Discontinuous gas exchange in insects: is it all in their heads?

Philip G D Matthews, C.R. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

44 Citations (Scopus)


Some insects display an intermittent pattern of gas exchange while at rest, often going hours between breaths. These discontinuous gas exchange cycles (DGCs) are known to have evolved independently within five insect orders, but their possible adaptive benefit and evolutionary origin remain an enigma. Current research is primarily concerned with testing three adaptive hypotheses: that DGCs originally evolved or are currently maintained to (1) limit respiratory water loss, (2) enhance gas exchange in subterranean environments, or (3) limit oxidative damage. These adaptive explanations fail to unite a range of apparently contradictory observations regarding the insects that display DGCs and the conditions under which they occur. Here we argue that DGCs are explained by circadian, developmental, or artificially induced reductions in brain activity. We conclude that this pattern results from the thoracic and abdominal ganglia regulating ventilation in the absence of control from higher neural centers, and it is indicative of a sleeplike state.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-134
Number of pages5
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Brain
  • DGC (discontinuous gas exchange cycle)
  • Evolution
  • Insect respiration
  • Periodic ventilation
  • Sleep

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