An artist’s impression of a Kalligrammatid lacewing (Image: Vichai Malikul/Smithsonian)

120 million years ago, in the Mesozoic era, there were little creatures called Kalligrammatid lacewings fluttering around. Scientists knew they existed, but until unusually well preserved fossils of the lacewings were found in northeastern China, no one realized how close they were to today’s butterflies.

Like butterflies, these lacewings were likely pollinators. Like butterflies, they had long, tubular proboscises to suck up their food from flowers. Like some butterflies, their wings had large eyespot patterns, likely to deter predators.

Butterflies didn’t appear on earth for another 50 million years, in a separate evolution, and they didn’t get features like spots until about 110 million years after the lacewings disappeared.

This is a particularly striking example of how advantageous traits can evolve more than once. Flowering plants hadn’t even begun their takeover when the lacewings were around: they likely ate pollen from a type of ancient plant that’s also since gone extinct.

Bonus finds: Hieronymous Bosch paintingSoviet-era camera in the Oregon woods

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