Researchers Have Identified a Potentially New Alaskan Butterfly Species

Andrew Warren 
Andrew Warren  / Andrew Warren 

Scientists in Alaska recently discovered a potentially new insect species—the Tanana Arctic, or Oeneis tanana, a copper-colored critter that may be the state’s only endemic butterfly. According to National Geographic, it’s the first new butterfly discovered in Alaska in 28 years.

News of the butterfly’s discovery was recently published in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. The insect was identified by the study’s co-author, Andrew Warren, a butterfly expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In 2010, while perusing a collection of butterfly specimens at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Warren spotted a winged creature labeled as the Chryxus Arctic butterfly. However, its wing coloration was a little off, and its size and reproductive parts weren’t a match.

Warren teamed up with a slew of other scientists from separate institutions to help him identify the butterfly. Eventually, a peer sequenced its DNA and discovered it was characteristic of a different species.

Turns out, the Tanana Arctic has been mistaken for the Chryxus for years. Contrary to researchers' long-held belief, it was an entirely new species, not a variant of Chryxus. The Tanana Arctic lives in the spruce and aspen forest of central Alaska’s Tanana-Yukon River Basin. It likely arose as a hybrid of the Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic butterfly during the last Ice Age, between 28,000 and 14,000 years ago.

The organism might yield new insights into the pace of Arctic climate change, The Washington Post points out. Butterflies are sensitive to temperature shifts, so if the cold-weather insect ever leaves its longtime home in the Tanana River valley, scientists will know something’s up.

Researchers plan to sequence the Tanana Arctic’s genome to learn whether it has any special traits that helped it survive in its freezing home. As of now, studies are needed to conclude for sure that it’s a new species, but experts believe there's compelling evidence to support the theory.

[h/t National Geographic]