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Insects had striking wings that made noise 310 million years ago

Modern insects are versatile conversationalists. Crickets can scrape one leg against one wing or rub two wings. Some grasshoppers fluttered their wings like castanets; others crackle and break thin membranes. Many butterfly wings play with light, manipulating it to hide it from view or reflecting it in flashes along iridescent or multifaceted surfaces (SN: 21/06/21).

Now, the discovery of the fossilized wing of a grasshopper-like insect suggests that this conversation began 310 million years ago. The structures of the wings resemble those of living insects that use light or sound to communicate, the researchers reported on July 8 in Communications Biology.

A fossil (upper) that preserves wing structures (illustrated, below) of the ancient insect Theiatitan azari suggests that it used the wings to communicate, as did many modern insects. By comparing the arrangement of the structures with modern insect wings, the researchers suggest that T. azari may have produced cracking noises by rapidly joining the thin membranes of the wing. It can also have light reflections along different surfaces of the wing.T. Schubnel et al / Communications Biology 2021

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

T. azari predates other Titanoptera by about 50 million years. But like other insects in the group, the thin membranes of their forewings are divided by networks of veins in a mosaic of smaller sections. Based on the patterns of these mosaics, titanoptera, including T. azari, may have a number of communication tools at the tips of the wings, including crackling, flashes of light, or both, according to Thomas Schubnel, an evolutionary biologist at the Institute of Systematics, Evolution, Biodiversity in Paris and colleagues.

Scientists still don’t know if ancient insects used those abilities to call potential mates or warn predators. But this finding suggests that there are many more things these ancient wings can say.

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