The astounding shapes of treehoppers evolved from wing-like appendages

If I had to pick the single most exciting entomological discovery this year, it’d be the finding that Treehopper (Membracidae) ornamentation appears to be homologous to wings.

Treehoppers have somehow resuscitated parts of the wing developmental program on a body part that insects hadn’t sported wings on for over 250 million years. And then they made wonderful, wonderful things from them:

Treehoppers in all their glory (Figure 1 from Prud'homme et al 2011).

That treehoppers are visually stunning isn’t news. The fact that what we all thought was a simple extension of the main body are actually novel appendages is why we here at Myrmecos headquarters are all jumping up and down with glee. This not only explains the ornaments of treehoppers but gives us deeper insight about how evolutionary novelty arises.

What’s more, the paper is rather solid by Nature’s standards. The authors accumulated different lines of evidence over several years. Their docket includes both careful morphological documentation of an appendage-like attachment of the ornaments and developmental studies showing the activation of wing-related genes.

I’m late to the blogging party on this story, so I’ll spare you more details. But, I fully expect Prud’homme et al to become a classic paper in the field of insect evolution. It’s that good.

This is the most boring-looking membracid I could find, and it's still gorgeous.

Other coverage:


source: Prud’homme, B. et al. 2011. Body plan innovation in treehoppers through the evolution of an extra wing-like appendage. Nature 473, 83–86. doi:10.1038/nature09977

20 thoughts on “The astounding shapes of treehoppers evolved from wing-like appendages”

  1. THAT’S AMAZING!!!! I also found out that at least in some tree hoppers these can even be hollow!! Why are there so many explanation marks!!!

  2. I like this sentence in Coyne’s analysis:
    “If the helmet is a re-expression of a repressed wing structure, does that mean that early insects had more than two wings? Well, even some modern insects have more than two wings: dragonflies and bees, for example”

    You can tell he’s a fly guy 🙂

    1. Now now, don’t be assuming all of us fly people are oblivious to the overly-endowed insects!

      I got a kick out of that line too, especially since flies have 2 sets of wings as well, it’s just that the hind pair has been reduced to the halteres.

  3. $ 32 ???

    Seriously, scientists need to take back control of publications from the IDIOT Kleptocrats who currently are in charge at these pubs. I mean they sold the entire crap magazine Newsweek, lock stock and barrel for a buck as opposed to 32 times as much for one article ?

    1. I would argue the converse, Bob. Journal “kleptocrats” are the clever ones, because they know how to translate scientists’ need for prestige into large wads of cash. It’s the scientists who are idiots by continuing to publish there. They just feed the beast.

      I don’t mean to offend anyone who does publish in Nature. But the outrageous subscription fees are fueled not by the quality of the journal itself but by a system that denies funding and jobs to people who don’t publish in a select few high-impact journals. Until academic institutions and scientists themselves take a stand, there’s no downward pressure on price.

      1. Agree emphatically about the corrupting effects in the current system, but it’s been that way, more or less since the days of Socrates-> Plato->Aristotle->etc.

        Human nature is little changed in thousands of years, neh? And I agree that supposedly intelligent scientists could deflate that system in a short time by “voting with their feet”.

        In these days of the internet and all that comes with it, public-domain on-line publication could and should trump this kind of dinosaur-media. It IS coming, since we have serious efforts like Antweb or Illiesia, for instance, sprouting like weeds all over the web. Faster please !

      2. I absolutely agree with you here myrmecos. In my first postdoc I learned that my organisms simply were not of interest to major journals (and that I had little hope of inserting myself into a powerful clique, espevcially since my most interesting data tended to go against established theory). Once I realised that, I stopped wasting my time on them and went to the journals that were interested in the science. Worked for me – I have no regrets and I’ve had a successful career. My one paper in Science is a technical comment trashing an especially oblivious junk ‘food web science’ paper. There are good papers published in Science and Nature, but not enough to supported their inflated reputations.

  4. Any chance of using this new genetic knowledge to breed bugs with six wings? I wonder if that’s even aerodynamically feasible…

    1. Do a search on “4 winged Fruit Fly lab mutants” normally equipped with only 2 wings and halteres.

      If it were aerodynamically feasible and advantageous, you can be certain that some insect lineage at some time would have generated such a configuration. One could easily understand that a brief experiment with 6 wings might not be present in fossils, however. If 6 wings were optimal, you can also be certain that some group of insects would still have that configuration. So tell me how many you know of with 6 wings now or in the past ?

  5. James.C. Trager

    There are some ancient insect fossils in Paleodictyoptera that had small, winglike, pronotal appendages (example here in http://www.metafysica.nl/wings/wings_6.html#figure2), but none are known with full-blown pronotal wings. This makes sense because most insect musculature inserts on the apodemes, etc. of the anterior segment, which would place them in the critter’s head. It seems to me the already hard-wired strong cephalization of even primitively wingless insects would constrain such an insertion of powerful musculature.

    1. James, I would expect to potentially find even more and earlier experiments in multiple winged “insect-like-types” perhaps even in the Devonian. There is no reason why “wings” could not have evolved during multisegmented body plan (eg pancrustacean deriviative) experimentation.

      We tend to gloss over the actual time involved in these epochs and just how much evolution of diversity could have occurred in hundred of millions of years. We also tend to ignore just how small the known arthropod fossil record is from all that elapsed time. The fact that ‘wingedness’ has independently evolved several times in extant taxa, indicates that it is often of selective advantage. Lastly we tend to gloss over just how quickly structural changes in morphology can appear in an entire population, needing only something like 25 generations for a SNP or transcription error to proliferate thru and entire population.

      At any rate, the current range and history of winged body plans in insects seems to indicate that fewer wings are “better”.

  6. Pingback: New observations on the prothoracic “wing” of treehoppers « NCSU Insect Museum

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