Did you know butterflies weren’t the first insects to look like butterflies?
Lepidopterans (the group of insects containing moths and butterflies) have been around since the Late Triassic – but it wasn’t until the diversification of flowering plants during the Cretaceous that recognizable moths would have evolved, and true butterflies didn’t actually appear until the early Cenozoic.
Known as the kalligrammatids, these insects were giant members of the lacewing group, related to modern forms like antlions and owlflies. But unlike their predatory relatives the kalligrammatids were specialized pollinators, possibly having a mutualistic relationship with the flower-like cones of bennettitales or the pollination drops of some types of conifers. They seem to have originated in China and were found across Asia and Europe by the Late Jurassic, but a few fossils from South America suggest they were even more widespread and may just have a poor fossil record.
They reached wingspans of up to 16cm (~6″), comparable to some of the largest modern butterflies, and often sported conspicuous anti-predator markings on their wings such as stripes and eyespots – so it’s not surprising that they’re often nicknamed the “butterflies of the Jurassic”.
Rather ironically, the extinction of the kalligrammatids was probably linked to the rise of the flowering plants that the true butterflies would later be so dependent on. As flowers diversified and plants like the bennettitales declined, the kalligrammatids dwindled and disappeared, with the last known fossil record coming from the mid-Cretaceous of Brazil about 113 million years ago.
But while they were around, I do wonder if they also exhibited some similar behaviors – such as mud-puddling for extra nutrients, and specifically the habit of drinking the tears of larger animals that we see in some species. Perhaps some non-avian dinosaurs like this Dilong occasionally put up with kalligrammatids sitting on their faces!
While this might look like a sci-fi alien design, it was actually a very real Earth animal!
This strange-looking creature was Clausocaris lithographica, a member of a group of unique marine arthropods known as thylacocephalans. Only about 3.5cm long (1.4″), it lived in a shallow tropical lagoon environment during the Late Jurassic of Germany, about 150-145 million years ago.
Like most other thylacocephalans it had a narrow flattened shield-like carapace, three pairs of large grasping limbs, and a battery of swimming appendages further back – along with absolutely enormous bulbous eyes. Based on this anatomy it would have been a highly visual hunter, using its huge eyes to locate prey items and then snagging them with its long spiny limbs.
And we’re not even entirely sure what type of arthropods thylacocephalans actually were. They’re generally thought to be some sort of crustacean, but their highly modified anatomy makes linking up their exact evolutionary affinities very difficult. Whatever they were, they must have been incredibly successful as a group because they first appeared in the early Cambrian (~518 mya) and survived all the way into the Late Cretaceous (~94 mya).
About 4cm long (1.6″), it had a wormlike body covered in spicules (tiny spines) which suggests it was a member of the aplacophoran molluscs – but it also had a row of seven larger shells along its back resembling those of chitons.
Modern aplacophorans are all shell-less and were traditionally thought to be a very early branch of the mollusc lineage that retained a “primitive” ancestral body plan. More recently, however, a combination of genetic evidence and fossil discoveries of animals like Kulindroplax have revealed that they’re actually close relatives of the chitons and instead lost their shells much more recently during the course of their evolution.
Nicknamed “Santa Claws”, Sanctacaris uncata was a marine arthropod from the Middle Cambrian (~505 mya) Burgess Shale deposits of Canada. Its exact evolutionary relationships are unclear, but it’s thought to have been very closely related to or part of an early branch of the chelicerates – the lineage that includes modern arachnids and horseshoe crabs.
Measuring up to about 9cm long (3.5″), it had forward-facing eyes and five pairs of grasping appendages on the underside of its head, adaptations that suggest it was an active predator convergently similar to anomalocaridids. It probably swam around grabbing onto whatever small prey items it could catch, trapping them in its “limb basket” while it ate them.
Vaderlimulus tricki, a horseshoe crab from the Early Triassic of Idaho, USA (~251-247 mya). Named for its resemblance to the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet, it’s the earliest known Mesozoic horseshoe crab from North America and was closely related to another oddly-shaped form from Australia.
It was much smaller than its modern relatives, only about 10cm long (4″), and probably lived in a brackishestuary environment where seawater and freshwater met.
This little lobopodian was very closely related to the famous Cambrian Hallucigenia, but it lived over 70 million years later – giving us the first evidence that these weird worms weren’t just short-lived “evolutionary experiments”, but must have actually been a very successful lineage that thrived for quite a long time.
Measuring around 3.5cm long (1.4″), it had seven pairs of legs tipped with one or two claws each, and at least two pairs of shorter tentacles on its neck. The head region of the only known fossil specimen wasn’t preserved, so it’s unclear exactly what its front end looked like – but it would have probably been quite similar to Hallucigenia with a slender oval head, two simple eyes, and a small round mouth ringed by tiny teeth.
Unlike its spiky relative, however, Thanahita’s back was covered in rows of numerous small raised soft-tissue “tufts”. I’ve reconstructed it here with them brightly warning colored, mimicking stinging coral polyps.
Capinatator praetermissus, an arrow worm from the Mid-Cambrian of Canada (~508 mya). Discovered in the famous Burgess Shale fossil deposits, it was one of the earliest known arrow worms and also much larger than most modern forms, measuring around 10cm in length (4″).
Its mouth was surrounded by 50 hooked spines, which could be extended out to grasp onto its prey – probably feeding on whatever smaller animals it could catch – but when not in use these spines would have been kept folded up inside a fleshy “hood” around its head.
It may have been a transitional form between early large-predator arrow worms and the smaller plankton-feeders that the group later became.
Syringocrinus paradoxicus from the Upper Ordovician of North America (~450 mya). Measuring up to around 6cm long (2.3″), it was part of an extinct group of marine animals known as solutes – characterized by irregularly-shaped bodies covered in calcite armor plates, the structure of which suggest they were echinoderms despite their complete lack of any proper symmetry.
It had two appendages, one a short “arm” that was probably used for feeding on food particles suspended in the water, and the other forming a longer stalk-like “tail” that may have served to propel it along the seafloor.
Solutes were once thought to be closely related to the equally weird-looking stylophorans, but some versions of the echinoderm family tree place them much further apart, suggesting their superficial similarities may have been due to convergent evolution instead.