Every living organism on earth has a "scientific" or taxonomic name, a way of identifying it. People, for instance, are known as Homo sapiens, (Homo = man, human; sapiens = wise). Scientific names are usually derived from Latin or Greek and have two parts, a genus and species. The genus is usually a noun, with the first letter capitalized. The species is typically an adjective and is all lower case. This two-part naming system, known as binomial nomenclature, was created by Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700's and is still used today.
Fish in the same genus are thought to have evolved from a single ancestor, and therefore have many anatomical characteristics in common. They are more closely related to each other than to other species. As scientists learn more about different species, especially in recent years through DNA analysis and other techniques, they sometimes change the genus and/or species. This is happening more frequently with aquarium fish such as cichlids from the African Rift Lakes, particularly Lake Malawi, and newly discovered cyprinid fish from Myanmar (formerly Burma) and China.
Why do we need scientific names? For aquarists, scientific names allow people from all over the world to talk about a particular species of fish without any confusion. This is necessary because a fish can go by different common names in different parts of the world, or even different regions of the same country. For example, depending on where you live, the names anemonefish, common clownfish, clown anemone fish, false percula clownfish, "Nemo" fish, western clownfish and ocellaris clownfish all refer to Amphiprion ocellarus. Given that there are close to 30 different species of clownfish, with numerous look-alikes, you can see why there needs to be a way to identify the exact fish in question.
Also, the same common name can refer to different species in different places. In the United States and Canada, the name "perch" refers to Perca flavescens, the lake perch. However, in Europe, perch are Perca fluviatilis, a much larger species than its North American cousin. And in parts of western Asia, perch are Perca schrenkii, which are similar in size to the European species. Three different species of fish, all known as perch in their respective regions.
Scientific names can be helpful to aquarists in other ways. If you're familiar with one species within a genus and you encounter another member of that genus or one you've never heard of, by knowing that the two fish are closely related, you can get an idea of the new fish's potential size, personality and dietary needs. This can be helpful in determining what size aquarium it will need, what other types of fish it gets along with, what it eats and how to breed it.
Many words we use every day have their roots in Latin or Greek and have developed throughout history to their modern meanings. This is known as etymology. It can be fun – and interesting – to trace the roots of scientific names for fish. For example, species names that end in "ensis" indicate that they come from the location with that name, such as canadensis or brasiliensis. Those that end in "i" or "ae" are named after a person; typically, "i" indicates a man, while "ae" is for a woman. You don't have to learn Latin or Greek, just become familiar with certain key words, to figure out what many fishes' names mean. Here are some examples:
White Cloud Mountain Minnow – Tanichthys albonubes
Tan = named after Tan Kan Fei, who first collected it
ichthys = Greek for "fish"
albo = Latin for "white"
nubes = Latin for "cloud"
Neon Tetra – Paracheirodon innesi
para = related to
cheirodon = the name of a similar genus
named after American aquarist and publisher William T. Innes
Red Hump Geophagus – Geophagus steindachneri
geo = Ancient Greek for "earth"
phagus = Ancient Greek for "to eat"
named after the Austrian biologist Franz Steindachner
Tiger Barb – Puntigrus tetrazona
punti = from the Bengali word "pungti" for small cyprinid fish
tigrus = a reference to the vertical bars that resemble a tiger's stripes
tetra = Ancient Greek for "four"
zona = Ancient Greek for "zones", or dark bands
Bronze Cory Catfish – Corydoras aeneus
cory = from the Ancient Greek "korus", meaning helmet
doras = from the Ancient Greek "dora", meaning skin or hide of an animal
Latin, meaning "of bronze", referring to this fish's color
Hypostomus (Plecostomus) species
Hypo = underneath
stomus = mouth
Here are some other clues:
- multi = many
- australis = southern
- macro = large, big
- borealis = northern
- micro = small, tiny
- pseudo = false
- fasciatus = stripe, line
- cephalus = head
- striatus = striped
- caudo = tail
- linneatus = lined, striped
- pinnus = fin
- maculatus = spotted
- longi = long
- punctatus = spotted, dotted
- brevi = short
- pulcher = beautiful, pretty
- rostrum = nose, beak
Look up the scientific names of your favorite fish and see if you can figure out what they mean and what other species they're related too!