Acinonyx (cheetah) From Gk. akineo
(no movement) + onyx (claw), referring to the popular belief that
cheetahs have non-retractable claws. This is not true. Cheetahs' claws
are fully retractable, but their retracted claws remain exposed because,
unlike other cats, they lack a skin sheath to cover them.
Alligator (alligator) Misspelling of "El
lagarto," Spanish for "the lizard."
Ambrosia L. (ragweed) Named after the food of the gods,
this genus is a major cause of allergies. Linnaeus was probably
considering that ancient herbals recommended A. maritima to
treat upset stomachs.
Apidium (Early Oligocene primate, from Egypt) The name
means "little bull" (from Apis and Mnevis, a pair of bulls mentioned on
the Rosetta Stone as being used in Egyptian rites); the fossil was
orginally thought to be a hoofed animal.
Apus apus (common swift) From Greek for
"footless" (see also Paradisaea apoda below). The swift's feet
are small but far from absent.
Arctocephalos pusillus (seal) "Pusillus"
means "very little", but the seal grows to about 3 meters and one
tonne. The type specimen was a juvenile not recognized as such at the
Arrhinoceratops Parks, 1921 (ceratopsian
dinosaur) Name means "without a nose horn face". Parks interpreted the
fossil as having "no trace of a horn core" nor even a vestige of one.
In 1981 Helen Tyson restudied it, stating, "To deny the presence of a
horn core in Arrhinoceratops, which ... possesses a distinct horn-like
organ, contributes neither to the homology of this structure nor to an
accurate characterization of the genus."
Barbus viviparus Weber, 1897 (bowstripe
barb) Not viviparous but egg-laying, like most fish.
Basilosaurus Harlan, 1834 (Eocene whale) Not a "king
lizard", and unrelated to dinosaurs. The original misidentified remains
of several animals were combined and sent on a tour as a 130-ft. extinct
sea serpent. [Transactions of the American Philosophical Society
Bufo marinus (cane toad) The toad is
adaptable to many habitats, but it is not marine.
Campanulotes defectus Tendiero, 1969 (down louse),
Columbicola extinctus Malcolmson, 1937 (flight-feather
louse) Both these lice were reported from the passenger pigeon and were
thought to have gone extinct with it, hence their names, but both are
still living on other pigeons. C. defectus turned out to be a
previously described species C. flavens.
Cephalopentandra echirrosa (Cogniaux) Jeffrey,
1896 (African plant) Generic name means "head-with-five-stamens
without-tendrils", but the flower has only three stamens, and the
plant has tendrils.
Chaeropus ecaudatus Ogilby, 1838
(pig-footed bandicoot) The name of this extinct marsupial literally
means "pig-foot tailless," but it had the longest tail of any
bandicoot. It was described from a specimen which had lost its tail,
though accounts differ whether the loss happened during the animal's
life or during taxidermy.
Crucibulum extinctorium Lamarck 1822
(gastropod) Not extinct.
Cuniculus Brisson, 1762 (paca) The name
means "rabbit" in Latin, but the paca is a rodent, not a
Dinosauria Owen, 1842 Means "fearfully great lizard" (or, as
often quoted, "terrible lizard," but terrible in the sense of
"awesome"), but many were small and inoffensive, and none were
lizards. It should be noted, however, that there is no Latin word for
"reptile," so "saur" had to stand in.
Epilachna vigintisexpunctata vigintisexpunctata
(28-spotted potato ladybird) "Vigintisexpunctata" means
Epilachna vigintioctopunctata pardalis
(26-spotted potato ladybird). "Vigintioctopunctata" means
Felis lacustris Gazin, 1933 ("lake cat")
The name lacustris (Latin, "lake") does not indicate that this
cat had aquatic habits, but indicates its place of origin, the
Hagerman Lake Beds. However, the sediments there are now interpreted
as a flood plain rather than an ancient lake.
