Subphylum Hexapoda


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OpenStax Biology 2e

The insects comprise the largest class of arthropods in terms of species diversity as well as in terms of biomass—at least in terrestrial habitats.

The name Hexapoda describes the presence of six legs (three pairs) in these animals, which differentiates them from other groups of arthropods that have different numbers of legs. In some cases, however, the number of legs has been evolutionarily reduced, or the legs have been highly modified to accommodate specific conditions, such as endoparasitism. Hexapod bodies are organized into three tagmata: head, thorax, and abdomen. Individual segments of the head have mouthparts derived from jointed legs, and the thorax has three pairs of jointed appendages, and also wings, in most derived groups. For example, in the pterygotes (winged insects), in addition to a pair of jointed legs on all three segments comprising the thorax: prothorax, mesothorax, and metathorax.

Appendages found on other body segments are also evolutionarily derived from modified legs. Typically, the head bears an upper “lip” or labrum and mandibles (or derivation of mandibles) that serve as mouthparts; maxillae, and a lower “lip” called a labium: both of which manipulate food. The head also has one pair of sensory antennae, as well as sensory organs such as a pair of compound eyes, ocelli (simple eyes), and numerous sensory hairs. The abdomen usually has 11 segments and bears external reproductive apertures. The subphylum Hexapoda includes some insects that are winged (such as fruit flies) and others that are secondarily wingless (such as fleas). The only order of “primitively wingless” insects is the Thysanura, the bristletails. All other orders are winged or are descendants of formally winged insects.

The evolution of wings is a major, unsolved mystery. Unlike vertebrates, whose “wings” are simply preadaptations of “arms” that served as the structural foundations for the evolution of functional wings (this has occurred independently in pterosaurs, dinosaurs [birds], and bats), the evolution of wings in insects is a what we call a de novo (new) development that has given the pteryogotes domination over the Earth. Winged insects existed over 425 million years ago, and by the Carboniferous, several orders of winged insects (Paleoptera), most of which are now extinct, had evolved. There is good physical evidence that Paleozoic nymphs with thoracic winglets (perhaps hinged, former gill covers of semi-aquatic species) used these devices on land to elevate the thoracic temperature (the thorax is where the legs are located) to levels that would enable them to escape predators faster, find more food resources and mates, and disperse more easily. The thoracic winglets (which can be found on fossilized insects preceding the advent of truly winged insects) could have easily been selected for thermoregulatory purposes prior to reaching a size that would have allowed them the capacity for gliding or actual flapping flight. Even modern insects with broadly attached wings, such as butterflies, use the basal one-third of their wings (the area next to the thorax) for thermoregulation, and the outer two-thirds for flight, camouflage, and mate selection.

Many of the common insects we encounter on a daily basis—including ants, beetles, cockroaches, butterflies, crickets and flies—are examples of Hexapoda. Among these, adult ants, beetles, flies, and butterflies develop by complete metamorphosis from grub-like or caterpillar-like larvae, whereas adult cockroaches and crickets develop through a gradual or incomplete metamorphosis from wingless immatures. All growth occurs during the juvenile stages. Adults do not grow further (but may become larger) after their final molt. Variations in wing, leg, and mouthpart morphology all contribute to the enormous variety seen in the insects. Insect variability was also encouraged by their activity as pollinators and their coevolution with flowering plants. Some insects, especially termites, ants, bees, and wasps, are eusocial, meaning that they live in large groups with individuals assigned to specific roles or castes, like queen, drone, and worker. Social insects use pheromones—external chemical signals—to communicate and maintain group structure as well as a cohesive colony.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: