Can the choice of common name lead to identification errors?

Have you ever clicked “Add a Name” on a taxon page? If so, then my question will probably make sense: Do you believe that the choice of common name (on the taxon page) can lead to identification errors? Do you have a specific example that illustrates the problem?

My question is not about the iNat guidelines for choosing common names but whether or not there are situations when those guidelines should be relaxed. (For convenience, I’ve pasted those guidelines at the bottom of this note.)

Let me give a simple example. Until very recently, both Anemonoides quinquefolia and Anemonoides nemorosa were assigned the identical common name wood anemone. To make a long story short, after reviewing many observations, I realized that users were hastily selecting a taxon ID based on the common name, which led to a significant number of errors. Since the two plants look alike, both would appear on the suggested taxa list with identical common names. You know the rest of the story.

To make matters worse, Anemonoides nemorosa is native to Eurasia but it has been introduced to many places worldwide. So the suggested taxa list would sometimes claim it was “Seen Nearby”, which often turned out to be false (or at least misleading). This just compounded the problem.

Bottom line: Even though “wood anemone” meets the iNat guidelines for common names, the two taxa should have different common names (or so I claim).

iNat Guidelines for Common Names

  • Try to add names that have been used elsewhere. Please don’t invent new names.

  • Don’t add duplicate names, e.g. don’t name numerous hawks “hawk”

  • For higher level taxa, try to use names that include all descendants, like “herons and allies” or “heath family”

  • Don’t add information that is not the name, e.g. paranthetical information about how you think the name should be used

  • New lexicons should be in English. Please don’t add translated language names like “French, Français” because that will just make it hard or impossible for us to show localized names for people who use the site in different languages.

  • Common names associated with translated languages will appear as the default common name for that language (barring the effect of place preferences, name ordering, etc.)

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Yes! I have screwed up the wood anemone IDs many times because of the common name. Another example is “harebell” which refers to both Campanula rotundifolia and Campanula giesekiana.

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The most common example I run across is Astragalus oxyphysus (Mount Diablo milkvetch, or Stanislaus milkvetch in some places) being misidentified as Astragalus trichopodus (Santa Barbara milkvetch) in Central or Southern California.

The common name Mount Diablo milkvetch (which is what iNat uses) is pretty bad because I can’t even find any documentation of it on Mount Diablo.

Stanislaus milkvetch (which Calflora and the Jepson eflora uses) isn’t much better, it certainly is present in Stanislaus county, but it represents the far northern extent of the range where it isn’t very abundant.

And San Joaquin milkvetch (a more suitable name) is already taken by another plant which ironically is pretty abundant on Mount Diablo.

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Can the choice of common name lead to identification errors?

Yes, of course. or is it a rhetorical question? :) There have been some common names placed incorrectly on species that snowballed in thousands of misidentifications from the subsequent computer vision suggestions.

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As others have said, yes it can lead to mis-identifications. I wouldn’t worry about it too much though, the IDs in iNaturalist are a dynamic thing, and the initial ID (whether from an expert, a passionate amateur, a novice, the CV system, or even a mis-directed common name similarity) just serves as a sort of “pre-sort” to get things started. Hopefully the next identifier is not just agreeing blindly, and will pick up on a good proportion of initial mis-identifications. Then there are the taxa specialists that really drill down into certain branches and know the common pitfalls with certain IDs, and they will look for those and correct them. Many of these later type identifiers will have other similar skilled people whom they can tag in and discuss observations with, and get extra weight or opinion and head them in the right direction. And then later still in the process, there will be people learning a branch of taxa, or undergoing a study on them and needing to verify the observations, and they will pick up on the “still errant” identifications… And those observations that get that massively dynamic attention on their identifications are the true gold in my opinion, because the extra attention, the discussion, the referencing of literature… leads to the most awesome learning opportunities!

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I see the smiley face but I want to seriously answer your question. No, my original question is not rhetorical. It is a serious attempt to see if others are having the same problem.

Did you fix the faulty common name once it was found? I’m sure you did :-) Then why are you reluctant to optimize existing common names upon request?

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It’s a well known problem of common names in general… any course involving identification or taxonomy, or even those where there is just a use of a binomial name, typically goes to great lengths to explain that common names are not a guaranteed way to be talking about the same species/taxa… they vary greatly regionally, even dialect-ally… and the only way to guratantee the same species is being referred to is the use of binomials, largely because the process of creating them is more formal and strives to ensure there is no duplication or confusion.

as an example, the website sciencing.com has an explanation at https://sciencing.com/importance-scientific-names-organisms-8518154.html

The use of scientific names eliminates confusion between nationalities that may have different common names for organisms by assigning them a universal name that acts as a code. Scientists from one nation can converse with scientists from another about a specific organism with the aid of the scientific name, avoiding confusion that may arise from differing common names.

just as an organism can have many common names (as alluded in the quote above), there can be many species that share common names, or at least versions of common names that could be mis-applied.

