The approximately 11,000 known butterfly species in Europe are considered well-researched. The discovery of a new genus and species from the Geometridae family, however, has brought surprise. Researchers from Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom, published in the journal ZooKeys, have described for the first time the Mirlatia arcuata, deemed by Innsbruck expert Peter Huemer as “The moth, named Mirlatia arcuata, by a research team from Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom, is one of the most remarkable discoveries in Lepidoptera of recent decades.“
The genus name Mirlatia is a combination of two Latin words, loosely translated to mean “bringing a surprise.” According to scientists Axel Hausmann from the Zoological State Collection Munich and Huemer, the head of the natural science collections at the Tyrolean State Museums in Innsbruck, the road to this unexpected discovery was complicated.
Amateur Entomologist Collected Several Specimens
In the early 1980s, Austrian amateur entomologist Robert Hentscholek collected three specimens of a moth species in southern Dalmatia (Croatia). These specimens were added to his collection without detailed identification or sharing with colleagues. Many years later, his collection was sold to Austrian hobby researcher Toni Mayr, who noticed the unusual insect that stood out from all known European species and could not be assigned to any known genus.
Hentscholek was contacted, revealing that he had given a male and a female specimen of the same species to another collector who had since passed away. The female was rediscovered in 2015 in the collection of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, while the whereabouts of the other specimen remained unknown. Toni Mayr gifted his male specimen to the Tyrolean State Museum in Innsbruck. Last year, the research team began the morphological and genetic examination of the two specimens, leading to their description as a new genus and species.
Discovering a nearly three-centimeter-sized and distinctive butterfly species in a well-explored region like southern Croatia may seem unlikely. However, surprisingly little research has been conducted in this area during the flight season of moths, explained Huemer. “It’s possible that Mirlatia arcuata is a cold-adapted, winter-active species that would need to be sought in the middle of winter.“
The study’s authors have ruled out the possibility of the species’ introduction from other continents for a number of reasons. Despite efforts, the researchers have not yet clarified the relationships between the new genus and species. They anticipate gaining more clarity from further investigations of the entire genome.
A comprehensive search for additional living specimens in the original discovery region in March of the previous year was unsuccessful, possibly because the butterfly’s flight season had already ended due to climate warming. Nevertheless, the study authors hope to rediscover Mirlatia arcuata soon and learn more about its habitat requirements and biology.