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Science as Leisure

Liz Marchio

I am a trained ichthyologist interested in what gets people interested in natural history, biological sciences, and science careers. My passion is to find out what fuels curiosity for the natural world.

Biology-related serious leisure activities can impact people's interest in ecology, biology, and natural history. Do these activities promote biological understanding? If so, how does that progress and to what level does it progress to? 

If you're interested in a starting a dialogue, please feel free to contact me. If you're curious about how I got here, my story can be found on the About Me page.


Understanding Scientific Names of Fish

Have you ever felt lost or confused when trying to understand the scientific names of fish?

Maybe this post will help...

Why Scientific Names?

As an aquarium hobbyist progresses they begin to understand the uselessness of common names. A fish's common name is a colloquial name. This means that the name changes depending on who you're talking to. For example, a recent post on the Louisville Tropical Fish Fancier's Facebook page exemplifies the issue with common names:


As you can see the usage of  "Puntius barb" is a common name for several species of fish. This particular common name is also the genus of the specific fish in question. This genus-as-common-name situation is not always the case; however, you get the idea.

So from this example it's evident that if this person asked for the exact fish species they were looking for, there would be less confusion and clearer communication. This exact fish species name is called the "scientific name" and it is the name people all over the world use for that one species. 

The scientific name is always two words, a Genus and a species. [I will write "Genus" with a capital "G" because the Genus name is always capitalized. The species name is always lower-case.] The use of this two word naming system is binomial nomenclature. Of course binomial nomenclature is a scientific term so it, like scientific names, is pretty much in another language (Latin or Greek). Now, yes, this sounds terrible, but it's kind of fun and easy once you understand the basics of these prefixes, suffixes, and roots. If you see a scientific word, just remember you can break it down! 

Binomial nomenclature:

"bi" = two

"nomial" = name

"nomenclature" = name calling

So there, I've broken down the scientific words into their roots. You can see that binomial nomenclature translates into: "two-name name-calling". Or, using two names (Genus and species) to name something! BOOM! 


Let's try it again with a fish species:

Geophagus winemilleri

"geo" = earth 

"phagus" = eater

"winemilleri" = 'i' at the end indicates it was named after someone with the name Winemiller

So, Geophagus winemilleri means "earth eater named after Winemiller". If you're into cichlids, maybe you know geophagus species are often called "eartheaters" because they take in mouthfulls of substrate (earth) and eat small organisms in it (eater)! And if you know even more about geophagus, you know that Dr. Kirk Winemiller had this fish named after him as a tribute to his work in ichthyology. 

Try this fish species on your own:

Scatophagus multifasciatus

FYI: The man who came up with binomial nomenclature was Carl Linnaeus: 

You can tell by his wig that this guy is long since gone. However, binomial nomenclature is so awesome and useful we still use it today!

You can tell by his wig that this guy is long since gone. However, binomial nomenclature is so awesome and useful we still use it today!

So, what do you think? Feel any better about scientific names?

Still concerned on how to divide the words?

For example, how did I know to divide geophagus into "geo" and "phagus" rather than "geoph" and "agus"?

Well, the bad news is that, to my knowledge, there is no way to teach you that without teaching you Latin and or Greek; but, trial and error with the use of an etymology dictionary will get you there without classical training (dictionary links below).

The good news is you can figure a lot of this out on your own! Scientific terms are all over the English language and you are sure to know more than you think. Once you practice and remember some of the words and meanings, you'll even be able to go backwards. For example, you will be able to read the name of an animal and, if the taxonomist (person who gives an organism its name) named it descriptively, you can get a visual or some other understanding of the organism.

Let's try one:

Zebrasoma flavescens

"Zebra" = striped African horse

"soma" = body

"flav" = yellow

"-escens" = tending to be

So, this fish is striped like a zebra on the body, but tends to be yellow. Hmmm... 




Striped body (when captured or stressed)... 

Striped body (when captured or stressed)... 

... but tends to be yellow! 

... but tends to be yellow! 

BOOM! We've solved the mystery! Zebrasoma flavescens is a Yellow Tang! 

And after this short post you now know some root words:

"geo" = earth

"phagus" = eater

"flav" = yellow

"-escens" = tends to be

'i' at the end may indicate the organism was named after the person with the name before the 'i'

"soma" = body

"bi" = 2

"nomial" = name

"nomenclature" = calling of names


Congrats! You're well on your way to better understanding the scientific names of fish (and other organisms)! It's kind of fun, right? You can even use your knowledge to call people names without them even catching onto your wit! I used to call my brother a "Phallicophagus".


-not all taxonomists (people who name the species) name organisms with a descriptive name as they did with the yellow tang. Some taxonomists ignore the descriptive route of binomial nomenclature and instead seek to immortalize a person (President Obama, Etheostoma obama), a band ( Led Zeppelin, Lepidocephalichthys zeppelini), or their own work by outlandishly naming organisms for media coverage and PR. 

-not all scientific names are obvious and easy to understand


- Online Etymology dictionary

-'s description of a yellow tang. This website also gives information on the scientific name so you don't have to use the dictionary

-Borror's dictionary of root words and combining


* learning roots of words, Latin, and Greek can help on standardized tests!*

It's not just for fish nerds. 



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