Common Names

I’ve mentioned for a while now that I have a love/hate relationship with common names. They’re great to use in conversations with people outside of the science community, and they’re typically a lot easier to say too. Not everyone will know the scientific name of organisms. Honestly, I don’t know all the scientific names of all the organisms that I like.

One of my issues with common names is that they can be misleading.
When I was growing up, we were taught that those star-shaped creatures that stick to rocks were called starfish. When I entered college, everyone was pushing the name sea star. Why the change in common name?

The common name starfish led people to believe that those creatures were a species of fish. Instead, they are from a completely different phylum of organisms called Echinoderms; the two echinoderms and fish have very little in common. Misinformation can be a very dangerous.

When you look up the term dogfish, you get information on several different species of sharks. Dogfish shark is the common name given to the shark family Squalidae. Each species in this family are small, about 4 feet long. They are found in both tropical and temperate waters, along the coasts and in the deep open ocean. Each species can be referred to as a dogfish, which has unfortunately been a disaster for them.

Most species of dogfish are taken heavily by the commercial fishing industries, and a lot of them are threatened or critically endangered. The problem is that commercial fisheries are told they can take x-number of dogfish per season, but the regulations don’t specify what species of dogfish shark can be taken.

Some species of dogfish shark only produce one offspring per year, while others can produce twenty. Some species of this family can live up to a hundred years, so their age of sexual maturity is a lot older than those who have a shorter life span. It’s the species that have an older age of sexual maturity and a low offspring rate that are suffering the most.

I understand that it is hard to tell one species from the other, and by the time you decide that you got the wrong dogfish, the creature might already be dead. What I am saying is that lawmakers need to be more specific with their regulations, or else we’ll accidentally cause the extinction of several species because they all have similar names.

This is an extreme case, but it’s still an important one to point out. Common names are great in conversations and educating people in ways that they’ll better understand. However, common names need to stay out of regulations and policies to eliminate any confusion.