Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils

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Fossilized scales of moths and butterflies from a drilled core in Germany.

Butterflies and moths are fragile creatures, meaning fossil evidence is rare, the BBC said.

The earliest known butterfly fossils are from the mid Eocene epoch - between 40-50 million years ago.

The finding reported in Science Advances offers a "Triassic-Jurassic window" into the evolution of Lepidoptera. Some were beautifully preserved and had neat ridges interspersed with herringbone webbing as well as "micro-ribs" and, in some cases, perforated surfaces. The team soon discovered that the scales belonged to long extinct relatives of modern butterflies and moths.

The team suggested the insects used their tongues to suck up sugary droplets produced by nonflowering plants that made seeds, a group that includes today's pine trees.

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement.

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That coevolution, and the often exquisitely precise matchup between flower and pollinator, have been a subject of perennial fascination for naturalists.

The emergence of flowers puzzled Darwin, but most scientists assumed flowers predated the earliest pollinators. Some were solid and compact, which was not particularly unusual; previous research has shown that this structure was typical of early moths and butterflies, which used mandibles to chomp their food.

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

The researchers say that they developed a sucking proboscis to find nutrition by drawing off water drops from the tips of immature gymnosperm seeds.

The evolutionary response was most likely to have been due to exclusively feeding on liquids via the proboscis owing to widespread heat and aridity during the Late Triassic.

Whereas some moths-including species represented in the same core sample-continued to have chewing mouthparts, the authors wrote, others evolved sucking mechanisms for drinking water droplets or sap from damaged leaves.

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It has also been revealed that the insect order, which is believed to have been co-evolved with flowers, is actually much older.

Other scientists greeted the find with excitement, as it begins to fill what University of CT lepidopterist David Wagner calls "this huge gap in the fossil record". "If they had a proboscis, what were they using it for?"

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".

To help them slurp up tasty nectar from floral tubes, butterflies and moths have a long, tongue-like mouthpiece known as a proboscis. "Not all tongues are created equal".

But the latest discovery suggest Glossata originated first lepidopterans so depended on gymnosperms - plants which don't produce flowers - to satisfy their nutritional needs.

Study co-author Bas van de Schootbrugge, a paleontologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said "the fossil remains contain distinctive hollow scales, and provide clear evidence for a group of moths with sucking mouthparts, which is related to the vast majority of living moths and butterflies". If you want to do this on a larger time scale, it's going to be a lot of work. You have to imagine 70 scales amid millions and millions of pollens and spores.

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