The delicate wings of butterflies do not fossilize easily, making butterfly fossils rare. Even so, a few amazingly well-preserved specimens have been found in very fine-grained rock or amber (fossilized tree resin).
The oldest known butterflies date back to about 65 million years ago. By 30 million years ago, butterflies were common and very much like those we see flying today.
Lethe corbieri (LEE-thee cor-bee-AIR-ee)
■ When: 30 million years ago (Paleogene)
■ Fossil location: France
■ Habitat: Woodland
This species was a member of a family of butterfly known as the browns, which still exists today. Its wings had bold circular marks and were probably brown underneath and orangey-brown on top. The caterpillars would have fed on grass or palm leaves, while the adults sucked nectar from flowers using a coiled feeding tube (proboscis). Like other browns, but unlike other insects, Lethe walked on four legs rather than six.
This peacock butterfly has eyespots like those of Lethe. Eyespots defend butterflies from predators such as birds, which peck at eyes in order to strike the head. Eyespots cause birds to peck the wings and miss the head, allowing the insect to escape with only a torn wing.
DID YOU KNOW…?
Amazingly, a butterfly cannot taste food with its mouth or antennae (feelers). Its taste buds are on its feet, so it needs to stand on food to taste whether it’s delicious or not.