Triassic Lepidoptera Fossils Show Butterflies Are More Ancient Than Flowers

Triassic Lepidoptera Fossils Show Butterflies Are More Ancient Than Flowers

The new find pushes the evolution of the group of insects with this tongue structure by about 70 million years.

If these ancient glossatan moths had proboscises, as their modern-day relatives do, perhaps they used these tubes to suck up pollination drops that gymnosperms produced, the researchers said.

He and his team suspect that the Triassic ancestral moths probably varied in size, similar to today's moths and butterflies.

As well as pushing back the date for the emergence of Lepidoptera, the discovery proves that butterflies did not evolve alongside flowers as previously thought.

Visiting a colleague in Germany in 2012, Boston College Research Professor Paul K. Strother was examining soil samples for pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs - organic debris that might otherwise have been considered "pond scum" when it was trapped in sediment during cataclysmic earth events 200 million years ago.

The discovery's abstract indicated that the evolution of butterflies and development of a proboscis may be regarded as an adaptive innovation to sucking liquids.

A close-up of the scales on a modern blue swallowtail butterfly.

Other scientists greeted the find with excitement, as it begins to fill what University of CT lepidopterist David Wagner calls "this huge gap in the fossil record". While scales of butterflies have vivid colors, both butterflies and moths can avoid spider webs thanks to their scales. Hence, it can be said that the latest study upends the traditional ideas regarding the proboscis of butterflies.

Absent flowers, the researchers report, primitive moths and butterflies, known as the Glossata, developed the physical attributes - namely the sucking proboscis - to find nutrition by drawing off water droplets from the tips of immature gymnosperm seeds. The short, simple proboscis in early Lepidoptera also has little to do, he says, "with the coiled proboscis that later evolved to get nectar from deep within a flower. Not all tongues are created equal".

Still, it's not without precedent for one biological part to emerge for one goal only to later change its objective completely. But there was even more. They could be like ancient mammals, hanging around, being small and not doing much till the asteroid hits"-or in the case of the Lepidopteranproboscis, until the emergence of flowers".

Strother was part of a team that also included researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and natural history museums in Germany. But she thinks the specimens in the new study-from less than a third of an ounce (about 10 grams) of material taken from one drill core-at least "show that there is potential".

Utrecht University paleontologist Bas van de Schootbrugge and colleagues assembled a portfolio of samples containing fossilized remains of moths and butterflies to carefully establish the presence of Lepidoptera in earth samples from a region where the cataclysmic transition between Triassic and Jurassic is preserved in rock. You have to imagine 70 scales amid millions and millions of pollens and spores. "But we are hoping that other people are going to follow".

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