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Jurassic Age Butterfly-Like Insect Discovered in China

Feb 05, 2016 12:40 PM EST

Fossils of a newly discovered insect, Oregramma illecebrosa, that closely resemble modern day butterflies were recently discovered in China and eastern Kazakhstan, according to a new study from Indiana University. Surprisingly, however, researchers found the winged Jurassic age insect predates the earliest known butterflies by about 40 million years. 

This butterfly-like species is a member of an extinct group of lacewings called kalligrammatids that boasts large wings that feature "eye spots," a defense mechanism used by a variety of modern species, such as owl or Satyr butterflies. Lacewings also possessed a long tongue for use in retrieving nectar from flowers, according to a news release

Researchers discovered the well-preserved Oregramma illecebrosa specimens in ancient lake deposits. Among those fossils were a number of other extinct "lacewing" insects of the genus kalligrammatid, or Jurassic "butterflies." It is believed that these prehistoric butterflies would have pollinated ancient relatives of pine trees and cycads trees.

"Poor preservation of lacewing fossils had always stymied attempts to conduct a detailed morphological and ecological examination of the kalligrammatid," paleobotanist David Dilcher, one of the study's co-authors, said in the release. "Upon examining these new fossils, however, we've unraveled a surprisingly wide array of physical and ecological similarities between the fossil species and modern butterflies, which shared a common ancestor 320 million years ago."

Eventually, lacewings evolved into a type of insect distinct from the modern butterfly – and the newly discovered species acts as an example of convergent evolution, whereby two distantly related animals independently adapt or develop similar anatomical features and behaviors.

Evolution is a great innovator, Dilcher said in the university's release, noting, "but at the same time: "if it worked once, why not try it again."

The findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B  

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