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Dung beetles borrowed wing genes to grow their horns


By Erica Tennenhouse
Beetles come in a staggering array of shapes and sizes. And so do the horns that grow out of the heads and bodies of the males of many species, which they use to battle over mates. Now, a study reveals a surprising link between fight and flight in beetles: The same set of genes that codes for their wings also helps build their horns.

“It’s a radical idea,” says Yoshinori Tomoyasu, an expert in insect development at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who was not involved in the study. The horns on beetles’ bodies, he says, have long been considered a textbook example of an “evolutionary novelty”—a trait that “appears to have evolved suddenly, without any connection to an old [body part or structure].”

Beetles have horns on their heads and the midregion of their body called the thorax, which is broken into three segments. Two of those segments bear wings whereas the one closest to the head, which is wingless, has proved to be a hot spot of evolutionary innovation. “Insects have just gone crazy modifying this segment,” says Frederik Nijhout, an evolutionary biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Treehoppers form helmetlike structures on it, grasshoppers grow massive crests out of it, and beetles top it with a diverse collection of horns. The new study “may have discovered the mechanism by which you can get this tremendous variation,” adds Nijhout, who was not involved in the work.

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