[Tweeters] Common vs. Scientific Names

Kevin Purcell kevinpurcell at pobox.com
Mon Mar 21 11:29:35 PDT 2011

Dennis means constant in the sense of the same across all languages (at an instant in time). They certainly are not constant through time. That I'm sure Dennis knows.

There are plenty of bird examples too e.g. the Pine Siskin was a Carduelis finich (Carduelis pinus) and at the last AOU 2010 update became aligned with the European siskins in the genus Spinus. So it's now Spinus pinus. :-)

On the other hand on some splits the common name changes and the binomial is kept e.g. Rufous-sided Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) was split into the Spotted Towee (P. maculatus) and the Eastern Towhee (P. erythrophthalmus). Both have rufous sides so retaining Rufous-sided Towhee was considered a bad idea.

The changes are not random. Changes in taxonomics (binomial naming the species) and systematics (ordering the species) are on going as our knowledge improves. Those changes drive common and scientific name changes.

Changes in common names happen to remove confusion in splits (like the Towhee above).

Or to align with other common names in use our the world e.g. Gavia immer is called the Common Loon (it's not very common even in the US) but was called Great Northern Diver in the UK but the BTO recently changed the common name to Great Northern Loon. Changing the name to Common Loon in the UK was resisted as it isn't the most common loon.

I had an example of a standard common name causing confusion over the weekend. I was pointing out the Common Teal on the central pond at the Fill out to a new birder. It was interacting with two Green-winged Teal. He though I was referring to the "common" Green-winged Teal until I described the field mark of the Common Teal and called it (by it's old name) European Teal.

Binomials are not all dry. There is some humor there too.

The clam genus Abra was crying out for a species called Abra cadabra. It happened with Eames & Wilkins 1957 naming a clam. Unfortunately other taxonomic work later moved to the genus Theora. Bummer. Theora cadabra is just not funny. But there still beetles called Agra vation and Agra phobia. And a fly subspecies Castnia inca dincadu.

Plenty more entertaining taxonomy here: http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/puns/puns.html

If you haven't tried using them scientific binomials aren't difficult to follow (start with birds you know; look up their meanings to make them stick). Then you start to see the grouping (genus level then family level). It adds an extra ordering to the natural world you can make use of.


On Mar 20, 2011, at 10:11 PM, Barry Ulman wrote:

>> Dennis,


>> I'm not so sure about "scientific names" being constant either. Take these butterflies, for example:


>> Anosia plexippus or Danaus plexippus = Monarch


>> Papilio asterias or Papilio polyxenes = Eastern Black Swallowtail


>> Papilio turnus or Papilio glaucus or Pterourus glaucus = Tiger Swallowtail


>> Papilio rutulus or Pterourus rutulus = Western Tiger Swallowtail


>> Either the genus names or the species names, and sometimes both names, have changed over the years. But the common names of all those butterflies have remained constant.


>> Barry Ulman

>> Bellingham, WA.



>>> I'm all for official common names. We generated them for dragonflies, and I think one of the consequences was that the interest in that group took a tremendous uptick. But thank goodness we have scientific names, which are constant for anyone in the world no matter their native language.


>>> Dennis

>>> -----

>>> Dennis Paulson

>>> 1724 NE 98 St.

>>> Seattle, WA 98115

>>> 206-528-1382

>>> dennispaulson at comcast.net


Kevin Purcell (Capitol Hill, Seattle, WA)
kevinpurcell at pobox.com

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