleadingly labelled as fish, from jellyfish (which are cnidarians) to cuttlefish (which are molluscs). This is in part because the word 'fish' used to have a much broader definition than it does today, being used to describe pretty much any aquatic animal. There have been some attempts to address and correct this confusion, by changing starfish to sea-stars for example. The old name has remained persistent in common usage, however. Starfish themselves belong to the Echinodermata phylum, along with sea urchins and sea cucumbers.

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Learn more about this species with our expert starfish guide and whether there really is no such thing as a fish

Surf coming in on starfish, Kiehi Beach, Maui Hawaii. © Getty

Authors

Leoma WilliamsAnimal behavior researcher and science writer

Leoma Williams is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester, and writes periodically for both the website and print magazine

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