1. The specific respiration rate of 13 chironomid taxa and Chaoborus were measured to test the hypothesis of the relation between a species’ ability to regulate their oxygen uptake and their distributional patterns among nine study lakes in British Columbia, Canada.
2. Respiration patterns of individual taxa were modelled using piecewise linear regression with break point and simple hyperbolic functions. Three types of respiration curves were identified: (i) classical oxy-conformers (e.g. littoral Cricotopus) which cannot sustain a sufficient oxygen uptake with decreasing oxygen availability; (ii) oxy-regulators (e.g. profundal Chironomus) which can regulate and maintain a constant respiration until a certain critical point and (iii) oxy-stressors (Micropsectra) which increase their respiration rate with decreasing oxygen availability until a critical point.
3. Respiration was measured at two different temperatures (10 and 20 °C), and over the range of oxygen saturation conditions studied here (0–90%) mean Q10 values varied from 1.3 to 2.5.
4. The results show that different chironomid taxa have varying sensitivity to low oxygen concentrations and different respiratory responses to increased temperature. The critical point increased to higher oxygen saturation for six taxa, decreased for one taxon and was unchanged for two taxa.
5. The results illustrate one of the possible biological mechanisms behind the use of chironomids as temperature and climate indicators in palaeoecological studies by exploring the link between temperature and respiration physiology.