Butterfly scale fossils show they have been around at least 200M years

Kenny Tucker
January 13, 2018

Credit: Bas van de Schootbrugge, Utrecht University. There they dissolved cores dating to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods by exposing the material to a nasty acid. As insects don't have bones and are very delicate, it's hard and rare for them to fossilize.

What grabbed Strother's attention were infinitesimally tiny scales. They looked most like the wing scales of moths in the suborder Glossata, which is characterized by the long, coiling appendage on their faces. The scientists contacted experts studying modern insects, who deflated their hopes of identifying butterflies.

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", said Strother, a co-author of the paper. Some mosquitoes and flies have scales, too. "But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying". Wappler examined them and told Strother that it would be possible to classify the insects. If you want to do this on a larger time scale, it's going to be a lot of work. Timo van Eldijk and his team discovered the fossils of the moths in the German soil cores. "Timo is the guy that did all the work", Strother said. Out of this smudge he had to isolate the scales, which to the naked eye look just like a pile of dust.

Van Eldijk then set about analyzing the structure of the scales.

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His investigation revealed that the scales were divided into two types. Researchers were intrigued by what they found, and after one thing led to the other, they might have changed the evolutive history of an important group of insects. They also had mandibles for chewing food. The hollow scales provided clues for another mystery, this one concerning the insects' mouths. And these younger moths and butterflies also grew proboscises: long sucking tubes for drinking plant nectar that curled like insane straws beneath their heads.

"The earliest proboscid moths (Glossata) likely used their sucking mouthparts to feed on the sugary pollination droplets secreted by several groups of gymnosperms". Researchers aren't exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. "Good heavens, what insect can suck it?" Four decades later, biologists in Madagascar discovered an African hawkmoth with a wiry proboscis more than 10 inches long. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another goal entirely. Or maybe the proboscis came first - the scenario that the study authors hypothesize is more probable. Mr. van Eldijk was tasked with fishing out more, and for that job he was given a dissection probe with a single nostril hair. The best theory is that they were trying to drink pollen from conifer cones.

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. That, he said, suggested there were butterflies and moths with proboscises fluttering around 200 million years ago. 201 million years ago, during the time of upheaval many species had died and gone extinct that included many marine species and land animals. Some scientists suggest that intense volcanic activity wracked the planet, altering its climate.

Researchers assembled a portfolio of samples containing fossilised remains of moths and butterflies to carefully establish the presence of Lepidoptera in earth samples from a region where the cataclysmic transition between Triassic and Jurassic is preserved in rock. "That creates this problem", said Mr. van Eldijk. That incident also had changed the climate.

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