Name of the week

NAMES OF THE WEEK from 2013
NAMES OF THE WEEK from 2014
NAMES OF THE WEEK from 2015
NAMES OF THE WEEK from 2016

Acanthonus armatus. Courtesy: Royal BC Museum in Victoria.

21 June 2017
How the “Assfish” got its name

The internet is amused by the name of Bony-eared Assfish. Formally named Acanthonus armatus Günther 1878, this cusk-eel (Ophidiidae) occurs in tropical and subtropical seas worldwide. It has a big, bulbous head and flabby skin, which combine to make it a slow swimmer, presumably an energy-saving adaptation in the food-scarce habitat of the deep sea. It’s an ugly fish, to be sure, bestowed with an equally ugly common name. But of all the things it could be called, why “assfish”?

The answer lies in the generic name, coined by Günther when he described the species in 1878. The first part of name, acanthus, means spine and refers to the strong spines on the fish’s head and opercles. The second part of the name, onus, has two meanings: a hake or hake-like fish, and ass — not the gluteal ass, but the equine ass, as in horse or donkey. (The specific name “armatus” means armed, i.e., armed with strong spines.) Following a rather convoluted etymological path over the centuries, the two meanings are intertwined.

Onus” is a latinization of the Greek “onos,” a name dating to Aristotle for a fish that hid in the substrate and used appendages inside its mouth to lure prey. Thanks to a recent and superb paper detailing Aristotle’s contributions to ichthyology and fish-name etymology, we can be fairly certain that the fish in question was the Mediterranean hake, Phycis blennoides (Gadidae).

In Greek, “onos,” also means ass or donkey. We have no idea why Aristotle applied that word to the hake. British naturalist Francis Day attempted an explanation in his 1882 book The Fishes of Great Britain and Ireland. The name, he suggested, referred either to the hake’s donkey-like color or to the fact that in ancient Greece hakes and other cod-like fishes were “carried to market on the backs of asses.” We find neither explanation convincing.

Whatever the explanation, the connection between “onos” and “hake” (or cod-like fish) stuck. In the 16th-century, Belon applied the name “gaiderapsaro” to a rockling, later named Gaidropsarus by Rafinesque 1810. (Gáidaros is the modern Greek equivalent of onos.) In 1827, Risso proposed the genus Onos, not realizing that Gaidropsarus was a senior synonym. Classical scholars misinterpreted Aristotle’s text and applied his “onos” to a different fish, the European hake, Merluccius merluccius (Merlucciidae).

Günther adopted “onos” as his go-to suffix for a hake-like fish. He used it several times: Melanonus, Lyconus, Macruronus, Aphyonus, Typhlonus and, of course, Acanthonus. Others followed suit: Barathronus and Bathyonus Goode & Bean 1885; Grammonus Gill 1896; Holcomycteronus, Pseudonus and Sciadonus Garman 1899. (It should be noted that 19th-century ichthyologists considered hakes and cods [Gadiformes] and cusk-eels and brotulas [Ophidiiformes] to be related.)

Whoever coined the common name “Bony-eared Assfish” simply translated Acanthonus, referring to the bony spine on the opercle and “onus,” meaning donkey or ass — apparently unaware that Günther (and others) used “onus” to mean hake.


Brosmodorsalis persicinus from: Paulin, C. D. and C. D. Roberts. 1989. A new genus and species of bythitid fish (Teleostei: Ophidiiformes) from New Zealand. Journal of Natural History v. 23 (no. 2): 355-361.

14 June 2017
Our 20,000th name: Brosmodorsalis persicinus Paulin & Roberts 1989

This past Sunday, we recorded the 20,000th fish-name etymology, and it’s a “real peach” (American idiom for someone or something excellent).

Brosmodorsalis persicinus is a viviparous brotula that occurs in fairly shallow water (up to 17 m) off the northeast coast of the north island of New Zealand. Its specific name means “peach-like” (persica is Latin for peach) and refers to its pinkish or peach-like coloration in life. (Its common name is Pink Brotula.)

B. persicinus is the only species in its genus. The generic name — also proposed by Paulin & Roberts — is a two-part construction. The first part, Brosmo-, refers to its then-placement in the subfamily Brosmophycinae (now considered polyphyletic). The second part, dorsalis, referring to two dorsal-fin characters: origin well anterior to posterior margin of operculum, and anterior rays free of membrane

The 20,000 name total includes work on several orders not yet up on our website. These include Ophidiiformes (cusk-eels, almost done), Batrachoidiformes (toadfishes), Kurtiformes (a fairly new order, combining nursery fishes with cardinal fishes), and Gobiiformes (a mega-order, with ~2500 names to research).

With an estimated 35,000 valid species- and 5,000 valid genus-level names, 20,000 means we’re halfway done!

Our continued thanks to Ron Fricke, Erwin Schraml, Thomas O. Litz, Larry Page, Artem Prokofiev, Jan Jeffrey Hoover, Peter Unmack, Laura Wilson, and many others. Without your help and generosity, we’d probably still be at name 5,000


Holotype of Sillago panhwari, from: Panhwar, S. K., N. Farooq, N. Qamar, W. Shaikh and M. Mairaj 2017. A new Sillago species (family Sillaginidae) with description of six sillaginids from the northern Arabian Sea. Marine Biodiversity: [1-7]. [Published online.]

7 June 2017
Sillago panhwari Panhwar, Farooq, Qamar, Shaikh & Mairaj 2017

It’s considered poor etiquette to name a plant or animal after oneself, but that appears to be the case for this recently described sillago (Sillaginidae) from the northern Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan.

Sher Khan Panhwar (Center of Excellence in Marine Biology, University of Karachi) is the senior author of the paper in which the description appears. According to the awkwardly worded etymology section, “The species name panhwari was named by the Sher Khan Panhwar, who pioneered work on Pakistani sillaginid fishes.”

On 19 May 2017, we sent Dr. Panhwar an email asking if he named the fish after himself, or if one of his four co-authors suggested the honor. We have yet to receive a reply.

The etymology of Sillago is unclear. Cuvier did not explain the name when he proposed the genus in 1816, nor when he redescribed the genus in the third volume of Histoire naturelle des poisons in 1829. Wikipedia offers competing explanations for the name, both sourced to FishBase: a locality in Australia, possibly Sillago Reef off the coast of Queensland, and a derivation of the Greek term syllego, meaning “to meet.” We doubt the first explanation since Cuvier described Sillago acuta (now a junior synonym of S. sihama) from the Indian Ocean, whereas Sillago Reef is near Queensland on the Pacific side of Australia. (Maybe the reef was named after the fish?) As for the second explanation, we find nothing in Cuvier’s texts to support the notion that Sillago means “to meet.”

Here’s a third explanation. According to A Universal Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1848) — usually a reliable source — Sillago is derived from sillot, satire (and hence sharp), referring to its fins, and the Greek ago, meaning “I bear.” Is this explanation accurate? Partially, maybe. Cuvier did not mention sharp or thorny fins in his brief 1816 description, but he did mention that the opercula are each armed with a small spine (“leurs opercules armés d’une petite épine”). What’s more, he named his species acuta, which means sharp.

Our guess is that the Dictionary explanation is closer to the truth than the ones put forth by Wikipedia and FishBase.


31 May 2017
Paracheirodon axelrodi (Schultz 1956)

The recent death (15 May) of tropical-fish tycoon and pet-book publisher Herbert R. Axelrod brings to mind one of the most contentious battles in fish nomenclature — the naming of the Cardinal Tetra. The story has been told many times before, usually as an illustration of Axelrod’s larger-than-life ego and win-at-all-costs approach to business, life and even science. It’s a story worth telling again.

