Butterflies and Moths May Have Predated Flowers

Study Butterflies Are More Ancient Than Flowers			 0					By		Denis Bedoya

An worldwide 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 scales may also provide insight into the early evolution of the insect's tubelike tongue, or proboscis, which the authors suggest evolved tens of millions of years before nectar-rich flowers existed. The scientists contacted experts studying modern insects, who deflated their hopes of identifying butterflies.

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement.

About a year later in Paris, Strother found himself seated at a dinner near a man named Torsten Wappler.

But the new study pushes fossil evidence for the origin of the sucking proboscis back 70 million years. "Timo is the guy that did all the work", Strother said. Timo van Eldijk and his team discovered the fossils of the moths in the German soil cores.

Van Eldijk conducted a study on 70 scales that were discovered from the stone and then examine the structure of those 70 scales. One set of scales was solid all the way through and compact as steamrolled almonds - "primitive", van Eldijk called them. But there was another discovery: a different type of scales, which was hollow. The fossilized organic material contained infinitesimally tiny scales which were similar to butterfly scales. The insects that later split off the family tree developed hollow scales in their wings. However, one major group of insects, the Lepidoptera moths and butterflies, appeared unaffected.

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"The earliest proboscid moths (Glossata) likely used their sucking mouthparts to feed on the sugary pollination droplets secreted by several groups of gymnosperms".

Interestingly, despite belonging to the time flowering plants did not exist, some of the moths and butterflies had proboscis - the tongue-like protrusions these insects use to suck nectar. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another goal entirely. "There's two possible scenarios if these [insects] really are pollinators" with proboscises, Strother said.

"So, it was an extensive coastal area covered in thick vegetation with many organisms, much like what you would expect from a coastal forest in, for example, the MS delta", van de Schootbrugge said. They date the sample to about 201 million years ago, the boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic periods. The best theory is that they were trying to drink pollen from conifer cones. Insects might have drunk this pollen, if they had tubular mouths.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, gives clues to how butterflies and moths became so widespread, thriving on every continent except Antarctica.

The samples that contained the fossils were from a time when a mass extinction event occurred, one that wiped out 35% of life on earth and took place tens of millions of years before the event that killed off the dinosaurs. As a result, biodiversity on land and in the oceans suffered a setback with many key Triassic species going extinct, including many primitive reptiles. "If we are to understand how this dramatic climate change, how this mass extinction, might affect insects right now, look to the past".

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