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Fossil Friday: A Fossil Butterfly Lookalike

Günter Bechly
Photo credit: Günter Bechly.

This giant and wonderfully preserved fossil insect wing belonged to a specimen of the extinct lacewing family Kalligrammatidae. The fragment is 78 mm long, but the complete wing had an estimated length of 100-120 mm and thus a wing span of about 9 inches. The preservation of color pattern is typical for the unweathered greyish layers of the Lower Cretaceous Crato Formation from northeast Brazil. Together with a Russian colleague, I described this fossil as a new species Makarkina kerneri (Bechly & Makarkin 2016). Its sister species, Makarkina adamsi, from the same locality, even reached a wing span of maximally 33 cm, which makes it to the largest known neuropteran insect that ever existed. A third species of this genus was described from the same locality by Machado et al. (2020). The genus Makarkina is the only American representative of the Kalligrammatidae, which are otherwise known in about 61 species from the Lower Jurassic to the early Late Cretaceous of Europe and Asia. 

The family Kalligrammatidae is remarkable for its similarity to butterflies. Indeed they were often colloquially called “butterflies of the Jurassic.” The similarity goes deeper than just the shape of the wings and their conspicuous eyespots (Machado et al. 2020). Most species have the wings covered with scales, just like butterflies and unlike most other insects (Yang et al. 2014Labandeira et al. 2016). But there is more: When well preserved specimens from China were discovered, that also showed details of the body morphology, it turned out that kalligrammatids had highly specialized mouth parts in the form of a long proboscis that is anatomically similar to that of butterflies (Labandeira 2010Liu et al. 2018). Most other neuropterans have chewing mouthparts similar to beetles. The combination of several distinct and unique similarities with butterflies in the same group of insects, that is not closely related to butterflies at all, is another striking case of convergence (Labandeira et al. 2016).

Unexpected Under Darwinism

When I studied biology at the University of Tübingen in the 1980s, it was still believed that convergence is a rare phenomenon that causes little trouble for the reconstruction of phylogenetic relationships. Since that time it turned out that convergences are a ubiquitous phenomenon in all groups of organisms, so that whole symposiums have been dedicated to this problem (Agrawal 2017). Stephen Jay Gould (1989) still thought that replaying the “tape of life” would result it radically different outcomes. The modern view is very different and rather the opposite: life produced the same solutions and over and over again. Renowned paleontologist Simon Conway Morris wrote several articles and books about this issue (Conway Morris 2003, 20072010, 2015, 2016). This is unexpected under Darwinism, and therefore requires ad hoc explanations like constraints, underlying apomorphies, genetic predispositions, and of course the universal magic wand natural selection (Losos 2011Powell 2012Stayton 2015). An intelligent design paradigm can more easily accommodate convergences as a natural consequence of a designer reusing the same ideas in different constructions. Reuse of elements is a typical design pattern.


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