March 21, 2018

Butterflies and Moths May Have Predated Flowers

14 January 2018, 06:50 | Cesar Cruz

Minas Panagiotakis Getty Images

Butterflies are older than flowers new study says

Given their complexity, and the time it would've taken to evolve to have such complex features, these fossils push the calculated age of glossatan moths back by about 70 million years to the Late Triassic "refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants", the researchers wrote in the study. Thanks to those scales, researchers have found the oldest known fossils of butterflies and moths, both in the order Lepidoptera, according to a paper published Wednesday in Science Advances. They then dissolved the rock in chemicals that eat away any material that was not organic, leaving pollen samples behind in a black goop which the team could search through.

The wrinkle was that these types of moths and butterflies - known as Lepidoptera - were long posited to have evolved 50 to 70 million years later, during the Cretaceous period when the first flowering plants emerged as their prime food source.

Fossilized scales of moths and butterflies from a drilled core in Germany.

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.

This left behind small fragments including what the team describes as the "perfectly preserved" butterfly scales that covered the wings of early moths and butterflies.

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"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", Mr. van Eldijk said. Van Eldijk said that the most exciting thing about the study was the hollow scales. "It's probably best not to ask".

"If you find the hollow scales", van Eldijk told Rebecca Hersher of NPR, "you know the innovation of the proboscis must have occurred before that". When he analyzed those scales under a microscope, he found out that some scales nearly 200 million years old, were hollow in structure. A light microscope, and later a scanning electron microscope, revealed the scales to be petal-like structures. The hollow scales provided clues for another mystery, this one concerning the insects' mouths. During the study, the scientists found that the months and butterflies the ancient scales belong to are a group that is still alive today with long straw-like tongues that suck up nectar. However, one major group of insects, the Lepidoptera moths and butterflies, appeared unaffected.

"This evidence has transformed our understanding of the evolutionary history of moths and butterflies as well as their resilience to extinction, Van Eldijk said". The finding pushes back the date of this group of insects by about 70 million years.

"So these moths and butterflies used their tongue to tap into other liquids that were available at the time, namely the sugary nectar produced by conifer-like plants".

Dr van Eldijk said these have a sucking proboscis. The oldest previously known such fossil was from 129 million years ago-just as flowering plants were making their spectacular emergence around the planet. "If they had a proboscis, what were they using it for?"

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