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Mistaken Identities

December 17, 2014

This post contributed by former intern, Julia Olszewski-Jubelirer.

Plants and animals are pretty easy to distinguish, right? Not every time. Here are the four animals (or animal parts) that are commonly mistaken for plants in the Naturalist Center.


In the Naturalist Center, we have several specimens of coral, including this Red Coral:

Red Coral specimen

Red Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

and this Star Coral:

Star Coral specimen

Star Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that corals are plants, or even rocks, but corals are actually animals, just like you and me. Each piece of coral is made up of many small animals called polyps that live together as a colony. Corals are important for providing structure to reefs, and are in the phylum Cnidaria. This means that they are closely related to other Cnidarians, like the Portuguese Man-of-War, which can also be found in the Naturalist Center.


Many people do not even realize that sponges are alive, but sponges, like the coral, are animals. Sponges belong to the phylum Porifera and pump water through their bodies in order to catch particles of food in the water. This is known as filter feeding. In the Naturalist Center, we have one specimen of sponge:

Sponge specimen

Sponge specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Even though sponges might look superficially like plants, they are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. This means that the sponges are evolutionarily closer to our Pufferfish and Sea Biscuit specimens than sponges are to plants.   All of these specimens — Sponges, Pufferfish and Sea Biscuits —are part of the animal kingdom.


Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Sea biscuit

Sea Biscuit.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skate egg cases

Most people who visit the Naturalist Center think skate egg cases (also known as mermaid’s purses or devil’s pocketbooks) are seed pods.

Skate egg cases

Skate egg cases.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

However, these are actually the egg cases of skates, which are cartilaginous fish similar to stingrays. Check out this video of skates emerging from their egg cases.

In the Naturalist Center, we also have jaws of another cartilaginous fish, the Tiger Shark:

Tiger shark jaw

Tiger Shark jaw.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skates and Tiger Sharks are both in the same class, Chondrichthyes. This means they are both more closely related to each other than either is to bony fish.


The Naturalist Center has a large baleen specimen to look at:

Whale baleen

Whale baleen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that baleen is a type of bark or even plastic, but baleen is actually part of the mouth of certain types of whales. As baleen whales swim, they open their mouths, letting the water rush through the baleen. The baleen traps particles such as krill, which the whale then eats. This is a form of filter feeding, which is the same method that the sponge described above uses to eat.

These and thousands of other specimens on display daily in the Naturalist Center located on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.


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