The Oldest Butterflies on Earth Had No Flowers to Feed On

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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.

A team of researchers, led by Dr Timo van Eldijk from the University of Utrecht, looked at the wings of 70 different butterfly and moth fossils. But researchers have gradually started to piece together evidence that moths and butterflies existed earlier than the Cretaceous period, which began 145 million years ago.

Researchers analyzed about 70 scales and scale fragments, mostly wing scales, which were found in a drilled core dating back about 201 million years to the Triassic-Jurassic period in northern Germany.

Modern-day butterflies are well known for their connection with flowering plants and the butterfly "tongue" has always been assumed to be an important adaptation for feeding on flowering plants.

The variety of scales show the Lepidopterans - including the Glossata that cover most moths and butterflies today - diversified during the Late Triassic, much earlier than previously thought.

The study could also provide insight into the conservation of butterflies and moths - some of the most-studied insects - given the widespread decline in flying insects generally.

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The finding reported in Science Advances offers a "Triassic-Jurassic window" into the evolution of Lepidoptera.

Absent flowers, the researchers report, primitive moths and butterflies, known as the Glossata, developed the physical attributes - namely the sucking proboscis - to find nutrition by drawing off water droplets from the tips of immature gymnosperm seeds. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm. "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.

This replaced the chewing mouthparts of their ancestors - a transition that was probably triggered by climate rather than food. "It was odd to say the least, that there would be butterflies before there were flowers".

"Because free liquid drinking is an efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, substitution of mandibulate mouthparts by a sucking proboscis could be seen as an adaptation to adequate maintenance of body water balance of small, short-lived moths".

Experts found evidence of proboscis on some of the insects, a long needle-like tube that was thought to have evolved to reach into flowering plants, but - based on the findings - may have originally developed for another goal. The proboscis is a famous tool of this insect group, with some like the Morgan's Sphinx moth, or Darwin's moth, using its foot-long tongue to wiggle deep inside orchids. "But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying".