Moths, butterflies came first, then flowers, new research shows
Moths, butterflies came first, then flowers, new research shows
This fossilized scale bedecked either a moth or a butterfly that lived some 200 million years ago. Credit Bas van de Schootbrugge
12 January, 2018, 16:35
Experts say they are the earliest fossilised evidence of the insects, and shed fresh light on their evolution - and also that of their butterfly relatives. "But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying".
While many other species and entire genera were dying out, butterflies seemed to be doing very well for themselves.
But the newly discovered moths emerged before flower producing plants - or angiosperms - suggesting another reason.
As it turned out, the features were scales from the wings of moths and butterflies. The hollow scales provided clues for another mystery, this one concerning the insects' mouths.
The scales were randomly placed in 26 metres of rock layers embracing the Triassic-Jurassic boundary near a village called Schandelah in Lower Saxony.
"We found the microscopic remains of these organisms in the form of these scales", said Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "Exceptionally well-preserved specimens were recovered". A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera. However, a new discovery from a group of researchers at Utrecht University defies that rule and suggests the butterflies thrived several hundred million years ago, way before the first flowering plants came to be.
That's what scientists found after analyzing 70 fossils of wing scales and scale fragments unearthed in northern Germany.
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. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm.
"If you find the hollow scales", van Eldijk told Rebecca Hersher of NPR, "you know the innovation of the proboscis must have occurred before that".
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.
These days, glossatan moths depend on flowering plants, known as angiosperms, for food.
It is possible that Lepidopterans fed on gymnosperms such as flowerless cycads, conifers, and gingko trees when they first existed. The fossilised remains revealed signs of a proboscis, which has always been believed to have evolved with flowering plants. He added that the discovery of the fossils propose this group of butterflies which evolved along with flowers is actually older than we think.
"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.
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