Background: The early history of the Lepidoptera is poorly known, a feature attributable to an inadequate preservational potential and an exceptionally low occurrence of moth fossils in relevant mid-Mesozoic deposits. In this study, we examine a particularly rich assemblage of morphologically basal moths that contribute significantly toward the understanding of early lepidopteran biodiversity.
Methodology/principal findings: Our documentation of early fossil moths involved light- and scanning electron microscopic examination of specimens, supported by various illumination and specimen contrast techniques. A total of 20 moths were collected from the late Middle Jurassic Jiulongshan Formation in Northeastern China. Our principal results were the recognition and description of seven new genera and seven new species assigned to the Eolepidopterigidae; one new genus with four new species assigned to the Mesokristenseniidae; three new genera with three new species assigned to the Ascololepidopterigidae fam. nov.; and one specimen unassigned to family. Lepidopteran assignment of these taxa is supported by apomorphies of extant lineages, including the M1 vein, after separation from the M2 vein, subtending an angle greater than 60 degrees that is sharply angulate at the junction with the r-m crossvein (variable in Trichoptera); presence of a foretibial epiphysis; the forewing M vein often bearing three branches; and the presence of piliform scales along wing veins.
Conclusions/significance: The diversity of these late Middle Jurassic lepidopterans supports a conclusion that the Lepidoptera-Trichoptera divergence occurred by the Early Jurassic.