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Related FAQs: Biological Classification

Related Articles: What's In A Name? Ever Wondered Why They Keep Changing the Latin Name of Your Favorite Fish? by Neale Monks Marine Macro-Algae

/The Conscientious Marine Aquarist

How & Why Scientists Classify Life


Bob Fenner


The naming of plants and animals was such an important task that the biblical GOD assigned it as a first priority to Adam. How do the livestock you want to keep end up with their various appellations, and who cares anyway?

Well, imagine being around a few hundred years back... being an inquisitive individual, of a very curious species you find yourself wondering about the living "forms" around you. What the dickens are they? Well, actually "they" are whatever you call "them".

The only difficulty with this scheme, and it's a big one, lies in the fact that other people have different names for the same apparent organisms. Is this a problem? Big time if you're trying to communicate with other folks. Think if you had to describe an "elephant" to someone in writing without a picture; "a big gray something with a long nose and four feet?" Kind of long, wordy and vague... and this is assuming your audience understands English!

Well, this is a postcard version of the cause and real history of common and scientific naming.

Roots of Our Mal-Content:

The ancient Greeks and Romans set the classification precedent by providing the starting point and language, descriptively naming the plants and animals around them. Much of their naming survived and proved useful through the scientifically slow and dark "Middle Ages".

Enlightened interest in the living world and economic surplus during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries spurred exploration and collections; and an awareness of other nation's non-agreeing names for living things.

What to do? Well, come on, what would you do? Could you get everyone to agree to using one language? What would it be, French, German, English...? What a quandary!

Thank Goodness for Karl von Linne:

Skip ahead to the 1700's and we find a revolution in the standardization of biological labeling. Credit goes to Carolus Linnaeus for coming up with an internationally acceptable set of naming rules. Looking back these seem and are obvious, simple and straightforward. The Highlights:

1) Lingua Latina: First of all Linnaeus chose the most PC (Politically Correct) language- Latin. Everyone could agree on it because most scientific folks spoke and wrote Latin already. Though it provided root words for many European dialects, Latin was a "dead" vernacular and therefore favored no particular nation. What's more, many of the existing names were Latin derived. We have continued and expanded (out of necessity) on this use with latinized Greek and modern language "borrowings" as more than a million species have been described.

2) Binomial Nomenclature:

Up to Linnaeus' time scientific naming was a lot like our example of an elephant; a long string of descriptive words. Karl von Linne (his original name) had a better idea; to apply a consistent two-word naming. In our species for example, a genus (Homo) for the first, and a species (sapiens) for the second.

There are a whole bunch of rules and even International Commissions to regulate who came first in their descriptions, what names can be used, and whether a species description is adequate. A few examples of these enforced guidelines: Genera, plural for genus (Greek for "kind") always have their first letter capitalized. Species and genera are italicized or underlined...

Priority of Names:

The rules of scientific naming state that who ever accurately and adequately describes and acceptably publishes a species description first, their naming takes precedence. Here's how this works:

You're taking a longing look at some fishes at your livestock suppliers and lo & behold, "what's that?" A new species? "Gosh, it's so ugly, maybe I'll name it in honor of my boss." Not so fast, bucko. In actual practice a representative collection over a geographic range is made, including a representation of sizes, sexes, variations in color, structure, genetics, biochemistry... and an extensive review of collections and all pertinent literature. This may be called for to determine if Uglissimus bossus is new to Science. Biological naming is a lot of work.


Now, you tell me; in retrospect doesn't biological classification and naming make a lot of sense? It is the easiest manner to instantly communicate the "what" that we're referring to, to any person through space and time.

Centropyge deborae      8/15/16
Dear Sir/Madam,
It has been a while since I contacted wwm, but I have just recently discovered, after a friend sent me a link, that the above-mentioned fish was named at WSI, although I have no animosity towards the Smith's, I am a little upset that I personally collected this fish in 1994, before WSI set up in Fiji, and although I thought it was a different fish from the other Centropyges, I was told it may be a variant phase of the coral beauty, it is quite sad that they claim to have discovered it.
<I know of this fish, the Smith's collectors first gathering this new species... It is "the rule" that such namings are "date regulated"; that is, the first "acceptable", "scientific" description and publication stands as the original. I would state that there are VERY likely other Centropyge in mesophotic depths (one can guess more likely areas by a cursive study of
zoogeography), and that for sure there are other Labrid and Anthiine species found about the Great Sea Reef. Consider getting on out, making collections and sending same to folks, institutions that do such "naming".
Cheers, Bob Fenner>
I look forward to hear from you
*Peter Savona*
*Waterlife Exporters (Fiji) Limited*
Re: Centropyge deborae      8/16/16