Fregata minor (greater frigate
bird) It was originally named Pelecanus minor, the little
pelican; when moved to a new genus, priority demanded that it still be
called minor. The lesser frigate is F. ariel.
Geosaurus Cuvier, 1824 (Late Jurassic to early
Cretaceous marine crocodile) Means "earth lizard", but it was strictly
Globicephala macrorhynchus Gray, 1846 (pilot
whale) John Gray, working from skeletal materials only, guessed this
whale had a large beak, or macrorhynchus in Greek. But the pilot
whale's head is quite rounded, suggesting anything but a beak.
Haemophilus influenzae (bacterium) So
named because it was thought to be the cause of influenza, until the
virus was discovered in the 1930s.
Ixobrychus Billberg, 1828 (dwarf bittern) The
name means "mistletoe-roarer". At that time, it was a common belief
that bitterns blew into a reed in order to produce their booming
call. Billberg was not only mistaken about that, he also confused
ixios (reed) with ixos (mistletoe).
Lawsonia inermis (henna) Originally, henna
was called by three names, Lawsonia inermis, L. spinosa,
and L. alba, referring respectively to a young spineless plant,
an adult spiny plant, and a white-flowered variety. When botanists
realized that these were the same species, they chose the name
inermis ("unarmed") for it, even though henna does have
Lepas anatifera Linnaeus, 1767 (goose
barnacle) "Anatifera" means "goose bearing". It was once widely
believed (from the 1100's until the early 1800's) that barnacle geese
(Branta "Anas" leucopsis) grew attached to seaside trees by their beaks
and clad in shells before dropping into the sea where they became mature
geese. The barnacles' food gathering appendages were supposedly
protofeathers. The migratory barnacle geese nest in remote areas well
above the Arctic circle, so Europeans filled in the unknown part of the
birds life history with this bizarre metamorphosis. This legend may
have persisted as long as it did because it permitted goose meat to be
eaten during Lent.
Libycosaurus Bonnarelli, 1947 (Miocene
anthracothere) The name means "lizard of Libya", but it is an
Lobodon carcinophagus Hombron & Jacquinot,
1842 (crabeater seal) The scientists who discovered this seal,
finding soft shell remains in its mouth, inferred that it fed on
crabs and named it accordingly, but in fact it eats krill. Crabs are
not even found in its Antarctic environment.
Megarachne Hunicken, 1980 (fossil terrestrial eurypterid)
Named "big spider" based on its interpretation as an enormous Upper
Carboniferous therophosid spider, and formerly listed by Guinness as the
world's largest spider. It is now shown to be a eurypterid, or sea
Meiolania Owen, 1886 (Oligocene-to-Holocene
turtle) It was named Meiolania ("small roamer") in reference to
Megalania ("large roamer"), a monitor lizard which it was first
thought to be a smaller relative of. When more remains were found, it
was realized that it was a turtle.
Miohippus Marsh, 1874 and
Pliohippus Marsh, 1874 (fossil horses) These names
refer to the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, respectively. However, most
Miohippus are found in the Oligocene, and all Pliohippus
are from the Miocene. Marsh believed that his Miohippus fossils
were from the Miocene, but later work showed him mistaken. Since
Pliohippus was first described, the genus was split in two, with
the later Pliocene horses reclassified as Dinohippus, and the
date of the Pliocene epoch itself has shrunk. Eohippus is still from
the Eocene, but it is not the scientific name because
Hyracotherium takes prescedence.
Myrmecobius Waterhouse, 1836 (numbat) The
name means "lives on ants", but this marsupial lives on termites,
eating ants only incidentally.
Myrmecophaga tridactyla L., 1758 (giant
anteater) The specific name means "three fingers", but it has five on
each foot. Four fingers on each front foot have claws, two of which
are particularly elongate. The anteater does, at least, eat
Neoleptoneta myopica Gertsch (Tooth Cave spider) The
name implies near-sightedness, but the spider is blind.