 The Cardinal Tetra is the first of 18 or so fish species named after Axelrod. In most of these cases, he was given the honor because he funded the expeditions that collected the types, or otherwise donated money that made field work and/or publication possible. Early in his career, Axelrod sent specimens of unknown aquarium fishes to Leonard P. Schultz at the Smithsonian Institution. “Schultz offered to name a fish [after me] earlier,” Axelrod told master aquarist Rosario LaCorte, “but I will select the fish that I want when I see it.” That fish would be the strikingly beautiful Cardinal Tetra, which had just entered the aquarium hobby and which everyone knew would quickly become one of the most desired aquarium fishes ever.

Some of the first — if not the first — Cardinal Tetras to enter America came through Paramount Aquarium in Miami, Florida, co-owned by Ferdinand (Fred) Cochu. He sent specimens of this more brightly colored “Neon Tetra” to Alan Fletcher, editor of The Aquarium magazine, which was published by the legendary William T. Innes. Fletcher (or Innes) preserved a few specimens and sent them to ichthyologist George S. Myers at Stanford University.

Months went by and Fletcher heard nothing back from Myers. Word eventually got around that Axelrod received some Cardinal Tetras from The Fish Bowl, a tropical-fish store near his home in New Jersey. (Axelrod later claimed he discovered the Cardinal Tetra while searching for discus in the Rio Negro.) Now with a fish beautiful enough to bear his name, Axelrod jumped on a plane to Washington, D.C., and hand-delivered the specimens to Schultz. “This is the fish I want named after me,” he reportedly said.

Word got back to Cochu and Fletcher that Axelrod and Schultz were planning their own description. Fletcher called Myers and asked how the description was coming along. Myers apparently had forgotten about it, but agreed to work on it immediately. In truth, he probably passed the assignment to his graduate student, a young Stanley Weitzman.

Myers and Weitzman named the fish Hyphessobrycon cardinalis and published their description in the Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin v. 7 (no. 1): 1-4. The official publication date was 21 Feb. 1956. They selected the adjective cardinalis because of the brilliant red color on the sides, presumably reminiscent of the Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis, or the deep scarlet color of a Catholic cardinal’s cassock. This is the origin of the common name, Cardinal Tetra.

At the same time Myers and Weitzman completed their description, Schultz completed his, or at least a preliminary version of it. Schultz sent his description in the form of a personal letter to Axelrod, dated 15 Feb. 1956, which Axelrod reprinted in the March-April 1956 issue of his magazine Tropical Fish Hobbyist. Schultz called it Cheirodon axelrodi, the “Scarlet Characin,” naming it after Axelrod for sending specimens to Schultz for study and to the Smithsonian for their “permanent preservation.” The issue was dated 20 Feb. 1956, one day before the Myers & Weitzman description had appeared. Curiously, it was the only issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist that was dated to the day, not just the month and year. (Rumor has it that Axelrod personally rushed to the Post Office with a hand-folded copy of the issue to validate the date.)

In May 1956, Leslie W. Ashdown, editor of the British magazine Water Life, petitioned the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) to investigate the publications and rule which name had priority. “This fish is likely to become widely used by aquarists,” Ashdown wrote, “and it is important therefore that the scientific name to be used for it should be determined without delay.” Ashdown’s petition carefully avoided mentioning what many had suspected — that Axelrod  backdated his publication.

The ICZN got on the case right away. Schultz testified via letter that Axelrod had mailed a “printed tear sheet” from the magazine on 18 Feb. 1956, which Schultz received two days later, 20 Feb. In addition, Axelrod had also sent Schultz a photocopied receipt from the U.S. Post Office indicating that the issued first mailed the same day (20 Feb.). Axelrod, also via letter, confirmed the dates, adding that some copies of the issue were distributed to local New Jersey pet shops on 17 Feb. and/or 18 Feb.

Axelrod provided more details in the next issue of his magazine. In fact, he more or less admitted that he rushed Schultz’ description into print. He first received the manuscript via special delivery on 16 Feb., had it typeset within three hours, and rushed it back to Schultz for proofreading. He received Schultz’ comments the next day. Since the issue was already on the press, corrections were made directly on the plate.

In her written testimony, Margaret H. Storey, Associate Editor of the Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin, confirmed that the description of Hyphessobrycon cardinalis was printed and first distributed on 21 Feb. 1956.

The ICZN ruled by a vote of 19-5 in favor of Schultz’ name. (One of the ICZN members who voted in favor of Schultz was none other than the legendary evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr.) We do not know the reasons behind the five votes in favor of Myers & Weitzman. We do know, however, that one of the issues the ICZN considered was that H. cardinalis was clearly published as a voluntary act of publication by its authors in a journal normally serving as a vehicle of taxonomic publication, whereas C. axelrodi — based on a personal letter — was involuntarily published in a lay journal at the discretion and for the personal benefit of its publisher.

Some members of the voting panel reportedly later told Innes or Myers that the commission suspected that something shady had gone on, but that they couldn’t prove it. Based on the evidence at hand, Cheirodon axelrodi beat Hyphessobrycon cardinalis by one day.

According to Alan Fletcher, Fred Cochu “had gone to his grave resenting that ‘his’ fish was named for someone who had nothing to do with its discovery or introduction.” Many aquarists and ichthyologists to this day believe Axelrod got away with fudging the dates, a suspicion buttressed by his penchant for lies, tall tales, womanizing and future legal troubles (including 18 months in federal prison for tax fraud). Our hunch is that Axelrod did not backdate his publication (why would the reputable Schultz allow that?), but that he knew he was in a race and did everything he could to rush Schultz’ letter into print. If Myers had not delayed his description, or if Axelrod had gotten to the post office after it had closed, it’s very possible that the Cardinal Tetra would today have the name cardinalis.


23 May 2017
Happy birthday, Linnaeus!

We’re posting this week’s “Name of the Week” a day early to commemorate the 310th birthday of Carl von Linné (aka Carolus Linnaeus), the father of taxonomy. Depending on which calendar is used, Linnaeus was born on 13 May (Swedish), 12 May (Julian), or 23 May (Gregorian), in 1707.

Although a dozen or so animals (mostly insects) have been named after Linnaeus, he is not honored in the binomial of any currently valid fish taxon, although a few scientists have tried:

In 1845, Charles Lucien Bonaparte proposed Carassius linnaei as a new name for the Crucian Carp, Cyprinus carassius Linnaeus 1758. Bonaparte did not indicate why he changed the name, but it looks like he sought to avoid “Strickland tautonymy.” Three years earlier, British ornithologist Hugh Edwin Strickland was tasked with codifying the rules of zoological nomenclature (a precursor to today’s ICZN). One such rule was to prohibit names in which the same word is used for both the genus and the species, known as tautonyms. To replace “Carassius carassius” when Cyprinus carassius was placed in Carassius, yet still wanting to honor the species’ original author, Bonaparte coined Carassius linnaei as a sort of compromise. Strickland’s rule against tautonyms has since been revoked, making C. linnaei an unneeded replacement name.

Strickland tautonymy was the reason for 24 name changes proposed by Swedish zoologist August Wilhelm Malm in 1877. Malm produced a catalog of Swedish fishes wherein he replaced every tautonymous name that dated to Linnaeus 1758 with a name that honored Linnaeus. The eel Anguilla anguilla became Anguilla linnei, the tench Tinca tinca became Tinca linnei, the burbot Lota lota become Lota linnei, and so on. These well-intentioned names have long been exiled to synonymy.

Tetragonopterus linnaei Valenciennes 1850 is the only fish taxon named after Linnaeus that is still technically available. Linnaeus had briefly described a similar fish when he cataloged the King of Sweden’s natural history cabinet in 1754. He named it Albula maculata. Four years later, Linnaeus dropped the name from the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (the official starting point of zoological nomenclature), presumably because he now believed it was the same species as his Salmo bimaculatus. When Valenciennes described his specimen in 1850, he noted how much it resembled the illustration of Albula maculata published by Linnaeus in 1754, so he named it in honor of the man who had initially described it.

