Common Misconceptions about Mammals

Although the term “misconception” simply means an idea or explanation that differs from the accepted scientific concept, students’ misconceptions are anything but simple. Some misconceptions arise as students try to make sense of the world around them and naturally occurring phenomena. These misconceptions are developmental in nature, often change as students develop their ability to think abstractly, and do not change as a result of instruction. Other misconceptions form when students construct explanations with insufficient information. Finally, misconceptions can also result from incorrect or partially correct explanations given by teachers, parents, or the media.

Once formed, misconceptions can be tenacious – persisting even in the face of discrepant events or careful instruction. Research has documented that students may be able to provide the “correct” answer in science class yet still not abandon their previously formed idea.

Even though targeting student misconceptions is difficult, teachers should be cognizant of their students’ beliefs before, during, and after instruction. Formative assessment can provide insight and guidance for planning lessons and meeting student needs.

In this article, we discuss some common misconceptions related to animals and mammals. We also provide tools for formative assessment and ideas for teaching the correct scientific concepts.


Living or Nonliving?

Differentiating between living organisms and nonliving objects is difficult for students in the elementary grades and beyond. Students tend to use criteria such as movement, breath, reproduction, and death to decide whether things are alive. Students may believe that fire, clouds, and the sun are alive, while plants and some animals may be considered nonliving.

Classification of Animals and Mammals

Students tend to classify animals (including mammals) using criteria such as movement, number of legs, body covering, and habitat. These criteria can lead students to classify some animals incorrectly. For example, marine mammals such as whales are often believed to be fish. Some students might believe that only large land mammals are animals.

Students also develop their ability to classify animals as they age. Students in the primary grades often form animal groups by different status (organisms that fly, organisms that live in the water) and do not use a hierarchical system of classification. In the upper-elementary grades, students tend to use mutually exclusive groups based on observable features and concepts. It is not until middle school that students can use a hierarchical classification system to group animals.

In some cases, the structure of science units can cause confusion and misconceptions. Research has shown that some students may believe that insects are not animals because the organisms were introduced and studied in separate units. Teachers should be careful to relate such units (insects, birds, mammals) back to a larger discussion of animals.

Specific Mammals

Students may have misconceptions about specific mammals due to personal experiences or cultural myths. For example, students may believe that bats feed on blood because they have been exposed to horror movies and stories.

Polar Mammals

Students may also have misconceptions about the animals and mammals of the polar regions. We’ve included a few about the species found in the polar regions, and some about the polar bear, the Arctic’s most popular mammal.

Students may think… Instead of thinking…
No mammals live in (or around) Antarctica. Although Antarctica has no terrestrial mammals, many marine mammals (whales and seals) inhabit the Southern Ocean.
Polar bears are the only mammals in the Arctic. The Arctic is home to a wide variety of terrestrial (caribou, musk ox, lemmings, rabbits) and marine (seals, walruses, whales) mammals.
Polar bears live in the Arctic and Antarctica. Polar bears live only in the Arctic.
A polar bear will cover its black nose while hunting. Scientists have never seen polar bears hide their noses.
Polar bears are left-pawed. Polar bears seem to use their right and left paws equally.
Polar bears use tools, including blocks of ice, to hunt or kill their prey. If a polar bear fails to catch a seal, it may kick the snow, slap the ground, or hurl chunks of ice in frustration.
The polar bear’s hollow hairs conduct ultraviolet light to its black skin, capturing energy. The polar bear’s hair does not capture the sun’s energy.
Polar bears have a symbiotic relationship with arctic foxes. Polar bears share food and the foxes serve as “guards.” Arctic foxes often nip at bears’ heels or drive bears off their prey. In return, a polar bear might lunge or slap at a fox.
Orca whales prey on polar bears. Biologists have never observed this happening.


What do your students think? Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science each contain 25 formative assessment probes to help teachers identify misconceptions. The first and third volumes of this series contain several probes that relate to animals and mammals.

Related formative assessment probes in Volume 1 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:

“Is It an Animal?” asks students to decide which organisms are animals. It elicits student
ideas about animal characteristics and classification.

“Is It Living?” asks students to differentiate between living and nonliving things. It
elicits student ideas about criterion for classifying living and nonliving objects.

Related formative assessment probes in Volume 3 of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science:

“Does It Have a Life Cycle?” asks students to decide which organisms go through a life cycle. It elicits student ideas about life cycles.

Other assessment probes in the books deal with related concepts such as respiration, growth, heredity, cells, and functions of living things.

In addition, we have followed the model used by Page Keeley and coauthors in the three volumes of Uncovering Student Ideas in Science (© 2005-2008 by NSTA Press) and created a similar probe to elicit students’ ideas about mammals.

Is It a Mammal?
This probe, modeled (with permission from NSTA Press) after those found in Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, is designed to elicit student ideas about mammals.


While students in the elementary grades are not developmentally ready to use the hierarchical Linnaean classification scheme, they can study mammals and their characteristics. According to the Benchmarks for Science Literacy (AAAS 1993), students in grades K-2 focus on characteristics and adaptations of animals. They also begin to differentiate between animals in real life and how animals are portrayed in stories and animations.

Animal Diversity (Grades K-2)
This lesson exposes children to a wide range of animals and guides them through observation of animal similarities, differences, and environmental adaptations. Modify this lesson to focus specifically on polar mammals.

Students in grades 3-5 continue to identify similarities and differences among species and sort them according to a variety of criteria and purposes. Teachers should provide many opportunities for students to sort mammals using teacher-given and student-generated criteria. Students should be asked to provide rationale for their classification schemes.

Is It a Mammal?
An interactive (Flash) version of the assessment probe. Teachers can use this as an assessment probe or as an activity to develop the concept of a mammal. An answer key is also provided.

For more lessons, please see “Science and Literacy Lessons about Mammals.”


Assessing and targeting student misconceptions about animals and mammals meets the Life Science Content Standard for grades K-4 and 5-8 of the National Science Education Standards. The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. Science Content Standards can be found in Chapter 6.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 1993. Benchmarks for science literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and L. Farrin. 2005. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 1: 25 formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and J. Tugel. 2007. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 2: 25 more formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NTSA Press.

Keeley, P., F. Eberle, and C. Dorsey. 2008. Uncovering student ideas in science, vol. 3: Another 25 formative assessment probes. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

National Research Council (NRC). 1996. National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright January 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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