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Common names, and Scientific names.
Taxonomy, is the science of classification. It would be convenient if the assigned latinized names stayed
the same through the years, but they don't. Scientific name changes are always occurring. Unlike some
groups, scientists do not ignore new evidence that refutes previous held beliefs. They make the changes
no matter how inconvenient.
Recently the sandtiger, Carcharias taurus had its scientific name changed to Eugomphodus taurus, then
to Odontaspis taurus and presently back to Carcharias taurus.
Sometimes the changes to scientific names are minor, like changing the spelling of one of the latinized
words, such as changing the Genus spelling of the whale shark, from Rhiniodon typus to Rhincodon
typus; or changing the species designation spelling of the tiger from Galeocerdo cuvieri, to Galeocerdo
Worldwide, common sharks familiar to the scientists such as the blue, mako, white, and common
thresher, have undergone dozens of scientific name changes through the centuries. One of the many
examples is the Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus; it has had at least twenty scientific name changes.
Those changes are made on the basis of new data; and are dependent on peer review of the scientific
community. It takes about 10 years for a new scientific name or idea to become mainstream.
Scientific names??For God's sake Tom I just want to go out fishing and enjoy myself!"
I understand that, but if you are going to get interested in the species beyond the: Where do I go? What
should I use to catch them ? How big do they get? stuff, you should also be acquainted with the scientific
names. We don't have to become biologists, just do a little reading now and then about the species
themselves, and keep up with the current literature.
Most of us use the common English language names like mako, tiger, white, thresher, and blue, to
describe the sharks we encounter. This is natural since most of us, including myself, are not biologists
and are not proficient at using scientific names. Although at first, common names seems the simplest
procedure, there are several problems with common names. Here are some examples:
Obviously Shark species would have different common names in another language. If we spoke Spanish
a mako would be marrajo dientuso, the blueshark would be tiburon azul.
Now multiply this by hundreds of different languages, and we have common name chaos, worldwide.
From one geographical area to another, even within the same country, we use more than one common
name in the same language to describe the same shark species.
One man's mako is another man's bonito shark. One man's smalleye hammerhead is another man's
golden hammerhead. On Cape Cod the sandbar shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus, is called the "brown
shark". The better known sharks usually have several common names in the same language throughout
the world. Some sharks are so rare they lack any common name, having only a scientific name."
Several shark species have confusing similar sounding common names like: Sandbar, Tiger, Sand Tiger.
These are three distinct species: the medium sized sandbar, Carcharhinus plumbeus, (also known as
the brown shark) is often caught from the south facing beaches of Cape Cod and the Islands.
The tiger, Galeocerdo cuvier, is a big and dangerous shark.
The sandtiger, Carcharias taurus is making a comeback in coastal and bay waters in Massachusetts.
Bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas.
At one time it was thought to be 3 different species:
-bull shark- Zambezi river shark- Lake Nicaragua shark.
This is one of the top fatal predators on people.
It would be rare for a bull shark to make it into
southern New England waters.
If you have any evidence of a bull shark in
New England waters please contact me. - Tom
In some instances a singular common name is applied to several species. For example, in different
localities along the East Coast; the dogfishes, Squalus acanthias, sandbar sharks, Carcharhinus
plumbeus, and sandtigers, Carcharias taurus, are all called “sand sharks,” even though they are three
separate species, and there really is no sand shark species. Although 50 or so years ago, Carcharias
taurus was called the sand shark, but now is called the sandtiger.
Of course we are all going to still use common names for sharks, but we should be aware there is
another method less ambiguous. That method is to use scientific names.
The chaos of common names for all living things; trees, birds, fish, animals, plants etc. cried out for a
system that biologists of different languages could use. Enter Carl Linnaeus. He was born in Sweden,
and in 1761 he was granted nobility, and became known thereafter as Carl von Linné. Prior to
Linnaeus, there were several ways of classifying living things, and some involved using four or more
Latin/Greek words. Linnaeus did not invent the binomial nomenclature system that we use today,
but he popularized it by using just two scientific words to describe a species. In this binomial system the
first capitalized word is the group name or genus. The second lowercase name is the species. The
scientific name is usually italicized. An example is: porbeagle, Lamna nasus.
By choosing a two part Latinized and/or Greek name to describe the various species, it simplified
scientific name designations. When a scientific name is used, every biologist regardless of what
language he or she speaks will know exactly what species is being discussed.
A group of scientists who speak different languages, are all to the man or woman, going to describe
shark species like the shortfin mako, bull shark and salmon shark, not in their own languages but as
Isurus oxyrinchus, Carcharhinus leucas and Lamna ditropis.
I can't help but notice that some taxonomists seem to want to go back to the multiple word species
designation such as calling the dog, by 3 scientific names, Canis lupus familiarus, or by calling a
particular breed of dog like the Hungarian wavy coated dog by 4 scientific names, Canis familiarus
undulans hungaricus. Or calling a grizzly bear, Ursus arctos as Ursus arctos horribilis. (The polar bear
is Ursus maritimus which means sea bear.
Also shark biologists who can't decide whether two or more sharks are in fact the same species resort to
using more than 2 words to describe them, an example is the dusky smoothhound, Mustelis canis.
There are other sharks that are so alike to the dusky smoothhound, they call them Mustelis canis canis
and Mustelis canis insularis.
When I say they use Latin/Greek for scientific names, don't expect a direct translation from a Latin or
Greek dictionary to clarify the meaning.
Also many of the two words used to describe a shark species may have Greek or other language origins
which get mongrelized by getting latinized. As an example, the shortfin mako, Isurus oxyrinchus both of
the scientific names are Greek; an approximate meaning would be: equal tailed with a sharp snout.
And if a species is named after a person or a geographical location the name may be Latinized.
If you know Latin or Greek, don't expect to look at the scientific name, and bet you can figure it out.
You might be able to do it in some cases if you know the Latin and Greek roots, but in some of the
mongrelized scientific names you won't.
When using scientific names, biologists pronounce "ae" as ee .
They also pronounce a "ch" combination in the Greek/Latin scientific names as a hard K.
i.e. They would pronounce the scientific name of the white shark, Carcharodon carcharias as
Carkarodon carkarias , and the name of the Lamnidae shark family as Lamnidee.
The capitalized first name is the genus, the group name of several similar species. The lower case
second name is the species. The combination of both these names are necessary to define a species,
whether it is a shark, an antelope, an insect, a flower, a bird, a tree etc. The species designation is
Does using scientific names solve the
confusion problem? Not entirely! Although it
is less confusing than common names,
scientific names do get changed when
information indicates that any species needs
to be re-classified. An example of a name
change came to the striped bass, which for
many years was known as Roccus saxatilis.
Striper fishermen named their boats Roccus
to honor the striper. But alas, the striper got
re-classified, and the new scientific name is
Morone saxatilis. My wife thinks the new
name Morone, is more fitting for us morons
who spend too much time in pursuit of the
striped bass while our houses and family
relationships fall apart around us. (Hey, most
of us had a love affair with the striper before
we met our wives.)
Who classifies the shark species?
Dr. Leonard J.V.Compagno for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) puts out a
shark species catalogue. Those shark classifications are accepted by most biologists. There are others that
probably would classify differently. But his classifications are the ones most widely used, and are the ones
I go by. -------------------------------------