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    Scientific Nomenclature… Why Speak Latin?

    Cirrhilaburs marjorie is named after Biologist Marj Awai About, oh a hundred million years ago, aquarists started arguing which method is better to identify the animals they care for: scientific nomenclature or common names.  That’s a little excessive, but it does feel that way.  This battle has seemingly escalated into a war, whenever it is […]

    Cirrhilabrus marjorie

    Cirrhilaburs marjorie is named after Biologist Marj Awai

    About, oh a hundred million years ago, aquarists started arguing which method is better to identify the animals they care for: scientific nomenclature or common names.  That’s a little excessive, but it does feel that way.  This battle has seemingly escalated into a war, whenever it is brought up.  (Think BB v DSB debates, but with Latin…Ooooh!) And unlike most hotly contested debates for reefers, this discussion encompasses nearly every aspect of the life we keep in our aquariums.

    For my own sanity, and that of our readers, I will just try to broach one topic, and just “scratch the surface” if you will.  That topic will be: Why do these organisms bear the intolerably difficult scientific names that they do? We will leave the debates on nicknames, common names, species definition, and which is most appropriate within our realm, for another time.

    Before we begin to ask “why?”, let’s define what it is we are exactly talking about.  Scientific naming, biological classification, systematics, taxonomy, whatever you would like to call it, comes from a common ideal and a common source.

    A scientist by the name of Carl Linnaeus is now cursed by some, and blessed by others.  As the founding father of our current taxonomic system, he utilized a group of terms and ideas set forth by a previous scholar who had also attempted to categorize all the matter in the world.  The previous scholar was a reasonable thinker, of average intelligence.  His name was Aristotle.

    Linnaeus utilized terms such as genus, species, and other principles to set out and offer a classification of living organisms, so that everyone could be on an equal plane in their identification and discussion.  In a nutshell, and as a vast oversimplification, Linnaeus published his opus, the Systema naturae, which over the years has been adapted, evaluated, and reconfigured.  In another simple explanation, life in general can be categorized into several different categories down a tree, until differentiation.

    Different scientists believe in different master systems, but as an overview, life is broken down into Domains (depending on the scientist), Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, and occasionally sub species.  Again, there are numerous variants for this, as science evolves, so it is not uncommon for there to be sub groups, sub orders, sub families, etc, depending on what organism, and what scientist you speak to.

    Bored yet?  Don’t worry, we’re done with the technical aspect.  This is where it gets interesting.  Obviously, a huge number of organisms have been identified over the past 300 years.  However, if you pay attention to the news at all, you can’t help but notice that humans have a knack for finding new organisms all the time–living right under our noses.  While it is not common for new Orders (or above) to be discovered, Families are often subject to reclassification (due to advancement is evaluation, exploration, and medical sciences, such as DNA evaluation);  and new Genus and Species are more “common place”.  So, when a new (or old) scientist finds a new species (however that is defined and determined), what’s in the name?  As you’ll see, anything, and everything.  But rest assured, it isn’t a free-for-all.  There are International Rules for Scientific Nomenclature, which must be followed in naming organisms.

    First, lets discuss the unusual or atypical rationale.  Sometimes fish are just named for “goofy” reasons.  For example, Centropyge narcosis, the Narc angelfish, got its name from Dr. Richard Pyle for the drunken effect that nitrogen has when diving at depth. The divers who collected this fish at extreme depth were extremely narc’d.

    It appears that Dr. Pyle, after returning from the depths of visiting the twilight areas of the reef walls and wearing off the fog of narcosis, he vaguely remembered seeing a yellow fish.  As he cursed himself out for not collecting it, he checked his collection bucket to see he did, in fact, collect it!  No real scientific explanation or purpose, but just a very funny and poignant story.  Not a common rationale for naming, but a legitimate one!

    More common than this, though, is naming new species as an honor;  to a colleague, to a fellow scientist, to a loved one.  This happens very very often in taxonomy.  Just recently, here on Glassbox, we spotlighted exactly such an event.  When Gramma dejongi was recently discovered, it was promptly named after Arie de Jong, of De Jong Marinelife.

    cirrhilabrus marjorie

    Another such species is Cirrhilabrus marjorie. Shown above, this brilliant fairy wrasse was named by Dr. Bruce Carlson, after his wife, and arguably just as fish driven colleague, Marj Awai.  In the coral world, Acropora brueggemanni and Acropora chesterfieldensis are both named after pioneering coral researchers.  And to stay with an angelfish example, the wonderful deepwater Centropyge debelius, named after famed and respected diver, author, and mentor, Helmut Debelius.

    This practice goes WELL beyond any aquatic rationale also.  Investigating into the scientific names of many birds, mammals, plants, bacteria, etc, you will run into very consistent homages.  Joseph Banks, of Capt. James Cooks expeditions has been honored with an enormous number of species bearing his name, of enormous variation.

    A little tip- in taxonomy, species named after people usually have the species name ending in “I” if named after a man, “ae” if named after a woman, “orum” if named after a group of all men, and “arum” if named after a group of all women.  Not always the case, but a useful rule of thumb.

