Researchers solve mystery behind butterfly’s extinction

Was the Xerces blue butterfly its own species?

Habitat destruction wiped out the Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces) over 80 years ago—making it the first insect species known to have been driven to extinction by humans. But much about its disappearance has remained a mystery. Was it really a distinct species? Or was it just an isolated population of the wide-ranging silvery blue butterfly (G. lygdamus)?

After sequencing the genomes of both butterflies, reseachers believe they have solved the mystery. In a study published in Biology Letters, biologists concluded the two are distinct species. Researchers believe the Xerces blue butterfly experienced a steep population decline over tens of thousands of years, but the destruction of its habitat on the San Francisco Peninsula led to its extinction. They believe understanding its genomic traits could help protect other vulnerable insects.

Scientists are also considering using cloning to try to bring back the butterfly.

“We sort of lost a piece of the biodiversity puzzle that made up the tapestry of the San Francisco Bay area when this species was driven to extinction,” study author Corrie Moreau told Science News.

Read more from Science News.

Header Image: Researchers sequenced Xerces blue butterfly genomes to determine if it was a separate species. Credit: Edward Rooks