Nomenclature - Scientific and Common Names

Researching the location you want to visit and actually taking the images is only the first step if you are serious with your photography. The correct naming of animal species and referencing other important information such as habitat and location is equally, if not more important.

LEFT:  Cyclamen spp., a Genus of 23 species (copyright Iain Williams)

For many photographers, the use of a common name is deemed suitable.  However, convergent evolution has resulted in many animals that occupy the same ecological niche in differing geographical locations.  Often, a common name is only known within a certain geographical range.  For example, the orange nudibranch (a marine slug) which is a common name for this nudibranch found in Jamaica, is known as the flame nudibranch elsewhere.  To use a scientific name would ensure that this nudibranch is known correctly wherever it's found globally.

Linnaean Taxonomy

Linnaean taxonomy is a method of classifying living organisms, originally devised by (and named for) Carolus Linnaeus.  Although the naming hierarchy has changed considerably since his time, Linnauos is known as the father of nomenclature


The greatest innovation of Linnaeus, and still the most important aspect of this system, is the general use of binomial nomenclature, the combination of a genus name and a single specific epithet to uniquely identify each species of organism. For example, the human species is uniquely identified by the binomial Homo sapiens. No other species of organism can have this binomial. Another example is the Brown Bear, Ursus arctos.  Usus refers to all species of bears and is the Genus name, however, arctos only refers to the brown bear.  Prior to Linnaean taxonomy, animals were classified according to their mode of movement.

All species are classified in a ranked hierarchy, originally starting with kingdoms although domains have since been added as a rank above the kingdoms. Kingdoms are divided into phyla (singular: phylum) — for animals; the term division, used for plants and fungi, is equivalent to the rank of phylum (and the current International Code of Botanical Nomenclature allows the use of either term). Phyla (or divisions) are divided into classes, and they, in turn, into orders, families, genera (singular: genus), and species (singular: species).

Though the Linnaean system has proven robust, expansion of knowledge has led to an expansion of the number of hierarchical levels within the system, increasing the administrative requirements of the system, though it remains the only extant working classification system at present that enjoys universal scientific acceptance. Among the later subdivisions that have arisen are such entities as phyla, super classes, super orders, infra orders, families, super families and tribes. Many of these extra hierarchical levels tend to arise in disciplines such as entomology, whose subject matter is replete with species requiring classification. Any biological field that is species rich, or which is subject to a revision of the state of current knowledge concerning those species and their relationships to each other, will inevitably make use of the additional hierarchical levels, particularly when fossil forms are integrated into classifications originally designed for extant living organisms, and when newer taxonomic tools such as cladistics and phylogenetic nomenclature are applied to facilitate this.

Difficulty is Determining the Correct Name

Often determining the scientific name for a species is fraught with difficulty.  This may not be  when dealing with the well-known mammals, however, it becomes especially evident when there are several variations (colour, size, texture, pattern) of a particular species.  For example, many invertebrates cannot be accurately identified to species level without killing and dissecting the animal.  Furthermore, there are millions of invertebrates, and many have not been cataloged and named by professionals.   

I cannot impress on you the importance of a correct Latin scientific name when identifying an animal.  Common names more than often alter geographically and often are changed by younger generations.  Scientific names undergo a relatively rigorous process before acceptance and are accepted worldwide without hindrance by cultural and language boundaries.  Likewise, if a scientific name is altered (and they are from time to time), the process is well regulated and recorded.

The Correct Method of Writing the Latin Name

The Latin name is ALWAYS in italics with the Genus name in Title Case (first letter capitalized).  This is followed by the species name which is in lower case.  When referring to the Latin name in association with the common name, the Latin name is ALWAYS enclosed in brackets.  For example Brown Bear (Ursus arctos).

Other nomenclature abbreviations that can be regularly used are the letters sp., spp. and cf.  These abbreviations are for species (singular), species (plural - meaning a reference to all species within a genus) and cf. which is used when identification has yet to be confirmed with 100% certainty.  The correct method of writing these words is in italics and in lower case using a full stop after the letters.

As an example, if you photographed a plant from the Dogwood Family, however, could not discover its actual species name, it would be accepted practice to name the plant Cornus spp. - meaning the plant is a species that belongs within the Dogwood Genus. 

So Where Does This Leave You?  

I am not suggesting you have to become a biologist to name your images.  But, at the very least you should have the Genus and Species name of your image recorded within the image's metadata.

Information pertaining to the animal you  photographed can be found in reference books and to the larger extent from the Internet. A word of warning regarding the Internet - anyone can post anything on the net these days; there is no peer review on many sites, meaning that mistakes can and do regularly occur.  Therefore, unless you actually do know the correct name, always cross reference the results of your Internet search with information from reference books.  All quality reference books undergo editorial and in many cases peer review before being published.

Please, if you can't discover the correct name for some small mite you photographed in the Amazon rainforest, don't despair - it maybe a new species!  But, whatever you do please don't make up a name for the sake of filling in the metadata.

If you are keen on photographing animals and plants and want to accurately identify them, try your best to learn taxonomic nomenclature.  In the long run, your life and the lives of others (photo editors) will be a lot easier that if you hadn't.