The wings of an adult insect are largely thought to be dead, according to numerous scientific studies, but tell that to the blue-winged morpho dragonfly who’d certainly beg to differ. For most insects, wings are an accumulation of membrane kept rigid by a network of veins which holds the fragile parts together akin to the reinforcing wires on a kite.
These veins are usually complemented by sensory nerves whose function is to link mental and physical parts of the brain and wings respectively without actually stimulating movement. Thus, veins and sensors aside, an adult insect’s wings can generally be considered as dead possessing similar attributes to our hair and nails.
So you can imagine the rumble in the scientific community when a trio of insect biologists found evidence to suggest the presence of actual living tissues in an insect’s wings. In so doing, possibly going against a popular concept that has been the general rule of thumb since time immemorial.
Rhainer Guillermo Ferreira, who presently works in Brazil for the Federal University of São Carlo came across this discovery during his time in Germany at Kiel University. The entomologist’s curiosity was peaked when he was studying the male Zenithoptera, whose oddly blue-hued wings, he noticed, had tracheal pipping (or air passages to living tissues).
Seeking to affirm his theory, Guillermo brought in two more insect biologists who also came to the conclusion that the wings of this unique little fella might be alive and kicking, or rather, breathing. He attests further research is still needed as evidence is far from conclusive but Ferreira and his colleagues are of the belief that the tubes hint at a peculiar respiratory system.
Back to the Basics
Insect wings are alive at one point during their development life cycle, they don’t start off dead right away. Early in their growth phase, the wings are alive with blood and cells but with the passage of time, these cells wither away and so too does the succulence of the wings. Consequently, the wings adopt a mesh-like pattern of veins separated by large distances of dried out wings.
Nerves and accompanying respiratory channels remain but beyond these, there’s little difference between toenail clippings and the rest of the wing.
Why Guillermo’s theory might hold water
The richness of the azure shades on the blue dragonfly of the hour has led Guillermo to question if there is a regular supply of oxygen underneath to living tissues which would help realize a color depth of such a severity.
There are about five other species of the said dragonfly that could prove him right in the future courtesy of complicated color variations that would logically fall in line with this breathing-and-living-wings concept. A number of native species of South American Morpho dragonflies are imbued with a striking blue that has long been explained only by light manipulation. But there could be more than meets the eye, in more than one way, going by the aforementioned data.
With the membranes within the wings piling on top of each other to refract light in a similar manner to a rainbow only much more complex, such insects can give off the illusion of one deep shade, in this case, blue. And for such membranes to be so expansive, Guillermo believes they get massive amounts of oxygen hence the tracheal pipes. Its wing physiology is made up of tiny obsidian layers, think a billionth of a meter, which engulf similarly tiny spheres in such a way as to make blue more pronounced from the ordinary light spectrum. Somewhat like a mirror that absorbs the rest of the colors giving off only the blue shade from beneath a tough and translucent exterior.
The reason for this “game of colors”, if you will, and as Guillermo Ferreira explains, is down to showcasing territorial might, particularly when fighting over a mate. The one with richer blues not only appeals more to the female but also makes his male rival quiver in his boots and probably decide it’s not worth the fight. When push comes to shove though and a simple display of colors is not enough, these dragonflies resort to an effective head-biting technique.
For now, Guillermo’s theory remains just that: a theory. It may or may not be proved right later on but the logic behind it is plausible.