cabbage white butterfly

UChicago creatures

Taking wing

A closer look at a common campus sight.

Maureen Searcy

Visitors to UChicago’s campus at any time except the coldest months have probably spotted this butterfly, the cabbage white (Pieris rapae). Last summer, visitors may have also seen members of Marcus Kronforst’s lab chasing after them with giant, flowing nets.

Many of the species studied by Kronforst, a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor, can eat only one type of plant as a caterpillar, but somehow the cabbage white can eat many. The group wants to know why. They collected butterflies from all over the neighborhood, hoping the natural variation within one population might shed light on the genetics of host-plant usage.

Third-year Kristine Don, a research assistant in Kronforst’s ecology and evolution lab, studies coevolution between the local cabbage white and Arabidopsis, a flowering plant frequently used in research because of its small, fully sequenced genome. After her freshman year, Don wanted to work with live animals and study speciation and mimicry, making the Kronforst lab a perfect fit. But why butterflies? “They’re pretty,” says Don, “and just a little bit creepy.”


A cabbage white takes a nip of nectar. (Photo courtesy Barbara Friedman)