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Has climate change affected a bug that can stay frozen for 9 months? This UK researcher will find out

Nick Teets (left) and Leslie Potts (right) on a 2018 trip to Antarctica. The two are now part of an international research team, being led by Teets, that are going to study Antarctic midges, which are one of three insects that are able to withstand the harshly cold climate..
Nick Teets (left) and Leslie Potts (right) on a 2018 trip to Antarctica. The two are now part of an international research team, being led by Teets, that are going to study Antarctic midges, which are one of three insects that are able to withstand the harshly cold climate.. photo provided.

An international team of researchers have decided to take on studying Antarctic insects, and the team is being lead by a University of Kentucky researcher.

Nick Teets works in UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment as an entomologist. There, he has been studying midges, a type of insect that inhabits Antarctica. His international research team includes scientists from the United Kingdom, France and Chile. It also includes UK entomology doctoral student Leslie Potts, the Lexington Living Arts and Science Center’s Debbie Harner, researchers from Hendrix College and Ohio State University.

The scientists from the United Kingdom had received $375,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council for this project, UK public relations reported. Now, the research team has received a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the insect.

Three species of midges are currently known as the only insects that are able to withstand the harshly cold climate of the Antarctic: the Parochlus (genus name), the Murphyi and the Antarctic midge. According to a UK press release, “It is the only insect species that is endemic to the continent and the largest terrestrial animal that spends its entire life there.”

Teets studies one of the species of midges, the Antarctic midge, while the other scientists on the team, particularly the scientists from the United Kingdom, are experts in studying the Murphyi which are found in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. The Murphyi are an invasive species to the continent. The group of scientists will leave for Antarctica in February.

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Pictured are the larvae of midges (left) and adult (right) midges. The insect is the only known insect able to inhabit the harsh climate of Antarctica. Rick Lee photo provided.

They are also going to be looking at a species found in South America, the Halirytus Nageloanicus. Together, they are going to compare the different species of the insect by collecting midges from more diverse portions of the continent, such as the coast which is warmer than other portions of the area.

Teets has been studying the Antarctic midge for about 14 years. He has taken an interest in the midge due to its ability to survive the harsh temperatures on a mainly inhabitable continent. The midge will stay frozen solid for nine months of the year and can lose up to 70 percent of their water during that time and still survive. Now, Teets is studying to see how climate changes on the continent are affecting the insect species which has adapted to the cold environment.

“I’ve always been interested in life at the extremes,” Teets said. “...And here’s an insect that is one of the most, if not the most, stress tolerant of its time.”

According to NASA, ice sheets in Antarctica have been gradually losing mass since 2002. Since 2009, this process of ice degradation has accelerated.

“Evidence from previous studies shows the Antarctic midge has survived on the continent since the beginning,” Teets said in a release. “They are a good model for us to learn about the history of Antarctica and a good model for scientists to predict how the continent will respond to climate change.”

They will also be studying DNA and genetic codes and how these particular midges become adapted to extreme environments compared to other midges and insects. Some of their team will go on an oceanographic research vesicle along the Antarctic area to collect midge samples to study.

“We’ll be able to look for midges and other arthropods that maybe haven’t been discovered yet,” Teets said.

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