X-ray of the beetle Platynus decentis (Photo: Mark Westneat)
Reading Beetles breathe similarly to humans, although they have no lungs. This is what American scientists found out with the help of particularly strong X-rays. Mark Westneat of the Museum of Natural History in Chicago and his colleagues in the journal Science (vol. 299, p. 58) report on their results. Instead of lungs, insects have an inner tube system, the so-called tracheids, in which oxygen is exchanged by slow, passive mechanisms. The study by American scientists shows for the first time that various types of insects also breathe through rapid, rhythmic contraction and expansion of the ribcage and the head. Beetles, ants and crickets exchange about fifty percent of the air in their main trachea tubes about every second. This corresponds approximately to the oxygen exchange of a physically active person.

So far, movements in the body of living insects could not be visualized. This was only possible with the help of a synchrotron, a large particle accelerator that can accelerate electrons to very high speeds. The synchrotron used by the researchers is located in the University of Chicago-operated Argonne National Laboratory. The device can produce X-rays that are more than a billion times stronger than those of a standard X-ray source. This allows moving video sequences to be recorded.

The new method could make it possible to learn more about a range of body functions in insects, but also in fish and mammals. For example, researchers are investigating the blood vessels and heartbeat of beetles or the movements of the backbone of fish larvae.

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