The naming conventions for fish and invertebrates in the aquarium hobby is widely varied and therefore commonly leads to misidentification. Picture the first fish that comes to mind, then think about all the synonyms you’ve heard or seen for that species. Think about how the last time you went to a fish store and two different species looked awfully similar, or two completely different looking individuals had the same label.
This confusion in properly identifying and naming aquarium species is rampant for several reasons. The first is the multitude of naming conventions and the ample room for error inherent in each one. The second is visually mistaking one species for another. The third is the willful misnaming of species for branding purposes.
When a species is first “discovered”, or introduced to the rest of the world, it is described by the discovering biologist. This can happen in the field when collecting species in the wild. It can just as commonly it happens in the lab. A collection of what was thought of as one species, in fact, contains multiple species and were misidentified initially.
Take the case of the rose-veiled fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa for example. For decades it was identified as the red velvet fairy wrasse (Cirrhilabrus rubrisquamis). When different species are living close together with very similar behavior and visuals, it takes a fine tooth comb to differentiate multiple species.
So from one initially misidentified collection, or wild population, multiple new species can be described. The opposite is also true. There are two types of biologists, lumpers, and splitters. Lumpers tend to reduce the total number of species by arguing two different species are similar enough to be the same, or at least subspecies. Splitters tend to increase the total number of species by arguing one species is actually two different species. Sometimes these two types of biologists agree, sometimes they don’t. Which type a biologist is usually depends on which type their mentor or primary instructor was.
After a species is described, it is given a scientific name. The name is binomial, meaning it has two parts; the genus and the specific epithet (Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa). The name is italicized and the genus is capitalized while the specific epithet (species name) is not. The name is also “latinized”. These rules make all scientific names universal. Of all the naming conventions, always refer to the scientific name for the most accurate label. However, this label is only as accurate as the proper physical or genetic identification of the species.
After a new species is given a scientific name, the species is given its first common name. This is the second naming convention. I say “first” common name, because common names are like memes; the most popular one sticks and there is no rhyme or reason to why. The scientist who described Cirrhilabrus finifenmaa also named it the rose-veiled fairy wrasse. However, it might go by the rosy-cheek fairy wrasse in a couple years. Whichever common name is used the most seems to last the longest.
This is why common names are risky. Nearly every fish and invertebrate has at least two, sometimes four or more common names. If the species is highly popular in the hobby, it can have dozens of common names from all over the world. Think about how similar all the Loricariidae (armored catfish) appear. Within that family are multiple genera and hundreds of species. Each species occupies a different niche, consumes a different diet, prefers different water parameters. Panaque cochliodin and Panaque suttonorum, for example are both called the "blue-eyed pleco", but only one is worth $600.
The third naming convention that muddies the waters even further, is the market or trade name. Between the body of water it was caught in and your tank, lie collectors, transporters, farmers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers. Each step is a chance for someone to “rebrand” or misidentify a species for one reason or another.
Whether it's to sell more of them, get a better price, or just plain negligence, species are misidentified or purposefully renamed on their way to the fish store habitually.
I’ve worked in many retail aquarium stores and depending on which distributor you bought from would determine the common, or trade name they gave certain species. Corals were always the most common victim.
Many new corals and fish have recently been bred in captivity. These species have crazy new color variants. And for that reason, their breeders give them crazy new names. There is nothing wrong with all these cool new color variations; it's actually really good for the environment that they are being captivity bred. But don’t forget they are color variations, not new species. This is when it remains important to pay attention to the scientific name so you know how to care for that species, regardless of what pattern or color it comes in.
A new method of identifying groups of fish in the wild is called barcoding. This method uses a portion of a species’ genome and assigns it a barcode, allowing collectors and samplers to ascertain the species population numbers.
One issue with current sampling techniques is misidentification of species resulting in false-negatives and false-positives. False-negatives show fewer numbers of species present than in reality, thus underrepresenting populations. False-positives show higher numbers of species present than in reality, thus overrepresenting populations. Barcoding goes a long way to reduce the risk of false-negatives and false-positives.
This method is mostly used in a research and environmental assessment capacity. The technology is solid however and there is room for the applications of this method to grow. Perhaps soon aquarium fish and invertebrate distributors will be able to scan incoming and outgoing specimens to confirm their species identity before they arrive in your tank.
Knowledge is Power
So how do you combat this habitual renaming and misidentification? The answer is the buck stops with you, the hobbyist. You must arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to confidently walk into any fish store and be able to confirm or at least question the label on the species you're interested in.
You can do this by researching the species you want and knowing what all their synonyms are. When you research them online, look them up by their common, trade, and most importantly, scientific name. For truly difficult species, search them on fishbase.org or Google Scholar and find a physical description or ideally a dichotomous key. These will help you tell the difference between closely related species. You can use defining characteristics like banding, dorsal spine count, scale row count, or fin shape to tell the difference between species if you need to.
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