March 17, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Butterflies in Amber Stun Discoverers

New Scientist reports that exquisitely-preserved butterflies have been found in amber from the Dominican Republic.  “It was just incredible,” exclaimed a Smithsonian researcher.  It’s no different than if you took a modern day butterfly and put it under a light microscope.”  But this prompted a puzzle: the amber is estimated to be up to 25 million years old.
    Insects were thought to have diverged from non-insects 40 to 50 million years ago, but these Caribbean islands had to have drifted from the mainland up to 50 million years ago, based on current theories of when the islands separated from Mexico.  It is unlikely that the delicate butterflies could have crossed an ocean.  These specimens, therefore, must have already been present.  If so, “Butterflies may be far more ancient creatures than previously believed,” the article states, and therefore, “it is possible butterflies may have even fluttered around the heads of dinosaurs, which were wiped out 65 million years ago.” Update 04/01/2004: Dick Vane-Wright puzzles over this find in Nature April 1.1  “Its discovery raises key issues,” he says, “about Caribbean biogeography, behavioural evolution (or lack of it), and the origin of butterflies.”  It looks like a living fossil.  If so, “an implication is that the basic ecology of Voltinia has not changed over this huge time span,” (i.e., 15-35 million years, “an order of magnitude greater than the lifetime of the average species.”
    Vane-Wright is sensitive to a common fault among the brethren: “In evolutionary biology we must be alert to mere story-telling, selecting suitable facts to support whatever view of events we favour,” he cautions; nevertheless, he feels compelled to accept the idea that no evolution in this species occurred for tens of millions of years.  Later, in discussing favored views about when butterflies diverged, he quips, “Here again we have to beware of story-telling.”  He also borrows a joke from a friend: “As de Jong has wryly observed: ‘We have no idea when the butterflies originated, although there is no shortage of wild guesses.’”

1Dick Vane-Wright, “Entomology: Butterflies at that awkward age,” Nature 428, 477 – 480 (01 April 2004); doi:10.1038/428477a.

This is a perfect time to review the correct procedure for reading a science article.  Always separate the data from the interpretation.  The data are five amber nuggets containing the “best-preserved fossil of any butterfly” yet found.  The species is almost identical to “its closest living relative” on the Mexican mainland.  The dates, and the stories about drifting islands and dinosaur wipeouts at such and such a time with butterflies fluttering about their heads, is all interpretive fluff.  Brush it away like cobwebs.  What remains?  Butterflies have always been butterflies.  No transitional form was found.  No date came on the samples.  No evolution was demonstrated – only beautiful design.  Does this discovery provide “vital clues to the evolution of butterflies”?  Does it explain why delicate butterflies, with wings like tissue paper, survived whatever killed macho, muscular dinosaurs?  We report – you decide.
    Dick Vane-Wright’s comments would almost make one think that Creation-Evolution Headlines is having an impact.  Scientists seem more sensitive lately about the charge of just-so storytelling (see also 04/01/2004 headline).

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Categories: Terrestrial Zoology

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