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Thursday, January 21, 2010

How do insects survive in a frigid climate?

Have you ever wondered about other animals and life forms on our planet? How about insects like the one pictured above?

Of course you have. If you live in a frigid climate such as I do (Canada), then survival for many species of life, takes on new meaning. There are some remarkable ways in which life forms survive the harsh winters in Canada.

I learned how insects survive our winters when I took a course in entomology at the University of Alberta here in Edmonton. Our professor, Dr. Hemming, fascinated all of us when he told us that some insects actually make what scientists consider to be an "antifreeze" in their bodies,so their blood and critical aspects of their body do not freeze solid in the cold winters of Canada.

Why am I telling you this? Because when browsing the online edition of the  New York Times today, I came upon and article entitled "When Built-In Antifreeze Beats a Winter Coat", which you can read by clicking on the following link:

In this article, Sean B. Carroll, a molecular biologist and geneticist, who has authored a book entitled, " “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species.” states:

"The threat to life at low temperatures is not really cold, but ice. With cells and bodies composed mostly of water, ice is potentially lethal because its formation disrupts the balance between the fluids outside and inside of cells, which leads to their shrinkage and irreversible damage to tissues."

"Insects have therefore evolved all sorts of ways to avoid freezing. One strategy is to escape winter altogether. Butterflies like the monarch migrate south. A great solution, but this is a relatively rare capability. Most insects remain in their local habitat and must find some other way to avoid freezing. They evade the ice by crawling into holes or burrows below the snow cover and frost line, or, as some insect larvae do, by overwintering on the bottoms of lakes and ponds that do not completely freeze."

"But many insects, and other animals, defend themselves against direct exposure to subfreezing temperatures through biochemical ingenuity, by producing antifreeze."

"The first animal antifreezes were identified several decades ago in the blood plasma of Antarctic fish by Arthur DeVries, now at the University of Illinois, and his colleagues.

"The ocean around Antarctica is very cold, about 29 degrees Fahrenheit. It is salty enough to stay liquid several degrees below the freezing temperature of fresh water. The abundant ice particles floating in these waters are a hazard to fish because, if ingested, they can initiate ice formation in the gut and then — bang, you have frozen fish sticks. Unless something prevents the ice crystals from growing.That is what the fish antifreeze proteins do. The tissues and bloodstream of about 120 species of fish belonging to the Notothenioidei family are full of antifreeze. These proteins have an unusual repeating structure that allows them to bind to ice crystals and to lower the minimum temperature at which the crystals can grow to about 28 degrees. That is just a bit below the minimum temperature of the Southern Ocean and about two full degrees lower than the freezing point of fish plasma that does not have antifreeze. This small margin of protection has had profound consequences. Antifreeze-bearing fish now dominate Antarctic waters."

"But insect innovation goes beyond antifreeze. Biologists have discovered another strategy for coping with extreme cold: some bugs just tolerate freezing."

In the most northern climates, like the interior of Alaska, midwinter temperatures fall as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and snow cover and subzero temperatures can last until May. At these extreme temperatures, most insects are bugsicles. The Alaskan Upis beetle, for example, freezes at around minus 19 degrees. But, remarkably, it can survive exposure to temperatures as low as about minus 100 degrees.
To tolerate freezing, it is crucial that insects minimize the damage that freezing (and thawing) would normally cause.
Insects have evolved a variety of cryoprotective substances. As winter approaches, many freeze-tolerant insects produce high concentrations of glycerol and other kinds of alcohol molecules. These substances don’t prevent freezing, but they slow ice formation and allow the fluids surrounding cells to freeze in a more controlled manner while the contents of the cells remain unfrozen.
For maximum protection, some Arctic insects use a combination of such cryoprotectants and antifreezes to control ice formation, to protect cells and to prevent refreezing as they thaw.

To read the remainder of this article please click on the following link:

Time for another question, Can you name the largest land animal in Antarctica?
You can learn the answer to this question by clicking on the following link:

You can learn more about how insects survive harsh winter climates by reading the information provided at the following websites:

Here are two interesting videos which show how some insects survive harsh winters:

Mantids overwinter as eggs in foam cases.
Photo: © Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,

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Thoughts worth thinking about

"Our subconscious minds have no sense of humor, play no jokes and cannot tell the difference between reality and an imagined thought or image. What we continually think about eventually will manifest in our lives."-Sidney Madwed

Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every woman and man present their views without penalty, there must be spirit of tolerance in the entire population.- Albert Einstein Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. - Leo Buscaglia

A person's true wealth is the good he or she does in the world. - Mohammed

Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty. -Albert Einstein

The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others. - Ghandi

The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves. - Helen Keller

Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person. - Dr. David M. Burns

Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures. -His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it. -

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That's the essence of inhumanity. -George Bernard Shaw

Ego's trick is to make us lose sight of our interdependence. That kind of ego-thought gives us a perfect justification to look out only for ourselves. But that is far from the truth. In reality we all depend on each other and we have to help each other. The husband has to help his wife, the wife has to help the husband, the mother has to help her children, and the children are supposed to help the parents too, whether they want to or not.-Gehlek Rinpoche Source: "The Best Buddhist Writing 2005 pg. 165

The hostile attitude of conquering nature ignores the basic interdependence of all things and events---that the world beyond the skin is actually an extension of our own bodies---and will end in destroying the very environment from which we emerge and upon which our whole life depends.