Oxygen-sensitive flight metabolism in the dragonfly erythemis simplicicollis

Jon Harrison, John R B Lighton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Insect flight metabolism is completely aerobic, and insect resting metabolism is quite insensitive to atmospheric oxygen level, suggesting a large safety margin in the capacity of the tracheal system to deliver oxygen during flight. We tested the sensitivity of flight initiation and metabolism to atmospheric oxygen level in the libellulid dragonfly Erythemis (Mesothemis) simplicicollis using flow-through respirometric measurements of the rate of CO2 emission (̇(CO2)). Flight initiations were unimpaired in atmospheric oxygen levels as low as 10 %. However, flight metabolic rate was affected by ambient oxygen level. Flight ̇(CO2) decreased in hypoxic mixtures (5kPa or 10kPa oxygen) and increased in hyperoxic atmospheres (30 kPa or 50kPa oxygen), suggesting that ambient oxygen level influences flight muscle oxygen partial pressure (PO2) and the vigour of flight. These are the first data to show oxygen-limitation of flight metabolism in a free-flying insect. A low safety margin for oxygen delivery during dragonfly flight is consistent with a previous hypothesis that atmospheric hyperoxia facilitated gigantism in Paleozoic protodonates. However, allometric studies of tracheal morphology, and mechanisms and capacity of gas exchange in extant insects are necessary in order to test the hypothesis that the oxygen-sensitivity of aerobic metabolism increases with body size in insects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1739-1744
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 1998


  • Atmospheric composition
  • Dragonfly
  • Erythemis simplicicollis
  • Flight
  • Metabolism
  • Oxygen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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