Back East Backyard Big Year

Quite a bit has happened since the last time I wrote a blog post.  In the Fall of 2015 we made a huge move from L.A. to downstate New York (since moving here I’ve learned that the locals take their regional descriptions very seriously, and upstate NY does not start till up around Albany) and taken a job as Director of Conservation Science at the Mohonk Preserve.    I’ll write more about this amazing place later but for now I want to talk about my last post and how I’ve decided to put my metaphorical money where my mouth is.

It’s been about ten years since I’ve lived in the east, and during that decade trips to the right coast have been rather sporadic.  I also switched study species in that time, changing from birds to butterflies.  As a result, I’m much more familiar with the butterfly fauna of the western U.S. than I am that of the eastern U.S. despite spending 75% of my life in the east.  I’m delighted to be back in the land of green vegetation, spring wildflowers, and gentle rolling mountains, but I’m having to re-learn the local flora and fauna almost from scratch.  I decided that one way to do that, at least for butterflies, was to do a Big Year.

A quick refresher- a Big Year means trying to see as many species as possible in one calendar year.  Most people think of Big Years as being things that birders do, traveling around the country and spending lots of money, but there are other ways to go about it.  Not only is my Big Year focused on butterflies rather than birds, but I’m confining my Big Year to the species found on the lands of the Mohonk Preserve.  This does a few things:  it gets me familiar with the species in my new backyard/workplace, and it gives the Preserve a comprehensive list of what butterflies are found on the Preserve and where.  To keep things interesting, Zach is doing a Preserve Bird Big Year.

Rather predictably, Zach is waaaaaay ahead of me on species counts, but I’m finally starting to see some butterfly action.  While Zach has been in double digits almost since the first of the year and now hovers around 75 or, I’m delighted to be at 7*.  When it’s all said and done we’ll probably judge our ultimate successes as a percentage of possible species rather than just go based on raw totals, but really the competitive aspect is a distant second to the idea of getting out and seeing as much of the land as possible and learning to identify its inhabitants.

So what have I seen so far?  First up, unsurprisingly, were the Mourning Cloaks.  They started to show up in February due to our incredibly mild winter and their habit of overwintering as adults.  Compton’s Tortoiseshells came out at the same time, followed by Eastern Commas.  Cabbage Whites are now quite common and truthfully are driving me slightly nutty as I check each one to make sure it isn’t a Margined White. Eastern Tiger Swallowtails started to show themselves last weekend.  I’ve had a reliable report of Black Swallowtails but haven’t recorded one myself.  A few days ago I was thrilled to get my first member of the Melitaeini, a Pearl Crescent.

Celastrina MSPP

Blurry photo of an Azure, Celastrina sp., at Mohonk Preserve

The butterflyers amongst you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned Azures, Celastrina spp.  That’s because the taxonomic status of this genus in our area is still a bit of a puzzle to me, and I need to do some careful reading and looking to see what’s possible and what’s out there.  For now I’m loosely calling everything “Spring Azure” but there’s a good chance there are two or more species of Celastrina flying right now.

*Pending a better understanding of Azures in the area I’m considering what I’ve seen so far one species.

Musings on Big Years, slowing down, and finding beauty in the ordinary.

Robert Michael Pyle's "Handbook for Butterfly Watchers" is a must-have for anyone wishing to improve their butterflying skills

Robert Michael Pyle’s “Handbook for Butterfly Watchers” is a must-have for anyone wishing to improve their butterflying skills

I just finished reading Robert Michael Pyle’s beautiful 2010 book, Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year. I’ve been a fan of Pyle’s writings for a while, and his Handbook for Butterfly Watchers is high on my recommendation list for people who want to expand their butterflying skill. Unfortunately I haven’t had much time for reading lately, so I’ve been sneaking little bites of Mariposa Road for months now- a trip to Texas here, a break in the Florida Keys there. I finally finished it, and now I’m pondering the idea of a Big Year.

A bit of background: The Big Year concept was first popularized by birders. A Big Year is an attempt by one person to count as many species as possible in one calendar year in a proscribed area, usually the U.S. (the specific “rules” have changed since the earliest days of Big Years). I first learned about the Big Year concept by reading Kenn Kauffman’s wonderful Kingbird Highway, and later followed it up with Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession. And yes, that last one was turned into a movie starring some folks you’ve probably heard of. Kauffman himself was famously inspired by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s 1955 Wild America.

