Add to collection
  • + Create new collection
  • This project involves the pesky Pieris rapae (better known as the white butterfly or white cabbage butterfly), which is very common in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is believed to have originated in Europe and is now found in many parts of the world. Researchers have been DNA profiling the butterflies that have been caught and sent in by citizen scientists. They have been able to determine their ancestry and therefore where they originated from, in the same way human DNA can tell us about our own ancestry.

    Rights: Lauren Nichols

    Pieris rapae butterfly

    The Pieris rapae butterfly is known by a number of different common names around the globe. Common names include white butterfly, cabbage butterfly, cabbage white or white cabbage butterfly.

    Nature of science

    Pieris rapae is an example of why living things have a scientific name in addition to a common name. Globally, Pieris rapae is referred to as white butterfly, cabbage butterfly, cabbage white or white cabbage butterfly. Cabbage butterfly can also refer to the large (or great) white butterfly – although it is a different species (Pieris brassicae)! Systematic naming ensures that one species has one name, no matter where in the world it can be found. There are also subspecies. For example, Pieris rapae rapae is found in Europe and Pieris rapae crucivora in Asian countries – a globally recognised scientific naming system is vital to identifying species.

    Learning and using naming conventions supports the communicating in science strand of the New Zealand science curriculum. The use of specialised language is one of the literacy practices of science.

    Scientists are not only interested in the spread of white butterflies globally but the variation that occurs between them. This provides an insight into how these butterflies respond to environmental change. With strong links to adaptation, genetics and variation, this project is especially suited to high school students and has direct relevance to level 2 Biology AS 91157.

    Rights: The Pieris Project

    The Pieris Project

    The Pieris Project is an online citizen science project that uses DNA to investigate how the Pieris rapae butterfly species spread throughout the world and how the species changes as it adapts to new environments.


    Reach: Worldwide

    Nature of science focus: Online citizen science (OCS) projects can be used to develop any of the Nature of Science (NoS) substrands. Identify aspects of NoS that your students need to get better at or understand more fully and then frame your unit to be very clear about these things when you do them.

    Science capability focus: Interpret representations

    Science focus: adaptation, genetics, variation, climate change

    Some suggested science concepts:

    • Adaptation is the ability to change in response to environmental conditions.
    • Genetic variations within a species give individual characteristics.
    • The changes that occur during the life of an individual result from environmental and genetic influences.

    Many concepts could be learned – focusing on a few can often be more powerful. Develop your learning outcomes and success criteria from these concepts as well as the Nature of Science strand and the science capabilities.

    Some examples of learning outcomes:

    Students can:

    • interpret representations to discuss the origin of their own Pieris rapae sample
    • relate variation between Pieris rapae to differing genetic and environmental influences
    • demonstrate understanding of adaptation in Pieris rapae
    • explore ethics in science research.

    Our goal is to partner with the public to create the most comprehensive collection of a single species of butterfly that will act as a powerful tool for studying how organisms adapt to changes in their environment.

    The Pieris Project

    About The Pieris Project

    Pieris rapae, commonly called the white or white cabbage butterfly, is a most successful invader. To invade different environments, the white butterfly has had to overcome different pressures, such as changes in climate, varying food sources, and competitors and predators.

    This project has citizen scientists capturing and geolocating white cabbage butterflies before humanely killing them and posting them to the researchers in the USA. Once there, the researchers extract sample DNA to look for genes that have helped the white butterfly adapt to these pressures, such as genes involved in adaptation to climate, the detoxifying of plant chemicals (those they eat) and dealing with new predators and bacteria they may be encountering. It takes about a month to get the DNA testing results. This information helps the researchers understand how the genomes of these butterflies has been shaped by their environment, including your backyard or school yard!

