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Fossil study sheds light on ancient butterfly wing colours

12 Apr 2018

New research by scientists at the School of BEES, University College Cork has revealed the wing colours of some of the oldest ancestors of modern butterflies and moths.

The 180 million-year-old fossils, preserved in rocks and amber, would have had bronze to golden colours produced by microscopic ridges and grooves on the surface of their wing scales. These fossils extend the evidence for light-scattering structures in insects by more than 130 million years.

UCC palaeobiologists Dr Maria McNamara and Dr Luke McDonald reconstructed the colours using powerful electron microscopes and optical modelling. Similar ridges and grooves are still seen in modern primitive moths.

Dr McDonald said, “Insects have evolved an amazing diversity range of photonic nanostructures that can produce iridescence, metallic colours, and other eye‑catching effects that play a vital role in visual signalling.”

Dr McNamara said “Remarkably, these fossils are among the oldest known representatives of butterflies and moths. We didn’t expect to find wing scales preserved, let alone microscopic structures that produce colour. This tells us that colour was an important driving force in shaping the evolution of wings even in the earliest ancestors of butterflies and moths”.

The results of the study will be published in the journal Science Advances.

Environmental Research Institute

University College Cork, Lee Road, Cork