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Changing invasive species names and why

Last month, in this newsletter, we posted about spongy moth treatments in northern Minnesota and had a teaser asking if you recognized that species by another name. For many years there have been outreach messages to prevent the spread of this invasive moth whose caterpillars feed on over 300 tree species including oaks, birch, willows, alder, as well as cedar, pine, spruce and fir. Spongy moth egg masses, laid by flightless females, are easily transported on firewood or any hard surface including campers and other outdoor gear. Various treatments are deployed from airplanes to either kill caterpillars using a common soil fungus, or disrupt mating by flooding the air with pheromones and confusing the males as they search for females. Lymantria dispar is the scientific name.

Spongy moth. Image: Ben Sale.
Earlier this year, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) announced the new name for this moth, spongy moth.

Earlier this year, the Entomological Society of America (ESA), who governs insect common names, announced the new name, spongy moth, and since then organizations and agencies across the nation have quickly been removing the old name and using the new. Why? The old name is a racial slur often applied to Romani people, a nomadic group originally from India now dispersed across Europe and the Americas.

Invasive species professionals have been making efforts to improve names as they have become more aware of the negative impacts invasive species names have on people. The ESA created a “Better Common Names” subcommittee and spent over a year removing the spongy moth's old name, working to create a better new common name and launching an approach to get the new name into broad circulation over the next few years. Learn more about their efforts.

The University of Minnesota has been a national leader in improving troublesome invasive species common names since 2018. Extension educators were confronted with the opportunity to post some of the first information about a new species showing significant signs of invasiveness in Minnesota, Thladiantha dubia. This was an uncommon species in the United States, but the common name most widely used referenced the Manchurian people in central Asia. Invasive species specialists at Extension knew that could be a problem in Minnesota because of state legislation passed in 2014 requiring state agencies to stop using the term “Asian” and instead use the term “invasive” to reference a group of non-native carp because of concerns raised by Asian Minnesotans. 

A group of University of Minnesota educators and researchers called the Invasive Species Community of Practice (IS CoP), led by Extension, decided to try to develop a system to improve likely troublesome invasive species common names, starting with Thladiantha dubia back in 2018, and to create rules to guide naming. After this system creation, feedback was requested from a group of Extension colleagues not born in the United States. This foreign-born group gave the IS CoP  honest and very impactful feedback that the rules developed were not sufficiently addressing the issue of place-based common names in invasive species education. They further challenged IS CoP to improve the rules and work within the field to push for changes to these naming conventions. Foreign-born Extension colleagues shared examples of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as their deep and specific concern that using names like Asian, Japanese, Oriental associated with invasive species that the local, state and federal government works hard to kill and eradicate was very problematic.  This opened the IS CoP's eyes to the hurtful and harmful impacts associated with these naming conventions.

The IS CoP accepted the challenge laid down by their Extension colleagues. This resulted in the creation of new guiding principles that is used to help make decisions on which common names to use in Extension programs. Some key steps of the principles include:

  • Promote the use of scientific names
  • Evaluate other common names in use and in the literature
  • When multiple options are found,
    • Avoid place-based names
    • Avoid potentially derogatory names
    • Avoid common names that can cause confusion across other species
    • Consider just using the scientific name
    • New common names may be proposed if no options meet above criteria
  • If considering a new common name,
    • Focus on descriptive words such as those that highlight features that help lead to invasion success, host species, important identification features, characteristic symptoms, etc.

As of the summer of 2022, IS CoP has improved the common names of 18 different species including several plants, 1 freshwater clam and 12 worms. Learn more about this process or review our new jumping worm names.  

Coming up with better invasive species common names is the first hurdle; getting major online platforms, organizations, agencies, invasive species managers and researchers to use these names is another. We were pleasantly surprised with how receptive online databases like iNaturalist, EDDMapS and MN Wildflowers were to using the name red hailstone for Thladiantha dubia. However, we now know that each platform and taxa (insects, plants, aquatic invertebrates, etc) have their own unique approach or practice to common names. Some, like plants, have no standards, whereas others, like insects, have a governing body (the ESA). 

Invasive Species Community of Practice members, mostly Extension educators, have learned a lot and realized our sphere of influence is much larger than we expected. We’re hoping to make the world a little better one invasive species name at a time.

Authors: Angela Gupta, UMN Extension educator in forestry, and Megan Weber, UMN Extension educator in aquatic invasive species

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