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Deciphering Scientific Names

Tarpon, Megalops atlanticus - Photo: Capt. Billy Barton

Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) – Photo: Capt. Billy Barton

So when was the last time you bragged to your friends about catching a big Megalops atlanticus or a nice Centropomus undecimalis?

Umm, yeah … probably never! Most of us don’t speak scientific geek and aren’t impressed when others do. But for geeky scientists there’s good reason to use those scientific or Latin names.

Worldwide, there are around 28,000 named fish species. Some species have multiple common names, often differing by geographic region. For example, the black crappie. No, wait, it’s a speckled perch — unless, of course, it’s a sac au lait. These are all the same fish — Pomoxis nigromaculatus.

Even more complicating, some common names are used to describe more than one fish species; think kingfish. Depending where you are, this name might be applied to the fish we usually call king mackerel, whiting, cobia, wahoo, giant trevally, jack crevalle, opah and Pacific yellowtail. Scientific names might be tongue twisters, but they do eliminate confusion, which is exactly why scientists rely them. No matter where they are in the world, when they say Mycteroperca microlepis, it means the same thing (most of us would call it a gag grouper).

Scientific names come in two (or three) parts. The first part is the genus name. This name usually refers to several different closely related fish. For example, Lutjanus is the genus name shared by most snappers: Mangrove, red, cubera, mutton, lane, etc. The second part is the species name. Lutjanus griseus is the mangrove snapper. Sometimes there may be a third part, which would be a subspecies name. This part usually identifies a geographic variant that is distinct but not distinct enough to be a different species.

Scientific names are generally either Latin or Greek in origin. Most are long and hard to say, so my advice for those who ask how to pronounce them is to say them really fast and act like you know what you’re talking about.

Don’t take a breath; just keep on talking.

Enough about the importance of scientific names. What I really want to talk about is the meaning of those names. Some species are named after the person who discovered them or conducted a lot of research on them. A prime example is Karenia brevis, or Florida red tide. It was named after Karen Steidinger, a research biologist who devoted much of her career studying this little-loved organism. But most species get their names based on physical characteristics that relate to their form or function.

Let’s go back to the fish from my opening line: Megalops atlanticus is the Latin name for tarpon. Megalops has Greek origins and means big-eyed, and atlanticus refers to it being from the Atlantic Ocean. If we based common names on Latin names, perhaps we’d call tarpon “Atlantic bigeye” instead. My other example, Centropomous undecimalis, is the common snook. The meaning of this name is a bit trickier. Centro comes from the Greek word kentron, meaning a point or spine. Poma refers to a cover, in this case the gill plate or operculum. Und means a wave, and cimal stems from the Greek word simil, which means like or to emulate. Wavelike spinygill?

How about a few more? The redfish’s name, Sciaenops ocellatus, means perch-like with an eye-spot. Makes sense. And then there’s southern flounder, Paralichthyes lethostigma, which means beside or parallel fish with forgotten spots. I think that one is pretty cool.

Another one I personally like is Spanish mackerel, Scomberomorus maculatus. Scomber is Latin for mackerel, moros means silly or stupid, and maculatus means spotted. King mackerel, Scomberomorus cavalla, share the same genus name as the Spanish mackerel, but its species name originates from the Latin word caballa which means horse.

Ok, are you ready to figure out for yourself how scientific names relate to the fish they describe? Here you go: Match the fish name on the right to its word bank meaning on the left (from Project Oceanography).

Fish Name Meaning
(a)    Flag cichlid – Aequidens curviceps (1)    Half, mark, red, banded
(b)    Pearl cichlid – Geophagus braziliensis (2)    Black, band, glittering, belonging to a river
(c)     Crimson-spotted rainbowfish – Melanotaenia splendida fluviatilis (3)    Equal, teeth, curved, head
(d)    Glowlight tetra – Hemigrammus erythrozonus (4)    Earth, to eat, from Brazil

Answers – a (3), b (4), c (2), d (1)



Borror, DJ. 1960. Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms: Combined from Greek, Latin and other languages, with special emphasis on biological terms and scientific names. 1st Ed. Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View, California.

Florida Museum of Natural History. 2015.

Jaeger, EC. 1966. A Source-book of Biological Names and Terms. 3rd Ed. Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Springfield, Illinois.

Project Oceanography 1999.