North American Mis-Named Wildlife

Europeans and Brits who come to North America must wonder what the explorers and zoologists were drinking. The robin bears at best a faint resemblance to the English robin. Prairie dogs are not dogs, prairie chicken are not coop chickens, pronghorn antelope are not antelope, moose and elk are backwards, and the miner’s cat is not a feline. What happened?What happened was familiarity, possibly a dose of homesickness, and in some cases, whimsy. On the surface, pronghorn do look like African antelope, they run like antelope and they live in a similar grassland niche to some antelope, so they must be antelope. Except they are not.

Real antelope. From

Springbuck Female. At.

You can see where a problem might arise. Prairie dogs, rodents that live in giga-normous colony “towns”, make a barking sound, along with whistles and other noises. That sound led to people calling them prairie dogs ( as opposed to ground squirrels). After people discovered how easy it is for horses and cattle to break legs by stepping into prairie dog holes, what people called the rodents is not printable in this blog.

And then there’s moose and elk. Not to be confused with “moose and squirrel.” The North American moose is an elk (but not a Lion or a Rotarian.) Elk are really Wapiti, which are the world’s largest deer.

The North American elk is a moose. (Alces Alces) European elk/moose died out in the end of the Ice Age and a touch later. The Native Americans called the big thing that lived in the wetlands “moos”, from a root meaning “he strips off” probably referring how they strip bark off trees when necessary to get food. I’d also guess it may have come from how moose molt in spring and look scraggly, stripped, and mangy. Really, really mangy. By an interesting coincidence, a wetland in German is a Moos, and in England is a moor or moss (as in Tarrant Moss), which tempts one to some false etymologies as to where “moose” came from. The large (900 kg) mammal is not related to the European chocolate mousse either, joke gifts from Minnesota, Alaska, and Canada to the contrary.

Robins in North America are larger and more visible than the British version, although both are brown with red breasts. And a miner’s cat, or ringtailed cat is a small raccoon. But beaver really do look like, and are related to, European beaver.

If it makes Europeans feel better, the US can’t get river names straight either. The Canadian River is in Texas and has nothing to do with the Dominion or its residents. The first recorded European name for the stream was River of St. Mary Magdalene, because the Spanish reached it on her feast day. Then it was the Rio Colorado, or vermillion river, because of the color. But there is another Colorado River in Texas, and the Grand River in Colorado and Arizona is called the Colorado. (Confused yet?) There’s a Red River in Texas already as well, and another one in the Dakotas and Minnesota that flows into Manitoba and empties into Hudson’s Bay. A third Spanish name for the southern stream was Rio de la Cañada, or box canyon or sheep-walk river. That got approved, after the tilde fell off. And now local Chambers of Commerce tell stories about the French fur trappers who named the river after their distant home. Except the Dominion of Canada didn’t exist then. And the French trappers never got this far south. Otherwise it makes perfect sense, right?