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.

You can also check us out on FB https://www.facebook.com/pierisproject?ref=hl Twitter https://www.facebook.com/pierisproject?ref=hl

Comments: 132 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

Facerless29 karma

I'm worried about what a Heisman Trophy winner can do to exploit ND's young secondary after seeing a UNC team move the ball through the air at will.

What kind of coverage changes need to be addressed to prep for FSU Saturday?

Edit: You jackasses put this at the top? Great. Guess I need to make this worth while then.

Dr. Ryan, would you be interested in the caterpillar or pupa of this species? I'm not 100% but I'm pretty sure there's a mob of these guys in and around my neighbor's garden.

What, if any, is the biggest impact this species could have on local food chains?

You definitely need to link up with /u/mrpennywhistle and do some more butterfly highspeedery

ecocrazysean1 karma

Yes, if you have them or can find them. We are interested in any stage of P. rapae. You can check out our how to collect page http://www.pierisproject.org/catch.html

In terms of the impact that P. rapae has on the foodweb, it's not really well known. P. rapae eats many plants in the mustard family so it has a direct impact on many agricultural plants. How this affects other herbivores in the community, well no one has really studied that area....yet. The caterpillars also eat some native and wild plants so it is possible that they may be competing with native insects that use the same food plants and thus may be having an impact on these other species.

SakuraLi18 karma

Why butterflies in particular?

ecocrazysean13 karma

We chose butterflies for a number of reasons. One of the most important is that butterflies can be good "indicator" species, especially in response to changes in climate. They are poikilotherms ("cold blooded") so their metabolism is directly related to the temperature of their environment. But they are also easy to spot, especially the cabbage white because it has invaded many parts of the world and may be one of the most abundant butterflies on the planet. Insects generally, are also incredibly important to the functioning of many ecosystems, so we feel it's important to get people interested and excited about them =) The fact that this butterfly has recently invaded many parts of the world is the main reason we chose this butterfly (and it's easy to catch).

Honeychile68417 karma

Is your project student friendly? Will young students be able to " get it"?

ecocrazysean3 karma

I think so. There are multiple layers to our project, many of which are pretty intuitive. For example, I think kids can understand the basic idea that what you eat can affect how you look - in this case the nutrients in the caterpillar's food (plants it eats) affects its color, which can in turn affect how it appears to other butterflies.

In terms of adaptation, evolution is a fairly simple process (albeit with many nuances) - individuals that are more successful have more offspring. As these butterflies moved into new environments some were better than others at dealing with these new conditions (temperature, predators, diseases). The genes that helped some individuals be more successful became more common over time. We want to know what were those genes that changed over time were and how did they help the butterflies.

Also, one reason the cabbage white is believed to have been able to spread into many new areas is because it escaped many predators that are only found in their native range (Europe); this is called "the enemy escape hypothesis." Get away from your enemies and you will do much better. This is why one approach to dealing with these organisms is to introduce their enemies in hopes that they will help control them...not always what ends up happening.

And the cabbage white is very easy to catch, so even little ones (4-5yrs old) can catch them =)

justmeandharry2 karma

Have you reached out to school districts throughout the US via various education publications. Due to budget constraints, many teachers will be able to have their class participate in such a project and it will also get the students out of the classroom and outdoors. It is a way for the students to be actively involved in a science project. Often active engagement will hook students on science.

ecocrazysean0 karma

That is something we are planning to do for this coming summer and part of why we are trying to raise money for our "Backyard Genomics Explorer Kits" so we can offer these for free or at least for very cheap to those who want to participate. Once we get some funding to generate some results from this years collection, reaching out to K-12 schools will be our next priority to get ready for next spring.

pnewell6 karma

Have you reached out to the big citizen science projects like Audubon or the US Phenological network?

Seems like if they would share your stuff with their members, you could get a bunch of new recruits!

ecocrazysean2 karma

Yes, especially lepidopterist and entomological societies

toxicologic6 karma

Do you know why their eye colors are green? Also I noticed that females tend to be more tawny in appearance (less powdery white than males).

I am very glad you started this project. Last summer, I raised tons and tons of cabbage whites found on my kohlrabi and I ended up pinning them and I noticed so much variation in the pupae color. It was astounding.


ecocrazysean1 karma

Unfortunately I don't know why their eyes are green, but they are amazing aren't they- they look like green holograms (due to the many facets in their eyes).

