Many people are intimidated by writing scientific names — and if science has never been your strong point and you don’t find Latin fascinating either, you are probably one of them. The good news? Writing scientific names is really not that hard. Here’s how.
Why Are Scientific Names Important?
Accuracy and specificity are both of critical importance in scientific endeavors. Order, which requires a system, is also crucial. The current system of scientific names, called binomial nomenclature, was first introduced by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century for all of these reasons. Although this framework has evolved since that time — with the discovery of countless new species — it remains in place to this day.
Although many people refer to scientific names as “Latin names”, that would be inaccurate. Many scientific names have Latin roots, but others have Greek roots or are based on entirely different languages, such as English or Russian. One advantage of scientific names lies in the fact that it allows people from diverse backgrounds and speaking numerous native languages to understand what species is under discussion more easily.
Frankly, the easiest way to find out the scientific name of a specific species would be to look it up on the internet, using reputable sources. Textbooks can also help you master more scientific names.
How to Write Scientific Names Correctly
What Is the Binomial Nomenclature?
You’ll have seen scientific names before, and probably noticed that they consist of two parts. That’s what “binomial” means in Latin — two names. The first name always refers to the genus of a species; that is, the wider group or type it belongs to. The second name refers to the specific species, and is therefore unique. In this way, the scientific name of an organism offers information not only about its name, but also about the wider group it belongs to.
While a scientific name only offers information about an organism’s genus and species name, binomial nomenclature reflects a much larger taxonomy; the biological classification of species has eight ranks, seven of which are widely in use today.
Let’s take the common house cat as an example.
Your feline friend belongs to:
- The Kingdom of animals (as opposed to, say, plants), called Animalia in Latin.
- The Phylum of Chordata, based on broad anatomical features.
- The Subphylum of Vertebrata, which means it’s a vertebrate.
- The Class of Mammalia, because it’s a mammal.
- The Order of carnivores — Carnivora.
- The Family of Felidae, which means cats.
- The Genus of Felis, which refers to small and medium-sized cats and also includes, for instance, the Chinese mountain cat.
- The unique species name given to this species is “catus“, making your house cat’s fancy Latin name Felis catus. This reflects its genus and species name.
International Codes of Nomenclature
If you are looking for a handy guidebook to offer comprehensive information on the scientific names of various species, the International Codes of Nomenclature would be it. There are different International Codes of Nomenclature for plants, algae, and fungi, for bacteria, and for zoology (meaning animals). These codes are updated sporadically, typically once every six years or whenever the need for an update becomes apparent.
The International Codes of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants is, for instance, currently in its 17th edition and was last updated in 2018. You can find it online for free through the IAPT. In most cases, you won’t need to have access to guides such as this one, however, and will easily be able to locate a correct scientific name on the internet.
10 Rules of Writing Scientific Names
If you are writing an essay, or need to familiarize yourself with the rules of writing scientific names for any other reason, the process can seem daunting at first. Once you understand them, however, the rules are extremely logical.
Here’s a look:
- When writing a scientific name, always either italicize it or underline it, as in Ixodes scapularis (deer tick) or Borrelia burgdorferi (the bacteria that cause Lyme disease). Underlining is more common in handwritten texts, when the person is already using cursive.
- Capitalize the first part of the scientific name, but not the second, as in Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap).
- Scientific names may be abbreviated by writing the first letter of the genus, followed by the species name, such as burgdorferi.
- For titles and headers, which may already be italicized, it is appropriate to spell out the entire scientific name, without abbreviating it, in capital letters, or to leave it unitalicized.
- Sometimes the surname, or first initial, of the person to have discovered the species appears, without italicization, after the scientific name. When writing scientific names with authors, pay attention that you do not italicize the author’s name.
- When including the subspecies, the rules are the same — Panthera tigris tigris. You may abbreviate this to Panthera t. tigris as well. In this case, do not capitalize the abbreviation.
- For unknown species, the abbreviation is used. For a group of closely related unknown species, the abbreviation spp. is used. Such species will typically gain a name of their own soon after discovery.
- There are botany-specific rules when writing scientific names, as well. To indicate a variety, add “var.” and the name of the variety to the scientific name. When describing a form, write followed by its name. Cultivar names are capitalized, italicized, and placed in quote marks.
- According to specific rules in zoology, the oldest recognized name is the correct one to use. While the establishment of a genus simultaneously dictates a subgenus, each taxon must have a unique name, and therefore, no two species may have the same name.
- If you are writing the common name as well as the scientific name, it is established practice to lead with the common name and to then add the scientific name in brackets, while taking care to italicize it.
Examples of Writing Scientific Names
Were you hoping to see some more examples in action? We have you covered!
- The scientific names of animals include Mustela furo (ferret), Parasteatoda tepidariorum (common house spider), and Carassius auratus (goldfish).
- The scientific names of plants include Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion, although any Taraxacum species is considered a dandelion), Petroselinum crispum (garden parsley), and Quercus, the wider family of oak trees.
- Abbreviated forms are particularly common for microorganisms, such as the infamous Escherichia coli ( coli) and Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile, also referred to as C. diff). This is likely because no common names exist for them, and people find it too difficult to spell out the entire thing.
- Scientific or Latin names exist for human body parts as well, but because they remain constant, they do not follow a binomial structure. Think cranium and trachea. These scientific terms do not have to be italicized.
If you are unsure about specific conventions as they pertain to a particular species, you can always look it up to find more information. You could, for instance, refer to a number of scientific studies that mention the species, and observe how the authors have written the name. If there is a convention, you should follow it.
Why are scientific names in italics or underlined?
The convention of italicizing — or, where that is not possible, such as in cursive handwriting or on a typewriter underlining — scientific names likely arose to indicate that these words had a unique origin, and were essentially loanwords.
Today, however, the practice is part of an entire framework, and italicizing or underlining scientific names offers additional clarity. In “S. enterica ser. Typhimurium”, for instance, the last portion, which is not in italics, signifies a serotype of a particular species of Salmonella bacteria. When everyone knows what should and should not be italicized, the very content of academic writing becomes clearer, too.
Why are scientific names written in Latin?
Contrary to popular belief, not all scientific names are written in Latin! Latin was originally chosen because, as a dead language, it offered an abundant source of new words — the framework for creating scientific names was laid during a time when numerous new species were discovered frequently.
The practice has the added benefit of being geopolitically fairly neutral. If scientific names had been in English or Russian, for instance, it would have caused some conflict and made it impossible to adopt the same framework on a global basis.
Today, scientific names are drawn from a multitude of sources, but still have Greek or Latin suffixes. Take the dragonfly Acisoma attenboroughi, for instance, as one of 12 species named for David Attenborough. That’s definitely not Latin!
How are scientific names determined?
New scientific names — given to newly-discovered species, of which there are surprisingly many — are agreed upon by the scientific community, often after passionate discussion and debate. New scientific names must fit within the established framework. After a genus is clarified, the species name can refer to a physical characteristic, behavioral characteristic, or even the name of the person who discovered it, or in honor of a famous scientist.