New Common Names For Species: Policy Change?

Apologies if this has been asked before.

Shouldn’t we have a policy change about common names? The current approach is a very hard-nosed one; “If it hasn’t been published in a book before, don’t use it”.

However, iNaturalist seems like a great place to start new common names! Common names are much easier to use, are more appealing to laypeople and, actually, some professionals alike. I personally like my scientific/latin names, but I would like insects to appeal to more people.

We should be more open about adding new common names. This would facilitate the use of names for species by laypeople.


If a group of people are able to reach a consensus about what to call a particular genus or species, I believed it shouldn’t matter if that group is professors at a conference or naturalists on this forum. We are exactly the kind of people who care enough to put new common names in action.

Rumor has it that the bee genus Perdita was given the common name “fairy bees” on Twitter.

One professor I know at the university of New Mexico says he makes up new common names every time he helps publish a new insect species, essentially with the hope that makes his work more accessible to the public. That meets iNat policy, since it’s published, even if no one is using it yet!


This isn’t the current policy. The current policy is to add names that are in use (which published books are often, but not always evidence, of).


Thing you have to be careful about isn’t just is that name already taken, but is it similar to something else. We had one recently where someone named Bombus zonatus Eastern Bumble Bee. That is awfully similar to Bombus impatiens Common Eastern Bumble Bee and after that there were a lot of people entering the wrong one for impatiens. I was very happy when that name was removed.


There has been a long discussion of this, and there is general agreement that new common names should not be invented on iNaturalist. See that thread for examples of why this causes problems. The curator’s guide is clear on this point: “If a species has no common name in usage, please don’t make one up.”


Birds seem to handle this fine. Every raven in North America isn’t a common raven and every sparrow in great basin sagebrush habitat isn’t a sagebrush sparrow. We have opportunities to brainstorm creative, unique names for many distinctive insects and moderate discussions to avoid overlap.

Bumblebees are an example where many common names are adequate, not great. nevadensis is found in many states, sylvicola isn’t the only forest dweller, and huntii is equally qualified as ternarius for the nickname tricolor.

We have the power to debate and change this. I think Silas is aware of existing policy, since this thread is about policy change.


Alright, please excuse my rant… folks need to get over the mental block of using the scientific names that are already established on iNat (and in science) for every described taxon. These names were introduced to be standardized across all languages and cultures so we all know what we are talking about. iNat making up new names is way too messy and makes common names even more confusing and hard to remember. There is also the issue of who vets the names and what culture’s name takes precedence as the name that is listed on iNat.

For example, there is no need to make up a new non-standardized, unpublished, new, fancy English name name for the crane fly Erioptera caliptera. It has a name already and it’s easier to say than anything unique you could invent to separate it from all the other crane flies in that genus/family. You could invent “yellow-banded mottled crane fly” but why bother. With enough usage the scientific names is both easier to say and it’s relationship to other species is easier to remember. That is the beauty of the Latin names where they form nested categories of relationship and you can remember whole groups of species, as opposed to common names which often have no rhyme or reason.

So I am not completely against common names. For common and familiar species, the common names are useful and should continue to be used. I don’t demand that you use “Danaus plexippus” for Monarch in your outreach events. But when you get into the horde of tiny arthropods or a species complex of very similar plants, the people getting involved in taxonomy NEED TO learn the scientific names. If you come to me and say “did you see the Parallel sided brown leafroller” I am going to have no idea what you are even talking about. Just about the same as if I said a Latin binomial to a layperson. However the “recently invented in Peterson” common name is not scientifically useful, so it’s not a high priority to remember and not as easy to remember.


Why not have their names just be “Bombus tricolor” and “Bombus huntii”? They are clearly differentiated, easy to say, shorter, and all scientists in the world know what you are talking about. Do we need an extra name to say something additional about it especially if it’s so widespread, has several similar species living alongside it, and occupy different habitats?


I don’t know that bumblebees necessarily need common names, but this is about more than the scientific community. As people interested in plants, insects, fungi, etc, we must communicate with the general public who won’t necessarily associate Bombus with bumblebees or Prodoxus with yucca moths.

