How to Write Scientific Names

Understanding the rules for writing a scientific name

The use of precise terminology is essential in scientific writing. The existing system of taxonomy enables authors to adopt standard scientific terms.

The naming and categorization of animals and plants have been conducted for thousands of years; however, early attempts were not systematic. Devising a universal system for scientific names is rather new, initiated in the 18th century with the foundational work of naturalists such as Carl Linnaeus. The modern system of taxonomy enables individuals to refer to the exact same species or taxa as other scientists regardless of the person’s native language. This standard framework underpins the entire body of scientific research that aim to understand the living things in the world and the way they are related.

Therefore, following the rules of writing a scientific name is vital for any scientific work. Here we provide a brief overview of the taxonomic system of living organisms and the way the scientific name of plants or animals should be written.

How to write scientific names

What is binomial nomenclature?

The system of binomial nomenclature was devised by Carl Nilsson Linnæus and is still in use.

In this naming system, a Latin name consisting of two key elements is given to each individual species of organism:

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

However, it should be noted that a scientific name can also contain a subspecies in case additional information is necessary for the accurate identification of a specific organism.

Scientific names are standardized by international codes.

Example: What is the scientific name of a cat?

The scientific name of the domestic housecat is Feliscatus (note that because scientific names are in Latin, the written forms are always italicized, and the first word should be capitalized).

In this case, Felis and catus indicate the genus and the species, respectively. These two pieces together constitute the scientific name of a domestic cat.

for a better understanding of the significance of these categories, we will review the hierarchy of all seven classification levels of the domestic cat.

Classification of the domestic cat: All seven classification levels

Although these classifications are useful and interesting, only genus, species, and (if applicable) subspecies are necessary for the creation of a standard binomial scientific name.

Kingdom: Animalia—this category includes all animals.

Phylum: Chordata (subphylum Vertebrata)—this category encompasses animals with chordates or backbones.

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

Order: Carnivora—as indicated by the name, this category includes all carnivores.

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

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

Species: Catus—This is the particular brand of a small cat that has befriended humans. These species encompass 40-50 breeds of cats.

Now, what is the scientific name of a dog?

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

How to format scientific names in academic writing


Publications and style guides can be quite different. However, it is safer to italicize the scientific name of any species of plant or animal.


Moreover, the genus (the first component) must be capitalized, while the species and subspecies should be written in lowercase.

Categories above genus

It should be noted although binomial scientific names should always be italicized, any category above the level of the genus should be written in Roman (i.e., non-italicized) text. The exceptions to this rule include bacteria, fungi, and viruses; for these taxa, italics are also used at the family level.

Multiple appearances

Furthermore, in case a scientific name is repeated multiple times in a text, the genus would be abbreviated to include only the first letter after the first appearance in the text.

For example:

Feliscatus belongs to the order Carnivora, indicating that F. catus subsists primarily on meat.”


Please be noticed that subspecies should be formatted in the same way as the species—lowercase and italicized. However, in case the subspecies name is the same as the species name (e.g., the tiger Pantheratigristigris), the species may be abbreviated to the initial letter (Panthera t. tigris).

Unknown species

In the case of the unknown species, the abbreviation “sp.” should be used in place of the species name, and it will not be italicized. The abbreviation “spp.” suggests a group of unknown species as well. The term “sp. novo” is indicative of a species that is introduced for the first time.

Discoverers’ names

At times, the abbreviated or full surname of the person who named the species comes after the scientific name (e.g., “Quercusalba L.” or “Quercus alba Linnaeus”). However, it should be noted that this part should never be italicized.

Parting advice: make sure of consistency

Eventually, you must use and format scientific names consistently throughout your article,  or thesis.

Ensuring that scientific terms are written and formatted consistently throughout the article can be very labor-intensive and time-consuming when you are working on a lengthy document.

For this reason, it is always helpful to have someone check your work prior to submitting the final document. It is suggested to ask a friend or colleague to check your work or hire a professional editor. This way you can make sure that your readers will understand and appreciate your work without being discouraged by the encountered errors or inconsistencies.

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