A new species of butterfly discovered in Alaska may be an ancient hybrid of animal, a new study suggests. This is the first species of the flying insect discovered in The Last Frontier in 28 years.

The Tanana Arctic, scientifically known as Oeneis tanana, may be the only species of butterfly to regularly make the frozen landscape of Alaska its home, according to investigators.

Biologists theorize the Tanana Arctic may have first taken to the skies sometime between 28,000 and 14,000 years before our own time. Two species, the White-veined Arctic butterfly and the Chryxus Arctic, may have mated to form the new variety of insect. If true, all three species may have flown together at the same time in the tail end of the last period of glaciation.

If it is confirmed that the newly-discovered species could be the result of cross-breeding between two species of butterflies, likely prior to the last ice age, this finding could help answer questions on ancient migrations about other species.

"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," said Andrew Warren of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The Tanana-Yukon River Basin is home to the newly-recognized species. That region remained largely unfrozen during the last ice age.

For 60 years, biologists had seen Tanana in their collections, but had not recognized the animals as a separate species, due to their similarity to Chryxus. Warren noticed significant differences between the butterflies as he studies samples taken from the wild. Wings of Tanana butterflies are darker than those of its cousin, and appear frosted.

Hybridization between species has been studied extensively among plants, but only rarely have such studies been carried out on animals.

Further research on the insects will study their genetic code and investigate whether the animals may also be found further east.

Discovery of the new species and analysis of Tanana Arctic was profiled [pdf] in the Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera.

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