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Fossil evidence reveals butterflies and moths lived 50m years earlier than thought

Example of a living representative of a primitive moth belonging to the Micropterigidae
Example of a living representative of a primitive moth belonging to the Micropterigidae. Scales from this group were found, constituting the oldest evidence for the Lepidoptera. Photograph: Hossein Rajaei

The earliest known fossil evidence of butterflies and moths has been found in Germany, showing they lived at least 50m years earlier than previously believed and challenging one of the most popular beliefs about their evolution.

Scales from the wings of at least seven species were found in a sample of just 10g of sediment – the weight of a UK pound coin – and researchers believe there are “many, many more” to be identified.

But as well as dating the flying insects to about 200m years ago, when they would have shared food with the early dinosaurs, the diaphanous, ridged golden-brown wing scales throw up another mystery.

Some of the moths show signs of a proboscis, the protrusion scientists have long believed evolved alongside flowering plants to allow them the reach the nectar.

The researchers now hypothesise that the proboscis was originally used to suck up tiny amounts of sticky sap which the plants produced to trap pollen, until flowering plants evolved tens of millions of years later.

“[This] was most likely an evolutionary response to widespread heat and aridity during the Late Triassic period [before 200m years ago],” they said.

Fossil evidence of wings
Magnified examples of the oldest wing and body scales of primitive moths found in Germany. Photograph: Bas van de Schootbrugge

The team excavated cores from beneath what was once a lagoon in Schandelah, northern Germany with the intention of examining the likely impacts of changes in oceans as rising carbon dioxide emissions are being absorbed, lowering oxygen.

Because water in the lagoon would have allowed species much lower levels of oxygen than above, remains of algae, spores, pollen, fungi and plants have been well preserved. It was among these species that the wing-scales of tiny butterflies and moths were found.

Since the find, other cores have been re-examined and at least one – from Luxembourg – revealed similar remains.

Previously only one lepidoptera find of a similar age, dated to 190m years ago, had been found on the Dorset coast in England.

“That confirms to us that we’re dealing with something real,” said Bas van de Schootbrugge at Utrecht University, one of the lead authors of the paper, published in Science Advances. “That suggests they were reasonably widespread.”

This article titled "Fossil evidence reveals butterflies and moths lived 50m years earlier than thought" was written by Juliette Jowit, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10 January 2018 07.00pm

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