Fairbanks, Alaska – The first species of butterflies discovered in Alaska in the last 28 years could provide key information about the region’s geological history and its climate change. A study recently published in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera suggests that the Tanana Arctic butterfly is a rare hybrid that evolved from two related butterfly species.

Lepidopterist (butterfly expert) Andrew Warren of the University of Florida wrote in the paper that the newly discovered species evolved from the Chryxus Artic and the White-veined Arctic. He believes the three of them were settled in the Beringia region before the last ice age, The Daily News-Miner reported.

The Tanana Arctic butterfly indicates signs of climate change in the region thanks to their ability to react quickly to that phenomenon. Credit: National Geographic

The paper states that the Tanana Arctic lives in spruce and aspen forests in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin. The new species could early indicate signs of climate change in the remote region thanks to their ability to react quickly to that phenomenon.

“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,’” Warren commented. “This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing.”

Warren is a senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus.

Not new, just misidentified

The Tanana Arctic had been misidentified for 60 years since scientists believed it was the same species as the Chryxus Artic because of their similar characteristics. Warren realized they were different. The Tanana Arctic has a “frosted appearance” since it has white specks on the underside of its wings and it is darker and larger than the other species.

The newly discovered butterfly also has a DNA sequence that makes it similar to nearby populations of White-veined Arctics. Thanks to a natural antifreeze they produce, Arctic butterflies are designed to live in extremely cold environments that other species could never survive. More studies are needed to discover if the Tanana Arctic can be also found further east in the Yukon.

Warren plans to go back to Alaska and look for the newly discovered species in 2017. He expects to collect and examine other new specimens to fully sequence the genome, which could lead him to more clues about the Tanana’s history and confirm whether it is actually a hybrid.

Source: Christian Science Monitor