07. Butterflies before Butterflies

07. Butterflies before Butterflies

Look at the images above. What are they? They're insect wings, naturally. And what's more, you can probably suss out further that they're butterfly wings, the form of them gives it away, and those big ole owl-eye-looking spots are a sure thing.

But let me ask you another question. Why are the ones on the top row black and white? The answer is of course, that they're drawings. But why drawings? Well, it's because they're from fossils dating back to the Mid-Mesozoic, in the span between 165 and 120 ma. Which is a pretty meaningless piece of information to have. These fossil butterflies had elongate proboscises just like modern butterflies, and their wings had scales, just like modern butterflies. But, of course, like any story with such a simple setup, there's a catch:

The earliest butterflies didn't come into existence until 70-80 ma. So about 50 ma before butterflies flew about, pollinating flowers, something that looked an awful lot like butterflies were flying around. And while flowers were a thing back then, they didn't become the dominant type of plant (as opposed to gymnosperms such as our pines, cycads, and various other neato things) until about 120 ma, right when these doppelgangers left the fossil record. So despite my clearly misleading introductory questions and statements, the wings in pictures (b) through (g) aren't from butterflies.

The wing in image (g) is from a type of Neuropteran. Neuroptera is a group of insects that include lacewings, mantidflies, and, what you'll most likely recognize, antlions.

What a beautiful baby. By Jonathan3784 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1235487

What a beautiful baby.
By Jonathan3784 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1235487

Now, ant-lions are the larval form of what are frankly rather whimsical insects as imagos, with rather elongate wings, and thin bodies. If you saw one, you'd likely confuse it for a damselfly or dragonfly. And so when we look at the wing from (g) it's actually rather apparent that it's not that much like a butterfly or moth. It's transparent, a little bit more fragile, and there's just something off about it.

So, close your eyes, and imagine an ancient world. The world is covered in plant life, but besides the rare specimen, flowers are nowhere to be seen. Cones, sure, but nothing quite as colorful or fragrant as what we're used to every day in our gardens and university greens. But plants still needed to get their pollen around, and there were an abundance of winged insects flitting about looking for tasty tasty food. And so, while your takeaway may in fact be that it is rather impressive that these ancient Neuropterans look just like butterflies, the real fact of the matter is, of course, as time moves in it's undaunting forward process, that it's really the opposite, it's suddenly quite fascinating that modern lepidopterans look like these ancient neuropterans. They both used siphonate proboscises to get at nectar, and were major pollinators of commonplace plants. But the plants and the pollinators in both scenarios were utterly different. We're so used to the idea of convergent evolution taking place in parallel, of multiple organisms falling into the same niche in different places, we see it most clearly when we compare the placental and marsupial faunas. But homoplasy/convergence is a concept not constrained by the locality of time. Just because the scenarios are different, does not mean the relationships, the adaptations, the morphologies cannot be similar.

And so it is.

References (only one, astonishingly)

Labandeira, C. C., Yang, Q., Santiago-Blay, J. A., Hotton, C. L., Monteiro, A., Wang, Y.-J., … Ren, D. (2016). The evolutionary convergence of mid-Mesozoic lacewings and Cenozoic butterflies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283(1824), 20152893. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.2893

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