I must have linked Mark Isaak’s wonderful Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature before, but I myself had forgotten it was there until I came across it again today. The page is regularly updated and, browsing through the Etymologies page I couldn’t resist passing these on.
From the Mistaken section (hence the thread’s title)
Paradisaea apoda L., 1760 (greater bird of paradise) “Footless one from paradise”; it was described from two skins brought to Seville in 1522 by the Victoria, the surviving ship from Magellan’s circumnavigational voyage. The native Papuans had removed the specimens’ legs, and the Europeans therefore assumed that the birds remained airborne their entire lives (with the female laying and brooding eggs in a groove between the male’s wings). A live individual captured in 1824 finally revealed that the bird spends most of its life standing on rather massive feet.
Apterocyclus honoluluensis Waterhouse, 1871 (Kauai Flightless Stag Beetle). Named at the British Natural History Museum from a specimen that was mailed in a package postmarked “Honolulu” (on the island of Oahu). Its geographic restriction to the high elevation forests of the island of Kauai was not realized until later.
Lepas anatifera Linnaeus, 1767 (goose barnacle) “Anatifera” means “goose bearing”. It was once widely believed (from the 1100’s until the early 1800’s) that barnacle geese (Branta “Anas” leucopsis) grew attached to seaside trees by their beaks and clad in shells before dropping into the sea where they became mature geese. The barnacles’ food gathering appendages were supposedly protofeathers. The migratory barnacle geese nest in remote areas well above the Arctic circle, so Europeans filled in the unknown part of the birds life history with this bizarre metamorphosis. This legend may have persisted as long as it did because it permitted goose meat to be eaten during Lent.
Here are a couple of choice items from the Fictional Characters section.
Gargantuavis philoinis Buffetaut and Le Loeuff, 1998 (huge Cretaceous flightless bird) This French fossil was named for one of the giants in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. “Philoinis” means “wine-loving”, which describes the original Gargantua but probably not the bird.
Saguinus oedipus oedipus (cotton-top tamarin) According to a paper presented by A. J. Ginther and C. T. Snowdon at the 2004 American Society of Primatologists conference ("The Oedipal conflict in Saguinus oedipus"), these tamarins really do love their mothers (though the dams do not let them complete the process). Apparently, though, this behavior was not observed until after the species was named, perhaps for its big feet.
I’m delighted to have found the site again, I could browse through it for hours (and probably will!)