The newly identified butterfly species may be the result of a rare, ancient hybrid and it may provide clues on environmental changes and the geological history of Alaska.
Researchers have discovered a new butterfly species in Alaska’s interior.
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The butterfly is the first to be found in 28 years and possibly the only butterfly species native to the state.
The newly-discovered butterfly species belong to the genus Arctics or Oeneis Tanana, which exist in a wide range of habitats from montane and boreal forests to grasslands and steppe to high altitude alpines with some of those species found in the rocky terrain dealing with harsher climates.
Researchers suggest that the new butterfly could be the result of a rare and unusual hybridization between two related butterfly species, the Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic. Both butterflies adapted for the tough arctic climate presumably before the last ice age.
The discovery of the possibly new species could not only provide clues on the evolution of hybrid butterflies but also the geological history of the Alaska and its changing climate.
“Hybrid species demonstrate that animals evolved in a way that people haven't really thought about much before, although the phenomenon is fairly well studied in plants,” said Andrew Warren, a lepidopterist from University of Florida. “Scientists who study plants and fish have suggested that unglaciated parts of ancient Alaska known as Beringia, including the strip of land that once connected Asia and what's now Alaska, served as a refuge where plants and animals waited out the last ice age and then moved eastward or southward from there. This is potentially a supporting piece of evidence for that.”
The new butterfly lived in the spruce and aspen forests of Tanana-Yukon River basin about 28,000 to 14,000 years ago, where two ancient butterflies interbred and evolved into Tanana Arctic. Two of the butterfly species stayed in Beringia during the coldest part of last ice age while the third butterfly Chryxus Arctic pushed to south towards Rocky Mountains.
The butterfly species remained unidentified for six decades until Andrew Warren who is also a curator at Florida Museum of Natural History noticed distinct characteristics of the butterfly.
Tanana Arctic was a unique combination of two related butterfly species. It was larger and darker than Chryxus Arctic but its DNA was identical to those known as White-veined Arctic, further supporting the hypothesis that new species may be a hybrid.
“Once we sequence the genome, we'll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments,” said Warren. "This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly."
Arctics group of butterflies is known for withstanding environments that are too cold or extreme for most other butterflies. Since butterflies adjust quickly to climate change, they could potentially reveal more about the environmental changes in remote areas of North America.
Next, researchers are planning to head back to Yukon-Tanana basin in search of fresh specimens, so their DNA can be sequenced and their genetic history can be confirmed.
“New butterflies are not discovered very often in U.S. because our fauna is relatively well-known,” said Warren. “There are around 825 species recorded from the U.S. and Canada. But with the complex geography in the Western U.S., there are still going to be some surprises.”
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The paper titled "A new species of Oeneis from Alaska, United States, with notes on the Oeneis chryxus complex (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Satyrinae)" has been published in Volume 49 The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. The paper is available as pdf online.