Survival strategies of freshwater insects in cold environments

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Valeria LENCIONI *
(*) Corresponding Author:
Valeria LENCIONI |


At high latitudes and altitudes, ice formation is a major variable affecting survival of freshwater fauna and hence the abundance and composition of invertebrate communities. Freezing, but also desiccation and anoxia, are lethal threats to all life stages of aquatic insects, from the eggs to the adults. During cold periods, the aquatic stages commonly remain in or move to a portion of the water body that will not freeze or dry (e.g., deep waters of lakes, springs and hyporheic zone) where they can remain active. Less frequently they migrate to habitats that will freeze at the onset of winter. Insects have developed a complex of strategies to survive at their physiological temperature minimum, comprising (a) morphological (melanism, reduction in size, hairiness/pubescence, brachyptery and aptery), (b) behavioural (basking in the sun, changes in feeding and mating habit, parthenogenesis, polyploidy, ovoviviparity, habitat selection and cocoon building), (c) ecological (extension of development to several years by quiescence or diapause and reduction of the number of generations per year), (d) physiological and biochemical (freezing tolerance and freezing avoidance) adaptations. Most species develop a combination of these survival strategies that can be different in the aquatic and terrestrial phase. Freezing avoidance and freezing tolerance may be accompanied by diapause. Both cold hardiness and diapause manifest during the unfavourable season and: (i) involve storage of food resources (commonly glycogen and lipids); (ii) are under hormonal control (ecdysone and juvenile hormone); (iii) involve a depression or suppression of the oxidative metabolism with mitochondrial degradation. However, where the growing season is reduced to a few weeks, insects may develop cold hardiness without entering diapause, maintaining in the haemolymph a high concentration of Thermal Hysteris Proteins (THPs) for the entire year and a slow but continuous growth. A synthesis of literature regarding adaptation strategies in aquatic insects is presented, highlighting the scarcity of information on freshwater insects from Alpine regions. Most references are on Diptera Chironomidae from North America and North Europe. Some recent findings on aquatic insects from Italian Alpine streams are also presented.

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