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Remarkable butterfly look-alike lived 50 million years before butterflies appeared

By John Barrat

modern owl butterfly

A photo of the modern owl butterfly (“Caligo memnon”) shown beside a fossilized Kalligrammatid lacewing (“Oregramma illecebrosa”) shows some of the convergent features independently evolved by the two distantly-related insects, including wing eyespots and wing scales. (Butterfly photo by James Di Loreto/fossil photo by Conrad Labandeira and Jorge Santiago-Blay)

New fossils found in Northeastern China have revealed a remarkable evolutionary coincidence: an extinct group of insects known as Kalligrammatid lacewings (Order Neuroptera) share an uncanny resemblance to modern day butterflies (Order Lepidoptera). Even though they vanished some 50 million years before butterflies appeared on earth, they possess the same wing shape and pigment hues, wing spots and eyespots, body scales, long proboscides, and similar feeding styles as butterflies.

In an incredible example of convergent evolution, both butterflies and kalligrammatids evolved the same physical characteristics at vastly different times and while feeding on disparate plant hosts, explains Conrad Labandeira, paleobiologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Kalligrammatids had an intricate feeding and pollinating relationship with non-flowering gymnosperms during the mid-Mesozoic; butterflies, by contrast, feed on and pollinate flowering angiosperms. Yet both major groups of seed-plants placed similar selective pressures on the two, unrelated pollinator lineages causing them to develop the same suite of physical and behavioral features.

Labandeira is lead author of a Feb. 3 paper on this discovery in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: B.

“Kalligrammatid lacewings are an extinct, Eurasian insect group that has been known to science for a century, but early fossils were fragmentary and not much could be learned from them,” Labandeira explains. New, well-preserved kalligrammatid fossils found between 2004 and 2012 in Middle Jurassic and Early Cretaceous lake deposits of Northeastern China revealed the features of this butterfly look-alike.

Finely deposited lake sediments preserved the insects to a remarkable degree. During their study, the scientists were able to closely examine the fossil surfaces using light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, electron dispersion microscopy and time-of-flight–secondary ion mass spectrometry to try and characterize molecules left behind by different parts of the insect’s bodies.

Kalligrammatid lacewing

A reconstruction of the Kalligrammatid lacewing (“Oregramma illecebrosa”) consuming pollen drops on a bannettitalean plant (“Williamsonia”), an ancient plant that lived alongside the lacewing. (Illustration by Vichai Malikul, Smithsonian)

“If you look at a modern butterfly wing at very high magnification, the colors that you see are actually determined by very small scales that are pigmented differently,” Labandeira says. “It looks like kalligrammatids had these same type of wing scales.” The fossils also clearly show a variety of spot and eyespot patterns—concentric circles of pigmented cells that surround a central melanin-containing disc—that produce a conspicuous display on kalligrammatid wings, This is another convergent feature shared with butterflies.

Kalligrammatid mouthparts—resembling a long flexible, straw-like proboscis—evolved from the chewing mandibles of their ancestors, the different parts of which were conjoined to form a long tube. This parallels the evolution of the proboscis from maxillary head segment in butterflies, both groups of which also originated from mandible bearing ancestors, the scientists write. Suction forces were provided by one, perhaps two, sucking pumps located in the frontal head region, mirroring those in butterflies.

“That tube is basically used to feed on surface fluids; in the case of butterflies, it is used for angiosperm nectar, to accomplish pollination,” Labandeira says. “Kalligrammatids fed upon gymnosperms which had weird reproductive structures that included elongate tubes, channels, funnels and other tubular structures.”

In one fossil the scientists were able to examine elements contained in an opaque piece of “gunk” found stuck inside the food tube of a kalligrammatid proboscis. The enriched carbon reading of the mass was consistent with a nectar-like fluid. Elemental analysis was also able to determine the likely presence of the substance melanin in kalligrammatid wing eyespots. Melanin is a common pigment in butterfly eyespots.

Pollen grains found on and next to the bodies of several kalligrammatid fossils indicate a similar feeding style with butterflies—one that promotes pollination through use of pollen and nectar as a food reward.

