We Fact-Checked 8 Animal Emojis—Here's What We Found

For starters, caterpillars don't have antenna and zebra ears aren't pink.

By Jason Bittel
Published 28 Dec 2017, 11:11 GMT
A Burchell's zebra poses at Zoo Atlanta. Many animal emojis are designed to look cute—but are ...
A Burchell's zebra poses at Zoo Atlanta. Many animal emojis are designed to look cute—but are not always accurate.
Photograph by Joël Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

We live in an increasingly emoji-dominated world. There are now emoji television recaps, emoji movies, and emoji encyclopedias. But how scientifically accurate are these popular pixels, especially when it comes to the animals they claim to represent?

As it turns out, biologists have a lot of feelings about emojis and their exactitude.

For instance, Anne Hilborn, a researcher studying cheetahs at Virginia Tech University, takes particular umbrage with the way Microsoft has given their version of a zebra emoji pink ears and nostrils.

Zebras do not have pink noses or ears—despite what this emoji might suggest.

“Seriously? Even when zebras die of diseases that have them bleed from their orifices, their nostrils aren’t pink,” says Hilborn.

Similarly, Hilborn says all the lion emojis are terrible representations. However, she deemed Samsung’s version the most egregious, with what appears to be “an explosion of shaving cream below the nose.”

Lions do not have white cheeks as depicted in this emoji.

And while there is currently no cheetah emoji, there is an array of leopard emojis, about half of which are inaccurate because they depict the animals as having bellies free of spots.

The other big problem with the leopards? The tails. 

“Leopards have beautiful, curved tails they hold up when walking so that the white underside can be seen,” says Hilborn. “They’ve given these leopards house cat tails.”

My, What Inaccurate Teeth You Have

Most emojis now come in 13 different varieties depending upon what platform they appear. This means that a bat emoji on one phone or app may look completely different from another.

“The large ears on the Apple bat emoji make me suspect that this bat is one of the microbats that echolocate,” says Alyson Brokaw, a bat researcher at Texas A&M University.

On the other hand, Brokaw says Google’s bat emoji seems like it’s trying to be a vampire bat, but there’s just one problem. The bat’s fangs are in the wrong spot.

“We think of vampire teeth as being the canines, but the characteristic sharp teeth of a vampire bat are actually highly modified incisors,” says Brokaw.

This means that the little daggers should be at the front of the mouth, not the sides.

Emojis Are For The Birds

There’s similar variation among the species depicted for penguin emojis. Facebook’s version is clearly an Adélie penguin, says Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota, while Google seems to have gone with an emperor penguin.

This is good, because “emperor penguins are objectively the best birds,” jokes LaRue. However, she says she’d be very concerned if she ever saw an emperor with that much sclera in the wild. (Sclera is the scientific name for the whites of the eyes.)

Birds actually fare rather well in emoji representation, says Jason Ward, an educator with the National Audubon Society. He notes that the eagles and mallard ducks are nearly all anatomically accurate.

“They even captured the bald eagle’s menacing ‘I’m going to rip all the scales from your body’ look that it gives fish right before it plucks one from the water,” says Ward. (Read about National Geographic Society's Year of the Bird.)

However, Samsung loses points for depicting its duck as a yellow rubber ducky and its owl as being purple.

Emoji characters also known as emoticons on the screens of two mobile phones in Paris on August 6, 2015.
Photograph by Miguel Medina, AFP, Getty Image

“Fun fact, there are no purple owls in the world,” says Ward, “unless you search Pinterest.”

Bugging Out

There are many quibbles to be had in the land of emojis, but none may be quite so damning as what’s been done with the bug emojis.

For starters, some platforms display the bug emoji as being a caterpillar, while others went with a centipede. And while most of these representations are more or less accurate, Morgan Jackson, an entomologist at the University of Guelph Insect Collection, points out that caterpillars don’t have antennae.

“Unless this is a sphinx moth caterpillar who has been stressed and agitated into displaying its osmeterium,” says Jackson. Finally, true bugs such as water boatmen and stink bugs don't have a caterpillar phase, like moths and butterflies.

Most of the problems with emoji anatomy appear to stem from an attempt to make animals appear cute.

“The few insect emojis we do have are drawn in ways that emphasize mammalian characteristics,” says Gwen Pearson, an entomologist at Purdue University. “Look at all the googly eyes on these ants!” ?

Monkey Business

But the monkeys may be worst of all.

According to Adriana Lowe, a primatologist at the University of Kent, the pale faces, dark hair, and round ears most of the monkey emojis sport seem to suggest they are chimpanzees.?

But here again, it’s the tails the emoji designers have gotten wrong. Chimps don’t have them, says Lowe, who just completed a field season studying wild chimpanzees in Uganda.

“I love chimps but I’m going to be honest, their back end is not pretty,” says Lowe. “A tail would drastically improve their ugly, bony butts.”

Perhaps now would be a good time for this emoji: ?.


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