It sounds like a just-so story—“How the Insect Got its Wings”—but it’s really a mystery that has puzzled biologists for over a century. Intriguing and competing theories of insect wing evolution have emerged in recent years, but none were entirely satisfactory.
Finally, a team from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has settled the controversy, using clues from long-ago scientific papers as well as state-of-the-art genomic approaches. The study—published this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution—was conducted by research associate Heather Bruce and director Nipam Patel of the Marine Biological Laboratory, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago.
Insect wings, the team confirmed, evolved from an outgrowth or “lobe” on the legs of an ancestral crustacean (yes, crustacean). After this marine animal had transitioned to land-dwelling about 300 million years ago, the leg segments closest to its body became incorporated into the body wall during embryonic development, perhaps to better support its weight on land. “The leg lobes then moved up onto the insect’s back, and those later formed the wings,” said Bruce.