Lepidopteran scales exhibit remarkably complex ultrastructures, many of which produce structural colors that are the basis for diverse communication strategies. Little is known, however, about the early evolution of lepidopteran scales and their photonic structures. We report scale architectures from Jurassic Lepidoptera from the United Kingdom, Germany, Kazakhstan, and China and from Tarachoptera (a stem group of Amphiesmenoptera) from mid-Cretaceous Burmese amber. The Jurassic lepidopterans exhibit a type 1 bilayer scale vestiture: an upper layer of large fused cover scales and a lower layer of small fused ground scales. This scale arrangement, plus preserved herringbone ornamentation on the cover scale surface, is almost identical to those of some extant Micropterigidae. Critically, the fossil scale ultrastructures have periodicities measuring from 140 to 2000 nm and are therefore capable of scattering visible light, providing the earliest evidence of structural colors in the insect fossil record. Optical modeling confirms that diffraction-related scattering mechanisms dominate the photonic properties of the fossil cover scales, which would have displayed broadband metallic hues as in numerous extant Micropterigidae. The fossil tarachopteran scales exhibit a unique suite of characteristics, including small size, elongate-spatulate shape, ridged ornamentation, and irregular arrangement, providing novel insight into the early evolution of lepidopteran scales. Combined, our results provide the earliest evidence for structural coloration in fossil lepidopterans and support the hypothesis that fused wing scales and the type 1 bilayer covering are groundplan features of the group. Wing scales likely had deep origins in earlier amphiesmenopteran lineages before the appearance of the Lepidoptera.
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National Museums Scotland
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American Association for the Advancement of Science
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