Hi Peter,
I just got this copied to me from Bob.
I know how frustrating it must be to think you might have discovered something only to find out later that someone else has claimed it.
As Bob points out, it is not about who saw it first but who takes the initiative to go through the long and tedious process of getting it scientifically documented. This process usually takes about two years and many specimens must be supplied to the scientist to insure it is not just a one off or variant. Only after the DNA is conclusive matching it against other closely related species and several samples are provided to prove separate identity can the "new" specimen be named.
In this case there was another famous scientist who also "discovered" this same fish before 1994 when he was a professor at USP. I am talking about Dr. Bruce Carlson and he actually has a video of a pair C. deborae mating which also appears on my web site. Bruce is a good friend of mine and we laugh about how he thought it was different but brushed it off as a variant and instead concentrated on another fish from the same reef which was also a new discovery that later became classified as the Cirrhilabrus marjorie (named after his wife Marj) which was found on the same reef. We often joke about how we both have fish named after our wives found in only one place on earth so far as we know. Up till now this fish has only been associated with Bligh water area so I am curious if your sighting was in Suva bay.
Just recently I thought I had another new discovery only to find out I was looking at a Cirrhilabrus nahackyi and then there is the other angel on my web site that still have not been confirmed as a new specie and some scientist believe it to be a variant and some say otherwise. Take a look at this as I compare it to the C. heraldi for size and swim pattern side by side.
All the best,
<Ahh; thank you for your complete, civil response Walt. Much appreciated.
Oh! And see you and Deb soon here in San Diego at the upcoming MACNA do.
Bob Fenner>
Re: Centropyge Deborae     /Peter       8/18/16

Hey Bob,
How are you, been a while, I hope you are well, truth be told, Walt is a good man, (that is why he is Cc'd as well), and his explanation is fair, yes I do understand in principal, the reasoning, but* I must admit I find it wrong in principal, that a fish is named to anyone other than the diver who collected it, at the very least, and Ideally to the first discoverer
is not the norm!!.*
<Mmm; "dem are da rules"; and makes sense that a "science type" does the naming; as they are responsible for adequately describing. The times I've been involved in such... from collecting, supplying specimens on up; the
"namer" has sought out my input for the name itself.>
I do have a photo somewhere, but I really cannot say much beyond that, as I am not a scientist, or have the money or facility to do such things, maybe if it was in Charles Darwin's time I could have got away with it, lol.
And no Walt it was not in Suva.
Thanks, and regards
Peter Savona
Waterlife Exporters (Fiji) Limited
<Thank you Peter. Hope to see you about. Cheers, Bob Fenner>
Re: Centropyge Deborae    /Walt       8/18/16
Hi Peter,
<Hey Walt, BobF kibitzing here>
Thanks for the nice words.
Not to beat a dead horse but I must point out one simple fact …. Without documented proof of discovery there is no such thing as the one who saw it first. You must realize that even though I believe you to be an honest person there are many who are not. The fact remains that Dr. Bruce Carlson actually saw it first and has documented it on video but he brushed it off as a variant and he is an expert. This actually happens a lot and that is why the proof of finding must be documented so meticulously with spine and scale count (the old way) and in recent years with conclusive DNA testing against other closely related species. I also had to prove that there were no Centropyge nox anywhere in our waters which it so closely resembled. Then multiple specimens needed to be supplied to prove it was not just a one off.
All of this work and effort is supplied by the applicant for classification and the time and effort is very consuming. Finally, when the scientific authority has conclusive proof that it is a different specie they are able to name the fish. The original name picked for this fish was Centropyge fijiensis but they asked me if I would prefer another name and I chose to honor my wife Deborah. Also the fact is that several divers were involved in the collection but they had no idea it was a different specie. I recognized this possibility and the fish “belonged” to me since they were paid by my company so I had the right to follow through with the expensive and time consuming exercise of getting it named.
On another note, if you ever find another fish you believe to be different I will be happy to show you the ropes that I followed and perhaps there is a savonei out there somewhere. :)
<I'm very sure there is/are. I saw a few undescribed species while up in Labasa>
Also, did you spot this in Bligh or up north? It was first sighted by Bruce in Bligh near Namana but we first collected it North West of Raki Raki but we now collect them in Bligh off of Nabawalau. They are very plentiful up there where we collect more than 100 in a day but we do not do this too often because, to be frank, they do not sell very well because the color is not that interesting to the aquarist. We only collect them about 3 – 4 times a year and that is all the market will bear.
Also please look at my web site and you will see Bruce’s video of a pair of C. deborae mating but what I really want you to see is the other “different” angel I have there. We have found two of these fish several years ago and the scientist is waiting for more specimens but I have not been able to find any more. Dr. Richard Pyle and Jack Randal say variant but Bruce is on the fence and Dr. Gerald Allen is also not sure. I have heard there were other collectors in Suva (now long gone) that also claim to have seen many of these but there is no proof other than I did see it on live aquaria web site and it did not come from me since I only sent mine to the scientific authority that I worked with before. It could be a variant of C. heraldi (as some suggest) but I doubt it since I have seen three specimens exactly the same and the size and swim pattern is very different than Centropyge and more like Genicanthus. Please let me know if you have seen anything like this in your waters. There are many variants of heraldi, bicolor, lemon peel mix with black tails or black splotches but this is very different and precisely marked on each specimen I have come across which is not typical of variants.
See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJIPY4t4IYo <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJIPY4t4IYo&feature=youtu.be> &feature=youtu.be
Deborae pair here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnj0JHsAIzI
Take care Peter, right now I am in LA getting ready for MACNA.
All the best,
<Thanks Walt. See you soon. BobF>


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