Name of the week


Black Darter Tetra, Poecilocharax weitzmani.

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,

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.