Native names and Scientific names

Should we use more scientific names and native names than using common names to avoid confusion?

Scientific and common names have their problems, as shown in some previous topics:

Personally, I prefer to use the scientific name if it’s written since it’s less ambiguous, but a shorter common name can be less confusing when talking or listening in person (e.g. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)). However, it’s pretty common for naturalists in groups to use scientific names in conversation so it’s worth learning, eventually.

Native names are a difficult topic. If the group from which they come is a minority within the area, it’s hard to see how to encourage their use amongst more people when a more widely used common name is available.


Interesting question. I think it depends how familiar you are with Latin/native names.

I changed my settings recently to Latin names first. I thought it would help me when identifying, because the English names are confusing to me - ‘yellow shouldered this, yellow margined that, black shouldered the other.’ But I learned all of them in Latin first. I think it has helped me in that way. But what I’ve found is that I’m completely lost when getting notifications about my own observations in taxa I’m unfamiliar with. ‘Someone added an ID - Deroceras reticulatum’ - “Oh, is that one of those cool plants I saw, or a fungus? Ah no - it’s the slug.” Now if it had come up as ‘Netted Field Slug’, I would have been much more informed straight away, and I might even have a chance of remembering it!


If you’re already familiar with a genre, it can get worse:

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Native names are just as prone to confusion (and bias) as common names. In a country like Canada there could easily be a couple hundred different ‘native’ names for the same plant.


Yes, I don’t really understand native names being categorised with scientific names rather than common names. Native names are common names - just in a different language.

Scientific names are prone to a different set of potential confusions (they change from time to time, and different scientists may have different opinions about which name is ‘right/wrong’ at any given time) compared to common names - (they vary from place to place and language to language, they may not have the same scope of meaning as any valid taxonomic concept, the same organism can have several names, conversely one name can apply to multiple unrelated organisms (e.g. daddy long-legs!), and the concepts of ‘right/wrong’ simply don’t apply in the same way - It’s called what people say it’s called.)


I like Wapiti, an indigenous name for Cervus canadensis but everyone I know uses Elk. But on an international level, the former name is better and less confusing since Elk is a different animal in Europe.


Scientific names are supposed to avoid confusion.
Depends what names your intended audience use and prefer.


Scientific names are the most appropriate and professional form of communication that avoids a number of serious mistakes.


These constant taxonomic revisions defeat that purpose. Cardinals aren’t finches anymore, but now some tanagers are cardinals. It has gotten to the point that if I can’t identify something to species, I’m not sure I should identify it at all, because the genus, family, or order I knew it to be in, it might not be in anymore.

If I’m publishing research on something, then looking up the current scientific name is part of the process. Outside of that use case, I much prefer the stability of common names. A Scarlet Tanager is the same bird whether it is in the Thraupidae, the Cardinalidae, or whatever family it will be in when the new paper is published tomorrow.


Virtual / online solves that. I remember a name in English, Afrikaans, other South African inherited common name, or Latin / Greek, perhaps German from Swiss days.
And the great Google takes me to today’s scientific consensus, with a list of earlier synonyms, and common names in many languages. My Cape robin, is still that, even if ‘they’ have moved it to Cape robin-chat (clunky! but we are conforming to foreign usage)

Birds are one of the only groups where common names are consistent and standardized. It wouldn’t work to do that with reptiles. Anole/gecko/chameleon can all be interchangeable locally depending on region, and don’t even get me started on the billion different common names for, say, rat snakes or any venomous (or similar looking harmless) taxa. The attempt to standardize just North American (really, just US) taxa is largely ignored because of local or preferred names.

Taxonomy changes because taxonomy is meant to be a hypothesis that best reflects evolutionary history. New data/analyses lead to better understanding of evolutionary history, which alters those hypotheses. In almost all cases, I use the binomials because it specifically addresses the species I’m referring to. If I’m talking to the public, I’ll choose a (semi-standardized, if possible) common name and also give the binomial.


Does the word ‘native’ indicate local or regional names, or are you referring to ‘indigenous peoples’ name? mikelesnik

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Except the Sparrow Hawk and Marsh Hawk…and all the other common names that I learned when I was younger that have now been changed.

You would have to ask the OP what he meant by native but my comment applies in both cases.

The reason they were changed was because of people wanting to make them as standardized as scientific names. I doubt that they would have changed colloquially without that scientific interference.

I think this is one of the best native name examples out there. I always thought of the animal as a Wapiti, or I guess sometimes a Wapiti Elk, but referring to it as simply an Elk just seems redundant and undescriptive. Of course, I’m no taxonomist, but I like to think it would be a good thing if every animal could have its own unique common name of a reasonable length, as we have tried (and largely succeeded) with scientific names. There are times when a “common” name converges with the scientific or native name, such as in Kangaroos or Rhinoceros, and for the most part I think that can be a good thing.

Another thing in regards to indigenous names… i am never sure when people not in said group are welcome to use them. With some groups it is encouraged, but others might not want their names or language used on this website or elsewhere? I am not sure if it ever really comes up but i think people should be aware of that if they are not part of said group.

In terms of scientific vs common names i’ve actually gone back to using common names because of iNat’s policy to constantly change scientific names… it’s pretty untenable at this point and i don’t know how anyone uses them any more unless they are taxonomists specifically focused on that taxonomic group. Scientific names on iNat are now for taxonomists, not for anyone else, even other sorts of ecologists.

A couple weeks ago, I came across an observation that had been identified to genus, but – without any conflicting identifications – a taxon split had bumped it back to Dicots. Let that sink in.


And all previous identifiers are now bounced to an ID, they didn’t make. Didn’t even SEE to make an ID either way.