Homonyms in Organism Names


A few days ago I posted a note about having been careless and called a sea anemone a buttercup - one was anemone and the other anemoneae. Shockingly (!), 2 additional people IDed it exactly the same way right after me.

I just found another case - an orange terrestrial algae was called a crane fly. Both called Trentepohlia. It’s stuck on State of Matter Life, having passed through fungi, flies, flies, algae, algae, flies, algae, algae lol. The original poster is long gone, and I don’t know that it can change, can it?

Anyway, it seems to me that taxonomists are constantly changing the names of things - consolidating multiple names for one organism, deprecating names for a variety of reasons, splitting and joining groups based on new DNA evidence… What would it take to get a project going to change names to differentiate species? I mean, most of the time this will be a no-brainer (says she, who knows next to nothing about the intricacies of taxonomy but does know that calling two different things by the same name is just as bad as calling one thing by two different names). These are clearly different organisms, and it’s not a matter of deciding which of 2 names should be used, but instead it’s an opportunity for another inflated ego to get their name onto a species. (Oh dear, I didn’t really write that, did I?)

This might be something else that iNat could contribute! We could trawl the iNat database and identify every instance where a genus or higher taxon appears under more than one value of the next higher taxon. We could then put the list in the tutorials section of the forum, and then take a stab at suggesting how to fix it - e.g., as a rule of thumb, the more populous group would retain the original name and we could try to come up with a clever variation on the name for the other taxon that would mean the same thing but be different enough to help prevent confusion. Or name them all after Darwin’s ancestors (they produced him after all). Or after pieces of furniture. Point is, it would be a strawperson to start from. And then hawk it to whichever taxonomy groups seem to have their acts together and are aware of the very bad taxonomic behaviour this demonstrates! And I suspect that as more citizen science projects are established this issue will grow.

This is such an obvious idea that I’m sure it has been discussed many times, and I’m frightfully naive for thinking that it could possibly be that simple, etc., etc., etc.

But could we at least generate the list and put it in the Tutorials area? Maybe identical taxa and ones that are just a little off? Like anemone and anemoneae? I know we don’t have all species yet, but as long as we save the code, it could be rerun periodically. I would personally highly appreciate it!

OK, so just how naive am I? :-)

P.S. And sorry for writing another tome


Display major categories in taxon name choices to better disambiguate similar names

The homonyms you are referring to are hemihomonyms. They are both valid under their respective (and different) codes of nomenclature and cannot be changed. There are many of them. Vernacular names should separate them.

For a more detailed explanation see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homonym_(biology)

I suspect your second example … anemone versus anemoneae is due to the differing taxonomic ranks these names (their endings) imply.



@notyouraveragecatlady I get where you are coming from on this. And as a taxonomist my bias would be against using “made-up” names to solve the issue. That can lead down all kinds of slippery slopes that could quickly make iNat look pretty strange to outsiders.

Instead, I would be in favor of getting the system to make the multiple choices for some names more visually prominent to users, and maybe even adding a final prompt to confirm which Trentepohlia or Anemone one intends to pick.

Currently when one starts typing in a name for an ID, up to (and only) the first 10 taxa containing a match drop down in a list to select. Next to the choices are the current thumbnail photos for those choices.

In other contexts on iNaturalist, instead of the thumbnail photos, the colored icons for different major groups (plants, birds, insects, etc.) are shown next to the choices. This helps some with visually picking out the right one, and if made a little larger and included in the Obs and ID-mode choices, could help reduce some mistakes.

For exact name matches between different nomenclatural groups (the hemihomonyms @cooperj referred to), I would also be for triggering a prompt to the user, asking something like “did you mean the plant, the insect, or the fungus named Pterofolius?” Or just listing the major groups under the prompt “is this a…?” and making the user pick one.

One could even consider doing this for matching common names within or among major groups, if it seemed like that is also a source of frequent mistakes.

