A leading hypothesis for the origin of insect wings is that they evolved from thoracic gills that were serial homologues of the abdominal gills present in fossil pterygotes and in the nymphs of some modern mayflies, damselflies and stoneflies. Co-occurrence of thoracic wings and abdominal gills is the primitive condition for fossil pterygote insects, whereas the winged stage of modern insects almost exclusively lacks abdominal gills. Here we examine the locomotor behaviour and gill morphology of a stonefly, Diamphipnopsis samali (Plecoptera), which retains abdominal gills in the winged adult stage. This species can fly, but also uses its forewings as oars to accomplish rowing locomotion along the surface of water. The abdominal gills are in contact with both air and water during rowing, and their elaborately folded surface suggests an ability to contribute to gas-exchange. D. samali nymphs also have behaviours that place them in locations where their gills are exposed to air; they forage at night at the stream margin and within bubble curtains in rapids. These traits may exemplify an early pterygote condition in which gill and protowing function overlapped in an amphibious setting during a transition from aquatic to aerial locomotion and gas exchange. Rowing locomotion provides a novel and mechanically intermediate stage for the wings-from-gills and surface-skimming hypotheses for the origin of insect wings and flight. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2003, 79, 341–349.