    Which leads me to the most common and prolific rationale for species naming- descriptive purposes.  Most of the names for the scientific taxonomy comes from Latin or Greek origin, but nomenclature has been recorded coming from nearly every cultural advancement.  As such, and as a defined and descript language, there are “rules’ which need to be followed, which often make it very difficult for laymen to understand, follow, or even pronounce.  This has VERY often been the source of confusion and discussion.  For example, in scientific nomenclature, all vowels are pronounced, with the exception of diphthongs, which are two vowels placed together and pronounced as a single vowel.  And consonants have a wide array of pronunciation rules, which are far too complicated and long to list.

    Pronunciation aside, the vast majority of scientific names MEAN something.  And this translation can usually be used descriptively within the species.  Chromis viridis, with “viridis” translating to “green”. Zebrasoma rostratum, with “rostratum” translating to “long snout”.

    Coral names are littered with such terminology.  Acropora formosa, with “formosa” translating to “graceful”.  Zoanthus sociatus, with “sociatus” translating to “fellowed”.  And the list goes on and on.  Obviously, I have only offered a pathetically miniscule list, but, more than likely, if the scientific names is not named after another person, it bears this delineation.

    Note, above, I said “more than likely”.  Yes, there are some confusing ones.  Even for those versed in scientific nomenclature.  The most common one for me is (as if you didn’t know), an angelfish.  The lovely and renowned Flame Angelfish, Centropyge loriculus. So what does the “loriculus” mean?  Well, translated, it means “armored” or “breastplated”.  Huh? Don’t quite get it?  Neither do I.   

    One can see from the few examples that I have provided, that taxonomic names are not the evil dialect they are often painted to be.  Sometimes, they can shed light into nothing more than a pertinent, yet comic occurrence. Sometimes as meaningful as an eternal tribute. Or, arguably most importantly for the hobbyist, they can be a purposeful and elucidating description of the organism itself.

    As a parting note, I will leave you with a description of one of my favorite butterflyfish, in addition to my favorite scientific name.  For this butterfly, a big part of its charm to me has to do withy its scientific name.  The “Mexican Barberfish” is a temperate water butterflyfish, which gets its common name from its cleaning behavior towards larger marinelife. This fish is the only species within its genera, by default making it unique.  However, it’s the unique name of the genera that gives the species its charm.

    This fish reside in a genus named after one of, if not, the greatest ichthyologists ever, Dr. John Randall.  Its scientific name, you ask?  Johnrandallia nigrirostris!

    As for my favorite scientific name, it is a crustacean amphipod. Most of us are familiar with this type of animal, but few will call this one by its scientific name- Zienkowiczikytodermogammarus zienkowiczi.


    [H/T to Kevin Kohen for providing these photos]


    1. Macko
      July 29, 2010 at 1:55 PM | Permalink

      Sorry to say, but Zienkowiczikytodermogammarus zienkowiczi isn't scientific name any more – it was cancelled by International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature some time ago 😉

    2. RR37
      July 29, 2010 at 3:45 PM | Permalink

      I was going to say it was invalidated by the ICZN… Rats.

    3. pickle
      July 29, 2010 at 4:23 PM | Permalink

      I don't mind and in fact appreciate binomial nomenclature. What I do find annoying is when these names are used in non-scientific reference or hobbyist materials without a phonetic spelling next to them. I know there are some general rules (“Ch” at the beginning is pronounced as a “K”), but I have been keeping reef tanks for 6 years but still have no idea how to correctly pronounce “Centropyge.”

    4. Mwandell
      July 29, 2010 at 8:33 PM | Permalink

      @pickle, every time I've heard that explained is that there isn't a “correct” pronunciation for Latin because it's not a spoken language anymore. I say “Sen-trow-pie-jee”, but that's just me.

      The one rule that I've heard of is that species named after a person should be pronounced exactly as you would normally say the proper name with the “i” or “ae” at the end pronounced separately. So, Centropyge boylei should be pronounced “Boyle-aye”, NOT “Boy-lee-aye”, which I sometimes hear…

    5. Mysterybox
      July 29, 2010 at 8:50 PM | Permalink


      actually, Latin is spoken all the time, lol.

    6. July 29, 2010 at 10:36 PM | Permalink

      @Pickle, go with what you believe is correct and say it with confidence. This is a hobby about sharing information. If someone makes an effort to use scientific names, that's great.

      @ Matt, I use the same pronunciation as well, but often hear Sen-tro-peej 🙂

      Here are some more musings on the subject. [Disclosure: I often slept during Latin class].

    7. jmaneyapanda
      July 30, 2010 at 11:46 PM | Permalink

      I use the same. Remember, all vowels are pronounced!

    8. jmaneyapanda
      July 30, 2010 at 6:46 PM | Permalink

      I use the same. Remember, all vowels are pronounced!

    9. NotaMDorDVM
      March 1, 2013 at 3:13 PM | Permalink

      In medicine, there are BOTH Latin and Greek names referring to the same organ or disease, for example: “Nephro” and Renal”.(ie. Kidneys)  My question is what rule guides when to use which word?  (I have heard of a Nephrologist but not a “Renalologist”?) 

    10. May 9, 2015 at 7:58 AM | Permalink

      Quite an interesting read. Thanks a lot for this article to its author!

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