Butterflies and Moths May Have Predated Flowers

Fossil scales of moths and butterflies

Earliest fossil evidence of moths dating back 200 million years to the time of the dinosaurs uncovered

"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.

While studying fossil cores dating to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods, an worldwide team of researchers discovered the fossilized remains of the tiny scales that coat the bodies of butterflies and moths.

This is a living representative of a primitive Glossata, moths that have a proboscid that suck up fluids like nectar.

Wing scales of a Glossata moth
Wing scales of a Glossata moth Utrecht University

"The findings also suggest that the end-Triassic mass-extinction event 201 million years ago has not affected moths and butterflies, the researchers said". A few fossils which are too tiny to identify with the naked eye, have revealed the interesting history of the evolution of moths and butterflies.

Mr. van Eldijk was tasked with fishing out more, and for that job he was given a dissection probe with a single nostril hair.

He and his team uncovered about 70 scales or scale fragments, which they dated to about 200 million years ago. The team soon discovered that the scales belonged to long extinct relatives of modern butterflies and moths. Glossatan moths mostly feed on angiosperms - plants that produce flowers. 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.

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"The new evidence indicates that the first lepidopterans were associated with non-flowering seed plants (gymnosperms), the ecologically dominant plant group during the Jurassic".

This replaced the chewing mouthparts of their ancestors - a transition that was probably triggered by climate rather than food. But the study authors believe the more likely explanation is that butterflies and moths evolved their proboscises before flowers came into being-possibly to help them lap up the sugary pollination drops produced by gymnosperms, the most common group of plants that sprung from the ground during the Jurassic.

"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".

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The find pushes back the date for the origins of the Lepidoptera, one of the most prized and studied insect groups, the BBC reported.

Visiting a colleague in Germany in 2012, Strother was looking at soil samples drilled from the German countryside for pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs that had been trapped in sediment millions of years ago, the college said.

The existence of proboscis in prehistoric butterflies before the existence of the flowering plants strongly indicates that proboscis had some different utility apart from the sucking nectar from flower.

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