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Alaska’s New Butterfly is a Hybrid—and May Also Help Monitor Climate

Mar 21, 2016 04:06 AM EDT

For the first time in 28 years, Alaska has a new butterfly: a possible hybrid between two related species that adapted to the harsh Arctic climate. 

University of Florida researchers, led by lepidopterist (or butterfly expert) Andrew Warren, suggest that the newly discovered butterfly might be the result of the mating of the Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic.

The offspring is named by scientists the Tanana Arctic, or Oeneis tanana, as it lives in the forests of Tanana-Yukon River Basin.

"Hybrid species demonstrate that animals evolved in a way that people haven't really thought much about before, although the phenomenon is fairly well studied in plants," said Warren, the senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History, in a statement.

In fact, the Tanana Arctic has been hiding under our noses for some time now. In 2010, as Warren was going through the collection, he said a specimen labelled as Chryxus Arctic butterfly "didn't look right."

It had a different-looking genitalia and larger white specks on the underside of its penny-colored wings, giving it a frosted look.

With 825 butterfly species recorded in the United States and Canada, the Tanana Arctic, a member of the Arctics family, may be the only endemic one in the Last Frontier, meaning it cannot be found anywhere else.

Since butterflies adapt quickly to changing climate, the new discovery can help in monitoring the climate. The Tanana Arctic can also be studied to learn about Alaska's geology due to its remote residence.

"This butterfly has apparently lived in the Tanana River valley for so long that if ever it moves out, we'll be able to say 'Wow, there are some changes happening,'" Warren said.

He also added that the region itself is already experiencing a lot of changes, particularly glacier and permafrost melting.

Warren hopes to return to the Tanana-Yukon basins next year in search of this already extraordinary butterfly.

The research is recently published by the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera.

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