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As you stroll through Shedd Aquarium, you’ll find animals with such pleasing, evocative names as jeweled anemone, Star Sapphire cichlid, moonlight gourami, fairy basslet and cherubfish.

But you’ll also stumble upon monkeyface pricklebacks, black crappies, Malawi eyebiters, northern hogsuckers, vampire shrimp and a hellbender. Oh, and bird poop frogs. Appearance, behaviors and our own free associations contribute to the common names we assign animals. And sometimes our imaginations just run weird.

A brown frog appears as an easily-disregarded lump on a leaf

Bird poop frog

These tiny black-and-white natives to South America are also known as marbled tree frogs, but in popular parlance, splashy won out over staid. However you perceive them, the frogs’ pattern and habit of flattening themselves on the tops of leaves, sometimes even appearing to drip off leaf tips, is exquisite camouflage. Predators don’t bite, they don’t even step on them. Take the time to look for the frogs on foliage surfaces near the top of their focus habitat in Amazon Rising’s High-Water section, to the left of the large caiman lizard habitat.

A frog viewed from below, stuck to a plate of glass
A plump brown frog sits on a log

What you probably won’t see is the frogs’ completely different underside pattern, like black paint spatters on their white bellies. And like many other frogs, bird poop frogs have “flash colors,” patches of orange or yellow skin, concentrated on the insides of their legs, that they flash at looming predators to confuse them as they leap away.

A spotted black and white fish

Black crappie

For the record, it’s pronounced “croppie.” A popular panfish in the United States and Canada, including around the Great Lakes, its name comes from the French-Canadian word crapet (krah-PAY), applied to several species in the large sunfish family, including the attractive crappies. Anglers and other aficionados of the fish as a dish are more apt to say “croppie.” But differences in pronunciation crop up by region, and the farther south you go from Quebec, the more likely you are to hear people say the name as it’s spelled on the interpretive graphics in the At Home on the Great Lakes gallery.

A vivid blue fish with sharply slanted fins

Malawi eyebiter

This is one of the many gorgeous blue cichlid species native to Lake Malawi, which sits amid Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania in Africa’s Rift Valley. Hobbyists describe them as “moderately aggressive,” except when the fish are spawning or kept in close quarters with smaller fishes, when they reportedly can carry out the behavior for which they’re named. It seems to be uncommon, however, and eye biting is not unique to the species.

Instead, these fish are proficient ambush hunters. Long and narrow, they conceal themselves amid vegetation in nearshore waters, shooting out to grab passing juvenile fishes, including other cichlid species, with their strong, jutting, toothed lower jaw. Within that same powerful maw, the female securely incubates her eggs and broods the young for about three weeks.

A heavy-bodied shrimp with pale pink coloring

Vampire shrimp

Here is a case of mistaken identity. Another common name, African giant shrimp, is more accurate, although the hefty 4- to 6-inch shrimp are found in tropical fresh waters in both West Africa and South America. These shy filter feeders hide among mangrove roots or in holes and tunnels in muddy stream bottoms. Once they’ve found a hiding place they like, they don’t wander. Currents bring them assorted microorganisms and detritus that they collect with fanlike appendages.

Where did vampire shrimps’ gruesome name came from? Perhaps it was inspired by their large size, pointed shape and spiked feet, which by a stretch could be seen as fangs. But given their attractive color variations, including white, gray, reddish brown, pink, light blue and bright blue, it’s hard to imagine.

A sinuous hellbender sits in a white environment

Hellbender

This 2-foot-long native salamander has been called worse names: Allegheny alligator. Devil dog. Snot otter. Maybe hellbenders don’t get much love because they are so big—the largest amphibian in North America—as well as mud brown, slimy, beady-eyed and given to spending their days under rocks. And while their main diet is crayfish, they’ll also eat smaller members of their species.  

But hellbenders are worthy of our awe because they throw their whole bodies into breathing and seeing. Literally. The loose folds of skin on their sides add extra surface area for absorbing oxygen from water. While they do have lungs, hellbenders use them for buoyancy control, not breathing. Their small, weak eyes are characteristic of many nocturnal bottom dwellers, but they have light-sensitive cells all over their bodies. These photoreceptors are especially acute on the tail, which might cue a hellbender as to whether its long body is completely tucked under a rock or if the last few inches are exposed to predators. 

Earned or not, a lot of critters bear unlovely names. Or maybe they’re unbelievable names, tempting you to lean in and take a closer look at beautifully adapted animals. 

—Karen Furnweger, web editor