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How Do Ants Breathe and Do They Have Lungs?

Ants do not possess lungs. Instead, they have their own respiratory systems that assist in carrying oxygen throughout their bodies. 

Ants breathe oxygen into their bodies using spiracles, which are a series of openings on the sides of their bodies.

In this article, we’ll talk more about how ants breathe and the mechanisms their bodies use.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants x
5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants

Do ants have lungs?

Ants do not have lungs as humans do. Instead, they use spiracles to breathe in oxygen and out carbon dioxide. 

spiracles

Spiracles are holes in an ants’ exoskeleton. They do not move but instead act as a doorway for oxygen and carbon dioxide to enter and exit the ant’s body [1].

The spiracle is connected directly to the dorsal vessel which acts as a heart of sorts running down the center of the ant’s back carrying nutrients throughout its body.

Unlike humans who breathe through their nose or mouth, ants do so through their spiracles by taking air inside and pushing it out again with little effort – no need for lungs!

Learn more about ant anatomy here.

How many spiracles do ants have?

Ants have 9 or 10 pairs of spiracles, or breathing holes, depending on the species. 

While they do breathe through their mouths and/or antennae sometimes, most ants rely on using these little holes to do the majority of breathing for them. 

Ant spiracles do not open and close as human lungs do, so they can’t hold their breath for a long time. When ants need to breathe underwater or in other airless environments though, they use the spiracles to do it!

Where are the spiracles located?

ant breathing holes

Ants have between one and three pairs of spiracles along each side of their bodies (six sides), totaling 9 or 10 (as stated earlier). 

The ones located on the top are called dorsal spiracles while those that sit against parts of an ant’s body facing downwards towards its feet are ventral. On most ants, there is only one pair found at the bottom near where legs meet body segments but some species do have more than this.

The spiracles are small holes that ants have on their bodies. These look like little dots, and they’re usually spread out all over the surface of the ant’s body. The main purpose of these spiracles is to allow air into an ant’s respiratory system because it doesn’t have lungs or any other structures for breathing.

Ants can shut off their spiracles

Ants can, for several reasons, shut off their oxygen supply. They do this by sealing up their spiracles (holes in their exoskeleton). They might do this if:

  • They’re getting too much air.
  • They’re underwater (read more about this in the next chapter).

This does have a downside: they can’t breathe out while doing this. Carbon dioxide and oxygen use up the same system.

Can ants drown since they don’t have lungs?

Yes, ants can drown, but it takes a while. The spiracle allows air into the ant’s body while also preventing water from entering, allowing ants to survive even after being immersed in water for a long time. 

ant drinking water

Ants do not have lungs. They breathe through spiracles which are tiny holes on the side of their bodies that lead to tracheae, or tubes. However, if there is too much pressure underwater then an ant will need to use other strategies to survive for longer periods until they can reach safety again. 

They close off their spiracles when they’re underwater and do not allow any more oxygen in until they resurface where only carbon dioxide leaves the body.

This is different from humans, where we do not shut our noses underwater, but instead, still exhale some carbon dioxide even though no Oxygen enters the body.

If ants are encased in water, they can also turn their bodies into waterproof rafts. This is an important survival skill for ants to survive rainy seasons.

How do ants breathe?

ants walking looking for food

The ant respiratory system is a little different from the human breathing process. While humans breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, ants do not use lungs to do this – they have specialized structures called spiracles that take care of their gas exchange needs. 

For us to understand how these processes work, we need to first talk about what an inhalation is and why it’s necessary.

Inhaling refers to taking air into our bodies through our nose or mouth so that it can be used by cells all over the body. Oxygen enters the bloodstream through the alveoli (air sacs) found inside your lungs where blood vessels are also located.

The ant’s spiracles are small openings in the exoskeleton of their bodies. These spiracles lead to tiny tubes where oxygen can be used up and carbon dioxide can be moved out.

The inside of each tube has many folds that are all covered with thin membranes called lamellae. Each fold looks very much like a folded handkerchief, but it is really just one long membrane rolled into pleats. 

How do ants get rid of carbon dioxide?

carbon dioxide and ants

Carbon dioxide is removed from the ant’s body by these same tracheas which are connected directly to little sac-like structures in the ants’ cells called atria. 

Oxygen travels through tiny tubes in a network between all of the ant’s organs and goes into its blood where it can be used for energy. These tubes are the same that lead out carbon dioxide.

How long can ants hold their breath?

Some ants can hold their breath for as long as 24 hours. There are even claims of ants surviving up to 14 days underwater, due to their advanced spiracles.

As the spiracles shut off, there will still be oxygen in the little holes. As long as these contain oxygen,  the ant will stay alive.

The difference between lungs and spiracles

human lungs

When we breathe, our lungs do the work of loading out red blood cells with oxygen, as well as filtering out carbon dioxide from our bodies. 

Ants do not have this system. Instead, ants use spiracles which are holes in their exoskeleton that allow air into tiny tubes called tracheae. These tracheae stretch throughout their entire body and allow them to take in oxygen from the surrounding area.

This same system also lets our carbon dioxide. This also means, that if an ant shuts its spiracles, it can’t let out carbon dioxide. This is different from humans since we have the ability to shut off our oxygen intake, but still, exhale carbon dioxide (like when we’re underwater and still are able to breathe out).

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.