Neomylodon listai Ameghino (ground sloth) Ground sloths
were thought to be still extant in South America during the 19th
century. Explorer Ramon Lista once shot at an animal which matched a
crude description of one. When fresh-appearing dung and swatches of
skin complete with reddish-brown fur and dermal ossicles turned up in an
Argentinean cave in 1888, the animal was dubbed "Lista's new Mylodon."
20th century carbon dating revealed the hide to be roughly 13,500 years
Nephanes titan Newman, 1834 (beetle) This beetle is
Ornithocheiroidea (a subgroup of pterosaurs)
British palaeontologist Harry Grovier Seely was convinced that
pterosaurs were the ancestors of birds, though, after much criticism,
he altered his position to birds and pterosaurs having a close common
ancestor. Seely bolstered his arguments by making reference to birds
whenever he coined the name for a newly described pterosaur:
Ornithocheirus ("bird hand"), Ornithostoma ("bird
mouth"), Ornithodesmus ("bird link") -- all within the
Ornithocheiroidea. Seely even proposed replacing Pterosauria with
"Ornithosauria." In 1993, Ornithodesmus was recognized as a
small theropod dinosaur and renamed Istiodactylus Howse,
Milner, & Martill, 2001. Ornithocheirus and
Ornithostoma are still valid taxa.
Theropoda (both dinosaur suborders) The names
mean "bird feet" and "beast feet" respectively. Yet theropods are
very bird-like (indeed, birds evolved from this group), including
their feet, and ornithopods are more beast-like. Ornithopods were
so-named for their three-toed feet, but those feet are still less
birdlike than the three-toed feet of theropods.
Oviraptor philoceratops Osborn, 1924 (theropod dinosaur)
The name means "ceratopsian-loving egg raider" because the first fossil
was found with what was thought to be Protoceratops eggs, but the
eggs turned out to be its own; most likely, it was guarding its own
nest. (Osborn did note that the name could "entirely mislead us as to
its feeding habits and belie its character," but he went with the name
Pan troglodytes (L.) (chimpanzee) Linnaeus,
relying on unreliable stories, named a species Homo troglodytes.
It is not entirely certain which species, since he had no type specimen,
but it was probably the chimpanzee, which carries the name today. But
"troglodytes" means "cave dweller," and chimps do not live in caves.
Paradisaea apoda L., 1760 (greater bird of paradise)
"Footless one from paradise"; it was described from two skins brought to
Seville in 1522 by the Victoria, the surviving ship from
Magellan's circumnavigational voyage. The native Papuans had removed
the specimens' legs, and the Europeans therefore assumed that the birds
remained airborne their entire lives (with the female laying and
brooding eggs in a groove between the male's wings). A live individual
captured in 1824 finally revealed that the bird spends most of its life
standing on rather massive feet.
Paradoxurus Cuvier 1821 (Asian palm civet).
The type specimen, at France's Vincennes Zoo, had a deformed tail,
leading Cuvier to think it was prehensile (Paradoxurus = 'with a strange
tail'). He called the type species
P. hermaphroditus, misnaming it on both
Peponocephala Nishiwaki & Norris, 1966
(melon-headed whale) The name was supposed to mean "melon head," but
pepo does not actually mean "melon," and "pumpkin-headed whale"
has not caught on in popular usage.
Phytosauridae Jaeger, 1828 (Triassic
semi-aquatic reptiles) Name means "plant lizard" because the petrified
mud fillings in the jaw of the first specimen found were thought to be
herbivore teeth, but the creatures were wholly carnivorous.
Picrophilus Schleper et al. 1996 (Archaea)
This microbe is an extreme acidophile. The genus description says it
derives from "Gr. adj. pikros, acidic," but Greek pikros
means "bitter", which is more often associated with alkaloids.
[IJSEM 46: 814]
Prosauropoda von Huene, 1920 (group of long-necked
dinosaurs) Mistakenly thought to be ancestral to the
Raphus cucullatus Linnaeus, 1758 (dodo) "Raphus" comes
from a vulgar term for "rump." The dodo's common name and former
scientific name (Didus ineptus L.) are also perjorative.
