Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Smithsonian scientists discover butterfly-like fossil insect in the deep Mesozoic

04.02.2016

Study reveals rare example of convergent evolution, plant-insect coevolution and evidence of an increasingly complex web of life from 165 to 125 million years ago

Large butterfly-like insects known as Kalligrammatid lacewings, which fluttered through Eurasian fern- and cycad-filled woodland during the Mesozoic Era, have been extinct for more than 120 million years. But with new fossil analyses, scientists at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History have discovered that these ancient lacewings were surprisingly similar to modern butterflies, which did not appear on Earth for another 50 million years.


Oregramma illecebrosa

Credit: Conrad Labandeira (top) and Jorge Santiago-Blay (bottom), Smithsonian.

Through taxonomic, anatomical and geochemical studies, scientists led by Smithsonian paleoecologist Conrad Labandeira revealed that Kalligrammatid lacewings likely served as important pollinators during mid-Mesozoic times, using mouthparts that were strikingly similar to the elongated, tubular structures that modern butterflies have to sip nectar-like fluids from flowering plants. What's more, their wings bore eyespot patterns that closely resemble those found on some butterflies today, which may have helped to distract or deter potential predators.

Labandeira and his colleagues--an international team of geochemists, botanists, entomologists and paleobiologists--reported their findings Feb. 3, in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Their findings represent a striking example of convergent evolution between these two unrelated lineages, in which the two distinct groups of organisms evolve similar traits as they interact to similar features in their environments.

Paleobiologists have known for more than 100 years that Kalligrammatid lacewings lived in Eurasia during the Mesozoic. But the insects have remained largely enigmatic until recent discoveries of well-preserved fossils from two sites in northeastern China. Thanks to extensive lakes that limited oxygen exposure in these areas during mid-Jurassic through early Cretaceous time, paleontologists have been able to recover exquisitely preserved fossils that retain much of their original structure.

Labandeira, who is the museum's curator of fossil arthropods, began the analysis of Kalligrammatid fossils from these sites by producing precise drawings of specimens using a camera lucida. This projection device lets artists trace fine features, such as the head and mouthparts of insects, while viewing them under a microscope. Labandeira's drawings depicted insects with surprisingly long, tubular proboscises.

"Various features of the mouthparts all indicate that these things were sucking fluids from the reproductive structures of gymnosperm plants," Labandeira said. That idea was supported by an analysis of a bit of material lingering within the food tube of one fossil, which was found to contain only carbon. Had the insect been feeding on blood, its final meal would have left traces of iron in the food tube as well.

Although the lacewings' mouthparts were strikingly similar to those of modern butterflies, there were no nectar-producing flowers in these Mesozoic forests. Paleobotanist David Dilcher of Indiana University, a member of the research team, said that like many Mesozoic insects, Kalligrammatids would have fed on sugary pollen drops produced by seed plants, transferring pollen between male and female plant parts as they did so.

A now-extinct group of plants called bennettitaleans, whose deep, tubular reproductive structures may have been accessed by kalligrammatid proboscises, likely was the primary food source for the co-occurring lacewings. But variations in proboscis shapes among the fossils suggest the insects were associated with a wide variety of host plants.

Careful observation of the fossils also revealed the presence of scales on wings and mouthparts, which, like the scales on modern butterflies, likely contained pigments that gave the insects vibrant colors. Based on similarities between Kalligrammatid wing patterns and those found on modern nymphalid butterflies (a group that includes red admirals and painted ladies), Labandeira said Kalligrammatids might have been decorated with red or orange hues.

That discovery prompted the team to examine the chemical composition of various regions of the Kalligrammatid's patterned wings, particularly the wing eyespots, an eye-like marking that might have deterred potential predators in Mesozoic woodlands. In modern butterflies with eyespots, the dark center of the mark is formed by a concentration of the pigment melanin. A sensitive chemical analysis indicated that the Kalligrammatids, too, had melanin at the center of their eyespots.

"That, in turn, suggests that the two groups of insects share a genetic program for eyespot production," Labandeira said. "The last common ancestor of these insects lived about 320 million years ago, deep in the Paleozoic. So we think this must be a developmental mechanism that goes all the way back to the origins of winged insects."

Taken together, the team's findings highlight two ways in which relationships between plant-hosts and their pollinator species drove evolution, Dilcher said. "Here, we've got coevolution of plants with these animals due to their feeding behavior, and we've got coevolution of the lacewings and their predators. It's building a web of life that is more and more complex."

Media Contact

Ryan Lavery
laveryr@si.edu
202-633-2950

http://www.si.edu

Ryan Lavery | EurekAlert!

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Researchers develop eco-friendly, 4-in-1 catalyst
25.04.2017 | Brown University

nachricht Transfecting cells gently – the LZH presents a GNOME prototype at the Labvolution 2017
25.04.2017 | Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V.

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA's Fermi catches gamma-ray flashes from tropical storms

25.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Researchers invent process to make sustainable rubber, plastics

25.04.2017 | Materials Sciences

Transfecting cells gently – the LZH presents a GNOME prototype at the Labvolution 2017

25.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>