The evolution of butterflies, which has been accelerated by climate change, has brought a miracle that some scientists have waited over 60 years to witness. In Alaska, where it has been 28 years since a butterfly species has been discovered, scientists have identified a hybrid species of an ancient butterfly colony; the Tanana Arctics have reemerged.
With Alaska’s frozen climate, the presence of the Tanana Arctic raises questions about if the Last Frontier is slowly melting. More importantly, it has brought on wonder of how the Ancient Tanana Arctic butterfly has been reborn. Scientists at the University of Florida are researching the discovery and Andrew Warren of UF’s Museum of Natural History has an idea of how the butterflies have been able to survive in Alaska’s climate.
“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 explanation of how the Tanana Arctic butterflies could live and breed in Alaska left open questions of how the butterflies actually came to be in that region. Once thought to be extinct, the presence of the ancient species was, at first, a complete mystery. UF’s researchers looked into other species found in the Alaska region and realized that the DNA in the hybrid Tanana Arctic species closely resembled the DNA makeups of the White-veined Arctics and the Chryxus Arctics.
The Tanana Arctic was then deemed a strange combination of the two existing species, which, with the help of climate change, regressed the arctic species to its origins. This is a truth that for years, scientists were blind to, because of the similarities to the Chryxus and White-veined species. Now, 60 years after the Tanana Artic first emerged, the species finally has its own name and the meaning behind that name is quite simple.
The hybrid arctic species can be found in Tanana Yukon River Basin, which is the inspiration behind its name. Still, there is much more to learn about the ancient butterflies. In a recent statement to the Washington Post, Warren asserts that this finding did not allow them to fully understand the Tanana Artic butterflies in their new habitat and that more research is required.
“Once we sequence the genome, we’ll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments.”
To unveil the secrets of the Tanana Artic butterflies, Warren is planning to take a voyage to Alaska to observe the butterflies in their natural habitat. It’s believed that because the butterflies have lived in the Yukon for so long undetected, they have never had reason to relocate. This reality will make is easy for scientists to study them according to Warren.
“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 discovery of the Tanana Artic butterfly, an ancient species, thought to be extinct, was recently published in Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera. The future research will not only look into the butterflies in their natural Alaskan habitat, but also investigate how far north the ancient butterfly species may have traveled.
[Feature image via Miguel Tovar/STF/Getty Images]