Finding butterfly fossils using a human nose hair

Earliest fossil evidence of moths dating back 200 million years to the time of the dinosaurs uncovered

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.

The finding reported in Science Advances offers a "Triassic-Jurassic window" into the evolution of Lepidoptera. "But that would be 50 million years later than what the wings were saying". But it turns out butterflies were living long before the first flowering plants ever appeared on Earth.

Fossils uncovered in Germany show that butterflies and moths may have been around for at least 200 million years - 70 million years earlier than was previously thought, a new study has found.

So how did the primitive moths and butterflies get food, if there were no flowers?

This, as the researchers hypothesize, was likely used to feed on the sugary, sticky droplets non-flowering plants or gymnosperms produced to trap pollen from the air. "They were feeding off the cone-borne seeds - mainly as a source of water".

Even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery". 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. Many of these plants secreted sweet droplets of pollen that were slurped up by the earliest moths.

Strother said the insects "later transferred their feeding preference onto angiosperms [flowering plants], and, as a result, ended up co-evolving with flowers where they function to transfer pollen as they feed on nectar".

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The authors of the paper suspect that since the scales on the wings look just like the members of this group, the ancient species from the fossils might be a member as well, hosting the characteristic curled-up drinking tubes on their faces.

Given their complexity, and the time it would've taken to evolve to have such complex features, these fossils push the calculated age of glossatan moths back by about 70 million years to the Late Triassic "refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants", the researchers wrote in the study.

The early Lepidopterans survived the mass extinction at the end of the Triassic, which wiped out many other living things, the BBC report said.

"This evidence has transformed our understanding of the evolutionary history of moths and butterflies as well as their resilience to extinction" van Eldijk added. "These are organic extractions after you've dissolved away the minerals in the samples and you're looking at anything that is organic".

"It's basically pond scum", said Strother, referring to the film of debris that can sit atop a pool of standing water. Astonishingly, this method is still used by some winged insects today, van de Schootbrugge said.

It makes them 10 million years older than the previous record holder - three wings of a species named Archaeolepis mane that was found in Dorset.

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