Tropical Fish Terminology
by birdfish

I have a pet peeve or two as you may have noticed.  

One is terminology, that is, how words are used. If we are to understand each other or be on the "same page," correct word usage is imperitive to making communication effective.

A regularly misused term I see that really gets under my skin is something far too common on a sign or in a Yellow Page or other ad that says "Tropical AND Saltwater Fish." Arrrrrggggghhhh!!!!  

While I am the first to admit that I at times struggle with grammar myself, plain ol' simple definitions are another story. (This is what a dictionary is for when we don't understand a word.)

I'm sure many of you already are fully aware of the correct meaning of the term "tropical" when it's applied to fish. But for the rest, and the store owners that don't get it, here is a "Basic 101 Primer."

The term tropical designates a climate, and-or, a biological life-zone. Another climate you know is temperate (ours here in the U.S.). The 4 seasons we have in our temperate climate do not exist in the tropics where there are 2 seasons, wet and dry. It is almost always warm, and often very humid in the tropics.

The tropics extend from the Tropic of Cancer in the north (200 miles south of Brownsville, Texas), to the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere. These points on the planet are the furthest north or south the sun gets straight up overhead on the summer and winter solstices. They are at 23 degrees, 26 minutes north or south of the equator. Southernmost Texas, and southern Florida are sub-tropical climates. Clearly different from most of the mainland U.S., but not truly tropical. Most of the fish we keep are from the tropics, whether or not they are from fresh or salt water.

The flora and fauna that live in the tropics are tropical. There are tropical birds, tropical fish, tropical snakes and tropical plants amongst others. Whether the fish for example live in freshwater or saltwater has nothing to do with whether or not they are tropical fish, whether in Indonesia, Africa, or South America. They are tropical fish because they live in tropical (warm) waters (which may be fresh or salt) in the tropics. What type of water they live in does not change that they are tropical fish, and often confuses the issue. As opposed to what we have here in America, temperate fish. Temperate is the climate we live in (where there are the four climatalogical seasons) and we have temperate fauna and flora. Our native fishes are (freshwater or saltwater) temperate fish, tropical fish come from the tropics.

A very few of the fish in the hobby are temperate, mostly freshwater fish, like koi and goldfish in particular being the most popular (and Chinese Algae Eaters). Our native temperate freshwater fishes have a niche among discerning hobbyists as well, many are absolutely as beautiful as any fish in the world.

In saltwater, the Catalina Goby from southern California was a popular temperate species, as were now illegal Leopard Sharks, but there are very few temperate saltwater fish in the hobby in general. They don't do well in our aquaria that are heated to tropical temperatures. They break down, get diseases, and have shortened life-spans. Temperate fish must be kept at temperate temperatures and tropical fish at tropical temperatures.

Tropical AND saltwater fish??? When on a fish store sign or in their advertising, this grates like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, because it is not proper terminology or usage of the word "tropical." Therefore they are teaching people incorrectly about what they sell! Saying 'tropical and saltwater' infers the saltwater fish are not tropical. And, it doesn't really tell me if they have freshwater fish (which is what the misuser thinks they are doing). Since it is so often misused I thought I'd cover it here once and for all, in my dreams.   (smile)

The fish store is where we are supposed to be able to go to learn it right. This seems an all too common misusage that I have seen all across the country. There seems to be no regional pattern. I've seen it on the East coast, West coast, North and South, you can find it anywhere.

So, properly, the signs or yellow page or other ads should read "fresh and saltwater tropical fish" or "tropical fish - fresh and saltwater." Either tells me they have tropical fish of both flavors, fresh and salt. We can only guess that they do when they say "tropical and saltwater fish," because that is not what they are saying.

Hopefully my rant has helped you understand the difference between temperate and tropical, and how the terms are used properly and improperly. At least now you know both the freshwater and saltwater fish in the store are tropical fish. The store owner knows too, some just don't know the correct proper usage of the terms. This has been a public service.   (smile)

Off my soapbox!

Enjoy your tropical fish, be they fresh or salt water!
~ birdfish

Here's another reference I found
after I was done with this article,
which has supporting information:
Tropics - Wikipedia


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