Paleontologists – scientists who study fossils – believe that the first butterflies appeared
on Earth between 40 and 50 million years ago during the Age of Mammals. Moths
appeared much earlier – during the Age of Dinosaurs – perhaps as long as 140 million
years ago. Since the vast majority of fossils consist of hard bony material, the fact that
the delicate remains of these winged insects have survived for so many millions of years
is quite incredible.
The oldest butterfly fossils were formed in fine ash or in amber, the hardened resin of
trees long dead. If conditions are just right, even the softest insect body parts can retain
their original form when immersed in this liquid medium, which eventually solidifies
over the course of millennia. What makes it difficult for paleontologists to trace the
evolution of butterflies is that the number of fossil specimens is so small – probably no
more than a hundred discovered thus far.
Today the world is home to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 butterfly species. No
one can say for certain. However many there are, we should consider ourselves lucky
that butterflies survived as long as they have and didn’t go the way of the dinosaurs.
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