New Butterfly Species Discovered in Alaska

Posted on March 17, 2016

Tanana Arctic Butterfly

A new butterfly species has been discovered in Alaska. The butterfly has been named Tanana Arctic. It has the scientific name Oeneis tanana. It is the first new butterfly species discovered in Alaska in 28 years.

University of Florida lepidopterist Andrew Warren is the lead author of a research paper on the new species. He suggests the butterfly could be the result of hybridization between two related species. These species may have become specially adapted for the arctic climate before the last ice age.

Warren says in the announcement, "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. 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 researchers think two related butterfly species, Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic, may have mated in the past and their hybrid offspring evolved into the Tanana Arctic butterfly. The butterfly is found in the spruce and aspen forests of the Tanana-Yukon River Basin.

Tanana Arctic has white specks on the underside of wings giving them a frosted experience. It is large than and darker than the Chryxus Arctic. The DNA sequence of Tanana Arctic was unique but similar to the DNA sequence found in nearby populations of White-veined Arctics. This similarity is one reason the researchers think it may be a hybrid offspring.

Warren says that the newly discovered butterfly could serve as an early climate change indicator because it inhabits relatively untouched areas of Alaska. He says, "This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if it ever moves out, we'll be able to say 'Wow, there are some changes happening. This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing."

The research paper on can be found here (PDF) in The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera.

Photo: Andrew Warren

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