I’m Sean Ryan, a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, and I recently created Pieris Project – a citizen science project designed to learn how species adapt to environmental change (such as climate change). AMA!
A group of graduate students and I at the University of Notre Dame and University of Nevada, Reno, recently launched a citizen science project – Pieris Project ( http://pierisproject.org )– to enlist the help of the public to collect an invasive butterfly from where they live (usually their backyard). Given that this butterfly has invaded every continent (except Antarctica), this means pretty much anyone from across the globe can help (even you!).
Why an invasive butterfly you ask? Invasive species, are great for exploring how organisms adapt to changes in their environment. In the case of the cabbage white, it is only in the last two centuries that this butterfly has come to conquer the world, yet in this short time it has likely adapted to the new conditions it now inhabits. Our project seeks to take advantage of this “natural experiment” to understand how these environmental changes (e.g., climate, land-use/practices) have shaped the genome and traits of this butterfly. We can then use this information to better predict how other species might respond to similar changes.
In just 3 months our project received more than 800 butterflies from over half the US states and 8 different countries. What are we going to do with these butterflies? (if you want to see a video explanation check out: https://experiment.com/projects/pieris-project-using-citizen-science-to-learn-how-species-will-respond-to-climate-change?s=search)
1) Sequence the DNA of each butterflies genome, so we can explore….
How the genome of this butterfly has changed as it spread across the world into many new environments. This butterfly is found in places as different as Siberia and Florida. We want to take advantage of this environmental variation to explore which genes are adapting to these new and different environments.
Reconstruct the invasion history of the small cabbage white. We know fairly well when the cabbage white invaded the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Bermuda, but we actually still don’t from exactly where they invaded (although they believed to come from Europe). Did they all come from Europe? If so, from where in Europe? Were they introduced only once, or multiple times and from multiple different countries? These questions have remained unanswered, but are important to understanding the evolutionary history of the cabbage white and why it has been such a successful invader.
Both of these approaches are very similar to what researchers recently did to find the gene involved migration for the Monarch butterfly and reconstruct its spread across the world. We plan to do something similar with the cabbage white.
2) Do chemical analyses of the wings so we can determine how land-use (agriculture) affects the pigmentation (“whiteness”) of the cabbage white. We already know that nitrogen affects the color of this butterfly (more nitrogen = more white pigments). So now we want to look at natural populations and see whether we see this pattern in the “wild” – does variation in the color of this butterfly correlate with land-use (agriculture)?
By partnering with the public we can accomplish much more than we could ever do alone. Beyond the amazing breadth of data our citizen scientists help us collect and insights they share from the field, this partnership allows the public to take part in the scientific process as a whole (that means you as well!). Together we will make discoveries about how species respond to changes in their environment, so that we may better preserve and manage the remaining biodiversity on this planet.
If you want to help collect cabbage whites – visit our project page: http://pierisproject.org . If you go to our sign up page http://www.pierisproject.org/sign-up.html we can also get you in the "system" and make sure you are on our monthly mailing list if your interested in hearing about how our research is progressing
If you want to help fund our project (no contribution is too small) – visit our crowd-funding campaign: https://experiment.com/projects/pieris-project-using-citizen-science-to-learn-how-species-will-respond-to-climate-change?s=li_home.