Butterfly scale fossils show they have been around at least 200M years

Butterflies

Butterflies

An global team of scientists led by Timo van Eldijk and Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University, the Netherlands, found fossil remains of moths and butterflies dating back to over 200 million years ago, making them the oldest known fossils of Lepidoptera - the order of insects to which butterflies and moths belong. Previous molecular studies on the creatures suggest a similar early evolution of proboscis-bearing butterflies and moths, Fabien Condamine, a butterfly researcher who was not involved in the study, tells Hersher.

A team of researchers, led by Dr Timo van Eldijk from the University of Utrecht, looked at the wings of 70 different butterfly and moth fossils.

Member of the order Lepidoptera have, like some other insects, a proboscis - a tongue/needle-like tube they use for sucking and eating.

Just about every butterfly and moth that has hollow scales today has a proboscis, Mr. van Eldijk said. "Exceptionally well-preserved specimens were recovered".

Dr van Eldijk said: "On the basis of an assemblage of fossilized wing scales recovered from latest Triassic and earliest Jurassic sediments from northern Germany, we provide the earliest evidence for Lepidoptera - moths and butterflies".

The discovery, published this week in the journal Science Advances, offers new insights into the evolutionary interplay between flowering plants and pollinators.

Wing scales of a Glossata moth.

A primitive moth (not the one in the study) of Glossata, a suborder of moths that bear a proboscis that can suck up fluid, including nectar. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm.

Van Eldijk then set about analyzing the structure of the scales.

He said: "The microfossils extend the minimum calibrated age of glossatan moths by about 70 million years - refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants".

This replaced the chewing mouthparts of their ancestors - a transition that was probably triggered by climate rather than food.

Butterflies are thought to exist alongside flowers, sucking nectar from them as part of a attractive rule of nature.

"Because free liquid drinking is an efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, substitution of mandibulate mouthparts by a sucking proboscis could be seen as an adaptation to adequate maintenance of body water balance of small, short-lived moths".

Due to their make-up, now butterflies and moths can easily adapt to a variety of different conditions spreading to different continents except Antarctica, which indicates how insects might respond to the global warming and answer questions surrounding Lepidoptera's resilience to extinction throughout the years. That, he said, suggested there were butterflies and moths with proboscises fluttering around 200 million years ago. While it is clear that plants did not evolve flowers until 130 million years ago, the butterfly developed its tongue way before that.

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