Common names are a marketing ploy, if you will, and in my opinion extremely important because our native insects are literally disappearing across the world due to habitat destruction, climate change, and pollution. So, I truly think this is more than a cute name for a bee - this is how we generate awareness and maybe start to reverse population trends.

Tying this back to the topic here … if we agree that common names have their place, then users of iNaturalist who are actively and enthusiastically observing and discussing these species should be able to openly brainstorm new names for use on this platform and beyond. As it stands, what is the practical difference if

a) I invite 3 iNat users to my house and we decide to start calling Eumenes bollii “Radioactive potter wasp” (there’s a trefoil-like pattern on the upper abdomen) then share this with others and it eventually makes its way to iNat, or
b) we have this discussion here in the forum and collectively agree to use it


For those into insects, I’ll note that the effort by a committee of odonate specialists to produce a standardized common name for every dragonfly and damselfly in North America did a lot to raise awareness and appreciation of this group. Surely if there is interest in doing that for bees or other insects, a committee could be assembled to generate, debate, and ultimately publish a list of proposed common names.


Perhaps you could start with getting botanists and zoologists to stop using the same name for both a plant and an animal. I check each day for Kingdom disagreements, because even the biologists don’t talk to each other.
Yesterday someone was looking for spinach on iNat, and iNat gave him a fish (plant-blind as ever)


The problem with common names is that they are like opinions (and other things) everyone has them. I live in south Texas and there are so many variations on common names depending on English, Spanish and even regional dialect. IMO the best thing is to use the standardized scientific names and then list common names for each.


There’s an interesting idea here about whether iNat could be used as a base for discussion of creation of Common Names. I’ve no idea how that would work in practise, but I suppose it might be worth exploring. I think it would be a nightmare to change the policy so that anyone was just able to add their own made up names however; to the point that the platform would be discredited.

In the mean time, there’s nothing to stop you mentioning common names in your journal (I did that here (slide 4) where I made up names for a group of hoverflies just for fun, but I could have done it to make them more findable). Or indeed you can popularise names in comments by saying "I call this ‘such-and-such-a-fly’ ".


Imagine not everybody using latinized language. Common names will always be easier to remember when they exist, iNat members shouldn’t make up them, but if there is one, we will use it. Цинния will always be easier to use/write than Zinnia.


iNat’s not a place to generate taxa, and it (or especially this forum, which is for discussing iNat issues) is also not a place for coming up with common names. This is not to say that taxonomy or common names are not important, but iNat itself isn’t a place for generating common names or taxa. I’d be all for committees like the odonata one @jnstuart mentioned, that sounds cool. But iNat or this forum are not made for that purpose.

If you want to help out on iNat, things like adding IDs and helpful comments to observations, making taxon flags and/or making thoughtful comments on taxon flag discussions, and similar work is really what makes a difference on iNat.


I wanted to remind (again) that the discussion is only relevant for anglophonic users of iNat. Other languages (and countries) may not have such problems and may have different rules and traditions for applying/creating common names of organisms. Even for anglophonic users in some cases it might be unnecessary discussion as there are many resources that may provide common names. Actually, even applying of published/known common English names must be done with care: I still remember my surprise seeing Cirsium arvense (which is of Eurasian origin) called Canadian thistle here.


But… I’m confused. I feel like I’m seeing non-standard English common names being added all the time for invertebrates in my area (western US). In fact it’s really been irking me, because I’m in favor of a cautious approach that would leave many inverts without a common name until there is some sort of published consensus. Does this mean I can flag common names that I find that are not standardized? :)


Agreed. The odonate names list for North America was intended for English speakers in US and Canada. Presumably French-speaking Canadians have their own names. And even a couple of the English names for circumpolar species differ from those used in England. There is no one size fits all.

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I think it just depends on the group lol. English ornithologists have that whole carefully mandated list of “official” common names (isn’t the whole point of common names that any one name isn’t???), but I don’t think anyone would care if you gave some obscure isopod or roach a name loosely based on its binomial (hell this is what some hobbyists already do)