Pyle's "Mariposa Road" tells the story of the first-ever butterfly Big Year

Pyle’s “Mariposa Road” tells the story of the first-ever butterfly Big Year

Pyle’s book documents the first-ever verified butterfly Big Year, undertaken by him in 2008. Pyle’s Big Year was not some random butterfly watcher’s vain and selfish endeaver- Pyle has long been an important champion of butterfly conservation, and he used his Big Year as a fundraiser for the Xerces Society (which, by the way, he also founded). As always, his writing is lyrical, funny, and informative. One of the benefits of reading it in short chunks the way that I did is that each time I picked it up, I was inspired anew by his love of butterflies, and that pleasure was spread out over months.

One common criticism of Big Year attempts, similar to criticisms of speed records on the Appalachian Trail, is that there is little time to appreciate the ordinary, every day aspects of the endeavor, and barely time to revel in the joy of the exceptional. Pyle blasts that line of criticism to smithereens. He clearly states at the outset that familiarity most certainly will NOT breed contempt, and the reader doesn’t have to get very far into the book to enjoy Pyle’s own appreciation of the common species. My favorite bits, though, come from his delight in the inconspicuous or unassuming species. Take Erebia discoidalis, the Red-disked Alpine: “On this kind, the cinnamon scales smear all over the chocolate above. Below, the subtle but intricate mix brought to mind rust and cloud on peat and loam.” Most folks upon encountering this butterfly wouldn’t have noticed it; most who did would mistake it for a drab moth, wondering why it was out and about in the daytime if they even gave it a second thought. Pyle, though, manages to find beauty in it, and to make the reader share in that finding, as well.

Most people who encounter the Red-disked Alpine probably find it drab.

Most people who encounter the Red-disked Alpine probably find it drab.

I’ve known birders who have done a Big Year and I can’t deny that they have some amazing stories and see some incredible things. The idea of doing a Big Year certainly has some appeal. But I could never quite imagine making the time commitment that a Big Year requires. It might sound like a wonderful way to see the country, but I’ve done field work. I know how time consuming it is. I know how easy it is to not really see the land around you when focused on a daunting task like this. And I know myself, and I wonder if I would really be able to drink it all in, the way Pyle manages to do in between sleep deprivation and road food. I don’t know if a Big Year is for me, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a modified Big Year. There are lots of way to reduce the scope of a Big Year, either geographically or temporally, in a way that still leaves time for work, family, and recreation.

How can you modify a Big Year? You can do a Big Month. Or even a Big Day. You could modify the geographic parameters- what about a County Big Year? For a birder in Los Angeles that’s something like 500 species of birds possible (feel free to correct me on that in the comments if my number is off. I was never a great west coast birder). For a butterflyer in Los Angeles, the number of possibilities is ~145. That’s still a pretty significant challenge! You can do your (modified) Big Year as part of a larger effort, contributing data to eButterfly, eBird, the annual NABA count or Christmas Bird Count; you can turn it into a fundraiser for your local Audubon group; or have the nerdiest competition ever with your friends.

But whatever you do, remember to take time to appreciate the common species, and to find beauty and wonder everywhere you look. And as Pyle says, “Then slow down, and let the butterflies lead. You’ll see just as many as you see; and much more besides.”

What I did on my summer vacation: Trip Report from the Mono Lake Bird Chautauqua

I just got back from one of my favorite events of the year, in one of my favorite places in California- the 14th annual Mono Lake Bird Chautuaqua in Lee Vining
The Chautauqua is a 3-day festival that celebrates not only birds, but the beauty and natural history of the Mono Basin, eastern Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin. The long weekend is packed with field trips, presentations, and social events put on by people who are dedicated to protecting this important natural area and sharing its beauty with the over 400 participants who come to partake. I was looking forward to this trip for months, ever since the organizers got in touch and asked if I could lead a bug field trip. This would be my third Chautuaqua as a trip leader, and Zach’s fifth- sadly we had to miss last year’s event for crazy scheduling issues on our end. One of the wonderful things about the Chautauqua is getting to spend time with so many great people. It sounds cliched to say this, but I love getting to reconnect with old friends and make new ones- and every year it seems like we meet great new friends who I will look forward to catching up with the next year. This year was no exception.

