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Panthers, and 5 other real animals that don’t exist

2009.03.31— Culture | Language | by Roland Grant

Panther

You tell her she doesn't exist. [source]

This is part 2 of my "weird animal names" series. Part 1 is "Unicorns, and 5 other mythical animals that really exist."

It isn't just mythical animals that have difficulty being properly identified. Some perfectly ordinary animals you might pass everyday on your way to work might just not exist. It's easy to imagine one group of people giving an animal a good name and another group of people hundreds or thousands of miles away encountering the very same animal and accidentally giving it a different name. Conveniently, these sorts of mistakes are cleared up by scientists who give the animal an entirely different name in a dead language.

Please note in the many links that Wikipedians like to capitalize animal names because they are Idiots.

Panther/leopard

The panther of Africa and south Asia is to the leopard as the Labrador retriever is to the Golden retriever: same animal, in that they can readily interbreed, but their coats are different. The "panther" name is often applied to black jaguars and other big cats with a solid coat, especially black ("melanistic" in zoologist talk), so the name is generally not useful. But if a big black cat comes after me, you can bet I'll be shouting "Panther! Help! A panther is trying to kill me!"

Note also, panthers do not actually come in a pink variety.

Cougar/mountain lion/puma

The American big cat is variously called the cougar, mountain lion, puma, and sometimes American panther or Florida panther, but these names all describe the same animal. This is different from the bobcat, of course, which is a type of lynx, like the Canadian lynx, both of which are also found North America but which are smaller.

Wildebeest/gnu

The wildebeest (from Afrikaans for "wild beast") is the same animal as the gnu. It is a type of antelope and comes in two varieties: blue and black. Black ones are quite rare, so please put a blue gnu in your new zoo.

Brown bear/grizzly/kodiak

Technically, the grizzly and kodiak are sub-sub-species of the sub-species brown bear and not exactly the same thing. But the taxonomy of bears, like big cats, is not fully agreed upon. Since even grizzlies and polar bears will interbreed, the brown, grizzly, and kodiak (and various others) must be more like breeds of dog than like separate animals.

Hare/jackrabbit and rabbit/bunny/coney

Hares are different from rabbits in that they are bigger, lankier, nest instead of burrow, can't be domesticated, and are native to Europe, Asia, and the Americas. But bunny rabbits are native only to North and South America. The "jackrabbit" is just the American name for the hare that appears in the Americas. (And "Belgian hare" is a pet rabbit bred to resemble a hare.)

The older name for rabbit, "coney," originally rhymed with "honey" and "money" but was later made to rhyme with "bony" to avoid sounding like the archaic naughty slang.

Cartoon cow

Cow. Boy. [source]

Cattle/cow/bull/steer/ox/heifer/calf

Pity the poor creature, so well loved and cared for (and grilled), so much studied and categorized (and roasted), and yet which, really, has no name at all. There's no such thing as "a cattle"; this is a plural word and one that applies to a variety of animals used as domesticated food-on-the-hoof in Europe, Asia, and Africa (including ones that do have names, like zebu and yak). And the term "cattle" originally didn't even refer to the animal at all; it just meant property, and is related to "chattel" and "capital."

And yet there are many names for European domesticated cattle that have more specific meaning. "Cow" is a female, as is a "heifer" for a cow that hasn't had a calf yet. "Calf" is a young one of either sex. "Bull" is a male fit for breeding, whereas "steer" and "ox" are specifically castrated males for eating and draft work, respectively.

Most of these terms are also applied to other, completely different, animals, as in "bull elephant" and "whale calf" so they obviously refer to the family role the animal plays rather than the species itself (as opposed to "lioness" which is a female lion and never a female anything else).

It's so confusing that people who really ought to know better think that there are "boy cows" and "girl cows".

Animals that are not the same

More common than giving one animal two names is give two different animals similar names based on a loose similarity in their appearance or behavior.

  • Red pandas (AKA lesser panda and firefox*) are not really closely related to pandas. The giant panda is a type of bear. The red panda is more closely related to the raccoon.

 

* Despite the name, I don't think that's supposed to be a red panda in the Firefox browser logo, given that it appears to be a fox that is on fire, presumably set loose to burn the fields of the Philistines in Redmond.

  • The clouded leopard and snow leopard are not closely related to the leopard but rather are separate cats like the cheetah, serval, and lynx.
  • The American buffalo, as most schoolchildren know, is not related to the buffaloes of Europe, Asia, and Africa (cape buffalo, water buffalo). It is more properly called a "bison," altho keep in mind that "bison" comes from Greek and means "ox-like" and it's not related to the ox either. See my analysis of tsunami and tidal wave.
  • The musk ox (plural "musk oxen") is more closely related to the sheep than the ox.
  • The Guinea pig is neither a pig nor native to Guinea.
  • The Australian possum and the American opossum (commonly called a "'possum") are two different animals, even tho they are both marsupials.
  • The capuchin monkey is not related to the Capuchin monk. The monkeys do not even take religious vows. They just sort of resemble the monks.

 

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