Background: It is conventionally accepted that the lepidopteran fossil record is significantly incomplete when compared to the fossil records of other, very diverse, extant insect orders. Such an assumption, however, has been based on cumulative diversity data rather than using alternative statistical approaches from actual specimen counts.
Results: We reviewed documented specimens of the lepidopteran fossil record, currently consisting of 4,593 known specimens that are comprised of 4,262 body fossils and 331 trace fossils. The temporal distribution of the lepidopteran fossil record shows significant bias towards the late Paleocene to middle Eocene time interval. Lepidopteran fossils also record major shifts in preservational style and number of represented localities at the Mesozoic stage and Cenozoic epoch level of temporal resolution. Only 985 of the total known fossil specimens (21.4%) were assigned to 23 of the 40 extant lepidopteran superfamilies. Absolute numbers and proportions of preservation types for identified fossils varied significantly across superfamilies. The secular increase of lepidopteran family-level diversity through geologic time significantly deviates from the general pattern of other hyperdiverse, ordinal-level lineages.
Conclusion: Our statistical analyses of the lepidopteran fossil record show extreme biases in preservation type, age, and taxonomic composition. We highlight the scarcity of identified lepidopteran fossils and provide a correspondence between the latest lepidopteran divergence-time estimates and relevant fossil occurrences at the superfamily level. These findings provide caution in interpreting the lepidopteran fossil record through the modeling of evolutionary diversification and in determination of divergence time estimates.