If you’ve never been to Mono Lake, what are you waiting for? GO! NOW! I’ll wait…
The lake itself sits at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierras, just over the hill from Yosemite National Park and Tuolomne Meadows, at an elevation of almost 7000 feet. Highway 395 runs the length of the eastern Sierra, and while a few small towns dot the road, the whole area feels gloriously, luxuriously quiet and deserted after a year in Los Angeles. Mono Lake itself is formed from streams running out of the Sierras and draining into the Mono Basin. The lake has no outlet, so the water that collects has been subjected to eons of filling and evaporation cycles, concentrating salts and minerals in the water and driving the salinity levels higher than that of seawater. The lake supports an incredibly productive ecosystem, driven largely by brine shrimp and fly larvae that support migratory and breeding birds in spring, summer and autumn.

For a natural history enthusiast, Lee Vining offers spectacular scenery, clean air, and the promise of seeing lots of birds (or bugs, or whatever your pleasure) across a variety of different habitats. To the east, the sagebrush desert of the Great Basin stretches out as far as the eye can see, interrupted periodically by hills and mountains jutting up out of the landscape in dramatic fashion. To the west, the granite and metamorphic cliffs rise steeply upwards, quickly becoming snowcapped alpine peaks over 10,000 feet high- at least, in most years. California is in the 4th year of a well-publicized drought, and even after living here for a year, we were still shocked and saddened to see how dry the mountains are this year. The lack of snowpack in the Sierras is causing issues over a large part of the state as municipalities such as Los Angeles struggle to conserve what little water is available, and coming to Mono Lake is a stark reminder of just how severe this drought is. Much of Los Angeles’ water comes from the eastern Sierra, and the landscape around Lee Vining is dotted with signs warning would-be trespassers to stay off of the property, as it is now owned and controlled by the LA Water District. All Angelenos should come to Mono Lake and the Owens River Valley and witness for themselves just where their water is coming from, and what that water means to the wildlife that calls this area home.

My biggest regret of the weekend is that I forgot to get a group photo from my field trip.  The good folks who came along on my field trip Sunday morning were absolutely fantastic, and made my job as a presenter so easy.  I just wish the wind would have let up a bit so that we could have seen more butterflies, but I personally still had a great time.
I could easily spend a few thousand words extolling the virtues of Mono Lake, Lee Vining, the eastern Sierra, and of course, the Chautauqua. But I think instead I’ll put up some cellphone pictures of the long weekend, and leave you with an invitation to join the fun in 2016. Registration usually opens in the spring, and some of the programs fill up fast! Put it on your calendar!

Why Mimicry is the Coolest Thing Ever, Part 2: Mimicry Can be Mutually Beneficial

A while ago I wrote about the phenomenon of mimicry, and talked a bit about the earliest descriptions of mimicry.  In Batesian Mimicry, two species have converged on the same conspicuous “warning” phenotype, but only one is giving an honest signal.  In the case of butterflies this phenotype is usually warning coloration, or aposematism.  The honest signal indicates that the animal is toxic, and the animal who is giving this signal is called the model.  Predators that encounter the model have a bad reaction, associate it with the aposematic signal, and avoid prey with that phenotype in the future.  Mimicry comes in when another species, the mimic, is perfectly harmless but benefits from sharing a similar phenotype with the model.  Predators either can’t tell the difference between the two species, or aren’t willing to take a chance, and therefore avoid the harmless mimics.  Mimics get protection from predation by virtue of their false warning coloration, plus they don’t have to pay the metabolic cost of sequestering toxins in their bodies.  Henry Walter Bates first described this type of mimicry while studying butterflies in the Amazon.

