Learning From Prehistoric Butterflies-They Could Pollinate Before There Were Flowers
Dear Friends & Neighbors,
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Doesn’t it seem that more and more of our traditional beliefs had been upended in recent decades? In a new study published in Science Advances on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018, the author of this study, Timo van Eldijk, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands said, “The traditional idea is always [that] this proboscis — this butterfly tongue — is a standard adaptation you have when you feed on flowers. What we found is that there were moths and butterflies with a proboscis that were already around way before there is evidence of flowering plants.” This scientific discovery did not arrive over night, but took years of work and collaboration among multiple scientists.
A proboscis is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal, either a vertebrate or an invertebrate. In invertebrates, the term usually refers to tubular mouthparts used for feeding and sucking. In vertebrates, a proboscis is an elongated nose or snout.
It all began in the fall of 2012, an expert in prehistoric pollen and spores, Paul K. Strother of Boston College, who traveled to Germany to the lab of a fellow microfossil paleontologist Bas van de Schootbrugge. Together, they were looking for freshwater algae by dissolving rock cores more than 200 million years old (dating back to the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods), by exposing the material to a nasty acid that would erase every thing except fossilized organic material. Instead of vestiges of freshwater algae, Strother’s attention was drawn to tiny fragments of insect scales. “It struck me that these looked like butterfly scales,” he said. But their hope of having identified butterflies was deflated by experts studying modern insects because scales were described as “not diagnostic”, meaning such parts did not belong only to a specific insect group. Some mosquitoes and flies also have scales too. A year later, Strother was seated near Torsten Wappler, an expert in extinct insects from University of Bonn who had just published an extensive phyologeny (family tree), describing 479 million years of insect evolution. Together, they enlisted the help of Timo van Eldijk to reduce the rock cores by acid, to isolate the scales, to embed the dust in a mixture of glycerol and water, and finally to use a needle tipped with a human nose hair to prod the scales into view beneath an electron microscope. The result of this investigation revealed that there were two types of scales, with one set being solid and the other follow.
Earlier studies of insect phylogeny indicated that the earliest moth and butterfly families with solid scales and mandibles for chewing food. Later insects that split off from the family tree developed hollow scales in their wings. These later or younger moths and butterflies also grew proboscises (long sucking tubes for drinking plant nectar). In textbooks butterflies developed proboscises in response to plants that developed flowers. But plants did not evolve to flowers until 130 million years ago, according to World’s First Flowers May Have Bloomed Underwater. Strother commented that there may be two possible scenarios to explain this phenomenon: 1. a missing record of Triassic or early Jurassic flowers 2. proboscis came first (the more probable scenario, believed by study authors).
The findings published in Science Advances also revealed that moths and butterflies are survivors of prehistoric volcanic activity and climate change. About 201 million years ago, toward the end of the Triassic period, the planet earth was going through an upheaval, leading to the extinction of many marine species and some land animals. Scales of both moth and butterfly are present in the rock cores before and after the extinction period.
To me, this new finding means:
- scientific discoveries depend on collaborative efforts
- we need to always keep an open mind, for many of our current beliefs may one day be proven false or ineffective
- as van Eldijk said, “If we are to understand how this dramatic climate change, how this mass extinction might affect insects right now, look to the past.”
Gathered, written, and posted by Windermere Sun-Susan Sun Nunamaker
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