Thursday, 18 January 2018

Scientists have accidentally found the oldest ever butterfly or moth fossils

January 15, 2018 by David Martill, The Conversation

Butterflies and moths, the Lepidoptera, are among the most beautiful of insects, familiar to almost everyone through thousands of different species from all around the world. But how they evolved has been something of a mystery to scientists because of a surprising lack of Lepidoptera fossils.

Now researchers in the Netherlands have discovered Lepidoptera fossils that are older than any previously found, proving these familiar insects have been around for at least 200m years. The particular type of fossils found mean we have to rethink Lepidoptera evolution. They imply that the long tube butterflies and moths use to suck nectar from flowers actually developed before flowering plants did, so it must have originally evolved for a different purpose.

The fossil record of ancient Lepidoptera is surprisingly meagre. Although butterflies may appear to be delicate creatures, their external skeletons are made of the same tough material, chitin, that all insects are made of. And chitin, or chitin decay products, preserve really very well in the fossil record.

In fact, some of the best ever fossils are of insects entombed in amber. Fossil Lepidoptera have been reported from a few exceptional deposits. For example, butterflies are known from the famous Florissant fossil beds of North America dating from the Eocene epoch, 34 million-years-old. A fossil caterpillar with the characteristic spinneret (the body part that produces silk) typical of all modern butterflies and moths has been reported from 125 million-year-old Lebanese amber. But until now, the fossil record went back no further.


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