Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils

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The study could also provide insight into the conservation of butterflies and moths - some of the most-studied insects - given the widespread decline in flying insects generally.

Moths and butterflies belong to an order of insects known as Lepidoptera - distinguished by the scales covering their bodies and wings and a proboscis.

Modern-day butterflies are well known for their connection with flowering plants and the butterfly "tongue" has always been assumed to be an important adaptation for feeding on flowering plants.

The scales were randomly placed in 26 metres of rock layers embracing the Triassic-Jurassic boundary near a village called Schandelah in Lower Saxony.

Newly discovered fossils show that moths and butterflies have been on the planet for at least 200 million years. "Exceptionally well-preserved specimens were recovered". These microscopic plates cover nearly every part of a butterfly, and are what help paint their wings a variety of colours, from shimmering cobalt blues to patterns of orange and black.

As per the study, the only moths and butterflies having hollow scales are from the Group Glossata which are known to have proboscis.

Developing a clearer picture of insect evolution had proved elusive because much of what is learned from ancient rock, soil and fossils comes from earth once covered by oceans, said Strother. The scale bar is 1 centimeter (2.5 inches). "That creates this problem", said Mr. van Eldijk.

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"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", said Strother, a co-author of "A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera", a new report published today in Science Advances.

This shift in host food preference from gymnosperms to angiosperms challenges the notion that the development of the sucking proboscis was an adaptive response to the evolution of angiosperm flowers.

Lepidopterans' evolutionary history has been murky to date. "What we found is that there were moths and butterflies with a proboscis that were already around way before there is evidence of flowering plants", said van Eldijk.

Gymnosperms are flowerless, seed-producing plants such as conifers which dominated the Jurassic landscape and produce tiny drops of high-energy liquid.

"Modern day butterflies are well known for their association with flowering plants (angiosperms) and the butterfly "tongue" has always been assumed to be an important adaptation for feeding on flowering plants". The scientists analyzed the fossils of a prehistoric moth and came up with the conclusion that the ancestors of the modern-day moths or butterflies existed before flowering plants.

Due to their make-up, now butterflies and moths can easily adapt to a variety of different conditions spreading to different continents except Antarctica, which indicates how insects might respond to the global warming and answer questions surrounding Lepidoptera's resilience to extinction throughout the years. "It extends the range to which we know butterflies existed by about 10 million years".

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