About 160,000 species of butterflies and moths are already known, but scientists believe that a similar number still remain undiscovered. Identification and characterisation of these species can be complicated by the fact that each species has an immature caterpillar and a mature butterfly form, as well as the reliance on the physical appearance for classification.
Now, though, researchers report that a type of DNA analysis called 'barcoding' may provide a powerful tool in this effort, according to a study published in the 16 November issue of the online journal PLoS ONE.
The researchers, led by Carmen Pozo of El Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Mexico, focused on the Yucatan peninsula population of a particular family of butterflies called Nymphalidae.
Approximately 570 species of Nymphalidae have been reported in Mexico, and 121 of these occur in the Yucatan peninsula. Using DNA barcoding, which uses the sequence of a standard short gene segment to provide information about biodiversity, they found evidence for several previously undiscovered, so-called 'cryptic' species that now await characterisation.
They also found four cases where specimen had been misidentified based on the appearance; these erroneous classifications were corrected based on the DNA, highlighting the potential utility of this method.