Scientific Names of Fish Species

Anglers around the UK almost always use common names to describe the fish species they have caught, with all anglers able to identify species such as cod, plaice, pollock and conger eel. However, some articles, books and websites (including this one) also give a second name – the scientific name – along with the common name of fish species. Read on to find why this is done and how it can help anglers with the identification of fish species.

Why Are Scientific Names Needed?

While the common names of species is perfectly adequate for anglers to use the vast majority of the time there are limitations. There can be regional differences in the common names which are applied to the same species, and in different countries fish species can have completely different names. There are plenty examples of this:

  • The species often known as Atlantic wolffish has many names across the UK. It is known as wolf eel, sea wolf, sea cat, devil fish, woof fish, catfish and Atlantic catfish.
  • Similarly the species known as coalfish around much of England is known as saithe in Scotland, where similarly pollock are sometimes called lythe in Scotland.
  • The species known as lesser-spotted dogfish in the UK is known as the small-spotted catshark in the United States of America.
  • Angel shark is sometimes called monkfish, causing confusion with true monkfish.
  • Referring to a fish as cod is inaccurate as there are actually three separate species of cod: Atlantic cod, Pacific cod and Greenland cod (and there was once thought to be a fourth species called Baltic cod).
  • There are many, many other examples with almost all of the fish species found in British waters having several different names applied to them.

As there is no standardisation of common names confusion can easily arise, with nicknames, informal names and regional terms all being used and accepted into everyday usage over time. While this may not cause too many problems for anglers on a day-to-day basis it is not a suitable system for scientists and researchers to use, as they need an accurate and precise system which will allow them to precisely identify different species, hence the system of scientific names being developed not just for fish species, but to name all life on planet earth.

History and Development

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus

The system of scientific began with the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Realising that common names were not precise enough to list the multitude of animal, plant and mineral species on planet earth he made it his life’s work to develop a system which would allow the species he discovered to be accurately recorded and charted. Each species was given a two-part scientific name, with the name – importantly – being formally agreed on a worldwide basis. This means that once a species has been given a scientific name no other species can have the same name, meaning that scientists could confidently use the name to describe a species without misunderstanding or confusion with other species. Furthermore, the fact that scientific names are formalised across the world this means that people can use scientific names across national barriers with confidence – something that would simply not be possible if common names were used.

Statue of Carl Linnaeus

Statue of Carl Linnaeus at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Ohio, USA

While this system may seem complicated it was actually incredibly simple which is one of the reasons why Linnaeus’ system of scientific names is still used to this day. Indeed, with an estimated 8.7 million different species of animals across the world it is easy to see why a unified, formal system of naming was needed. As Linnaeus himself declared “God created, Linnaeus organised.”

How does the Scientific Naming System Work?

Scientific names (also referred to as binominal names or Latin names) are made up of two parts. The first is based on the genus (a taxonomic rank below family and above species) that the species comes from, while the second is unique and refers only to that species. So two closely related species may have similar scientific names.

Coalfish and PollockFor example coalfish and pollock are closely related and therefore both have pollachius as the first part of their name. They are distinguished by the second part of their name meaning that a pollock has the scientific name Pollachius pollachius, while a coalfish has the scientific name Pollachius virens. Other species have misleading common names.

Dover and Lemon SoleDover and lemon sole are not particularly closely related. This can be seen in the vastly different scientific names applied to these species – Solea solea for Dover sole and Microstomus kitt for lemon sole.

Scientific names are not necessarily fixed and may change if new information and discoveries about species comes to light. For example it was believed that there was a single species of skate present in British waters, the common skate (Dipturus batis). However, in 2009 new evidence emerged and it was established that this single species was in fact not one but two separate species – flapper skate (Dipturus flossada) and the blue skate (Dipturus intermedia). Similarly, lugworm were once thought to be a single species Arenicola marina. However, anglers put forward evidence that blow lugworm and black lugworm were two separate species and in 1993 the scientific community finally came round to agreeing and retained the Arenicola marina for blow lugworm and gave black lugworm the scientific name of Arenicola defodiens. Other fish have also had their scientific names changed. Haddock, for example were in 1758 placed in the same gadus genus as cod, giving them the name Gadus aeglefinus. However, this was changed to the Melanogrammus genus in 1842, giving haddock the scientific name of Melanogrammus aeglefinus which they retain to this day. Due to the importance of maintaining the consistency and stability of the scientific names system scientific consensus is needed to change a name, and it is only the first part of the name which is changed with the second always maintained in its original form. Of course this means that old books and non-updated websites will still have the old names of species listed, which can cause confusion.

While the first part of a scientific name is derived from the genus the animal belongs to it is up to the scientist who discovered the animal to come up with the unique second part. For example the slickhead species of fish discovered by Spencer Fullerton Baird was given the scientific name Alepocephalus bairdii, with the first part of the name being named after the genus of this species, and the second part being named after Baird himself. However, sometimes scientists name species after famous people. Sometimes this is done to honour someone who has made great achievements in a particular field, whereas other times it is done to attract attention, or purely as a joke.

Animals Named after Famous People


There is a species of horse fly named Scaptia Beyonceae after the American singer Beyonce due to its “golden behind” and the fact that it was originally discovered in the year of her birth.


There is a species of beetle – Anophthalmus hitleri – named after Adolph Hitler. The name was chosen prior to World War II by a German scientist in 1933 to honour Hitler who had recently become chancellor of Germany.

David Attenborough

Due to his huge amount of work in the field of nature and conservation the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough has a number of different species named after him. Materpiscis attenboroughii was a species of armoured fish which is now extinct and is named after him, as is a type of flowering tree (Blakea attenboroughii), a species of goblin spider (Prethopalpus Attenboroughi) and a critically-endangered type of insect-eating plant (Nepenthes attenboroughii) which is pictured above.

Additionally Barack Obama, Lou Reed, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, The Ramones, Nelson Mandela, Frank Zappa, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pink Floyd, George W. Bush, JRR Tolkien, Orson Welles, Bill Gates, Sid Vicious, Kate Winslet, David Bowie, Angelina Jolie and many, many others have species of animals named after them. However, one of the most inventive scientific names is a species of gall fly named Preseucoila imallshookupis after the Elvis Presley song I’m All Shook Up.

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