Primitive moths

This fossilized scale bedecked either a moth or a butterfly that lived some 200 million years ago. Credit: Bas van de Schootbrugge


Moths fluttered before flowers bloomed

Earliest butterflies and moths might have sipped sugary drops from trees.

Butterflies and moths evolved at least 70 million years earlier than previously thought — well before the emergence of flowering plants.

Bas van de Schootbrugge at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and his colleagues combed through sediments from Germany to collect microfossils of the tiny scales that cover the body, wings and legs of moths and butterflies, a group known collectively as Lepidoptera. The team dated the sediments containing the scales to around 200 million years ago. The scales’ features lead the authors to conclude that the fossils belong to the earliest known moths and butterflies.

The find demonstrates that Lepidoptera were already fluttering some 75 million years before flowering plants appeared. The proboscis, the characteristic lepidopteran tube-like mouthpiece, may have been used by the earliest species to drink sugary, nectar-like droplets found on conifer cones and other early botanical structures, the authors say.