So let's say that the aliens land tomorrow. It's not an Alien Invasion (not even a well-meaning one); this group of aliens geniunely comes in peace. After recovering from the initial shock of realizing that, yes, other lifeforms do exist out there, the governments of the world decide to allow them to land — which they decide to do in your back yard.
Everyone important shows up — the President, the news crews, foreign ambassadors, UFOlogists, the mayor, and the local high school marching band. You're there, of course — it's your yard, after all, and no one's going to evict you just because some aliens are coming to town. Your pet rottweiler is there, too, chained up beside its doghouse and its water dish.
As the aliens' Flying Saucer lands, the crowd "ooh"s and "ah"s just like crowds do. The hatch opens, and the aliens step out, repeating their message of goodwill — to your rottweiler.
What happened here? The aliens Mistook the Dominant Lifeform of Earth, that's what.
This is a common subversion of the typical First Contact scenario. The aliens, in their studies of Earth, conclude that someone other than humanity are the real masters of Earth. Maybe they assume that we're the servants of our pets rather than mere caretakers. Maybe they're mechanical beings who aren't used to dealing with carbon-based life and assume that any intelligent beings will be machines like themselves. Maybe they assume that the bigger animals have bigger brains, and therefore more intelligence. Maybe they do possess all the facts, but simply have a different definition of "dominant". Maybe they are biased by first impressions, since they saw the other animal species first and found it very impressive while they haven't had observations that gave them a positive impression of humans. Either way, the results are usually quite amusing.
Granted, the same thing can happen to humans as well. The parrot-like thing riding on that humanoid's shoulder may actually be the master, with the humanoid being its mount. Or it might be that the spaceship itself is in charge, and the aliens disembarking are merely messengers.
Many parodies or humorous examples of the trope may include the revelation or implication that the lower animal actually is the dominant or superior species (at least in their own eyes).
- Played With in Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam: the Space Ghoul seems to have believed that humans and cows were both intelligent, since he abducted a bunch of cattle in order to communicate. Even when Billy and Mary tell him, he seems to think that they're mute but still sapient, as he begins to apologize for inconveniencing them.
- In one Mickey Mouse comic, some aliens attempt to find if there is intelligent life on Earth and abduct Mickey and Pluto to perform tests on them. Pluto ends up scoring higher than Mickey, mostly because the tests are actually very simple and Mickey keeps overcompensating; for example, when the aliens attempt to translate their speech he speaks really slowly, causing the aliens to think he's stupid (while Pluto's barking confounds their Translator Microbes, making the aliens think Dog language is simply too complex for them to understand). The aliens end up concluding that dogs are the dominant species on Earth.
- In Relative Heroes Cameron's potted plant he named Chloe turns out to be one of the Es who chose a plant form upon arriving on earth due to mistaking plants as the dominant life form. They eventually build up enough reserves to change form again and choose a human shape.
- In Marvel's Transformers comics, the Autobots, having never encountered organic life before, initially believe vehicles to be the dominant lifeform on earth, which is why they use vehicles as alt modes. When Buster first meets Bumblebee, he's trying to communicate with the "locals" at a drive-through theatre. This also happened in Transformers Animated (see below).
- The Bolt Chronicles: The two aliens in "The Spaceship" erroneously think Rhino is the epitome of wisdom on Earth; they have been watching him recently during the hamster's dementia episodes when he makes all kind of grandiose claims about his life accomplishments. They beam him aboard their Flying Saucer, intending to take him back to their home planet, but Rhino convinces them to take a scarecrow along instead.
- The My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fic "Twilight makes first contact" begins with the pony science team arriving on an Earth pony farm. They immediately assume the horses are the sapient inhabitants while humans are their "pets" or "assistants".
- Played With in Escape from Planet Earth: the aliens of Baab think that evolution is working backwards on Earth, because we started out with the "serene intelligence" of dinosaurs and then wound up with humans instead. (The computer is showing sauropods as it says this; one questions if they realized there were carnivores too.)
