By Anne Espeset
This past summer a few graduate students, including Sean Ryan (University of Notre Dame) and Anne Espeset (University of Nevada, Reno), launched The Pieris Project, a citizen science project that asks people from all over the world to help collect cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae). The Pieris Project was founded with the intention of creating a range-wide, long-term collection of an insect to explore questions about invasion biology and species responses to environmental change.
We believe that the best way to create such a comprehensive collection is with a global community of citizen scientists. Already, we’ve received more than 600 specimens from at least half of the U.S. states and eight countries, but we are looking for help to collect even more, especially from under-represented states and countries (you can check out the most up-to-date collection map to see what we have so far).
Why Cabbage White Butterflies?
From a citizen science perspective:
Cabbage whites are found all over the world, often right in people’s backyard, so everyone is familiar with them. In fact, Pieris rapae may very well be the most widespread and abundant butterfly on the planet. This butterfly is also pretty easy to catch, meaning anyone with a net can help collect a few.
From a research perspective:
The Pieris Project’s long-term goal is to create a global, long-term sampling of this species to monitor trends and “real-time” evolutionary changes in this species. However, in the meantime there are a number of questions we are interested in exploring, with two main goals for this year:
1) To reconstruct the invasion history of this butterfly as it spread across the globe. In the last 200 years, this butterfly has established populations on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, yet we still don’t know the source population of these invasions and whether there have been multiple introductions.
2) To explore how environmental variation has been shaping the genome and phenotype of this butterfly. We will take advantage of the “natural experiments” that invasions create and investigate how a number of environmental factors (climate, agricultural practices, land-use, etc.) have left fingerprints of local adaptation in the genome of P. rapae and may be altering its morphology.
If you are interested in helping our project succeed, there are three ways that you can help us tremendously:
1) Send us a couple of butterflies from your backyard. Include the date and latitude/longitude coordinates on the envelope. You can find more details at http://www.pierisproject.org. Even though fall is here, depending on where you live, you may be able to catch a few before winter arrives.
2) Help us spread the word by either sharing our project with people you think might be interested in participating or by letting us know of organizations, schools, or any community that might be interested. Email us at pierisproject at gmail.com.
3) Consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign. We only have a few days left to reach our goal, and it’s all or nothing, so we need all the help we can get! One incentive for donating is a “Backyard Genomics Kit” — a great gift for a budding entomologist — and we also have awesome photographs by the amazing bugographer Alex Wild!
Anne Espeset is just one of the members of The Pieris Project team. She is a PhD student at the University of Nevada, Reno, studying under Dr. Matthew Forister. Currently she is investigating how anthropogenic-induced nutritional changes are affecting the evolution of sexually-selected characteristics. Get more information on her website.