Unnatural Nature: Why Scientists Give Invasive Species Scary Names

Invasive species illustration
Illustration by Dave Barnes

words :
: Bobby Hristova 

Although dog-strangling vine doesn’t strangle dogs, the nickname is no mistake. It’s one of almost 500 invasive species impacting Canada’s native ecosystems, prompting scientists to get creative. “Scientists get people interested in the problem by giving invasive species really terrifying names, which is what happened with dog-strangling vine,” says Darwin Sodhi, an invasive species researcher in Toronto. 

Invasive species are a multi-billion-dollar problem. They sink land value and shrink resources and hurt natural habitats. Dog-strangling vine does this by wrapping around plants, not dogs, until they’re smothered. Thanks to some slick scientists, there are more species with hair-raising names: Bloody-red mysid (a crustacean). Koster’s curse (a perennial shrub). Creeping oxeye (a type of daisy). Others aren’t as ghastly: Rock snot (an algae). Old man’s beard (a shrub). Pink lady’s thumb (a herb). 

Stuart Livingstone, an invasion ecologist and course instructor at the University of Toronto, says these names—dog-strangling vine in particular—aren’t always helpful. “Americans refer to it by the common name, pale swallowwort, so scholars will come to Canada and not recognize the name,” he says. “We need to engage with the public to make them aware of these things, but we need consistency in the science community.” 

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While scientists sit in their labs and spitball nicknames, others are taking the fight further. Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry launched a campaign a few years ago to raise awareness about the problem, complete with posters of giant carp attacking Tilley-hat wearing paddlers on a Canadian lake. 

The initiative focused on outdoor enthusiasts like boaters, hunters, hikers, campers and cottagers. Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations officer of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, says their old-fashioned, “B-movie creature invasion” approach reached more than 1.4 million people. “We wanted them to form an emotional connection to our campaign by showcasing how invasive species could threaten the activities they loved so much,” she says. 



Daniel Simberloff, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Tennessee, says that while invasive species have some mainstream attention, people still don’t understand the scope of the issues. He says people introduce half of all invasive plants, sometimes as ornamentals or crops. 

“Species can hitchhike if they’re carried in container on ships or in people’s luggage. Marine invaders have been carried on oyster shells,” Simberloff adds. 

It’s one aspect of invasional meltdown, where invaders act like wedding crashers by helping each other sabotage whatever environment they enter. Stuart Livingstone says dog-strangling vine and other species look colourful and healthy because they have no predators and overtake the habitat. His research from 2017 shows how invaders go undetected. 

He surveyed 376 park visitors in Toronto’s Rouge National Urban Park asking them if dog-strangling vine did any harm to the park’s ecosystem and aesthetic. Half of them had never heard of dog-strangling vine and 1 in 3 people surveyed didn’t think of the invader as an enemy. 

“There is invasive species denialism that’s even creeping up in academia. Some scientists won’t admit the plants have negative effects,” Livingstone says. “People don’t realize it’s strangling everything around it.” He believes there’s still more to do. 

“We need to be creative in the way that we’re communicating the science to the public. Giving them eye-catching names and creating these campaigns can help people realize what these plants really do.” – ML