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New paper in Science Advances

11 Apr 2018

Fossil study sheds light on ancient butterfly wing colours!

New research by scientists at UCC 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 Drs Maria McNamara and 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 ("Fossil scales illuminate the early evolution of lepidopterans and structural colors") are published in the journal Science Advances, and are available here!

See below for several news articles related to the findings:

The Independent lepidopteran wing colour news article

Daily Mirror lepidopteran wing colour news article

Yorkshire Post lepidopteran wing colour news article

Press Association lepidopteran wing colour news article

Maria McNamara Research Group

Experimental and analytical taphonomy

School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES), University College Cork (UCC), Butler Building, Distillery Fields, North Mall, Cork, T23 TK30, Ireland