Ancient moths in North America gave rise to all butterflies 100 millions years ago

Through meticulous research and gene sequencing, it has been revealed that all butterflies originated from ancient moths in North America 100 million years ago.
Abdul-Rahman Oladimeji Bello
Butterfly On A Flower
Butterfly on a purple allium flower.


A groundbreaking discovery has shed light on the emergence and migration of butterflies during the breakup of the supercontinent Pangaea.

Through meticulous research and a comprehensive study of butterfly genes, a team of experts has constructed the world's most giant butterfly tree of life, unraveling the remarkable evolution of these delicate creatures.

Around 100 million years ago, the first butterflies took flight in Central and North America—this pivotal moment coincided with the splitting apart of Pangaea, when North America became divided by a vast seaway, creating distinct regions in the east and west.

In the western portion of this ancient landscape, butterflies began their extraordinary journey, setting the stage for their global conquest.

Today, butterflies enchant us with their ethereal beauty, boasting an astonishing diversity of approximately 20,000 known species. These delicate creatures gracefully flutter their wings on every continent except Antarctica.

Yet, despite our admiration for these winged wonders, their precise origin and early dietary habits have remained in mystery—until now.

Leading the charge is Akito Kawahara, a curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History, who has spearheaded a team of dedicated scientists on a quest for answers.

Ancient moths in North America gave rise to all butterflies 100 millions years ago
Butterfly drinking flower juice

In their pursuit, the researchers meticulously analyzed the genetic makeup of nearly 2,300 butterfly species from 90 countries, representing an impressive 92% of recognized genera. This extensive study allowed Kawahara and his colleagues to construct a comprehensive butterfly tree of life.

The team compiled a remarkable picture of butterfly evolution by sequencing 391 genes and collecting data from various sources. To ensure accuracy, they used 11 rare butterfly fossils as a reference point, aligning the branching points of their tree of life with the timelines indicated by these ancient relics.

"It's the most difficult study I've ever been a part of, and it took a massive effort from people worldwide to complete," exclaimed Kawahara, highlighting the tremendous collaboration in this groundbreaking project.

Butterflies emerged approximately 101.4 million years ago, stemming from the ancestors of nocturnal, herbivorous moths. This places the birth of butterflies in the mid-Cretaceous period when mighty dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

The emergence of butterflies

Once butterflies emerged, they embarked on a remarkable journey. They swiftly made their way to what is now South America, even venturing as far as Antarctica—a landmass that, at the time, was significantly warmer and still connected to Australia.

These delicate creatures managed to reach Australia's northern edge just before the two landmasses' separation roughly 85 million years ago.

Butterflies didn't stop there.

They courageously crossed the Bering Land Bridge, a once-existing connection between Russia and North America, triumphantly reaching what is now Russia approximately 75-60 million years ago.

From there, they spread their delicate wings, populating Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa. Then, in an unexpected twist, butterflies encountered a curious pause at the edge of the Middle East, refraining from further expansion for a staggering 45 million years.

"The pause in their spread is reflected in the relatively low number of butterfly species we see in Europe today compared to other parts of the world," shared Kawahara.

This groundbreaking research provides insights into the evolution and migration of butterflies. It highlights the resilience and adaptability of these enchanting creatures.

As we marvel at their beauty and diversity, we gain a deeper appreciation for the extraordinary journey butterflies have undertaken and the intricate processes that have shaped their existence.

The study by Kawahara and his team sets a new benchmark in butterfly research, paving the way for further investigations into the evolutionary mysteries of these delicate creatures.

With this newfound knowledge, scientists can continue exploring the fascinating world of butterflies, unraveling more secrets about their ecological role, behavioral patterns, and conservation needs.

Understanding the evolutionary history of butterflies not only deepens our understanding of the natural world but also provides valuable insights for conservation efforts aimed at protecting these delicate creatures and their habitats.

As the journey of discovery continues, researchers like Akito Kawahara and his team inspire us with their dedication and collaborative spirit.

Their groundbreaking study serves as a reminder of the wonders that await us when we delve into the intricate tapestry of nature. Through their tireless efforts, we understand how butterflies have captivated our planet and continue to enchant us with their graceful presence.

So next time you spot a butterfly gracefully dancing through the air, take a moment to appreciate its remarkable journey and the ancient forces that have shaped its existence.