Common names in different taxa
gochfeld at eohsi.rutgers.edu
Mon Oct 5 18:18:33 EDT 1998
Birds have spoiled us those of us who like Common Names. Most birds in North
America have a "common" name that is truly common (except for recent splits
where systematists have coined uncommon names). But for dozens of species, the
generic names have been unstable, shifting with every taxonomists' whim. There
are simply too many avian taxonomists working on too few species, who believe
that every shift in understanding of phylogeny warrants altering the
nomenclature. Every new molecular technique alters some phylogenies. There is
lots of mischief afoot. The American Birding Association tries vainly to deal
with the changes "approved" by the American Ornithologists' Union.
Butterflies have had common names for a century, but there is much more
variation in the names even within North America as Miller showed in her book
on common names. There aren't quite as many butterfly systematists as there are
for birds. Even so, common names have been more stable across time than the
generic names. The NABA list has attempted to standardize the common names.
Dragonflies hardly had much of a following until a decade ago, and only a few
showy species had common names. Some of these were probably names for entire
genera, since most people didn't or couldn't distinguish between species within
some of the genera. So attempts to give common names to species that never had
them, is sure to create confusion as Doug has pointed out.
As we get into taxa of insects where most non-specialists will be content to
identify to family the matter becomes more complex. I have to be content with
appreciating the Bumblebees in my yard, even knowing that there may be a
half-dozen species there.
Apropos of Doug's illuminating list of flowers commonly known by their generic
names, I should point out that Gene Eisenmann (d 1981), the dean of Central
American ornithology, was at the center of controversy over the use of generic
names as common names. Hence some people would have included in the genus
Atlapetes. the Rufous-naped Atlapetes, White-throated Atlapetes, etc, whereas
others call these Brush Finches. Brush Finch eventually prevailed.
Name: Michael Gochfeld
E-mail: Michael Gochfeld <gochfeld at eohsi.rutgers.edu>
UMDNJ/RWJMS and EOHSI, Piscataway, NJ
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