Courtesy Cherokee Nation
Cherokeea attakullakulla, the newly identified moth species that has been named after the beloved chief.

Beloved Cherokee Chief Lends Name to Newly Identified Moth Species


It is described as a drab gray moth, but what it lacks in color this newly identified species of Lepidoptera makes up for in stature.

The recently recognized insect has been named Cherokeea attakullakulla, after the beloved Cherokee chief who lived in the Appalachian region in the 1700s.

“A small, drab and highly inconspicuous moth has been flitting nameless about its special niche among the middle elevations of one of the world's oldest mountain ranges, the southern Appalachian Mountains in North America,” said a news release from the publisher of the open-access journal ZooKeys, where the findings appeared.

Although the moth was first discovered in 1958, the insect was only this year recognized as a separate species, the statement said. Neither is the moth new, the statement noted; it has most likely been flitting about for tens of millions of years. And given that Indigenous Peoples have inhabited Turtle Island since time immemorial, it seemed fitting to name the moth after the Cherokee who are stewards and original inhabitants of the very land on which the moth was discovered—what is today known as western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, in the Appalachian Mountains.

Species have been given Indian names before, but this may be the first time one has been named for a particular Indian.

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The Cherokee said they were honored by the acknowledgement.

“It’s unusual to find a new species of animal, even a moth, in today’s world,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker in a statement. “As a tribe, the Cherokee people were always deeply connected to nature and the environment in our original homelands in the East and having a new species named in honor of the Cherokee Nation is something I don’t think has ever happened before, but we are honored just the same. In scientific and academic circles, the naming of a new discovery is deeply meaningful and symbolic.”

Chief Attakullakulla is known for having been one of six Cherokee ambassadors to travel to London in 1730. The name was chosen by biologist J. Bolling Sullivan, formerly of Duke University, and Eric Quinter, an entomologist retired from the American Museum of Natural History. The two were surveying the moth population when their genetic analysis revealed that this particular specimen had a distinct profile that classified it as an as-yet-unidentified species, prompting them to publish their findings. 

“It is sufficiently different from all other known species that we placed it in a new genus, created to honor the Cherokee Nation,” Sullivan said in the Cherokee Nation statement. “The species name was selected to recognize an early leader of the Nation. It also seemed appropriate to name it after the Cherokee people because the Cherokee are such good stewards of the land, and there are not many of them left.”

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