Hello, my name is Raccoon Butterflyfish.
There are a lot of weird names out there, especially for animal species. Since people name the animals they discover, it’s no wonder they get a little…interesting. Take for instance the Calponia harrisonfordi, a spider named in honor of Harrison Ford, or Irwin's turtle, discovered by crocodile hunter Steve Irwin. But species don’t have to be named after anybody. In fact, discoverers can get pretty creative when it comes to thinking up worthy names.
How exactly does the naming process work? For a new species, the discoverer gets to create an official scientific name (for example, Elseya irwini) and an unofficial common name (for example, Irwin’s turtle). Let’s be clear though: The discoverer is more like a describer, as “new” animals are often already known to their local communities. This complicates the name game, for a species might already have a common name in one language. In this case, the describer can introduce a scientific name, according to International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature rules, and a common name in his/her native language, if it doesn’t yet exist. That’s how we get funny common names like the pink fairy armadillo in English, when its Spanish equivalent, the pichiciego, is ordinary.
Naming gets even trickier when animals have wide geographic distributions and are known by numerous names. The mountain lion, which is found throughout the Americas, is also known as puma, cougar, red tiger, deer tiger, león americano, león bayo, león colorado, león de montaña, mitzli and onza bermeja. (That’s where its scientific name, Puma concolor, comes in handy.) While some new species have documented describers and names, others are simply unknown. No matter whom these describers originally were—whether scientist, nature-lover, community member, or all of the above—I think we can agree that there are some truly uncommon common names.
At Shedd, strange animal names are endless and make you wonder: What on Earth were these describers thinking? Well, I’ll tell you their secret: They were really hungry. How else do you explain dessert-infused names like the chocolate gourami or the chocolate-colored catfish? Then there are your regular meat-filled names, the porkfish and the lambschop rasbora; your fruit-variety fishes, including the cherry barb and the pineapple pleco; and your miscellaneous groceries, like the pumpkinseed sunfish, golden nugget pleco, oyster toadfish and puddingwife.
I’ve also decided these describers were a little skittish, given the number of Halloween-worthy animal names at Shedd. Fishes with dark coloring or large teeth have terrifying names such as black ghost knifefish, black phantom tetra, vampire shrimp, Malawi eyebiter,demon eartheater and blue devil damselfish. To be honest, I’m more scared of the name, demon eartheater, than I am of the devilishly cute fish itself: (see right).
On a positive note, the describers were also really imaginative with naming. Fish names like the fairy basslet, Vlamingi unicorn tang, spotted unicornfish and Picasso triggerfish are beyond this world. Some of these names don’t make much sense (the yellow polka dot strawberry frog has neither polka dots nor a strawberry color), but who doesn’t love combinations like the coal grunter, snowflake moray eel, X-ray tetra and pajama cardinalfish? They are too fantastic to leave out.
Other names, though silly, are logical. For example, the silver dollar fish is flat and shiny. The giant bumblebee catfish sports yellow and black stripes. Bullet ants have a venomous sting so fiery that it feels like—you guessed it—a bullet wound. In fact, many species names reflect their animal likeness, including the cockatoo waspfish, monkeyface blenny, foxface rabbitfish and porcuinefish.
I wish the naming process were as simple as one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish—but alas, it’s not. Looks like the raccoon butterflyfish is here to stay.
Check out these uncommonly named fishes in Wild Reef, Amazon Rising and throughout the aquarium galleries.
—Nadia Hlebowitsh, web team