New zebra-like ringlet butterfly found in Museum collection

12 April 2011

A new butterfly species has been uncovered in the collections at the Natural History Museum, scientists announce today, the same day its Sensational Butterflies exhibition opens.

The new tropical butterfly is called the zebra-like ringlet, Splendeuptychia mercedes. It lives only in Peru and was named by Museum butterfly curator Blanca Huertas.

The zebra-like ringlet butterfly ias found in habitat such as this cloud forest in Peru

The zebra-like ringlet butterfly is found in habitat such as this cloud forest in Peru © N Rosser/ Zootaxa

Splendeuptychia mercedes differs from its closest relatives by having broad stripes on its wings, resembling that of a zebra’s. 

It was named after La Merced in Peru, the place where it was first collected in 1903, but it is also found in the Pucacuro Community Reserve, an important area in Peru where other native and endangered species have been found.

Detective work

Blanca’s detective work began in 2005 when she identified another new butterfly in Colombia called the Magdalena Valley ringlet, Splendeuptychia ackeryi. When comparing this specimen with those in museum collections, she found many similar unidentified specimens.

She decided to investigate this butterfly group. ‘I started reviewing the whole genus and lots of literature and I could not find a name for the specimens at the Natural History Museum,' said Blanca.  'I visited other museums and I found the new species in a museum in Peru, still without a name.’

Close-up of the reproductive organ (aedeagus) of the male zebra-like ringlet butterfly.

Close-up of the reproductive organ (aedeagus) of the male zebra-like ringlet butterfly. Comparing the genitals is a good way of distinguishing between different butterfly species. © B Huertas/ Zootaxa

Blanca analysed the male genitals of the butterfly. This is one way to differentiate between butterfly species that are alike and difficult to distinguish morphologically. 

She also mapped the locations of where the zebra-like ringlet was found as this was distinctive and differed from other members of the genus.

Describing a new species

After a year of research, the evidence has been written up and a scientific paper is produced and published confirming the newly described species as Splendeuptychia mercedes.

‘Despite it not being the first time that I have identified a new butterfly species, it is still exciting,’ says Blanca. ‘Almost half of the world’s butterfly species are found in South America, and it is amazing we are still finding new ones there.’

‘This discovery highlights the richness of the Museum’s collections and how its 70 million specimens can still hold secrets for scientists to discover.'

Butterflies and moths at the Museum
Magdalena Valley ringlet butterfly identified by Blanca Huertas in 2009 is in the same genus

Magdalena Valley ringlet butterfly identified by Blanca Huertas in 2009 is in the same genus, Splendeuptychia, as the new zebra-like ringlet butterfly. © B Huertas/ Zootaxa

The Museum cares for one of the biggest and most diverse butterfly and moth collections in the world, gathered over more than 200 years. There are around 9 million butterfly and moth specimens in the collections.

Butterflies of the world

There are 18,000 to 20,000 species of butterfly known worldwide. However, many more are still undiscovered or not scientifically named yet and sadly many are threatened with extinction.

Conservation area

The zebra-like ringlet lives in the boundaries of a Community Reserve Area in Peru called The Pucacuro (Reserva Comunal Pucacuro in Spanish). Blanca explains, ‘Peruvian colleagues are doing what they can to protect this area. Knowing there may be another new species to protect is a good reason to support the work some scientists and conservationist are doing there.’

Sensational Butterflies exhibition

Butterfly senses are the theme for this year’s Sensational Butterflies exhibition, opening today. As well as hundreds of live tropical butterflies, the 5 sensory zones explore fascinating facts such as how butterflies sense sound without ears.

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Further information

  • Find out more about Sensational Butterflies exhibition

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