A "Jurassic butterfly" from the age of dinosaurs has been discovered in China, providing biologists a clue on how insects looked in that ancient era. The specimen resembles contemporary insects in several important ways, although the ancient animal was not a true butterfly, an order of animals which did not evolve until 40 million years later.
Researchers from Indiana University found that the ancient insect Oregramma illecebrosa not only looked a lot like modern butterflies, but likely also behaved much like the contemporary insects.
"Upon examining these new fossils, we've unraveled a surprisingly wide array of physical and ecological similarities between the fossil species and modern butterflies, which shared a common ancestor 320 million years ago," paleobotanist and study co-author David Dilcher says.
Examination of O. illecebrosa revealed the presence of a long tongue for collecting nectar. Such an organ is similar to those seen in the ancient lacewing, a type of insect that had distinctly evolved from modern butterflies. A different order of the lacewing called Neuroptera is seen in our modern age having types commonly known as snakeflies, owlflies, fishflies and green lacewings, which are found living in the house during the winter.
The ancient creature was also marked by large spots on its wings, resembling giant eyes, a feature seen in several species of modern butterflies. Owl butterflies use similar markings to make predators believe they are seeing the face of a large creature, appearing too dangerous to hunt. This defense mechanism has been seen in creatures dating back at least 200 million years.
The Jurassic period started 201 million years before our own time, and ended 145 million years before the modern era. Examination of pollen and food recovered from the proboscis of the ancient animal reveals the creatures fed on a type of seed-bearing plant, bennettitales, which are now extinct. Pollen from one plant was carried to another on the legs of the flying insects.
These new observations were carried out on well-preserved specimens collected from ancient lake deposits found in eastern Kazakhstan and northeastern China.
Although evolution has led to a wide range of adaptations in animals and plants, some traits are used time and again in a wide range of species. This is known as evolutionary convergence.
"If it worked once, why not try it again," says Dilcher.
Investigation of the Jurassic butterfly was detailed in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: B.