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The Butterfly Effect

Pepperdine Magazine is the feature magazine for Pepperdine University and its growing community of alumni, students, faculty, staff, and friends.

From their elegant dance from petal to petal to the striking color displays of their delicately dappled wings, butterflies are some of nature’s most stunning spectacles, inspiring a sense of wonder in all who encounter them. Beyond their looks, however, butterflies are important members of the ecosystem and are critical to its survival. Susan Finkbeiner, visiting professor of biology in the Seaver College Natural Science Division, shares why we should all care about the butterflies.


  • “Butterflies represent model systems for scientific studies on genetics, vision, animal coloration, climate change ecology, chemical ecology, animal behavior, pollination, and migratory phenomena, just to name a few,” says Finkbeiner. “The opportunities for scientific research studies on butterflies are endless.”
  • Butterflies are considered bioindicators. This means their highly sensitive responses to subtle changes in climate or habitat and their general health can give clues about the health of the entire ecosystem. Healthy butterfly populations indicate healthy ecosystems.
  • The number of western Monarch butterflies has been historically low over the past few years, especially in coastal California where they have been observed and followed closely for decades. This is believed to be due to the loss or damage of Monarch resting sites, typically eucalyptus trees, which are trimmed or cut down, leaving the butterflies with nowhere to go.
  • While the California Sister and Lorquin’s Admiral (pictured above)—two butterfly species studied closely by Finkbeiner—are indistinguishable to humans, they can look drastically different to the butterflies themselves. Butterflies’ specialized visual systems give them the ability to detect ultraviolet wavelengths and colors not visible to the human eye.
  • Last year’s picturesque super bloom following California’s wet winter provided ideal conditions for a Painted Lady butterfly migration. The super bloom not only acted as a giant feast for the butterflies, but it also provided plants for the butterflies to lay their eggs on.
  • This spring Finkbeiner and a student researcher will work together to examine pre- and post-fire butterfly ecology in the local landscape. Their study will focus on the cabbage white butterfly, Pieris rapae, that lays its eggs on invasive plants that grow after wildfires.