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How insects control their wings: The mysterious mechanics of insect flight


by Lori Dajose, California Institute of Technology

Many of us would love the superpower to fly, and for good reason: Flight offers a crucial evolutionary advantage. Flying enables an animal to travel large distances quickly, in search of food and new habitats, while expending far less energy than walking. Through flight, insects colonized the planet and fostered the massive diversification of flowering plants by acting as efficient pollinators. They also enabled the evolution of other creatures like reptiles, birds, and mammals by serving as ample food supply.

Flight has evolved four times in the history of life on Earth: in birds, bats, pterosaurs, and insects. The first three groups of animals evolved their wings from arms, making these wings straightforward to understand as other similar animals have analogous bones and musculature. Insect wings, however, have no muscles or nerves. They are instead controlled by muscles located inside the body that operate a system of marionette-like pulleys within a complex hinge at the base of the wing.

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