Richard Dawkins: When Animals Shed Their Wings

Richard Dawkins in Quillette:

The fact that wings are not always a good thing is demonstrated by those animals whose ancestors used to have wings but who have given them up.

Worker ants don’t have wings. They walk everywhere. Well, perhaps “run” is a better word. The ancestors of ants were winged wasps, so modern ants have lost their wings over evolutionary time. But we don’t have to go back that far. Nowhere near. The worker ant’s immediate parents, her mother and her father, both had wings. Every worker ant is a sterile female fully equipped with the genes of a queen, and would sprout wings if reared differently, as queens are. The potential for wings is, so to speak, coiled up in the genes of all ants, but in workers it doesn’t burst forth.

There must be something wrong with having wings, otherwise worker ants would realise their undoubted genetic ability to grow them. The pluses and minuses for and against wings must be pretty finely balanced if a female sometimes grows them and sometimes doesn’t.

More here.