Veins improve fracture toughness of insect wings.

Research paper by Jan-Henning JH Dirks, David D Taylor

Indexed on: 29 Aug '12Published on: 29 Aug '12Published in: PloS one


During the lifetime of a flying insect, its wings are subjected to mechanical forces and deformations for millions of cycles. Defects in the micrometre thin membranes or veins may reduce the insect's flight performance. How do insects prevent crack related material failure in their wings and what role does the characteristic vein pattern play? Fracture toughness is a parameter, which characterises a material's resistance to crack propagation. Our results show that, compared to other body parts, the hind wing membrane of the migratory locust S. gregaria itself is not exceptionally tough (1.04±0.25 MPa√m). However, the cross veins increase the wing's toughness by 50% by acting as barriers to crack propagation. Using fracture mechanics, we show that the morphological spacing of most wing veins matches the critical crack length of the material (1132 µm). This finding directly demonstrates how the biomechanical properties and the morphology of locust wings are functionally correlated in locusts, providing a mechanically 'optimal' solution with high toughness and low weight. The vein pattern found in insect wings thus might inspire the design of more durable and lightweight artificial 'venous' wings for micro-air-vehicles. Using the vein spacing as indicator, our approach might also provide a basis to estimate the wing properties of endangered or extinct insect species.