RENO, Nev. -- University of Nevada, Reno researcher Matthew Forister is among a group of scientists that have documented an unusual type of speciation in the Sierra, including a hybrid species of butterfly that can trace its lineage as far back as almost a half a million years ago. In a recently published article in the leading research journal Science, the discovery is one of the most convincing cases of this type of species formation that has ever been demonstrated in animals.
"Our genetic work is what really clinched the hybrid angle," said Forister, a research professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science. Forister explained that it has been known that two types of butterflies Lycaeides melissa and Lycaeides idas live in the Sierra, with the L. melissa living on the eastern slope of the Sierra and the L. idas living to the west. Foristers team found that a third species of Lycaeides has evolved in the upper alpine reaches of the Sierra.
The team used molecular genetics to show that the "new" species carries genes from both parental species. The scientists estimate that about 440,000 years ago the L. melissa and L. idas came into contact in the Sierra. Their offspring, cut off from the rest of their clan, eventually evolved into a unique and genetically distinct species.
"Its interesting, because the alpine butterflies have wings that look like the butterflies from the eastern Sierra," Forister said. "But their mitochondrial DNA more clearly resembles those from the western Sierra. When you think about all of the changes the world has undergone, and how parental species have moved in response to climate change and have possibly come into contact many times, you realize that the world is a messier place than you first thought.
"Ultimately, what weve studied highlights the importance of natural selection, and the more general idea that we are sti
Contact: John Trent
University of Nevada, Reno