- The Mystery of the Third Planet has this dialogue in an interstellar animal-trading hub (neither species is native to that world):
Professor Seleznyov: Excuse me, how much is this bird?
The bird: [pecks him] Br-r-razen! That's me selling him.
- In the film version of Battlefield Earth, the Psychlos interpret surveillance photos of humans with dogs in car passenger seats as evidence of the dogs being the superior species, since the humans "chauffeur them around". They also mention that the dogs have proven themselves much more willing to cooperate with the alien masters than the man-animals. Unfortunately, dogs have proven ill-adapted for manual labor (which, once again, proves that they are a superior species, as they don't need to work). They can fetch, though.
- Good Boy! ultimately subverts this trope: The aliens in question are dogs, and they had sent some of their number to earth to colonize it and subjugate humanity in the first place, so the inevitable listing of the ways dogs are "really in charge" does occur. But Hubble, the dog sent to check up on their progress, is ultimately not impressed. And neither is his superior, who apparently had something more like total enslavement in mind.
- This is how Arthur first meets Ford in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The latter, mistakenly believing that cars are the dominant lifeform on Earth, attempts to shake hands with onenote while it's driving straight towards him. Arthur, believing Ford to be drunk, tackles him out of the way. Turns out they're both wrong: mice are the true rulers of the Earth.
- Star Trek:
- Star Trek: The Motion Picture. V'Ger thinks that humans (including those on Earth) are "units" under the control of its Creator. The movie was based on the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Changeling" where the robot Nomad believed the same thing.
- Basically the plot of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home — the aliens think whales are/were the intelligent life on the Earth. Whether they even notice the humans swarming around on the dry parts is not clear. The novelization makes clear that the probe did notice the humans... and considered us so barbaric (for killing all the whales) that exterminating us would be for the planet's benefit.
- The novel Probe, written as a sequel to the movie, reveals that the probe was built in the distant past by a species of gigantic telekinetic whales, and failed to recognize humans (and other humanoid aliens for that matter) as being any more significant than insects (both due to their tiny size compared even to smaller Earth whales, let alone its creators, and also it failed to recognize any human attempts at communication as even being communication). The Enterprise crew eventually find a way to translate the whales' speech and transmit it a way that the probe can recognize, and only then does it realize its mistake.
- There is a joke about two aliens who land on Earth, and try to address a "local" — actually a fuel dispenser on a gas station. Annoyed at him ignoring them, one of the aliens pulls out a blaster, and, despite all the warning from his partner not to mess with the guy, shoots the device. After barely surviving thanks to their personal Deflector Shields, the shooter asks "how did you know he was so powerful?" The answer is "Once you've traveled as much as I have, you learn not to mess with a guy who can wrap his dick around himself twice."
- In Alice, Girl from the Future, it happens to Professor Selesnyov at an interstellar market. He approaches a humanoid alien to ask him how much the bird he is asking costs...only for the bird to state that she is the one selling him.
- Animorphs: During the What If? Megamorphs 4, Back to Before, Ax briefly mentions mistaking cows for the dominant species, in this case because they're numerous and superficially similar to Andalites (who resemble centaurs).
- In the short story "Dog Star" by Mack Reynolds, the dog-like inhabitants of Sirius II mistake the ship's dog Gimmick for the captain and the human crew for draft animals. The crew decides not to correct them in order to negotiate a trade agreement and has to arrange for all the ships carrying humans through the area to also have dogs.
- Harry Bates' story "Farewell to the Master" (which was later adapted into the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still) includes a viewpoint-reversed example that was not included in the film adaptation. The short story ends with the robot (named "Gnut" in the original) stating, "You misunderstand, I am the master."
- As with their film, TV, and radio counterparts, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy first met when the latter saved the former from being run over by a car, which he thought was a dominant lifeform. Ford's name comes from seeing a lot of Ford Prefects around England and assuming the name was a common one, like John Smith.
