Published: Sat, January 13, 2018
Finance | By Loren Pratt

Fossils show butterflies appeared on Earth before flowers

Fossils show butterflies appeared on Earth before flowers

Dr van Eldijk said: "Moths and butterflies represent one of the most admired and studied insect groups - not in the least for their remarkable associations with flowering plants".

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

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.

Example of a 201-million- year-old serrated hollow scale derived from a proboscid-bearing moth, providing evidence for an early Mesozoic evolution of the Glossata, refuting their ancestral relationship with flowering plants.

The remains of primitive moths dating back to the time of the dinosaurs 200 million years ago have been dug up in northern Germany.

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.

While many other species and entire genera were dying out, butterflies seemed to be doing very well for themselves.

"The mass extinction event occurred at the end of the Triassic and was associated with massive volcanism as the super continent Pangea started to break apart", van Eldijk said. As a result, biodiversity on land and in the oceans suffered a setback with many key Triassic species going extinct, including many primitive reptiles.

Due to their make-up, now butterflies and moths can easily adapt to a variety of different conditions spreading to different continents except Antarctica, which indicates how insects might respond to the global warming and answer questions surrounding Lepidoptera's resilience to extinction throughout the years.

These creatures have long tongues, known as a proboscis, that they use for sucking up nectar. It is possible that there is simply a gap in the fossil record, and flowers existed earlier than scientists realized.

Fossilized scales of moths and butterflies from a drilled core in Germany. The researchers concluded the first Lepidopterans fed on non-flowering seed plants called gymnosperms, which were the dominant plant group during the Jurassic.

The researchers said they learnt something new about the resilience of these insects to changes in the climate, as well as their evolutionary history.

Strother and his colleagues made the scientific case, in an article published Wednesday in Science Advances, for the moths and butterflies known as Lepidoptera emerging during the Jurassic period.

"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.

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