Compound Animal Names

I have two ‘save-the-date’ announcements of upcoming events that I’ll be involved with/

  1. First, this our 2023 Grassland Restoration Network workshop will be hosted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Windom, MN on August 22-23 this year. This workshop is designed for people involved in restoring (reconstructing) prairies and/or studying them. It’s a relatively informal, mostly field-based couple of days. More information and registration will be coming within the next few months.
  2. Second, we will be hosting our next annual Platte River Prairies Public Field Day on July 8, 2023. This is a free event, open to all ages, and is an opportunity to explore and learn about prairies from a variety of experts. Stay tuned for more details, but I hope you’ll plan to come visit us at the Platte River Prairies for this Saturday event.


This week, I came upon an old photo of a wasp-mimic mantidfly and created a funny (to me) post on Instagram about it. You’ll all know this species, obviously, from an earlier blog post I wrote and that you read and remember word for word. On the crazy off-chance you don’t immediately recall it, here’s a link.

Wasp-mimic mantidflies are pretty amazing creatures that aren’t mantids, wasps, or flies.

(Also, by the way, if you’re not on Instagram, good for you, it can be a toxic wasteland if you let it. On the other hand, there are some really great ecology-related people and accounts on Instagram from whom I learn a lot. My @prairieecologist account is a mix of humor and information, but always photos. If you’re already on the platform, check it out if you like.)

However, neither the mantidfly or Instagram are the topic of today’s post. What the mantidfly reminded me of is that there are lots of insects with compound names made up of two different animals. This, of course, is a phenomenon that is of great scientific value and is definitely worth writing (and reading) an entire blog post about.

In many cases, those compound names include one word that actually describes the kind of insect it is and another that supposedly connotes something about the appearance or behavior of the insect. For example, tiger beetles are predatory beetles Tigers are predatory cats. The word tiger helps clarify the behavior the beetle. Except, of course, that the beetle has wings and can fly, likes to hunt on bare ground, and has larvae that live in burrows. But aside from those, and many other differences, Tigers and tiger beetles are almost the same.

Tiger beetles are incredible predators, but while they have cat-like quickness, they have wings and aren’t cats. Imagine if tigers had wings… Would we call them fly tigers? Probably not.

In contrast, there are creatures like the mantidfly, which is neither a mantid or a fly. The mantid part makes some sense because the mantidfly has raptorial front legs that closely resemble the kind that praying mantises have. However, the mantidfly isn’t a fly. It can fly, but I don’t think that’s where the name comes from. Another example of two animal names stuck together oddly is the antlion, which is not an ant, and definitely not a lion. In this case, at least, there is some logic behind the ‘ant’ part, which is that the larva often feeds on ants and other small insects like them.

Antlions aren’t lions. They’re also not damselfies, though they look a lot like them. They have heavier bodies and bigger antennae than damselflies, along with lots of other less obvious differences.

If you aren’t familiar with antlions (and of course you are, because you remember a couple different blog posts I’ve written on them), the adult is pictured above, but most people might know them better from the little cone-shaped depressions they make in loose soil – often below a ledge or along the foundation of a building. At the bottom of each of those cones, mostly hidden in the soil, is an antlion larva waiting for an unlucky insect to slip and slide down the sides of its conical trap. You know, the same way lion cubs hunt. (Don’t you now wish that was the way lion cubs hunted??)

By the way, there’s a trick to knowing whether the compound animal name of an invertebrate is a type of one of those animals or not. Antlion is a single word, which tells you it isn’t actually a kind of lion. Tiger beetle is two separate words, which means it is one of a group of beetles. The same rule is supposed to apply across all animal names, I think, but you’ll find it isn’t always applied uniformly. Often, you’ll find two different spellings of the same creature’s name, both from seemingly reputable sources, but one will be all one word and one will be two separate words. Apart from that little issue, the one-word-or-two rule is really helpful.

Horse flies are flies. Two different words, not one. House flies, bee flies, and crane flies are also flies. (So are mosquitoes, though, which is confusing for other reasons.) Butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies, of course, are not actually flies. They can all fly, at least.

This is a giant black horse fly. That’s both an apt description of the animal and one actual correct common name of the species. I think it’s the largest horse fly species in the U.S.
Bee flies are flies. This one has a long stiff mouthpart that it uses to feed on pollen and nectar from flowers.
Whether dragonflies belong in this post or not depends upon your feelings about the existence of dragons as actual animals. I’m not taking a position, partly because I’m always happy for an excuse to post a dragonfly photo.

There are several spiders that have animals for their first names. Wolf spiders are mobile predators, as are lynx spiders, so both those names fit well. Crab spiders aren’t associated with oceans or beaches, but they do have extra long front legs and some movements that resemble many crabs.

