Reliable sources for common names on iNaturalist

Wikidata isn’t vetted nearly as much as Wikipedia and in most cases the names aren’t sourced, so I personally wouldn’t use it on a daily basis as source for common names, but I guess in this case* it might be better than nothing.

*Edit after move: in this case, referring to a mass import of Lithuanian common names from Wikidata as discussed here:

A very high percentage of the names in there are birds, which are sourced into Wikidata from the IOC World Bird List which should be a valid and trusted source.

Most of the other stuff comes from Wikispecies which allows uncited entry of common names. It’s kind of illustrative of the circular sourcing of data these days, EoL sources from Wikidata which sources from Wikispecies or other imports etc.


Not sure i would 100% agree with this- Every property added to a Wikidata item is supposed to be referenced with a source. While it is possible to enter things without a source, most people, in particular ones who do bulk imports do provide it.

Now in some cases it is circular - Wikipedia is often sited as a source to populate Wikidata, and in some cases it seems silly (is it really necessary to site iNaturalist as the source of the iNaturalist taxon ID ?)

The assessment was based on both my and others’ experience with managing taxon articles on both Wikipedia and their corresponding Wikidata items. Though my activity mostly exclude birds, of which there are relatively few taxa and most of which are reasonably well managed due to the existing level of interest in that group.

Right, this is an example of low quality sourcing on Wikidata. Any common names on Wikidata citing Wikispecies, Wikipedia, or other user-generated content websites should be completely discounted and double checked to see if corresponding pages actually lists a reliable reference for that data. I don’t think we should be mass importing names into iNat from Wikidata, at least for English. When I see iNaturalist used as a reference for vernacular names on Wikipedia, I remove them, because as a user-generated content website, it’s not a reliable source.

This is moving afield of the topic title, which is about names displaying in a mixture of languages on the iNat site, so I’ll move it to a new one.

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As far as i know the common names are won by the book that is sold the most…or the most easy available website (like iNaturalist)…or the first with an overview.

But as far as i know the official lists (if there are offical lists) are too late…too little and sometimes 30 years old in stead of a website which are maintained on a daily basis.
Or the Fungi societiy who is makeing the list is avoid of websites as with websites there is never a photo, material availble for research, no herbarium or no microscopic research taking place.

ah, you are talking about taxon, that is not a common name…
The Germans, Swiss and Osterreich will use, i think more or less the same books, so i guess they will use the same vernacular name to make communication more easy!

As far as we know only the IOC bird list is offical multi langual (Vernacular names zijn alleen bij IOC bird list op gestandaardiseerde wijze bijgehouden. Bij andere soortgroepen heeft volgens mij niemand de moeite genomen dat heel nauwgezet en op wereldschaal te doen.)
Other lists are created when a new book is published. But Latin names change much more than common names i think.

“If You’re Not at the Table, You’re on the Menu”

At some point, I think you need to let crowd sourced data be crowd sourced. Yes, it would be nice if Wikispecies forced (or even allowed) a citation when you enter a common name, but it doesn’t. But there is no real evidence to suggest that not forcing it is leading to incorrect data being entered there.

I’m sure there are studies on this if you need numbers, but again, I’m just relaying my and others’ personal experiences cleaning up after unreliable/made-up info being added to all of these types of websites (iNat, Wikidata, Wikipedia, Wikispecies, etc.). Of course that’s not to say that “reliable” sources can’t be “wrong” too, e.g. USDA calling the warty/spiny/prickly-fruited species Ceratophyllum echinatum the “spineless hornwort”.

As far as we know only the IOC bird list is offical multi langual (Vernacular names zijn alleen bij IOC bird list op gestandaardiseerde wijze bijgehouden. Bij andere soortgroepen heeft volgens mij niemand de moeite genomen dat heel nauwgezet en op wereldschaal te doen.)

The best ones are the created by the wisdom of the crowd or authors of Fied guides…or websites if they own the first observed species in a special area.

I’m sure there are errors in both crowd sourced and ‘official’ resources (the EUNIS biodiversity database run by the EU cites as its source for butterfly common names a publication that does not contain a single common name if you want another example).

I’m just wondering if by seeking to only rely on perfect sources that very good ones are being disregarded.


As someone who has added many common names to the site, I am unsure of how important that is. Our policy on Common Names currently says,

I feel like the language used here is intentionally vague. What counts as “elsewhere”? Is it broad or narrow? For example, does “elsewhere” need to be an accredited guidebook or can it be a online forum community? Can it be a trade name? Must the attributed “author” from “elsewhere” be an expert in the field or can they be an amateur? Some arguments I have seen on iNat dance around these ideas and I think a Guideline revision would be helpful. However, I will say that these arguments seem to be circular. Truly common names are not determined by experts, they are determined by communities of people. Even supposedly “trustworthy” sources make them up themselves. Consider this quote from A Field Guide to Spiders of Australia (2017) by Robert Whyte and Greg Anderson:

If experts in the field adopt this loose philosophy on common names, and iNaturalist policy is intentionally vague, how important is it that Wikidata does not reliably source its pool of common names?

EDIT: As Cassi has clarified with me in private, there are issues with Wikidata where actively-used common names are sometimes removed because they are taxonomically “incorrect” (whatever that means - common names should be at least partially independent from the scientific nomenclature. It’s a shame some users on Wikidata feel differently.) I guess there’s even more to consider about common names that I was unaware of.

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A good example of common names created by authors of field guides is “Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America”. Given that most of the species are unknown to most field naturalists, that gave the authors a chance to create a really good set of common names – with the first part of the name describing some kind of ID feature and the second part of the name often describing the dominant habitat or an ID feature of its genus or family. Interestingly, the material in the book is so new that they have coined a few common names for eighteen undescribed species. These undescribed species are recently discovered, have no latin species name, but have a number instead.


