What organisms have you been surprised to discover that people are unfamiliar with?

A recent experience prompted me to think about this. As iNaturalists and general nature lovers, I think we all become well-acquainted with the intricacies of whichever aspect of nature captures our imagination and focus. This may be common names, scientific names, the ecology of the area, certain jargon, etc.

For me, this applies mostly to birds, mammals, and to some extent, plants. The other day I was observing a Black Sparrowhawk nest where the mother was perched on a branch, when someone approached and asked what I was looking at. “Sparrowhawk,” I replied.

“Sp- what?”

I could see their confusion, so I just shortened it to “hawk”. They seemed to get it then, admired the bird, and left.

It got me thinking - something as simple as the name of ‘sparrowhawk’ tripped people up because they were unfamiliar with the term, even though I had thought it a common enough name that at least laypeople would be a little familiar with it. Apparently not …

Have you had similar experiences where you related a term or name to someone else that you thought was widespread, only to find out that it wasn’t the case at all?

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Pretty much every name and if people know the name they don’t know how it looks, every non-biologist I talked to didn’t know we have 2 sparrow species, so I don’t expect them to know e.g insect names which are harder to remember. But I also met a teen girl in my school who didn’t know how a magpie looked, when we went to a local zoo they didn’t know about Rooks and Jackdaws which are both common and mentioned on paintings and I literature, so it was weird.


Petrels and shearwaters as a whole- even fairly near their colonies, because they’re so secretive on land then disappear off to sea.

Every temperate or tropical weather penguin- “Don’t they have to live on ice?!”
Like kororā, a blue (also surprises people!) penguin that lives in Australia and Aotearoa NZ, African penguin in Namibia and SA, and the Galápagos pengin living at the Equator.


Any type of weed, really. Like the ones that are ALL over the place. Everybody knows dandelions, but everything else is much less heard of, in my experience. Like bird’s-foot trefoil or any type of plantain; which are just as plentiful as the dandelions in a lot of places, but nobody knows the name!


Practically everything. “Heron” or “egret” is very uncommon compared to the common, and erroneous, reference to as Crane.

No one knows what a barbet, or a flameback, or a flycatcher, or a Whistling Duck (most people in my area have no idea any duck can fly), or a Stilt, or a Jacana, or a Bee Eater, or a Roller, a Cuckoo (everyone calls them koels, and have no idea about any other Cuckoo other than the Coucal, which everyone calls a Snail Eater), a Bulbul (they are Konda Kurulla “bird with hair”, or even more hilariously Konda Kluck), nor a Kite or a Hawk or a Harrier or a Falcon (all are just small or big eagles to them), nor an Ibis, nor a Darter, nor a Lark, nor a Swift nor a Swallow (both have the same vernacular name, “Vehilihiniya”, or “Forebringer of the rain”, nor a Sunbird (utterly manipulative America-centrism makes everyone call them Hummingbirds, and I had no idea Hummingbirds were new-world only until I was TEN, and my parents only learned this in their early 40s), nor a Pipit, nor a Prinia, nor a Cisticola, nor a Fantail, nor a Starling (they only know Mynas, which are pretty common if you ask me), nor a Shrike, nor a Tit, nor a Warbler, nor a Tern, nor a Gull, nor a Sandpiper, nor a Hoopoe, nor…

The only birds they know are:
Crows, and they know the difference between House and Indian Jungle crows


Swifts and Swallows

Oriental Magpie Robins

Red-vented Bulbuls



Cormorants (in Tamil they are called Neer Kagam, which literally means Crows of the Water, like its latin name)

Kingfishers in general

Parrots and Parakeets


And all the common stuff.


I’m not very knowledgable about birds and I thought “Sparrowhawk” was the name of the Earthsea fantasy book series protagonist, haha. I do meet people that don’t understand that Yellowjackets are a type of wasp, but as a park ranger I feel insects in general are underappreciated so I am always excited when someone wants to know what that fuzzy spider looking thing is (actually a velvet ant!) or whether or not that bee will sting them (it’s a beefly, so no)


When I taught high school I had a student tell me she had heard of grasshoppers but had never seen one.


We used to offer trips on a traditinal sailing ship and once I had a group of teenagers and told them to pack the sails they had to pull really hard “like a blackbird pulls at a worm”. I only realized from their blank faces that they had never seen a blackbird pulling a worm. Which is something you can see on every patch of grass in Germany. Not sure whether they knew what a blackbird is.


