For the first time in 28 years, scientists have discovered a new species of butterfly in Alaska. Misidentified for more than 60 years, it may be the only butterfly species endemic to Alaska, according to a new study published in the Journal of Research on Lepidoptera. The Tanana Arctic butterfly is a rare hybrid of two ancient species, the white-veined arctic (O. bore) and the Chryxus Arctic (Oeneis chryxus).
Tanana Arctic butterfly arrive before the Ice Age
The University of Florida lepidopterist Andrew Warren, the lead author of the study, said in a statement that hybrid species are proof that animals evolved in ways we haven’t thought about. Warren and his colleagues believe that the Tanana Arctic butterfly evolved from the hybridized offsprings of two butterflies just before the last Ice Age.
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The newly identified butterfly lives in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin. The similarities between the new species and its close relatives kept it from being identified for almost six decades. Warren first identified it while organizing specimens in a museum collection. Though the Tanana Arctic butterfly specimens were similar to Chryxus Arctic, it had some distinct characteristics. It has a scattering of small white freckles that gave it a “frosted” appearance. The butterfly was also darker and larger than its relatives.
It may help monitor climate change
Warren said those studying plants and fish had suggested that unglaciated parts of ancient Alaska served as a refuge where animals and plants waited out the last Ice Age and then moved southward or eastward. The new butterfly species is a “supporting piece of evidence for that.” Researchers plan to return to Tanana-Yukon River Basin to find new specimens.
Genome sequencing will help researchers understand whether the butterfly had any special traits that helped it survive the harsh environments. Since butterflies are extremely sensitive to climate change, the new species could help us identify major changes in the sensitive Arctic ecosystem. The Tanana Arctic butterfly has lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that we will be able to identify environmental changes if it ever moves out.