The discovery pushes back the timeline of Lepidoptera - an ancient member of the insect order that includes butterflies and moths.
The scales are modified, flattened "hairs" - and give butterflies and moths their extraordinary variety of colours and patterns.
Most notably some showed characteristics of living Glossata - moths with a sophisticated sucker known as a proboscis.
He said, "This new evidence suggests that perhaps the coiled mouthparts had another role, before flowering plants evolved".
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Newly discovered fossils show that moths and butterflies have been on the planet for at least 200 million years. The rocks date from a period right around the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event, when numerous creatures went extinct. "Exceptionally well-preserved specimens were recovered". The new find fits the time line for Lepidoptera evolution suggested by molecular evidence-and helps correct a puzzling gap in the fossil record. To get the tiny butterfly scales from the rock, the team dissolved the rocks using acid.
A primitive moth (not the one in the study) of Glossata, a suborder of moths that bear a proboscis that can suck up fluid, including nectar. Size of the scale bar is 1 cm. "That creates this problem", said Mr. van Eldijk.
Visiting a colleague in Germany in 2012, Strother was looking at soil samples drilled from the German countryside for pollen, spores, pieces of plants and insect legs that had been trapped in sediment millions of years ago, the college said. That "challenges the underlying notion", the authors wrote, that the emergence of flowering plants roughly 130 million years ago drove the evolution of the Lepidoptera proboscis.
With no flowers around, the researchers believe the primitive moths and butterflies developed the physical attributes - namely the sucking proboscis - to find nutrition from sugary water droplets from the tips of tree seeds.
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William Friedman, an evolutionary biologist and director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University who was not involved in the work, agrees: "I don't think this necessarily changes the story of the coevolution of lepidopterans and flowering plants", he says.
We are used to thinking of butterflies and flowers together, the two living in a symbiotic relationship in which the butterfly helps with pollination in return for nectar from the flowers as nourishment.
"Because free liquid drinking is an efficient technique to replenish lost moisture and survive desiccation stress, substitution of mandibulate mouthparts by a sucking proboscis could be seen as an adaptation to adequate maintenance of body water balance of small, short-lived moths".
"Modern day butterflies are well known for their association with flowering plants (angiosperms) and the butterfly "tongue" has always been assumed to be an important adaptation for feeding on flowering plants". However, one major group of insects, the Lepidoptera moths and butterflies, appeared unaffected. He added that the finding may provide evidence that the iconic way moths and butterflies pollinate wildflowers today, flying from petal to petal, evolved millions of years ago with a completely different type of plant.
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