In Pursuit of the California Dogface Butterfly

Jul 11, 2017

Few people have seen California's state insect in the wild, but now thousands will this week--on TV.

The California dogface butterfly, Zerene eurydice, and its Auburn habitat will be featured on KVIE Public Television's "Rob on the Road" show at various times throughout the week. The piece is on prime time at 7:55 p.m. on Thursday, July 13 (in between Antiques Roadshow and Huell Howser's California's Gold). It is also online at 

Found only in California, the dogface butterfly thrives at the Shutamul Bear River Preserve near Auburn, Placer County.  The 40-acre preserve, part of the Placer Land Trust, is closed to the public except for specially arranged tours.

The butterfly is there because its larval host plant--false indigo, Amorpha californica--is there. The plant is difficult to grow outside this habitat, according to Placer Land Trust manager Justin Wages. Perhaps, he says, it's the unique geography and soil near the Bear River.

The dogface butterfly, so named because of the poodle-like silhouette on the wings of the male,  was adopted as the official California insect on July 28, 1972, but entomologists had selected it as the state insect as early as 1929. Their choice appears in the California Blue Book, published by the State Legislature in 1929. (Read more on how the butterfly became the state insect under the Ronald Reagan administration.)

Dogface butterfly experts include Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis (see his entry on his website). He has records of dogface butterfly sightings for 37 of California's 58 counties (Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Eldorado, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Kings, Lake, Los Angeles, Marin, Mariposa, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa, Nevada, Orange, Placer, Plumas, Riverside, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Shasta, Sierra, Solano, Sonoma, Sutter, Tulare, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo and Yuba). "And there are probably more," Shapiro says.

It flies high and it flies fast, Shapiro points out. "Both sexes routinely fly 15-20 feet off the ground," he writes on his website. "They dip down to visit such flowers as California Buckeye, thistles, tall blue verbena, etc. but seldom linger long."

The California dogface butterfly made the news several years ago when UC Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology associates Greg Kareofelas and Fran Keller and former UC Davis student Laine Bauer, teamed to publish a 35-page children's book, The Story of the Dogface Butterfly. The trio visited the Auburn site for their research, and Kareofelas also reared and photographed a dogface butterfly at his home in Davis. The author, Fran Keller, is an entomologist and is now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College. (She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart and professor of entomology). Both Kareofelas provided photos for the book, and Bauer, the drawings, including depictions of the life cycle of the butterfly reared by Kareofelas.

Kareofelas and Keller also teamed to create a dogface butterfly poster of the male and female.  Both the book and the poster are available at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, 1124 Academic Surge, on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus.

As for the book, it's favored by adults and children and is a  classroom treasure. "The ecology, life cycle, taxonomy and conservation issues presented are relevant to grades K-6 that can be used in classroom curriculum,” Keller says. It also includes a glossary.

Kareofelas, who has served for several years as a volunteer docent for the Placer Land Trust's dogface butterfly tours, helped guide the recent tour that included Rob Stewart of "Rob on the Road" and UC Master Gardeners.

He and Keller, along with others,  answered questions about the biology and history of the colorful butterfly, also known as "the flying pansy."

Recent dogface sightings elsewhere? Shapiro saw one this year on July 4 at Willow Slough, Yolo County. Kareofelas recently saw one in his backyard, where he is growing a false indigo. And Shapiro remembers seeing one in his driveway in Davis in 1972.

However, the dogface butterfly is more prevalent at the Shutamul Bear River Preserve than anywhere else, and Rob Stewart of "Rob on the Road" and the UC Master Gardeners were delighted to see it.

Fact is, although few have seen the dogface butterfly in the wild, all of us with California driver's licenses have seen it--but probably never noticed it. Look on your driver's license--right beneath your signature--and there it is!

California's state insect, the California dogface butterfly.