How dragonfly wings get their patterns

September 17, 2018, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
The hindwing of a dragonfly. Dragonflies are among a group of insect species that have a complex network of veins, partitioning the wing into hundreds or thousands of small, simple shapes. The shape and position of these secondary veins are endlessly variable, generating unique patterns on each individual wing. Credit: Harvard University

Harvard researchers have developed a computational model that can mimic, with only a few, simple parameters, the complex wing patterns of a large group of distantly-related insects, shedding light on how these patterns form.

One of the biggest mysteries in nature is how complex patterns—such as leopard spots or zebrafish stripes—form. This research lays out a framework that could help answer many of these open questions in the evolution of diverse tissue patterns.

The researchers compiled a database of more than 500 specimens from 215 different species of dragonflies and damselflies and developed an algorithm to differentiate each individual shape made from the intersecting veins on the wings of the insect. The researchers found that while the patterns on each are unique, their distribution is strikingly similar across families and species. Based on these similarities, the researchers built a developmental model for how these patterns can be formed.

A differentiated, or segmented, wing outlining each individual polygonal shape made from the intersecting veins. Credit: Harvard University

The researchers proposed that an unknown inhibitory signal diffuses from multiple signaling centers in the regions between the primary veins. These inhibitory zones emerge randomly and repel one another, and then prevent secondary veins from growing in certain areas. As the wing grows and stretches during development, those zones could form the complex geometries of the wing as the veins grew around them.

The tested the model on many different insect —including distantly related insects—and generated life-like reproductions of wings.

Dragonflies and damselflies have particularly elaborate vein patterns. The researchers compiled a dataset of wings from 232 species and 17 families of dragonflies and damselflies. Credit: Harvard University

Explore further: On the wings of Lepidoptera

More information: Jordan Hoffmann el al., "A simple developmental model recapitulates complex insect wing venation patterns," PNAS (2018). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1721248115

Related Stories

On the wings of Lepidoptera

November 28, 2017

The Shirley Richardson Butterfly Garden at Assiniboine Park is testament to our fascination with the colourful insects that bring delight to so many. The beautiful patterns and pleasing textures of their wings attract not ...

Why don't insect wings break?

August 23, 2012

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have shown that the wings of insects are not as fragile as they might look. A study just published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE now shows that the characteristic network of veins ...

An eye gene colors butterfly wings red

July 21, 2011

Red may mean STOP or I LOVE YOU! A red splash on a toxic butterfly's wing screams DON'T EAT ME! In nature, one toxic butterfly species may mimic the wing pattern of another toxic species in the area. By using the same signal, ...

How the butterfly got its spots

June 15, 2016

By tweaking just one or two genes, Cornell University researchers have altered the patterns on a butterfly's wings. It's not just a new art form, but a major clue to understanding how the butterflies have evolved, and perhaps ...

Recommended for you

The real history of quantum biology

December 12, 2018

Quantum biology, a young and increasingly popular science genre, isn't as new as many believe, with a complicated and somewhat dark history, explain the founders of the world's first quantum biology doctoral training centre.

The source of stem cells points to two proteins

December 11, 2018

Mammalian embryos are unlike those of any other organism as they must grow within the mother's body. While other animal embryos grow outside the mother, their embryonic cells can get right to work accepting assignments, such ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.