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Triassic Lepidoptera Fossils Show Butterflies Are More Ancient Than Flowers

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A species of butterflies and moths identified with the lineage Lepidoptera have existed 70 million years than previously known.

An advanced team of scientists has unearthed fossilized bits of ancient butterflies preserved in rock cores.The discovery revealed that the earliest butterflies and moths may have existed between the Triassic and Jurassic period even before flowering plants bloomed, technically refuting the ancestral association of butterflies with flowers.

Fossilized Wings Scales Dated 200 Million Years Old

This novel discovery of fossilized wing scales and fragments is the oldest evidence of moths and butterflies. About 70 insect scales with different shapes and forms were found in drilled rock cores.Paleontologist Timo van Eldijk from the Utrecht University dated the scales at approximately 200 million years old.

The Lepidoptera moths and butterflies have likely evolved during the second half of the Triassic period when the climates were believed to be hot and dry.

"So we think the adaptation to develop mouthparts to suck fluids - the butterfly "tongue" - was driven by their need to maintain fluids," says geoscientist Bas van de Schootbrugge, coauthor of the study.

Eldijk's team stumbled upon the scales of ancient butterflies and moths as they were investigating sediments from an ancient lagoon in northern Germany. The scientists were investigating ancient pollen in the fossil record during the mass extinction between the Triassic and Jurassic periods 200 million years ago.

Evolution Of The Butterfly

This novel discovery extends the range of these insects' known existence. Before this discovery, the moths from the suborder Glossata were the oldest known insects that have straw-like proboscis or mouth used for sucking fluids in flowers.

The discovery's abstract indicated that the evolution of butterflies and development of a proboscis may be regarded as an adaptive innovation to sucking liquids. Insects that lived during the Triassic period had to maintain its water balance due to very dry conditions. Also, Butterflies and moths are considered survivors of the Mass Extinction era.

"If anything, these butterflies probably profited from the ecological niches left open by vanished species. If we are to understand how this mass extinction, might affect insects right now, look to the past," says van Eldijk.

Butterflies Existed Even Without Flowers To Pollinate

It is possible that Lepidopterans fed on gymnosperms such as flowerless cycads, conifers, and gingko trees when they first existed. Based on earliest fossil flowers, plants evolved flowers some 130 million years ago.

When angiosperms and flowering plants became the dominant vegetation during the Triassic and Jurassic period, butterflies and moths may have shifted their source of food as an adaptation to their environment.

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