Erroneous and Uncommon "Common Names" As The Default

I’ve noticed several instances of iNat using default common names that don’t seem to exist (or just barely so) outside of this site. This is easy enough to figure out by a quick Google search, where the only results will be from iNat and a small number of information-aggregating websites, but these names will be entirely absent from all other publications and websites, peer-reviewed or otherwise. This is probably most common in groups that don’t have a well-codified nomenclatural system in place (and it’s especially prevalent with corals).

I’ve also seen instances where a rarely-used regional common name has been selected as the default, while a more widely published common name has been listed as one of the non-default options (or been missing entirely).

I guess the question here is what standard do we apply to using common names when there is no agreed upon “common” name. This seems to be an important consideration, as the names that get used here do seem to eventually make their way to other parts of the internet. Is it enough to simply say that common name A has more Google search results than common name B and so that should be the default? And what importance should be put on academic/peer-reviewed references versus the names that float around on the internet? Is a widely used internet name worth more than a rarer name in an academic journal?

Also, do the de novo names that pop up on iNat deserve to live? Should they be deleted entirely once they are noticed, even if they have spread elsewhere on the internet? The curatorial policy here is to not allow the creation of new common names, but it seems to happen here, intentionally or otherwise. Palythoa tuberculosa is called the “grey colonial zoanthid” on here, but the name doesn’t seem to appear in any published literature and gives only a couple low-quality Google search results of websites that likely got the name from here. It’s an interesting example, as this name briefly appears in a marine biochemistry book published this year. This would likely validate the name for many, but is it warranted in this case if the name erroneously originated here?


I have noticed the same thing; iNat often comes up with common names that are new to me and may be formatted oddly (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not, etc.). Wondering exactly how they are sourced and curated. For some groups there really aren’t common names, but for most North American taxa there are officially established common names, or names that are used very regularly in influential field guides. In some cases (e.g. dragonflies and damselflies) these names were established recently as an enthusiast community developed around the group. Curators should be encouraged to find and use those consensus common names whenever possible.


Also this thread

There are some clunky ‘common’ names which are translated from the Botanese.

I was wondering the same thing, iNat is listing taxa under common names that are just made up by translating scientific names, for example the “Confusing Spur-throated Locust” These common names can be confusing or unwieldy, but the thing that irks me the most is when the common name is just a translation of the scientific name despite a different common name already being in use, the example that comes to mind is Polistes fuscatus, which iNat list as “Dark Paper Wasp” but everyone else calls “Northern Paper Wasp”, this my be contributing to a misidentification issue where people assume that any dark colored Polistes must be P.fuscatus, despite the fact that fuscatus isn’t always dark and there are other dark Polistes


I’ve actually been confused by that very Polistes fuscatus common name.

Common names can be problematic, and there certainly are some weird ones here on iNat.

Some people may have been guilty of coining a common name themselves, or innocently putting in a common name that they thought was OK, but that was in fact coined by a friend or teacher.

I think people often check the scientific name to make sure it is OK, but don’t bother to check the common name.

It would be a very boring job for most experts, to have to go through their favorite higher-level taxon checking all the common names to make sure they are genuinely the most common.

And all kinds of questions come up – e.g. when you have the same species occurring in the US and the UK, do we let the US name be dominant because there are more Yanks than Brits?

Also, I must say that over the last 10 or 15 years, Wikipedia has influenced common names quite a lot by propagation across the internet via Google, etc, and Wikipedia also has some of the same problems with somewhat bogus common names, which have now become enshrined as OK.

I don’t know what the answer is, except to urge people to be more careful, and to write some guidelines about what not to do with Common Names.

You say this as if users have control over common names?

For two circumpolar dragonfly species I can think of, iNat recognizes the UK name rather than the North American name: Four-spotted Chaser (vs. Four-spotted Skimmer) and Black Darter (vs. Black Meadowhawk). I’m okay with that. Maybe the type localities for these two species are in the Old World, so they get first dibs.

Yes, any user can add a common name to iNaturalist, and any curator can edit/manage common names, like fixing typos, assigning the global default, or assigning the default name for particular places.


If you see a common name that looks like it should be removed, or if a different common name should be set as the default, please flag the taxon for curation on the taxon page.


