Tracheal Breathing

Insects, and some other invertebrates, exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide between their tissues and the air by a system of air-filled tubes called tracheae.

Tracheae open to the outside through small holes called spiracles. In the grasshopper, the first and third segments of the thorax have a spiracle on each side. Another 8 pairs of spiracles are arranged in a line on either side of the abdomen.

The spiracles are guarded by

Spiracles open into large tracheal tubes. These, in turn, lead to ever-finer branches. The branches penetrate to every part of the body. At their extreme ends, called tracheoles, they may be less than 1 µm in diameter, and are probably filled with liquid. Every cell in the insect's body is adjacent to, or very close to, the end of a tracheole.

This photomicrograph show how the walls of the tracheal tubes are stiffened with bands of chitin. Even so, there is a limit to the pressure they can withstand without collapsing. This may be one reason why insects are relatively small. The increased weight of the tissues of an animal the size of a rabbit, for example, would crush tracheal tubes filled only with air.


Ventilation of the Tracheal System

Among the smaller or less active insects, gas exchange though the tracheal system is by simple diffusion.

However, water vapor as well as carbon dioxide diffuses out of the animal, and this could pose a problem in dry environments. Drosophila avoids the risk by controlling the size of the opening of its spiracles to match the need of its flight muscles for oxygen. When oxygen demand is less, it partially closes its spiracles thus conserving body water. (See Fritz-Olaf Lehmann's report in the 30 November 2001 issue of Science).

Large, active insects like grasshoppers, forcibly ventilate their tracheae. Contraction of muscles in the abdomen compresses the internal organs and forces air out of the tracheae. As the muscles relax, the abdomen springs back to its normal volume and air is drawn in. Large air sacs attached to portions of the main tracheal tubes increase the effectiveness of this bellowslike action.

The experiment illustrated (first performed by the insect physiologist Gottfried Fraenkel) shows that there is a one-way flow of air through the grasshopper. The liquid seals in the tubing move to the right as air enters the spiracles in the thorax and is discharged through the spiracles in the abdomen. The rubber diaphragm seals the thorax from the abdomen.

The one-way flow of air increases the efficiency of gas exchange as CO2-enriched air can be expelled without mingling with the incoming flow of fresh air.

Gas Exchange in Aquatic Insects

Even aquatic insects use a tracheal system for gas exchange.
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12 May 2011