Before staring I’d like to let you all know that I don’t know if this topic was already discussed .
I’d like to know whether learning scientific names is better than common names or both because I’ve noticed that when I talk about animals and I use common names (I’m not a professional or anything and that’s why I don’t really remember them), and if the other person is from another part of the world, they may not understand what animal I’m talking about.
So, I’d like to know if learning scientific names is a good idea. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s always a good idea if you’re interested in biology. You’re right that people from different parts of the world don’t necessarily know your local common names. Some species also don’t have common names in certain languages and/or on iNat, so it might help with identification.
I think both common names and scientific names have their uses. Common Names are generally easier to remember and are likely more meaningful when communicating with a general audience. However, common names are not global and often the same common name can apply to multiple (sometimes many) unrelated species. I work as a research coordinator and I coordinate ~50 biologists across the eastern U.S. For birds, we use common names because North America has standardized common names for birds. However, we use scientific names for plants because 50 biologists may have 20 different common names for the same plant.
I personally try to avoid using common names where possible as they are to inaccurate and cause too much confusion for my liking, I do however pick up common names just as a part of working with the species.
If they’re not a scientist, they may not understand the scientific name. If I’m talking to a campesino in the Dominican Republic, Simarouba amara is as meaningless to them as Paradise Tree. I would be better off using Juan Primero.
Most of the advocacy I see on here for scientific names comes off as elitist, as if we will only be discussing organisms with the scientifically educated. There is a reason many users add lexicons of common names for various languages and regions, and that reason is (in part) so that we can look up what people in a given part of the world are likely to call an organism that we wish to discuss with them.
I, like probably most people, started my love of nature with common names. Common names are much more palatable to people because they change based on location, language, or culture. Scientific names don’t, and their main purpose is to make sure people talking about the same thing from different points of view can ensure they know what the other is talking about. Alongside their taxonomic purpose.
As I’ve become more familiar with iNaturalist, I’ve become more familiar with scientific names as well - because we’re communicating with other people from locations, languages, and cultures we aren’t a part of, so the assured specificity of latin names is important.
But the fact of the matter is scientific names can be confusing, hard to pronounce, and often hold very little linguistic value compared to common names. The scientific names that do stick often become common names (or the other way around), in the case of the Mola or Magnolia.
The main difference between the two is context. It pays to know your audience. I wouldn’t ask an ornithologist from my town if they had seen any Dryocopus pileatus (although it probably wouldn’t be too inappropriate in this context) lately, nor would I ask someone who didn’t speak my language if they’d seen any Pileated Woodpeckers.
On iNat, the latin name (synonymous with scientific name, sorry for any confusion) is usually a safe bet though.
TBH I kind of use things interchangeably? Though there is one use case where I think everyone 100% needs to learn scientific names, and that is if you’re foraging for wild edibles, especially mushrooms or anything in the carrot/apiaceae family. There is just too much room for overlap with common names when you’re dealing with closely related organisms where one might be delicious and one might kill you dead.
Absolutely yes! By all means learn common names as well, but scientific names are the key not just for communicating with others, but also for understanding the relationship between various organisms (which ones are in the same genus, for example) and accessing a whole world of information from different countries, or even regions, where the same organisms may be referred to by many common names, or the same common name may be attributed to different species, or even species in different families (it happens!). They may seem difficult to remember at first, but they’re just words like any other and the more you practise them, the more they’ll come naturally. In fact, most actually mean something, so once you get used to using them, they can actually help you ID and/or remember the name of an organism.
Jason (@jasonhernandez) is right when he says that the campesino in the Dominican Republic may not understand Simarouba amara, but knowing his local name for it will not be a great help to you outside the Dominican Republic… unless you can later use it to find the scientific name and unlock all the information the world can offer, scientific or otherwise. And if you know the scientific name, you will also probably be able to find out the local names in other places where it grows, so far from being elitist, the scientific name can act in a certain sense as a bridge between the Dominican campesino and his counterpart in, say, Surinam or Guyana.
I would definitely recommend learning both in most cases.
If common names are reasonably well-established they’re very useful for local communication, but the scientific names gives access to a lot more literature. For example with plants, here in Denmark a lot more people will know bøg and mælkebøtte than Fagus and Taraxacum, but if I have found for example a microfungus or a leafminer on one of these I run into the fact that we don’t have a lot of local litterature. I will have to consult resources written in Britain, Germany, The Netherlands, etc. These are almost always organised by scientific names of hosts to facilitate exactly this sort of international use, and having to constantly look up names would get tiresome so I have memorised both sets.
What I find interesting is when a scientific name that appears to mean one thing actually means another. Like the specific epithet bonariensis. From what I have been reading, it refers to Buenos Aires. Okay, I can see that – the two names mean the same thing. But when I see bonariensis, Buenos Aires is not the first place that comes to mind. The first place that comes to mind is the Caribbean island Bonaire. That name also has the same meaning. If a type specimen was collected on Bonaire, wouldn’t that also be named bonariensis?
We have a heliotrope and a milkweed, both widespread in the Neotropics, but named curassavica after Curacao, the next island over from Bonaire. Until earlier this week when I read about the Buenos Aires connection, I honestly thought that a similar thing had happened with species that look like they are named after Bonaire.