Butterflies and Moths May Have Predated Flowers

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These creatures have long tongues, known as a proboscis, that they use for sucking up nectar.

Think of some scaly animals. Furthermore, if the scientists are right, it means that the butterfly and moth family didn't evolve their proboscis to feed from flowers specifically, but that the appendages came in handy later when flowers evolved. But van Eldijk was surprised to discover that other scales were hollow-a feature only seen among moths and butterflies with proboscises.

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.

The discovery means that the Lepidoptera - the order of insects to which butterflies and moths belong - once lived in the time of the dinosaurs and originated some 70 million years before flowers. The fossils were found inside an ancient rock from Germany.

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement. "What we found is that there were moths and butterflies with a proboscis that were already around way before there is evidence of flowering plants", said van Eldijk. The scale bar is 1 centimeter (2.5 inches). He added that the finding may provide evidence that the iconic way moths and butterflies pollinate wildflowers today, flying from petal to petal, evolved millions of years ago with a completely different type of plant. Credit: Hossein Rajaei, Museum für Naturkunde.

Microscopic moth scales.     Hossein Rajaei
Microscopic moth scales. Hossein Rajaei

If look back to the Jurassic time, there ware only the gymnosperms plants like a classic pine tree. Researchers aren't exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another goal entirely. The best theory is that they were trying to drink pollen from conifer cones. "There are lots of biological structures that hang around with one function-and at a later point that function gets changed, or all of a sudden that function has a new context".

"If anything, these butterflies probably profited from the ecological niches left open by vanished species". The new research suggests that butterflies are survivors.

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. "Timo is the guy that did all the work", Strother said. "It is more like a puzzle or a mystery". The authors of the paper suspect that since the scales on the wings look just like the members of this group, the ancient species from the fossils might be a member as well, hosting the characteristic curled-up drinking tubes on their faces.

An open-access study, titled "A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera", appeared online Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

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