Published: Sat, January 13, 2018
Medicine | By Douglas Stevenson

Finding the Oldest Fossils of Butterflies Using a Human Nose Hair

Finding the Oldest Fossils of Butterflies Using a Human Nose Hair

He said: "The microfossils extend the minimum calibrated age of glossatan moths by about 70 million years - refuting ancestral association of the group with flowering plants".

An worldwide team of scientists led by Timo van Eldijk and Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University, the Netherlands, found fossil remains of moths and butterflies dating back to over 200 million years ago, making them the oldest known fossils of Lepidoptera - the order of insects to which butterflies and moths belong.

A new study has revealed an interesting fact about the moths and the butterflies.

Previous studies had suggested that moths and butterflies with proboscises, which belong to the Glossata group, appeared only about 130 million years ago, when flowers first bloomed on land.

"The findings also suggest that the end-Triassic mass-extinction event 201 million years ago has not affected moths and butterflies, the researchers said".

The tiny fossils weighed no more than 0.35 ounces (10 grams) and were about the same size as a speck of dust.

While many other species and entire genera were dying out, butterflies seemed to be doing very well for themselves.

"The nose hair has just the right length and springiness for getting a pollen grain, or in this case the butterfly scale, to adhere to it", Mr. van Eldijk said.

Timo van Eldijk's search for butterfly wing scales required drilling more than 1,000 feet into the ground.

"These insects later transferred their feeding preference onto angiosperms, and, as a result, ended up co-evolving with flowers where they function to transfer pollen as they feed on nectar", he said. Many of these plants secreted sweet droplets of pollen that were slurped up by the earliest moths.

"The new evidence indicates that the first lepidopterans were associated with non-flowering seed plants (gymnosperms), the ecologically dominant plant group during the Jurassic".

While the Lepidoptera order is highly studied, scientists know little about its evolutionary history.

This replaced the chewing mouthparts of their ancestors - a transition that was probably triggered by climate rather than food.

"Because free liquid drinking is an efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, substitution of mandibulate mouthparts by a sucking proboscis could be seen as an adaptation to adequate maintenance of body water balance of small, short-lived moths".

The discovery pushes back the timeline of Lepidoptera - an ancient member of the insect order that includes butterflies and moths.

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.

The earliest known butterfly fossils are from the mid Eocene epoch - between 40-50 million years ago.

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