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Sometimes, the common names we use for things are really confusing! Here are 8 living things with terrible names!

Hosted by: Hank Green

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Names are important.  They help us identify people and things and to get categorize our world, and in biology, they can help us understand important details about a living thing, like where it lives or what other living things it most closely is related to, but sometimes, the common names we use for things are just, they're not just bad, they're wrong.  The cool thing though is that even those names, wrong as they may be, can still show us a lot about how we think about living things.

They can reveal what traits of an animal we find most important or how our understanding of the relatedness between living creatures has developed over time, so even the most terrible names for things can be kind of enlightening when you dive deeper into understanding why the names are so wrong.  

 1: Mountain Chicken (0:59)

Let's start with the mountain chicken, which isn't a chicken.  It's not even a bird!  It's a frog.  A brown, banded, and splotched frog that lives on a couple islands in the Lesser Antilles.  I guess you could say that they live in the mountains, though they're found from sea level to about 400 meters in altitude, not the peaks of the islands.  

There does seem to be a somewhat reasonable explanation for the chicken part, though: their taste.  You see, mountain chickens were a prized delicacy for the people on Montserrat and Dominica.  Adult females can be up to 21 centimeters long while the males are slightly smaller, so each one has lots of juicy frog flesh to offer, if you're into that, and apparently, they do taste a lot like chicken, but the name could also come from their distinctive chicken-like call that echoes through the steep sides of the valleys where they live, or where they used to live anyway.

People once harvested thousands of these frogs yearly, but then the fungal disease chytridiomycosis hit Dominica in 2002 and Montserrat in 2009.  That brought their numbers down from thousands to just two. 

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With the arrival of the disease, each island enacted a permanent hunting ban, in 2003 on Dominica and in 2014 on Montserrat, and since then, the population has steadily risen.  It now sits at around 132 total, which is more than two but is still very few, which is why this species continues to be considered critically endangered. 

 2: Horny Toad(2:30)

So we had a chicken that was a frog, now we've got the horny toad that isn't a toad.  It's a group of spiny lizards in the genus (?~2:30).  This is one of those cases where the common name is based more on looks than scientific classification.  See, a couple of features make them stand out from other lizards and also explain why they're named after a puffy amphibian.

For one, their body shape is flattened top to bottom, which gives them a more rounded appearance.  They also have short bent legs, and they're reluctant to run away from predators.  Instead, they puff themselves up when threatened, making them look even more toad-like.  They're not trying to look like a toad, though.  They're making use of their most striking feature, their spikes.  

These sharp spikes cover most of its body, but they are particularly big at the back of their heads.  When they puff themselves up, they basically turn their bodies into big, medieval, flails.  The idea is to make them look so big and dangerous that predators, especially those that like to eat their prey whole will not be interested.  If approached, they will toss their heads backwards to pierce their attacker and direct them towards less vital parts of their body, like their tail, and if the attack continues, these not-toads have one more gruesome trick.  They can squirt blood directly from their eyes.

They do this by increasing the blood pressure in their head so blood escapes through the orbital sinus, a little air cavity near their eyeball.  The double whammy of ouch and gross can give them enough time to run away and avoid becoming a meal.  

 3: Slowworm(3:57)

True to this list thus far, the slowworm of Europe and Russia is not a worm.

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Despite its long body and burrowing habits, it's definitely a vertebrate and not some kind of (?~4:07).  Germans actually call them (?~4:09) or "shining snakes' which is a bit closer but they're not snakes either.  They're actually legless lizards.  Slowworms have several telltale lizard features, like their blinking eyelids and the ability to get rid of and then re-grow their tails.  That tail-dropping ability is what gave them the Latin name fragilis, meaning 'fragile', but this lizard is no china doll. 

Tail-dropping is actually a clever defense mechanism.  By giving a would-be predator a snack or a distraction, the lizard has the chance to run away with its vital bits intact.  Regrowing their tail is a slow process, as only about five millimeters grows over two weeks, but that's not where the slow in their name comes from.  That's mostly an accident of linguistics.

You see, in old English, they were called slawyrms.  Over time, 'sla' became 'slow', but in old English, that word doesn't mean the opposite of fast.  We're not 100% sure whether it was supposed to be 'sla' that meant earthworm or 'sla' without the little line over it which could just be a general term for venomous bitey or stingy things.  We do know that wyrm with a y referred to both worms and elongated reptiles, hence the use of it nowadays to refer to serpent-y dragons.

So you could translate the old English name to 'earthwormy elongated reptile', which is actually pretty accurate, or it may have been 'venomous elongated reptile' which isn't so accurate because they're not considered venomous, but hey, at least they got the taxonomic class right.

 4: Silkworm (5:43)

It seems like we call pretty much any long noodle-y creature a worm.  Take the silkworm, for example, which is not a worm at all, but larval stage of the silkworm moth, but at least they got the silk part of its name right.  When they reach the end of the caterpillar part of their life cycle, these little guys spin cocoons made of silk proteins.  Actual worms cannot do that.

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These so-called worms don't mess around when it comes to making silk.  They can spin an average of 9.4 to 9.6 millimeters of this stuff every second.  That's why around 99% of the world's silk supply comes from the mouths of just one particular silkworm species: Bombyx mori, and that silk is not just for fancy scarves and blouses.  There are a lot of applications in chemical and medical fields, too.  

