As many as 250 species of freshwater fish inhabiting inland water bodies across Kerala may soon get vernacular names, making them easier to identify and document.

The Kerala State Biodiversity Board (KSBB) has taken up a novel programme to provide Malayalam names to each of these species. Scientists, naturalists, and local fishermen in the State are expected to participate in a workshop named ‘Meeninu oru peru' to be hosted by the board here on September 30 for the purpose.

According to KSBB Member Secretary K.P. Laladhas, providing Malayalam names would be a challenging task. “The local available name of a fish conveys much information about the geography, ecology, meteorology, and traditional knowledge related to the species. The folk name commonly used is one of the prerequisites for the proper understanding of the natural history of a species. It is possible that this principle would have guided our ancestors to name, popularise, and transfer the information down many generations,” he said.

The workshop is aimed at restoring and revitalising all the vernacular names of freshwater fish in the State. It will seek to assign a common appropriate Malayalam name for official documentation.

“Use of several vernacular names, including many misnomers, often poses great difficulty in documenting fish, especially when KSBB is now in the process of preparing biodiversity registers for all the panchayats in the State,” R.V. Varma, KSBB Chairman, said. Dr. Laladhas said the exercise would help in standardising the data on freshwater fish. He said the board was finalising the database on fish fauna of all the 44 rivers in the State, through a fish monitoring programme initiated last year.

“Though the folk nomenclature and local names are often created based on specific characters of fish, it is not true in all the cases, as the same name is given to different species in the same geographical area,” Dr. Varma said.

“For example, the name ‘Kallotti' is given to fish varities belonging to the genera Garra, Bhavania, Travancoria, and Homaploptera, all inhabiting hill streams in the State,” he said.

At the workshop, the vernacular names will be finalised after considering various names in use and also based on some special features like appearance, shape, size, habit, habitat, lifestyles, and behaviour, colour and utility.

‘Ascharya Paral' the name given to a fish recently discovered in the Kallada river, is based on the exclamation mark on its lateral side. It is named scientifically, as Puntius exclamatio. The freshwater puffer fish, Carinotetraodon travancoricus, is known in local parlance as ‘Thavala pottan' as it features black spots resembling a frog. Horaglanis krishnai, a small blind clariid fish, endemic to the subterranean wells of Kerala, is known by the name Kurudan mushi.

Many western investigators, while studying the fish fauna during the 17th and 18th centuries had adopted local names as scientific names. Eminent fish taxonomists like Linnaeus, Bloch, Cuvier, and Valenciennes retained common names (though in the corrupt form) for the species names.

The natural history notes of Colonel Sykes (1839) (Fishes of Dukkum) and Hamilton's (1822) account on the Fishes of Ganges adopted the local names of the fishes as scientific names. For example, the generic name Puntius for the small barbs found in freshwater resources in Kerala is derived from the word Pungti, a local name for small barbs in northern India.