Your observation is correct. In fact, we were just about to tweet a photo of some butterflies Anne Espeset (researcher on our team) took of cabbage whites she altered chemically to give students an idea of what butterflies look like to each other (because they see in UV). I will post it here soon.

What a wonderful observation and I like your photos - maybe we can post them on our site with attribution to you if your interested and tweet it as part of Science Friday's Science Club #ObserveEverything

Also, if you want to be part of our monthly newsletter you can sign up on our web page http://www.pierisproject.org/sign-up.html That way we can also work with you on a sub-project next spring if you are interested. Exploring the variation in P. rapae is exactly what we are interested in =)

frozen_barbie_head6 karma

How did you initially get involved in this project?

ecocrazysean4 karma

I founded it =)

I have been interested in citizen science for quite some time and finally put together the project I have been envisioning for the last few years. One thing we (scientists) don't have are collections of species from many geographic locations at a single point in time (during the same year) and over many years. This type of data is critical to understanding how species evolve over time and what is driving the evolutionary changes we observe. By working with the public we can achieve this (and much, much more).

There also aren't many citizen science projects that deal with evolution and I felt this would be a great way to share how we as researchers explore how organisms adapt to changes in their environment, including those caused by humans.

designgoddess5 karma

Has anyone sent a butterfly that wasn't a cabbage white?

ecocrazysean3 karma

Not yet =) They are pretty distinct and we have lots of pictures on our website

derpinagt5 karma

Apparently you are passionate about genome findings. How did it began? How did you know your passion?

ecocrazysean1 karma

I am passionate about all things biology, but especially topics related to ecology and evolution of plants and insects.

My interest and passion for science began slowly, after a trip to Costa Rica to complete my biology with a lab requirement. I didn't like biology at the time - I thought it was a difficult subject and kinda boring (based on my High School Bio class). Luckily the trip to Costa Rica made me aware of environmental problems (deforestation) and how interesting science can be. I don't know anyone who's been to the rainforest and not been in awe. Then to think people get to explore this pretty much unknown world for a living, left me reconsidering my career path. After taking a few more bio courses I realized I could excel in this field if I just tapped into my passion and had some dedication to overcome the difficult parts that would arise from time to time.

ecocrazysean1 karma

Thought you might like this (I am not in here but it's a great series)


derpinagt2 karma

Thanks a lot. I am thinking about changing majors. I am currently a journalist but I am in love with Physics. The link means a lot to me.

ecocrazysean1 karma

I am glad =) Obviously I am biased to thinking science is pretty awesome. Science communication is a relatively hot topic right now, so having a strong background in journalism and writing could be quite useful. Good luck with whatever path you choose

viveknarayan965 karma

Butterflies have a short life span if I am right...and do you think butterflies will mutate ?? Instead of adapting?? Thanks

ecocrazysean7 karma

Great question.

Most butterflies do have a relatively short life span as a "butterfly" - maybe a few weeks for most species. But they are caterpillars and a pupae (chrysalis) for quite a long portion of the year. We often forget that the butterfly stage is only one of three =) So most butterflies (all stages) live for about 3-9 months I would say.

Adaptation comes from variation in a population - whether from mutations or from what is called "standing genetic variation" (variation that is already there). Usually mutation plays a bigger role over longer periods of time (creating variation that never existed), while over short time scales, adaptation arises more from natural selection on the variation that already exists. But there is still debate on this =) This is an important question in the context of climate change - climate change is going to be rather rapid and if species lack sufficient (standing) genetic variation, will they be able to adapt? (given that mutation is usually a relatively slow process; except in bacteria). Crazy enough we actually don't know the answer, but people are trying to figure this out (including us).

iSanddbox2 karma

and do you think butterflies will mutate ?? Instead of adapting??

This question does not make any sense in an evolutionary context. Mutations are the result of copying errors, and are usually harmful but occasionally useful. Organisms with beneficial mutations will reproduce more, which is one way the population evolves, the other being using existing genetic variation (I have blue eyes, my mom has brown eyes, etc) to adapt.

ecocrazysean1 karma

to echo iSanddbox, mutation is a (random) way in which variation in generated. It is not a form of adaptation. Mutations provide the variation for natural selection to act on, which sometimes leads to adaptations (although mutations are usually detrimental, not beneficial, when they arise).

