Tuesday, 16 January, 2018

Ancient Butterflies Flourished During Triassic-Jurassic Mass Extinction, Didn't Need Flowers, Nectar

Earliest fossil evidence of moths dating back 200 million years to the time of the dinosaurs uncovered Butterflies and Moths May Have Predated Flowers
Sandra Phillips | 12 January, 2018, 21:54

These creatures have long tongues, known as a proboscis, that they use for sucking up nectar. The University of Bonn scientist, an expert in extinct insects, had just published an extensive phylogeny, or family tree, describing 479 million years of insect evolution.

"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement.

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.

The researchers think that the Triassic ancestral moths were sipping pollination droplets secreted by gymnosperms, which were prevalent and actually pre-date the origin of Levidoptera. They are wondering what would those insects do with the straws, as two hundred million years ago, there were no flowers on which they could feed.

From within rocks, a few dozen fossils almost too small to see with the naked eye can tell an important history of the evolution of moths and butterflies. Furthermore, if the scientists are right, it means that the butterfly and moth family didn't evolve their proboscis to feed from flowers specifically, but that the appendages came in handy later when flowers evolved.

Dr van Eldijk said: "On the basis of an assemblage of fossilized wing scales recovered from latest Triassic and earliest Jurassic sediments from northern Germany, we provide the earliest evidence for Lepidoptera - moths and butterflies".

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But the newly discovered moths emerged before flower producing plants - or angiosperms - suggesting another reason. In addition, their delicate features were prone to deterioration prior to fossilization.

Past researchers have not looked at the insect material from drill cores in a systematic way, says Bas van de Schootbrugge, a pollen specialist at Utrecht University and senior author of the new study, "because you really need to pick them out".

"The mass extinction event occurred at the end of the Triassic and was associated with massive volcanism as the super continent Pangea started to break apart".

Assembling the evidence required a team that included Strother and van de Schootbrugee, Utrecht University's Timo van Eldijk, an undergraduate at the time, Carolien Weijst, and Henk Visscher; as well as Torsten Wappler of the German natural history museum Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, and Hossein Rajaei of Museum fur Naturkunde, in Stuttgart. They generally treated these as a distraction from their real work, and focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. There are other things. Then they discovered some fossilized organic material. Ninety-nine percent is plant debris. He was looking at prehistoric "pond scum", he said. Part of what Strother saw looked similar to insects from another era, he said.

"This is the old-fashioned science of discovery", said Strother. The Cretaceous Period began 145 million years ago. "It is more like a puzzle or a mystery".

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