A white rhino isn’t actually white and a red panda isn’t even related to the black and white, giant pandas we know and love. So what’s with their names? To help with the confusion, here’s a primer on nine animals who have been seemingly misnamed.
Check your vision, because the critically endangered white rhino isn’t white at all. Not even close. Observing the rhino’s expansive upper lip, Afrikaans speakers referred to it as wide, or “wyd.” English-speaking settlers, who should have gotten their ears checked, misinterpreted, thinking they were saying “white.” So the name stuck.
The best way to differentiate a white rhino from a black rhino (which, to make this story even more confusing, aren’t black – they’re just called that because “black” is the opposite of “white”) is to check out their kissers. Black rhinos’ upper lips hook over their mouths, while white rhinos don’t. Or, if you can’t get that close, use this general rule: Black rhinos tend to roam solo, whereas white rhinos hang out in small groups.
Considering zero humans have been killed by killer whales in the wild, the name “killer whale” makes zero sense. Killer whales gained the reputation as “killers” not by attacking humans but by attacking other whales. One Spanish—and much cooler—name for the killer whale is “ballena asesina”, or assassin whale. The reputation as a whale assassin gave the killer whale its genus name Orcinus, meaning “belonging to Orcus”, the Roman god of the underworld.
The madness continues: a killer whale isn’t a whale. The killer whale belongs to the dolphin family Delphinidae, making it not a whale but the largest member of the dolphin family.
With this information in mind, my recommendation is to switch the name from “killer whales” to “assassin dolphins of the underworld”.
Spider monkeys, unlike spiders, do not have eight legs, web spinning skills or the ability to strike fear into my very core. Spider monkeys gained their descriptor based on their disproportionately long limbs and tails. Spider monkeys use their prehensile tails as a fifth hand to swing from branch to branch. Spider monkeys are extremely agile and rarely leave the treetops of Latin American rain forests.
The red panda is not closely related to the giant panda—it’s more closely related to the weasel—but they do share a taste for bamboo. The name “panda” comes from the Nepali word “ponya” meaning bamboo-eating animal. Red pandas have strong, semi-retractable claws adapted for eating tough bamboo. Turns out there is more than one animal that eats bamboo in the bamboo forests of China—go figure—so both red pandas and giant pandas got the “bamboo-eating animal” title.
In some languages, the name for the red panda is the “lesser panda” in comparison to the giant panda we all know and love. However, the name “red panda” is more commonly used out of fear of hurting the red pandas’ feelings.
Hermit crabs are hermits in the same way you’re a hermit if you run away from somebody trying to murder you. Hermit crabs only hide in their shells when they’re being attacked. When they’re not in danger, hermit crabs are actually very social creatures–like “hang out in huge colonies of 100 or more crabs” level of social. Within the group, crabs contend for a limited number of larger shells needed as the crab grows. If a hermit crab does not have a large enough shell to hide within, the crab will be easy prey. When the crabs are not hiding, however, the crabs communicate with croaking noises; competing for alpha status and mates, just like any other social species.
The mountain goat may look like a goat, walk like a goat and smell like a goat, but it is not a goat. It is not a member of the Capra genus, like domestic goats. The mountain goat is such a special snowflake of a species it gets its own genus, Oreamnos. The species is only found in North America, giving it the very patriotic species name of Oreamnos americanus.
Hopefully the above photo stopped you from trying to imagine some freakish combination of an aardvark and a wolf. The prefix “aard” means earth in Afrikaans; an aardwolf is an earth wolf and an aardvark is an earth pig—vark is the Afrikaans word for pig. Aardwolves are closely related to hyenas, though they do share the aardvark’s love of eating insects. This trait allows African farmers and aardwolves to get along splendidly; aardwolves eat termites that would otherwise destroy the crops.
The word “meerkat” is Dutch for “lake cat”, a doubly nonsensical name because a meerkat is neither a cat nor does it have any particular affinity towards lakes. An alternative theory is that “meerkat” is a Dutch adaptation of the Sanskrit word “markata”, meaning “monkey”. The theory goes that Dutch traders heard about monkeys in northern Africa, sailed to southern Africa, saw meerkats, and said, “that must be those monkeys they were talking about.” Close, Dutch traders, but not quite.
The sperm whale got its name for a less disgusting reason than you would imagine. Spermaceti is a waxy material found within a whale’s head and was mistakenly identified as the whale’s semen. For some reason, this did not deter whalers from targeting sperm whales to collect the spermaceti to use for candles and lubricant. Luckily, a whaling moratorium is in place to protect sperm whales, though their low population numbers mean they are still rated as “vulnerable” by the IUNC Redlist.