The Oldest Known Butterflies Existed Before Flowers

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However, these types of moths and butterflies - known as Lepidoptera - were long posited to have evolved 50 to 70 million years later, during the Cretaceous period when the first flowering plants emerged as their prime food source.

Scales from the wings of at least seven species of "Lepidoptera" - the group that includes moths and butterflies - were found in a sample of ancient rock in Germany.

The researchers said they learnt something new about the resilience of these insects to changes in the climate, as well as their evolutionary history.

However, researchers have gradually started to piece together evidence that moths and butterflies existed earlier than the Cretaceous period, which began 145 million years ago.

"The findings also suggest that the end-Triassic mass-extinction event 201 million years ago has not affected moths and butterflies, the researchers said".

About 70 wing scales and fragments - some beautifully preserved - were discovered in a drilled core of rocks dating back to the Triassic-Jurassic boundary.

He and his team suspect that the Triassic ancestral moths probably varied in size, similar to today's moths and butterflies.

It makes them 10 million years older than the previous record holder - three wings of a species named Archaeolepis mane that was found in Dorset. Proboscis is a very important organ of moths and butterflies. Many of these plants secreted sweet droplets of pollen that were slurped up by the earliest moths.

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"So, it was an extensive coastal area covered in thick vegetation with many organisms, much like what you would expect from a coastal forest in, for example, the MS delta", van de Schootbrugge said. The proboscis is a famous tool of this insect group, with some like the Morgan's Sphinx moth, or Darwin's moth, using its foot-long tongue to wiggle deep inside orchids.

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

An open-access study, titled "A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera", appeared online Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

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

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.

"Because free liquid drinking is an efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, substitution of mandibulate mouthparts by a sucking proboscis could be seen as an adaptation to adequate maintenance of body water balance of small, short-lived moths".

Butterflies are thought to exist alongside flowers, sucking nectar from them as part of a attractive rule of nature. Fossils of the earliest known flowering plants, by contrast, date back to about 130 million years ago.