January 23, 2019

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

14 January 2018, 06:03 | Randall Craig

NewsScienceEarliest fossil evidence of moths dating back 200 million years to the time of the dinosaurs uncovered Joe Mellor

NewsScienceEarliest fossil evidence of moths dating back 200 million years to the time of the dinosaurs uncovered Joe Mellor

Researchers examined 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 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. The rocks date from a period right around the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, when numerous creatures went extinct.

Example of a 201-million- year-old serrated hollow scale derived from a proboscid-bearing moth, providing evidence for an early Mesozoic evolution of the Glossata, refuting their ancestral relationship with flowering plants.

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.

Their development is closely linked to the evolution of flowering plants since both adult butterflies and caterpillars feed on them. "They were feeding off the cone-borne seeds - mainly as a source of water", said Strother. It is possible that there is simply a gap in the fossil record, and flowers existed earlier than scientists realized.

The evolutionary response was most likely to have been due to exclusively feeding on liquids via the proboscis owing to widespread heat and aridity during the Late Triassic.

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". Hence, it can be said that the latest study upends the traditional ideas regarding the proboscis of butterflies. They got water, he adds, "the way other animals do-they drink it, lap it, use capillary action, whatever". Previous studies had suggested that moths and butterflies with proboscises, which belong to the Glossata group, appeared only about 130 million years ago, when flowers first bloomed on land.

Dr van Eldijk said: "Moths and butterflies represent one of the most admired and studied insect groups - not in the least for their remarkable associations with flowering plants".

Even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery". "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". 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.

"The fossil remains contain distinctive hollow scales, and provide clear evidence for a group of moths with sucking mouthparts, which is related to the vast majority of living moths and butterflies", Dr. van de Schootbrugge said. You have to imagine 70 scales amid millions and millions of pollens and spores.

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