Tracheal branching in ants is area-decreasing, violating a central assumption of network transport models

Ian J. Aitkenhead, Grant A. Duffy, Citsabehsan Devendran, Michael R. Kearney, Adrian Neild, Steven L. Chown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


The structure of tubular transport networks is thought to underlie much of biological regularity, from individuals to ecosystems. A core assumption of transport network models is either area-preserving or area-increasing branching, such that the summed cross-sectional area of all child branches is equal to or greater than the cross-sectional area of their respective parent branch. For insects, the most diverse group of animals, the assumption of area-preserving branching of tracheae is, however, based on measurements of a single individual and an assumption of gas exchange by diffusion. Here we show that ants exhibit neither area-preserving nor area-increasing branching in their abdominal tracheal systems. We find for 20 species of ants that the sum of child tracheal cross-sectional areas is typically less than that of the parent branch (area-decreasing). The radius, rather than the area, of the parent branch is conserved across the sum of child branches. Interpretation of the tracheal system as one optimized for the release of carbon dioxide, while readily catering to oxygen demand, explains the branching pattern. Our results, together with widespread demonstration that gas exchange in insects includes, and is often dominated by, convection, indicate that for generality, network transport models must include consideration of systems with different architectures.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1007853
Number of pages15
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2020


  • ants
  • insects
  • carbon dioxide
  • radii
  • network analysis
  • fluid dynamics
  • spiracles
  • synchrotrons

Cite this