Antarctic Midges: Insects of the South Pole

Penguins aren’t the only animals who call Antarctica home. Why insects are one of those other animals, though, I’ll never know. Thanks to @tdederichs on Unsplash for this cute photo!

Welcome to December everybody – I don’t know how we made it, but somehow we did. Here we are! December 2020.

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Speaking of fun, here’s a fun fact: did you know that insects have populated every continent on the planet? Strange but true!

I know, I know – you’re probably thinking, “but ArthroBlogger, there aren’t any insects in Antarctica,” and to that I am surprised to say that you’re wrong: there is actually one species of insect that makes its home amongst the penguins. I don’t know why it’s there, but it’s there nonetheless.

Allow me to introduce you to the Antarctic midge. If you thought cat beetles were tough, you haven’t seen anything yet. For example, cat beetles can live for a half an hour without breathing – Antarctic midges can do that for a whole month.

The resilience of these flightless (why can’t anything in Antarctica fly?) hexapods doesn’t stop there: in addition to their breath-holding shenanigans, Antarctic midges are also incredibly resistant to changes in pH and salinity, and can survive extreme dehydration. They also practice a skill called rapid cold hardening that allows them to transform into arthropodan ice cubes when the temperature drops below freezing, which as you can imagine is a good chunk of the year in Antarctica.

To say that Antarctic midges don’t really do much would be an understatement. Aside from the fact that they spend over three fourths of the year as popsicles, Antarctic midges are also larvae for most of their lives and only live for one week as adults. So not only do they spend most of their time frozen solid, but when they’re actually mobile they typically can only wriggle around a little and just do larva things. How thrilling.

Adult midges themselves are fairly ordinary in design with skinny bodies and dark exoskeletons. It is believed they don’t have wings because being airborne could mean getting blown into the ocean or far away from other midges. So, instead of flying around during their precious week of adulthood, Antarctic midges spend their time eating, mating and laying eggs.

Don’t let their chill (ha) vibes fool you into thinking Antarctic midges are boring, though. Because penguins are actually considered marine animals, Antarctic midges are actually the largest land animals on the Antarctic continent. As if that wasn’t ironic enough, these insects are barely 6mm long. To make things even more interesting, Antarctic midges actually have the smallest genome of any known animal at only 9 million base pairs. For comparison, humans have 3.2 billion base pairs in our genomes. Nitrogenous bases are what make up our DNA, so basically what all this means is that Antarctic midges have tiny DNA strands. They’re about as non-complex as you can get, yet they live in one of the harshest environments on the planet. It’s wacky.

Antarctic midges would be great at quarantining with the whole freezing-and-not-moving-for-months ordeal – in fact, they could probably just hold their breath all the time and not even need to wear masks when they go grocery shopping for algae and penguin poop. It’s like they’ve been preparing for the pandemic all their lives.

…And the fact that humans do not possess these qualities means a lot of us are kind of fed up with the coronavirus as of the beginning.

To everyone who feels like the walls are closing in, I get it. To everyone who has lost someone or multiple people to the virus, I am so very sorry for your loss – it really isn’t fair. To everyone who’s battling it now or waiting for test results to come back, hang in there. Keep praying. Keep smiling. Keep living life to the fullest – I’m not saying pretend the pandemic isn’t happening and go crazy, but remember that you’re still alive and do something with that knowledge.

We’re not midges.

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