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Davis, California

Sunday, May 26, 2024


UC Davis professor Art Shapiro has spent most of his life studying butterflies. The Philadelphia native first discovered his love of nature and natural history as a young child, often taking long walks in the woods and New Jersey Pine Barrens.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, he earned his Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 1970. While at Cornell, he attended Oxford University as a summer visiting researcher in the Department of Zoology. He later relocated to Davis in 1971 and has remained here ever since, except for the occasional “commute” to South America for his ongoing research project in the Andes.


Why did you decide to come to UC Davis?

I got a job here. I had been teaching in the City University of New York and got an offer here. The clincher was that UCD had probably the best genetics department in the country, and I would have a chance to interact with those folks (though that wasn’t my department). And UCD was a great deal like Cornell, where I got my Ph.D., so I felt right at home. Still do.


What is it about butterflies that make them special to you?

Who knows? I’ve been doing butterfly studies for so long – some 50 years – that they have become an integral part of who I am. I don’t question that. In a Zen sense, I do what I do because that’s what I do.


What does your research focus on about them?

Ecology, evolution and biogeography, all of which converge at the level of speciation (species formation – how do species arise, anyway?).


What’s your favorite type of butterfly? Why?

Probably the Cabbage White group, known as Pierines. I started out with them way back when and still work on them, only now a lot of that work is in temperate and montane South America. They are great experimental animals.

Do you keep any butterflies at home?

I used to raise Anise Swallowtails at home. Their caterpillars spray butyric acid when annoyed. Butyric acid smells like rancid butter and hangs in the air forever. My wife won’t allow them in the house any more. I can’t keep live adults in cages because the cats would get them – or on the veranda because of the mockingbirds and squirrels.


Tell me about your “Butterflies-for-Beer” contest.

One of the main foci of my research is seasonal adaptation. How do butterflies time their life cycles to match the weather? I use the common Cabbage Butterfly, Pieris rapae, as a bellwether. It’s important to know exactly when it emerges in late winter and I work very hard to keep track of it. I hit on the idea of generating competition by offering a prize for the first one of the year. The prize is a pitcher of beer. It’s a way of keeping myself honest. I usually win, but I’ve been beaten four times and tied once in 30-some years.


Why are butterflies important?

Mostly for esthetic and emotional reasons. They’re charismatic. Their economic importance is at best minor. A few are agricultural pests, and many are decent but not terribly important as pollinators. Basically, people like to look at them. They have, however, been immensely useful in basic ecological and evolutionary studies.


What’s your project in the Andes and Patagonia?

I began going to South America in 1977 and got hooked. I’ve been trying to reconstruct the evolutionary history and biogeography of the Pierines – Cabbage Butterflies – of the Andes and Patagonia, which include some of the world’s highest-altitude insects. I’ve been to 16,000 feet, but most species are in the 7,000 to 12,000 foot range. They were profoundly influenced by the Pleistocene Ice Ages and appear to be in great evolutionary ferment, speciating as we speak. Everything one learns about Andean butterflies is new to science. And it’s great fun to do the fieldwork! Recently I have been looking at how Andean butterflies are adapting to use exotic weeds as host plants, a phenomenon I have studied a great deal here in California too.


What do you normally teach at UCD and do you have a favorite?

I teach four specialized upper-division courses: EVE 138 (Tropical Ecology), 141 (Principles of Systematics), 147 (Biogeography), and 149

(Evolution of Ecological Systems, an advanced course in community ecology and coevolution). They’re all fun for me. I also teach two graduate courses – EVE 220 (Species and Speciation) and Geography 210 (Topics in Biogeography) and a graduate seminar, PBG 296 (Geographical Ecology). Next year I’ll be teaching EVE 101, the major’s ecology course, in winter quarter because we’re short-handed. I also facilitate the undergrad seminar, EVE 190 (this year we focused on “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to evolution), and often do freshman seminars (I did one last quarter in chemical ecology and am doing one this quarter called “The Old Roots of the New Age,” about the history of the occult and mysticism). I think my favorite is EVE 141 because it gives the students lots of opportunities to be creative in their homework.


What are some local butterflies people could easily identify?

Everybody thinks he/she knows what the Monarch looks like, but many people don’t. If you want to learn to sight-ID butterflies, visit my web site, butterfly.ucdavis.edu, or get my book, Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions (UC Press, 2007). Shameless plug, huh?


Is there anything else you’d like to tell students?

Of course, or I wouldn’t be a professor. Get away from the computer screen and get outdoors. If you’re not using your body, you’re not using your head.

ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.


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