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Why Scientific Names Are Useful
By Kathy Jinkings
Every living organism on the planet that anyone has discovered has a scientific name. These are often called Latin names, but aren't. Some bits are Latin, some bits are Greek, and some bits are gobbledegook that someone wanted to make sound scientific, e.g. sterbai (don't worry about pronouncing it yet, we'll come to that). This isn't an ancient Roman word meaning anything at all - it's Mr. Sterba's name with an 'I' on the end to make it look official. There's any number of fish with the name 'axelrodi'. Guess what that means!!
However, the scientific names aren't just to boost the egos of fish collectors. Common names are, obviously, common to the people using them. That doesn't mean they're common to anyone else. What's called a banjo catfish here is undoubtedly called something totally different in Germany, South America, etc. It might even be called something different by the shopkeeper down the road. Take the case of my supposedly breeding band of flag cichlids. When starting out, I read the books, and decided I'd like some flag cichlids. I didn't want to worry about the Latin names, and so set merrily off to the shop and ordered four flag cichlids. The next week I got a phone call. We could only get one, they said. So I collected the 'flag cichlid', which didn't look much like the picture in the book, but they said it was the right fish. Next week two more arrived. They didn't look like the picture in the book either. Nor did they look like the first fish. Needless to say, the fourth arrival was of yet another species. Some ten pounds poorer, I now had a tank full of fish I didn't particularly want, of unknown species, who didn't even get along with each other. After the original one (who was large and aggressive) killed the second two, the remaining fish went back to the shop. I would like to order, I said, four Aequidens curviceps. Bingo! Four fish not only all the same species, but the species I actually wanted! There's a lot of fish which share common names. There's a lot of fish with more than one common name. There's only one species of fish with a given scientific name.
If you know its scientific name, you are a long way towards knowing what it's like and how to keep it. If it starts 'Corydoras' it doesn't matter if the man selling it to you says it's a long-nosed slimy purple-finned tetra. It's still a catfish, and moreover a Corydoras one. This is simple, because most people know what a Corydoras looks like and can't be fooled. But the names often give you clues to what the fish is like and how it behaves. There's more about this later.
So why doesn't everyone use them?
So why don't people use the scientific names? Simply because they think it's difficult. It's not. Before you start trying to use the scientific names, there a few points you can bear in mind to give you more confidence:
1. You will never, ever, ever meet an ancient Roman. There is no possibility whatsoever that someone who's really sure of the pronunciation will stand up and yell 'you've got it wrong'. Anybody else is guessing. There are conventions which mean that most people guess the same way, but no-one really knows whether it's right or not. They have got a good idea, but they can't be sure.
2. Scientific names are phonetic. If you can come to terms with the word 'enough' reading 'enn-uff', then the concept of 'reticulata' reading 'ret-ic-u-la-ta' is pretty simple. You must be able to read, or you wouldn't have got this far.
3. If you met Mr. Axelrod, the achievement of saying 'Hello, Mr. Axelrod' wouldn't send you to bed that night with a deep feeling of satisfaction. So what's so difficult about saying i after the Axelrod bit? Simple, isn't it?
4. You'll be able to impress your friends with very little effort!
So how do you pronounce them?
Just break each word down into the separate syllables, and say each one slowly, then speed it up - just like practicing tongue twisters. The scientific names are phonetic - this means you say them exactly the way they look. No tricks. Here are some simple ones:
Corydoras panda - Cor - ee - door - ass Pan - dah - no problems there.
Brochis splendens - Broke - is Splen - dens - still no problems.
Sometimes you'll come across groups of letters that aren't so obvious.
Poecilia reticulata - our friend the guppy. Poecilia looks like it's going to be difficult, but it's not. Think of Edgar Allan Poe - it's just the same. Po - sill - ee - ah.
Xiphophorus - the swordtail family. If you assume that X is a Z, you'll usually be OK. So, Ziff - o - for -us.
Aequidens - the cichlid family, to which my flags belonged. Ae just says 'Ay'. So - Ay - quid - ens.
