While the butterfly could help shed light on the North American Arctic’s geological history, it can also serve as a sort of canary in the coalmine when it comes to current and future environmental changes. That’s because butterflies, which are sensitive to climate changes and react rapidly to them, are considered environmental indicators.
“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,’” University of Florida lepidopterist Andrew Warren said in a release. “This is a region where the permafrost is already melting and the climate is changing.”
As the Arctic warms, permafrost thaws. And this thawing of ground that previously remained frozen throughout the year could release massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere — which could lead to more global warming.
Arctic butterflies are especially unique because they’ve adapted to live in cold temperatures and harsh conditions that would kill most other butterflies. The bodies of these butterflies produce natural antifreeze proteins.
The newly discovered butterfly lives in the Tanana-Yukon River Basin’s aspen and spruce forests, an area that mostly wasn’t glaciated during the last ice age about 14,000 to 28,000 years ago. The Tanana and Yukon river basins formed the southeastern limits of Beringia, an area considered a refuge for plant and animal life during the Ice Age and may have once formed a landbridge connecting Asia and Alaska, the study authors write.
The study from Warren and his colleagues suggests that two butterfly species — Chryxus Arctic and the White-veined Arctic — mated back then and produced what evolved into the Tanana Arctic.
But the Tanana Arctic eluded researchers for years because of its striking similarity to the Chryxus Arctic. That is, until Warren was examining the butterflies at the Florida Museum of Natural History and noticed distinctions between them.
The Tanana Arctic is larger and darker than the Chryxus Arctic, and has a unique DNA sequence. White specks underneath penny-colored wings give it a frosted look.
“Once we sequence the genome, we’ll be able to say whether any special traits helped the butterfly survive in harsh environments,” he said. “This study is just the first of what will undoubtedly be many on this cool butterfly.”
It’s been 28 years since a new butterfly species has been discovered in Alaska. The study authors write that more research is needed to definitively determine whether the Tanana Arctic should be classified as a new species or a sub-species, although they write their evidence suggests it’s a newly identified species.