As I clarified privately with Bobby, one of my main concerns with Wikidata is the prolific addition of names not actually used by anyone but the Wkidata editor themselves, and the deletion of names that are in use, but not “taxonomically correct”. For example, something like insisting only “poison-ivy” is a “correct” name and deleting “poison ivy”, since Toxicodendron isn’t a Hedera.


I don’t see an issue with anyone (Wikipedia anonymous editors or otherwise) making a common name as long as:

  1. The name is not complete gibberish or unrelated to the species.
  2. There is not already a sufficient common name in use.
  3. There is a need to have a common name defined (one species in a genus that otherwise all have common names, or a group where there are not 200 identical species).

Of course, point 3 is hazy and up for debate depending on the circumstance.

Point 2 doesn’t seem to consider that a lot of things have multiple common names by region/language/other-stuff. Osage-orange is a sufficient common name, had anyone I knew growing up had ever called it such. Bois d’arc is good for me, but not people spelling it bodark. Of course everyone I know knows horse apple, and how to spell it, and that is what they used for the name of it. Of course you might deem it an insufficient common name because it has so many.

That doesn’t consider foreign languages.

I think the best source for common names would be the community, what do they call the “thing”, not some dusty book, not some list that puts hundreds of names no one ever sees or uses.

Oh, and I added “horse apple”, it wasn’t there. :)

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Oh man, when I was growing up, everybody called these “Monkey Brains”.

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I think the biggest use/purpose for common names on iNat is so that folks who don’t know the scientific name may be able to find and identify their observations more easily. So if it is used by some group of people, that’s the criterion that matters. Is there a penalty/downside to having too many common names? I feel like it would be hard to source these/get “official” sources for a lot of common names.

For instance, when I do field work, I hear many common names used for one species I work with (accepted common name: Fence Lizard); however, I’ve heard: blue bellies, swifts, rusty lizards, spiny lizards, etc., all of which have been used by multiple people. When I run into folks while I’m doing fieldwork, I’ll throw out those names to help in communication. Since those are names in use in the vernacular, I think they’d be appropriate to include, though I haven’t ever seen them in a official source (though I haven’t looked either).


I figured the implication was forming standards in English first as many languages do not have common names for a lot of organisms. Then we can carry these “rules” to each further language. I would say it is a given that if a name is coined in English, it would be then foolish to block French, Spanish or German common names on the basis that “a name already exists”. Sorry if I didn’t clarify.

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I think there is some issue here where well-intentioned people will make-up “common” names for popular species that don’t really make sense. I think @jonathan142 could attest to this. When I first joined the site, Polistes bellicosus was called the “Warlike Paper Wasp” simply because that’s what “bellicosus” means. Nothing about the wasp is objectively more “war-like” than its congeners, so the name doesn’t really help with identification and it wasn’t used anywhere outside of iNat. (If we really wanted to make a vernacular from the epithet, I think “Fierce Paper Wasp” would have at least been catchier.)

One of the most frequently observed heteropterans on the site is Acanthocephala terminalis, which very regrettably doesn’t have a common name. Off of iNaturalist, I have very rarely seen it called the “Terminal Leaf-footed Bug”, but this name is in no way “common” and doesn’t make sense either. What makes the bug “terminal”? Since the epithet “terminalis” refers to its orange-tipped antennae, a more appropriate name would be “Orange-tipped Leaf-footed Bug”, but I have never actually seen this used anywhere.

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This is interesting as a discussion point because it shows the difference in the two “languages” as we currently perceive them. The species epithet can be vague, but we prefer that the common name is specific and clear. For instance, as you pointed out, “terminalis” is fine as a species name, but bringing that into English as “Terminal” just sounds odd.

A lot of moths took the scientific epithet, which is how we have names like “laudable arches” (Lacinipolia laudabilis).


@bobby23, I’ll definitely attest to that. A number of well-intentioned names also end up being imported from Flickr, where it was intended as a passing description and not a unique English identifier. Part of the issue is that there really aren’t many compilations of common names apart from field guides, which are absent or lacking for many groups, and people are often quick to want a way to refer to the species without using Latin.

It really depends on what taxonomic group you’re dealing with, to be honest. There are often common or best practices within each, and some taxa may have different forms of common names with varying acceptance, even regionally, within the same language (see lady beetle vs ladybird beetle vs ladybug vs lady bug in English). Another difficulty is duplicated common names (see removal of about 100+ uses of “avispa negra” in Spanish). Insects, and really invertebrates in general, tend to be really difficult to work with common names. My gut suspicion is that there would be more of an issue with common names used in Lithuania.

Another difficulty, especially with insects, is that a lot of published common names don’t actually apply to just a single species but often to a larger taxonomic group. For example, many resources will call Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus simply a Stink Bug Hunter (Wasp). However, this name actually applies to much of the genus. So a more appropriate common name, which is already in use, was the Four-banded Stink Bug Hunter (Wasp). This is now a 1:1 name, and it happens to align with the Latin epithet (some Latin names are more helpful than others). Again, I would presume other language common names (or colloquial names) may run into this problem as well (interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue in German).

Another point is that exactly what we mean by “common name” has some different meanings in different circles. Is it a name in common usage or a name in a common language? While these often overlap, they are definitely different concepts. Some insects in the US have ESA authorized common names (the exact formatting is the only permitted English name to use for that species in any ESA publication). Their guidelines for new common name submissions are rather helpful for considering whether a newer English name is appropriate beyond some form of 1:1 usage. They, of course, don’t have as good commentary when it comes to other (esp. non-invertebrate) groups. But it also does seem that a good chunk of common name issues come from invertebrates anyway, due to outnumbering any other taxonomic group by a significant amount.

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