Gossamer-winged butterfly, Lithopsyche antiqua

Gossamer-winged butterfly, Lithopsyche antiqua. Its forewing is around 15mm across, its hindwing 8.2mm.

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34-million-year-old flapper that’s one of a kind

We recently caught up with Claire Mellish, Curator of Fossil Arthropods, to have a look at a sensational butterfly specimen from the Museum's collection.

The specimen in question is an exquisite fossil of a gossamer-winged butterfly from the Isle of Wight. It is the only representative of its species ever found.

Discovered in the Insect Limestone at Gurnard Bay in the late 1800s, the Lithopsyche antiqua is formed of two pieces, both of which show the butterfly’s banded colour pattern.

Butterflies have been recorded in fossils dating back to the mid-Eocene epoch, around 40-50 million years ago, although their origin is thought to be earlier. Lithopsyche is about 34 million years old, ‘so it’s an old flapper,’ says Claire.

‘Lepidoptera [butterflies and moths] are very rare as fossils because they are so delicate. Even in a fossil hotspot like the Insect Limestone you would be lucky to find one butterfly in 1,000 fossils collected.’

The Insect Limestone contains exceptionally preserved insects and other arthropods at various sites on the northern side of the Isle of Wight. The site represents an important time in the history of the planet, when it was in transition from a warm to cool climate. The fauna and flora preserved in the limestone indicate that this site was once a sub-tropical/tropical forest that received significant rainfall. 

The Museum cares for the most important collection from the Insect Limestone, numbering around 4,000 specimens.