The remains of primitive moths dating back to the time of the dinosaurs 200 million years ago have been dug up in northern Germany.
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.
Five years later, Strother and colleagues from natural history museums in Germany and a university in the Netherlands have developed a scientific case showing the Lepidoptera evolved earlier than previously established - emerging during the Jurassic period.
To help them slurp up tasty nectar from floral tubes, butterflies and moths have a long, tongue-like mouthpiece known as a proboscis.
"The consensus has been that insects followed flowers", Strother said in the statement.
But even Charles Darwin called the mysterious evolution of flowering plants "an abominable mystery".
The team suggested the insects used their tongues to suck up sugary droplets produced by nonflowering plants that made seeds, a group that includes today's pine trees.
The study could also provide insight into the conservation of butterflies and moths - some of the most-studied insects - given the widespread decline in flying insects generally.
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The team's findings shed new light on the classic example of co-evolution: the evolutionary interplay between pollenating insects - flies, bees, wasps, butterflies and moths - and angiosperms, or flowers, Strother said. "They were feeding off the cone-borne seeds - mainly as a source of water".
The study looks at 70 specimens found in a drill core from more than 300 meters below Earth's surface, and identifies them as the wing scales that give butterflies and moths their spectacularly varied colors and patterns.
While many other species and entire genera were dying out, butterflies seemed to be doing very well for themselves. In addition, their delicate features were prone to deterioration prior to fossilization.
"Our study shows that the groups of moths and butterflies with a tongue evolved independently from flowers, which arose almost 70 million years later", Bas van de Schootbrugge, a lead researcher in the study, told CNN.
The mass extinction event 201 million years ago wiped out an estimated 35 percent of all species, which makes the survival and diversification of Lepidoptera all the more remarkable.
"The mass extinction event occurred at the end of the Triassic and was associated with massive volcanism as the super continent Pangea started to break apart", said study lead author and Utrecht University student Timo van Eldijk. They generally treated these as a distraction from their real work, and focused instead on pollen and spores as a continuous record for understanding past ecosystems. Pieces of plant cuticles.
Researchers studying deep-drilling cores have long noticed odd flecks of material in their samples, possibly from insects. Ninety-nine percent is plant debris. He was looking at prehistoric "pond scum", he said.
"This is the old-fashioned science of discovery", said Strother. When he analyzed those scales under a microscope, he found out that some scales nearly 200 million years old, were hollow in structure. The challenge is: can we figure out what they are?