- Two human survivors in George Zebrowski's The Killing Star wind up getting captured by the alien invaders and have an audience with them. One wall of the room faces a water-filled chamber which contains an octopus-like creature being preened and taken care of by dozens of little robots. The captives assume that the creature is the brains behind the invasion when it begins speaking to them. It soon reveals, though, that the robots are in charge. They had been built by the octopuses long ago and eventually surpassed them in intelligence. The octopuses are considered by the masters to be more like a zoo exhibit of a curious precursor animal than anything else. And our two humans will ultimately share the same fate.
- Carl Sagan:
- He gives an example in his book Pale Blue Dot, where aliens at first assume that cars are the main inhabitants of cities (the idea being that aliens would be taking closer and closer views of the earth while trying to find life, and cars are the first visible moving things they would see in city areas).
- Sagan also proposed that any alien doing spectrographic analyses of the Earth's atmosphere would see methane — lots more methane than could be expected in the presence of free oxygen. The hypothetical alien would infer that something on the planet was continually creating that methane. Methane is a product of anaerobic respiration. Therefore the something continually creating that excess of gas must be alive. That excess of methane is caused by the digestion of large ruminants like cows and sheep. Therefore the lifeform detectable from space is not humanity, it's burping — and farting — cows.
- The Space Trilogy: Inverted Trope in Out of the Silent Planet; the men Devine and Weston believe the sorns are the masters of Mars, because they're the first species they meet and they seem to be the intellectuals of the planet. It turns out they and the two other Martian species all willingly serve the Oyarsa, an invisible being assigned to watch over the planet by Maleldil of Jupiter. The humans refuse to revise their opinion and insist the Oyarsa is only a trick of ventriloquism by one of the more visible Martians. The Oyarsa isn't pleased.
- Star Wars Legends: The Star Wars Field Guide to Wildlife mentions that at Coruscant's annual livestock exposition it can be hard to tell the difference between livestock and traders, Ewoks in particular.
- The story Hiding Place from Poul Anderson's Trader to the Stars is about finding sentient aliens, who hid themselves in a zoo spaceship among animals from many different planets. The task is complicated by the aliens' rather unusual biology: they are parasites/symbionts riding gorilla-like animals, who provide them strong manipulative limbs.
- In Isaac Asimov's story "Victory Unintentional", humans send a trio of robots to gather intelligence on the inhabitants of Jupiter, who have declared their intention to build space ships and exterminate humanity. After seeing the robots pull off several casual feats of strength and shrug off several attacks as if they hadn't even noticed them, the Jovians do a total about-face and start doing their best to make friends. After they leave, one of the robots realizes that the Jovians have never seen an actual human, and would assume that the robots are the "humans" they'd planned to destroy.
- Controlnote from Hard Time on Planet Earth keeps mistaking inanimate devices (like a traffic light) for sentient, tries to talk to them and gets offended when ignored. Usually several times per episode.
- Star Trek: Enterprise: Ferengis believe Porthos, Archer's dog, captains the Enterprise. They finally realize their mistake when their Universal Translator fails to work. Part of the reason they think that is because of the Beagle's big ears. The Ferengi consider big ears to be a sign of a keen business mind.
- "Helping Henry": was a United Kingdom Channel 4 children's television programme. Designed as an educational show, it featured a young boy named Stephen explaining how things worked to an alien named N-3 (or "Henry"), who was disguised as a dining-room chair because his superiors believed that static four legged things were clearly a superior species to the 'two legs' who bustled about them.
- "Southbound On The Freeway": An alien comes and make observations about Earth's lifeforms, at the end wondering if humans were the guts or the brains of the car.
- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
- Ford Prefect uses his name because he believed that cars were the dominant species. To explain the joke to foreign audiences (because the Ford Prefect was only sold in England), the film adaptation shows that Arthur first met Ford when Ford stepped into the street to shake hands with an oncoming car (an actual Ford Prefect to boot) and Arthur saved his life by tackling him out of the way.
- Additionally played with as it's revealed that humans are actually the third most intelligent form of life on Earth, instead of, as everyone who's studied the Earth believes, the second. The second most intelligent beings on Earth are dolphins, and the most intelligent are mice.
