A female Melitaea acentria in nature. A female Melitaea acentria in nature. The population of butterfly is believed to be between 1-1.5 million years old. (Photo: Vladimir Lukhtanov)

This beautiful butterfly species took a million years to be discovered

Mistakenly believed to be another species, it took a Russian scientist at a ski resort to uncover the mystery.

The most amazing discoveries are often made by chance.

That was exactly the case with Vladimir Lukhtanov, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist at the Zoological Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia.

When Lukhtanov and a group of students began a study of Israel's butterflies in 2012, they were positive the bright orange butterfly they saw flying around Mount Hermon, a ski resort in the north of the country, was the commonly found Persian fritillary.

The Melitaea acentria on Mount Hermon.The Melitaea acentria, or Acentria's fritillary, bottom right, is a common site in Northern Israel. (Photo: Vladimir Lukhtanov)

Boy, were they wrong. In fact, it was one that had yet to be formally discovered. Later tests determined the species to be up to 1.5 million years old. "Thousands of people had observed and many had even photographed this beautifully colored butterfly, yet no one recognized it as a separate species," Lukhtanov said.

But most people don't spend their time studying butterfly genitals for fun. That, however, is exactly what Lukhtanov and his team did, and they noticed the genitalia appeared different from those of the typical Persian fritillary.

After sequencing DNA from the specimens, they found that they had a unique molecular signature – very different from the DNA of any other fritillary. They gave it a new name: Acentria's fritillary.

Map of spots where Acentria's fritillary were spotted.As can be seen by this map, the newly discovered butterfly has a large presence on Mount Hermon. (Photo: Vladimir Lukhtanov)

A study published in the open access journal Comparative Cytogenetics made clear just how intriguing the evolutionary history could turn out to be.

"The species is probably one of a handful of butterflies known to have arisen through hybridization between two other species in the past," said Lukhtanov. "This process is known to be common in plants, but scientists have only recently realized it might also be present in butterflies."

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