Some of the many diverse mimetic Heliconius phenotypes

Some of the many diverse mimetic Heliconius phenotypes

In 1878, Fritz Müller proposed another type of mimicry after studying some of the same butterflies in Brazil that Bates had investigated.  These specific cases had puzzled Bates, but Müller realized that mimicry doesn’t always involve a dishonest signal.  Like Batesian mimicry, this type of mimicry was eventually named after the naturalist who first described it.  In a Müllerian mimicry system, two or more species strongly resemble each other and are poisonous to common predators.  The burden of educating a predator to avoid a specific color pattern is shared between both species, and some biologists consider it a form of mutualism.

Monarch butterflies were originally believed to be Batesian models to Viceroy butterflies after a pioneering study performed by Jane Van Zandt Brower in 1958 indicated that naive Blue Jays would reject Viceroys after exposure to Monarchs.  The story wasn’t that simple, though, as David Ritland and Lincoln Brower showed later that Viceroy toxicity varies geographically (and, actually, so does Monarch toxicity).  In some areas, Viceroys are not poisonous, and if they coexist with Monarchs, they are Batesian mimics of Monarchs.  In other areas, though, Viceroys sequester toxins from their caterpillar host plants (often salicylic acids from willow trees) and function as Müllerian mimics.  Even more interesting, Viceroys also coexist with Queens in some places.  Queens and Monarchs are closely related, both sequester toxins from milkweed plants, and both are toxic.  This means there are many combinations of species pairs and mimicry types possible just within this one group: Monarch + Viceroy can be Batesian or Müllerian mimicry; Monarch + Queen is Müllerian mimicry; and Queen + Viceroy can be Batesian or Müllerian mimicry.

Queen butterflies ingest poisons from the milkweeds that they eat as caterpillars.  The caterpillars and adults become toxic to predators.

Queen butterflies ingest poisons from the milkweeds that they eat as caterpillars. The caterpillars and adults become toxic to predators.

Today some of the strongest research on Müllerian mimicry comes from researchers studying butterflies of the genus Heliconius.  Heliconians occur in the tropics of Central and South America, and there are about 39 recognized species within the genus.  They occur in many different species combinations and a variety of color pattern phenotypes.  They take in amino acids from feeding on pollens, and these compounds allow them to make cyanic compounds- cyanide.  Published studies on Heliconius mimicry have exploded in recent years, and have led to an understanding of the genetic mechanisms controlling color evolution, the physiological processes that protect the butterflies from the poisons they are carrying, the behavioral interactions that allow butterfly species to tell each other apart and find suitable mates, and many other things.



Trip Report- Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 15 April 2015

Today I had the pleasure of going out to the Ranch Santa Ana Botanic Gardens  in Claremont, California with a bunch of folks from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. It was a great day for it- sunny and warm but not too hot.

The gardens are really lovely and are worth a visit, but of course, we were there for the bugs. Some folks were there for flower flies, some for bees, we had a spider expert, and, predictably, I was most interested in the butterflies. Ordinarily collecting isn’t allowed on the property but we had permission, thanks to knowing one of the staff researchers. AND, we got to wear exciting fluorescent green vests!

I counted 16 species of butterflies throughout the property. By far the biggest surprise was the established colony of Pipevine Swallowtails, Battus philenor. I’m familiar with this species from living in Davis (CA), Arizona, and Virginia, but it doesn’t occur naturally in southern California west of the desert. My first reaction upon seeing an adult drift by was ‘you’re not supposed to be here!’ By the end of the day I counted 3 adults and a caterpillar, all very localized around the host plant. I spoke to some of the staff who said they think that the colony has been there at least 5-10 years, but they’re not sure how they got there. Its host plant, Aristolochia vine, is established on the property, but no new plants have been brought in for over 50 years. This means it’s unlikely that the caterpillars came in on a nursery shipment. The garden has a butterfly pavilion, but according to the staff the colony predates the pavilion so it’s unlikely to be an escapee. Perhaps it was intentionally released nearby, and was able to establish on the Garden’s plants? Regardless, it was a fun find.  I entered the rest of the day’s sightings on eButterfly if you want to see what else we found.

It was really great to go out into the field with my entomology colleagues from the museum. There was a lot of good knowledge getting shared, and a lot of new skills being learned. Perhaps the biggest ‘skill stretch’ was watching Ichthyology Curator running down the trail with a butterfly net, chasing a Queen butterfly. She’s developing quite a swing-and-flip.


