Treehoppers Use Morphospace to Co-opt Awesome Body Parts

Bocydium globulare, a treehopper with an unusual, helicopter-like helmet. (Andreas Kay via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Health Editor’s Note: The treehopper, a type of cicada relative, is totally awesome in how it can use genes meant for another body part to form decorative appendages, possibly used for mimicry. This …..Carol  

Treehoppers’ Bizarre, Wondrous Helmets Use Wing Genes to Grow

By Katherine J. Wu/

As their name suggests, treehoppers are capable of some amazing acrobatics. But these cicada relatives are even more intriguing to scientists for the stupendous structures that sprout from their backs. These outgrowths, called helmets, are present on all 3,300 species of treehopper, varying dramatically in appearance. Likely for the sake of avoiding predation, the helmets can take the form of thorns, leaves, feces or even other bugs, like ants or wasps.

Evolutionary biologists have long puzzled over these helmets, which resemble nothing else in nature, and how they became so diverse. In 2011, a team of researchers led by Benjamin Prud’homme proposed a theory that suggested the wonky structures were actually highly modified sets of wings.

If true, the claim would have profound evolutionary implications. It would mean treehoppers had grown a third set of wings on the thorax, or the middle section of the body—likely making them the first insects to do so in about 250 million years.

Prud’homme and his team’s research sent ripples through a small but avid community of entomologists, some of whom began to push back. Dissentersincluding Hokkaido University’s Kazunori Yoshizawa, insisted that the helmet wasn’t a set of wings, but rather an elaborate pronotum—……

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  1. Interesting that one of the nodules appears to resemble a stinger, although it doesn’t look as if it can be deployed without the treehopper rolling the entire body. From a structural standpoint, the helmet also looks like it could perform the role of a counterbalance?

    • I’ve changed my mind: it’s a phased array radar, and the stinger-appearing appendage is the directional pointer.

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