Cold tolerance is important in defining the distribution of insects. Here, we review the principal physiological mechanisms underlying homeostatic failure during cold exposure in this diverse group of ectotherms. When insects are cooled sufficiently, they suffer an initial loss of neuromuscular function (chill coma) that is caused by decreased membrane potential and reduced excitability of the neuromuscular system. For chill-susceptible insects, chronic or severe chilling causes a disruption of ion and water homeostasis across membranes and epithelia that exacerbate the initial effects of chilling on membrane potential and cellular function, and these perturbations are tightly associated with the development of chill injury and mortality. The adaptation and acclimation responses that allow some insects to tolerate low temperatures are multifactorial and involve several physiological systems and biochemical adjustments. In this review, we outline a physiological model that integrates several of these responses and discuss how they collectively help to preserve cellular, organ, and organismal homeostasis at low temperature.
Keywords: acclimation; cold stress; evolution of cold tolerance; ion homeostasis; plasticity; thermal tolerance.