The Lymantria dispar, an invasive moth that causes significant damage to trees in the eastern United States, will now be known as the “spongy moth.” Previously, the insect’s common name, "gypsy moth," contained a racist term.
"Gypsy is considered a racial slur by many Romani people,” Magda Matache, a Romani scholar and director of the Roma Program at Harvard University tells Vermont Public Radio’s Jane Lindholm. “It carries a very painful history, and it is offensive.”
The Romani people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, and for more than five centuries they were enslaved in Romania, according to Smithsonian magazine's Theresa Machemer. The Romani people have been “targets of enslavement, genocide, forced sterilization and migration, economic and social exclusion, and other manifestations of anti-Romani racism,” the Entomological Society of America (ESA) explains in its website, adding that the discrimination and racism still exists today in Europe.
In 2021, the ESA officially stripped the moth of its name and created new rules for naming insects that “no longer allow references to ethnicities, races, or people groups.” The society assembled a working group of 50 scientists and forestry management professionals as well as Romani scholars to come up with a different common name for the moth.
The new name, “spongy moth,” refers to the insect’s light brown, fuzzy egg masses that resemble sponges. It stems from France’s common name for the Lymantria dispar—“spongieuse,” per the ESA. Other countries like Germany and Turkey, also reference sponges in their common names for the moth.
“This is a very welcome and long overdue change—the result of a monumental effort by the largest professional society of entomologists in the world,” Muhlenberg College biology professor Marten Edwards tells The Morning Call ’s Molly Bilinksi. “This is one of many problematic common names that need to be changed to something respectful, inclusive and descriptive.”
The ESA produced guidelines for museums, media, state agencies and other organizations on how to shift to the new name, setting March 2023 as a date for full transition.
“While the use of an ethnic slur is enough reason to stop using a common name, the former common name was doubly inappropriate in that it linked a group of people who have been treated as pests and the targets of genocide with an invasive pest insect that remains targeted for population control and eradication, all of which combined to have dehumanizing effects for Romani people,” the society writes on its website.
Spongy moths were introduced to the United States from Europe in the mid-nineteenth century by an amateur entomologist, Leopold Trouvelot. Trouvelot was looking to breed a hardy silk-producing insect that was less susceptible to disease than the silkworm moth, according to the Smithsonian Institution. In the 1860s, several adult moths escaped from his house in Massachusetts into the nearby woods.
Now, spongy moth caterpillars defoliate about 700,000 acres per year in the eastern United States, costing millions of dollars a year in damage and prevention.
"They basically, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, are just chewing their way through deciduous forests," Jessica Ware, president of the ESA, tells VPR.
Organizations, including the Virginia Department of Forestry, have already updated their websites to reflect the new name change.
“I feel heartened,” Matache wrote to the New York Times’ Sabrina Imbler in an email. “Romani people won an important victory today.”