Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils

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There are pollen and spores. But a surprising abundance of those flecks in a recent sample from northern Germany has now led a team of scientists to pay closer attention.

The findings are fascinating due to the nature of butterflies and moths being fragile creatures and fossils of them are rare to find.

The study looks at 70 specimens found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below Earth's surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns. Using an electron microscope, they also found that about 20 of the scales were hollow.

Those perforations turned out to be a critical detail. The team soon discovered that the scales belonged to long extinct relatives of modern butterflies and moths. The prevailing (and very logical) theory about this handy appendage is that butterflies and moths evolved their proboscises in response to plants that developed flowers. "They were feeding off the cone-borne seeds - mainly as a source of water", said Strother.

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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. 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.

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. Fossils of the earliest known flowering plants, by contrast, date back to about 130 million years ago.

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.

The existence of proboscis in prehistoric butterflies before the existence of the flowering plants strongly indicates that proboscis had some different utility apart from the sucking nectar from flower. But Wagner, who was not involved in the new study, also describes its interpretation of this new evidence as "widely speculative and likely wrong". Hence, it can be said that the latest study upends the traditional ideas regarding the proboscis of butterflies.

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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".

"What we've found is that these butterflies and moths with mouth parts were feeding on pollen droplets of gymnosperm seeds - from conifers related to pines, seed plants without fruits and flowers", Strother said. "Not all tongues are created equal".

But even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery".

Mr. van Eldijk made the discovery while working with Bas van de Schootbrugge, a geoscientist at Utrecht University, on a project to investigate ancient pollen in the fossil record, particularly during the mass extinction about 200 million years ago that ended the Triassic Period and ushered in the Jurassic. If you want to do this on a larger time scale, it's going to be a lot of work.

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