- In Destroy All Humans!, Crypto and Pox assume the first creatures they see - cows - are the dominant life form on Earth. An unsuccessful interview and some telekinetic stress relief later teaches them otherwise.
- In the final scenario of Hyperspeed, you make contact with two different aliens sitting in a tree and are prompted which to communicate with. No matter which you choose, it's the tree that talks back.
"What are you talking to my pet, [petname], for?"
- In the first Space Rangers the main enemy — the klisans — are a race of biological starships. To be more precise, each member is a moon-size mothership, and all the smaller ships are its organs. They initially assume that the dominant species is the spaceships we fly in, and the humans in them are just a virus that makes them go insane. Thus, they seek to eliminate us in the same fashion we would try to kill an influenza, to prevent further infection and "cure" the infected vessels.
- Luke Surl comics demonstrate what can happen if your main information sources for the First Contact are internet satellites.
- Sequential Art:
- In the "Martian Trashcans" arc, "Gary" tried to talk with two inanimate objects in a row. He apparently isn't the brightest bulb in his team, considering he's the one habitually sent to collect cow lips while others tend to their little military business.
- The author also explicitly parodied Sesame Street Martians in this DeviantArt piece (they did try to talk Cow, after all).
- An episode of Dennis the Menace features an alien race of shapeshifters who thought that televisions rule the world and thus come to Earth in the form of televisions. Upon realising their mistake, they try to take on human form but find it too difficult so remained as televisions. At the end, they reveal their true forms (each one different from the rest) and conclude they are just like humans in that regard.
- One classic Disney short speculated on how aliens might view the relationship between automobiles and their human infestations.
- On Garfield and Friends, an alien crash-lands near Garfield's house. He believes that Jon is Garfield's servant and that Garfield is the planet's superior intelligence. Then again, Cats Are Superior, after all, so he might be onto something there.
- Shadow Raiders features an example. A race of humanoids apparently uses a race of furry, wookiee-like creatures as draft animals. The main characters assume the smaller humanoids are the dominant species, when in fact it is the "draft animals" who are both smarter, and telepathic. Though the smaller humanoids also believe themselves the dominant species; the big hairy telepaths are humoring them.
- In South Park, the aliens have fully researched the planet and decided that cows were the most intelligent species. If they were only looking at the adults, they are probably right. When asked by the cows about all the cattle mutilations, the aliens apologize and explain that it was all "Carl's fault. He's new."
- Steven Universe contains a variation when Steven introduces himself to Peridot: she'd heard humans were the dominant lifeform in the past, but apparently didn't know what they look like. When Steven introduces himself by name she assumes "Stevens" are a species that's replaced humans as the dominant lifeform (after all, Gems name themselves after their variety). Peridot maintains this misconception in future appearances, calling him such things as "the Steven" and "you Steven", but eventually the misunderstanding is cleared up.
- Transformers Animated:
- When the Autobots first arrive they disguise themselves as "the dominant life forms." Bulkhead attempts to chat up a robot dog while the Autobots help fight a monster, only to find out that the organic creatures running around aren't "pets"; robots and vehicles aren't sentient, and humans are the dominant life.
- The Decepticons don't fare much better. When Blitzwing and Lugnut arrive on Earth they initially mistake vehicles for lifeforms, to the point of getting into a fight with (and flirting with) a crane.
- What on Earth!, an old Canadian cartoon by Kaj Pindal which purports to be an educational film by Martians, who looked down on the Earth and naturally assumed that cars were the dominant life-form, and humans some kind of parasite they hadn't gotten around to ridding themselves of.
- The Nicktoons short series Leader Dog is based on this trope; a race of diminutive (and somewhat dimwitted) aliens come to Earth in order to shanghai their leader into commanding their own civilization. However, their definition of leader is simply "the one that everyone follows", and as such they mistake a group of dogcatchers chasing an escaping dog as the dog's "followers" and therefore assume the dog is the planet's leader.