A Day in the Life… with apologies to the Beatles. And the beetles.

My field season here in southern California is in full swing. I’m out doing butterfly research in the Santa Monica Mountain Range several times a week (6 out of 7 days last week, 3-4 during a normal week). I often joke that butterfly work is much more pleasant than, e.g. bird work since butterflies sleep late and don’t typically fly during bad weather. While I can’t argue that my job is pretty darn pleasant, it’s still a lot of work and makes for some long days. I thought I’d keep track of a typical day in the field and share it here. I find it incredibly interesting how different a field day is for people who study different organisms, or who work in different parts of the world. If you want to share what your field day is like leave a comment!

5:30 AM- Awake.
6:00 AM- coffee and smoothie for breakfast while answering emails
7:00 AM- put together gear for the day. Refill camelback and water bottles (minimum of 3 liters of water for the day). Check sunscreen supplies. Pack extra socks. Put together food for the day. Restock glassine envelopes.
7:30 AM- double-check today’s field sites. Plan to visit 3 of my 23 sites. Today’s sites are in the western portion of the mountain range.
7:45 AM- load up the car and leave the house. Stop to fill the gas tank.
9:00 AM- arrive at site one. Slightly too cool for butterflies, so plan to spend a few minutes exploring a different section of trail. Do so, then discover I’ve accidentally spent almost an hour on ~1/2 mile of trail. Oops.
10:00 AM- 11:50- survey site 1. Count 16 species (and 95 individuals), including 2 of the Griffith Park 10. Cover ~3.5 miles.
11:50- water break for my field assistant.

My field assistant assessing abiotic factors affecting diversity.

My field assistant assessing abiotic factors affecting diversity.

11:55- drive to site #2.  No time for lunch, so snack in the car while driving.
12:25- arrive at site 2. Count 11 species, 145 individuals. Over 100 of those are Hedgerow Hairstreaks. Overhear 2 dudebros who clearly have no concept of how sound carries in a canyon. Enjoy watching them look uncomfortable when I call them out on the racist stuff they were saying as they walked down the trail. Cover 4.5 miles of trail.

Hedgerow Hairstreaks nectaring on buckwheat flowers.

Hedgerow Hairstreaks nectaring on buckwheat flowers.

12:45- Water break for my field assistant.
2:50- drive to site #3
3:20- arrive at site #3. Stare, agog, at how dry it is compared to the last visit 3 weeks ago. Admire the beautiful, clear view of the California Channel Islands. Count only 5 species of butterflies (30 individuals), marvel at how many of those are migrating Painted Ladies. Cover 2.5 miles of trail.

Channel Islands from the western portion of the Santa Monicas

Channel Islands from the western portion of the Santa Monicas

4:25- Water break for my field assistant.
4:30- Check the traffic report and see that it will take two hours to get home. Drive to the grocery store for snacks for my field assistant and me.
6:45- home.
6:50- prepare dinner for my field assistant

My field assistant, performing olfactory surveys of mammal diversity in sandstone canyons.

My field assistant, performing olfactory surveys of mammal diversity in sandstone canyons.

7:00- enter today’s data
7:30- document voucher specimens
7:45- shower, dinner.
8:15- answer emails
8:30 PM- read journal article
9:30 PM- bed.

How do YOU wear down a field guide?

I was flipping through a field guide this weekend, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the state of the thing. The cover is bent and coming loose in several places. Pages are stuck together, dogeared, ripped. Dirt splotches, bug guts, and sunscreen smears grace most of the pages. I have easily 20 different butterfly field guides, and at least 15 of those cover the area where I currently live, but I use this one almost exclusively. I’ve had it for about 10 years, and browsing through those pages tells a story of how I learned to ID butterflies, which species give me the most trouble, and which pages bring me the most joy.

Whenever I flip through any of my field guides I’m reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. In Chapter 22 Samuel goes to Adam’s house to help him choose names for his sons, and suggests that they take inspiration from the bible.
“…This one has been scraped and gnawed at,” he said. “I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places that are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly. Here we are- this oldest story. If it troubles us it must be that we find the trouble in ourselves.”

