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

Primitive moths

This fossilized scale bedecked either a moth or a butterfly that lived some 200 million years ago. Credit Bas van de Schootbrugge

An advanced team of scientists has unearthed fossilized bits of ancient butterflies preserved in rock cores.The discovery revealed that the earliest butterflies and moths may have existed between the Triassic and Jurassic period even before flowering plants bloomed, technically refuting the ancestral association of butterflies with flowers. The scale bar is 1 centimeter (2.5 inches).

Two palaeontologists used acid to dissolve the rock cores and what they found left them surprised. Based on earliest fossil flowers, plants evolved flowers some 130 million years ago.

"By studying how insects and their evolution was affected by dramatic greenhouse warming at the start of the Jurassic, we hope to provide insight into how insects might respond to the human-induced climate change challenges we face today", van Eldijk said.

The ancient remnants were found in the rocks of northern Germany and researchers analysed and compared the fossilised wing scales to those of existing species.

"Our study shows that the groups of moths and butterflies with a tongue evolved independently from flowers, which arose almost 70 million years later", Bas van de Schootbrugge, a lead researcher in the study, told CNN. Mr. van Eldijk was tasked with fishing out more, and for that job he was given a dissection probe with a single nostril hair.

"The nose hair has just the right length and springiness for getting a pollen grain, or in this case the butterfly scale, to adhere to it", van Eldijk told Nicholas St. Fleur of the New York Times. "It's probably best not to ask". The Cretaceous Period began 145 million years ago. The hollow scales provided clues for another mystery, this one concerning the insects' mouths.

Scanning electron microscope image of the dense covering of scales on the wings and body of a Glossatan (proboscid-bearing) moth.

Until this point, numerous most ancient moths and butterflies found were thought to have had mandibles, which they used to chew, rather than a proboscis, which is the strawlike mouthpiece for sucking up flower nectar that most Lepidoptera now use to feed.

The earliest known butterfly fossils are from the mid Eocene epoch - between 40-50 million years ago.

With no flowers around, the researchers believe the primitive moths and butterflies developed the physical attributes - namely the sucking proboscis - to find nutrition from sugary water droplets from the tips of tree seeds. These 200-million-year-old fossils, which date to the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, are the oldest evidence on record of insects in the order Lepidoptera, the researchers said.

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

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. "If they had a proboscis, what were they using it for?"

Latest News