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 Flow of cerebrospinal fluid regulates neural stem cell division
22.05.2018 | Helmholtz Zentrum München - Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Gesundheit und Umwelt

nachricht Chemists at FAU successfully demonstrate imine hydrogenation with inexpensive main group metal
22.05.2018 | Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

Im Focus: Dozens of binaries from Milky Way's globular clusters could be detectable by LISA

Next-generation gravitational wave detector in space will complement LIGO on Earth

The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...

Im Focus: Entangled atoms shine in unison

A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.

The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...

Im Focus: Computer-Designed Customized Regenerative Heart Valves

Cardiovascular tissue engineering aims to treat heart disease with prostheses that grow and regenerate. Now, researchers from the University of Zurich, the Technical University Eindhoven and the Charité Berlin have successfully implanted regenerative heart valves, designed with the aid of computer simulations, into sheep for the first time.

Producing living tissue or organs based on human cells is one of the main research fields in regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering, which involves growing...

Im Focus: Light-induced superconductivity under high pressure

A team of scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg investigated optically-induced superconductivity in the alkali-doped fulleride K3C60under high external pressures. This study allowed, on one hand, to uniquely assess the nature of the transient state as a superconducting phase. In addition, it unveiled the possibility to induce superconductivity in K3C60 at temperatures far above the -170 degrees Celsius hypothesized previously, and rather all the way to room temperature. The paper by Cantaluppi et al has been published in Nature Physics.

Unlike ordinary metals, superconductors have the unique capability of transporting electrical currents without any loss. Nowadays, their technological...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Supersonic waves may help electronics beat the heat

18.05.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Keeping a Close Eye on Ice Loss

18.05.2018 | Information Technology

CrowdWater: An App for Flood Research

18.05.2018 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>