Some Insects Can Go Without Breathing

by Alex Lee, age 13

There are many types of insects that can go for periods of time without breathing. For example, a cockroach can hold its breath for several minutes, and a moth pupa can go several hours.

One common feature among all insects with this strange ability is that they have relatively large, complex brain structures. The breathing behavior they use is called discontinuous gas exchange. Insects that use this process do so when they are resting.  

“If you’ve got a big brain, it’s costly to run,” said Dr. Philip Matthews, a physiologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and the study’s lead author. “If you go into a sleeplike state, you can save energy.”

When these bugs are sleeping, they stop breathing. This period of rest is followed by a series of short breaths, and then one long breath.  Dr. Matthews and a colleague, Craig White, researched and studied various insect species with this peculiarity. They discovered that when an insect’s brain is removed, it displays discontinuous breathing patterns. It appears that insects have a nerve cord made of ganglia, a collection of nerve cells that act like a mini-brain sending a message to breathe. If the brain is removed, the ganglia replace the breathing activity.

Some scientists have hypothesized that insects use this unusual breathing pattern to retain water.

[Source: The New York Times]