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How Did These 6 Fish Get Their Names

From peppermint shrimp to the hovercraft cowfish, marine animals go by some pretty funky names. And this makes sense when you consider that there are over 33,000 known species of fish in our seas and oceans, with biologists hard-pressed to come up with original names for all of them.

So, exactly how do scientists go about naming new species of fish? And where do some of the more out-there monikers originate? That’s what we’re here to uncover in today’s blog feature, as we explore how six fish found at Hastings Aquarium got their unusual names.

How do animals get their names?

Before we look at some of the more kookily-named creatures on display at Hastings Aquarium, we thought it was worth outlining the process that scientists follow when naming newly-discovered species. After all, animals are usually named for one reason or another, with their characteristics or appearance often having a part to play in their official title.

To understand how animals are named, we need to take a quick lesson in Latin. The process of giving animals (and plants, for that matter) a two-worded scientific name in Latin began in the 18th century, when Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, created the system of “binomial nomenclature”.

Binomial nomenclature is when an animal or plant is assigned a Latin name based on its genus and species-specific epithet. We won’t get too bogged down in the science and terminology here, but basically, every organism on the planet is named according to a predefined set of “roots” that are used to classify fauna and flora without there being any risk of repetition.

Here’s a quick example of binomial nomenclature in action…

The theraps microphthalmos is a small cichlid from Central America. Its name is broken into two parts per the rules of binomial nomenclature:

  • Theraps: This refers to the genus. In this case, theraps is a genus of cichlid fish.
  • Micropthalmus: This is an epithet that describes the species in question. Here, “micro” meaning “small” and “opthalm” meaning “eye” are combined, accurately describing the fact that this small fish does, indeed, have distinctive eyes.

With over 10,000,000+ classified organisms on the planet (and counting), this system is considered the very best way to name animal and plant species. And it’s from these unique Latin names that we get unusual titles like “hovercraft cowfish”.

6 marine animals with unusual names

Now that you know the context and background of how animals are named, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the most uniquely named creatures in our seas and oceans, some of which are on display here at Hastings Aquarium.

Turbo snail (Astraea tecta)

No, the turbo snail isn’t a super-speedy version of the eponymous marine gastropod. In this case “turbo” simply refers to the genus, with 66 species of marine snails and five subspecies.

Unlike the snails we’re used to seeing in our gardens, Astraea tecta have gills and an operculum which allows them to survive underwater. It’s thought that the first turbo snail dates back to the Upper Cretaceous period, around 100 million years ago.

Pyjama wrasse (Pseudocheilinus hexataenia)

The pyjama or six-line wrasse is a ray-finned fish from the family Labridae. It was so named for its distinctive purple and orange striped markings, as well as the unique blue stripe that appears on the fish’s anal fin.

The pyjama wrasse is one of the most brightly-coloured species found at Hastings Aquarium, and not just for its distinctive purple stripes. The fish has a small eyespot on its tail fin which it uses to evade predators, as well as red eyes accentuated, rather unusually, by a pair of thin white lines. An unusual species indeed!

Surgeonfish (Acanthuridae)

Surgeonfish refers to a family of ray-finned tropical fish including tangs, unicornfish, and surgeonfish. Slim, sleek and brightly coloured, their scientific name is derived from two Greek words including “akantha” meaning “thorn” and “oura” meaning “tail”. The fish’s common name is thought to stem from the scalpel-like caudal fin.

Current figures show that there are 86 species of surgeonfish, the majority of which live in tropical waters close to coral reef systems. We have several different types of surgeonfish on display at Hastings Aquarium, including the much-loved regal tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) – made famous as the character Dory in Disney’s Finding Nemo series.

Hovercraft cowfish (Tetrosomus gibbosus)

Of all the weirdly-named fish in our seas and oceans, tetrosomus gibbosus takes the biscuit. Commonly known as the hovercraft cowfish, this unique species is as odd to look at as its name suggests, with a characteristic method of locomotion that can only be described as hovercraft-esque (hence the name).

The hovercraft cowfish is found in the Indo-Pacific Ocean, making it a tropical species. However, this is no reef-dweller, with the fish instead spending much of its life on deep coastal shelves where it feeds on invertebrates including small species of crab.

Vampire tang (Acanthurus bicommatus)

From its name alone, you might expect the vampire tang to be an aggressive, nocturnal bloodsucker. But while these fish can be aggressive towards other tangs (a common trait with most surgeonfish), they are generally very docile. So, from where does their unusual name originate?

It’s safe to assume that the vampire tang’s common name is derived from the pale colour of its skin. Most vampire tangs are white or pale cream, with a distinctive black outline and a blue stripe on its head and fins. This gives the fish a unique monochrome appearance, far removed from its brightly coloured counterparts.

Peppermint shrimp (Lysmata wurdemanni)

There’s a very good reason why Lysmata wurdemanni, or the peppermint shrimp, sounds like something you’d pick up in a traditional sweet shop. This unusual crustacean, which is native to the US Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, is so named for its candy cane-esque stripes, which appear in bold contrast to the creature’s otherwise translucent body.

Interestingly, the peppermint shrimp is considered an extremely valuable reef-cleaning species, which actively feeds on particles, bacteria and dead tissue on larger animals. It is, therefore, highly regarded in marine ecosystems, as well as in commercial aquarium settings.

So there you have it – six of the world’s most oddly-named fish and a few insights into where they got their unusual titles. If you enjoyed this glimpse into the wonderful world of marine animals, why not book your ticket to Hastings Aquarium today to learn a great deal more?

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