28 Commonly Confused Animals

Here are our favorite pairs of confusing creatures and how to tell the difference.

A mosaic of animals that all have look-alikes in nature

Wikimedia Commons / Shutterstock

It's a big world out there, and with such an abundance of life, it's no surprise that things can get perplexing, especially when it comes to animals. Sometimes similar creatures from the same order get categorized differently because of habitat or behavior. Other times animals from completely different species evolve in similar ways. Whatever the reasons, at times it's hard to know the difference between them. Here are our favorite pairs of confusing creatures and how to tell the difference.

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Porpoises and Dolphins

Photo: AVampireTear [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons; skvalval/Shutterstock

Porpoises (left) and dolphins (and whales) are all mammals that belong to the order Cetacea. The difference boils down to their faces, fins and bodies. Dolphins generally have prominent, long "beaks" and cone-shaped teeth. Porpoises have smaller mouths and spade-shaped teeth. Dolphins are generally leaner than porpoises, and have a curved dorsal fin, while porpoises are more robust and have a triangular dorsal fin.

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Rabbits and Hares

Photo: Francesco Veronesi [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Jacques Boujot [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Even though rabbits (left) and hares (right) both belong to the Lagomorpha order of mammals, they have their differences. Hares are generally larger and faster than rabbits, and have longer ears. Hares have longer, stronger hind legs and bigger feet than rabbits. They tend to try and outrun predators, while rabbits escape to their warrens when threatened. Hares also have black markings on their fur.

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Moths and Butterflies

Photo: Harald Süpfle [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons; Thomas Bresson. [CC BY 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Moths (left) and butterflies (right) belong to the order Lepidoptera, and while you might easily tell the difference between a small, brown moth and a large brightly colored butterfly as shown here, there are other examples that look far more alike. You can generally tell by the antennae. A butterfly's antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft tipped by a bulb while a moth's are feathery or serrated. You can also look at the wings. Butterfly wings fold up vertically over their backs, while moth wings are more tent-like and over their abdomen.

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Llamas and Alpacas

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Llamas (left) and alpacas (right) are even-toed ungulates that belong to the family Camelidae. The most obvious difference may be their size. Most adult alpacas weigh between 100 and 175 pounds while adult llamas are much larger and can reach up to 400 pounds. Other differences can be seen in the ears. Llamas have long curved ears while alpacas have short spear-shaped ears. Likewise, llamas have longer faces while alpacas have more of a smushed face. And while this isn't always the case, llamas generally have little hair on their face and head, while alpacas can have a wonderful abundance of fluff.

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Seals and Sea Lions

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Seals (left) and sea lions (right) are both pinnipeds, meaning they are fin-footed marine animals, but here's how they differ: Seals generally have stubby, thinly webbed flippers for their front feet, with a claw on each small toe, compared to the larger, skin-covered flippers of sea lions. Seals are generally smaller and better adapted to the water than land (and as a result, they will often belly crawl) while sea lions can "walk." Seals lack external ears, while sea lions have small flaps. If you see a group of pinnipeds hanging together and being raucous, they are sea lions. Seals are loners and quiet, while sea lions are social and noisy.

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Opossums and Possums

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In North America we have opossums (left), but they are often mistaken called possums. True possums (right) reside in Australia, making them both geographically distinct from each other. Why the confusion? Captain James Cook's botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, named possums (Phalangeridae) after opossums (Didelphimorphia) after because the critters looked like its American relative. How to tell the difference, other than location? Possums generally have bigger ears and eyes. Opossums have bald tails while possums have furry ones.

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Crocodiles and Alligators

Photo: Donald Macauley [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons; Postdlf [GNU]/Wikimedia Commons

Crocodiles (left) and alligators (right) are both reptiles from the order Crocodylia. You can tell the difference by looking at their heads. Crocodiles have a longer head shaped like a "V." Alligator heads are shorter and shaped like a "U." Also, when an alligator closes its mouth, most of its teeth are hidden. When a crocodile closes its mouth, many of the teeth protrude outside along the jawline. Crocodiles are generally lighter in color and are more aggressive than alligators.

