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Understanding Scientific Names for fish

Scientific names are used to identify all living organisms. They are necessary because common names for the same organism can vary widely, and are different in every language. Scientific names, based mainly on Latin, conform to a defined system, which seeks to group organisms into logical groups, depending on their similarity.

The problem with common names can be illustrated by the use of "zebra" fish. The Zebra Danio is often known as the Zebrafish. There is also the striking Zebra plec/peckoltia from South America (and a few similar species also being sold as "zebra plec"). Then there are the zebra cichlids of Lake Malawi (of which there are several), and the Convict cichlid has also been known as the Zebra cichlid. There are no doubt other examples used in various parts of the world.

Scientific names normally consist of two parts: the generic, or genus, name, and the specific, or species name. A subspecies may have a third part to the name. For fish, the genus is the group of similar fish to which the particular species belongs. The genus name should always be capitalised, whereas the species (and subspecies) name is always uncapitalised. e.g. the Angelfish, Pterophyllum scalare. In scientific papers, Latin names are also shown in italics.

Although some may find scientific names confusing and difficult to pronounce, it is worth becoming familiar with them. They allow positive identification of any species you may wish to look for information on, or purchase from the store. Although scientific names do change occasionally as research progresses and new groups or species are defined or re-assigned, this is done by specific rules and documented. Common names are sometimes given to fish by importers or others, possibly on the basis of some immediately apparent feature, which can lead to different names being used for the same fish. There is unlikely to be much confusion when purchasing Neon Tetras under their common name, but the problems occur with rarer and more unusual fish, or where there are very similar species.

There are times when scientists have struggled to keep pace with the new species being discovered and imported for the aquarium trade. It was this which led to the appearance of the "L-number" and "LDA-number" systems for identifying the many exotic species of suckermouth catfish (or 'plecs/plecos') which were being exported from South America to the aquarium trade. The numbering systems were started by German fishkeeping magazines, but this system does have its weaknesses, many species have more than one number, or incorrectly matched photos for certain species. (This illustrates the danger of attempting to identify fish purely by a photo, where colouration, markings, etc can vary widely between individuals). Scientific descriptions are based on a range of different measurements and observations. Another example of exports outpacing scientific description is the cichlids of Lake Malawi. Many are sold under names like Labidochomis sp. "Hongi", meaning it has been identified as a species of the Labidochromis genus, occuring in the Hongi Island area of the lake. Additional parts may be added to the name, e.g. Labidochomis sp. "Hongi Red Top", referring to a colour characteristic of the fish.

Although the scientific names are primarily based on latin, the species name will often be assigned in honour of the person who discovered or first described the fish. For example, the Cardinal tetra, Paracheirodon herbertaxelrodi was named in honour of Dr. Herbert Axelrod. Names ending with "i" (pronounced "ee-eye" on the end, though often only the "eye" part is pronounced), denote that the discoverer was male, and those ending "ae" denote female.




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