However, study of fossils show that wild dodos were sleeker and active;
their modern image came from overfed obese captive specimens and/or
Scalopus aquaticus (Linnaeus, 1758)
(eastern mole) Not aquatic.
Sirenia (manatees and dugongs) Columbus wrote in his
log entry of 9 January 1493, "I saw three sirens that came up very high
out of the sea. They are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in
some ways, they have a face like a man." Columbus and many explorers
who followed him thought these inoffensive, rotund, placid, aquatic
vegetarians were the deadly sirens or mermaids of fable whose haunting
songs lured sailors to their deaths.
Speothos venaticus Lund, 1842 (bush dog)
Named by Danish naturalist Peter Wilhelm Lund as a fossil from
caves in Brazil, thus its generic name meaning "cave wolf". It was
first described in living form in 1843 by the same person, but he
failed to realise they were the same animal and named the living dogs
Icticyon, which name was used for Speothos until well
into the 20th century.
Stegosaurus Marsh 1877 (dinosaur) When
O.C. Marsh described the dinosaur, he thought that its distinctive
triangular plates covered the creature like a giant turtle, so he
named it Stegosaurus, or "roof lizard".
Viola purpurea (yellow pansy) Neither violet
Vulcanodon Raath, 1972 (sauropod dinosaur)
Vulcanodon ("volcano tooth") was described from teeth and a
headless partial skeleton found in rocks of volcanic origin. It was
later found that the teeth were from another (non-sauropod) animal. The
skeleton called "volcano tooth" has no known teeth.
Zoraptera Silvestri, 1913 (insect) The name (from
Greek) means "pure wingless", but some forms, discovered after the
family was described, have four wings.
Acanthophis antarcticus (death adder) from
Australia, not Antarctica.
Apterocyclus honoluluensis Waterhouse, 1871
(Kauai Flightless Stag Beetle). Named at the British Natural History
Museum from a specimen that was mailed in a package postmarked
"Honolulu" (on the island of Oahu). Its geographic restriction to the
high elevation forests of the island of Kauai was not realized until
Blattella germanica Linnaeus, 1767 (German
cockroach) Native to the Great Lakes region of East Africa. Carried
across the Mediterranean to Europe over 1000 years ago.
Bucco capensis (collared puffbird): from South
America, not the Cape Region of Africa.
Capsicum chinense Although it is used in
Chinese cooking, it comes, like all other Capsica, from the
Chelonoidis chilensis Gray, 1870 (turtle)
The type specimen was labeled "Valparaiso" (a port in Chile), so Gray
named the turtle chilensis. However, Valparaiso was only the
ship's point of departure. That species of turtle is found only in
Paraguay and Argentina, east of the Andes.
Chrysochloris asiatica (Cape golden mole)
From Africa, not Asia.
Chrysolina americana L., 1758 (rosemary
beetle) Native to the Mediterranean region, not America.
Cupressus lusitanica Mill. (Mexican white
cedar) "Lusitanica" means "from Portugal," but the tree is native to
Central America. Apparently it was described from Portuguese
cultivated trees. [Lorenzi, H. et al. 2003. Árvores
exóticas no Brasil, p. 30.]
Cyclamen persicum (Persian cyclamen) This
primrose relative grows in many areas of the Middle East, but it is not
native to Persia.
Dacelo novaeguineae (Hermann 1783) (common or
laughing kookaburra). For novaeguineae = New Guinea. Sonnerat pictured
this solely-Australian bird in his New Guinea book and claimed to have
collected it there. He had in fact probably been given it by Joseph
Banks, whom he met in South Africa in 1770.
Eriobotrya japonica (loquat) originally
from China, though grown in Japan for 1000 years.
Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon) from
eastern Asia (it is the National flower of South Korea), not from the
Hildewintera polonica (cactus) "Polonica"
means "from Poland." The cactus is from Bolivia.
Hoplias malabaricus (tiger tetra, a freshwater fish)
Pieter Bleeker, a Dutch medical doctor and ichthyologist, stationed in
Java between 1848 and 1860, had a wide network of outposts from where
he received his specimens. In 1858 a fish he received was said to
originate from "the west," which he interpreted as from the Malabar
Coast (India's west coast). Now we know it came from much farther
west, from the Rio Grande do Sul area in Brazil.
Hoplodactylus duvaucelii (Dumeril and Bibron
1836) (Duvaucel's gecko) It is from New Zealand, but the type
specimen was believed to have come from India and so was named after
French naturalist Alfred Duvaucel (1796-1824) who spent much of his life
collecting in India.
Lagerstroemia indica Linnaeus (crepe myrtle)
from China, not India. Lagerström visited several Asian countries,
and Linnaeus got this plant's origin wrong when he named it. Also, it
is a loosestrife, not a myrtle.
Lilaeopsis chinensis (L.) Kuntze (eastern
grasswort) Native to eastern North America, not China.
Lodoicea maldivica (double Coconut or
Coco-de-mer) native of the Seychelles, but first thought to come from
the Maldives. For centuries, its giant seeds (up to 44 lbs.) had been
found floating in the Indian Ocean, but the seeds cannot stand long
immersion in sea water. The Seychelles is their only home.
Mustela africana (tropical weasel) From
South America, not Africa.
Nerine sarniensis Herb. (Guernsey lily)
Sarniensis refers to Guernsey ("Sarnia" to the Romans), one of
the Channel Islands between England and France, but the lily is native
to southern Africa. One story is that a Dutch ship carrying bulbs of
the lily ran aground on Guernsey, and the bulbs washed ashore and took
root. Another story is that the shipwrecked Dutch sailors used the
bulbs to barter with the natives, representing them as having come
from Japan. William Herbert named the genus after the nereids, sea
nymphs, treating the plant as a gift of the sea goddesses.
Numenius madagascariensis (L., 1766)
(Eastern curlew) Linnaeus thought the type specimen came from
Madagascar. Neumann (1932) presumed the skin arrived from Makassar (a
Portugal colony in Sulavesi Is.), whose name got confused with the
better known name "Madagascar". However, Stresemann (1941) has found
that the specimen really was taken in the Philippines. The species
nests in NE Asia and winters from Philippines to Australia.
Opuntia (cactus) Named after Opus, a city
in Greece, although the cactus is native to the New World only. It is
named after Opus because Pliny said it grew there, but he must have
been referring to something else.
Panthera pardus japonensis Gray, 1862
(North Chinese leopard) From China, not from Japan, where there are no
Pelargopsis (Halcyon) capensis
(stork-billed kingfisher) from southern Asia, not the Cape Region of
Periplaneta americana Linnaeus, 1758
(American cockroach) It hails from west Africa and was spread worldwide
by maritime commerce, reaching North America around 1625.
Pygoscelis papua Forster 1781 (gentoo
penguin) Named for Papua = New Guinea. In his 1776 book on New Guinea,
Pierre Sonnerat claimed to have discovered three species of penguin on
the island, so this species was named accordingly. In fact Sonnerat had
stolen the skins from the collection of fellow naturalist Philippe
Commerson. There have never been penguins in New Guinea, and Sonnerat
never travelled as far east as New Guinea.
Quercus canariensis Wild. (oak) Native to
the Iberian Peninsula and northern Africa; not found naturally in the
Quercus pyrenaica L. (oak) Not present in
Rattus norvegicus Berkenhout, 1769 (Norway
rat) From East Asia, not Norway.
Salvia hispanica L. 1753 (Spanish sage,
chia) described by Linnaeus from a specimen apparently growing wild in
Spain, but it had been introduced from Central America by an unknown
person, probably for its nutritious seeds.
