WSU Entomologist Coauthors New Book on Life Histories of Pacific Northwest Butterflies

PROSSER, Wash.—The California Sister has “fangs” as a caterpillar that it bares when disturbed. In its juvenile form, it also builds piers from its own dung on the leaves it feeds on to rest and possibly to avoid small insect predators. The hardy Coronis Fritillary migrates up to 200 miles from low to high elevations and back during its life, climbing from 2,000 feet on the Columbia Basin plains to 8,000 feet in the Cascade Mountains of Yakima County, Wash. These are two of the 158 species featured in a new book, Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies, coauthored by Washington State University entomologist David James with Seattle-area naturalist David Nunnallee.

“This is the result of a decade-long effort to rear and photograph all stages of every Pacific Northwest butterfly species,” said James, an associate professor of entomology based at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. “Such detailed coverage of a regional butterfly fauna has not been published in North America or Europe, so it’s a unique book.”

WSU entomologist David James. Photo: Nella Letizia/WSU. Click on image for a high-resolution version.

Life Histories describes and illustrates the immature stages of all but one of the butterfly species found in Washington state, northern Oregon, southern British Columbia and the Idaho panhandle. James and Nunnallee collected fertile female butterflies and raised individual species from eggs, usually several times, to document and photograph each step of their development, from hatching through larval evolution to pupation and adulthood.

In the book’s introduction, James and Nunnallee explain that among the reasons for writing Life Histories was the need to raise awareness of how human activity has threatened many of the region’s butterfly species. Several are endangered, with more on lists waiting to be added.

“Such listings typically require recovery plans, which in turn may include captive rearing programs,” they wrote. “State agencies, zoos, universities and conservation organizations are currently cooperating to rear some of the listed species for reintroduction to the wild. We cannot protect what we do not understand. We hope this book will increase our understanding of butterfly life histories and that this will lead to more effective preservation programs.”

Unknown to the other, the two authors initially worked independently for several years on opposite sides of the state pursuing the same goal. Then in 2005, James and Nunnallee met and combined their efforts on the project. Nunnallee has studied Pacific Northwest butterflies for 15 years. He is cofounder of the Washington Butterfly Association and supplied photographs for The Butterflies of Cascadia written by Robert Michael Pyle, lepidopterist and founder of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. In fact, Pyle wrote the book’s foreword.

“I can’t say enough about the distinction of Life Histories,” Pyle said. “In the first place, it represents an enormous advance in our knowledge…Our entire Washington fauna (save one), including most of the Cascadian species, has been reared by these two dynamos, as well as studied and exquisitely photographed in every stage. In the second place, this book is the apex of life history treatments to date…

“The publication of Nunnallee and James, or ‘the Daves’ as we know them, is a matter for unreserved celebration, not only for lepidopterists and nature lovers of all stripes, but for anyone who cares about our butterflies’ lives, futures, conservation management and the plants with which they have co-evolved,” Pyle said.

For James, the book represents his lifelong dream to detail butterfly life histories, which started in England in the 1960s when he was 8, rearing butterflies in the family home. (He dedicated the book in part to his parents, Alan and Doreen, for supporting and encouraging that early fascination.) After receiving his bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1975 from University of Salford in Manchester, England, James immigrated to Australia to work and pursue his doctorate in entomology, which he earned in 1984 from Macquarie University in Sydney. His doctoral research focused on Danaus plexippus, or the Monarch butterfly.

James stayed in Australia for 23 years, serving as a research entomologist for the New South Wales Department of Agriculture before coming to WSU’s research and extension center in Prosser in 1999. Today, his research centers on biological control to reduce pesticide use in irrigated crops, particularly vineyards. He directs WSU’s Vineyard Beauty with Benefits project, which seeks to use native plants to beautify vineyards—and attract beneficial insects like native bees and butterflies as well as predators for pest control.

One of James’s favorite butterfly species, the Monarch, also described in Life Histories, is the world’s best-known butterfly, noted for its long-distance migrations from Canada to Mexico. Regular visitors to the Cascadia region, Monarchs, whether larval or adult, make an unpalatable and toxic meal for birds and other potential predators because their bodies store cardenolides, a type of steroid, from the milkweed they eat. The blue-green pupae are familiar teaching tools in classrooms because they are so easily raised. James admires this species for its tenacity and charisma.

“The Monarch was critical to me being where I am today,” he said. “My fascination with butterflies, specifically their biology and how they adapt to their habitats and live, figured into my future work. I’ll likely finish my career with butterflies, as I started it. They are a symbol of purity, freedom and organicness. A world without butterflies would be a very sad place.”

The 448-page Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies is available from Oregon State University Press. For details, visit For background on James’s Vineyard Beauty with Benefits project, see WSU’s wine science publication, Voice of the Vine: (middle of the page).