You are looking at the most complete map of butterflies ever made, a graphic that traces the species’ evolutionary tree back 120 million years. In total, researchers classified 207 species, after analyzing 352 genetic markers. It’s a fascinating time travel that has led to a few surprising discoveries.
The infographic accompanies a study published in the journal Current Biology by an international team of lepidopterists, led by Florida Museum of Natural History’s researcher Dr. Akito Kawahara. It covers 35 times more genetic data and three times as many taxonomic groups as the largest previous study to create “the first comprehensive map of butterfly evolution,” Kawahara told Sci-News.
The radial infographic groups the species in the outer perimeter of the circle as subfamilies. These subfamilies (like the Charaxinae) are then grouped in families (like the Nymphalidae). You can also see how the visual appearance of the butterflies morphs and changes as you move from subfamily to subfamily.
As your eyes travel around it, you’ll notice that some butterflies have an ant icon next to their name. That means that they share a symbiotic relationship with those insects: The butterfly’s larvae produces nectar for the ants in exchange for protection against predators.
As you travel from the graphic’s center–120 million years ago, the time when scientists think butterflies emerged–you can see when the primal species divided into new species. The research’s authors say that most of the species’ current diversity happened at the K-Pg mass extinction line, when non-avian dinosaurs died about 65 million years ago. Dr. Kawahara also noticed that these new genetic connections correspond to the type of plants that related species use to feed, which suggests that “butterflies and plants may have evolved together”–fodder, perhaps, for another infographic.