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Medicine LibreTexts

2.03: Naming Animals

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  • Of course we know what a cat, a dog and a whale are but, in some situations using the common names for animals can be confusing. Problems arise because people in different countries, and even sometimes in the same country, have different common names for the same animals. For example a cat can be a chat, a Katze, gato, katt, or a moggie, depending on which language you use. To add to the confusion sometimes the same name is used for different animals. For example, the name ‘gopher’ is used for ground squirrels, rodents (pocket gophers), for moles and in the south-eastern United States for a turtle. This is the reason why all animals have been given an official scientific or binomial name. Unfortunately these names are always in Latin. For example:

    • Common rat: Rattus rattus
    • Human: Homo sapiens
    • Domestic cat: Felis domesticus
    • Domestic dog: Canis familiaris

    As you can see from the above there are certain rules about writing scientific names:

    • They always have 2 parts to them.
    • The first part is the genus name and is always written with a capital first letter.
    • The second name is the species name and is always written in lower case.
    • The name is always underlined or printed in italics.

    The first time you refer to an organism you should write the whole name in full. If you need to keep referring to the same organism you can then abbreviate the genus name to just the initial. Thus “Canis familiaris” becomes “C. familiaris” the second and subsequent times you refer to it.


    • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)