Walking sticks lost wings, then re-evolved them

PROVO, Utah A Brigham Young University researcher has demonstrated that members of a certain group of insects lost the ability to fly and then re-evolved it 50 million years later a conclusion that means the theory of evolution itself must continue to change.

Integrative biology professor Michael F. Whiting and his collaborators analyzed the DNA sequences of 35 species of walking sticks, aptly named insects that mimic twigs to stay hidden from predators, to decipher which evolved first. Their findings, reported in the cover article in the Jan. 16 edition of "Nature," showed that some species of walking sticks without wings existed before their winged descendants, the first time any organism has been shown to do what scientists previously thought impossible re-evolve a complex trait.

"For complex functions like flight or sight, the idea in evolution has always been that organisms either use it or lose it," said Whiting, referring to Dollo's Law, which, as cited in the "Encyclopedia of Evolution," is "the principle that organs or complex structures cannot return to a condition seen in an ancestor."

"This is the first example of a complex feature being lost and recovered much later in an evolutionary lineage," Whiting said. "Even though the wing is not physically there, the underlying genetics which construct wings appear to be conserved over evolutionary time. It suggests that complexity can be maintained over tens of millions of years."

Entomologists have frequently documented cases where species of insects have lost the ability to fly. For example, many insect species that migrate to islands eventually lose wings as an adaptation to keep them from blowing into the sea. Bugs that live on snow don't have wings, and therefore have less surface area and lose less heat.

Whiting reasons that walking sticks lost wings because doing so helped them blend in with their surroundings. He also noted that wingless insects have been

Contact: Michael Smart
Brigham Young University

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