Fossils uncovered in Germany show that butterflies and moths may have been around for at least 200 million years – 70 million years earlier than was previously thought, a new study has found.
According to a report published in the journal Science Advances, researchers examined fossilized wing scales found in northern Germany and dated them to be from the Triassic and Jurassic period.
The discovery means that the Lepidoptera – the order of insects to which butterflies and moths belong – once lived in the time of the dinosaurs and originated some 70 million years before flowers.
Experts found evidence of proboscis on some of the insects, a long needle-like tube that was thought to have evolved to reach into flowering plants, but – based on the findings – may have originally developed for another purpose.
“Our study shows that the groups of moths and butterflies with a tongue evolved independently from flowers, which arose nearly 70 million years later,” Bas van de Schootbrugge, a lead researcher in the study, told CNN.
Researchers in the study found that the flying insects fed on sugary nectar droplets from non-flowering plants called “gymnosperms,” which were widespread in the Jurassic period. Astonishingly, this method is still used by some winged insects today, van de Schootbrugge said.
“So these moths and butterflies used their tongue to tap into other liquids that were available at the time, namely the sugary nectar produced by conifer-like plants. These Triassic and Jurassic plants used the nectar to capture airborne pollen, as they still do today. Especially in the hot and dry climate at the time, this was a resource that was too good to leave alone,” van de Schootbrugge said.
The study could also provide insight into the conservation of butterflies and moths – some of the most-studied insects – given the widespread decline in flying insects generally.
Study co-author Timo van Eldijk from Utrecht University in the Netherlands said: “By studying how insects and their evolution were affected by dramatic greenhouse warming at the start of the Jurassic, we hope to provide insight into how insects might respond to the human-induced climate change challenges we face today.”
Van de Schootbrugge added: “There is currently a big debate going on about the causes for a sharp decline in the abundance of flying insects … Many insects were faring well under strong global warming and extreme greenhouse conditions, so it could possibly be related to the rampant use of pesticides.”
Due to their make-up, currently butterflies and moths can easily adapt to a variety of different conditions spreading to different continents except Antarctica, which indicates how insects might respond to the global warming and answer questions surrounding Lepidoptera’s resilience to extinction throughout the years.