Florida researchers who wanted to figure out how butterflies evolved have determined that they split off from moths about 101 million years ago.
Thanks to the find of 11 paper-thin fossils, the scientists have been able to piece together over 100 million years of butterfly history. They put their findings in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Going back over 100 million years, a group of moths began taking advantage of the subsequent evolution of bees to consume nectar-rich flowers. Unlike moths that came out at night, these moths came out during the day.
After time, these day-dwelling moths evolved into their own species — the butterfly.
And it appears that these moths-turned-butterflies originated in North America.
University of Florida researchers have since been able to identify 19,000 species of butterflies. "This was a childhood dream of mine," Akito Kawahara, Florida Museum of Natural History curator and co-author of the study, said in a press release. "It's something I've wanted to do since visiting the American Museum of Natural History when I was a kid and seeing a picture of a butterfly phylogeny taped to a curator's door. It's also the most difficult study I've ever been a part of, and it took a massive effort from people all over the world to complete."
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Kawahara's group said butterflies first appeared in Central America and western North America. The researchers noted that back then, North America was bisected, meaning where the eastern United States and Canada are located now was separate from the rest of the continent.
Also at the time, North America and South America were disconnected. Despite this disconnect, butterflies were able to fly long distances and populate South America. Because at the time South America and Africa were close by, butterflies were able to spread across that continent, too.
There is evidence that butterflies even made it to India, which was separated from all of the major continents at the time.
The scientists noted it's possible that butterflies also made it to Antarctica as it was a warmer climate back then.
Researchers said that butterflies lingered on the western edge of Asia for about 45 million years before entering Europe.
"Europe doesn't have many butterfly species compared to other parts of the world, and the ones it does have can often be found elsewhere. Many butterflies in Europe are also found in Siberia and Asia, for example," Kawahara said.
The researchers said once dinosaurs disappeared 66 million years ago, butterflies were able to flourish.
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