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'Butterfly Tongues' Are More Ancient Than Flowers, Fossil Study Finds02:05Download

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A modern moth with a proboscis, the organ adapted for sucking up fluids such as nectar. Newly discovered fossil evidence suggests ancestors of such animals exists before flowering plants, raising questions about what ancient butterflies and moths used their tongue-like appendages for.MoreCloseclosemore
A modern moth with a proboscis, the organ adapted for sucking up fluids such as nectar. Newly discovered fossil evidence suggests ancestors of such animals exists before flowering plants, raising questions about what ancient butterflies and moths used their tongue-like appendages for.

Butterfly beak. Moth mouthpiece. Lepidoptera lips.

Call it whatever you want, the proboscis is a big deal. It's a defining feature of many moths and butterflies – the long, flexible mouthpiece that dips into flowers and draws out nectar.

"The traditional idea is always [that] this proboscis — this butterfly tongue — is a standard adaptation you have when you feed on flowers," says Timo van Eldijk, a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who is an author of a new study in Science Advances that upends traditional ideas about the proboscis.

"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," he says.

The discovery hinges on fossils recovered from German soil cores — the oldest fossils of their kind. Butterfly and moth remains are rarely fossilized, in part because they're delicate. But van Eldijk, a masters student, found he could isolate fossils of the microscopic scales that coat insects' wings and bodies. The tiny scales also give butterflies their colors.

An electron microscope image of a 201 million-year-old hollow scale from a moth, isolated from soil collected in Germany. (Science Advances)

"If you touch the wing of a butterfly, you will very often see that the color tends to fade," he explains. "That's the scales coming off the wing."

Van Eldijk spent weeks finding 70 scales that were embedded in the ancient soil, teasing each one out using a needle tipped with a human nose hair (something about its tensile strength makes it the perfect tool for this particular task). Then, he used microscopes to analyze the structures of the scales.

He found some of the scales, from about 200 million years ago, were hollow. The only butterflies and moths with hollow scales are a group called Glossata, which all have proboscises.

"The most exciting thing was the hollow scales," explains van Eldijk. "If you find the hollow scales, you know the innovation of the proboscis must have occurred before that."

The findings mean that butterflies and moths with proboscises are 70 million years older than had previously been demonstrated with fossil evidence.

The research corroborates molecular studies that suggested similar findings, says Fabien Condamine, a longtime butterfly researcher at Universite de Montpellier in France. Condamine wrote in an email that the study is important because there are so few fossil discoveries on the topic, but that the implications for the entire field are somewhat moderate.

"This is a really exciting paper," wrote butterfly expert Niklas Wahlberg of Lund University in Sweden in an email, noting that he was particularly impressed by the "amazingly detailed pictures," including images of individual microscopic scales.

Both noted that there are more questions to be answered about the origins of the proboscis. For example: What were moths and butterflies using these long tubes for, if there weren't any flowers?

Van Eldijk has two theories. Perhaps, he says, they were using them to lap up droplets from the surfaces of plants' cones, or maybe it helped them stay hydrated in the arid prehistoric climate.

Copyright NPR 2018.

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