The oldest known butterflies existed before flowers A butterfly perches on a bush. (Cristian Ungureanu/Flickr/USEPA)
The oldest known butterflies existed before flowers

Butterflies and moths have a long, tongue-like mouthpiece. It is known as a proboscis. It helps them slurp up tasty nectar from floral tubes. There is a common (and very logical) theory about this handy appendage. The theory states that butterflies and moths evolved their proboscises in response to plants that developed flowers. But that theory might be wrong. That's according to Ben Guarino of the Washington Post. A new study has uncovered evidence suggesting that butterflies and moths had proboscises millions of years before flowers came into existence.

An international team of researchers discovered the fossilized remains of tiny scales. These scales coat the bodies of butterflies and moths. Researchers made this discovery while studying fossil cores. They dated to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods. 

Timo van Eldijk can push 70 scales beneath a microscope. He used a needle tipped with a human nostril hair. He is graduate student at Utrecht University. It is in the Netherlands. 

“The nose hair has just the right length and springiness for getting a pollen grain to adhere to it. But in this case, the goal is a the butterfly scale.” That's what van Eldijk told Nicholas St. Fleur of the New York Times. “I was just provided these by my professor. I don’t know whose nose hair it was. It’s probably best not to ask.”

Van Eldijk then set about analyzing the structure of the scales. Some were solid and compact. This is not particularly unusual. Previous research has shown that this structure was typical of early moths and butterflies. They used mandibles to chomp their food. But van Eldijk was surprised to discover something else. The scales were hollow. This is a feature only seen among moths and butterflies with proboscises.

“If you find the hollow scales,” van Eldijk told Rebecca Hersher of NPR, “you know the innovation of the proboscis must have occurred before that.”

This discovery was described recently in the journal Science Advances. It threw researchers for a loop. That's because the scales are about 200 million years old. This makes them the oldest known Lepidoptera remains by about 10 millions years. Previous molecular studies on the creatures suggest a similar early evolution of proboscis-bearing butterflies and moths. That's according to Fabien Condamine. He is a butterfly researcher who was not involved in the study. 

The fossils are also about 70 million years older than the first flowers, raising questions about the evolution and function of the proboscis. It is possible that there is simply a gap in the fossil record, and flowers existed earlier than scientists thought. But the study authors believe the more likely explanation is that butterflies and moths evolved their proboscises before flowers came into being. This possibly helped them lap up the sugary pollination drops produced by gymnosperms. These are the most common group of plants that sprung from the ground during the Jurassic.

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What surprised the scientists about the discovery?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • sylviemb-buh
    1/31/2018 - 09:56 a.m.

    This is super cool! I wonder what these ancient butterflies ate since flowers came later. Maybe butterflies where meant to eat something else! And also, how where things pollinated, in there was not pollen???

  • HannahH-dec1
    1/31/2018 - 10:11 a.m.

    The fact that butterflies and moths were around 70 million years before flowers. The found scales that belong to the body of butterflies and moths and noticed that they were 200 million years old, older then the oldest flower fossil.

  • jordanw-orv
    2/05/2018 - 02:26 p.m.

    Its cool that these scientists made this discovery, and i bet it was rare one to! I also wonder whose nostril hair that was, and if they plucked it out of her or him to! Well anyways if these butterfly's were alive before flowers were here, i wonder if they had some food to eat.

  • jeremyj-orv
    2/05/2018 - 08:42 p.m.

    I think it is really cool that such pretty and docile creatures can survive for so long, it's nice to see that they have survived for so long.

  • Neveahh-orv
    2/06/2018 - 11:32 a.m.

    I think what really surprised the scientist was that the butterfly's were here longer then the plants and that makes the butterfly's older

  • Cynthiat-orv
    2/06/2018 - 11:34 a.m.

    I LOVE butterflies its cool that they have lived longer than the first flowers.

  • JaedynN-par
    2/07/2018 - 09:49 a.m.

    I think the reason that scientists were really surprised was because usually when you think of a butterfly, you think of it needing flowers to survive. From the scales, they learned the butterflies had what they needed to drink from flowers, but there was no flowers.

  • cheyl-orv
    2/07/2018 - 11:41 a.m.

    I like butterflies its interesting and its cool that they were alive before flowers.

  • NateS-mac1
    2/08/2018 - 11:53 a.m.

    I think that something that surprised is when they found out that butterflies last longer than flowers

  • AshtonR-mac1
    2/08/2018 - 12:44 p.m.

    That's because the scales are about 200 million years old.

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