Lepidoptera Species Found In Jamaica
December 4, 2012

New Jamaican Butterfly Species Discovered In The Cockpit Country Wilderness

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A study describing a new species of Lepidoptera found in Jamaica's last remaining wilderness was recently published in the journal Tropical Lepidoptera Research by a team of scientists from the University of Florida.

The new species belongs to the skipper family of butterflies. This is the first new butterfly discovered in Jamaica since 1995 and scientists hope that the native butterfly will encourage conservation of the Cockpit Country wilderness. This study underscores the need for further research into biodiversity and establishing a baseline of organisms as more tropical areas suffer habitat destruction.

“My co-authors on this paper, Vaughn Turland and Delano Lewis, are really excited because they think this butterfly has the potential to be a new sort of flagship species for Jamaican habitat conservation, because it´s a black and gold butterfly living in a green habitat, which together comprise the Jamaican national colors,” said Andy Warren, senior collections manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “Whether or not a tiny little butterfly is going to attract the type of conservation interest that the giant Homerus Swallowtail in Jamaica has remains to be seen.”

The new species, Troyus turneri, is about the size of a thumbnail with a wingspan of little more than one centimeter. The genus name comes from Troy, the town nearest the discovery site, while the species name is from Thomas Turner, an expert on Jamaican butterflies.

In the Greater Antilles, which includes Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, Jamaica is considered one of the most thoroughly researched areas. Scientists believed they knew all the butterflies in Jamaica before the discovery of T. tuneri. The tiny butterfly probably stayed undiscovered for such a long time due to the inaccessible nature of the Cockpit Country. The Cockpit Country is a mostly undeveloped tangle of tropical vegetation approximately 247 miles long. The species description was derived from one male and one female specimen. These specimens were collected in 2011 and 2012, within a quarter mile of each other.

“During 2011, after the discovery of the initial female specimen, we had actually written the description, but any time you have just a single specimen, the chance exists that it´s just a real freak of something else,” Warren said. “I was really keeping my fingers crossed that more specimens would be found this year. Well, we didn´t get many more, but we got exactly one more and it was the male, so that was a huge relief.”

Torben Larsen, a lepidopterist who specializes in skippers said the fact this new genus was discovered on an island thought to be well-known, 17 years after a new species had last been described, really shows the need for biodiversity studies.

“There aren´t so many butterflies in the country [Jamaica] and for a new one to turn up, I think it was an absolutely remarkable catch,” said Larsen, who is affiliated with the African Butterfly Research Institute. “It really points to the need for continued and in-depth study of the fauna of butterflies, and in general, to get all of these things caught and put in a museum at least, because they do tend to be in rather special habitats.”

T. turneri is dark brown and unmarked, except for a pale yellow band on its hind wing, unlike other Jamaica skipper butterflies that have wings marked with spots of white or orange. Using morphological analysis, researchers compared the insect's genitalia and DNA bar coding to determine if it represented a new genus.

“We knew right away it was a new species because there´s just nothing else that looks like it, but it took several months to determine that it actually should go in its own new genus,” Warren said. “Of all the butterflies that are unique to Jamaica, this one is arguably the most unique — every other butterfly on the island has other congeneric species either on another island or on the mainland, but this one doesn´t have any close relatives anywhere.”

Jamaica has 135 of the 20,000 known butterfly species worldwide, with about 35 of those species endemic to the country.

“One of the goals of biologists is to describe the Earth´s species richness before it´s all gone, and of course we never know what we´re going to find in any of these organisms, be it some unique chemical compound that could provide the cure for cancer or any other number of diseases,” Warren said. “We don´t want to lose anything that could be potentially beneficial for ourselves and for the planet.”