As a student of the science of aquarium keeping for the last 35 year I’ve been fortunate enough to communicate and share ideas with aquarium keepers of like mind all over the world. Common names can be confusing as they can be different and misleading to people in other countries. Thus, we speak in the universal language of scientific names so we all know what fish we are talking about. But what do those tongue-twisting names mean, anyway?
Three-hundred or so years ago Carl Linneus cleared up the muck that was taxonomy into the simple system we enjoy today – Genus and Species. Thus, we became Homo sapiens; literally ‘man who thinks’, usually expressed as ‘thinking man’. The genus groups organisms of like characteristics, as in the large family of characins in the genus Hyphessobrycon and Hemigrammus (little fish and half-lined respectively). The species is a particular kind in that genus.
The species name can be many things, describing color, stripes, spots, breeding type, native name, personal name, location of collection and many more. Genus names are at the whim of the scientist who described the animal to science, thus, any like that species are in that genus. Genus names are occasionally changed by later scholars and over-eager grad students.
A few simple examples can enable you to decipher the majority of scientific names.
Spotted can be guttata, puntacta, maculata, stigmata, fascitus.
Lined or striped can be lineatus, zonas, strigata or rhabdi most commonly.
Many genuii refer to the head, like the ubiquitous Corydoras (helmeted head, the Raphael cat Platydoras (flat head), Bunocephalus (a genus of bumpy-headed banjo cats), Acanthodoras (a spiny-head talking catfish).
Different is nearly always hetero, as in the tetra H. heterorhabdus (different lines).
Common colors that modify species names are blue, black, red, silver and in a few species gold. So the spots can be blue-cyanoguttata, black-nigroguttata, red – earthyrogutta. Silver is usually argento, gold auro.
The stomach features often in species names. Gastro and the pelvis are the most common. Examples include the popular krib, Pelvicachromis pulcher (pulcher meaning pretty, pelvicachromis colored tummy. A hatchet fish genus Gasteropelecus (axe belly) is common in the hobby.
Some deal with size, nana and lalia meaning small, the pacu genus Collosoma describes just what they become – huge.
Some common fish that we have in our tanks and what those names mean.
The guppy – Poecilia reticulatus A reticulated fish with net-like markings.
The neon tetra – Paracheridon innesi Like a fish having hand-shaped teeth and named after the author William T. Innes.
Pristella tetras – little saw, referring to the teeth.
Rasbora is a native name, like the popular R. heteromorpha (differently-shaped mark).
The white cloud tetra was named for the Chinese boy scout Tan. His discovery was named ‘Tan’s fish from the White Cloud Mountain’ (Tanichthys albonubes)
The pictus cat Pimelodus must have fat teeth, according to it’s genus, and has the spots that makes them popular.
The massive, gorgeous, tiger shovelnose catfish Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum is ‘a fish with a flat head that has markings’.
The popular Oscar must have awed its namer, as Astronotus means star marked. The species name, ocellateus, referred to the gorgeous multi-colored spot on the caudal pendacule that so few Oscars have these days.
Mollies (Mollienisia) were named for French scientist G.T. Mollien, who did some of the initial work with these live bearers. M. sphenops has a wedge-shaped face, M. velifera a sail, M. latipinna a broad fin. The latter two species name refer to their dorsal fin.
Badis Badis, recently a thread on this forum, was named such in it’s native India.
The gorami clan, currently under revision, is a native name. Thus, the pretty Dwarf Gorami, Colisa lalia, at this time has a genus name made up of two native names, and is small. The stately Pearl Gorami is Trichogaster leeri. The former means hair-belly and the latter after the scientist Leer.
The angelfish genus, Pterophyllium, means winged leaf.
Exotic Aquarium Fishes, 15th Ed. William T. Innes, Innes & Sons Publishing, Philadelphia.
Smithsonian Magazine, May, 2007 ‘Organization Man’.