Butterfly tongue existed before flowering plants, says new study

Newly discovered fossils show that moths and butterflies have been on the planet for at least 200 million years

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. Previous molecular studies on the creatures suggest a similar early evolution of proboscis-bearing butterflies and moths, Fabien Condamine, a butterfly researcher who was not involved in the study, tells Hersher.

To help them slurp up tasty nectar from floral tubes, butterflies and moths have a long, tongue-like mouthpiece known as a proboscis.

Another is that the early Jurassic and late Triassic era was a very dry and arid time and the proboscis of the butterflies was an 'efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, ' the researchers said in the study.

The fossils, mostly wing scales, are more than 70 million years older than the oldest fossils of flowering plants, and they shed new light on the so-far presumed co-evolution between flowering plants and pollinating insects.

"Modern day butterflies are well known for their association with flowering plants (angiosperms) and the butterfly "tongue" has always been assumed to be an important adaptation for feeding on flowering plants".

Timo van Eldijk isolated the tiny scales from the fossils.

"Development of the proboscis may be regarded as an adaptive innovation to sucking free liquids for maintaining the insect's water balance under arid conditions".

"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.


"This new evidence suggests that perhaps the coiled mouthparts had another role, before flowering plants evolved", he said.

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

The researchers say that they developed a sucking proboscis to find nutrition by drawing off water drops from the tips of immature gymnosperm seeds.

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

Interestingly, despite belonging to the time flowering plants did not exist, some of the moths and butterflies had proboscis - the tongue-like protrusions these insects use to suck nectar.

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

Visiting a colleague in Germany in 2012, Strother was looking at soil samples drilled from the German countryside for pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs that had been trapped in sediment millions of years ago, the college said.

Butterflies are thought to exist alongside flowers, sucking nectar from them as part of a handsome rule of nature.

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