Second-rate species?

I remember this thread from long ago, The Right of a Fly to a Common Name.

It was an enjoyable conversation then, and I have enjoyed re-reading it now. I draw attention to one point made in that thread

And the reply

Given the repeated statements made on these forums by people who don’t like common names – including a currently open thread asking how to show only scientific names (which is possible on iNaturalist, whereas showing only common names is not) – this may not seem like an issue. But I feel that sbushes was trying to make a valid point.

I know that this is prejudice on my part, but when I come across a species that has no common name, on some level I find myself thinking of it as a second-rate species. It wasn’t successful enough or significant enough to get noticed, and so it remains on the fringes where only scientists care about it. It’s admittedly a step up from the status of a species which has not yet been described – which, in a sense, not even scientists care about (yet) – but not on a par with species that have made a name for themselves outside academic circles.

If I am aware of this prejudice in me, then surely it must exist in other people who are not aware of it. Given that assigning artificial “common” names does not address the root of the problem, how can such prejudice be overcome? For that matter, should it be overcome? – we speak of “keystone species” and “ecosystem engineers,” which are drivers of their respective ecosystems, and as a rule, these are species which do have common names, for the simple reason that they are prominent enough to have been noticed and talked about. If a nameless species went extinct, would that noticeably impact the ecosystem? Can people outside scientific circles care about species for which they have no names?


These are not simple questions with straightforward answers, that’s for sure.

Now there’s a first-rate question.

In order to have a conversation about anything, even things you don’t care about, labels are necessary. If you are afraid of something or you think it might be good to eat or you are amused by its behaviour, if you’re struck by the beauty of its vocalizations or curious about where it goes for half the year etc., etc., etc. you’re going to call it something.

If someone outside scientific circles becomes aware of some species of insect that is effectively unknown outside the halls of entomology and falls in love with something about it they may take the trouble to learn the binomial name and use it correctly or they may (and probably will) come up with something more meaningful to them. This is a normal part of people learning about the world around them.

iNat’s main role in the world is to promote learning about the world around us. It should be a place for conversations of this sort but they are prohibited out of a weird notion that only highly educated nerds have a right to name things. But I digress. Sort of.

Anyway the short answer to the question is “Yes. Briefly.” Once a person cares they’re going to give it a name pretty much immediately.

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This reminds me of a trivia question I heard a while back. “What large well known animal is only known by it’s zoological name and has no common name? (at least in the English language).”

The T-rex? the Brontosaurus? the Iguanodon? the Dimetrodon? the Velociraptor? the Hippopotamus? the Boa? the Alligator?




Strictly speaking, in cases like that the vernacular name is the same as the scientific name. It’s unusual for mammals but fairly common in some groups. This is one of my favourite examples.


from an alleged African word for a wild or hairy person, found in the Greek account of the voyage of the Carthaginian explorer Hanno in the 5th or 6th century BC; adopted in 1847 as the specific name of the ape - Oxford languages.

Hmm - I wonder WHICH African language?

@pmeisenheimer discovered by the Austrian botanist,explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in 1859 in the Namib Desert of southern Angola. The story goes that he was so overcome by his find that he knelt down next to it and simply stared - from PlantZAfrica

And those 2 ‘random’ names only 10 years apart.


Thanks for the replies
The answer they provided at the quiz was, as SQFP suggested, Boa constrictor. As has been pointed out however, there are other contenders, gorilla, hippopotami and dinosaurs.


As I understand it, Welwitsch wanted the plant named using a a local (Damara, maybe?) name for it but the guy who published the actual description persuaded Welwtsch to accept it being named after him. Or perhaps that’s just legend.

I was told that the Afrikaans name for it (it’s long and I don’t remember it) means “plant that can’t die”, or something like that. Anyway, fascinating plants in an absolutely magnificent desolation of a landscape.

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The “prejudice” is that the organism has not entered the interest of people other than biologists. Maybe it’s a tiny hard-to-ID insect or a plant that even horticulturists don’t pay attention to. Or it’s not a pest species so even resource managers don’t think about it. It also doesn’t appear in any field guides for the nonprofessional naturalist. I don’t think it’s prejudicial, simply a case of not being visible enough. Most of the millions of species of organisms on the planet probably fit this description.


If Boa constrictor is used in the vernacular, minus the italics, then it is the common name. Simply a derivation of the scientific name.


The Condylostylus flies are abundant across North America and easily found in urban and suburban areas. If you stare at a bush long enough in the summer, you’re pretty likely to see these little green flies running around on the leaves. They’re decently aesthetically appealing as well so I feel like they’re a good candidate for trying to get people more interested in entomology and flies. One way to do that is to create guides. But I feel like the appeal will always be limited until they also have attractive, pronounceable colloquial names. (well, they’re flies, the appeal will always be limited regardless…)

“Shiny green flies” is too vague; most people are more familiar with the even-more-ubiquitous blow flies which also match that description. “Jewel flies” is taken by a genus of shiny green hover flies (I think this name was proposed by a relatively recent field guide). “Green/Jewel leaf flies” feels a bit awkward… The more adjectives you add, the more awkward it sounds, especially if you want to add common names for specific species as well… Eastern Black-winged Jewel Leaf Fly? Larger tiny shiny green leaf-running fly with row of bristles on the mid tibia but not on the mid basitarsus? Smooth-shinned vs Rough-shinned Jewel Leaf Fly?? It gets weird trying to apply normal vocabulary to insects.

I think it’s worth doing, but it’s hard to do well and a lot easier just to stick with the safe names that already exist for all of these (currently) obscure species.



(= two leaves, can’t kill it)

And four local / Namibian language names listed


In a twisted sort of way, species without common names feel like first-rate species to me. I figure that if I have found something so obscure that it hasn’t been picked up in vernacular language, it must be something really special.

Then again, full disclosure, I can be considered to be “inside scientific circles,” so maybe my head just works that way.


I am not in scientific circles and I feel similar!

Ohh, this doesn’t have a common name? Hello there, mysterious being. What don’t we know about you yet?


Maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule, but dinosaur names are all scientific names and many people love and remember them.


But they are dinosaurs. I mean, come on, everyone loves them. They are dinosaurs!


From earliest childhood, I’ve been a bird watcher, and after seven decades, I’ve yet to meet a bird watcher who uses binomials. But when I started meeting people who share my interest in herptiles, I discovered many of them do use binomials. A lot of my iNat observations have only binomials, but that doesn’t affect their status with me. To the general public, most insects are simply “bugs,” and that isn’t likely to change. To those of us who notice and care about nature, the name doesn’t alter an organism’s status.


The larger the fan base is for any given taxon, the more likely that it has well-established and frequently-used common names. As pointed out, dinosaurs are an exception, but that might be because they’re extinct and in many cases the species-level IDs are tentative. You and I aren’t going to see one alive in the field. But the scientific names – at least the genera – have entered common usage so are, in effect, the common names. My feeling is, if the name isn’t italicized in some publication, then you can consider it a common name. (I’m excluding newspapers which seem to have some rule about not italicizing scientific names.)


I’ve always found the name Pyrrhuloxia fascinating, along with the bird itself. It’s also known as the Desert Cardinal (a much more reasonable common name) but that name seems less often used. Pyrrhuloxia was apparently the now-defunct genus to which this species was assigned, before it was moved to Cardinalis. But that mouthful of a common name, so hard for me to spell correctly, stuck. I wonder why.

Phainopepla, another great desert bird, is also derived from its genus name.

I suppose if you want to create a common name without resorting to English words, just start using the scientific name as a common name and it just might stick.