Fossils show butterflies appeared on Earth before flowers

Fossils show butterflies appeared on Earth before flowers

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

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement. "It extends the range to which we know butterflies existed by about 10 million years".

Butterflies are thought to exist alongside flowers, sucking nectar from them as part of a lovely rule of nature.

An global 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 primitive moth (not the one in the study) of Glossata, a suborder of moths that bear a proboscis that can suck up fluid, including nectar.

This, as the researchers hypothesize, was likely used to feed on the sugary, sticky droplets non-flowering plants or gymnosperms produced to trap pollen from the air. "They were feeding off the cone-borne seeds - mainly as a source of water", said Strother.

But even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery". Scientists have reckoned that flowering plants preceded the insects that fed off of them.

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.


"It demonstrates that the Glossata - which gave rise to the Lepidoptera - evolved earlier by a feeding adaptation to the gymnospermous ovules, or the pollen droplets", said Strother.

Strother said the insects "later transferred their feeding preference onto angiosperms [flowering plants], and, as a result, ended up co-evolving with flowers where they function to transfer pollen as they feed on nectar".

But when their team analyzed the fossilized scales of ancient moths they found out that the moths existed earlier than the flowers.

But the newly discovered moths emerged before flower producing plants - or angiosperms - suggesting another reason. In addition, their delicate features were prone to deterioration prior to fossilization.

"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.

The sediments housing the fossils are from the time of the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event about 201 million years ago, when at least half of all species on Earth died out and the terrestrial ecological niches suddenly left vacant allowed dinosaurs to dominate the planet for the next 140 million years. Pieces of plant cuticles.

We'll never look at pond scum the same way again.

The project required linking a range of evidence, akin to a scientific detective story, said Strother.

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