Letters to the Editor
Scientific Name FAQs
We have been receiving a lot of questions recently about
scientific names, so this month we are providing answers
to the most commonly asked questions.
The average hobbyist doesn’t need scientific names,
so why bother with them?
Well, first I’m not sure there is such a thing as an “average
hobbyist.” Someone whose interest is simply in having a nice
aquarium does not usually need to bother with scientific
names. This is not because scientific names are not important,
but because exact identification of the fish is not always
important. If one of these aquarists wants to buy a blue tang
or an upside-down catfish, however, identifying the species
offered is very important, since captive care is so different for
the various fish called by those names, and the only way to
properly identify a fish is by its scientific name.
I know scientific names are important, but why
don’t you always give the common name of a fish in
parentheses after the scientific name?
A great many fish have no common name, or so many
common names that it is impossible to list them all. Many
aquarists, including but not limited to killifish, cichlid,
catfish, and livebearer specialists, rarely use common names,
so many fish come into the hobby without them and basically
get a different name from every retailer who sells them. In
addition, we do not want to give the false impression that a
given common name is “correct” for a given species, as there
is always someone who uses it for another species. I recently
ordered some “least killifish” from a wholesaler. In 50 years I
have never seen that name applied to anything other than the
livebearer Heterandria formosa. What I got, however, was a
Fundulus of some sort.
But aren’t at least a few common names standardized
in use? What about “guppy,” “convict cichlid,” and
While it is possible to connect such a name primarily to
a particular species, even these names are inexact. Various
Poecilia and Micropoecilia species are called “guppies,”
many small Central American cichlid species are called
“convicts,” and several different species are known as “neon
gobies.” Current taxonomic revision (see “Cichlidophiles,” p.
38) has split the species most often called the convict cichlid
into four species. Which one is the convict cichlid? All four!
So then, why don’t you decide on a common name for
every fish and use that?
Although this might sound like a good idea, it is fraught
with problems. Just a few are:
• There is no authority governing common names, so
people are free to use them however they want. Our deciding
on one would not be binding on anyone else.
• This would be reinventing the wheel—and poorly. Every
species already has a unique name, its scientific name.
• Common names can mislead. For example, a huge variety
of only distantly related species are all called gobies—a mixed
group that cannot be uniquely identified through a single
specific list of biological features.
• Common names are imprecise and always tend to
generalize. Although several species of Corydoras were
moved to the genus Scleromystax, many people still call those
catfish “cories,” now presumably a common name for all
Corydoradinae rather than for all Corydoras.
But scientific names are so hard to pronounce and
Pronunciation is a non-issue. There is no correct
pronunciation of any scientific name, so you are free
to pronounce it as seems best to you. As for length,
there are plenty of counterexamples: the common name
humuhumunukunukuâpua`a, the scientific name Akko
rossi, or the common name White Cloud Mountain minnow,
the scientific name Lo uspi. In addition, many scientific
names are extremely easy to remember: the snail Ba
humbugi, the nudibranch (naked gill) genus Godiva, or the
catfish Zungaro zungaro. Also, if you learn the meaning of
a few Latin and Greek roots, many scientific names start to
make a lot of sense.
So are you saying that it is wrong to use
common names, that everyone should use only
Absolutely not! Common names are useful in some
circumstances, especially where exact identification is
unimportant. The truth, however, is that once an aquarist
starts to get bothered by not having a common name for
every species, that person is almost always at the point
in growth in the hobby where using scientific names is
important. If the correct identification of a fish matters
to you, you need to learn and use scientific names. If not,
common names may suffice.
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