So I can see how Cassi might have thought it was rhetorical. because common names are inherently problematic when it comes to identifying many species, although to be fair they can also be easier to remember and in some cases have no conflict issues at all…

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In my part of California, we have two teasels, Dipsacus. The first English common name for one is Fuller’s Teasel and the other Wild Teasel. For a couple of months earlier this year, someone changed the preferred common name of Wild Teasel to Fuller’s Teasel, so they were both Fuller’s Teasel. Many teasels got temporarily mis-IDed, including by me, until I noticed what was going on. Eventually, someone changed the second Fuller’s Teasel back to Wild Teasel.

What I should clearly do is learn and use Latin names. But back in the late Cretaceous I was trained as an ornithologist, and I’ve never broken the bad habit of relying on common names.

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Horticultural trade names compound the problem. There is a palm legitimately called the Sago Palm; but since that name is incorrectly used in the hort trade for the popular Sago Cycad, every Sago Cycad I have come across on iNaturalist has been misidentified as Sago Palm – this, even though iNaturalist itself does distinguish the two by common names.

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Stachys byzantina and Verbascum thapsus have been a frustrating duo for me. People call both of them “lamb’s ear”, and it’s a seemingly endless problem for me when I ID Lamiaceae. But as I read the comments here, I realize it’s not a problem at all! The common nomenclature brings the duo to IDers’ attention, and both species end up getting correctly identified given enough time. Kind of a fun shift in mentality :)

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Knotgrass leaf beetle for Chrysolina polita is a problem. I don’t know where it originated but it isn’t confined to iNaturalist. C. polita has no association with knotgrass Polygonum spp. as far as I know.

Knotgrass leaf beetle would be better applied to Gastrophysa polygoni, but this species has the common name knotwood leaf beetle on iNaturalist. Knotwood isn’t recognised as a British plant. Is it an American name for Polygonum?

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I think there’s a precedent regarding this particular guidline:

  • Don’t add information that is not the name, e.g. paranthetical information about how you think the name should be used

There are many common names that have been usefully disambiguated by adding a regional qualifier. For example:

  • Eurasian White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)
  • American White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis ssp. arthemis)
  • Indian White Admiral (Limenitis trivena)

When I first started identifying, these all had the common name “White Admiral” (which is, of course, how they are known locally), and I remember having to correct several misidentifications because of this. I don’t recall seeing any problems since the names were altered, though.

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It looks like a typo. Probably Knotweed (Polygonaceae) was intended. I flagged it, but then found another species called “Knotweed Leaf Beetle” (Gallerucida bifasciata) on iNat. So - yet another example of how useless common names can be at times…

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Another example, which I’ve seen happen more than once… Portuguese is, of course, spoken in Portugal. But it’s also spoken in Brazil. The name “ouriço-cacheiro” is applied to the Common Hedgehog in Europe (Erinaceus europaeus) but to a completely different species in Brazil, the Orange-spined Hairy Dwarf Porcupine (Coendou spinosus). As a result, porcupines in Brazil sometimes get identified as hedgehogs.

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I would detalise: common names mostly happen to be useless and misguiding in the languages that are spoken in wide geographical areas. There are only very few (though still are) such problems in more localized languages.

Perhaps surprisingly, this problem has even cropped up in a constructed language. In Láadan, dathimid (literally “needle-creature”), refers either to hedgehogs or porcupines.

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Out of pure curiosity, what is Laadan used for (Sorry. My computer does not have the accented marked “a”) ? Is it a reference to something in pop-culture that I am unaware of?

The Wikipedia Article begins with this paragraph:

Láadan is a feminist constructed language created by Suzette Haden Elgin in 1982 to test the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, specifically to determine if development of a language aimed at expressing the views of women would shape a culture; a subsidiary hypothesis was that Western natural languages may be better suited for expressing the views of men than women. The language was included in her science fiction Native Tongue series. Láadan contains a number of words that are used to make unambiguous statements that include how one feels about what one is saying. According to Elgin, this is designed to counter male-centered language’s limitations on women, who are forced to respond “I know I said that, but I meant this”.

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