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Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils

13 January 2018

This left behind small fragments including what the team describes as the "perfectly preserved" butterfly scales that covered the wings of early moths and butterflies.

"We found the microscopic remains of these organisms in the form of these scales", said Dr Bas van de Schootbrugge from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

What grabbed Strother's attention were infinitesimally tiny scales.

The variety of scales show the Lepidopterans - including the Glossata that cover most moths and butterflies today - diversified during the Late Triassic, much earlier than previously thought. The team soon discovered that the scales belonged to long extinct relatives of modern butterflies and moths. There are also characteristic outlines and margins that distinguish butterfly scales. He questions the idea that the proboscis evolved in response to aridity: "There are 24 other orders of flying insects" from the same period, he says, "that did just fine without having a [sucking] proboscis".

About a year later in Paris, Strother found himself seated at a dinner near a man named Torsten Wappler.

Van de Schootbrugge enlisted an undergraduate student named Timo J.B. van Eldijk for the task.

"This is the old-fashioned science of discovery", said Strother.

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The process dissolves the rock (usually with the incredibly powerful hydrofluoric acid) to leave behind an organic residue that is rich in tough organic material. He embedded the dust in a mixture of glycerol and water.

Van Eldijk then set about analyzing the structure of the scales. Using an electron microscope, they also found that about 20 of the scales were hollow.

His investigation revealed that the scales were divided into two types. The other scales were hollow, which proved to be the critical discovery - "the real shocker", he said. However, one major group of insects, the Lepidoptera moths and butterflies, appeared unaffected. They also had mandibles for chewing food.

Until this point, numerous most ancient moths and butterflies found were thought to have had mandibles, which they used to chew, rather than a proboscis, which is the strawlike mouthpiece for sucking up flower nectar that most Lepidoptera now use to feed. Researchers aren't exactly sure why insects would have developed proboscises without flowers. Charles Darwin once received a box containing an orchid with an exceptionally long and slender spur. "Good heavens, what insect can suck it?". Four decades later, biologists in Madagascar discovered an African hawkmoth with a wiry proboscis more than 10 inches long.

"This new evidence suggests that perhaps the coiled mouthparts had another role, before flowering plants evolved", he said. It could also be that the flower fossil record is missing, or that these elongated mouthparts had another goal entirely. Or maybe the proboscis came first - the scenario that the study authors hypothesize is more probable. Conifer cones have indentations to catch male pollen. Butterflies had used their tubular mouths to drunk pollen from the pine tree, Eldijk stated. Like the origins of the proboscis and how it was helping moths and butterflies during that time. At the end of the Triassic period, 201 million years ago, the world was going through an upheaval. Some scientists suggest that intense volcanic activity wracked the planet, altering its climate. The fossilized organic material contained infinitesimally tiny scales which were similar to butterfly scales.

"That creates this problem", said Mr. van Eldijk. We know this kind of climate change did happen on the super continent of Pangaea in Triassic times, but it's probably too early to tell if this theory is correct.

Scientists discover rare 200 million-year-old butterfly fossils