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Loss and recovery of wings in stick insects


The evolution of wings was the central adaptation allowing insects to escape predators, exploit scattered resources, and disperse into new niches, resulting in radiations into vast numbers of species1. Despite the presumed evolutionary advantages associated with full-sized wings (macroptery), nearly all pterygote (winged) orders have many partially winged (brachypterous) or wingless (apterous) lineages, and some entire orders are secondarily wingless (for example, fleas, lice, grylloblattids and mantophasmatids), with about 5% of extant pterygote species being flightless2,3. Thousands of independent transitions from a winged form to winglessness have occurred during the course of insect evolution; however, an evolutionary reversal from a flightless to a volant form has never been demonstrated clearly for any pterygote lineage. Such a reversal is considered highly unlikely because complex interactions between nerves, muscles, sclerites and wing foils are required to accommodate flight4. Here we show that stick insects (order Phasmatodea) diversified as wingless insects and that wings were derived secondarily, perhaps on many occasions. These results suggest that wing developmental pathways are conserved in wingless phasmids, and that ‘re-evolution’ of wings has had an unrecognized role in insect diversification.

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Figure 1: Examples of wing features in stick insects, a, Example of a fully winged (macropterous) female phasmid (Phasma gigas) with enlarged hindwings and thickened forewings.
Figure 2: Phylogeny of Phasmatodea on the basis of molecular data.
Figure 3: Character mapping of wing types on phasmid phylogeny.


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We thank E. Tilgner for providing some specimens; A. Whiting and L. Harmon for assistance in data analysis; and J. Cherry, M. Gruwell, M. Terry, H. Ogden, J. Robertson and K. Jarvis for generating sequence data. Analyses were performed in the Fulton Supercomputer Center, Brigham Young University, and parallel software implementation was performed by M. Clement and Q. Snell. DNA sequences are deposited in GenBank under accession numbers AY121129–AY121186 and AY125216–AY125326.

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Correspondence to Michael F. Whiting.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information


Supplementary Figure 1: This is the ingroup portion of the Bayesian tree, with posterior probabilities given above nodes, and the probability that the ancestral state was wingless given below the node. This reconstruction requires 5 independent wing gains and 2 wing losses. (PDF 60 kb)


Supplementary Information: This file provides additional details concerning taxon selection, optimization alignment methodology, incongruence length difference metrics, parsimony tree reconstruction, likelihood tree reconstruction, Bayesian analysis, congruence of molecular results with known morphological characters, parsimony character mapping, and likelihood character mapping. (DOC 168 kb)

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Whiting, M., Bradler, S. & Maxwell, T. Loss and recovery of wings in stick insects. Nature 421, 264–267 (2003).

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