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Fossil Friday: The Abrupt Origin of Butterflies

Photo: Prodryas persephone, fair use and Franz Anthony via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This Fossil Friday features a wonderful fossil of the nymphalid butterfly Prodryas persephone from the famous Eocene fossil locality of Florissant in Colorado. Even though the insect order Lepidoptera is represented by small caddisfly-like and moth-like taxa in Mesozoic sediments, there is no Mesozoic fossil record of real butterflies or any other “macrolepidopterans” (Sohn et al. 20122015). They appear abruptly with modern families like Hesperiidae (Jong 2016), Pieridae, Papillionidae, and Nymphalidae in the Eocene, without any evidence for a gradual evolution of these modern butterfly families and totally contrary to evolutionist estimates, which placed their diversification in the Early Cretaceous (Wahlberg 2006Heikkilä et al. 2012Jong 2017). This phenomenon could rightfully be called a Tertiary Butterfly Explosion analogous to the Cambrian Explosion of animal phyla. It is yet another example of the general pattern of abrupt appearances of new biological groups in the fossil record that contradict any Darwinian expectations and better resonates with a design perspective.


  • Heikkilä M, Kaila L, Mutanen M, Pena C & Wahlberg N 2011. Cretaceous origin and repeated tertiary diversification of the redefined butterflies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 279(1731), 1093–1099. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2011.1430
  • Jong RD de 2016. Reconstructing a 55-million-year-old butterfly (Lepidoptera: Hesperiidae). European Journal of Entomology 113, 423–428. DOI: https://doi.org/10.14411/eje.2016.055
  • Jong RD de 2017. Fossil butterflies, calibration points and the molecular clock (Lepidoptera: Papilionoidea). Zootaxa 4270(1), 1–63. DOI: https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4270.1.1
  • Sohn J-C, Labandeira C, Davis D & Mitter C 2012. An annotated catalog of fossil and subfossil Lepidoptera (Insecta: Holometabola) of the world. Zootaxa 3286(1), 1–132. DOI: https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.3286.1.1
  • Sohn J-C, Labandeira CC & Davis DR 2015. The fossil record and taphonomy of butterflies and moths (Insecta, Lepidoptera): implications for evolutionary diversity and divergence-time estimates. BMC Evolutionary Biology 15:12, 1–15. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12862-015-0290-8
  • Wahlberg N 2006. That Awkward Age for Butterflies: Insights from the Age of the Butterfly Subfamily Nymphalinae (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae). Systematic Biology 55(5), 703–714. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20142973