I mentioned this to a friend who said she did the opposite- she quickly skipped over the parts of the bible that gave her trouble, because she didn’t like to think about those parts. But come to think of it, her herp field guide was really worn down in the tiny frog section…

I wish that 10 years ago I had bought 10 copies of this field guide, and used a different one each year. The first few years’ copies would certainly be worn down at the checkerspot section, as I learned to identify the species that formed the basis of my dissertation work. Three or four years in, the grass skippers’ pages would be ragged as I started a survey project in the Sutter Buttes, and couldn’t make heads or tails of the ‘sparrows of the butterfly world’. The years that we lived in Arizona would be worn down in lots of places- roadside skippers, metalmarks, the beautiful Lyside Sulfur, which I loved to just sit and gaze at- but this time the pages would hold less frustration, and more joy. By that time my identification skills had improved dramatically, and seeing a new species brought more pleasure than the vexation of those early years. I’m not sure what the wear pattern on this year’s field guide would look like- I suspect it would be much more even, like Liza’s Bible. This isn’t to say I have it all figured out now, but I’m familiar enough with most groups that my field guide perusals now mostly consist of a quick page-flip to double-check a host plant or confirm a range.

Someone I know very well wears down his field guide evenly by reading it cover to cover like a novel.  Now that I’ve gotten better at the process, I find myself doing something similar on occasion, although in my case I’m more likely to open at random and read for several minutes.  Or, now that I have a grasp of the things I’m likely to see, I have the luxury to look at and try to learn things that don’t typically live here, like the arctics and most of the wood-nymphs.

What about you? Do you wear down a field guide evenly, like Liza? Or does your field guide tell the story of your triumphs and confusion? Does it make a difference if the field guide is for your focal taxa vs. something you don’t study? I’d like to hear about it- leave a note in the comments. What does your field guide’s wear and tear say about you?

On second thought… the Coppers are getting worn down right now- I do wish some would turn up at my study sites…

Why Mimicry is the Coolest Thing Ever, and Why I Think Everyone Should Want to Study It

Recently I was lucky enough to record a podcast for Jason Goldman’s show The Wild Life.  One of the subjects that came up in our discussion was my love of mimicry, and my feeling that if the National Science Foundation proclaimed that from now on they planned to fund mimicry research and nothing else, that would make total sense to me.  You see, I love everything about mimicry.  I think it is probably the coolest evolutionary adaptation that has ever been described, and I just happen to be lucky enough to study the group of animals that are most closely associated with this amazing phenomenon.

There are lots of different kinds of mimicry, in lots of different taxa.  There are animals that mimic each other, animals that mimic inanimate things, plants that mimic animals, plants that mimic plants- you name it, someone, somewhere in the natural world, has mimicked it.  I could write dozens of posts about mimicry (and incidentally I can’t believe I haven’t already written at least one!) but for now I’ll start out with the first type of mimicry ever described, Batesian Mimicry.

This type of mimicry is forever associated with Henry Walter Bates, an English naturalist who spent 11 years in the Amazon studying and describing insects, plants, birds, and lots of other things that he saw there in the mid-19th Century.  Bates noticed that some of the butterflies around his camp were very colorful and conspicuous, but never seemed to take evasive flight patterns or hide from predators.  He also noticed that the birds and lizards who lived in the same areas as these butterflies ignored them, even though they would readily hunt down and eat other butterfly species.  After much careful observation Bates concluded that these butterflies were laying their eggs on toxic plants, and that the caterpillars that hatched from these plants ate these poisonous plants.  He surmised that because of this, the caterpillars themselves must be poisonous, and that predators either knew this innately, or learned it through trial and error.  Most importantly, the predators could associate this toxicity with the bright color patterns of these butterflies.  We now refer to this warning coloration as aposematism, and it’s found in lots of organisms that have some type of toxicity or other dangerous defense mechanism.

When Bates decided to collect some of these butterflies, he noticed something else:  he wasn’t seeing just one species of butterfly, he was seeing several that looked alike.  What’s more, some of these species were not laying eggs on toxic host plants, meaning that they and their caterpillars were perfectly edible!  Bates determined that these palatable butterflies were mimicking the unpalatable ones.  In mimicry terminology, we now refer to the toxic species as the model and the edible species as the mimic.  This particular brand of mimicry, comprised of a noxious model and a harmless mimic, is named after the man himself- Batesian mimicry.

