The Tracheal System And Gas Exchange

In common with all aerobic animals, insects must obtain oxygen from their environment and eliminate carbon dioxide respired by their cells. This is gas exchange, distinguished from respiration, which strictly refers to oxygen-consuming, cellular metabolic processes. In almost all insects, gas exchange occurs by means of internal air-filled tracheae. These tubes branch and ramify through the body (Fig. 3.10). The finest branches contact all internal organs and tissues, and are especially numerous in tissues with high oxygen requirements. Air usually enters the tracheae via spiracular openings that are positioned laterally on the body, primitively with one pair per post-cephalic segment. No extant insect has more than 10 pairs (two thoracic and eight abdominal) (Fig. 3.11a), most have eight or nine, and some have one (Fig. 3.11c), two, or none (Fig. 3.11d-f). Typically, spiracles (Fig. 3.10a) have a chamber, or atrium, with an opening-and-closing mechanism, or valve, either projecting externally or at the inner end of the atrium. In the latter type, a filter apparatus sometimes protects the outer opening. Each spiracle may be set in a sclerotized cuticular plate called a peritreme.

The tracheae are invaginations of the epidermis and thus their lining is continuous with the body cuticle. The characteristic ringed appearance of the tracheae seen in tissue sections (as in Fig. 3.7) is due to the spiral ridges or thickenings of the cuticular lining, the taeni-dia, which allow the tracheae to be flexible but resist compression (analogous to the function of the ringed hose of a vacuum cleaner). The cuticular linings of the tracheae are shed with the rest of the exoskeleton when the insect molts. Usually even the linings of the finest branches of the tracheal system are shed at ecdysis but linings of the fluid-filled blind endings, the tracheoles, may or may not be shed. Tracheoles are less than 1 |lm in diameter and closely contact the respiring tissues (Fig. 3.10b), sometimes indenting into the cells that they supply. However, the tracheae that supply oxygen to the ovaries of many insects have very few tracheoles, the taenidia are weak or absent, and the tracheal surface is evaginated as tubular spirals projecting into the hemolymph. These aptly named aeriferous tracheae

Level Immaturity
Fig. 3.10 Schematic diagram of a generalized tracheal system seen in a transverse section of the body at the level of a pair of abdominal spiracles. Enlargements show: (a) an atriate spiracle with closing valve at inner end of atrium; (b) tracheoles running to a muscle fiber. (After Snodgrass 1935.)

have a highly permeable surface that allows direct aeration of the surrounding hemolymph from tracheae that may exceed 50 ^m in diameter.

In terrestrial and many aquatic insects the tracheae open to the exterior via the spiracles (an open tracheal system) (Fig. 3.11a-c). In contrast, in some aquatic and many endoparasitic larvae spiracles are absent (a closed tracheal system) and the tracheae divide

Fig. 3.11 Some basic variations in the open (a-c) and closed (d-f) tracheal systems of insects. (a) Simple tracheae with valved spiracles, as in cockroaches.

(b) Tracheae with mechanically ventilated air sacs, as in honey bees. (c) Metapneustic system with only terminal spiracles functional, as in mosquito larvae. (d) Entirely closed tracheal system with cutaneous gas exchange, as in most endoparasitic larvae. (e) Closed tracheal system with abdominal tracheal gills, as in mayfly nymphs. (f) Closed tracheal system with rectal tracheal gills, as in dragonfly nymphs. (After Wigglesworth 1972; details in (a) after Richards & Davies 1977, (b) after Snodgrass 1956,

(c) after Snodgrass 1935, (d) after Wigglesworth 1972.)

peripherally to form a network. This covers the general body surface (allowing cutaneous gas exchange) (Fig. 3.11d) or lies within specialized filaments or lamellae (tracheal gills) (Fig. 3.11e,f). Some aquatic insects with an open tracheal system carry gas gills with them (e.g. bubbles of air); these may be temporary or permanent (section 10.3.4).