Tetragonopterus linnaei is now considered a junior synonym of Astyanax bimaculatus (Linnaeus 1758). Should a review of this wide-ranging characin (it occurs in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela) reveal hidden morphological and/or genetic diversity, it’s possible that Tetragonopterus linnaei could be resurrected (as “Astyanax linnaei”), which would make it the only valid fish species named after the father of naming species.


From: Lucinda, P. H. F. and J. C. Garavello. 2001. Two new species of Cnesterodon Garman, 1895 (Cyprinodontiformes: Poeciliidae) from the upper rio Paraná drainage. Comunicações do Museu de Ciências e Tecnologia da PUCRS, Sér. Zoologia. v. 13 (no. 2) [Dec.]: 119-138. [The Dec. 2000 issue of this publication did not appear until 10 Jan. 2001.]

17 May 2017
Three “centurial” names

Zoological nomenclature’s official starting point is the 10th edition of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae (1758). The first fish (or fish-like vertebrate) described in that work is the Sea Lamprey, Petromyzon marinus (see NOTW 1 Jan. 2014 for comments on the name). This got us to wondering: If P. marinus is the first fish described in the 18th century, what are the first fish species to be described in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries? Given that a century begins with year 1 (e.g., 2001, not 2000), and limiting ourselves to species that are considered valid today, here are the first new fish species of the three centuries since Linnaeus (based on available bibliographic data):

Salaria fluviatilis (Asso y del Rio 1801)    The early days of taxonomy were ruled by Europeans, so it should be no surprise that the first fish species of the 19th century occurs in Europe and was described by a Spaniard. Ignacio Jordán Claudio de Asso y del Río (1742-1814) was a diplomat, lawyer and historian who dabbled in natural history. In 1801, he published a paper, “Introduccion á la ichthyologia oriental de España,” in which he described Blennius (now Salaria) fluviatilis, a freshwater blenny. “Fluviatilis” means “of a river.” Blennies are usually marine fishes, but many species, like this one, also occur in fresh and brackish waters. Asso y del Río described his blenny from the Ebro River in Zaragoza, Spain. (Actually, Asso y del Río first wrote about this blenny in 1784, but did not provide a name.)

Haplochromis vittatus (Boulenger 1901)    As Europeans colonized Africa, Asia and the New World, they sent troves of natural history specimens back to Europe. This kept George Albert Boulenger (1858-1937) of the British Museum quite busy, as he described over 2,000 new animal species, mostly fishes, reptiles and amphibians. The first fish species of the 20th century is a cichlid from Lake Kivu in eastern Africa, Paratiliapia (now Haplochromis) vittatus. “Vittatus” means banded and refers to two blackish stripes along each side of the cichlid’s body.

Cnesterodon omorgmatos Lucinda & Garavello 2001    By the 21st century, systematic ichthyology had become a true international endeavor no longer dominated by Europeans (or even Americans), with ichthyologists from all over the world documenting their native fish faunas. In 2001, two Brazilian ichthyologists — Paulo Henrique Franco Lucinda and Júlio C. Garavello — described this livebearer (poeciliid) from Paraná, Brazil. Its specific name is the Greek omorgmatos, meaning spotted, and refers to blotches of dark pigmentation along its body flanks.


Paul Bartsch, with an underwater camera he invented, in 1926.

10 May 2017
Luciobrotula bartschi Smith & Radcliffe 1913

 When Smith & Radcliffe named this Indo-Pacific brotula (Ophidiidae: Neobythitinae) after Paul Bartsch (1871-1960) in 1913, Bartsch was known as a talented malacologist. He was part of the expedition that collected the type of this species, for which he was honored by the patronym. Five years later, during World War I, Bartsch became known for something else entirely — protecting American soldiers by arming them with slugs. Not metal projectile slugs. Garden slugs. The slimy kind.

Born in Poland, Bartsch emigrated to America as a child with his parents in 1880. He loved nature, especially birds, and joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1896 to work in the Division of Mollusks even though he initially knew little about them. In 1914, he became curator of the museum’s combined divisions of Mollusks and Marine Invertebrates. One day, while at home, Bartsch saw that some garden slugs (Limax maximus) had made their way into his furnace room, where they appeared sensitive to furnace fumes. Always curious, Bartsch conducted some experiments and concluded that slugs were “visibly distressed” when exposed to relatively low concentrations of gas.

Meanwhile, the Great War (later known as World War I) escalated in Europe. The chemical warfare unit of the U.S. Army had been searching for a creature to detect the presence of oncoming gas in time for the soldiers to don their masks. Cows, rats, mice, guinea pigs and cats all proved useless in this regard. Flies and fleas were tried to no avail. The Army turned to the Smithsonian for help.

Bartsch recalled his slug studies and conducted another round of experiments. Humans could detect mustard gas in the air at a concentration of one per 4,000,000 parts of air—usually when it was too late. Bartsch’s slugs, however, would visibly show discomfort at one per 10,000,000 particles of air. Bartsch sent his findings to the U.S. Army. He had their “canary in the coal mine.”

In June 1918, during the final five months of the war, Allied and American forces took slugs with them into battle. Unlike dogs, pigeons and other animals, they required little maintenance and no veterinary care. A shoebox with a wet sponge was all they needed. When the slugs detected the gas, they compressed their bodies and closed their breathing pores in order to protect their lung membrane. When the soldiers in the trenches noticed this, they had time to put on their gas masks before the mustard concentrations became fatal.

War Horse — book, play and movie — tells the story of a heroic horse during WW1. But in terms of total lives saved, Bartsch’s slugs were the true animal heroes of the “war to end all wars.”


Amblyeleotris sungami. From: Klausewitz, W. 1969. Fische aus dem Roten Meer. XI. Cryptocentrus sungami n. sp. (Pisces, Gobiidae). Senckenbergiana Biologica v. 50 (nos 1-2): 41-46.

3 May 2017
A sampling of “arbitrary” names

Last week, we examined the etymology of the beryciform genus Sio, which its author described as an “arbitrary” name. This week, we take closer look at nomenclatural arbitrariness, illustrated with several examples of names that may — or may not — have meaning or significance.

What exactly is an “arbitrary” name? An arbitrary name is one in which the author coins a word or creates a word-like combination of letters that is not a latinization of an existing word (in any language), geographic location, or name of person. According to the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (Article 11.3), “…a name may be a word in or derived from Latin, Greek or any other language (even one with no alphabet), or be formed from such a word. It may be an arbitrary combination of letters providing this is formed to be used as a word.”

In this sense, “arbitrary” does not mean “random,” as if the author were randomly selecting letters from a hat. In fact, the ICZN forbids such names. According to the Code, “The arbitrary combination of letters cbafdg cannot be used as a word and does not form a name.” Instead, “arbitrary” means that the name is based on the personal whim of the author.

Among fishes, acronyms (such as Sio) are the source for several arbitrary names. For example, there’s the rainbowfish Melanotaenia angfa, named for the Australia New Guinea Fishes Association, and the snake-eel Apterichtus ansp, named for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. In these examples, the acronyms can be spoken as words. But what happens if the acronym for the institution you wish to honor forms an pronounceable series of letters? In 1973, British ichthyologist N.B. Marshall named a new genus of grenadier or rattail after the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom (MBAUK), whose research vessel Sarsia dredged the type species. But “mbauk” or “mbaotuk” are extremely difficult to pronounce. Marshall solved the problem by playfully rearranging the acronym to form “Kumba.”

