Bugs communicated with wings as early as 310 million years in the past

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Modern insects are versatile interlocutors. Crickets can scratch a leg against a wing or rub two wings together. Some locusts flap their wings like castanets; others crackle and crack the thin membranes. Many butterfly wings play with the light, manipulate it in order to hide themselves visibly, or reflect it like lightning over iridescent or multi-faceted surfaces (SN: 6/21/21).

The discovery of the fossilized wing of a locust-like insect suggests that this conversation began 310 million years ago. The wing structures are similar to those of living insects that use light or sound to communicate, researchers report July 8 in Communications Biology.

A fossil (above) that preserves wing structures (shown, below) of the ancient insect Theiatitan azari suggests that it used its wings for communication, much like many modern insects. By comparing the arrangement of the structures with modern insect wings, the researchers suspect that T. azari could have made crackling noises by quickly snapping together the thin membranes of the wing. It can also have flashes of light reflected along different surfaces in the wing.T. Schubnel et al / Communication Biology 2021

The insect named Theiatitan azari – after Theia, the titan goddess of light in Greek mythology – was a member of the Titanoptera, a group of giant predatory insects. Large-winged insects thrived in the Carboniferous Period, which lasted 359 million to 299 million years ago. Some grew to amazing sizes in the oxygen-rich atmosphere (SN: 12/13/05). (The terrifying dragonfly-like Meganeura was about the size of a small dog.)

T. azari is about 50 million years older than other Titanoptera. But like other insects in the group, the thin membranes of its forewings are divided into a mosaic of smaller sections by a network of veins. Based on the patterns of these mosaics, Titanoptera, including T. azari, could have had a number of means of communication on their wing tips, including crackles, flashes of light, or both, says Thomas Schubnel, evolutionary biologist at the Institute for Systematics, Evolution, Biodiversity in Paris and colleagues.

Scientists don’t yet know whether the ancient insects used these skills to summon potential partners or warn predators. But this discovery suggests that these ancient wings can tell you a lot more.

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