Do Ants have Lungs? (The Scientific Answer)

Ants do not have lungs but they have got a series of openings in their body known as spiracles, which are connected with a series of minute tubes known as the trachea.

The spiracles and the trachea form the whole basis of the ant respiratory system. It constantly pumps carbon dioxide out of the system while supplying oxygen into the system.

Do Ants have Lungs
Image: It’s hard to see where lungs could fit on a tiny ant!

In this article we are going to dive deeper to do a thorough analysis on the ant respiratory system and will touch upon the following points:

  • A thorough overview of the ant respiratory system
  • The mechanism based on which the respiratory system operates
  • Pros and cons of the tracheal based ant respiratory system

So let’s get right in…

Do Ants have Tiny Lungs?

Ants do not have tiny lungs instead they have tubular sacs called tracheae which help them to carry out their respiration.

The ant respiratory system is way simpler than the human respiratory system but it can be pretty complicated on its own accord. So there is absolutely no comparison between the lungs and the tracheal respiration.

Why don’t Ants have Lungs?

Their small size doesn’t allow them to develop a much complicated respiratory system.

Research suggests that it is actually the absence of lungs, a highly efficient respiratory system, that have compelled them to stay small in the course of evolution.

The atmospheric oxygen availability is believed to have a direct relationship to the body size of an organism. When a greater dose of oxygen is available (a state called hyperoxia) organisms are found to evolve into a larger body size. Likewise, when the oxygen supply in the body is low, a condition called hypoxia, an organism’s size remains limited.

So as per this theory, as the respiratory system in the ants hasn’t developed, if its size increases suddenly, the oxygen supply won’t be plausible enough to sustain its body owing to the limited nature of its respiratory system.

How do Ants Breathe Without Lungs? (The Ant Respiratory System)

Just like most invertebrates, ants need a constant dose of oxygen for survival. The removal of carbon dioxide produced as a byproduct of the cellular respiration process is also equally important.

Ants contain small holes throughout their body especially around the thorax and abdomen, which are termed as spiracles. The opening of these pores is controlled by muscular contractions. The air then travels through a complex tubular network called the tracheae which are basically air tubes of various shapes.

The larger tracheae trunk then branches out in form of numerous smaller tubes into all the body parts. These tubes further keep on dividing and branching out. This ensures that oxygen is evenly distributed to all parts of the body and the carbon dioxide is pumped out of the system through the spiracles on time.

1. The Benefit of Having Tracheal Respiration

Humans cannot live without air for even a few minutes. Whereas ants can comfortably stay without any proper air supply for hours without showing serious signs of distress.

This is something that is only possible owing to the presence of spiracles and the trachea.

2. Main Downside of Not Having Lungs

Owing to the absence of lungs, the breathing process in the ants is not mechanical, the oxygen is mainly transported within the body via diffusion unlike in vertebrates where the blood plays a crucial role in oxygen transport within the body.

A huge downside of this process is, their breathing is totally dependent on the oxygen concentration outside. If the concentration is on the lower side, the oxygen may not always travel through the tubular network deep into the trachea.

3. Ant Respiration in a Nutshell

  •  Air enters within the body via the presence of small pores on the body surface, known as spiracles.
  •  The air moves onto the tracheal trunk which is connected with the spiracles and these act like air sacs within the ants.
  • From here, the oxygen diffuses into all other parts of the body via the branched tracheal tubes.
  • The carbon dioxide diffuses back through these tubes and is liberated out of the body via the spiracles.

Do ants Breathe Underwater?

In many instances, the tracheal tubes act as temporary air sacks which help them to hold their breath underwater which makes it hard for you to drown an ant.

When an ant finds itself in water, it closes its spiracles temporarily so that water cannot enter the body. It then enters a torpor-like state in which it is said that they need several times less oxygen to survive than they would need under normal circumstances.

As per this research, it has been found that insects can form a temporary air bubble around their abdomen in the water, which enables them to have access to oxygen even when in water.


1. Can Ants Live without Oxygen?

Ants cannot survive without oxygen. Like vertebrates, their whole respiration process is dependent upon proper oxygen intake and co2 outtake. But, unlike us, they can live without oxygen for long periods of time, even for hours.

This is because of the presence of tracheal tubes, which act as air sacs and can store air for a short period of time. But without any oxygen supply for a prolonged period of time, they will die.

2. Can Ants Suffocate?

Ants don’t suffocate under normal circumstances owing to their flexible opening and closing system of the spiracles but when sprayed with repellants, they can feel suffocated.

D-Limonene which is a common ingredient of most home insect repellants can damage the respiratory system of the ants heavily, and hence it can be quite deadly for the ants.

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The respiratory system plays an important role in the survival of the majority of the life forms on our planet.

It ensures that enough amount of oxygen is available to the body cells, which then can carry out their own individualistic functions. It is also essential to get rid of the toxic by-product, carbon dioxide, otherwise, it will lead to fatal results.

Hence the respiratory system of ants has evolved in a manner that makes sure that it can provide the organism with the best possible results also making sure that the whole system doesn’t end up taking too much space.

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