Water loss in insects: An environmental change perspective

24 November 2011

In the context of global environmental change much of the focus has been on changing temperatures. However, patterns of rainfall and water availability have also been changing and are expected to continue doing so. In consequence, understanding the responses of insects to water availability is important, especially because it has a pronounced influence on insect activity, distribution patterns, and species richness. Here we therefore provide a critical review of key questions that either are being or need to be addressed in this field. First, an overview of insect behavioural responses to changing humidity conditions and the mechanisms underlying sensing of humidity variation is provided. The primary sensors in insects belong to the temperature receptor protein superfamily of cation channels. Temperature-activated transient receptor potential ion channels, or thermoTRPs, respond to a diverse range of stimuli and may be a primary integrator of sensory information, such as environmental temperature and moisture. Next we touch briefly on the components of water loss, drawing attention to a new, universal model of the water costs of gas exchange and its implications for responses to a warming, and in places drying, world. We also provide an overview of new understanding of the role of the sub-elytral chamber for water conservation, and developments in understanding of the role of cuticular hydrocarbons in preventing water loss. Because of an increasing focus on the molecular basis of responses to dehydration stress we touch briefly on this area, drawing attention to the role of sugars, heat shock proteins, aquaporins, and LEA proteins. Next we consider phenotypic plasticity or acclimation responses in insect water balance after initial exposures to altered humidity, temperature or nutrition. Although beneficial acclimation has been demonstrated in several instances, this is not always the case. Laboratory studies show that responses to selection for enhanced ability to survive water stress do evolve and that genetic variation for traits underlying such responses does exist in many species. However, in others, especially tropical, typically narrowly distributed species, this appears not to be the case. Using the above information we then demonstrate that habitat alteration, climate change, biological invasions, pollution and overexploitation are likely to be having considerable effects on insect populations mediated through physiological responses (or the lack thereof) to water stress, and that these effects may often be non-intuitive.