Butterflies origin pushed back in time, says Study

Desis bobmarleyi species of spider

"Timo is the guy that did all the work", Strother said. The rock sample was drilled from the ground in Germany near Hanover.

"We found the microscopic remains of these organisms in the form of these scales", said Dr Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. But van Eldijk was surprised to discover that other scales were hollow-a feature only seen among moths and butterflies with proboscises.

Butterfly and moth wings are covered in tiny scales that overlap like shingles on a roof. "Exceptionally well-preserved specimens were recovered". Even if Lepidoptera are significantly more ancient, which is wonderful, that doesn't mean that they diversify, that they do a million and one things. This was "the real shocker", researchers say, as it represents modern Lepidoptera, a group of insects which were thought to have a tight evolutionary history with flowers. As per the study, the insect group used to feed something different to survive as flowers did not evolve back then.

Scientists have reckoned that flowering plants preceded the insects that fed off of them. But the theory, it seems, is wrong.

According to oldest fossils studied to date, flowering plants appeared around 130 million years ago, 70 million years after the Triassic mass-extinction event or when these insects lived. The scales were described as "not diagnostic", Strother said - meaning such parts did not belong only to a specific insect group.

Examples of the oldest wing and body scales of primitive moths from the Schandelah-1 core photographed with transmitted light (magnification 630x).

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Odds are butterflies didn't come to mind.

This is a living representative of a primitive Glossata, moths that have a proboscid that suck up fluids like nectar. Credit: Hossein Rajaei, Museum für Naturkunde.

But the latest discovery suggest Glossata originated first lepidopterans so depended on gymnosperms - plants which don't produce flowers - to satisfy their nutritional needs. Researchers aren't exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. Conifer cones have indentations to catch male pollen. Maybe there is a missing record of Triassic or early Jurassic flowers. "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". The rocks date from a period right around the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, when numerous creatures went extinct. "Instead, this group diversified during a period of ecological turnover", van Eldijk explained in a statement Wednesday. The new research suggests that butterflies are survivors.

Previous studies of insect phylogeny had shown the earliest moth and butterfly families with solid scales, van Eldijk said. "There's two possible scenarios if these [insects] really are pollinators" with proboscises, Strother said. He detected that among 70 scales some scales from around 200 million years ago. The challenge is: can we figure out what they are? Like the origins of the proboscis and how it was helping moths and butterflies during that time. "It is more like a puzzle or a mystery".

Van de Schootbrugge enlisted an undergraduate student named Timo J.B. van Eldijk for the task.

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

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