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Taxon-restricted genes make up a considerable proportion of genomes, yet their contribution to phenotypic evolution is poorly understood. We combined gene expression with functional and behavioral assays to study the origin and adaptive value of an evolutionary innovation exclusive to the water strider genus Rhagovelia: the propelling fan. We discovered that two taxon-restricted genes, which we named geisha and mother-of-geisha, specifically control fan development. geisha originated through a duplication event at the base of the Rhagovelia lineage, and both duplicates acquired a novel expression in a specific cell population prefiguring fan development. These gene duplicates played a central role in Rhagovelia’s adaptation to a new physical environment, demonstrating that the evolution of taxon-restricted genes can contribute directly to evolutionary novelties that allow access to unexploited ecological niches.