Butterflies and moths have a tongue-like proboscis that helps them drink nectar from floral tubes, but it now appears that the proboscis didn’t specifically evolve for that purpose. In fact, a study published in January 2018 in the journal Science Advances asserts that these graceful flyers had proboscises about 70 million years before flowers came into existence. The researchers suggested that proboscis evolution probably occurred to help butterflies and moths slurp up pollination drops produced by gymnosperms, the most widespread group of plants at that time.
In a world without flowers:
- The researchers looked at the fossilized remains of the tiny scales that covered the bodies of butterflies and moths in the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods.
- Gymnosperms are flowerless, seed-producing plants -- such as cycads -- that produce sugary droplets that insects use as a high-energy nutritional source.
- The late Triassic period on Earth was hot and arid, and the insects also may have developed proboscises as an "efficient technique to replenish lost moisture," according to the researchers.