Nose Hairs and Tongues and Butterflies, Oh My!

jan152017

Our modern day butterflies and moths have wings covered in microscopic scales that give them their distinctive colors, and it turns out that these insects have had scales for hundreds of millions of years, a lot longer than we even thought pollinators like butterflies existed.

The oldest known evidence of butterflies and moths has been found by a team of scientists exploring an ancient lagoon buried deep beneath northern Germany. They were researching pollen samples from approximately 200 million years ago, deposited during a mass extinction that ended the triassic period. During their drilling, they collected rock samples that were dissolved in the lab using a special chemical, which left organic matter intact while reducing the rock to a black goop. The goop was then carefully analyzed using an usual scientific tool: a human nose hair! “The nose hair has just the right length and springiness for getting a pollen grain, or in this case the butterfly scale, to adhere to it,” said Mr. van Eldijk, a geoscientist at Utrecht University and the discoverer of these fossils. The team found over 70 butterfly and moth scales, including 20 hollow scales, which gave the scientists another surprise. Butterflies this ancient were thought to have jaws that allowed them to chew, rather than a proboscis (a straw-like tongue that allows insects to drink nectar from flowers) like modern butterflies. But almost every butterfly and moth today that has hollow scales also has a proboscis, which suggests that these 200 million year old specimens had them as well. However, the real puzzler here is that flowering plants did not evolve until about 70 million years later, and until now scientists believed that butterflies only developed proboscises after flowering plants became abundant to allow them to sip the sugary nectar. So if butterflies had a proboscis before there were flowers, what did they use them for? The team thinks that maybe they used them to drink sugar liquids expelled by non-flowering plants such as pine trees. Whatever the case, I like imagining that the world 200 million years ago was full of beautiful fluttering butterflies… and I can’t help but be thrilled that nose hairs have finally become useful for something.

Want to learn more? Visit https://www.usatoday.com/tech/ and https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/science/fossils-butterflies-moths.html

Jan 15, 2018

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