Miniature insects must overcome significant viscous resistance in order to fly. They typically possess wings with long bristles on the fringes and use a clap-and-fling mechanism to augment lift. These unique solutions to the extreme conditions of flight at tiny sizes (<2 mm body length) suggest that natural selection has optimized wing design for better aerodynamic performance. However, species vary in wingspan, number of bristles (n) and bristle gap (G) to diameter (D) ratio (G/D). How this variation relates to body length (BL) and its effects on aerodynamics remain unknown. We measured forewing images of 38 species of thrips and 21 species of fairyflies. Our phylogenetic comparative analyses showed that n and wingspan scaled positively and similarly with BL across both groups, whereas G/D decreased with BL, with a sharper decline in thrips. We next measured aerodynamic forces and visualized flow on physical models of bristled wings performing clap-and-fling kinematics at a chord-based Reynolds number of 10 using a dynamically scaled robotic platform. We examined the effects of dimensional (G, D, wingspan) and non-dimensional (n, G/D) geometric variables on dimensionless lift and drag. We found that: (1) increasing G reduced drag more than decreasing D; (2) changing n had minimal impact on lift generation; and (3) varying G/D minimally affected aerodynamic forces. These aerodynamic results suggest little pressure to functionally optimize n and G/D. Combined with the scaling relationships between wing variables and BL, much wing variation in tiny flying insects might be best explained by underlying shared growth factors.

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