Jurassic ‘butterflies’ predated true butterflies by 50 million years

(Left) Jim DiLoretto; (Right) Jorge Santiago-Blay and Conrad Labandeira; Smithsonian

Jurassic ‘butterflies’ predated true butterflies by 50 million years

If you traveled back in time 150 million years, you might encounter the familiar sight of butterflies sipping nectar—only the insects wouldn’t be butterflies. They would be an extinct group of lacewings called kalligrammatids, which pollinated long-ago relatives of pine trees and cycads, according to a study published online this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers analyzed 20 kalligrammatid fossils (like the one pictured at right), and found striking similarities to butterflies (like the owl butterfly at left). Most fossils sported “eye spots” on their wings, and microscopic techniques revealed tube-shaped mouthparts and wing scales. Some of the insects had pollen on their faces. But kalligrammatids and butterflies are only distantly related, indicating that they evolved their nectar-sucking lifestyles independently. Moreover, kalligrammatids couldn’t have fed on flowers, because the few flowers that existed at the time were the wrong shape. According to the researchers, the ancient insects probably pollinated nonflowering plants that dominated the Jurassic and early Cretaceous landscape. When flowering plants took over about 100 million years ago, both the kalligrammatids and the plants they fed on went extinct. Butterflies and tube-shaped flowers arose together about 50 million years later, showing how new players can evolve to fill ancient roles.

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