Insects Living With Extremes

Insects can be found on all the the world’s continents including Antarctica. The Antarctic is inhospitable to most insects. There is only one insect species that survives year round on Antarctica, the Chironomid Midge, Belgica antarctica. This tiny fly is only active during the Antarctic summer. When the temperatures warm to a balmy 4 degrees centigrade, (39 degrees Fahrenheit) the midge larvae become active. Food is not plentiful in Antarctica and the midges take two years to develop into adults. The midge is the largest permanent land animal in Antarctica. Other animals may visit in the summer, but do not stay the winter.

Mating Pair of Belgica antarctica
Photo: TasteOfCrayons (Wikipedia)

How does the midge survive freezing temperatures? When animals freeze, the water inside their cells and tissue expands (water expands when it freezes to ice) and for most animals, this causes irreparable damage. The midge, however, is capable of dehydrating its tissues and can survive temperatures of -15 degrees C (5 degrees Fahrenheit). The dehydration prevents ice crystals from damaging the insect. When the temperatures warm, the midge thaws, absorbs water from the environment and resumes feeding.

The adults, like most midges, are short lived. The adults mate and die. Interestingly, the adults are wingless. Flying typically will not take them to a better location and could easily land them in the ocean or on ice far from food and mates.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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43 Responses to Insects Living With Extremes

  1. Matt Sumner says:

    This is kind of crazy to think that they have literally adapted their bodies though evolution to actually dehydrate themselves just to live on a sheet of ice. Didn’t think anything could survive that cold!

  2. E. Kurtz says:

    To think that this tiny insect is the largest permanent land animal in Antartica is quite amazing! Also, it makes perfect sense given the climate why it takes them 2 years just to reach the adult stage. They literally live to reproduce–I mean, what else can they do in 15 degree weather?

  3. Z. Meng says:

    Didn’t think there is any insect in Antartica. The dehydrating ability is amazing! Crazy Evolution.

  4. Xiaoqing Sun says:

    It’s really exciting to know this kind of insect with special inside body structure as well as interesting life style. I love their bodies that can dehydrate and thaw freely, this is really an “advanced technique”. Staying in Antarctica permanently is already an impossible thing for a tiny insect, but the midge can still alive during the larvae period and adult period. Maybe mating exhausts their whole energy so they die after mating.It’s tough for midge to live but literally amazing to know that they spend 2 years to develop into adult and make contributions to breed the next generation. To some extent ,midge is a magical and great species.

  5. Marcus B. says:

    This article is very interesting. I did not know that there could be life on Antarctica year round. This adaptation that the midge has is very useful.

  6. Jason Wethington says:

    I find it amazing that the Chironomid Midge lives in Antartica when the temperatures are so cold all year. I think that it is very interesting that the Midge is able to dehydrate its tissues and prevent ice crystals from damaging it. When I think of the largest permanent land animals on each continent, the Midge would have never came across my mind! I also found it interesting that the Midge does not have wings. I would have thaught that it would so that it was able to travel. I believe that the Midge is a very intersting species!

  7. Natasha Schnell says:

    I thought that this article very interesting! It is fascinating that the midge is able to dehydrate its tissues and survive the extreme cold in Antarctica. I found it surprising that the insect is able to stay alive during its inactive months due to the fact that its tissues are dehydrated. The midge is a very interesting and unique insect!

  8. Audrey Johnson says:

    I think this is a prime example of how every species has to adapt and evolve to survive. The fact that they don’t have wings is very interesting. It’s fascinating that they can figure out how to evolve with such logical reasons behind it all. However, I don’t think they’ve mastered their skill of adapting quite yet, considering their short life cycle.

  9. Michael Hirschman says:

    Very interesting article. I find it strange how the midge lives, doesn’t sound like a pleasant life, having to freeze yourself does not sound like fun. This animal just goes to show how animals can adapt to their environment. Another area of the world where this is prevalent is the Galapagos Island off the coast of Ecuador. While I was there, I wasn’t looking at insects but there were plenty of other animals that have adapted, including the Marine Iguana, the only iguana in the world that will willingly get in the water for food.