Scilla peruviana (lily) from the
Mediterranean. It was named after a ship, the Peru, which
brought it from Spain to England.
Simmondsia chinensis (jojoba) native to the
American Southwest, not China.
Teucrium asiaticum L. (germander) grows on
the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, not in Asia.
Teucrium creticum L. (germander) found in
Turkey, not Crete.
Turnagra capensis Sparrman, 1787. (Piopio,
an extinct New Zealand bird) "Capensis" means "from the Cape."
Sparrman, who had sailed with Captain Cook, apparently did not remember
the localities where his specimens had been collected and thought the
Piopio came from South Africa. The bird also has a common name of New
Zealand thrush, although it is unrelated to the thrushes.
Urocolius indicus (red-faced mousebird)
from Africa, not India.
Varanus indicus (mangrove monitor): from
northern Australia, New Guinea and Sulawesi, not India.
Vini peruviana (blue lorikeet) From
Tahiti, not Peru.
Zenaida asiatica (white-winged dove) From
Central America and southwest U.S., not Asia.
Zonotrichia capensis (bird, Emberizidae)
It lives in South and Central America, but was thought to be taken from
Cape Town in South Africa.
Corydalis mediterranea Z.Y.Su & Lidén,
2007 (herb) This name is not wrong but may be misleading.
Mediterranea = "from the middle land", which in this case is
Zhongguo, China. [Novon 17: 490.]
Echidna Forster, 1777 (eel) not the echidna. Here,
the monotreme might more reasonably be considered misnamed, since
Latin echidna, from Greek ekhidna, means "viper". The
monotreme echidna comes from the same word, but may have been
influenced by Greek ekhinos, "hedgehog, sea urchin."
Erithacus komadori (robin) common Japanese
name: Akahige; and
Erithacus akahige (robin) common Japanese
name: Komadori. Reputedly, their skins got switched en route to the
National Natural History Museum at Leiden, Netherlands.
Fossa fossa (fanaloka, or Madagascan civet)
The civet with the common name "fossa" is Cryptoprocta
(Asteraceae) An angiosperm, not
a gymnosperm. (photo)
Hilsa Regan, 1917 (shad) The fish with the
common name of hilsa (also ilish) is Tenualosa ilisha
(F. Hamilton, 1822). Hilsa kelee, the only species in its
genus, has common names of kelee shad, razorbelly, and fivespot
Inachus scorpio (spider crab) not a scorpion.
Leopardus (South American small cat) Not
Lotus L. (trefoil) The common name usually
refers to flowers of aquatic plants in the genus Nelumbo
or Nymphaea. The mythical forgetfulness-inducing plant in
Homer's Odyssey is thought to be Ziziphus lotus, a
Mammut a mastodon, not a mammoth (mammoths
are genus Mammuthus).
Nasturtium (watercress) Not the nasturtium
(Tropaeolum). The common name came later, so it should be
considered the misnamed one.
Nematodes (false click beetle) Not a
Panda (an African tree)
Phoebe (laurel tree or shrub) Not the
phoebe birds, which are genus Sayornis.
Pinguinus Bonnaterre, 1790 (auk) Not a penguin. The
name "penguin" was originally applied to the great auk and later to the
Antarctic birds. It came to apply exclusively to the latter as the auks
were driven to extinction.
Platypus Herbst 1793 (a beetle, family Platypodidae)
Not a platypus (which is Ornithorhynchus Shaw 1799).
Puffinus puffinus (Manx shearwater) Not the
puffin. It was described from a chick by a scientist who thought it
was a puffin.
Sequoia Endl. (redwood) The tree with
common name sequoia is Sequoiadendron giganteum. Both,
incidentally, were named after Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith who
invented a written form for the Cherokee language.
Thunnus albacares Bonnaterre 1788 (yellowfin,
not albacore, tuna) Albacore tuna is T. alalunga. Bonnaterre got
his specimens mixed up.
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