Frequently asked questions on scientific names

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Matt Clarke answers some of the most commonly asked questions on the scientific names of fishes?

Why do we need scientific names? What's wrong with using the common name?

There's only ever one scientifically valid scientific name for any given fish species, but there can be many more common names for the same fish. Take the guppy, Poecilia reticulata, for instance. These are just some of the common names listed for this species by FishBase.

虹鮰 (Mandarin Chinese)

グッピー (Japanese)

孔雀花鮰 虹鮰,孔雀魚 引進 (Mandarin Chinese)

гуппи Russian Fed (Russian)

Bandera Ecuador (Spanish)

Barbados millions India (English)

Barrigudinho Brazil (Portuguese)

Barrigudinho-mexicano Brazil (Portuguese)

C bay mu Viet Nam (Vietnamese)

Cytrynwka Poland (Polish)

Gup Netherlands (Dutch)

Gupi Ecuador (Spanish)

Gpi Brazil (Portuguese)

Gupik pawie Poland (Polish)

Guppie South Africa (Afrikaans)

Guppies Trinidad Tob (English)

Guppii Japan (Japanese)

Guppy (English)

Hung dzoek ue Hong Kong (Cantonese)

Ikan seribu Indonesia (Malay)

Lareza tripikaloshe Albania (Albanian)

Lebistes Brazil (Portuguese)

Lepistes Turkey (Turkish)

Mexicano Brazil (Portuguese)

Miljoenvis South Africa (Afrikaans)

Miljoonakala Finland (Finnish)

Million fish Kenya (English)

Millionenfisch Germany (German)

Millions Trinidad Tob (English)

Poisson million Fr Polynesia (French)

Queue de voile Canada (French)

Rainbow fish Trinidad Tob (English)

Sarapintado Brazil (Portuguese)

Sardinita Venezuela (Spanish)

Wilder Riesenguppy Germany (German)

ivorodka duhov Czech Rep (Czech)

ivorodka dhov (gupka) Slovakia (Slovak)

If I told you not to keep Poecilia reticulata alongside Puntius tetrazona, you'd know which fish I was talking about, or you'd be able to find out. You probably wouldn't if I had told you their common names, particularly if you live somewhere other than the UK.

Scientific names provide a universal language for scientists, and other people, to effectively communicate with each other about any species without fear of getting confused by the language barriers.

Why is a person's name and a date sometimes written after a scientific name?

Any names and dates written after a scientific name refer to the person (or people) who described it, and the year in which it was first described. For example, Puntius denisonii (Day, 1865) tells you instantly that this is the fish was described by Day in 1865.

What do the brackets mean around the author's name and the date?

The brackets, or parentheses, around the author name and the dates show that the species was described under a different name to that which the fish currently has.

For example, Puntius denisonii (Day, 1865) shows that the fish was described by Day in 1865 by under a different name. This name is a synonym and can be found by checking an authority such as FishBase to see the name the fish was original described as.

P. denisonii was originally described as a Labeo species, but got moved to a new genus when another scientist found that Day had got it wrong.

If you check the synonyms table for Puntius denisonii in FishBase you'll find the full taxonomic history of that species, showing all the names the fish has gone under, including misspellings and misidentifications by scientists.

Is it important to add the author name and date?

It's usually dropped for brevity, but it can sometimes be important to know this, particularly if there have been taxonomic rearrangements or other problems with that particular fish. If you're going to write the author name and date, the presence of parentheses is very important.

Take Megalechis thoracata as an example. Normally known as the Port hoplo, and previously known as Hoplosternum thoracatum, this fish has a really messy taxonomic past, and you'd have no idea what fish I was talking about if I didn't tell you the author name and date.

In December 2005 it was essentially renamed following a study by Reis, Bail and Mol. They found that the fish we know in the hobby as Megalechis personata was actually Megalechis thoracata, and that the real Megalechis thoracata should actually be called Megalechis picta. Confusing, isn't it?

With the author name and dates things become a bit clearer. Megalechis thoracata (Valenciennes, 1840) is now known as Megalechis picta (Valenciennes, 1840) and Megalechis personata (Ranzani, 1841) is now called Megalechis thoracata (Ranzani, 1841). FishBase is currently out of date.

Now if I told you I had some Megalechis thoracata (Ranzani, 1841) you'd know that I was talking about the Tailbar hoplo (formerly personata) and not the Spotted hoplo (now picta).

Why are they written in Latin?

Latin was chosen because when scientific names first originated in the mid 1700s, Latin was the universal language used by scientists. Scientific names were, more or less, first formulated by a Swede called Carl von Linne, who loved Latin so much he even latinised his own name - Linnaeus. You'll see Linnaeus written after loads of different fishes' scientific names, as he also described a lot of fish species.

Why are they written in italics?

Scientific names, or rather the genus, species and subspecies, should always be written in italics, or if you're writing on a piece of paper, underlined.

Other taxonomic heirarchies such as family names, like Cichlidae, or their anglicised equivalents, like cichlids, are never italicised.

What's a cheironym?

A cheironym is a sort of working title for a species that has yet to be formally described. The aquarium trade is full of fish that nly have cheironym-based names and they're typically written as something like Puntius sp. "High Fin", with the cheironym part in non italic text inside double quotes. This species has just been officially named Oreichthys crenuchoides.

This article is from the Practical Fishkeeping magazine archives. It may not be reproduced without written permission.