By tracing nearly 3,000 genes to the earliest common ancestor of butterflies and moths, University of Florida (UF) scientists have created an extensive “Tree of Lepidoptera” in the first study to use large-scale, next-generation DNA sequencing. Among the study’s more surprising findings: Butterflies are more closely related to small moths than to large ones, which completely changes scientists’ understanding of how butterflies evolved. The study also found that some insects once classified as moths are actually butterflies, increasing the number of butterfly species higher than previously thought. “This project advances biodiversity research by providing an evolutionary foundation for a very diverse group of insects, with nearly 160,000 described species,” said Dr. Akito Kawahara, lead author and assistant curator of Lepidoptera at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “With a tree, we can now understand how the majority of butterfly and moth species evolved.” Available online and to be published in the August print edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, the study builds the evolutionary framework for future ecological and genetics research of insects, Dr. Kawahara said. “There is a DNA revolution taking place,” Dr. Kawahara said. "This is an important time in the history of science when we can use DNA sequencing on a very large scale.” Dr. Kawahara said the year-long study is one of the first to utilize a massive amount of genetic data to answer questions about the history of butterflies and moths. The analysis reveals monumental discoveries about the lineage of Lepidoptera, including strongly contradicting the traditional placement of butterflies in evolutionary history, Dr. Kawahara said.
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