How to Use Binomial Nomenclature in Scientific Writing
  • 5-minute read
  • 20th June 2021

How to Use Binomial Nomenclature in Scientific Writing

Binomial nomenclature – i.e., the Latin names given to animal and plant species – is a key part of scientific writing in zoology, botany, and similar subjects. But how do you use this naming system in your work? In this post, we explain the basics of how to use and cite binomial nomenclature in scientific writing.

What Is Binomial Nomenclature?

“Binomial nomenclature” refers to the system of two-part names given to animals and plants in scientific writing. In The Lion King, for instance, a lion is just a lion. But in scientific work, a lion is Panthera leo. These names comprise the following:

  1. A generic name for the genus (i.e., the category to which a species belongs). For example, Ursus is a genus that includes a number of bear species.
  2. A species name, sometimes known as the “specific name” (animals) or “specific epithet” (plants). The binomial name for the polar bear, for instance, is Ursus maritimus (Latin for “sea bear”), while the brown bear is Ursus arctos (a mix of Latin and Greek with the slightly mundane meaning of “bear bear”).

This system helps us to identify any species clearly with two words, thereby ensuring clarity in scientific writing. Common names, by comparison, vary from place to place and language to language, which can cause confusion.

A form of binomial nomenclature was first used by Swiss botanists the Bauhin brothers. But the version we know today is based on the work of Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who formalized the system in 1753.

Basic Rules for Writing Species Names

There are two key conventions used when writing binomial names. Make sure to:

  • Capitalize the first letter of the genus, but not the species.
  • Format all binomial names in italics.

After the first use, genus names can sometimes be abbreviated to a first initial (e.g., Felis catus would become F. catus on subsequent mentions). However, you should only do this if there is no possibility of confusion. If you are using more than one similar species name, it is best to give the full name each time.

The other key consideration is where to put a species name. If you’re referring to a species by its binomial nomenclature alone, you can simply give it in the text:

Lycaon pictus is close to extinction.

But if you’re using a common name, too, the scientific name will usually go in parentheses afterwards. For instance:

The African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is close to extinction.

If you’re using a species name in everyday writing, following the guidelines above should suffice! However, there are more conventions related to binomial nomenclature in scholarly work, which we’ll look at briefly next.

Author Citations in Scholarly Work

In scholarly writing, you may need to cite the person who named a species when you first introduce the binomial nomenclature for an animal or plant.

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For animal species, the rules are set out in the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (or ICZN). A basic author citation here includes the surname of the person who named the species and the year it was named. For example:

The brown bear (Ursus arctos Linnaeus, 1758) ranges across Eurasia.

But for plant species, as set out in the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICBN), basic author citations only require giving an abbreviated surname for the person who named the species:

Amaranthus retroflexus L. is better known as “tumbleweed.”

Here, for instance, the “L.” is short for “Linnaeus” (yes, again; he was a very busy man and named a lot of species). You can find the standard author abbreviations for botany via the International Plant Name Index.

Note, too, that neither citation italicizes the author’s name, just the species name.

This covers basic author citations for animal and plant species. However, the rules can vary depending on the code and situation. As such, you should check the full rules for the code you’re using when adding author citations in your writing.

Abbreviations Used with Binomial Nomenclature

Some common abbreviations used with binomial nomenclature include:

  • sp. (zoology) or spec. (botany) in place of a species name after a genus shows that you’re referring to the genus in general, not a specific species.
  • spp. after a genus name means “several species of said genus.”
  • ssp. (zoology) and subsp. (botany) indicate an unspecified subspecies.
  • sspp. (zoology) and subspp. (botany) indicate several subspecies.
  • cf. indicates a species identification that hasn’t been confirmed.

Be careful not to confuse these abbreviations, as many of them are quite similar!

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Comments (2)
19th September 2022 at 02:50
When using a Genus name as a common name, what are the conventions? Should "tithonia" be used, or should the term be capitalized?
    23rd September 2022 at 17:14
    Hi, Robert. For scientific writing, the genus when used alone is always italicized and begins with an uppercase letter, so Tithonia. If it’s more general writing, it depends on your style guide but as long as what you choose is consistent, then that’s fine.

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