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Folding wings - just the business for insect survival

Posted on 30 April 2002

Just like modern businesses, insects have had to diversify to survive, according to University of York scientist Peter Mayhew.

The ability to fold their wings is one device they have adopted over the years as part of the struggle for survival, says Dr Mayhew. And folding wings have given the insects which adopted them - including bugs, beetles, flies, moths and wasps -a distinct advantage over those that didn't, like dragonflies.

‘The groups that adopted novelties such as folding wings gained a gear shift in evolution,’ he explained. ‘This was probably linked to the ability to exploit plants better, which is something that would be easier with folding wings. They could hide in them more easily, for example. The general view is that insects, which make up half of all known species, are our planet's great success story. When I examined this it turned out to be true only of some insects which had adapted.’

Dr Mayhew has had an academic paper on the subject published on 9 April by the Royal Society (the learned society for science). It details his study of major groups of insects and their place on the evolutionary ladder against the point at which there were major increases in the rate of diversification.

He added: ‘I showed that the major increase coincided with the origin of the large groups neoptera and eumetabola, which possessed folding wings. The two groups make up 99 and 95 per cent respectively of all insect species, while more primitive and ancient groups such as dragonflies, contribute only a few species, and only diversified as fast as their non-insect relatives.

‘The results show nature’s preference, not for all insects, but for a large and diverse subset - those with folding wings. This helps us to understand how closely bio-diversity is tied up with evolution. The natural world never stands still for long.’

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