Scientists are often pretty whimsical in their own way when it comes to describing a new species for science. To the undiscerning amateur like us, we may find scientific names cumbersome, made up of an unpronounceable mass of consonants with an unearthly amounts of x’s, y’s and z’s mashed together. But beyond the keyboard smashing, scientific names are actually beautifully thought out nuggets of descriptive information, strung out in a neat word or two.
Scientific naming is the standard nomenclature that has its place in every living organism, and of course would be nothing without the father of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus. The topic and history on its own would be, to say the least, an enormous undertaking for a simple Saturday blogpost. We’re just hobbyists, and our scientific training is rudimentary at best, and so we will not attempt to open the can of worms that is, the origin of root words, how they are formed, and how to speak latin. We don’t know how, and we can’t.
But in our day to day activities which exposes us to tons of scientific naming, to find meaning behind the etymology is rewarding to say the least. It also makes the subject way more interesting. A figurative lightbulb always appears above my head when I find out why a certain fish was named that way, or when I realise the clever yet sneaky anagrammatic relationship between two closely related genera. For example in butterflies, the genus Charana vs Rachana in Lycaenidae and Taxila vs Laxita in Riodinidae.
For reef fish, scientific nomenclature has its fair share of creative naming. The specific epithet (which describes a species) and the generic epithet (describing the genus) often bear meaning, and are more often than not in relation to the particular subject in question. Fish can be named after a wide variety of things. Most commonly after their morphology, after places, a native language or root, people or even stories!
Morphological influence in naming is perhaps the most common, and we see it in a large majority of species. The genus Macropharyngodon for example, as previously discussed, was given name after its dentition. The generic epithet “Macropharyngodon” stems from the amalgamation of the words “makros”, “pharynx” and “odoús”; which means “large throat teeth” when directly translated from greek. The genus Terelabrus also stems from its morphology, from “terete” meaning cylindrical, and labrus for wrasse.
Colour may also be a huge influence in scientific naming, and are either used as a prefix or a suffix in specific epithets. A basic list of colours and their greek (G) or latin (L) meanings are provided below.
black: (L): atr-, atri-; (L) nigr-, nigri-, (G): melan-, melano-;
blue: (L): cerule-; (G): cyano-
bluish gray: (L): caesi-
brown: (L): brunne-; (L): castane-; (L): fuse-
gray: (L): glauc-, (L): grise-; (G): polio-
green: (G): chloro-; (L): virid-, viridi-
purple: (G): phoenico-; (G): porphyro-, (L): purpur-, purpure
red: (G): erythro-; (L): rubi-, rubr-, rufi-
scarlet: (L): coccin-
white: (L): alb-, albi-; (L): candid-; (G): leuco-
yellow: (L):flav-; (L): galb-; (L): lute-; (G): thapsino-; (G): xantho-
Colour naming is also often used in conjunction with an anatomical feature, which in turn gives meaning and description to it. Pseudojuloides xanthomos (cover photo) got its species name from the combination of the greek words “xantho” and “omos”, which means yellow shoulder. In the males of this species, a yellow streak sits just above the pectoral fin which can quite aptly be described as a yellow shoulder. Various other examples from all over can be seen, and to list them all would be impossible. Here are some commonly encountered examples.
rubricaudalis – “red tail”
roseafascia – “rose band”
nigrolineatus – “black line”
Pomacanthus xanthometopon – In this generic epithet, Pomacanthus in greek means “cover thorn” for the gill spine on the operculum, and xanthometopon means “yellow mask”.
personatus – latin for “mask”.
semifasciatus – latin for “half striped”
Fish can also be named after places they come from, or landmarks that coincide with the capture or description of the fish. Chaetodontoplus ballinae was named after Ballina, a town in New South Wales Australia. The Ball’s pyramid where it is most often found also shares the same name. The newly speciated and endemic Macropharyngodon marisrubri has in its name, the location where it came from. Maris rubri is the literal translation of “Red Sea” in latin.
Native indigenous language and people can also have an influence in the naming of a species, especially if the fish originated from a non English speaking nation. Centropyge hotumatua was named after the legendary first settler chief of Easter Island, Hotu Matu’a. He was an ancestor of the Rapa Nui people, a group of native polynesian inhabitants of Easter Island, for which Chrysiptera rapanui was named after.
Macropharyngodon pakoko was named after a famous Marquesan chieftain named Pakoko, who led the Marquesan resistance to the French during his time. Pseudojuloides atavai and Pseudochromis matahari both have names bearing local meaning. The former is named “atavai” from the Tahitian word meaning pretty, in reference to both sexes having extraordinary colours. The latter is named “matahari”, which in Indonesian and Malay means sun, drawing reference to the bright orange colour of the fish. Forcipiger wanai from Cenderawasih Bay is also coined with a local language, and “wanai” is the local Wandammen name for the fish.
Apart from descriptive naming, people are also heavily influenced in scientific nomenclature. Very often, a fish is named in honour of the discoverer, or a significant contributor in the description process. Pseudojuloides edwardi was named in honour of Jason Edward of Greenwich Aquaria, and many ichthyologists have their named immortalised as well. Richard pyle, Brian Greene, Helmut Debelius, Daniel Pelicier, John Randall etc have species named in their honour, and you probably might have seen a few. Cirrhilabrus pylei, Xanthichthys greenei, Pseudanthias randalli are examples of species named after people.
In these examples, the names are usually latinised. However, names can also be treated as nouns in apposition, and are used as is without any modification. Cirrhilabrus claire and Tryssogobiops sarah for example, are species where names are used as such.
Some species are named after incredible stories, and one popular story that has been circulating the fish circle for a long time now has got to be Richard Pyle’s tale on Centropyge narcosis. Richard was of course deep diving on air when he experienced nitrogen narcosis, which causes similarities to alcohol intoxication. When back on the boat, he was asked if he collected anything and he said no. What he didn’t realise was his bucket was instead filled with several specimens of the then unknown Centropyge narcosis, and it was so named after the deep diving condition.
Another interesting story was one involving the description of Coelopleurus exquisitus, a species of sea urchin. It was first known from an auction listing on e-bay, with an asking price of $8. Marine biologist Simon Coppard was subsequently directed to the site, obtained the specimen and described it in 2006. Shortly after publication, the value of the urchin rose from $8 to $138.
Prognathodes aya was also discovered in a manner most fascinating. The banks butterflyfish was found regurgitated from the stomach of a snapper, Lutjanus aya. The specific epithet for the snapper “aya” was used for the butterflyfish as well. Today however, Lutjanus aya is a junior synonym and the fish is now known as Lutjanus campechianus. The butterflyfish Prognathodes aya still keeps its name.
Invariably there are immensely more fascinating stories and of course, there are any number of things a species can be named after. What few examples we have shown here is not in any way an indication of how naming systemics are thought out, but it gives us a glimpse into an otherwise dry and boring subject. People are always put off by latin terminologies, citing it as archaic and cumbersome. If you took the time to dig a little deeper, read a little further, you’ll find that it is a fascinating topic worth researching up on.
Soon you’ll start digging up pdf papers searching for the meaning behind your favourite aquarium fish.