For many years after Bates first published his findings on mimicry, scientists accepted his rationale without actually testing it.  Then, famously, in the 1950s a set of experiments were undertaken by Jane Van Zandt Brower and later by Van Zandt Brower and  Lincoln Brower, testing the effectiveness of several butterfly species that were assumed to be involved in mimicry.  Van Zandt Brower’s approach was simple:  feed the butterflies to their predators and wait to see how the predators respond.  Depending on the toxicity of the butterfly in question, and the learning abilities of the predator, predators sometimes ate the butterfly and responded  negatively (e.g. vomiting); tasted but didn’t eat the butterfly; or ignored it altogether.  Next, the birds (she usually used birds as predators) were given the presumed mimic and asked to respond- if the bird had learned to reject the poisonous model and, based on that experience, rejected the presumed mimic, Van Zandt Brower concluded that the latter species was indeed a mimic of the former.  Over the years many researchers (including me) have relied on this basic framework to test the efficacy of mimicry systems.  While some of Van Zandt Brower’s earliest results have stood the test of time, others have undergone more scrutiny and allowed us to refine the interpretations somewhat.  Regardless, though, this contribution has been essential to our understanding of how mimicry works.

What kind of Batesian Mimicry systems occur in your area?  I promise you they’re out there!

This Arizona Sister, Adelpha eulalia, is distasteful to predators due to toxins in the oak leaves that the caterpillars consume

This Arizona Sister, Adelpha eulalia, is distasteful to predators due to toxins in the oak leaves that the caterpillars consume.  Its mimic, the Lorquin’s Admiral, Limenitis lorquini, is palatable.

Spring Has Sprung

It’s springtime!  Right?  Wherever you are I’m sure you’re looking out the window to glorious sunny days filled with warmth and butterflies. Unless, of course, you are most of my family or friends (Hi Erik!) looking out the window to several inches of snow and mercury in the single digits.

Actually, down here in the City of Angels, it’s been feeling like spring for about a month or so.  I’ve been out in the field almost non-stop in recent weeks, and the butterflies are definitely out stretching their wings.  Non-butterfliers may not realize it, but butterflies have seasons, just like fish and birds.  Some butterflies are on the wing most of the year in southern California but quite a few are restricted to just a few months or even weeks of the year.  Most of my favorites fall into this latter category, and happen to fly in the spring.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the UCLA La Kretz Field Station and was delighted to see the first Sara Orangetip, Anthocharis sara, of the year flitting around the yard.  This delightful little species drifts by so quickly that most casual observers don’t have time to notice the lovely orange wingtips that give them their names.  They fly by so quickly that they’re often, in fact, confused with moths.  

Anthocharis sara, Sara Orangetip.  Photo taken in the Santa Monica Mountains

Anthocharis sara, Sara Orangetip. Photo taken in the Santa Monica Mountains

Sara Orangetip has shown up at almost all of my 25 field study sites over the last 3 weeks.  Today I revisited a sight that was among the first where Sara was flying and saw only a couple of individuals, meaning that this species is quickly coming to the end of its flight season.  If the weather cooperates we may get a partial second brood of this gorgeous springtime bug.  Anyone who is still flying today is frantically looking for a mate or for mustards to lay eggs on, before their offspring hibernate in the pupal stage.

I’m very disappointed, and slightly worried, not to have seen any Sonoran Blues (Philotes sonorensis) so far this year.  This tiny but spectacular member of the Lycaenidae has a tight link to its larval host plant, members of the genus Dudleya.  I’ve seen records that this animal is out and about elsewhere in the southwest, but so far none have shown themselves on my Santa Monicas surveys.  The mountain range is experiencing a loss of Dudleya habitat due to fires, which may be impacting this butterfly as well.  It would be great to have time to survey more comprehensively for this beautiful butterfly but for now I’ll have to hope for incidental sightings during regular survey days.

