You may have noticed a small white butterfly flittering through your garden, bouncing across your path while on your bike or spiraling around the side of the road. Chances are it was a small cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae). It’s probably the most widespread and abundant butterfly on the planet! Over the last 2,000 years it has spread across the world from its natural range in Europe, Asia and North Africa to every continent except Antarctica. How did it become so successful? Well, in part because it eats many of the foods growing in our gardens – particularly, those found in the mustard family like broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts and of course, cabbage.
We’ve recently launched a citizen science project focused on the cabbage white butterfly — called the Pieris Project — to help us better understand how species adapt to environmental change.
As the cabbage white spread across the world, it encountered many new environments along the way. You can imagine those now living in South Dakota may be different from living in Siberia or Australia. How have the butterflies adapted to these very different environments? This is exactly what the Pieris Project wants to find out. But we need your help.
We’re asking citizen scientists to collect a few specimens of cabbage white butterflies from where they live and send them to us. With those specimens, we’ll investigate how the shape, size, color, and genes of the cabbage white have changed with environment. We’ll also compare the genetic diversity of cabbage whites in your backyard to those found in backyards all across the globe.
We still don’t know how most species will respond to changes in their environment, particularly those caused by climate change. Using the cabbage white as a representative, we can take what we learn about how this species adapts to new environments and use it to better predict how other species may respond to future change. The cabbage white is an excellent “ambassador” species for citizen science collections because its populations are so large that they will not be harmed by collecting a few individuals.
If you are interested in learning more about how to help collect, the many interesting questions we will answer with these butterflies, or want to check out our regularly blog posts about what we are doing, visit our website, pierisproject.org. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter @PierisProject. Over the next few months we also plan to launch online tools so you can help us measure how the morphology (size, shape and color) of these butterflies. We will also be starting a crowdfunding campaign on Experiment.com in early October to provide “Backyard Genomics Explorer Kits.”
Together we can begin to explore the unknown diversity that exists within species, starting right in your backyard. Now go catch that cabbage white!
Header photo credit: Sarefo | Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Sean Ryan (Pieris Project Director and Founder) is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame in Dr. Jessica Hellmann’s lab. He is currently studying how climate change may be affecting butterflies – from the cabbage white to the tiger swallowtail. Sean is also very excited by all things citizen science. Follow Sean and his research visit on his website: http://www.theryanlab.com/