Wolf spiders are known for being good moms, but also as effective predators that chase down their prey in a way that is somewhat similar to wolves. Can you imagine, though, how scary they’d be (especially to people already leery of spiders) if wolf spiders hunted in packs??
Crab spiders have long front legs that give them a crab-like appearance.
Lynx spiders are a lot of fun to find and watch in the prairie. They stalk and pounce on prey much like cats, though cats would be way cooler if they had eight legs and were as small as lynx spiders.

There are thousands of moths in the world, and surely quite a number of them have animal first names, but the one I could immediately come up with was the tiger moth (there are lots of tiger moth species).

Here’s a tiger moth. I think the name comes from the stripes on the legs, which seems like kind of a stretch to me.
Here’s a caterpillar that will turn into a tiger moth if it gets to grow up.

The only bee I could think of with a compound animal name is the cuckoo bee (again, there are lots of cuckoo bee species). Cuckoo bees are named for the European cuckoo which, like the brown-headed cowbird, lays its eggs in other birds nests. Cuckoo bees do the same thing, except of course they lay their eggs in bee nests, not bird nests. We can all agree that’s the right move. I wrote about these and other species with similar strategies in a very recent post which, again, you all read and remember, but I’ll link to it here just to be redundant.

There are creatures called beewolves out there too. Using the rule you learned earlier, you’ll already know that beewolves aren’t wolves with bee-like tendencies (although wouldn’t that be amazing??) Instead, they’re wasps that attack bees and feed them to their little wasp larvae. Given the 100,000 or so wasp species out there, I’m sure there are other compound animal names among them. Anyone know any?

Here’s a cute little cuckoo bee on its overnight roost. Yes, it’s clinging to that plant with its mandibles.

There are at least several beetles with compound animal names, but I was disappointed that I don’t have photos of some of them, including rhinoceros and stag beetles. I do have lots of photos of longhorn beetles, but although a longhorn is technically a breed of domestic cow, it feels a little like cheating to include longhorn beetles in this list. I included them anyway.

This longhorn beetle is feeding on silky prairie clover flowers (Dalea villosa).

What am I missing? Help me think of other compound animal names for invertebrates. I guess we can include vertebrates too, if we have to, but I’m less excited about those (kangaroo rat, tiger shark, etc. – blah, blah, blah). Plants or fungi, though, would be fun if we can come up with some. Anyone?

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

13 thoughts on “Compound Animal Names

  1. This was a fun reason to scroll through my iNat observations: hedgehog gall wasp! tortoise beetle! camel treehopper! And, in the same vein as the dragonfly, the unicorn prominent moth :)

  2. Don’t get me started on plants. Oops, too late. Butterfly weed, cardinal flower, goat’s beard, cat mint, spiderwort, turtlehead, monkey flower, horsetail, trout lily, ostrich fern, ox-eye and ox-eye daisy, tickseed, cattails. But not dogwood, which came from dagwood (dag as in dagger).

  3. Awesome post, Chris. In my bee days, I remember learning this with regard to honey bees from R.E. Snodgrass (Anatomy of the Honey Bee, 1956):

    “First, it must be explained why the name of the bee appears in the title as two words, though “honeybee” is the customary form in the literature of apiculture… We have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says:

    If the insect is what its name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together…

    The honey bee is an insect and is pre-eminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.””

    Snodgrass wasn’t messing around. Revisiting today is as satisfying as when I first saw it.

    Idea for your next taxonomic note… when (and what) to capitalize in common names! That can be tricky too!

  4. Toxic wasteland is a good description. Although, much like real life, the quality of social media is largely based on who you associate with. The platform doesn’t really do photos justice, though.

    It is interesting how animals are used as a bridge between something new and something familiar. This is even the case in molecular biology. “Hedgehog” (the gene) was named because it caused Drosophila larvae with the gene mutated to looked like little hedgehogs. Other Drosophila gene names are linked to more obvious and dramatic phenotypes: wingless, eyeless, openbrain, etc. Someone later found a homolog of hedgehog in mammals and named it “sonic hedgehog” after the video game character.

    In plants, the regional one that jumps into my mind is “porcupine grass” (Hesperostipa).

  5. Your comment about wolf spiders hunting in packs reminded me of one of the “Harry Potter” books/movies in which Harry and Ron (who hates spiders) are attacked by hordes of huge (wolf-like) spiders in the forest.

  6. Your comment about wolf spiders hunting in packs reminded me of one of the “Harry Potter” books/movies in which Harry and Ron (who hates spiders) are pursued by a horde of huge (wolf-like) spiders in the forest.


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