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Nature Notebook – Butterfly Evolution

Last week a curious student wanted to know if butterflies were around when the dinosaurs existed. That was a stumper, so off to Google I went.

The daintiness of a butterfly’s body makes the odds of finding fossilized remains nearly impossible. However, some sharp-eyed scientists have found some. Until recently, the oldest specimen dated to 130 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period, a time when dinosaurs also existed. These early butterflies were likely rather bland looking. It is hypothesized that the brilliant coloration did not develop until after the dinosaur extinction.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers that had been studying a 200-million-year-old rock sample reported the discovery of fossilized wing scales that resemble those of modern moths. Apparently moths and butterflies, with their coiling mouthparts, have been around since the Triassic period…when dinosaurs were just starting to appear and, more importantly, when there weren’t any flowering plants.

This is the newest conundrum for butterfly evolutionary study. Why did they have this elaborate feeding mechanism? It was very handy when flowering plants developed 50 million years later but wasn’t a necessity during the age of the gymnosperms.