Jurassic ‘butterflies’ discovered, predating modern butterflies by 40 million years

Jurassic butterfly
CC BY 2.0 Vichai Malikul

The impressive prehistoric pollinators shared many similarities with today's butterflies.

Fossils are fascinating … how nice that Earth provides some kind of ersatz photographic evidence of life from millions of years ago. All the things we know and continue to discover about prehistoric times we owe to records set in stone.

Case in point: Recently a cache of well-preserved fossils was found in ancient lake deposits in northeastern China and eastern Kazakhstan. And among those fossils were a number of extinct "lacewing" insects of the genus kalligrammatid – what scientists are calling Jurassic “butterflies.” The insect is illustrated above in an artist's rendering, consuming pollen from bennettitales, an extinct order of plant from the Triassic period

"Poor preservation of lacewing fossils had always stymied attempts to conduct a detailed morphological and ecological examination of the kalligrammatid," says paleobotanist David Dilcher, a co-author on the study that identifies the insects. "Upon examining these new fossils, however, we've unraveled a surprisingly wide array of physical and ecological similarities between the fossil species and modern butterflies, which shared a common ancestor 320 million years ago."

lacewing fossilFossilized lacewing, left, and the modern owl butterfly, right. (Photo: Conrad C. Labandeira and Jorge Santiago-Blay)/CC BY 2.0
The fossils were replete with “eye spots” on their wings – to this day, one can see the same markings on owl butterflies, a nifty defense mechanism in which predators are threatened by those big “eyes.” The fossils also revealed tube-shaped mouthparts and wing scales and some even sported faces dusted with pollen.

If you have a penchant for this kind of thing, Dilcher’s name may ring a bell as he rode the headlines last year for his role in similarly discovering the "first flower." He says that these "first butterflies" existed not unlike modern butterflies, relying on plants for nectar and pollen. But kalligrammatids and modern butterflies are only distantly related, indicating a case of convergent evolution, in which two distant animals develop similar traits apart from each other.

The similarities between the two species are remarkable ... imagine having a Jurassic doppleganger?

Tags: Insects

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