Free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations.

Previous section
What is Taxonomy?

Common Names -v- Scientific Names

In the UK we call them wasps, in Germany they call them Wespes and in Portugese they are vespas. So far so good, you could probably work out what the problem was. However, in Ireland they are known as foichi, in Ukrainian they’re osy and in Zulu they are iminyovu. These are all common names and probably refer to any slim-waisted stingy thing.

Even in the UK, things can have different names:

Wasp Name Map
Wasp Name Map

In addition, there are more than one species of wasp to bother you at picnics in the UK, the Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris and the German Wasp Vespula germanica, and many that look very similar: Dolichovespula media, Dolichovespula saxonica, Dolichovespula sylvestris, Vespula rufa…(see 'Supporting Links' in Resources for a brilliant guide to identifying UK wasps).

For complete accuracy, you need a scientific name. Vespula germanica leads you straight to the species, wherever you are in the UK or the world.

How does it work?

Taxonomists work in two ways. Firstly, they spend a lot of time looking at species that we already know about. They can review whole groups (taxa) of species, or just one. Either using more modern techniques, like DNA sequencing, or new knowledge, like the discovery of a new species, looking again at a species can change its name. Taxonomists are looking for ways to improve the classification of the species, so that we can get a clearer picture – and one step closer to the truth. Museum collections are vital for this work.

The other work that taxonomists do is naming new species as they are discovered.

Taxonomy is always being changed and updated.

There is technically a complete picture of how all species relate to each other, and scientists are trying hard to describe it. However, we’re not there yet – taxonomists are constantly revising their ideas and decisions based on new information.

What’s the difference between taxonomy and nomenclature?

Taxonomy is the study of how species relate to each other. Nomenclature is the way species are named.