The researchers think that the Triassic ancestral moths were sipping pollination droplets secreted by gymnosperms, which were prevalent and actually pre-date the origin of Levidoptera.
"We hypothesize that feeding on pollination droplets was one of the key drivers behind the evolution of the proboscis," van de Schootbrugge said.
He added that, given the diverse pollen and spore specimens found with the insect remains, there were extensive forests of large trees with an understory of ferns and related plants at the northern German site, which is near Braunschweig. In a clay pit, not far from where the core was drilled, they found the remains of many insects, such as beetles.
"So, it was an extensive coastal area covered in thick vegetation with many organisms, much like what you would expect from a coastal forest in, for example, the Mississippi delta," van de Schootbrugge said.
He and his team suspect that the Triassic ancestral moths probably varied in size, similar to today's moths and butterflies. They said that it is currently not possible to speculate on their coloring or if there were any differences between the sexes.
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They do know, however, that these winged insects went through egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult stages, just as moths and butterflies do today. This life cycle, called "complete metamorphosis," evolved much earlier than the Late Triassic and occurs in other insects, such as flies, beetles, and wasps.
The scientists observe that Lepidoptera survived many mass extinction events. The Late Triassic was itself a time of global mass extinction. This was followed by the K/T extinction event about 66 million years ago, during which non-avian dinosaurs and many species went extinct. At least some of the ancestors of moths and butterflies survived that event.
"So, they seem hardier than what you might think at first," van de Schootbrugge said. "Now, climate change might not affect insects that much, as they can adapt rapidly. They are the most successful group of organisms on land right now, and climate change might allow them to explore high-latitude regions, increasing their geographical spread."