In 1969, German ichthyologist Wolfgang Klausewitz named a Red Sea goby Cryptocentrus (now Amblyeleotris) sungami. At first glance, it looks like a Japanese or Indo-Asian name, but it’s not. Klausewitz named the goby in honor of ethologist D. B. E. Magnus, who collected the type. For some reason, he decided to spell “Magnus” backwards — Sungam. Considering that Klausewitz had already named two other Red Sea fishes after Magnus — the blenny Lophalticus kirkii magnusi (now Alticus magnusi) in 1964 and the goby Biat (now Cryptocentroides) magnusi in 1968 — maybe he wanted to mix things up.

In the above examples, the arbitrary names all have a meaning (which the authors helpfully explained for us). Some arbitrary names have no meaning at all — and the authors seem proud of it.

In 1856, Charles Girard named several North American cyprinid genera — including Agosia, Algansea, Codoma, Dionda and Nocomis — after words from North American Indians, simply because they were “more euphonic than any one [he] may have framed from the Greek.” In other words, he liked the sound of them!

In 1940, George S. Myers proposed a replacement name for the neotropical characiform genus Entomolepis Eigenmann 1918, which was preoccupied by Entomolepis Bradley 1899 in Crustacea. Myers came up with Bario. It’s a “coined name without significance,” he unwhimsically said, even though the name was created on a whim.


Sio nordenskjoldi. From: Moss, S. A. Melamphaidae II. A new melamphaid genus, Sio, with a redescription of Sio nordenskjöldii (Lönnberg). Dana Report No. 56: 1-10.

26 April 2017
Sio nordenskjoldii

This beryciform fish occurs in southern oceans at depths of from 200 to 3,000 meters (660 to 9,840 feet). Its generic name is “arbitrary” and presumably doesn’t have a meaning (although we may have found one). The specific name honors an explorer who survived two years stuck in the Antarctic but died crossing the street near his home.

Swedish zoologist Einer Lönnberg (1865-1942) described the species as Melamphaes nordenskjoldii in 1905. He named the fish in honor of his friend, Finnish-Swedish geologist Otto Nordenskjöld (1869-1928), who led the expedition that collected the type. In fact, it was this expedition for which Nordenskjöld became famous after he and his team were abandoned on a small Antarctic island for two years after the ship carrying food and supplies got stuck in the ice. They survived in makeshift structures and by eating the occasional seal, fish caught through holes in the ice, and lots and lots of penguins.

Nordenskjöld later explored Greenland, Chile and Peru. Despite the inherent dangers of these voyages, it was an urban accident that claimed his life. In 1928, in Gothenburg, Sweden, where he lived and taught at the university, the great explorer was struck and killed by a bus.

In 1962, Sanford A. Moss (now Emeritus Professor, Southeastern Massachusetts University), proposed a new genus for Melamphaes nordenskjoldii. He named it Sio, “an arbitrary combination of letters,” he wrote, “neuter in gender.” We found it odd — and even a bit rude — that Moss proposed an ostensibly meaningless name for the genus. As we scoured his monograph for a clue, we found one. Five of the specimens Moss examined were from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. The institutional abbreviation of Scripps is “SIO.”


Gulf Chub, Macrhybopsis tomellerii. © Joseph R. Tomelleri.

19 April 2017
Macrhybopsis tomellerii Gilbert & Mayden 2017

Anyone who studies the freshwater fishes of North America knows and loves the scientific illustrations of Joseph R. Tomelleri. He gained fame in the late 80s and early 90s among fly-fishing anglers for his colorful and technically accurate illustrations of trout and salmonids, featured on calendars, postcards and fly-fishing publications. He added game fishes to his portfolio, and then made it his life’s mission to illustrate every North American fish species. His work has introduced countless naturalists and aquarists to the colorful diversity of fishes — especially darters (Percidae) and shiners (Cyprinidae) — that live in U.S., Mexican and Canadian waters.

Ichthyologists have sought out Joe as well. His illustrations have been featured in numerous new-species descriptions and an entire bookshelf of “Fishes of …” books and field guides. It’s through this work that I got to know Joe (electronically, at least) and benefit from his generosity. From 1996-2016, I was editor of American Currents, the quarterly publication of the North American Native Fishes Association. Whenever I needed a last-minute illustration for an article, I’d send Joe an email, asking him to share a .jpeg or .tif of a particular species. Sure enough, Joe always came through, usually within 24 hours — a wonderful thing for an editor working under a tight deadline.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to know that the artist who has illustrated nearly every North American fish species now has one named after him. Last month, Carter R. Gilbert and Richard L. Mayden described four new species of Blacktail Chub (Macrhybopsis) from North America, including the Gulf Chub, M. tomellerii, which occurs in the Pearl and Pascagoula river drainages of Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana. In honoring Joe, the authors noted how Joe’s “unsurpassed and meticulously rendered color illustrations of North American freshwater fishes have graced the pages of numerous scientific publications (including the present one), as well as books such as Fishes of the Central United States (Tomelleri & Eberle 1990) and Fishes of Alabama (Boschung & Mayden 2004).”

When I emailed Joe asking for a .jpeg or .tif of his eponymous minnow (shown here), he sent it within the hour!

Joe recently finished drawings for the upcoming book Fishes of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea. He spent 11 years on the project! And he hopes to have a “reasonable facsimile” of every freshwater species in the U.S. within the next 10 years — if the taxonomic “splitters would slow down.” (Splitting — The ETYFish Project feels your pain, Joe.)

Here’s a 5-minute video showing Joe at work illustrating a Mexican Golden Trout:

And here’s the link to his website, where you can peruse his portfolio, watch other videos (don’t miss “Truchas Mexicanas”), and buy a Tomelleri print or original for your very own.


12 April 2017
Happy National Ex-Spouse Day!

This Friday is another of those silly, made-up American holidays that celebrates things no one really celebrates. Which is why we’re celebrating by showcasing a fish whose name fits the occasion.

In 2000, Bernard J. Zahuranec published a monograph, “Zoogeography and Systematics of the Lanternfishes of the Genus Nannobrachium (Myctophidae: Lampanyctini).” In it he described seven new species of lanternfish, including Nannobrachium phyllisae from the Peru-Chile Current area of the southeastern Pacific Ocean.

“I have the pleasure of naming this species,” Zahuranec wrote, “in honor of my former wife Phyllis E. Fabian, as a token of recognition for her many years of support, which culminated in this study.”

Many fish species have been named after spouses. But this is the only fish we know of (so far) that was named after an ex-spouse.


Type species of the genus, Myripristis jacobus Cuvier 1829 (photo by J. T. Williams, courtesy Wikipedia Commons). The etymology of its specific name is also worth noting. It’s a latinization of James, referring to its local name Frère-Jacques (Brother Jim) in Martinique (type locality).

5 April 2017
Myripristis Cuvier 1829

Regular “Name of the Week” readers will know that we sometimes criticize FishBase for reporting incorrect fish-name etymologies. The trouble with these “pseudo” etymologies is that FishBase is an established and otherwise reputable resource whose information is duplicated and aggregated by other online resources. That means an incorrect piece of information can take on a level of “truthiness” when it’s republished throughout the online world and shows up on multiple sites during a routine Google search. The etymology of the soldierfish genus Myripristis is another case in point.

According to FishBase, the etymology of the name is “Greek, myros, -ou = male of moray eel + Greek, pristis = saw.” The pristis half of the explanation is correct. The myros half, however, is not. Even someone unfamiliar with fishes can see there is nothing eel-like about a soldierfish.

Regular “Name of the Week” readers will also know that we constantly stress the importance of checking the original description for information about the name before hypothesizing about what the name might mean. This is something the etymology editors at FishBase obviously did not do, for if they had, they would have read the very clear words of Cuvier (here translated from the French):

“We give this genus the name of Myripristis, which means ten-thousand saws, because of all the pieces that cover the cheek and operculum, and all the scales with their serrated edges, for that is what strikes one most as the primary character of these singular fishes.”

A quick check of Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words — a beat-up copy of which is always on my desk — confirms that myrios means “ten thousand.” The Greek word can also mean “numberless,” serving as the root of the modern-day “myriad.”


