Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils

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What he saw were features similar to those found in insect wings.

The scales may also provide insight into the early evolution of the insect's tubelike tongue, or proboscis, which the authors suggest evolved tens of millions of years before nectar-rich flowers existed.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, gives clues to how butterflies and moths became so widespread, thriving on every continent except Antarctica.

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

When angiosperms and flowering plants became the dominant vegetation during the Triassic and Jurassic period, butterflies and moths may have shifted their source of food as an adaptation to their environment.

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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.

This is a living representative of a primitive Glossata, moths that have a proboscid that suck up fluids like nectar.

But even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery". Scientists have reckoned that flowering plants preceded the insects that fed off of them.

Scientists hope the discovery could help them understand the early evolution of moths and butterflies, and aid researchers with their conservation. Many of these plants secreted sweet droplets of pollen that were slurped up by the earliest moths. These Triassic and Jurassic plants used the nectar to capture airborne pollen, as they still do today.

The Lepidoptera fossils were found in northern Germany, and they preserved wings and body scales. Moths and butterflies lived over land masses.

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"We found the microscopic remains of these organisms in the form of these scales", said Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The sediments housing the fossils are from the time of the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction event about 201 million years ago, when at least half of all species on Earth died out and the terrestrial ecological niches suddenly left vacant allowed dinosaurs to dominate the planet for the next 140 million years.

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. There are pollen and spores.

"It's basically pond scum", said Strother, referring to the film of debris that can sit atop a pool of standing water.

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".

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