The reason silk is so useful is that it's a protein polymer that can be transformed into different materials by dissolving it in a salt solution or adding enzymes.  In fact, we loved silkworm silk so much that we domesticated the species that makes it, and the species has been so altered by centuries of artificial selection that it can't survive without our help.  The adult moths can't even fly.

 5: Red Pandas (6:51)

You would be forgiven for mistaking red pandas as pandas because of their bamboo-eating habits, but they're actually in a class of their own, or a family anyway.  Red pandas belong to the family Ailuridae, which is often classified as a part of the weasel superfamily Musteloidea.  Classifying red pandas based on who they're most related to has proven difficult because they share a lot of physiological features with other groups.  

The common name 'panda' was suggested when the animal was presented to the Western scientific community back in 1821 because they eat bamboo, and they also have other panda-ish traits.  For example, they have a pseudothumb, a lump of modified wrist bone which helps them grasp bamboo like their giant panda counterparts, but they look very different from pandas in other ways, like the shape of their head and teeth and their stipey tail and those are why in 1825, they were officially classified as part of the raccoon family, but having similar physical traits doesn't always mean two things are closely related, so about a century and a half later, with the help of DNA evidence, red pandas were lumped back in with bears again and still, that placement wasn't quite right.

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Additional genetic evidence now suggests they're more closely related to weasels but are probably distinct enough to be their own family, and that makes sense, because they have some really special features that don't show up other places, like their super flexible ankles and rotating fibulas, or shin bones, that let them climb headfirst down trees.

 6: Strawberries (8:34)

Animals aren't the only living things that we are terrible at naming.  Lots of plants also have bad names, like for example, strawberries.  They're not straw and they're not berries, botanically speaking.  See, to botanists, categories of fruit like berries have strict definitions based on what parts are fleshy and how the fruit forms.  On the texture front, berries need to be squishy throughout.  That is, the three layers that surround the seed, the endocarp, mesocarp, and exocarp, all have to be soft, and that is true of strawberries, so at least they meet some berry criteria, but what makes them not berries is how they form.

All fruits form from the ovaries of flowers, which set at the base of the female reproductive organs called pistils.  Plants can have different numbers of flowers or multiple pistils in each flower, but berries, by definition, are a simple fruit, meaning they develop from one ovary in one flower.  Strawberries come from flowers that have many ovaries in them, making them an aggregate fruit.  They're basically like raspberries, which are also not berries.

So what do count as true berries?  You got blueberries, grapes, and weirdly enough, wait for it, bananas, and of course, none of this changes what we should call these things and it's not gonna change what I put in my berry muffins either.

 7: Walnuts (9:47)

On the subject of culinary misnomers, let's talk about walnuts.  Yes, you guessed it, they are not nuts.  They are also not walls, I guess.  Remember how berries had to be fleshy throughout?  Well nuts by definition aren't fleshy at all. 

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They're dry fruits characterized by a super thick hard exocarp and they're indehiscent, meaning they don't open up to shed their seeds.  Walnuts are a different kind of fruit, sometimes called a drupe, where the endocarp is hard, the exocarp is thin, and the mesocarp in between is fleshy or fibrous.  I know what you're thinking: that does not really sound like the whole walnuts you can buy at the store.  That's because those walnuts are actually just the hard endocarps.  On the tree, walnuts have a fleshy, soft casing.  We just don't see it most of the time because that casing is removed before they get to supermarket shelves.  So I guess the lesson is, you shouldn't name a nut by its cover or the exterior you see at the store anyway.

 8: Snake Lily (10:48)

Last but not least, we have the snake lily, which is a pretty nice name.  It's definitely nicer than some of its other names like Devil's Tongue or its Latin name, which translates to "misshapen penis".  All these names came from its distinctive spadix, the floral spike in the middle of the flower, which kind of resembles a snake or other things.

The trouble is, this plant is neither a snake, which you would have expected, nor a lily.  Lilies are flowers from the genus lilium, which were originally classified based on their many scale-like leaves and their upright stems and flowers.  Snake lilies might have gotten lumped in with true lilies because of how similar they look to another faux lily: the peace lily.  In fact, peace and snake lilies are part of the same family, the (?~11:32) plants, which all have that unique spadix.

The snake lily is actually the same genus as the smelly corpse flower Amorphaophallus titanum and it uses a similar smell to attract carrion-eating insects for pollination and it might just be me, but it seems unfair that one gets to be a cool sounding snake lily while the other is called the corpse flower.  

Names are supposed to help us sort the things around us into useful groups, but they're not always great at that.  

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Some names can give you an idea of what a living thing looks like, but often, the utility stops there, and some, like the mountain chicken, don't even tell us that much.  Instead, they say more about us from our palates to our linguistic errors.  Perhaps it is time to reconsider some of these misleading names, though I guess, like, berry-flavored red aggregate or nutty-tasting drupe don't really have the same ring to 'em.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow.  If you liked learning about misleading names, you'll probably love our other list show of bad names where we explain how jackrabbits aren't rabbits and mountain lions aren't lions.  In fact, I bet you'll love a lot of our episodes, so why not just subscribe?  All you have to do is click the little red button that says 'subscribe' on it, and then it's forever...until you click it again.  Like, that's avail--that's an option that's available to you, so there's, it's really a win-win.  We understand subscriptions.  Been doing this a long time.  I don't know where everybody's at.