Butterfly Origin Story

A blue morpho butterfly sits on a leaf. A new study finds that butterflies likely originated somewhere in western North America or Central America around 100 million years ago. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

It is almost a certainty that if you visit Costa Rica you will see the blue morpho fluttering by somewhere. And you may be in the location of its origin story:

Butterflies originated in North America after splitting from moths, new study suggests

Akito Kawahara remembers being eight years old when he went on a special tour of the insect collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He marveled at the vast array of pinned bugs before stopping in front of a large picture of the butterfly family tree.

A red lacewing butterfly perches on a plant. Rachit Pratap Singh

A number of spots on that tree, he saw, were curiously blank.

“Just looking at it, realizing that scientists at these museums still don’t know these basic things — I’ll never forget that day,” Kawahara says.

That moment sparked a lifelong passion in Kawahara to fill in those blanks and determine where these charismatic insects originated. Now, he’s gotten a little closer to an answer. His latest research shows that butterflies probably first flapped their wings in present-day western North America or Central America.

“We were surprised,” says Kawahara, now the curator of butterflies and moths at the University of Florida. Before this, “people had thought that butterflies originated somewhere in Asia.”

This shift probably took place some 100 million years ago when a rogue lineage of moths moved dayward. The findings, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, shed light on the origins of this remarkable group of insects that now populate the globe with 19,000 different species.

Butterflies first evolved from moths when they began feeding on the nectar of new species of flowering plants usually available during the day. That shift allowed these insects to shed their earth tones in favor of the riot of colors they’re known for today, which often act to attract mates or warn predators that they’re poisonous…

Read the whole story here.

2 thoughts on “Butterfly Origin Story

  1. Interesting article about the origin of butterflies and how they likely originated in North or Central America around 100 million years ago. It’s amazing to think how these insects have evolved over time and now populate the globe with 19,000 different species.

    • Absolutely fascinating! Their evolution is amazing on its own, but their beauty has inspired so many cultures, as well. Thank you so much for your comment.

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