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Is this mysterious hybrid butterfly a harbinger of climate change?

Tanana Arctic butterflies, the first such species discovered in Alaska in almost 30 years, could be a bellwether for change in the fragile arctic ecosystem

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    This undated image provided by lepidopterist Andrew Warren shows the newly discovered Tanana Arctic butterfly. Research by Warren suggests that the newly discovered species evolved from the offspring of two related butterfly species, and he thinks all three lived in the Beringia region between Alaska and Russia before the last ice age.
    Florida Museum of Natural History/AP/File
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A butterfly species, misidentified for more than 60 years, may be the only type of butterfly endemic to Alaska, say scientists.

The newly identified Tanana Arctic lives in spruce and aspen forests in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin. Because butterflies react quickly to climate change, the species could help scientists identify alarming changes in the sensitive arctic ecosystem, says Andrew Warren, a lepidopterist (butterfly expert) at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“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,’ ” said Dr. Warren, lead author on a new paper in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. “This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing.”

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The Tanana Arctic butterflies – the first species discovered in Alaska in the last 28 years – may be a rare hybrid between two related species, the Chryxus Arctic (Oeneis chryxus) and the White-veined Arctic (O. bore), says Warren. 

He first identified the new species while organizing butterfly specimens in a museum collection, he told Smithsonian.com. He noticed that the specimens, while similar to O. chryxus, possessed distinct characteristics, including white specks on the underside of its penny-colored wings that gave it a "frosted" appearance. This butterfly was also larger and darker than the other species.

A group of eight scientists from three countries further examined the species and discovered DNA similar to that of the the White-veined Arctic (O. bore). Based on their findings, the researchers suggested that the new species is a hybrid, from butterflies that mated before the last ice age.

They suggest that as the climate became colder, the Chryxus Arctic was pushed south into the Rocky Mountains, while the Tanana Arctic and White-veined Arctic remained in Beringia.

‌“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,” said Warren, according to UF News. “...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.”

Warren and his team plan to do more research to confirm that the species is indeed a hybrid.

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