An illustration of the ancient lacewing Oregramma illecebrosa foraging for pollen from bennettitales. Both insect and plant are now extinct. Photo by Vichai Malikul/Indiana University
BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Scientists say a newly discovered insect named Oregramma illecebrosa looks -- and probably acted -- like a butterfly, but predates the earliest iterations of the winged insect by 40 million years.
The butterfly-like species is a member of an extinct "lacewing" lineage classified within the genus Kalligrammatid. It boast large wings with "eye spots" similar to those seen on modern butterflies. Lacewings also used a long tongue to retrieve nectar from flowers.
But lacewings ultimately evolved into a type of insect distinct from the modern butterfly.
Researchers discovered the fossils among 165-million-year-old lake deposits in northeastern China and eastern Kazakhstan. They serve as an example of convergent evolution, whereby two distantly related species or groups independently adapt or develop similar anatomical features and behaviors.
Scientists say poor fossil preservation has previously limited their understanding of lacewing evolution.
"Upon examining these new fossils, however, we've unraveled a surprisingly wide array of physical and ecological similarities between the fossil species and modern butterflies, which shared a common ancestor 320 million years ago," David Dilcher, a paleobotanist at Indiana University, said in a news release.
Dilcher and his colleagues detailed their latest lacewing discovery in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The microscopic analysis of lacewing fossils revealed bits of food and pollen trapped in the insect's proboscis -- evidence suggesting lacewings of the Triassic and Jurassic periods fed on bennettitales. Their foraging behaviors and hairy legs carried pollen from the male reproductive organs of one plant flower to the female reproductive organs of another flower.
The tag-team process of pollination was eventually replaced by another partnership between modern insect pollinators and flowers, or angiosperms, with both male and female reproductive parts contained within a single seed.