Scientists Reveal the Most Comprehensive Map of Butterfly Evolution Ever—and It's Gorgeous

Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

There are 18,000 known butterfly species in the world, so maybe it’s not surprising that scientists haven’t quite worked out how they’re all related. Recently, scientists developed what is currently the most comprehensive roadmap of butterfly evolution ever, one that includes 35 times more genetic data and three times as many classifications as past butterfly evolutionary trees. Oh, and as Fast Company found, it’s beautiful.

The study, published in Current Biology, drew on genetic data from 207 butterfly species that together represent 98 percent of butterfly tribes (the classification just above genus). Led by Florida Museum of Natural History curator Akito Kawahara and Marianne Espeland of the Alexander Koenig Research Museum in Germany, the study used this genetic data and the fossil record to trace the evolution of different butterfly species and figure out when different species split off from their cousins.

A circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

Needless to say, millions years of evolution means a lot of information to visualize in one family tree. Each bold label on the very outside of the circle represents a tribe, like Tagiadini, followed by the individual species that made it into the study, like Tagiades flesus (the clouded skipper). Species are clumped together by subgroup—in this case, Pyrginae (spread-winged skippers)—and color-coordinated by family—in this case, Hesperiidae (skippers).

The solid gray circle near the center, labeled K-PG boundary (for Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary) represents the mass extinction event that killed off most of Earth’s plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs.

A close-up of a circular visualization of the butterfly family tree
Espeland et al., Current Biology (2018)

The study confirms several pieces of information that butterfly experts had hypothesized about in previous studies, while overturning other hypotheses. Butterflies can be divided into seven different families, and though previous research estimated that the first butterflies appeared around 100 million years ago, this study pushes that date back to around 120 million years ago. But there were just a few early ancestors of butterflies prior to the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, after which the butterfly family tree explodes into different branches.

Swallowtail butterflies (the subfamily Papilioninae, to the left in blue) were the first butterfly family to branch off, so they’re a “sister” species to all other butterfly species. Skippers (the family Hesperiidae, in purple) likely branched off next, then nocturnal butterflies like the Hedylidae family (in gray). However, some species that scientists previously thought were sister groups do not, in fact, share common ancestry, including swallowtails, birdwings, zebra swallowtails, and swordtails. The timeline shows that some butterfly species seem to have evolved together along with the plants they feed on or, in some cases, ant species with which they now have a mutually beneficial relationship.

[h/t Fast Company]

England Is Being Invaded By a Swarm of Flying Ants That Can Be Seen From Space

Digoarpi/iStock via Getty Images
Digoarpi/iStock via Getty Images

Last week, the UK's weather service registered what seemed like a system of rain showers moving along the nation’s southern coast. But it wasn’t rain—it was a swarm of flying ants.

Though it sounds like something out of a horror film or the Old Testament, it’s actually a completely normal phenomenon that occurs in the UK every summer when a bout of hot, humid weather follows a period of rainfall, The Guardian reports. Flying ants decide it’s a good time to mate, and the queen takes to the sky, emitting pheromones that attract males.

From there, it’s survival of the fittest. The queen will out-fly most of her suitors, leaving only the strongest males to catch up and mate with her, which ensures the strength of her offspring. The others either lose their wings and fall to the ground, or become bird food. (The ants produce formic acid in their bodies as a defense mechanism, which may make gulls that eat them seem loopy.)

According to Smithsonian.com, the queen will chew off her wings after mating and fall to the ground to start a new colony, and the sperm she collected from that one flight will fertilize her eggs for the rest of her life (which could be up to 15 years in the wild).

The official, rather-romantic term for the annual aerial antics is “nuptial flight,” but locals often refer to it simply as “flying ant day.” It sometimes lasts for weeks, during which billions of the harmless insects can be seen in the skies.

A representative from the Met Office explained that its weather satellites mistook the ants for rain clouds because the radar detects the ants in the same way it sees raindrops. Dr. Adam Hart, an entomologist at the University of Gloucestershire, told The Guardian that he thinks the reason the radar registered the ants this year was a result of better satellite technology rather than an increase in the flying ant population.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

A Retirement Home for Orcas Could Be Opening in Washington's San Juan Islands

MarkMalleson/iStock via Getty Images
MarkMalleson/iStock via Getty Images

Governments and organizations around the world are taking steps to keep whales out of captivity. Earlier this year, Canada passed a "Free Willy bill" that makes it illegal to hold whale, dolphins, and other cetaceans captive for entertainment. But such laws do little to help the animals that have spent their whole lives performing in places like SeaWorld and are ill-suited to life in the wild. To help them, the Whale Sanctuary Project wants to build a $15 million sanctuary in Washington state's San Juan Islands where formerly captive orcas (also known as killer whales) can thrive, The Seattle Times reports.

The retirement home for whales would allow the creatures to live in their natural ocean habitat while receiving they same care and protection they became accustomed to while in captivity. Instead of living in tanks, they would swim freely around a 60- to 100-acre netted-off cove. Veterinarians would be available to provide the orcas with emergency care, short-term rehabilitation, and food.

The Whale Sanctuary Project plans to start with six to eight orcas in the facility, with the first arriving in late 2020 or early 2021. In order for that to happen, though, the organization needs to get the permits necessary to build the facility off the Washington coast and raise millions of dollars to fund it. In addition to the estimated $15 million construction costs, the veterinary staff would cost $2 million a year.

The plan is ambitious, but it's not unprecedented. In June, the world's first open-water beluga sanctuary—located in Iceland—received its first residents. The two whales, named Little Grey and Little White, were rescued from a Sea World-like attraction in China. The Whale Sanctuary Project is considering building a similar sanctuary for beluga whales in addition to the one for orcas. Before it moves forward with either project, the nonprofit will hold a series of public meetings around the Washington coast to garner support.

[h/t The Seattle Times]

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