Forsskål's use of Arabic names for fish species

Peter Forsskål was a Swedish scientist who did a taxonomical classification of animals of the Red Sea region, and used the Arabic name as the species name.


Peter Forsskål was born in Finland, but his family moved to Sweden.

His first name was spelled Peter (English), Petrus (Latin), and Pehr. His last name was spelled as Forskål, Forsskål and Forskal.

He studied under Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy. Linnaeus recommended him to King Frederick V of Denmark for a scientific expedition to Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia, today's Yemen).

The expedition left in 1760 and went to Egypt, then via the Red Sea to Jeddah and Yemen. Forsskål did a very meticulous and systematic taxonomy of the sea life in that part of the world, including many fish species previously unknown to science.

Forsskål died in Yemen in 1763, as well as others who accompanied the expedition, Carsten Niebuhr being the only survivor.


His work was published posthoumously by Neibuhr in 1775, a full 12 years after Forskaal's death.

His main works are:

  • Petrus Forskål: Descriptiones Animalium - Avium, amphiborum, insectorum, vermium quæ in itinere orientali observavit Post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr. København, 1775.
  • Petrus Forskål: Flora Ægyptiaco-Arabica sive descriptiones plantarum quas per Ægyptum Inferiorem et Arabiam felicem detexit, illustravit Petrus Forskål Post mortem auctoris edidit Carsten Niebuhr. København 1775.
  • Petrus Forskål: Materia Medica ex Officina Pharmaceutica Kahiræ Descripta. This was the last chapter of the book contained Forsskål notes on what pharmacists used in Cairo, the ingredients, preparation, ...etc. The manuscript contains some Arabic, and is preserved in the Royal Library of Denmark.

Taxonomical approach

Many of the fish in the Red Sea today still have Forsskål on their taxonomy name, whether you are looking them up in a book, or on Fishbase.

Forsskål followed a very easy and consistent system, he used the common name in Arabic of the fish as the species name.

Table of fish species with Arabic names

Latin Arabic Common Name Comments
Abudefduf أبو دفدف Seargent Major spp.
Acanthopagrus berda بردة ؟ Picnic seabream
Acanthurus gahhm قحم Dusky Surgeonfish
Acanthurus sohal سحل Sohal Surgeonfish, Red Sea Surgeonfish
Aethaloperca rogaa رقعة ؟ Redmouth Grouper
Alepes djedaba جدابة Shrimp scad
Carangoides bajad بياض Orangespotted Trevally Being a Swede, the J is the Y sound
Carangoides ferdau فرد ؟ Blue Trevally
Chaetodon abudafar أبو دفر ؟ Whitetailed dascyllus Now Dascyllus aruanus
Chirocentrus dorab ضراب Dorab Worlf-Herring
Elops machnata مخناطة ؟ Tenpounder
Epinephelus summana سمانة Summan Grouper Being a Swede, the V letter was a W sound
Epinephelus tauvina توينة Greasy or Spotted Grouper
Gerres oyena عيينة ؟ Common silver-biddy
Hemiramphus far فار Spotted halfbeak
Himantura uarnak ورنك Honeycomb Stingray
Hipposcarus harid حريد Redlined Parrotfish
Lethrinus harak حرك Blackspot Emperor
Lethrinus mahsena محسنة Yelowtailed Emperor
Lethrinus ramak رمك Yellowbanded Bream
Lutjanus bohar بوهار Twospot Red Snapper
Lutjanus kasmira كسميرة ؟ Bluestriped snapper, Bluestripe snapper
Mormyrus kannume كنومة ؟ Elephant snout fish
Myripristis murdjan مرجان Red Squirrelfish
Neoniphon sammara سمارة Lonchin Soldierfish
Pastinachus sephen سفن Cowtail Stingray
Platax teira طيرة Longfin Batfish
Plectorhinchus schotaf شطف Sweetlip
Pomacanthus asfur عصفور Arabian Angelfish, Red Sea Angelfish
Priacanthus hamrur حمرور Duskyfin Bulleye, Scad
Rhabdosargus haffara حفارة Haffara seabream
Rhabdosargus sarba صربة Goldlined seabream
Rhinobatos halavi حلوي ؟ Halavi's guitarfish
Rhynchobatus djiddensis Djiddensis means “of Djeddah”, meaning the city of Jeddah where Forskal has collected lots of his specimens
Scarus ghobban غبان Flame Parrotfish
Scolopsis ghanam غنم Arabian Monocle Bream
Scomberoides lysan لسان Largemouthed Leatherskin
Siganus سجان Rabbitfishes
Sillago sihama سهمة Northern Whiting
Taeniura lymma لمة ؟ Bluespotted Stingray
Terapon jarbua جربوع Tigerfish
Thryssa baelama بيلمة ؟ Hairfin Anchovy
Valamugil seheli سهلية Bluespot Mullet
Variola louti لوتي Lunartailed Grouper

A list of 155 fish species that Forskal classified can be found on this page.

More information on Forskal

Other Links and Resources



The Danish expedition to Arabia

The 6 members of the expedition left Copenhagen at the beginning of 1761 (not 1760 as above),
4 died around mid-1763, and the 5th at the beginning of 1764.
Carsten Niebuhr, the geographer, was on his own from that time until Nov. 1767, when he returned to Copenhagen, after crossing from the Chatt el Arab through Turkey and the Balkans, nearly full 7 years away.
Niebuhr did not publish his 3rd book until 1778, well after he had published his friend Forsskal' notes and drawings, in 1775, an action which cost him much work, and a lot of money.

this last sentence is designed to delete the despising formula above: "was published posthoumously by Neibuhr in 1775, a full 12 years after Forskaal's death".