Scientific Names
Donya Camp (MG ’05)

Got Red Velvet Ants? . . . Cow Killers? . . . Cow Ants? . . .Mule-stingers?

The common name of an insect will likely depend on where you live—or where you grew up! Red Velvet Ants (or the common name of your choice) are a typical example. To add to the confusion, this insect is a wasp despite the inference of its common name! Regardless which continent you live on or what language you speak, if you include the scientific name of Dasymutilla occidentalis (Linnaeus) for the insect pictured to the left, then everyone (scientists and home gardeners alike) would understand which insect you are referencing.

Mention the term “scientific name” and you may get sighs, groans, anxiety attacks and other forms of human distress signals! Yet, most folks already have a grounding in scientific names and yet not know it.

For example, every so often, television, newspapers and other media blasts alerts on outbreaks of “E. coli” or “Salmonella” in contaminated meats or vegetables in the national food delivery system. Most individuals understand the significance of these two terms and why they should be aware of the potential impact that “E. coli” or “Salmonella” can have on human health. These terms refer to two important bacterial pathogens (Escherichia coli and Salmonella spp.). As you can now see, you’re likely to already be on your way to comprehending scientific names.

If you are familiar with rhododendrons, then its scientific name (Rhododendron) will likewise be familiar. Most gardeners are familiar with asters and thus they would be at ease with the genus that many—but not all—asters are classified within (Aster) .

There many, many examples of common names being identical or very similar to the genus name or species name. The point at hand is that scientific names serve a valuable function and they should not instill negative perceptions.

Origin & Purpose of Scientific Names

Every recognized species on earth (at least in theory) is given a two-part scientific name. This system is called "binomial nomenclature." These names are important because they allow people throughout the world to communicate unambiguously about animal species and plant species.

This naming system works because there are sets of international rules about how to name animals and plants. Biologists try to avoid naming the same thing more than once, though this does sometimes happen. These naming rules mean that every scientific name is unique. The same name is used over the world, by all scientists and in all languages to avoid difficulties of translation.

Binomial nomenclature is also referred to as the 'Binomial Classification System'. This naming system is used by scientists throughout the world. It was established by the great Swedish botanist and physician Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778). He attempted to describe the entire known natural world and gave each distinct animal and plant at that time a two-part name.

The Genus and Species Concept

If the spelling of genus and species terms sounds like Greek to you . . . then you’re on track in many cases. Every species can be unambiguously identified with just two words. The genus name and species name may come from any source whatsoever. Often they are Latin words, but they may also come from Ancient Greek, from a place, from a person, a name from a local language, etc. In fact, taxonomists come up with specific descriptors from a variety of sources, including inside-jokes and puns.

Scientific names sometimes bear the names of people who were instrumental in discovering or describing the species. Finally, some scientific names often reflect the common names given by people living in the region.

Scientific names are treated grammatically as if they were a Latin phrase. For this reason the name of a species is sometimes called its "Latin name," although this terminology is frowned upon by biologists, who generally prefer the phrase “scientific name.” The genus name must be unique inside each kingdom (i.e., Animal Kingdom or Plant Kingdom). However, species names are commonly reused, and are usually an adjectival modifier to the genus name, which is a noun. Family names are often derived from a common genus within the family.

The Value of Scientific Names

Unlike scientific names, common names are not unique. Many common names may be easier to remember (and pronounce) than scientific names, but common names are not as precise. The common name of a particular insect (or other animal or plant) might apply to several very different insects. Conversely, a single species can oftentimes be known by an array of very different common names! As a result, common name usage can lead to confusion about what animal is being referred to and what their relationships are to other animals.

Some Basic Guidelines for Using Scientific Names

• Scientific names are usually printed in italics, such as Homo sapiens (which refers to humans). When handwritten they should be underlined. Examples: Chrysoperla carnea or Chrysoperla carnea.

• The first term (genus name) is always capitalized, while the second term (species name) never is, even when derived from a proper name.

• When used with a common name, the scientific name usually follows in parentheses. Example: Green lacewing (Chrysoperla carnea)

• A scientific name should generally be written in full when first cited or used. Example: Escherichia coli

• After a scientific name is written in full in an article, it is acceptable (and customary) to abbreviate the genus name by just using first initial and then a period to represent the genus. Example: E. coli (NOTE #1: On rare occasion, an abbreviation form has taken on a general use in everyday conversation—as in the case for the bacterium Escherichia coli which is often referred to as just E. coli as indicated earlier. NOTE #2: We elected to state the full scientific name of insects referenced in this web page as doing otherwise may cause confusion to readers.)

• Some species have come to be known by multiple scientific names. In such cases, one name is chosen for the species and the other names are referred to as "synonym" or "synonyms" of the species name.

• What does the “spp.” and “sp.” designations refer to? The "sp." is an abbreviation for “species.” It is used when the actual species name cannot or need not or is not specified. The plural form of this abbreviation is "spp." and indicates "several species.” Example: Chrysoperla sp. (when referring to a single species) and Chrysoperla spp. (when referring to several species within the genus).
(NOTE 1: The “sp.” and “spp.” designations are not italicized or underlined! NOTE 2: This abbreviation system applies to animals (including insects). The equivalent system for plants is "spec."


Do not be intimated by the scientific names or discouraged about the difficulty of trying to pronounce the words. From asters (Aster spp.) to zinnias (Zinnia spp.) and from chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum spp.) to camellia (Camellia spp.), numerous plants around the home landscape or garden that gardeners may be familiar with are also known by their scientific "first" names (genus). Remember the case for E. Coli and you will better appreciate that this scientific name stuff is not an impossible study.


This web site is maintained by Master Gardener Laura Bellmore, under the direction of William M. Johnson, Ph.D., County Extension Agent-Horticulture & Master Gardener Program Coordinator.

All digital photographs are the property of  the Galveston County Master Gardener Association, Inc. (GCMGA) 2002-2015 GCMGA - All Rights Reserved.