Funny fish: common names that aren’t so common

By Abigail Lynch

Have you ever driven through a neighborhood and thought that the developers might have run out of ideas for street names?  Happy Valley Drive?  Milky Way?  King Arthur’s Court? Really?  With over seven thousand Main Streets in the U.S., it’s hard to blame those creative road namers out there for trying to be different.  Coming up with names is tough, coming up with a lot of different names is even tougher.

With fish make up more than half of the estimated 54,711 recognized living vertebrate species (animals with a vertebral column), coming up with common names for all of those fish species is quite a task.  Of the estimated 27,977 species of fish, there are quite a few “Main Street” names out there.  FishBase, a comprehensive, publically accessible database of fish species, lists over 140 different species in over 80 different genera with the common name of catfish, for example, and 75 different species from 10 different genera with the common name of rockfish, as another.  But, there are some other common names for fish that aren’t so common.  Here’s a (very) non-comprehensive list of some creative common names for fish.  If you can think of any unusual and/or funny names to add to the list, please feel free to list them in the comments at the bottom of the post:

10. Clownfish

Don't clown around with names!

Don’t clown around with names!

While Nemo may have lied to your kids, Disney did make Ocellaris clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) one of the most widely recognized fish species in the sea.  Naming a little, hermaphroditic, anemone-dwelling reef fish after a clown is kind of funny, but in a way fitting.  Colorful clownfish are as painted up as clowns and, as proven by Disney, they are surely entertainers!

9. Bloater

How would you feel if you were called a bloater?

How would you feel if you were called a bloater?

How would you like to be called a bloater?  This poor, unassuming, Great Lakes fish got pegged with the name because it is a deep water fish (preferring to inhabit waters of depths between 40 and 110m – that’s over four lengths of a swimming pool!).  When fishermen bring them up in their nets they have a swollen appearance.  Bloaters (Coregonus hoyi), a member of the salmon family, were once very commonly caught in the Great Lakes.  Their populations declined with the introduction of invasive alwives (Alosa pseudoharengus) which compete for resources.  Bloater populations are “bloating” back now that alewife numbers are diminishing.

8. Slimehead

A name to use the next time you need an insult!

A name to use the next time you need an insult!

Slimehead sounds like an insult you’d hurl at your little brother.  Savvy seafood marketers must have thought the same thing when they decided to rechristen the slimehead (Hoplostethus atlanticus) with the more appetizing name of orange roughy.  The name worked out so well, that this tasty deep sea fish was quickly overexploited because they are slow-growing and late to mature (they don’t reach maturity until 30 years and can live to 125!).  Deep sea fisheries are difficult to sustain because deep sea fish stocks have low productivity and are vulnerable to modern fishing technologies.

7. Higgins’ eye pearlymussel

Perhaps not a fish in name...

Perhaps not a fish in name…

Though not technically a fish, the Higgins’ eye pearlymussel (Lampsilis higginsii) does a great job pretending to be one. Its unique name goes along with its unique life history strategy.  Female mussels have a specialize tissue that is an excellent mimic for a baitfish.  A mussel will wiggle this “lure” to attract predator fish.  When a fish nibbles on what it thinks is an easy lunch, the female clamps on to the fish’s snout and releases larval mussels which attach themselves to the fish’s gills – where they live and grow until they mature.

6. Oyster toadfish

Can I be your frog prince?

Can I be your frog prince?

Many different fish species are named after other animals (lionfish, butterflyfish, frogfish, snailfish, just to name a few), the oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau) has the privilege of being named after two different animals.  While this fish isn’t likely to be anyone’s frog prince, the oyster toad doesn’t ask for much.  It can live in conditions that most would not consider habitable, muddy oyster beds and other murky waters.  They lie motionless on the bottom, camouflaged, and can surprise attack their prey.

5. Pirate perch

A scallywag of a name!

A scallywag of a name!

Ayyyyy, matey!  The pirate perch (Aphredoderus sayanus) is a buccaneer of a fish.  Though it doesn’t sail the high seas (it is actually a small freshwater fish), it may be the only fish species to exhibit chemical camouflage.  Adult pirate perch have a unique anatomical feature – their anus is right below their throat.  While this may not seem like an ideal placement, it has an evolutionary advantage for depositing sperm and eggs in the underwater root masses in which they spawn. Savvy?

4. Spotcheck stargazer

Did Mad Libs come up with this name?

Did Mad Libs come up with this name?

Spotcheck and stargazer sound like two names pieced together from a Mad Libs entry (compound verb + hobbist?), but the name is actually quite descriptive.  The spotcheck stargazer (Ichthyscopus sannio) is, not surprisingly, covered in spots.  It is also a member of the stargazer family of fish which all have eyes placed on top of their heads.  While, romantically, you may think these fish evolved upward facing eyes to gaze up to the stars above, they actually use them to locate prey.  They bury themselves in the sand and ambush their prey as they swim overhead.  The fate of those prey fish and invertebrates is not written in the stars, it’s written by the stargazer!

3. Cookiecutter shark

This isn't your average, friendly cookie cutter...

This isn’t your average, friendly cookie cutter…

While the idea of a cookiecutter may conjure up happy memories of delicious delight, those that make the acquaintance with a cookiecutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis) won’t have a similar impression.  But, the name isn’t a misnomer.  The cookiecutter shark is a small dogfish that gets its name from its propensity to stealth attack larger animals, gouge a plug of flesh out of their side, and flee.  The wound looks eerily similar to a cookie cutter punch…without the sugar and sprinkles.

2. Slippery dick

A name not for the immature...

A name not for the immature…

A name not for the immature, the slippery dick (Halichoeres bivittatus) is common species of wrasse found in the western Atlantic Ocean.  As a defense mechanism, the fish secretes a large amount of mucous to “slip” away from potential predators.  It also has an unusual way of swimming, as if just dragging its tail.  The slippery dick is a protogynous hermaphrodite, which means they begin their life as female then make a “slippery” change to male (this is the opposite transition of clownfish which are protandrous hermaphrodites, changing from male to female…unlike how Disney portrays it).

1. Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa

Try saying this name three times fast!

Try saying this name three times fast!

Try saying this name three times fast!  Humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), also known as a reef triggerfish for those of us who are tongue tied, is the state fish of Hawai’i.  The Hawaiian name means “triggerfish with a snout like a pig” and is often purported to be the longest word in the Hawaiian language – a name “longer than the fish” itself!

Can you think of any other fun fish names?

Be sure to like The Fisheries Blog on Facebook, follow us on Twitter (@FisheriesBlog), and feel free to add other creative common names to the comments section below!

8 responses to “Funny fish: common names that aren’t so common

  1. We a play a game on long car trips called “What kind of animal am I”, and the ones above are quite entertaining. My kids also find funny titmouse (a bird) and Dik – Dik (a sort of micro anteloupe). As far fish go something that I always found rather elegant and beautiful but both my daughters see with great humor is the Look down. I guess it is a bit cartoonish.

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