Piefayth5 karma

We have the same name, so...

How do you feel about having two first names (or 3, counting middle?)?

Do people call you "Ryan" a lot?

ecocrazysean5 karma

They do, but it's OK. Pretty soon they'll call me Dr. Ryan =)

ellatheevil4 karma

Okay, my question might be a bit stupid and I really hope you'll answer it instead of the peanut gallery... I've always wondered and can't find a good answer.

Can the behavior of a previous generation affect mutation in the next? Are their genes that can turn on or off depending on use?

I know that mutations are happy accidents but is there any mechanism by which a parent's body responds to their behavior or environment to encourage favorable mutation in their children?

ecocrazysean3 karma

This is actually a great question! It is only relatively recently that we learned that the experiences/environment of a parent could influence the phenotype of its offspring - these are called transgenerational (maternal/paternal) effects. There is a whole field of biology on this topic now (Epigenetics). Epigenetics is in some ways revolutionizing our understanding of the relationship between genes, the environment and an organism's phenotype.

I am not sure about whether epigenetics has ever led to induced mutations in subsequent offspring, but I am sure these is research on the topic. I know that it can affect gene regulation via changes in say DNA methylation. This is similar to a mutation, but it is not the nucleotides - A,C,G,and T (DNA itself) that are changing. Hence the term "epi"


toccobrator4 karma

We have some lovely Pieris Japonica in our garden. Any relation to your pieris/cabbage white?

I'll see if I can find some cabbage whites for your project. We cultivate a lot of butterly-friendly plants in our garden and have a pretty healthy ecosystem around here, living in a rural/agricultural area. I have noticed that the overall number of butterflies and types of butterflies seems to have declined a lot in the past 5 years though :( Is it just my impression or is this widespread?

ecocrazysean2 karma

Yes, they are related (as are all creatures), but very distantly because Pieris Japonica is a plant and Pieris rapae is a butterfly =) Not sure why both have Pieris as the genus name ....Apparently "The genus name derives from Pieria, a place in Greece, according to Greek mythology the home of the Muses" (from Wikipedia)

If you can catch some, we'd love to add them to our collection =)

Yes, in general many butterfly populations have been in decline. I suspect a lot of this has to do with changes in land-use (loss and fragmentation of habitat), which will be exacerbated by climate change. However, there are some species that are actually doing better - the cabbage white being one. This is why its a great species to collect, it likely won't have an impact on most populations.

The_Duke_of_Dabs3 karma

Have you done any research to see what the repercussions are on wildlife exposed to GMO crops?

ecocrazysean4 karma

Personally no, but there are a number of studies that have

ulldott3 karma

Very fascinating subject!

I don't know nearly enough about evolution, but I've read some reports and articles related to my ecology degree.

One of the things I read in a report was this;

"They found that for small, short-lived birds like the great tit, evolution can work fast enough for genetic adaptation to keep pace with a changing environment. However, even for such fast-evolving species, evolution on its own is not enough."

It seems as though climate change is happing too fast for the species to adapt, but also that we know too little about how evolution works.

"Our understanding of microevolutionary adaptation to climate change is still very much at the same point as it was over 15 years ago when Holt (1990) noted that: ‘There is almost no species for which we know enough relevant ecology, physiology and genetics to predict its evolutionary response to climate change’. Sadly, in one of the best-understood cases where such a prediction is possible, it is that extinction rather than adaptation is a likely outcome of climate warming (Hoffmann et al. 2003)"

I'm not sure what my question here is, I am just fascinated by the thought of how the world will be with these climate changes. It's hard to predict, but what do you think?

English is not my main language, so if you dont understand everything let me know and I can try and rephrase it :)

ecocrazysean1 karma

A very fascinating subject indeed!

Great points/quotes. They pretty much hit the nail on why we are doing this project. There is a great need and growing interest to make these predictions, but we are far from being able to for nearly all species.

There is however a great deal of progress that has been made in the last century, especially the latter half - specifically some studies that attempt to calculate this (they are still rough estimates for sure). But yes, we have a lot of work to do.

