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, conger eel and so on. 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 (Anarhichas lupus) 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 (Pollachius virens) around much of England is known as saithe in Scotland, where similarly pollock (Pollachius pollachius) are sometimes called lythe in Scotland.
  • The species known as lesser-spotted dogfish (Scyliorhinus canicula) in the UK is known as the small-spotted catshark in the United States of America.
  • Angel shark (Squatina squatina) is sometimes called monkfish, causing confusion with true monkfish (Lophius piscatorius).
  • Referring to a fish as cod is inaccurate as there are actually three separate species of cod: Atlantic cod, Pacific cod (Gadus Macrocephalus) and Greenland cod (Gadus Ogac).

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

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 and plant 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.

Statue of Carl Linnaeus

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

He developed a hierarchical system whereby each organism was given a binominal (two-part) scientific name which identified every organism and also placed each organism into its own position on a wider taxonomic rank. However, scientists and learned societies have worked to adapt and change the ideas first set out by Linnaeus to ensure that the system can adjust to new discoveries and developments.

Biological classification

The hierarchical structure which all life fits onto.

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 confusing it with others. Eventually this system became formalised by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), who, as they state on their website “adviser and arbiter for the zoological community by generating and disseminating information on the correct use of the scientific names of animals.” The ICZN ensures that scientific names are used and cited correctly and that conflicts over the correct scientific name to apply to a species are resolved. This is done by producing the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature [external link] which sets the rules for producing scientific names of animals and is updated with new developments and discoveries. While this system may seem complicated it was actually incredibly simple which is one of the reasons why Linnaeus’s 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.

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 a generic name based on the genus that the species comes from, while the second is the specific name and refers only to that species. So two closely related species may have similar scientific names:

Coalfish and Pollock

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.

Scientific names are not necessarily fixed and may change if new information and discoveries about species comes to light. Indeed, it is a founding principle of the ICZN that previous editions of the code are superceded when a new edition is published. 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), meaning the previously correct scientific name Dipturus batis was discarded. Similarly, lugworm were once thought to be a single species Arenicola marina. 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. Of course this means that old books and non-updated websites will still have the old names of species listed, which can cause confusion.

Famous People and Scientific Names

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 specific name. 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, animals can be named after famous people. Sometimes this is done to honour someone who has made great achievements in a particular field.

The British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough has a number of different species named after him due to his huge amount of work on nature and conservation. 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).

David Attenborough

Nepenthes attenboroughii (which has the common name Attenborough’s pitcher plant) was discovered in 2007 and is named after the broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

At other times species are named after famous people to attract attention, or purely as a joke. The carabid beetle species Agra schwarzeneggeri was named after Arnold Schwarzenegger due to the beetle’s prominent front set of legs which resemble human biceps and a species of gall fly named Preseucoila imallshookupis after the Elvis Presley song I’m All Shook Up. Additionally many other famous people such as Barack Obama, Lou Reed, the Ramones, Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, George W. Bush, JRR Tolkien, Orson Welles, Bill Gates, Sid Vicious, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kate Winslet, David Bowie, Angelina Jolie and many, many others have species of animals named after them.

Classification of Fish Species

Monkfish Skeleton

The skeleton of a monkfish, a bony fish.

There are many hundreds of species of fish found in the waters around the UK and Ireland. While many anglers (and this website) are happy to classify these species in broad and simple categories such as roundfish, flatfish, sharks, skates and rays, mini species the scientific community goes much further and divides fish species into more exact scientific classes based on physiological features. These include osteichthyes (bony fish) such as cod, haddock, flounder and plaice. Chondrichthyes are the other major classification of fish found around the UK. These are species which have a skeleton made of cartilage instead of bone and include shark species. However, such detailed fish classification falls outside of  the scope of this website.


Lampreys defy simple classification.

Some species such as lampreys defy classification. Superficially lamprey look like eels but they cannot be classed as an eel species as lampreys have a skeleton made out of cartilage, while eels are bony fish. This skeleton would mean that they are a member of the shark family, but they cannot be as they do not have rough skin made out of dermal denticles and do not have gills. Lampreys also lack jaws (they have a toothed suction plate instead of a mouth) and all shark species are jawed. There is currently no scientific consensus on how to classify lampreys, and some encyclopedias and websites simply class them as vertebrates – the broadest possible classification as it includes all creatures with a spine. Other sources class them as Agnatha – a class of jawless fish, of which the only extant species are the lampreys and hagfish (Myxine glutinosa).

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