If you want to discuss a particular taxon or particular name, a flag is the right place, rather than the forum. For example, here’s the one where folks could continue the discussion about Polistes fuscatus:

There are several policies related to common aka vernacular names here:

Personally I’d be much more likely to assign a default name that is in common use over one that is infrequently used but in an academic journal. Having been part of dozens of related discussions, over many years, about vernacular names here and on other sites like Wikipedia, I unfortunately don’t think we’re going to find much in the way of clear rules or consensus around these questions, especially ones that would apply to all taxa.

As far as your topic title and

definitely please continue to flag these for curation so that a more common name can be set as the global default.



The first name added with mark of “scientific” will stay as the main name, though it can be not the best choice. I add a lot of Russian names and we have some weirdly chosen common name, like Taraxacum officinale’s one, and as I know staff said those won’t be changed. As I understand all common names should work when submitting an observation.

There was a since suspended curator who went on a binge setting the default common name of every species shared between NA and Europe to the European name despite being told to stop doing it. I’m not sure they all got found and reverted. The guidance was to set the NA name as the primary as 70 percent of site users are from there and set the European one as a regional specific name.


I personally don’t even look at common names and for the purpose of identifying organisms I find them mostly useless and the basis for equivocal identifications (for instance, lots of land slugs being identified as nudibranchs because someone used a more generic “common” name in German which applies to all slugs). Yet, I understand most people have difficulty relating to scientific names at the beginning. Not sure how to solve this, but always providing scientific names primarily and common names in second might help.

I checked the iNat “common name” of nudibranches in German and it is simply the wrong one. The iNat German common name is in fact a name that is in Germany used to talk about Stylommatophora with reduced shell. Will flag that taxon.


Use your best judgement. If the name isn’t one you expect, then by all means add a new one. Do not delete old names without absolute certainty that the name is useless (e.g. a coined one already exists, or perhaps several, or the name is nonsense). Some names are only in field guides and may not show up through a Google search. A field guide is, according to many, “proof” of establishment in a common name, even though it really isn’t that formal.

“Anglicized” Latin names have been a thing for a while, and it is too late to stop the trend now. Honestly, these are better than nothing, especially for species where no alternative name could plausibly exist. If the other species in a genus have a naming trend, then I’d say go ahead and name the nameless ones accordingly. That’s the only time I’d advocate coining a new common name on iNat, unless there is really good justification otherwise.


The problem is that the German common name for landsnails with reduced shells (which is not a taxonomic group, as it includes the Limacoid clade and Arionoidea) is used for nudibranches in iNat. So every German observer is guided to a wrong ID. I therefore think that this common name should be deleted there.

I certainly have to admit, that Germans who call whales “fish” might have no problem calling a nubibranch “Nacktschnecke”. This doesnt make it their proper name though.

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Not every major taxon or all languages have a standardized list of common names that can be consulted. iNaturalist might be the only place where common names in various languages for virtually all organisms can be presented, debated, and possibly revised. Where there are not suitable (or any) names for some organisms, this seems like a good place to propose them. I see iNat as a place to improve the status of common names for many taxa…

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The other point as I see it, is that as long as the names are synonyms, it makes no practical difference for ID or observations. It is annoying not to see the name you expect, but as long as that name is usable, it’s just a visual querk.

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Please, everyone, let’s not have any more examples of taxa that need flagging or discussion on the iNat site. I think the context has been well established for the conversation here so any more discussion on specific issues should be done through iNaturalist and not on the forum.


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I just wanted to point out that yes, common names are mostly completely useless for identifying organisms, and they should not be used in that way. To me the primary value of common names is this:

  1. Common names are very helpful to those of us who are completely unfamiliar with a large group of organisms, but are willing to try to rapidly pick up a smattering of familiarity with that group locally. That includes people like me, who are tackling many diverse phyla simultaneously, in addition to their favorite large phylum. Most common names are a lot easier to recall than scientific names, so the common names can serve well as a mental placeholder. Deeper, more thorough knowledge of the taxonomy of these unfamiliar groups, including the scientific names, comes later, or sometimes not at all, but that is also OK.