One reason it is difficult to make these predictions is that we lack adequate datasets to explore these questions in depth - we don't have long-term data from many populations across a species range. Producing such a dataset is one of the primary goals of this project and with the help of the public I think we can make one of the best the world has ever seen.

Obviously, one of the best approaches is to avoid making changes that lead to outcomes we can't predict precisely, but that we know will have a large impact (such as climate change). Unfortunately, politics is often more difficult than science.

ihatecats183 karma

So yes to butterflies, but what about those giant moths I see all summer that scare the crap out of me?

ecocrazysean4 karma

the giant silk or sphynx moth? they are amazing

fawnandflora2 karma

Very interesting project, I am in the Reno are and look forward to helping if I can. With these invasive butterflies have there been any significant changes in the trophic dynamics in the areas in which they invade?

ecocrazysean0 karma

Wonderful, Anne Espeset is one of our researchers over at the University of Nevada, Reno. If you want to "sign up" we can add you to our monthly mailing list and make sure you are in the loop with what we are doing. http://www.pierisproject.org/sign-up.html

Great question. I don't think anyone has looked at that question in this system. Most work has been on the physiology and life history traits of this species, not a lot of ecology and definitely not a lot of community ecology. If that is something you are interested in we are always looking for collaborators...=)

mattki3lb2 karma

This is a really cool idea! When did you decide that this was the direction you wanted to take your life?

ecocrazysean1 karma

Science generally? When I was an undergrad in college. I was a late bloomer so to speak

oraninc2 karma

1)How hard is it to sequence DNA? 2) what would I gain from having my DNA from my person sequenced? Thanks for your time .

ecocrazysean0 karma

Not hard at all. Depending how much of your genome you want sequenced will determine what it will cost; sequence a gene $5, your whole genome, maybe $2,000.

You can learn a lot from an organism's DNA - find how genes affect an organism's phenotype (how it looks and behaves; its traits). You can reconstruct its evolutionary history and relatedness to other individuals or organisms. For example, this is how we learned that humans originated in Africa and then spread out to other continents from there. You an learn if a species is lacking in genetic diversity (this is important for conserving species). Oh and so much more =)

cwlabuff2 karma

is it true that half of the species on earth could be extinct by the end of the century if we continue our current path of pollution?

ecocrazysean1 karma

Apparently yes - most of them are insects (beetles in particular) and are lost due to deforestation in the tropics. As a big fan of insects and beetles this saddens me. Many marine mammals are also already experience severe declines in their population sizes due to human activities.

i_dont_need_no_sms2 karma

What role, if any, do you believe genetically modified crops have on environmental adaptation of 'pest' species and what can be said about the long term impact of GMO plant strains on adaptation/proliferation/eradication of not only the target species, but others connected via the 'local' food chain, from your research?

ecocrazysean0 karma

Our research does not address these questions in any way. In regards to the cabbage white, I am not sure anyone has looked at this. There are studies related to this topic for other species, however.

Mikecom321 karma

Can you post something on your website/twitter/facebook proving that it is you doing the AMA?

ecocrazysean0 karma

Yes, I will put it on there now

ecocrazysean1 karma

We now have a link on our website to this AMA


Im_xoxide1 karma

What is your view on the term climate velocity?

ecocrazysean0 karma

If you are refer to ratio of spatial to temporal change in climate, I think it's an interesting and useful concept. Why? Do not like the term?

Im_xoxide1 karma

Sorta, I am referring to the the distance required for an organism to travel to maintain their ideal climate. Measured in km/yr. For example, birds are able to travel long distances in short periods of time compared to beetles, or worms. I like to think of it more in terms of plants, as they are more apt to 'slowly'(in human time) move. For exmaple, sugar maples are moving northward (in the northern hemisphere)

ecocrazysean1 karma

This is the concept that I am familiar with in regards to the term climate velocity http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v462/n7276/full/nature08649.html

Your use of the term seems more like a "climate envelope/niche velocity."

Either way I think the idea that some areas will change faster than others and thus make some regions or species more vulnerable is a very useful concept (partly evidenced by their publication in Nature). I haven't been following this topic in detail, but I imagine using this metric might be a good way to identify areas or species most at risk.