If there was any doubt at all about whether or not spring had arrived, today’s find put an end to that speculation.  While surveying on the Mishe Mokwe trail I lucked onto the fist checkerspot of the season, the Gabb’s Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii.

Gabb's Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii.  Photo taken in Santa Monica Mountains.  Ignore the chipped thumbnail.

Gabb’s Checkerspot, Chlosyne gabbii. Photo taken in Santa Monica Mountains. Ignore the chipped thumbnail.

This photo doesn’t do justice to this lovely and well-behaved animal.  I say well-behaved because, like most checkerspots, they readily come to flowers, making them quite easy to observe (and chase.  Ahem).  I spent most of my PhD years chasing close cousins of this species, and several outings chasing this animal in particular.  Seeing one never ceases to bring a smile to my face- I’ve been grinning since about 11:30 this morning knowing that it’s now checkerspot season.


OK so maybe it isn’t exactly 40 years in a row, but it’s close.


My PhD advisor at UC Davis, Dr. Art Shapiro, recently sent around an email announcing the news that many of us wait for, breathlessly, every January- he had seen a Cabbage White butterfly, Pieris rapae, flying while he was out in the field.  Since Art’s earliest days as a professor at Davis he’s sponsored the annual “Butterflies for Beer” contest, open to all.  The much coveted prize, aside from eternal fame and glory, is a pitcher of beer (or the cash equivalent).  The challenge?  Find and capture the first (wild- no cheating by raising it indoors) Cabbage White of the year within the California counties of Yolo, Solano, or Sacramento.  It sounds easy enough but Art seldom loses- legend has it he’s only lost three times in over 40 years, and at least one of those times he was in Argentina the whole month.  When I was in grad school at Davis I tried several times to beat him but honestly I never stood a chance.


Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Dr. Art Shapiro in the field.

Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, Dr. Art Shapiro in the field.

Art has always had an interest in the Cabbage White, and in butterfly phenology (the study of life cycles, in particular the timing of significant events) in general.  By carefully observing and recording things like the first flight date of a species Art has documented long-term climatological patterns, previously unknown or unrecorded flight + weather correlations, and changes in how butterflies interact with other aspects of their environment, notably their larval host plants.  I could easily write a dozen posts about the stuff Art has done with his incredible dataset but for now I’ll just link to his website and you can check some of it out for yourself.


Regardless of who the winner is, Art sends out an announcement describing the event.  I’ve always loved these narratives describing the weather, the flowers in bloom, the number of junkyard dogs in the vicinity, what kind of sparkling wine the other riders on the bus were drinking…  oh and also how the bug managed to wind up caught in Art’s net.  Here’s an excerpt from this year’s announcement, which started with the headline “SHAPIRO SNAGS CABBAGE WHITE “VERY LATE” BUT GETS AN EARLY RECORD 15 MINUTES LATER”:

I was sufficiently sure today would be the day that I took my net and was prepared to sweep the vegetation with it to kick up any individuals that were sunbathing (“dorsal basking”) in the dilute sunlight in order to raise their body temperature to the level needed for flight.” But that did not prove necessary; the sun came out strongly at 12.11 and the butterfly (a male) took wing spontaneously 19 minutes later. “It was a very easy catch; I suspect he emerged this morning and that was his first flight.” Ten minutes later a second species, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) showed up. It hibernates as an adult and is always an early flier, but this was its first record on the floor of the Sacramento Valley this year—it’s been out about two weeks in the lower Coast Range.

Matt Forister, another of Art’s former students, promptly put together and sent out a graph showing the temporal distribution of Cabbage White first flight dates over the years.  This year’s  catch is the red dot in the image below.  You can see that in the last 40+ years, the first flight date has gotten earlier.

Cabbage White Butterfly first flight dates by year. The red point shows 2015.  Data collected by Art Shapiro, chart by Matt Forister.

Cabbage White Butterfly first flight dates by year. The red point shows 2015. Data collected by Art Shapiro, chart by Matt Forister.


Art may win his own contest every year but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t claim the prize!  True to the rules, Art buys himself a pitcher of PBR, a Shapiro lab tradition.  He graciously shares it (and usually a few more, to boot) with his students and their partners, plus assorted hangers on.  I’m sad to have missed it this year!