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  • Names are important. They identify who we are and where we come from. But sometimes, names don’t tell the whole story. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines ‘moth’ as an insect with two pairs of broad wings covered in microscopic scales, typically drably coloured and chiefly nocturnal, but that description doesn’t really fit the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) pictured here.

    Rights: Charles J. Sharp, Creative Commons 4.0

    Cinnabar moth

    The cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) is a day-flying moth introduced to New Zealand as a biological control for ragwort.

    The cinnabar moth is an introduced species. Its larvae eat ragwort, a noxious weed, so the moths were brought to New Zealand as a biological control. Its common name, cinnabar, refers to its bright red colouration – cinnabar is a bright red mineral once used as a pigment for paint.

    Systematic naming

    The cinnabar moth’s scientific name is Tyria jacobaeae Linnaeus. For most people, this name is more difficult to pronounce and it is not nearly as descriptive, but for scientists, the name means a lot. Systematic naming ensures that one species has one name, no matter where in the world it is found. This helps to prevent confusion.

    Naming organisms

    Dr Peter Buchanan and Dr Robert Hoare, of Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, introduce the classification system that scientists use to identify and name organisms.

    Systematic naming also provides information about the lineage. It is a bit like a family tree and shows how the organism is related to other species. People in many cultures, including Māori, have a formal introduction that starts with their own name and then lists back through their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. In the same way, a species name can be traced back through genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom (these steps are called divisions or ranks).

    Nature of science

    Scientists working in conservation and biosecurity must be able to identify specific organisms correctly. This ensures that, when they are communicating with other people, there is no confusion about the exact organism they are referring to. They use the universal (worldwide) classification system.

    Names for New Zealand moths

    When Otago-area schools began working with Dr Barbara Anderson and Dr Robert Hoare on the Ahi Pepe MothNet Participatory Science Platform project, moth names became an important focus. The students were curious to know which moths were living in the Otago region and whether artificial lighting and/or vegetation restoration were impacting local moth populations. Part of the project involved trapping moths for identification and to form reference collections.

    The moth identification guide

    Find out why and how the Ahi Pepe MothNet project created the Puka Whakamārama o Te Pepe Nui – Beginners’ Guide to Macro Moths.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Barbara and Robert worked together to create moth identification guides specific to South Island regions. The guides have life-size colour images of moths common in each region. Each moth species is listed in its scientific family grouping, and there are photos of males and females for most species. Believe it or not, each moth image in the guide is the result of many individual images stacked together to produce a single, high-resolution image!

    The Ahi Pepe MothNet project recently expanded to include the North Island, and the team has now produced identification guides for the entire country.

    Puka Whakamārama o Te Pepe Nui

    As the Ahi Pepe MothNet team worked with students from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti, it became obvious that there were very few science resources written specifically for kura. They did not want a translation of the moth identification guide but a resource that told the story from a Māori perspective. Five whakataukī (legends) about moths and their life cycles form the core of te reo Māori guides. The whakataukī provide context and purpose for the project and the science within it.

    We moved away from the very western science presentation of facts and methods and instead chose a much more sympathetic weaving together of cultural reference, language, education and science.

    Dr Barbara Anderson

    Naming moths through a child’s eyes

    New Zealand has over 2,000 moth species. Over 90% of them are endemic – meaning they are found here and nowhere else in the world! Although our native moths have scientific names, not many have common names. The tamariki from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti are working to change that. They’ve been giving some of the local moths common names in te reo Māori. For example, they’ve named the Tmetolophota purdii species pākākā. Pākākā means chestnut-coloured or scorched, and this reflects the moth’s chestnut and orange-coloured forewings – the ginger marks on the forewings look like scorch marks. Meanwhile, ātaka, meaning exquisite, gets its Māori common name from its scientific name – Meterana exquisita. Both names fit this moth species well – it has beautifully mottled pale green and black forewings.

    Rights: Ahi Pepe MothNet

    Ahi Pepe MothNet badges

    Tamariki from Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti have given local moths common names in Māori. The common names reflect the moths’ physical features.

    Moth images Birgit E. Rhode, Manaaki Whenua — Landcare Research.

    Activity idea

    Insect mihi – in this activity, students write a formal introduction for an insect species of their choice, including information about the insect’s relationship to other animals and also the land. This is designed to help them think about how the Linnaean classification system works.

    Useful links

    See the Ahi Pepe MothNet project website for more resources, including guides in English and te reo Māori are also available.


    The Ahi Pepe MothNet project received funding through Otago Science into Action – the Otago pilot of the Participatory Science Platform (PSP), which is part of the Curious Minds initiative and funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The PSP is currently being implemented as a pilot in three areas: South Auckland, Taranaki and Otago.

    Ahi Pepe MothNet has also received additional funding from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research; Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti; Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu; Te Tumu, University of Otago; Department of Geography, University of Otago; Orokonui Ecosanctuary; Otago Museum; and New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

    The government’s national strategic plan for Science in Society [PDF, 1.2 MB], A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri i te Mahara, is a government initiative jointly led by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Ministry of Education and Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

      Published 29 June 2018, Updated 2 July 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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