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Wasps and Bees

Photo: Richard Bartz [CC BY-SA 2.5]/Wikimedia Commons; Rolf Dietrich Brecher [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Wasps (left) and bees (right) both belong to the Hymenoptera order of insects. Since bees dip into flowers for pollen, they are hairy (to collect the pollen) and have flat rear legs, while wasps are smoother and shiny and have slender legs. Wasps also have more of an hourglass figure, with a narrow waist connecting the thorax and abdomen, while bees are more robust. In terms of behavior, bees are on the docile side, while wasps are more aggressive and can be especially tough when defending their nests.

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Aardvarks and Anteaters

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They both start with an "a," have long snouts and rely on a diet of ants, but the similarities between aardvarks (left) and anteaters (right) end there. They are altogether different species. Anteaters belong to the suborder Vermilingua and aardvarks are the only living species of the order Tubulidentata. Aardvarks are found in Africa; anteaters in Central and South America. Aardvarks have claws for digging, but anteaters have paws with such dramatically long claws that they must ball up their paws for an awkward, knuckle-walking gate. Anteaters have more fur and small ears. Aardvarks have light, coarse hair and large ears.

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Lizards and Salamanders

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Lizards (left) and salamanders (right) seem similar, but lizards are reptiles while salamanders are amphibians. As amphibians, salamanders are found close to water, while lizards can be found in a number of climates, including those that are hot and dry. Lizards have scaly bodies and long toes while salamanders have smooth bodies and stumpy toes. Lizards can also grow much longer than salamanders.

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Puffins and Penguins

Photo: Adam Sharp Photography/Shutterstock; fieldwork/Shutterstock

Although puffins (left) and penguins (right) share similar coloring and diet, penguins belong to the family Spheniscidae, while puffins belong to the family Alcidae. The most obvious difference is that penguins don't fly. They have solid bones, which makes them better swimmers. Puffins, like most birds, have hollow bones so that they aren't weighed down in flight. Puffins are generally smaller, ranging in size from 10 to 15 inches, while penguins can be as tall as 4 feet. Location makes a difference, too. All four species of puffins live in the Northern Hemisphere. The 18 species of penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Mules and Donkeys

Photo: Juan R. Lascorz [GNU]/Wikimedia Commons; voyages provence [CC BY 2.0]/Wikimedia Commons

Mules (left) and donkeys (right) are commonly confused because mules are part donkey. A mule is the love child of a female horse and a male donkey, and while mules generally can't mate, there have been several cases that prove fertility is possible. Because mules are only part donkey, they have larger ears, which they get from their moms. They also have taller, larger bodies, like a horse. Their teeth, tails and coats are also more equine than a donkey's.

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Turtles and Tortoises

Photo: Brocken Inaglory [GNU]/Wikimedia Commons; Jenny Sturm/Shutterstock

All turtles (left), tortoises (right) and terrapins are reptiles and often referred to as chelonians because they belong the order Chelonia. The difference mostly refers to where they live and how they use their habitat. Turtles live mostly in water and have webbed feet for swimming, with generally flatter, more lightwieght shells. Tortoises are landlubbers with stumpy feet that are not webbed, which help them navigate rough terrain and dig. Tortoise shells are heavier and more dome-like.

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Frogs and Toads

Photo: Charles J. Sharp [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons; davemhuntphotography/Shutterstock

While both frogs (left) and toads (right) belong to the order Anura, commonly known as the frog family, there are differences between the two. In general, most frogs have smooth skin, long legs and relatively large, bulging eyes. Toads, on the other hand, usually have thicker bumpy skin and shorter legs. Another difference — though less obvious at a glance — is that toads generally lay their eggs in a strand while frogs arrange their eggs in a grape-like cluster.