Flightless, diurnal tenebrionid beetles are commonly found in deserts. They possess a curious morphological adaptation, the subelytral cavity (an air space beneath the fused elytra) the function of which is not completely understood. In the tenebrionid beetle Eleodes obscura, we measured abdominal movements within the subelytral cavity, and the activity of the pygidial cleft (which seals or unseals the subelytral cavity), simultaneously with total CO2 release rate and water loss rate. First, we found that E. obscura has the lowest cuticular permeability measured in flow-through respirometry in an insect (0.90 microg H2O cm(-2) Torr(-1) h(-1)). Second, it does not exhibit a discontinuous gas exchange cycle. Third, we describe the temporal coupling between gas exchange, water loss, subelytral space volume, and the capacity of the subelytral space to exchange gases with its surroundings as indicated by pygidial cleft state. Fourth, we suggest possible mechanisms that may reduce respiratory water loss rates in E. obscura. Finally, we suggest that E. obscura cannot exchange respiratory gases discontinuously because of a morphological constraint (small tracheal or spiracular conductance). This "conductance constraint hypothesis" may help to explain the otherwise puzzling phylogenetic patterns of continuous vs. discontinuous gas exchange observed in tracheate arthropods.