Hidden diversity: DNA 'barcoding' reveals a common butterfly is actually 10 different species

PHILADELPHIA A common butterfly, found in a variety of habitats from the southern United States to northern Argentina, is actually comprised of at least 10 separate species, according to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania.

Astraptes fulgerator, a medium-large skipper butterfly, is a routine visitor to urban gardens and tropical rainforests. While the "species" has been known to science since 1775, only now has examination of a small and standardized signature piece of the genome a technique called DNA barcoding shown that this "species" is really an amalgam of a number of genetically distinct lineages, each with different caterpillars and preferences in food plant and ecosystem.

However, as many as six species can live in the same place, which strongly suggests mating segregation. Because the adults differ at best only slightly in appearance -- so slightly that it was attributed to ordinary "variation" -- this finding may have larger implications for maintaining biodiversity.

"It raises the questions of how many other species out there are really multiple species like this one and what that might mean to wildlife conservation," said Daniel Janzen, co-author of the study and professor in the Department of Biology in Penn's School Arts and Sciences. "We might lament the local extinction of a plant or animal but take comfort in the notion that the species lives on elsewhere. Well, what if that extinct animal was the only example of a genetically distinct species, hiding inside a morphology similar to the surviving species?"

Janzen and his colleagues report their findings in the Sept. 29 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Their research began during 25-year-long inventory of the wildlife in the Area de Conservacin Guanacaste, a large conservation zone of dry, rain and cloud forests in northwestern Costa Rica. They noticed that, amid the more than 2,500 wild-caught caterpillars of A. fulgerator, ma

Contact: Greg Lester
University of Pennsylvania

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