    • Christopher ross says:

      Speaking on behalf of my midge friends: Having to dress in massive survival gear just to go outside, and to have to eat three times a day, and being at risk of death because you had no water for three days does not sound like fun. Poor humanoids! We will see how we adapt to OUR changing environment. I think it likely that there will still be midges on earth long after humans and their direct progeny are gone.

  10. Abby Guetzlaff says:

    What a great example of how a species can acclimate to their environment! The technique of dehydration is a fascinating adaptation method to be able to survive in such cold temperatures. However, if the weather drops below -15 degrees C, will the insect freeze and die? Or do they have another method of surviving through extremely cold temperatures (finding shelter, etc.)? Still very interesting!

  11. Mike M says:

    This article is a very interesting take on the Chironomid Midge. I found it particularly interesting how an insect can dehydrate itself to in order to freeze and thaw without any damage.

  12. Nicole Lugo says:

    The Chironomid Midge is a great example of how a species can adapt to an extreme environment. I had no idea such a tiny small organism could survive in such low temperatures. However, what would happen to the Midge if the temperature dropped lower than -15 degrees Celsius? Would it die or just be more difficult to dehydrate?

    • jjneal says:

      The lower the temperature, the lower the survival rate. They are resistant to low temperatures, but some temperatures are too low for recovery and they die below the minimum temperature.

  13. Madison Mashburn says:

    I was not aware that there was insect life in the Antarctic, the way the can dehydrate their bodies to survive from freezing to death and reabsorb the fluids once they thaw is very interesting. Evolution and adaption at its finest.

  14. Ben Bogaert says:

    This is an awesome example of how insects evolve according to their environments. I have two questions. Why is the Midge black if its surroundings are white? Standing out would make them very vulnerable to any seasonal animal that is looking for food. Also, how is the brain not damaged by a lack of oxygen?

    • jjneal says:

      The midge can turn off most of the metabolic activity in its cells when it goes into its cold protection mode. There is little demand for oxygen by the cells. Keep in mind that oxygen can reach the cells through trachea and does not require blood for transport.

  15. Yup Yu Shin says:

    This article is very interesting. I did not know that there is a insect in the Antarctic. Because I heard that a bacterium and a microbe cannot exist in the Antarctic, I thought that the insects cannot live in the Antarctic. Moreover, if the midges move to warm location, are they still going to take two years to develop into adults?

  16. Brett Windisch says:

    This article really interested me, because I didn’t even know any insects could live on Antarctica. I also have two questions. If these insects are so adaptive to their environment, what is their diet that allows them to be self sufficient? And also what do they do when they are not active, because it states they are only active during the Antarctic summer.

  17. Kevin Dann says:

    All I have to say is wow. I am in my first entomology class and I have learned a lot of very interesting things that I never knew. This post however, blew my mind. I never would have thought that an insect of all things would be the one permanent life in all of Antarctica. It is also very fascinating that this Midge actually freezes during the winter, but before it does it dehydrates itself so it will not damage the internal organs.

  18. Taylor Nelson says:

    Insects have some unique mutations that help them to live in strange places. This example is truly amazing. Being able to dehydrate its own body and rehydrate it with temperatures near to or below freezing year round is phenomenal. Though, it makes me think about the nature’s pattern. Most creatures have a predator that hunts them or competition that eats part of their food supply. Does this particular insect have either of those? And they are a fairly dark color so they wouldn’t have the greatest camouflage. So how would they hide? Simply burrowing in the snow or cracks in the ice?