Once you've found a scientific syllable, it doesn't change. It's not like English where syllables change at random (consider enough and ought). If it says Ay once, it'll say it wherever else you find it.
What do they mean?
Now you can pronounce them, you probably want to know what they mean. Having a meaning associated with them helps you remember them too - if you know that 'icthys' (ick - the - s) means fish, you know why so many names include this as a part.
Here are some other meanings. Remember, if a set of characters means something, then it always means that.
So, the often mentioned flag cichlid is Aequidens curviceps. This breaks down into:
Aequi - equal
dens - teeth
curvi - curved
ceps - head
The discus is Symphysodon aequifasciata, which also contains the group of letter aequi. So this means:
Symphys - to glue together
odon - tooth
aequi - equal
fasciata - banded
We know from the first example that ceps, or ceph, means head. So anything with those letters in has something worthy of comment about its head. However, because the scientific names are sometimes composed of greek, sometimes latin, and sometimes other stuff, unfortunately cara also means head.
The bristlenose used to be called Xenocara dolichopterus. This means:
Xeno - stranger
cara - head
dolicho - long
pterus - fin
The peppered corydoras, Corydoras paleatus, breaks down as:
Cory - helmet
doras - skin
paleatus - mixed with chaff
So if you'd never seen a cory, you'd be able to guess they had pretty tough skins.
A good one to watch out for is pulcher, as in the krib, Pelvicachromis pulcher. This means:
Pelvica - basin (belly)
chromis - colour
pulcher - beautiful
So if you want something colorful, watch out for fish with pulcher in the name!
Now you know enough to be interested, you'll find lots more of these scattered through articles and reference books, and you will be able to make use of them when you are wondering whether to buy that new fish. Each name has two parts. There is the generic name, which is the first part, and the specific name, which is the second part. The generic name, e.g. Corydoras, refers to a whole group of fish which are closely related and usually have similar habits. More often than not they are capable of interbreeding as well (although you should not encourage them to). This means that if you've already got an Apistogramma (App - iss - tow - gramm- ah) and you know how to keep it, if you get another sort of Apistogramma, it will probably be very happy in the same sort of circumstances.
The second, specific name is unique to the fish. An Apistogramma cacuatoides (Cack-you -ah -toy -dees) is a cockatoo cichlid. (so may some other fish be, but that's the whole point of this). Nobody will ever (unless they are simply wrong) call any other species of fish by this name. If you buy one in a shop and it's not the exact same species as the one you've got at home, you are entitled to your money back. By convention the generic name is written with a capital letter, and the species name without - Corydoras panda.
The man in the shop says it hasn't got a scientific name …There's a lot of fish in the world. Some of them we know about, but there's still lots being discovered (and sadly lots becoming extinct, possibly before we even knew they were there). The people who give fish scientific names take it seriously. If every fish that looked a bit different got a new name instantly, and turned out to be something that already had a name that had had its tail bitten off, the whole system would be pointless. Fish would have lots of different scientific names as well as lots of common names, and then you still wouldn't know what you were buying. When a new fish is found, it is usually given a number. For Loricarids (armoured catfishes) this is an L-number. As more of the species are found, and scientists become convinced that it's not just a damaged or juvenile specimen of a known species, then eventually it will get a new name all to itself. So if you're told it hasn't got a scientific name, either - the man in the shop is still scared of scientific names and has not read this article - or the fish is a recent discovery.
I learnt all the names, but someone's changed them…
Unfortunately, sometimes the scientists find out things about fish which mean that the original names are misleading. At one stage nearly all of the cichlids lived in the Cichlasoma genus, but as the scientists investigated, they found that some were more closely related than others. So the fish had to be broken down into new groups and given new names. Also, sometimes someone has a bit more enthusiasm than they should have, and gives a fish a scientific name when it already has one. The fish may become well known as a 'new' fish under this name, but if it is then found that the fish already has an older name which is still valid (but the original namer wasn't quite as hot on the publicity side) then the fish has to go back to its original name. One name, one fish. That's the rule.
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