29 March 2017
Bythaelurus bachi Weigmann, Ebert, Clerkin, Stehmann & Naylor 2016

This Friday, 31 March, is the 332nd birthday of the German composer and organist Johann Sebastian Bach. Late last year, a team of shark taxonomists honored Bach in the name of a new species of deep-water catshark (Carcharhiniformes, Scyliorhinidae) from the southwestern Indian Ocean.

Is there some aspect of the shark that reminded the authors of the Bach’s musical style? Does the arrangement of papillae on the tongue and roof of mouth follow a baroque style? Do its dermal denticles mirror Bach’s four-part harmonic language? Are the shark’s larger claspers somewhat reminiscent of Bach’s powdered wig?

None of the above. According to the official etymology, “The new species is named in honor of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), a musical genius and one of the greatest composers of all time.”

We contacted senior author Simon Weigmann for confirmation. Is there something Bach-like about this shark that we’re overlooking, or, perhaps, something that wasn’t included in the paper? Weigmann replied. He named this shark after Bach simply because he admires Bach’s “outstanding and superior” body of work.

Happy birthday, Johann. Enjoy your shark!


Sorosichthys ananassa. From: Whitley, G. P. 1945. New sharks and fishes from Western Australia. Part 2. Australian Zoologist v. 11 (pt 1): 1-42, Pl. 1.

22 March 2017
Sorosichthys ananassa Whitley 1945

When Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P. Whitley (1903-1975) proposed this a new genus and species of roughy (Trachichthyidae) in 1945, he did not explain the meaning of its name. But he provided an etymological clue in suggesting a vernacular, or common, name to accompany its Latin binomen. To this day, this small inhabitant of the eastern Indian Ocean off southern and western Australia is called the Little Pineapple Fish, referring to the prickly spines on its scales, similar in texture to that of a pineapple.

We googled “pineapple” to learn its scientific name — Ananas comosus. The generic name Ananas comes from the Tupí (indigenous language of Brazil) word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit.” By adding the suffix –assa, Whitely made it a diminutive, turning “pineapple” into “little pineapple,” a direct transliteration of its common name.

Figuring out “Sorosichthys” took a few minutes longer. “Ichthys,” of course, means fish. But what does “soros” mean? Several keystrokes later we came across “sorosis,” a botanical term for any multiple fleshy fruit derived from the ovaries of multiple flowers. The most famous sorosid fruit is, you guessed it, the pineapple.

Little Pineapple Fish — it’s all right there in the scientific name.


Corydoras spectabilis. From: Knaack, J. 1999. Eine weitere neue Art der Gattung Corydoras Lacépède, 1803 aus dem Mato Grosso (Pisces, Siluriformes, Callichthyidae). VDA—aktuell 1/2000: 74-79.

15 March 2017
Corydoras spectabilis Knaack 1999

This catfish occurs in the Guaporé River basin of Brazil and Bolivia. Many hobbyist references state that the specific name refers to the fish’s “showy” or spectacular appearance. While the fish may be handsome, that is not what German physician, aquarist and amateur ichthyologist Joachim Knaack (1933-2012) had in mind when he selected the name.

Knaack said that “spectabilis” refers to the “spectacular discovery, capture and other circumstances” (translation) surrounding this species. Unfortunately for us, Knaack did not explain what these “spectacular” circumstances were. So, with the help of our good friend Erwin Schraml, we contacted Corydoras aquarist Erik Schiller, who knew Knaack and discussed this species with him. According to Schiller, the name refers to the Knaack’s surprise and delight in finding several specimens one year when in an earlier year he had found only one. With only one speciemen, Knaack suspected the fish was a hybrid between C. haraldschultzi and either C. caudimaculatus or C. guapore. With many more specimens, he realized he had a new species.

In this case, “spectacular” may be an incorrect interpretation of “spectabilis.” It should be noted that the Latin adjective can also mean “notable” and “remarkable,” which the circumstances involved in the discovery of this species certainly were.


Milyeringa veritas. From: Whitley, G. P. 1945. New sharks and fishes from Western Australia. Part 2. Australian Zoologist v. 11 (pt 1): 1-42, Pl. 1.

8 March 2017
Truth, justice and blind cave gudgeons

It’s one of the most interesting and creative name pairings in ichthyology. Two blind cave gudgeons from Australia, One named for “truth,” the other for “justice.” Here’s the etymological story.

Milyeringa veritas is an eyeless gudgeon discovered at the bottom of a freshwater well (bored into coral and limestone) in Western Australia in 1944. British-born Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P. Whitley (1903-1975) named both the genus and species a year later. The meaning of the generic name is quite clear, referring to the location (Milyering, Yardia) where the cave and its gudgeon occurs. The specific name, veritas, means “truth,” but Whitley did not explain how the name applied to the gudgeon until at least 1951, when he penned a popular article for The Australian Museum Magazine. Like “Truth,” Whitley said, the gudgeon was “found at the bottom of the well,” alluding to a quote attributed to the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus (460 BC – c. 370 BC): “Truth lies at the bottom of a well, the depth of which, alas! gives but little hope of release.” (Another version: “Of truth we know nothing, for truth lies at the bottom of a well.”)

In 2013, a team of researchers — Helen K. Larson, Ralph Foster, William F. Humphreys and Mark I. Stevens — described another species of blind Milyeringa from Barrow Island, Western Australia. “As truth and justice are supposed to go together,” the authors wrote, “we name this species justitia, from the Latin for justice, in the hope that justice helps the species to survive on Barrow Island, which has been an oilfield since 1967 and is most recently the site of the Gorgon Gas Hub development.”


Neosilurus hyrtlii. From: Steindachner, F. 1867. Über einige Fische aus dem Fitzroy-Flusse bei Rockhampton in Ost-Australien. Sitzungsberichte der Mathematisch-Naturwissenschaftlichen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften v. 55 (1. Abth.): 9-16, Pl. 1.

1 March 2017
Neosilurus Steindachner 1867 and Neosilurus Castelnau 1878

The name is bland and undescriptive. The fact that it was seemingly coined twice for the exact same species is quite amazing.

Austrian ichthyologist Franz Steindachner (1834-1919) proposed the name Neosilurus for a genus of eeltail catfishes native to Australia and New Guinea. It translates as neo-, new, and silurus, from the Greek silouros, a word of uncertain origin historically applied to a catfish. Steindachner did not explain why he proposed this name. Maybe Steindachner believed the type species, N. hyrtlii, superficially resembled the Wels Catfish, Silurus glanis, of Europe. Or maybe the name simply (and unimaginatively) means “new catfish.”

Eleven years later, French naturalist François de Laporte de Castelnau (1810-1880) published a paper called “Australian fishes. New or little known species.” In it he provided descriptive accounts of the genus Neosilurus and a species named Neosilurus australis. Castelnau did not mention that Steindachner had already proposed the genus.

A year after Castelnau’s death, naturalist William Macleay concluded that Castelnau, seemingly oblivious of Steindachner’s description from 1867, had described Neosilurus as a new genus. This made Neosilurus Castelnau a junior primary homonym of Neosilurus Steindachner. Since no two animal taxa can have the same name, Macleay proposed a replacement: Cainosilurus. Today, Cainosilurus is considered a synonym of Neosilurus Steindachner and N. australis a synonym of N. hyrtlii.

There are two possibilities here. Accepted wisdom is that Castelnau independently coined the same generic name for the same species of catfish that Steindachner had studied and published on 11 years earlier. Possibility #2 is that Castelnau was aware of Steindachner’s Neosilurus and was adding a new species (N. australis) to the genus. Let’s examine both possibilities.

