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How to Write Scientific Names

Written by: Daniel Ruten


"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name." – Confucius

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Understanding the rules for writing a scientific name

Precise terminology is vital in scientific writing. Therefore, the current system of taxonomy ensures that authors use standard scientific terms.

While naming and categorizing plants and animals has been a common human practice for thousands of years, early attempts were not systematic, so they were sometimes a bit flawed. For instance, in Ancient Greece, Plato was renowned at one point for his definition of a man as a "featherless biped." His fellow philosopher Diogenes responded by bringing forth a plucked chicken and proclaiming it to be a man.

The creation of a universal system of scientific names is relatively recent, starting in the eighteenth century with the foundational work of naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus. The modern system of taxonomy ensures that, no matter a person's spoken language, they can be confident that they are referring to the exact same species or taxa as other scientists. This standard framework underpins the entire body of scientific research that seeks to understand the living things in our world and how they relate to each other.

Accordingly, learning and following the rules for writing a scientific name is essential for any scientific work. This post will provide a brief overview of the taxonomic system of living organisms and how to write the scientific name of any plant or animal.

How to write scientific names

The basics: What is binomial nomenclature?

The system of binomial nomenclature was first developed by Linnaeus and is still used today.

In it, each individual species of organism is given a Latin name consisting of two key elements:

  1. the genus and
  2. the species, in that order.

However, it is important to note that a scientific name can also contain a subspecies if additional information is necessary to correctly identify a specific animal.

All scientific names are standardized by international codes.

Example: What is the scientific name of a cat?

For instance, the scientific name of the domestic housecat is Felis catus (note that because scientific names are in Latin, they are always italicized when written, and the first word is always capitalized).

In this case, Felis denotes the genus and catus denotes the species. Together, these two pieces create the scientific name of a domestic cat.

To better understand the significance of these categories and how this furry little carnivore fits into the natural order of things, let’s briefly review the hierarchy of all seven classification levels of the domestic cat.

Classifying the domestic cat: All seven classification levels

While these classifications are useful and interesting, only genus, species, and (if applicable) subspecies are necessary to create a standard binomial scientific name.

Kingdom: Animalia—this category encompasses all animals.

Phylum: Chordata (subphylum Vertebrata)—this category includes all animals that have chordates or backbones.

Class: Mammalia—this category includes all mammals (i.e., animals that have hair, three middle-ear bones, and mammary glands).

Order: Carnivora—as you can probably guess from the name, this category includes all carnivores.

Family: Felidae—this category encompasses both wild and domestic cats.

Genus: Felis—this category encompasses cats that are smaller and/or cannot roar.

Species: Catus—here, we’ve finally arrived at the particular brand of small cat that has become a friend (or master) of humans. This species includes between 40 and 50 breeds of cats.

Example: What is the scientific name of a dog?

Likewise, the scientific name for the domestic dog is Canis lupus familiaris. In this case, Canis denotes the genuslupus, the species; and familiaris, the subspecies.

Your friendly neighborhood Pomeranian is considered a subspecies of Canis lupus—the gray wolf!

How to format scientific names in academic writing

Italicization

Publications and style guides may vary. However, the scientific name of any species of plants or animals should almost always be italicized.

Capitalization

In addition, the genus (the first component of the name) should always be capitalized, while the species and subspecies are kept in lowercase.

Categories above genus

As mentioned, binomial scientific names should always be italicized, but any category above the level of genus is typically written in roman (i.e., non-italicized) text. The exceptions are bacteria, fungi, and viruses; for these taxa, italics are also used at the family level.

Multiple appearances

Additionally, when writing a scientific name multiple times in a text, the genus is often abbreviated to include only the first letter after the first use of the name. For instance, one may write:

"Felis catus belongs to the order Carnivora. This means that F. catus subsists primarily on meat."

Subspecies

The subspecies is always formatted in the same way as the species—lowercase and italicized. If the subspecies name is the same as the species name (e.g., the tiger Panthera tigris tigris), the species can be abbreviated to the first letter (Panthera t. tigris).

Unknown species

If a species is unknown, the abbreviation "sp." is used in place of the species name and is non-italicized. The abbreviation "spp." is similarly used to indicate a group of unknown species. The term "sp. novo" is used to indicate a species that is being described for the first time.

Discoverers' names

Sometimes, the abbreviated or full surname of the person who named the species is included after the scientific name (e.g., "Quercus alba L." or "Quercus alba Linnaeus"). This part of the scientific name is never italicized.

Parting advice: Ensuring consistency

Lastly, make sure that you use and format scientific names consistently throughout your paper, article, or thesis.

When working on a sizable document, making sure that scientific terms are consistently written and formatted throughout can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming task.

That's why it's always helpful to get a second set of eyes on your work before submitting your final draft. You can ask a friend or colleague to look over your work or use a professional editor. With that, you can rest easy in the knowledge that your reader will easily understand and appreciate your work without being put off by any errors or inconsistencies.


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About the Author

Daniel Ruten is an in-house editor at Scribendi. He honed his academic writing and editing skills while attaining a BA and MA in History at the University of Saskatchewan, where he researched institutions and the experiences of mental patients in 18th-century England. In his spare time, he enjoys producing music, reading books, drinking too much coffee, and wandering around nature.

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