Names of Pholis gunnellus.  ROCK GUNNEL  or Butterfish

In Connemara (Co. Galway, Eire/Rep. of Ireland ) the local names of
Pholis gunnellus, is "Eight-eyes" or "Nine-eyes" . Both these names co-exist
in the same region, along with the more common name of "Butterfish"


Peter Biddulph

Hello Ray Dennis and others,

Butterfish, Pholis gunnellus

It must have been a bit confusing, the idiosyncrasy, calling this fish the Gunnel, in this otherwise first choice book for fish (Collins Pocket Guide to Fish of  Britain & Europe).

The Butterfish, Stromateus fiatola, mentioned in the Collins book is not a British fish, so it is hard to understand where the name came from?  This name comes from South Africa!

Scientific Names

Rock pool fish are known by lots of different names all around the country so it is almost always essential to use the scientific names as well. And it best to spell the scientific names spelt right on the eFora as well so that the search method works.

What is it called locally?

Now, it would be very interesting to hear the local names in use for this fish. One of my favourite subjects, colloquial names are, as they will disappear from use as everybody becomes Internet-savvy. I do not know what the local fishermen (Sussex) call this fish when it is found in lobster pots. It is common so they must have a name for it.

What rockpoolers call it?

Butterfish is apt because it is so slippery that Taurulus bubalis (Bullhead and other names, Long-spined Sea Scorpion in the Collins book), a predator that it is likely to meet, cannot grip this fish in its mouth. In Public Aquaria they are sometimes kept together. Butterfish are so slippery that they are tricky to pick up with bare hands as well. I use an aquarium net if I want to capture this fish.

Virtually every other book (fish and seashore guides) uses the name Butterfish as first choice with about half of them also mentioning the alternative name Gunnel. I have never heard it called by a name other than Butterfish. This is not surprising because of its slippery nature, although the Americans have lots of names for it including Rock Eel, which is understandable, but it is not in the family Anguilla, with the other eels.

Butterfisk is the German name (from memory). Tangsprell is the Norwegian. I think Tang is a name for a seweed (from memory). Both names (Butterfish and Gunnel) are included on the Fishbase database.


(I used gunnel for the file name, only because my server would only accept names up to 8 characters long.)

Butterfish is a common name for at least one tropical marine fish and other slippery fish (more slippery than normal slippery fish) throughout the world. At least 10 fish found in America are called Butterfish, including Peprilus triacanthus, but not, apparently, Pholis gunnellus, which is also found on the American side of the Atlantic.

Gunnel is a good name, but I cannot envisage it being used exclusively in preference to Butterfish. In the recommended guide to the seashore (Collins Pocket Guide to the Seashore), this fish is indexed under Butterfish only and no mention is made of the alternative name Gunnel. In Scotland, the Orkneys and Shetlands, this fish is abundant and I guess there are lots of names for it.

In America where there are several species of the genus Pholis all christianed Gunnel, as well as other vernacular names. Gunnel is presumably how the Americans spell gunwhale, a word with an interesting etymology.

For this reason  Butterfish Gunnel  may be a better international colloquial name (in English).

Change of Valid Scientific Name

Collins books (both). Crenilabrus melops should have been called by the valid scientific name of Symphodus melops. This is the Corkwing Wrasse in common parlance. Although Crenilabrus has been in use in Britain for over a century, this was not necessarily so abroad.


Andy Horton
British Marine Life Study Society

British Marine Wildlife Forum (commenced 1 August 2000)
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