The volume of the tracheal system ranges between 5% and 50% of the body volume depending on species and stage of development. The more active the insect, the more extensive is the tracheal system. In many insects, parts of tracheae are dilated or enlarged to increase the reservoir of air, and in some species the dilations form air sacs (Fig. 3.11b), which collapse readily because the taenidia of the cuticular lining are reduced or absent. Sometimes the tracheal volume may decrease within a developmental stage as air sacs are occluded by growing tissues. Air sacs reach their greatest development in very active flying insects, such as bees and cyclorrhaphous Diptera. They may assist flight by increasing buoyancy, but their main function is in ventilation of the tracheal system.

3.5.1 Diffusion and ventilation

Oxygen enters the spiracle, passes through the length of the tracheae to the tracheoles and into the target cells by a combination of ventilation and diffusion along a concentration gradient, from high in the external air to low in the tissue. Whereas the net movement of oxygen molecules in the tracheal system is inward, the net movement of carbon dioxide and (in terrestrial insects) water vapor molecules is outward. Hence gas exchange in most terrestrial insects is a compromise between securing sufficient oxygen and reducing water loss via the spiracles. During periods of inactivity, the spiracles in many insects are kept closed most of the time, opening only periodically. In insects of xeric environments, the spiracles may be small with deep atria or have a mesh of cuticular projections in the orifice.

In insects without air sacs, such as most holome-tabolous larvae, diffusion appears to be the primary mechanism for the movement of gases in the tracheae and is always the sole mode of gas exchange at the tissues. The efficiency of diffusion is related to the distance of diffusion and perhaps to the diameter of the tracheae (Box 3.2). Recently, rapid cycles of tracheal compression and expansion have been observed in the head and thorax of some insects using X-ray videoing. Movements of the hemolymph and body could not explain these cycles, which appear to be a new mechanism of gas exchange in insects. In addition, large or dilated tracheae may serve as an oxygen reserve when the spiracles are closed. In very active insects, especially large ones, active pumping movements of the thorax and/or abdomen ventilate (pump air through) the outer parts of the tracheal system and so the diffusion pathway to the tissues is reduced. Rhythmic thoracic movements and/or dorsoventral flattening or telescoping of the abdomen expels air, via the spiracles, from extensible or some partially compressible tracheae or from air sacs. Co-ordinated opening and closing of the spiracles usually accompanies ventilatory movements and provides the basis for the unidirectional air flow that occurs in the main tracheae of larger insects. Anterior spiracles open during inspiration and posterior ones open during expiration. The presence of air sacs, especially if large or extensive, facilitates ventilation by increasing the volume of tidal air that can be changed as a result of ventilatory movements. If the main tracheal branches are strongly ventilated, diffusion appears sufficient to oxygenate even the most actively respiring tissues, such as flight muscles. However, the design of the gas-exchange system of insects places an upper limit on size because, if oxygen has to diffuse over a considerable distance, the requirements of a very large and active insect either could not be met, even with ventilatory movements and compression and expansion of tracheae, or would result in substantial loss of water through the spiracles. Interestingly, many large insects are long and thin, thereby minimizing the diffusion distance from the spiracle along the trachea to any internal organ.


Insects of different groups consume an astonishing variety of foods, including watery xylem sap (e.g. nymphs of spittle bugs and cicadas), vertebrate blood (e.g. bed bugs and female mosquitoes), dry wood (e.g. some termites), bacteria and algae (e.g. black fly and many caddisfly larvae), and the internal tissues of other insects (e.g. endoparasitic wasp larvae). The diverse range of mouthpart types (section 2.3.1) correlates with the diets of different insects, but gut structure and function also reflect the mechanical properties and the nutrient composition of the food eaten. Four major feeding specializations can be identified depending on whether the food is solid or liquid or of plant or animal origin (Fig. 3.12). Some insect species clearly fall into a single category, but others with generalized diets may fall between two or more of them, and most endoptery-gotes will occupy different categories at different stages of their life (e.g. moths and butterflies switch from solidplant as larvae to liquid-plant as adults). Gut morphology and physiology relate to these dietary differences in the following ways. Insects that take solid food typically have a wide, straight, short gut with strong musculature and obvious protection from abrasion (especially in the midgut, which has no cuticular lining). These features are most obvious in solid-feeders with rapid throughput of food as in plant-feeding caterpillars. In contrast, insects feeding on blood, sap, or nectar usually have long, narrow, convoluted guts to allow maximal contact with the liquid food; here, protection from

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