“What’s more,” Labandeira adds, “in butterflies things like wing coloration is under genetic control. We also believe the overall genetic developmental program of these two totally unrelated lineages is similar.”

“So … between kalligrammatids and butterflies we have the proboscis and mouthparts converging, we have the wing scales converging, we have the wing eyespots converging, we have the whole feeding biology converging and the genetic developmental program converging … This is remarkable, considering there is about a 50 million year gap between the last kalligrammatid in the mid-early Cretaceous and the earliest fossils of butterflies at the Paleocene–Eocene boundary.”

“The extinction of the kalligrammatids, we think, is probably attributable to the extinction of their host plants resulting from the expansion of the angiosperms,” Labandeira says. “Gymnosperm herbivores and pollinators bit the dust because there was a major transformation in the global flora that eliminated their hosts.”


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  • Matthew C. Garhart

    I am no expert in fossilized insects, however if the diagnostic character of the Order Lepidoptera is wings covered in scales, and one of the diagnostic characters, among others, of lacewings is veinous wings, then doesn’t make sense that this fossil is not a Neuropteran, rather either a Lepidopteran or a new order altogether?

  • Michał Wasilewski

    It’s not Caligo memnon, but C. atreus.

  • Remarkable butterfly look-alike – discovery presented by SMITHSONIAN

    The fascination [thereof called fossilization] of living organisms being entrapped
    in a slow mineral solidification starting with fluvial water movements –
    ‘shifting soil sediments by external forces’ of the earth spectrum are to be
    found in abundance throughout the world. Such a sights and findings are related
    to historical geo strata of planet earth as being “Morphed Module” in
    Continuums of Rotation, thus creating its own Climate and reinforced by
    Internal Energy Forces, in All constant transformation of structural mass.

    To quote Conrad Labandeira, paleobiologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum
    of Natural History: “The extinction of the kalligrammatids, we think, is
    probably attributable to the extinction of their host plants resulting from the
    expansion of the angiosperms,” Labandeira says. “Gymnosperm herbivores and
    pollinators bit the dust because there was a major transformation in the global
    flora that eliminated their hosts.”

    Conrad Labandeira’s lineage of “food’ bite lost to its emerging expansion
    ‘of the angiosperms’/or lost flora to bigger plant eating vertebrates is
    probably one of billion of sequences that shaped our precious earth. Past
    year 2015 saw warmest climate in our living recorded history, but what
    about recent [twenty thousand years ago] slow – progressive – or Sudden Global
    Ice Meltdown resulting in creating new geological strata of formed Islands
    etc. expanding soil and rock sediments, and therefore entrapping living
    organisms which we [::] can ‘excavate in our own yard’ in rock samples.

    • Gargoyle

      Is that what the “butterfly” in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” was supposed to be?

    • [:] MY OWN discoveries into/of “Circumstantial Transcendences of Portfolios lead to Variety of Sciences – BUT not of a “Kalligrammatid lacewings Insect Species. *Perhaps this discovery has given me some i.e. “Incentive to visit my Birthplace” and surrounding Flora where Might have the occasional ‘come by chance’ stumble of seeing a Butterfly, as pretty as, the one on the left ‘modern owl butterfly– Caligo Memnon’

      Michał Wasilewski • 5 days ago
      It’s not Caligo memnon, but C. ‘Atreus’. _Thanks Michal
      Matthew C. Garhart “Neuropteran, rather either a Lepidopteran or a new order altogether”
      Order Lepidoptera… A wingspan of up to [one of the largest] twelve [12] inches, and a much intricate patterned mosaics/of colors only then will identify the butterfly specie! As I can recall the Butterfly Specie is mostly of colors blue, with many circles and scales of intricate geometrical varieties. Though, I haven’t seen it ‘Fly to Pollinate Flowers’, rather stuck to the stump of wine/or very rare “Veronica Flower” tree – probably extracting juice. Not having success in internet search yet, but might as well translate into Croatian Search out of thousands of species worldwide?

  • James Di Loreto

    The modern butterfly image should be credited to James Di Loreto, Smithsonian.
    The fossil should be credited to Conrad Labandeira and Jorge Santiago-Blay, Smithsonian.