Belgica antarctica, also known as the Antarctic midge, is an insect that’s only about 2 to 6 millimeters long.
Yes, it is less than a centimeter, but this wingless insect is the biggest land-based animal in Antarctica. You may want to argue that penguins and seals are bigger. However, these animals spend most of their lives in the sea; that’s why they are classified as marine creatures.
Since Belgica antarctica is the only insect that’s able to survive the extreme cold of the Antarctic, scientists have been studying its amazing characteristics for over a century.
In reality, the lifespan of an adult Belgica antarctica is only 10 days. But it is able to live as a larva for almost 2 years.
How does a tiny larva survive the continent’s freezing temperatures, which range from −20 to −30 °C on the coast and −40 to −70 °C in the interior during the coldest months?
The answer is through a mechanism called “rapid cold hardening,” which protects the Belgica antarctica from freezing and sustaining injuries from extreme cold. This insect undergoes multiple freeze-thaw processes throughout its life cycle — an ability that’s sustained by heat shock proteins, antioxidants, and aquaporins that are part of its physiological structure.
Moreover, this insect’s microhabitat also helps in its survival. The larva lives below Antarctica’s frozen ground, which is a bit warmer than the surface, where it feeds on algae, fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms.
According to experts, this insect has been inhabiting Antarctica for about 13 million years. You can just imagine all the harsh conditions that it has endured to keep on living up to this day and sharing invaluable knowledge on biology and ecology with mankind.
Unfortunately, the Belgica Antarctica’s long history as Antarctica’s only endemic insect may finally come to an end. Climate change is making winters warmer in the southernmost continent, and, according to a study by a team of researchers from the US, UK, and South Africa, the rising temperatures have a negative impact on this species.
Warmer winters are restricting these insects’ movemement and depleting their energy stores. Based on the study findings, even the slightest increase in temperature causes a significant decline in larval survival.
“These results correspond with locomotor activity levels, where larvae from the warm winter regime were slowest, potentially due to energy drain,” said the researchers on their report. “With limited time prior to pupation after winter, and as adult B. antarctica lack functional mouthparts, energy store depletion during late larval instars would likely have irreversible consequences on the energy available for reproduction.”
How many summers remain for these insects no one can tell. But climate change affects the whole world; that is why solutions cannot wait.