I find people who have no experience of being out in the field regularly are as clueless as to what they are looking as I am with quantum mechanics. I don’t see this as a fault, just lack of experience or education regarding anything outside.
My biggest heavy sigh head shaking moments of frustration arise when people get adamant about a subject which either I know they are uneducated about or are trying to bs there way, and the other thing is ignorance about the impact of non native organisms on the native ecosystem. feral cats, feral dogs, feral pigs, snakes, fish etc. sometimes people either just blow off the impacts or they defend the situation. It’s as infuriating as full dog poop bags lining the trail, litter or people who go out on the trail to talk talk talk while clicking off the miles. Those types (loud radio, phone conversations etc), they flush every organism for miles. Makes me incredibly sad


Most people I talk to who have had feeders up for years, don’t know what a house sparrow is, though it’s where most of their seed is going. They will usually know that those little brown birds are sparrows, but don’t know they’re different from sparrows native to the Americas, if they even know that there’s more than one species. It is most striking to me that so many such active participants can’t even name the bird they feed most. It’s also heartbreaking, considering the negative impacts on other birds from boosting the population of such an aggressive, anti-competitive species.

Most don’t know what a starling is or don’t know it’s different from a grackle. A majority not knowing what a teasel is was expected, almost nobody knowing was not, but everyone seems to recognize an image of it as a plant they’ve seen before.


Think to a large extent we could extend this to any plant for a significant number of people. Plant Awareness Disparity is so extreme


Springtails! There are a lot of good examples of specific species here that people are unfamiliar with, but I imagine that most everyone should definitely know what you mean if you say “a beetle”, “a tree”, “a bird”, etc. Collembolans and other soil mesofauna are so completely unknown, I imagine anyone not versed in biology, and even some people who are, would have never even heard of them.

To be fair, they are extremely small, and easily go unnoticed, but its incredible that they are both so omnipresent and completely invisible. I think I remember reading that it was estimated that there were over 100,000 springtails for every square meter of earth on the planet.

Edit: Thinking about it more, I have noticed springtails getting more mainstream attention recently, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. It seems like in the past few years the alternative medicine crowd has been claiming that springtails can “infect” humans or homes, causing any number of diseases and/or property damage, and very conveniently also selling “extermination” services to get them out of your home.


Very true. I just especially am shocked about the unawareness of the plants that are literally all over the place all the time, ya know?

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Oh boy, since I’m studying arthropods, don’t even get me started.

…I’ll start anyway. Crane flies (mosquitohawks) are a big one, and on that note, hoverflies, or any type of fly really as long as it isn’t your generic housefly. In addition to crane flies, cellar spiders (Pholcidae) and harvestmen (Opiliones) are usually referred to as “daddy long-legs,” and that said animals are actually three distinctly different groups is usually a shocker. Funnel weavers (Agelenidae) are always confused with the notorious funnelweb spiders (Atracidae), and I still find people who have somehow never heard of jumping spiders. People are often astonished to learn that barnacles are crustaceans, more closely related to crabs than they are to corals, which are actually animals in the same group as jellies. Even the word “arthropod” itself is novel to most people, who usually confuse it with “arachnid.” I could go on for days.


The other day I mentioned cicadas and someone asked me what a cicada was. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had never seen one before, but their sounds are ubiquitous here in summer. I wonder if they’ve ever thought about what the droning buzz sounds coming from the trees were!


Any small, gray or brown bird with a subtle call seems to fly under the radar of most people. Also, someone was once surprised when I told them there was more than one species of freshwater semi-aquatic turtle. “What? I always thought there was just one type of turtle!”


The joke among my non-naturalist relatives was that if it was on water it was a duck, if it was a nondescript smallish bird it was a robin or sometimes a sparrow, and if it looked kind of big it was a hawk. I think they were amused by my insistence that birds were more complicated and diverse than that.


From another thread:


Children are naturally curious and easily learn words. If the adults in your life knew what an organism was called and told you the name as a child, you probably remember it. If they didn’t know, then you don’t know. Unfortunately this means knowledge goes down over time, especially if people move to a new area and then don’t speak the language or simply don’t recognize the species there. They may recycle names they do know, incorrectly applying them to different species. I grew up calling Cotinis mutabilis “Japanese Beetle,” probably because my grandparents came from the east coast and had probably seen Popillia japonica there, so any green shiny beetle was close enough.

Last week my mom told me her father (of German decent) called bees (or wasps?) that live in the ground “schnickelfritz.” Google tells me it’s a Pennsylvania Dutch term of endearment for a mischievous child, meaning something like “little rascal.” No mention of insects though!


I used to joke that here in NYC, plant taxonomy consists of: “it’s a tree.” Or: “It’s a bush.” Or: “It’s a flower.” and that is that, end of story.

In reality it is not that bad, not all of the time with everyone, but I have met people who had no idea what a daffodil looks like.