Wrong names for fish seen complicating conservation

OSLO (Reuters) - About a third of all types of fish and other marine life have been wrongly named by scientists, complicating efforts to conserve what could be a million marine species, experts said on Wednesday.

A Breadcrumb Sponge is seen in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/Bernard Picton/Handout

Inaugurating a World Register of Marine Species (, they said the breadcrumb sponge, found in the North Atlantic in many shapes and colors, held the record for misleading synonyms with 56 Latin names.

“Convincing warnings about declining fish and other marine species must rest on a valid census,” Mark Costello of the University of Auckland, co-founder of the register, said in a statement.

The register, trying to sort out a tangle of multiple Latin names for marine organisms from whales to plankton, has validated names of 122,500 species after eliminating 56,400 aliases, or 32 percent of all names reviewed.

“For 250 years scientists have been describing species in the oceans but there is no complete list,” Ward Appeltans of the Flanders Marine Institute and data manager of the register told Reuters. “We are now creating that list.”

Experts at the register estimate that 230,000 species are known to science and that three times more are yet to be found, giving a final total that could exceed a million. The register hopes to give an overview of known species by October 2010.

New species get a two-word Latin name as their formal identity. But scientists often wrongly believe they have found a new species and give a new name.

The oldest name usually takes precedence, as with the breadcrumb sponge’s name Halichondrea panicea given in 1766. Later names for the same sponge include Alcyonium manusdiaboli in 1794 or Trachyopsilla glaberrima in 1931.


Getting names right is a condition for managing resources in the seas, where many species are facing threats from over-fishing, pollution and climate change. Current high food prices could put more pressure on fish stocks.

“If fish are transported it’s very important that customs know exactly what’s in the boxes,” Appeltans said. “If you want to protect endangered species you need able to identify the species.”

A type of marine snail once used in the cosmetics industry, for instance, was found to be the same as one listed under another name as endangered, he said.

Among species with misleading names, the basking shark, the world’s second largest fish after the whale shark, has 39 aliases in Latin, Appeltans said.

“The register...will change the way people think about biodiversity and naming species,” Ron O’Dor, senior scientist of the Census of Marine Life, told Reuters.

The register is linked to the census, a 10-year effort to map life in the oceans. So far the census has added 110 validated species to the list and expects to add thousands more.

In remote parts of the oceans, such as off Antarctica, more than 80 percent of organisms caught are unknown to science especially smaller creatures such as worms, molluscs or crustaceans.

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Editing by Ralph Boulton