A Triassic-Jurassic window into the evolution of Lepidoptera

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Science Advances  10 Jan 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 1, e1701568
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701568

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  • RE: Butterflies before flowers

    We thank Prof. Vidya Rajan for her interesting suggestion that the proboscis in early Lepidoptera may have also been used to feed on additional food sources, particularly dung. Several authors have made reference to associations between insects and dinosaur dung (1, 2) and it is entirely plausible that such relationships existed also during the Triassic and Jurassic. Extant Lepidoptera do obtain sugars from fruit and honeydew (3), and the term “puddling” is used to describe the sucking behaviour by Lepidoptera from different wet resources, including urine, tears, sweat, and even blood (4). Indeed, also feeding on dung is not a rare puddling practice in Lepidoptera (5, 6) and likely serves to replenish essential nutrients, particularly sodium and proteins. However, this type of feeding requires a specialized proboscis. The structure and morphology of the proboscis in Triassic-Jurassic glossatan moths is something we can not reconstruct based on our fossil scale record. Yet, we can confidently assign the scales to the lepidopteran category of non-ditrysian Glossata, the living species of which are still characterized by a simply composed proboscis (3). So while it is difficult to exclude the possibility of feeding on other food sources, it is certainly not a stretch to suggest that early Lepidoptera were mainly feeding on plant sugars. The overwhelming majority of extant moths and butterflies rely on nectar from angiosperms as their main source of energy. And in the absence...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Butterflies before flowers
    • Vidya Rajan, Adjunct professor, Delaware County Community College

    I suspect those butterflies with proboscis were sucking dissolved food in dinosaur dung. One assumes herbivores had associated gut bacteria/protists for digesting cellulose and there would possibly be sugar and other dissolved nutrients in dung. This dung feeding behavior is still seen with butterflies. It is not a stretch to suppose that once flowers emerged the very same proboscis was successful in sucking nectar.

    Competing Interests: None declared.

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