It’s not hard to imagine that Steindachner’s Austrian paper never reached Castelnau in Australia. But it seems an improbable coincidence that Castelnau devised the same name. (This is nothing like Darwin and Wallace, who, confronted with the same overwhelming evidence, independently theorized about evolution.) Coining a name is a personal, subjective exercise. Names often reveal more about the describer than the taxon being described. Yet, seemingly, there was Castelnau, examining his catfish. “Behold, a new Silurus,” he might have said (in French). “And that is what I — and all of science — shall call you for eternity. Neosilurus!”

In support of this possibility is the fact that Castelnau many times used the neo– prefix in coining generic names. Neoarius. Neoatherina. Neoblennius. Neocarassius. Neoceratodus. Neochaetodon. Neocirrhites. Neogunellus. Neolethrinus. Neomesoprion. Neomordacia. Neomyripristis. Neoniphon. Neoodax. Neoplatycephalus. Neoplotosus. Neorhombus. Neoscopelus. Neosillago. Neosphyraena. Neosudis. Neotephraeops. Neotrygon. So why not Neosilurus? Adding neo– to an existing generic name is a quick and easy way to delineate its resemblance and/or relationship to an existing group of fishes.

Evidence against the “new” possibility is that Castelnau proposed three other genera in this paper. For all three names he explicitly or implicitly indicated that they were new. However, there is no indication of newness in his account of Neosilurus. Based on this internal (and admittedly inconclusive) evidence, one could conclude that Castelnau’s Neosilurus was not a genus novum.

Here’s another wrinkle: In 1875, Castelnau described an Australian catfish he called Silurichthys australis. According to the Catalog of Fishes and other references, this is a separate species from his Neosilurus australis of 1878. (Today, both are treated as junior synonyms of N. hyrtlii.) However, we’re not convinced that Castelenau intended them as different taxa. In 1878, Castelnau said that Neosilurus “comes near” to Silurichthys, so it is reasonable to conclude that he simply moved his S. australis of 1875 into a different genus — Neosilurus — in 1878. The type specimens of both putative taxa (both from Queensland) are now lost, so there’s no way of knowing for sure. A side-by-side reading of the two accounts is inconclusive; some characters match, others do not.

Our guess is that Neosilurus australis was Castelnau’s new name for Silurichthys australis. The jury is still out on whether Castelnau coined Neosilurus as new, but based on his frequent use of the neo– prefix, we are leaning that way. We will likely never know for sure. As catfish taxonomist Isaäc J. H. Isbrücker told us upon reviewing an early draft of this account, “It’s hard to reliably read the minds of dead authors.”


Black Darter Tetra, Poecilocharax weitzmani. www.tropical-fish-keeping.com

22 February 2017
Stanley H. Weitzman (1927-2017)

A giant in ichthyology and a true gentleman, Stanley H. Weitzman, passed away last week, just one month shy of his 90th birthday.

Weitzman’s interest in fishes began with a goldfish some time in third grade. His interest intensified at the home of a classmate, whose father maintained several aquaria in his garage. At this time he met his future wife and frequent collaborator, Marilyn. (Trained in botany, she typed his papers, learning to become an accomplished ichthyologist herself.)

During World War II Stan joined the Navy, spending a year at sea. While passing through the Panama Canal, he sat on the foredeck and watched small fishes jumping out of the water. They were freshwater hatchetfish, Gasteropelecus maculatus, which later became the subject of his Master’s thesis. Weitzman would eventually make the study of neotropical characiforms the mainstay of his career (although it should be noted he was an authority on deep-sea stomiiform fishes as well).

Weitzman was also an accomplished aquarist, breeding many of the small characiform fishes he was studying. In fact, he was equally at home hanging out with members of his local aquarium club (the Potomac Valley Aquarium Society) as he was with fellow ichthyologists. In 2002, I had the pleasure of co-judging the PVAS fish show with Dr. Weitzman and was impressed by the time and care he took in judging all the entries.

For a 2007 Copeia article, Dr. Weitzman was asked to assess what he believed were his greatest scientific accomplishments:

  • His doctoral dissertation on the osteology of Brycon meeki, which became a standard reference on the osteology of fishes in general.
  • Co-authoring “Phyletic Studies of Teleostean Fishes, with a Provisional Classification of Living Forms” (1966), a seminal work in fish systematics.
  • His 1974 revision of stomiiform fishes, the first large, anatomically organized cladistic paper on fishes.
  • A 1983 paper (authored with William L. Fink) that completely changed the phylogeny and classification of neon tetras.
  • A 1985 cladistic study (authored with Sara Fink) on glandulocaudine (now stevardiine) tetras that paved the way for numerous succeeding (and revolutionary) papers on characiform phylogeny.

All told, Dr. Weitzman has more than 300 scholarly and aquarium papers and articles to his credit. He has described or co-described 15 new genera and 90+ new species. Expect his name to be attached to several new taxa that are currently being described.

(Speaking of new species, Weitzman [and his mentor George S. Myers] were the first to describe the Cardinal Tetra in 1956. They called it Hyphessobrycon cardinalis. However, publisher Herbert R. Axelrod rushed a concurrent description by Leonard P. Schultz into print, beating out Myers’ and Weitzman’s paper by one (!) day. That’s why the Cardinal Tetra is now called Paracheirodon axelrodi instead of P. cardinalis.)

Seven fishes have been named after Dr. Weitzman: two tetras, two crenuchids, an anablepid livebearer, a Corydoras catfish, and a marine sternopterychid called a pearlside. Shown here is the first of these seven fishes, the crenuchid Poecilocharax weitzmani of Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, described by Jacques Géry in 1965.


Giuris margaritacea. Photo by Keith Martin. From: Fishes of Sahul, Journal of the Australia New Guinea Fishes Association 34 (4), Dec. 2016.

15 February 2017
Giuris margaritacea (Valenciennes 1837)

The Snakehead Gudgeon occurs in a variety of habitats — rivers, swamps, coastal streams and floodplains over mud bottoms — from Madagascar to New Guinea, Australia and islands of Melanesia. With such a wide distribution, it is possible that what we call the Snakehead Gudgeon may consist of multiple species.

We do not know what Giuris means. Palaeontologist-ichthyologist Henri Émile Sauvage (1842–1917) proposed the name as a subgenus of Eleotris in 1880, but he did not indicate why he chose that particular epithet. Physician-naturalist Francis Hamilton-Buchanan (1762–1829) used the same name (Gobius giuris, now Glossogobius giuris) for a goby from the Ganges River of India in 1822, but also did not explain his reason for the selection. Hamilton-Buchanan often used local Indian names for the Latin names of the fishes he described, but he did not indicate whether “giuris” had a local provenance. One might guess that Sauvage imagined a kinship between his Eleotris subgenus and the Indian goby (at that time, both eleotrids and gobiids were both considered “gobies”), but that is purely speculation.

In contrast, the meaning of “margaritacea” is quite obvious. It means “pearly” and refers to what Valenciennes perceived as pearl-like white spots on the sides. “The color is brown,” he wrote, “with white spots and pearls on the sides, forming three distinct little rows” (translated from the French).


Queenfish, Seriphus politus, caught off the Oceanside Pier, Oceanside, California, May 2006. Length: 15.0 cm (5.9 inches). © John Snow, www.mexican-fish.com

8 February 2017
Seriphus Ayres 1860

We’re pretty sure that ichthyologist-physician William O. Ayres (1817-1887) did not intentionally coin an enigmatic fish name to frustrate future researchers, but that’s precisely what he’s doing to us.

In 1860, Ayres proposed the name Seriphus for a genus of croakers (family Sciaenidae) commonly called “Queenfish” along the Pacific Coast of California. He named the type species (and only species of the genus) politus, meaning polished, possibly referring to its silvery sides and belly. Ayres described the species from three specimens acquired at a San Francisco fish market, so he probably never saw the fish in life and probably did not know it was a “croaker,” so named for the noises members of the family can make by vibrating muscles against their swim bladder. It was just a dead fish that needed a name. So Ayres gave it one. But he did not explain why Seriphus was his choice.

