Fossil scales illuminate the early evolution of lepidopterans and structural colors

Journal: Science Advances

Published: 2018-04-01

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700988

Affiliations: 13

Authors: 13

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Research Highlight

Ancient clues on butterfly hues

© Darrell Gulin/Getty

© Darrell Gulin/Getty

The colours of prehistoric butterflies have been reconstructed thanks to fossil wing flakes that date back 200 million years.

Microscopic structures on the surface of butterfly wings produce unique colours because the different shapes scatter light at different wavelengths. The evolution of these ‘structural colours’, which are more vibrant than pigment-based patterns, in insects is not well understood. A team including researchers from Ireland’s University College Cork studied the fossilized wings of six Jurassic butterflies from Europe and Asia. The team discovered they were made of two layers of scales, similar to some moth species today. The team modelled how these structures would reflect light to reconstruct their approximate colour. They found that a specimen from Germany scattered light in a similar way to the shimmery gold patches seen on the wings of some modern-day moths.

This could be the earliest evidence of structural colours in insects, and suggests that the double layer of scales could be an original feature of butterflies and moths.

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  1. Science Advances 4, e1700988 (2018). doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700988
Institutions Share
Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology (NIGPAS), CAS, China 0.31
University College Cork (UCC), Ireland 0.15
University of Greifswald, Germany 0.08
University of Exeter, United Kingdom (UK) 0.08
University of Cologne (UoC), Germany 0.08
University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), China 0.04
Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity - Museum für Naturkunde (MfN), Germany 0.04
Humboldt University of Berlin (HU Berlin), Germany 0.04
Natural History Museum, United Kingdom (UK) 0.04
University of Bristol (UoB), United Kingdom (UK) 0.04
National Museums Scotland, United Kingdom (UK) 0.04
Linyi University (LYU), China 0.04
Institute of Zoology (IOZ), CAS, China 0.04