It sounds like you might be doing some work on this yourself..=)

daytimecruz1 karma

This may not be exactly in your department, but I've read that projected extinction rates may be overestimated because we haven't been exposed to a shift in climate drastic enough to induce rapid adaptation in species. Do you have an opinion on this idea?

ecocrazysean1 karma

Are you speaking in regards to extinction as a result of climate change? (loss of habitat and spread of invasive species are also major factors that should be included in estimates of extinction rates; I mention these because to my knowledge most species cannot adapt to the former disturbance).

There are multiple ways to predict extinction, all based on a simplified model of how the world works. So depending on what factors were considered and which were left out leaves room for error. Some argue that many of these models don't allow species to evolve (and adapt) so they are likely to underestimate a species' ability to cope with climate change. I haven't heard the argument that the change has not been rapid enough for evolution. On the contrary, there is a worry that species may not be able to keep pace with the rapid rate of climate change that is expected to occur.

Getting an accurate estimate of the extinction rate is very difficult at this point. Not only do you need to factor in potential for evolution, but also species interactions and synergistic effects (impacts of changes in climate and land-use) and many other factors for which we actually don't have data to make such models for most ecosystems. However, we do know that many species are already in severe decline and that climate change will only add further pressure to these already stressed systems. So I think whether we get the absolute number right is not so important given that we know the ballpark figure is likely to be pretty high.

tesserakt-1 karma

What would happen to your academic career if you were to join the scientists who question whether global warming is man made or not?

ecocrazysean1 karma

I am not a climate scientist so it would make no sense for me to refute this body of research, just like I wouldn't question whether cancer is real, vaccines save lives, the earth is ~4.5 billion yrs old. I trust the overwhelming majority of climate scientist and find the evidence convincing. Don't get me wrong, I am not afraid to stir the pot, but I stick to doing that in my own area of expertise, where I am doing active research and have a leg to stand on.

tesserakt-2 karma

I'm unaware of any scientific evidence that says cancer is fake.

Are you honestly saying that you're unaware of scientific evidence that Global Warming is a natural occurrence and not a result of actions by man?

Sounds like a fairly ridiculous thing to say. But I guess that's what I was really asking: Is academia really so politically sterilized that a scientist will deny the existence of research in a public AMA?

I guess the answer is yes.

ecocrazysean1 karma

Great points scientistdude45

Just to add to that. I never said I am unaware of research refuting that the current and predicted increase in global temperature is not the result of human activities. I said I would not refute the current standing - based on an overwhelming consensus (over 95% of climate scientists) that human activities are responsible for contemporary changes in climate.

You say you are unaware of scientific evidence that cancer is not real, but I am sure you have not read every single peer-reviewed paper on the topic. I haven't. I actually don't know anyone that has. It is literally impossible to keep up with all areas of science, that is why we become specialists. Gone are the days when scientists could dabble in everything. My point is that I look to those with the credentials to speak on a given topic (those that actually study it for a living) and go with their consensus. What is your background in physics that gives you the expertise to say over 95% of climate scientists are wrong? Have you read all the peer-reviewed literature?

To add to scientistdued45's point about how science works - if you come up with findings that contradict something that is well established or conflicts with what we know in many other fields, it will take a lot of data and evidence to turn the tide; but this has been done many times. Here's an example of researchers making a bold claim and rigorous evaluation by the scientific community that follows http://phys.org/news/2012-07-scientists-nasa-arsenic-life-untrue.html

tesserakt-1 karma

I never said I am unaware of research refuting that the current and predicted increase in global temperature is not the result of human activities.

You just said that denying AGW is the same thing as believing cancer isn't real.

So scientifically, I guess I have to deduce that your career would be in serious danger if you let science get in the way of pop culture or politics at Notre Dame.

But the sample size is kinda small. Is there anyone at Notre Dame that questions whether Global Warming is caused by human activities? Did you hear that some news stations are considering banning the mention of this?

What is your background in physics that gives you the expertise to say over 95% of climate scientists are wrong?

Is that how science works? Consensus? Group think?

ecocrazysean1 karma

I would avoid saying "so scientifically...." because clearly you do not think scientifically. Also, trolling is not a great way to engage in meaningful discussions.