The dean of American ichthyology, David Starr Jordan — no slouch when it came to fish-name etymologies — was puzzled by the name as well. In The Fishes of North and Middle America, Jordan (and his co-author Evermann) listed three possible explanations for the name:

  1. an island in the Grecian Archipelago
  2. a small winged insect
  3. a kind of wormwood

Then he added: “the allusion in any case not evident.”

We took a closer look at all three explanations to see if there was a clue, a connection, or an obscure piece of information that could connect the allusion to the fish in question. SPOILER ALERT: Despite hours of research and several intriguing but ultimately dead-end leads, Seriphus remains a mystery.

Seriphus, it is true, is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. (Seriphus is the Latin spelling; Serifos is the Greek.) In Greek mythology, Serifos is where Danaë, the only child of King Acrisius of Argos, and her infant son Perseus, washed ashore after her father, believing that his own grandson would kill him, set them adrift at sea in a wooden chest. When Perseus later returned to Serifos as an adult, he turned Polydektes, the king of the island, and his retainers into stone as punishment for the king’s attempt to marry his mother by force.

None of this seems to apply to a fish found in a San Francisco fish market. But we were intrigued by another fact about the island: according to Pliny, its frogs could not croak. The expression “Seriphian frog” was used as a popular proverb in ancient times to denote a person who refused to talk. Did Ayres associate the island’s non-croaking frogs with his dead (non-croaking) croaker? Even if Ayres knew about his fish’s croaking ability, that would be one very long stretch of an etymology.

Regarding possible explanation #2, a “small winged insect,” nothing pans out. There’s “serphos,” an ancient Greek word for a small winged insect, possibly a gnat. And there’s Syrphus Fabricius 1775, a genus of hoverflies. (Entomological literature also records the name as “Sterphos” and “Seriphos.”) And one Greek proverb alludes to “Syrphus” possessing a sting. We do not see any connection between a croaker and a fly that hovers over flowers. (In addition, we found a reference to “Seriphos,” the so-called sea cicada,” reportedly a kind of lobster.)

Which brings us to #3, a kind of wormwood. This one, we believe, has the highest probability of reflecting the meaning of the name, but the evidence is thin and circumstantial. The name Seriphus is very close to Seriphium, a genus of asters, whose generic name dates to Linnaeus (1753); the type species S. cinereum, sometimes called the Sea Wormwood, is native to the Cape of Good Hope. Note that the specific name “cinereum” means ash-colored. Was Ayres making a connection between the color of the plant and the silvery color of his croaker?

We doubt that Ayres looked at his dead croaker and thought, “Hey, that reminds me of a plant from Africa!” But it’s possible that the fish reminded him of a species or genus of aster whose native range is much closer to the fish’s type locality in San Francisco Bay. Artemisia is a genus woody plants grown chiefly for their silver or grey and often aromatic foliage. Ayres may have been familiar with the Silver Sagebrush, also known as the Silver Wormwood, Artemisia cana, a low, multi-branched perennial of the western United States. Other possibilities are the Great Basin Sagebrush (A. tridentata) and California Sagebrush (A. californica). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but these plant species had once been placed in an Old World genus whose name should look familiar: Seriphidium Besser (ex Hook) 1828. Is this where Ayres got Seriphus?

Here’s another seeming coincidence: Ayres noted that his Seriphus croaker is “very closely allied” to Johnius Bloch 1793, a genus of croakers from the other side of the Pacific. Like Seriphus and its putative botanical cognates Seriphium and Seriphidium, Johnius (the fish) has a corresponding namesake in the plant kingdom as well — Johnia Roxburgh 1820, a genus of small trees from India. Both Johnius and Johnia were likely named after Christoph Samuel John (1747–1813), a German missionary in the Danish colony of Tranquebar (now called Tharangambadi) in India, who collected natural history specimens for Bloch and Roxburgh. Did Ayres give his fish a plant-like name because it’s related to a fish that also has a plant-like name? Probably not, but these are the kinds of things we consider when investigating enigmatic names.

Whatever the explanation, it seems that “Seriphus” was a last-minute replacement. Check any original hard copy of the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences (Series 1, v. 2, 1858-1862) and you’ll see that the name “Seriphus politus” has been hand-glued over another name (see photo) — “Corvina polita.” (Corvina is the Mexican name for croakers.) We don’t know why Ayres made the change. Our guess is that he realized that the name had already been proposed by Cuvier for a croaker in 1829, and/or that it’s preoccupied in birds (Corvina Hahn 1822). Any notes or labels that might have accompanied Ayres’ type specimen and could have provided any etymological clues were all lost or destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. On the meaning of Seriphus, Ayres is a Seriphian frog.

For now, we’re placing Seriphus in our “cold-case file” and will return to it every now and again. If you have any information, any theories, any clues, please email the ETYFish tip line at chris (at) etyfish (dot) org. Thank you.


1February 2017
Eviota Jenkins 1903

Late last year, David W. Greenfield and Richard Winterbottom published “A key to the dwarfgoby species (Teleostei: Gobiidae: Eviota) described between 1871 and 2016” in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, vol. 24, pages 35–90. It’s an open access publication with dozens of color photos of these diminutive but dazzling fishes. One passage from the introduction made us do a double take:

“The genus was described by Jenkins (1903), based on Eviota epiphanes from Hawai‘i. No etymology was given, but Eviota is a surname, or first name, particularly in the Philippines.”

While it is true that Jenkins did not explain the etymology, and while we do not contest that Eviota may be a surname in the Philippines, we can say with 100% confidence that Jenkins did not name the genus after a Filipino. In fact, we were able to figure out the etymology of Eviota without even consulting a dictionary.

The first part of the name, ev-, is a latinization (for euphony) of the Greek prefix eu-, meaning “good” or “well.” It’s often used as an intensifier, i.e., “very.” The second part of the name is from iota, the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet and often figuratively used to describe anything small or insignificant. Several small fishes include “iota” in their name: the catfish Hisonotus iota; the squirrelfish Sargocentron iota; the poeciliid Scolichthys iota; the eleotrid Thalasseleotris iota; and the characid genus Iotabrycon.

It should come as no surprise that dwarfgobies, being very small, have a name that means “very small.” In fact, when Jenkins proposed the genus in 1903, he believed that the type species, Eviota epiphanes, measuring just 1.0-1.9 cm in length, was the “smallest vertebrate that has up to this time been described.”


Glyptothorax pictus, paratype, 76.1 mm SL; Borneo: Katingan River drainage. Photo by Heok Hee Ng.

25 January 2017
Glyptothorax famelicus Ng & Kottelat 2016 and Glyptothorax pictus Ng & Kottelat 2016

Last November, Heok Hee Ng and Maurice Kottelat published a monograph, “The Glyptothorax of Sundaland: a revisionary study (Teleostei: Sisoridae)” in the journal Zootaxa 4188 (1): 001–092. In it they described six new species of sisorid catfishes. Unfortunately, the etymology section for two of these new species was overlooked and not included in the final publication. We contacted the senior author and, for the record, provide the missing etymologies here:

Glyptothorax famelicus: The specific epithet is the Latin adjective meaning “suffering from hunger”, in allusion to the very slender body and caudal peduncle of this species.

Glyptothorax pictus: The specific eithet is the conjugated form of the Latin verb “pingo” meaning “to paint”, referring to its distinctive color pattern among Sundaic congeners except for G. decussatus, featuring prominent dark vertical bars at level of adipose-fin base and base of caudal fin.


Eigenmannia correntes. From: Campos-da-Paz, R., and I. R. Queiroz. 2017. A new species of Eigenmannia Jordan and Evermann (Gymnotiformes: Sternopygidae) from the upper rio Paraguai basin. Zootaxa 4216 (1): 73-84.

