Hindwings are unnecessary for flight but essential for execution of normal evasive flight in Lepidoptera
In Lepidoptera, forewings and hindwings are mechanically coupled and flap in synchrony. Flight is anteromotoric, being driven primarily by action of the forewings. Here we report that lepidopterans can still fly when their hindwings are cut off, a procedure reducing their total wing surface, on average, by nearly one half. However, as we demonstrate by analysis of three-dimensional flight trajectories of a moth and a butterfly (Lymantria dispar and Pieris rapae), hindwing removal causes lepidopterans to incur a loss in both linear and turning acceleration, so that they are unable to exercise their normal flight maneuverability. Without hindwings they still are able to zigzag aerially (the ablation has no effect on their turning radius in flight) but at lesser speed and therefore less evasively. Consequently, hindwings in the expanded state in which they occur in lepidopterans seem to contribute in an essential way to lepidopteran survival. Moths in today's world, we argue, may rely on their evasive flight primarily to avoid capture by bats, whereas butterflies, which we propose advertise their evasiveness collectively through shared aposematism, may depend upon it primarily for defense against birds. Aerial agility thus may be the chief adaptive asset derived by lepidopterans from possession of oversize hindwings.