Hoping the staff may have more elegant solutions than what is coming to my mind at the moment…



Another thought that comes to mind: just have the system automatically display the (language-specific) major category with each name in a pick-list. So for example, when typing in Trentepohlia (or even displaying automatic CV suggestions), the list in English would look something like

  • green alga Genus Trentepohlia
  • insect Genus Trentepohlia
  • green alga Family Trentepohliaceae
  • insect Species Trentepohlia africana


The conventions for organism names are set by venerable bodies, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature and the International Botanical Congress, which have been ruling on scientific names for more than a century. Their work is an amazing combination of the sweeping and the mind-bogglingly detail-oriented, and they would snort at helpful suggestions from a community science group. But popup clarifications when these problematic names are suggested would be a good addition. Other cases: Cecropia, which is a tropical tree genus but also the common name of a moth, and Acanthocephala, which is a phylum of worms but also a genus of true bugs.
I got caught by the Trentepohlia one myself!



for subspecies sharing the common name of a species, there was for a while a big issue with people accidentally adding the subspecies via the common name. For a while we were adding the word ‘nominate’ before the nominate common name of the subspecies… ie (nominate red oak for Quercus rubra ssp. rubra if such a species existed which it probably doesn’t).

It’s been a while since i did this so i am not sure if it has fallen out of favor or is still acceptable.



Great ideas! And I get about the venerable naming body and its opinion of the lowly and unwashed masses lol. I like the various tagging suggestions. It would be interesting to know how many records might be affected by this, and how many were fixed vs not. The former are probably identifiable but the latter would be more of a challenge, tho by tracking over time one could establish a rate. The kind of data mining I really enjoy :-)

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There’s a start here if you’re interested:



Cool! My programming days are long in the past, but I’ll start with that and build some views and see what happens :-)

Is there a way (in the url language?) to be able to ID records that ever had a given taxon ID as part of its ID stream, along with the dates that changes were made? That would be a key step in figuring out what the incidence of corrrected incorrect IDs were. Also see how long on average they took to be corrected. My hunch is they are either correctly very quickly or they languish for a long time, but data is necessary :-)



You can look at IDs and observations with the API: https://api.inaturalist.org/v1/docs/



Thanks - I look forward to geeking out :-)

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Most of these are quite old, from times when online taxonomic frameworks (or computers, or the internet…) weren’t a thing and people had no easy way of knowing if a name had been published or not. They don’t reflect current “taxonomic behaviour”, they just stuck around because different groups of organisms have their taxonomy ruled by nomenclature codes that are independent from each other, as already pointed out in previous comments.

That being said, the problem has been acknowledged, and there are already lists of hemihomonyms out there: http://herba.msu.ru/shipunov/os/homonyms/index.php

It may be worth creating a feature request for this - I would spend a vote on it!



Same here, not to mention that data from iNat are exported to other global databases such as GBIF. Having “made-up” names used only on iNat would be a nightmare for data scientists and people modelling species distributions, for example.



I agree - I don’t think iNat should make up names - my naivite came in thinking that a request/suggestion to fix this would meet with any interest from the official naming bodies. And yes, I know that most of these instances came from people genuinely believing they had found new things and should name them. I do really like @jdmore 's suggestion for providing visual flags with the taxa when they are displayed. A simple and elegant solution :-)



Having an extra visual prompt when choosing a name that has valid homonyms (as @jdmore suggests) seems to me to be a straightforward way to go.



@janetwright @duarte @notyouraveragecatlady @mftasp and all, Feature Request now posted.

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Not very complete.
One I am constantly rubbing shoulders with is
Tritonia (Irid and Nudibranch)
Tritoniopsis (Irid and Nudibranch)
including Tritonia pallida.

There are a few surprizing ones:
Erica = Heath (700 species) and Jumping Spider (in Hawaii)

Note that the names are governed by three laws, so in theory one could have a Hemihomonym for three organisms: Animal, Plant and Bacteria. At this stage there are no names shared between all three systems.

In my experience, mistakes (which are very easy to make - I have made many) are rapidly detected and sorted out. It is just a temporary inconvenience. I dont really think any further bells and whistles are needed to the current system on iNat.



As I said, a start. Anyone can edit Wikispecies, so feel free to add missing info.

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Of course, the same thing happens with common names. More than once (maybe less than thrice :smirk:) I have seen a tree identified as a buckeye… but the buckeye chosen is a moth. And there it’s pretty obvious—there’s a picture of a moth, or a picture of a tree. How hatd can it be to choose the right one?

On the ither hand, the same affordance is there when choosing between similar taxonomic names. How hard can it be to distinguish between a picture of a spider and a picture of heath? To some extent, it’s just that people are in a hurry, and less attentive than they should be as they go through these IDs.

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One possibility is that people are using the app offline and just writing the name in the ID text box, and then when they upload the observation the wrong species is automatically chosen for them.