    Rights: The Pieris Project

    Surprising finding

    One surprising finding of The Pieris Project so far was the source of introduction to New Zealand. It seemed logical that Pieris rapae hitched a ride on one of the many trade ships that visited from the UK in the 1930s, when the population was established here. As it turns out, Pieris rapae hitched a ride on a ship from San Francisco! After arriving in New Zealand, a small population then quickly made its way over to Australia.

    This project sets out to explore the answers to three main questions.

    • How did the white butterfly spread across the world?
    • How has the white butterfly adapted (evolved) to the new environments it was introduced to?
    • How has the phenotype (colour, shape, size) of the white butterfly changed as it has moved into new environments?

    This project could be used at the primary level especially in developing understanding about the way that species adapt or change over time in order to survive in their environment. For example, having samples from all over the world can show the white butterfly changing colour ever so slightly. The butterflies citizen scientists send in assist the project team to look at how the shape, size and colour of these butterflies change depending on where they live. This has links to the way some species may adapt to climate change by producing less dark pigment (black) so that they absorb less heat from the Sun to avoid overheating in really warm climates.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Female and male white butterflies

    Female white butterflies have two black spots on the front forewings, and males have a single spot. Female wing colouration is also slightly yellower than in males.

    Images sourced from iNaturalistNZ. Female butterfly courtesy of Uwe Schneehagen and male butterfly courtesy of Radinis. Both images are licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    In this video ākonga who’ve participated in this project provide a brief explanation about citizen science projects, how they benefit the science community and why they like being involved.

    The level of complexity can easily be extended as the project also provides ample opportunity to sit alongside senior biology as an introduction to genetic variation. There is considerable content support at that level also.

    The researchers are available for contact. Data has already been given and analysed from Aotearoa, giving this project a national yet global feel – although having more samples sent year on year adds to the depth of information available to monitor small changes over time. So have a go!

    The sharing of results and research data, which is freely available on the website, offers rich opportunities for developing students’ ability in the science capability ‘Interpret representations’. The Results page discusses scientific uncertainty, especially in regard to the creation of models based on the data (white butterflies) that citizen scientists have sent in.

    The Cool Stuff page has some very useful resource and reading material, especially for more senior students.

    Nature of science

    Using this OCS project allows valuable conversations with students about their developing understanding of how scientists work, in particular, the need for robust data – the way in which the more data gathered increases the validity of the inferences we make from it. There is also considerable scope for developing students’ experience in interpreting a variety of representations. It also opens up opportunity for a discussion about ethics in scientific research as the white butterfly are being euthanised for research. The Ahi Pepe MothNet project in Dunedin has some good ideas about how students grappled with the ethics of this and found a solution that worked for them.

    Related content

    Find out more about white butterflies in this article and then use an activity to find out more about the white butterfly life cycle.

    New Zealand butterfly origins explores how native and introduced butterflies find their way to this country – and how we managed to eradicate the great white buttefly.

    Here are some planning tips for when you intend to use a citizen science project with your students. Use these tools for exploring ethics in science and the Ahi Pepe MothNet example.

    Read about how scientists are gathering data about monarch butterflies in this Connected article Look out for Monarchs.

    Find out more on how we can help the butterflies of Aotearoa and some of the threats that they face.

    Biosecurity is a serious issue in Aotearoa. Rather than inviting the world to send insects, Biosecurity New Zealand works to keep pests out! Kiwifruit and myrtle rust are just two of the biosecurity threats the country faces.

    This project investigates adaptive features. Use these Hub resources to learn more about species and adaptations:

    Use these Connected series articles to learn more about adaptive features:

    Useful books from the Ministry of Education Building Science Concepts:

    Useful links

    In addition to the information available on the site itself, this Students Discover site has teacher resources for developing teaching about The Pieris Project.

    The adaptive features and history of this species could be compared to many more Aotearoa species as highlighted in these School Journal articles:


    This outline was written as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Citizen Scientists in the Classroom project funded by the Ministry of Education’s Teaching & Learning Research Initiative.

      Published 8 July 2019 Referencing Hub articles
          Go to full glossary
          Download all