The researchers used x-ray images to compare the tracheal dimensions of four species of beetles, ranging in size from 3mm (Tribolium castaneum, about one-tenth of an inch) to about 3.5 cm (Eleodes obscura, about 1.5 inches). Beetles were not in existence during the Paleozoic period, but Kaiser's team used the insect because they are much easier to maintain in the laboratory than dragonflies, which are quite difficult.
The study found that the tracheae of the larger beetles take up a greater proportion of their bodies, about 20% more, than the increase in their body size would predict, Kaiser said. This is because the tracheal system is not only becoming longer to reach longer limbs, but the tubes increase in diameter or number to take in more air to handle the additional oxygen demands.
The disproportionate increase in tracheal size reaches a critical point at the opening where the leg and body meet, the researchers found. This opening can get only so big, and limits the size of the trachea that runs through it. When tracheal size is limited, so is oxygen supply and so is growth, Kaiser explained.
Using the disproportional increases they observed among the beetles, the researchers calculated that beetles could not grow larger than about 15 centimeters. And this is the size of the largest beetle known: the Titanic longhorn beetle, Titanus giganteus, from South America, which grows 15-17 cm, Kaiser said.
And why wouldn't the opening between the body and the leg limit insect size in the Paleozoic era, too? After all, dragonflies and some other insects back then had the same body architecture, but they were much bigger.
It is because when the oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is high, the insect needs smaller quantities of air to meet its oxygen demands. The tracheal diameter can be narrower and still deliver enough oxygen for a much larger insect, Kaiser concluded.
Christine Guilfoy | EurekAlert!
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