  19. Ty Holmes says:

    I find it amazing that an insect can live in Antarctica year round. I did not think it was possible for any living organism could freeze during the winter and survive! The article states that the midge is the largest permanent land animal in Antarctica. It’s hard to believe that an insect is the largest land animal. What is the size of an adult Midge? You also stated that they don’t live long as adults. What is the average life span for an adult Midge?

  20. Tyler Guzik says:

    That is incredible in a few ways! First they can survive the most harsh climate on the Earth and that they are the largest land animal as a fly!!! I also find it fascinating that they can dehydrate their bodies just to adapt to the current habitat has in store for them.

  21. Zack Devereux says:

    This article describes how there are very little insects that live in Antarctica. The Chironomid Midge is a tiny fly that has the ability to survive in Antarctica year round. This insect has the ability to dehydrate its body. This unique skill allows the midge to survive without freezing to death in the winter. Once summer comes around, the midge then begins to absorb water into its tissues. After this process the midge can be active in the Antarctica summer.

  22. Simon Elser says:

    It amazes me that this insect can dehydrate itself so it has less water in its system when winter arrives, allowing it to halt freezing.

  23. Craig Rohrer says:

    Some insects have fascinating capabilities. Having the instinct to know when to dehydrate itself is quite amazing. Even though they die pretty soon after hitting the adult stage, they still don’t ever have to really worry about predators. I know resources are scare in Antarctica, but the luxury of knowing your safe from any other species should be quite soothing.

  24. Mike Troyer says:

    It’s defiantly amazing how the midge has adapted to live within the harsh climate of Antarctica. Not many organisms are able to dehydrate themselves in the winter and then rehydrate themselves when warmer temperatures arrive. The fact that the midge manages to stay alive during this dehydration by itself is amazing.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Reading about organisms like this midge make me question which animal is truly the dominant life form on earth. The ability to adapt to nearly every environment on the planet’s surface is an incredible feat unmatched by any other class of animal. In your blog though, you stated that this midge is the only terrestrial animal to overwinter on the cold desert of Antarctica, but don’t Emperor Penguins also overwinter as well? I believe they’re technically considered terrestrial despite feeding primarily in water.

  26. Kristi says:

    I found it amazing that these midges can survive in Antarctica and adapt to the weather with such extremely cold temperatures all year around. I was surprised that the midges did not have any wings. I would have thought that since they lived permanently in Antarctica they would be able to travel more efficiently. I was curious as to what they did when they are not active, but read that they are in a suspended animation during this time period. It also interested me that they live such a short life span of only a week or two. The Chironomid Midge is a very fascinating insect.

  27. Aubrie says:

    I think it is extremely cool that the midge is the largest permanent land animal in Antarctica. It’s crazy to think that these animals have adapted so well to the cold temperatures and everything that Antarctica has to offer. The fact that the midge lives there year round is incredible considering it does not have wings. The fact that the midge is able to dehydrate and re-hydrate itself for different times of the year is also something that is awesome to think about.

  28. Arletha says:

    Emperor penguins can dive up to 1,800 feet (550 meters) and swim at speeds of 6 to 9 miles (10 to 15 kilometers) an hour.
    Meanwhile, two marine crustaceans, Will the Krill
    (Brad Pitt) and Bill the Krill (Matt Damon), are debating whether they
    should try and climb a little higher up the food chain.
    It incorporates some substantive messages about supernatural beliefs and ecological concerns.

  29. Bolko says:

    Are they dark colored in order to absorb more sunlight and heat up quicker?

    ps. It surprises me how most of the comments are suspiciously similar one another. Is a troll involved?

    • jjneal says:

      The dark color to absorb heat from sunlight is a good guess. Generally dark insects have heavy sclerotization. They may have a thick hard cuticle as part of resistance to freezing.

      Not a troll. Mostly they are students in a class.

  30. Anonymous says:

    hmm

  31. Charles w says:

    Some species of penguin live in Antarctica all year around I also read that penguins have lice fleas and ticks so wouldn’t these insects also be there all year around?

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