Alien language: What’s in a (species) name?

Part 5: Across many different taxa, there are a number of common names assigned to species that have racist, xenophobic, or other ethically troubling connotations. These names present significant challenges to effective science outreach and education.

A silver carp is seen jumping out of the water. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant
A silver carp is seen jumping out of the water. So-called “Asian carp” are actually four separate species of fish – silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, and black carp – all with different life histories and impacts on the environment. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

Species naming conventions, like many other aspects of the scientific process, might seem value-neutral on the surface, but are ultimately a reflection of society. Experts on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) regularly highlight how some of the practices that a majority group might take for granted can signal to historically underrepresented minority groups that they’re not welcome in research spaces – up to and including the scientific and common names used for plants and animals.

There are three major issues currently being discussed around species naming conventions –

  1. identifying and changing culturally insensitive species names,
  2. the complex issue of place-based names, and
  3. what to do about species named for historical figures with troubled or harmful legacies.

Culturally insensitive names

Science is a product of the broader culture in which it is produced – and unfortunately, cultural biases are often reflected by and sometimes even reinforced by science. Across many different taxa, there are a number of common names assigned to species that have racist, xenophobic, or other ethically troubling connotations. From a science communication perspective, these kinds of names present significant challenges to effective outreach and education.

Luckily, as efforts towards more inclusive science gain momentum, there have been a number of campaigns to get these species names changed that come from both outside and within research communities. 

spongy moth caterpillar
Lymantria dispar larva. Photo by Karla Salp, Washington State Department of Agriculture,

One particular success story from invasion biology is the recent renaming of Lymantria dispar, which is now known as the spongy moth. This invasive species can be very destructive to forests throughout its introduced range, since the caterpillars consume huge amounts of foliage and their egg cases can be spread easily through moving firewood or outdoor equipment. Until recently, however, communicating the risks of this species to the public was a challenge because the common name was a derogatory term for the Romani people. Researchers were stuck between using the potentially unfamiliar Latin name or a racial slur in conversations with the public, which is a major issue when trying to raise awareness about any invasive species. In response, the Entomological Society of America recently approved “spongy moth” as the new common name to be used in publications and outreach material. The new name refers to the spongy egg masses these moths lay, which are important for the public to be able to identify and report to control their spread – the descriptive qualities of this new name have proven to be an additional bonus for science communicators accordingly.

The Entomological Society of America’s Better Common Names Project seeks to identify and change other names that might be hindering inclusive science communication, and researchers in other branches of biology are advocating for similar renaming initiatives to be launched as well.

Place-based names

Many species derive their scientific and common names from the geographic location from which they originate – a practice that sounds innocuous at first, but which can wind up with a lot of cultural baggage, particularly when the species in question is invasive in another part of the world. Some place-based names for invasive species are a bit more obvious in their associated issues, as in the case of manchu tubergourd (Thladiantha dubia), an introduced plant here in North America. The plant’s name refers to the species’ origin in East Asia in an outdated way, and this species is now known as “red hailstone,” with this new name reflected in databases such as EDDMapS.

Some researchers suggest that using common names for species based on their geographic origin might be an issue even when those terms aren’t obviously derogatory – specifically due to politics and international relations. One example of this phenomenon in the Great Lakes is the discussion surrounding Asian carp.

“Asian carp” are actually four separate species of fish – silver carp, bighead carp, grass carp, and black carp – all with different life histories and impacts on the environment. This moniker becomes even less clear when considering that common carp, another introduced species, are also native to Eurasia. The rhetoric surrounding these fish all too often draws on anti-Asian sentiment, which has concerned researchers and members of the public given the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. For this reason, there has been a push to refer to these four fish as invasive carp instead, categorizing them by behavior rather than their point of origin. The binational US and Canadian group responsible for preventing these fish from establishing populations in the Great Lakes has renamed themselves the Invasive Carp Regional Coordinating Committee, and this new language is spreading to other research and management groups as well.

According to the website, Copi is a fresh local fish that is mildly flavored. The Copi flavor experience is pure, light, and clean. Its place is among the most popular white fish — more savory than Tilapia, cleaner tasting than Catfish, and less flaky than Cod.

Name changes are also not without precedent in the culinary world: a new rebranding initiative is also bringing silver and bighead carp to the market as “Copi”, a trade name chosen to reduce the stigma surrounding “Asian carp” and encourage the public to try cooking with these abundant fish. With many common names of invasive species being place-based in origin, from Japanese knotweed to Russian olive to giant African land snails, this topic warrants further discussion in research communities.

Species named for people with harmful legacies

In addition to naming species after their geographic origin, another sticky subject is what to do about species named for people who we now know to have held racist, xenophobic, or otherwise antisocial views during their lifetimes. While some taxonomists warn that there’s currently no standard procedure in place to change these names, researchers and advocates for DEI in STEM are bringing some of these stories to light and facilitating discussions about how to change some of these names, and why doing so would make ecology as a field more welcoming to marginalized people. Using species’ indigenous names is an increasingly celebrated alternative, and a valuable step towards decolonizing science as well.

Where do we go from here?

Across a range of scientific disciplines, researchers and other stakeholders who are concerned about species naming conventions are beginning to develop guidance for changing species names when necessary and working to get buy-in for these changes across research agencies, professional societies, and the public. As in the case of the Entomological Society of America and the spongy moth, more and more professional societies are getting on board with reexamining scientific and common species names.

A number of recent publications by members of the American Fisheries Society are advocating for doing the same in aquatic ecology, and various state and federal agencies are beginning to take note, too – for instance, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center has been consulting with indigenous educators and student groups in Hawaii and Guam on the naming of newly-discovered marine species, as well as using the indigenous names of fish species in outreach material to better connect with local stakeholders. As Shakespeare said: that which we call a rose by any other name might smell as sweet – and perhaps the same might hold true for updating species names in the scientific literature.

The team behind the Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS) regularly reviews the common names displayed for species in our database, and researchers interested in learning more about inclusive language use or who want to bring preferred species names to our attention can do so by emailing our team at This “Alien Language” Extension article is part of a series highlighting the importance of deliberate language use in invasion biology, from defining what exactly “invasive” means (Part 1) to why it’s important to clarify the difference between “nonindigenous” and “invasive” species (Part 3), to why calling a nonindigenous species “established” in a particular area (Part 2) can cause trouble for funding and management strategies. In Part 4 we looked at the use of metaphors and how they are a key part of how scientists talk about and conduct their research. 

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 34 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant under award NA180AR4170102 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan.

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