18 January 2017
Eigenmannia correntes Campos-da-Paz & Queiroz 2017

Today we belatedly celebrate the New Year with the first new fish species of 2017 — Eigenmannia correntes, a glass knifefish (Gymnotiformes) from Brazil.

The new species is described from tributaries of rio Correntes — hence its specific name — a major affluent of the rio Piquiri system, upper rio Paraguai basin (Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, Brazil).

The generic name Eigenmannia dates to Jordan & Evermann 1896 and Carl H. Eigenmann (1863-1927), for his “excellent work” on the freshwater fishes of South America. (It’s actually a replacement name for Cryptops Eigenmann 1894, preoccupied by Cryptops Leach 1814 in Myriopoda, Cryptops Schoenherr 1823 and Cryptops Solier 1851 in Coleoptera.)

An average of 380 new fish species have been described each year between 1997 and 2015. Last year was slightly above average. According to our friends at Welt der Fische / World of Fishes, 422 new species (or subspecies) were described in 2016, plus 42 new genus-level names, and three replacement names.

The top 5 families were:

  1. Gobiidae (gobies) … 50 new species
  2. Cyprinids (carps & minnows) … 47 new species
  3. Loricariidae (armored suckermouth catfishes) … 28 new species
  4. Cepolidae (bandfishes) … 21 new species
  5. Characidae (tetras, etc.) … 21 new species

With the ever-increasing use of DNA in species analysis, new exploration into unexplored aquatic habitats, the acceptance of less-restrictive species concepts, and the proliferation of online taxonomic journals (some legitimate, some predatory, all needing to be filled with papers), we expect these numbers to continue — if not climb — in 2017.

Let’s hope that all of the names are properly explained, and that many of worth writing about.

Happy New Year!


Elassoma boehlkei. © Fred C. Rohde.

11 January 2017
Elassoma boehlkei Rohde & Arndt 1987

Today, 11 January, we commemorate the 87th birthday of American ichthyologist James E. Böhlke (1930-1982). Born in Buffalo, Minnesota, a farming community 64 km northwest of Minneapolis, he began keeping tropical fishes in aquaria as a teenager and was immediately fascinated by them. His high-school science teacher told him about the large collection of fishes at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. In his junior year of high school, Jim decided to become an ichthyologist, and to one day work at the Academy.

Jim began a correspondence with Henry Weed Fowler, the Academy’s long-time curator of fishes. In exchange for information from Fowler, Jim agreed to collect and send him fishes from Minnesota. The first fish he sent — the Northern Pearl Dace, Margariscus nachtriebi — delighted Fowler for it was new to the Academy’s collection. More fishes followed.

Jim researched his college options and decided there was only one school he could attend: Stanford University, studying under famed ichthyologist George S. Myers. Jim wrote to Myers, requesting information in exchange for Minnesota fishes. Myers took him under his wing and helped him gain admittance to Stanford.

Jim’s undergraduate work was unremarkable. (He had to take Western Civilization four times!) But he excelled, even as an undergraduate, in Myers’ graduate ichthyology lab. (To save money, he slept on a cot in the museum’s basement and showered in the school’s gymnasium.) He published his first paper during his junior year in college in 1949. By the time he earned his Ph.D. in 1954, he had established three major pursuits that would dominate the rest of his career: eels, South American characiforms, and the curation and collection of fishes.

1n July 1954, Jim was about to join the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when he received an unexpected phone call from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia: Would he be interested in moving east and joining a three-year project collecting and studying the fishes of Nassau? Since working at the Academy had been his dream since a teenager, he of course said yes.

Upon arriving at the Academy, he discovered that the fish collection was disorganized and largely inaccessible. Fowler, nearing his 60th year at the Academy, was now too old — and perhaps no longer interested — in properly curating the immense collection of fishes he had amassed. Jim was the right man for the job, a job that took over 20 years to complete. Even his children helped, counting fishes, typing catalog cards and putting labels in jars. Fowler worked in a nice corner office on the fourth floor. Jim toiled in the basement.

Failing health caused Fowler to leave the Academy in 1962. (He died three years later.) Jim took over as Chairman of the department, making the Academy’s fish collection one of the finest in the world. During that time he published over 120 papers on diverse groups of fishes and topics (characins, gobies, blennies, catfishes, eels, cusk eels, stargazers) and one classic book: The Fishes of the Bahamas (1968).

Over 20 new fish taxa have been named after Jim. We could have selected any of them to feature here. But we selected the name proposed by our good friend Fritz Rohde and his good friend Rudy Arndt for the Carolina Pygmy Sunfish, Elassoma boehlkei (Elassomatidae), known only from the Waccamaw and Santee River drainages of North and South Carolina (USA). Rohde and Arndt honored Jim for his “many contributions to ichthyology and his long-standing interest in the genus Elassoma.”

Jim described the Okefenokee Pygmy Sunfish, E. okefenokee, in 1956. In 1960, Jim led the family on a month-long search for new Elassoma species. According to Jim’s wife Eugenia (1928-2001), an accomplished ichthyologist herself:

“This was the first family project to include all five Böhlkes; [we] traveled throughout 14 southern states in a Volkswagen microbus, stopping at innumerable small creeks, underpasses, and roadside ditches where all hopped out to dip-net small freshwater fishes. The children, then three, five, and seven years old, proved to be nimble collectors, small fingers most efficient at gently picking fishes only a few millimeters out of the net.”

In 1980, Jim was spending nearly every waking hour studying fishes and writing manuscripts. But his life took a sad and tragic turn.

“Alas, his health and well-being deteriorated,” Eugenia wrote, “as alcohol, long consumed in celebration of his life and career … now overpowered him and made his life unmanageable. He finally overcame years of denial and acknowledged his problem in January of 1982 and, with the help and encouragement of family, friends, and colleagues, he started recovery.”

Two days before leaving on a long-postponed trip to Hawaii to study eels, Jim learned that the Academy no longer desired his services. Confident that he would be reinstated upon his return, Jim went on the trip anyway. But the Academy administrators upheld their decision.

“Jim could not envision any life,” Eugenia continued, “other than continuing that which he had lived the previous 28 years. Thus he ended his life early on the morning of 25 March 1982 — a gunshot wound to the head while sitting in his cherished home laboratory — a great tragedy and loss to family, friends, and colleagues.”


4 January 2017
Rhynchobatus compagnoi Last & Kyne 2016”

Turn to page 69 of the new and impressive book Rays of the World and you will see a full page devoted to this species of wedgefish (Rhinopristiformes, Rhinidae) from Signapore and Indonesia. But something is very, very wrong with the entry. “Rhynchobatis compagnoi Last & Kyne 2016” is not the fish’s name. Its true name is Rhynchobatus cooki Last, Kyne & Compagno 2016.

Last year, many new ray taxa were described in the journal Zootaxa in preparation for the December publication of the book. This species was one of them. Our guess is that “Rcompagnoi” was a manuscript name — clearly in honor of Leonard J. V. Compagno, a legendary figure in chondrichthyan taxonomy — that was changed for the Zootaxa description but unfortunately not changed for the book. (Notice that Compagno has been added as a co-author of the name.) However, the correct name (“cooki”) is listed in a table on p. 757. (But the incorrect name is listed in the index.)

As for the correct R. cooki name, in was proposed by Compagno to honor the late Sidney F. Cook (1953-1997), a “pioneer in shark conservation who participated in surveys of chondrichthyan fishes in South-East Asia at the time specimens were collected.”

The catshark Cephaloscyllium cooki Last, Séret & White 2008 is also named after Cook. According to the authors, Cook’s “energy, dedication and contribution to shark conservation is sadly missed.”

Rhynchobatus compagnoi Last & Kyne 2016” is considered an “unavailable” name for nomenclatural purposes.