Spongy Moth Is the New Name for This Invasive Species

Its old name was an offensive slur.

spongy moth or Lymantria dispar

Sandra Standbridge / Getty Images

“Spongy moth” is the new common name for Lymantria dispar, an invasive moth species formerly known as the gypsy moth.

Scientists from the Entomological Society of America (ESA) have been working on changing the species’ name since last July because it is a derogatory term for the Romani people.

Spongy moth refers to the moth’s sponge-like egg masses and comes from “spongieuse,” the common name used in France and French-speaking Canada.

"Lymantria dispar is a damaging pest in North American forests, and public awareness is critical in slowing its spread. 'Spongy moth' gives entomologists and foresters a name for this species that reinforces an important feature of the moth's biology and moves away from the out-dated term that was previously used," said ESA President Jessica Ware, Ph.D. in a statement announcing the change.

"We are grateful to the diverse community of people and organizations who have been involved in this renaming process and have committed to adopting 'spongy moth' as well."

The Romani people originated in northern India. They were called “gypsies” because Europeans mistakenly thought they were from Egypt. The term has become offensive and is now considered a disparaging slur.

The spongy moth is an invasive insect native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. It was accidentally imported into the U.S. in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s and is now widespread in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada. Its eggs are easily transported on logs, vehicles, and outdoor equipment, and it can quickly defoliate trees and shrubs, causing hundreds of millions of dollars annually in damage and efforts to prevent and control the insect’s spread.

Changing a Name

The ESA maintains the Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List, a database of more than 2,000 names that is essential for insect researchers. The change is the first performed under the ESA’s Better Common Names Project to address and change problematic common names.

The moth’s new name was chosen from more than 200 suggestions considered by a group of some 50 scientists and professionals in both the U.S. and Canada, as well as Romani scholars. The suggestions were collected from entomologists, forestry professionals, conservation groups, Romani people, and those who work in federal agencies, state departments of agriculture and natural resources, as well as pest control and plant protection organizations.

The organization collected more than 1,000 responses on seven finalist names before deciding on “spongy moth.”

"'Spongy moth' is already beginning to appear in media stories and other online resources, which we're excited to see. But we know this name change won't happen overnight," Ware said. "Particularly in books or print products, or regulations related to L. dispar, phasing in use of the new name may take some time. ESA will continue to provide supporting resources for organizations adopting this change."

Common Names vs. Scientific Names

An organism can have dozens of common names, varying by region and by language, and they can evolve over time, Doug Yanega of the department of entomology and the Entomology Research Museum at the University of California, Riverside, tells Treehugger.

“With very few exceptions, there is no governing body that controls them or approves them, and most of them originated a long time ago, and can't be traced to who first came up with them,” Yanega says. “They often originated from laymen, and not scientists. There are no ranks, no hierarchies, no concern over evolutionary relationships, and no objective standards to define them or apply them.”

Scientific names are a style of naming that are given to aid publishing, to catalog and "organize" species, and to facilitate institutions and more referring to various species. Scientific names are also limited—each organism has just one. This eliminates the possibility of confusion between species, no matter who is referring to an organism.

“Common names are very rarely ‘chosen.’ Most of them simply are, and have been, longer than any of us have been alive. There's a reason for most of them, and it's usually self-evident or historical (e.g., ‘green June beetle’ is a green beetle that flies in June),” Yanega says. “The present case of the gypsy/spongy moth, however, is exceptional, because while it involves a common name, there is a body that governs the official common names of pest insects. Those names ARE chosen, and can be challenged or changed.”

In the case of the moth, the argument was made that the former name was offensive and it was a convincing case, Yanega points out.

“That hasn't happened very often before, but there is some expectation that it will become more routine as people seek to promote more inclusive language. The principle is reasonable, though it's only going to be applicable for that small percentage of organisms that actually have official common names—a concept that was unheard-of 100 years ago.”

Scientific names, however, are never open to revision because someone finds them offensive. The only time that people can object is during the peer review process when the name is first proposed and before it has been published. Once it has been published, it can’t be changed, Yanega says.

“The primary reason it's considered too late is because of stability and consistency; if a scientific name has been used in the scientific literature for, say, 100 years, and in thousands of papers, referring to a specific organism, then changing that name disconnects all of that literature from that organism,” Yanega says.

There is a growing movement calling for reform and decolonizing scientific names. A comment paper published in Communications Biology argued that scientific names for plants and animals should be allowed to be changed since many existing names honor terrible people, use racial slurs, or use Indigenous names incorrectly.

View Article Sources
  1. "'Spongy Moth' Adopted as New Common Name for Lymantria dispar." Entomological Society of America, 2022

  2. "Roma (Gypsies) in Prewar Europe." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  3. "Lymantria dispar." Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International.

  4. Patterson, David J., et al. "Scientific Names of Organisms: Attribution, Rights, and Licensing." BMC Research Notes, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, doi:10.1186/1756-0500-7-79

  5. Doug Yanega of the department of entomology and the Entomology Research Museum at the University of California, Riverside

  6. https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-020-01344-y