ENVIRONMENT

This New Arctic Butterfly Species May Only Exist In Alaska

It's part of a group of butterflies that typically have special traits to help them survive the extreme cold.

A newly discovered butterfly species may be the only type of butterfly that can be found solely in Alaska.

The Tanana Arctic butterfly (Oeneis tanana), named after Alaska’s Tanana-Yukon River Basin, where the insect lives, has actually been present in a collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History for more than 60 years, according to a University of Florida press release. There, a specimen of the butterfly was categorized as the Chryxus Arctic (Oeneis chryxus), a similar-looking close relative.

But recently, Andrew “Lord of the Butterflies” Warren, a lepidopterist (that's a scientist who studies butterflies and moths), was sorting through collections when he noticed that one butterfly labeled as Oenies chryxus didn’t look quite right, Smithsonian Mag reported.

This specimen -- which came from Alaska -- was bigger and darker, and had more white specks on its wings that make it look as if it was covered in frost. On top of that, researchers found that the butterfly had a unique DNA sequence.

A newly discovered butterfly species, Tanana Arctic, was at a Florida museum for decades before a scientist realized it was m
A newly discovered butterfly species, Tanana Arctic, was at a Florida museum for decades before a scientist realized it was mislabeled. 

Warren and his team started collecting more specimens in Alaska like that one, and their work was published in The Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera on Tuesday.

Warren believes the Tanana Arctic could be a hybrid species, the result of breeding between the Chryxus Arctic and another species, the White-Veined Arctic (Oeneis bore). Those species -- which are also found in the Yukon Territory and places like Russia and Siberia, in addition to Alaska -- are specially adapted to extremely cold climates, producing a natural antifreeze to deal with the temperatures.

“Once we sequence the genome, we’ll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments,” Warren said in a statement. “This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly.”

Researchers don’t know yet whether the Tanana Arctic exists outside of Alaska, but are planning more field work to find out.

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