Friday, April 17, 2015

How Insects Sing

Observing the insect world requires one to use not just their vision, but their hearing, too. Many insects use sound to communicate with each other, or to ward-off enemies by startling them with a sudden, audible noise. How do insects make such a racket, anyway?

Male field cricket, Gryllus sp., Arizona

Most insects produce sound by rubbing one body part against another, a phenomenon known as "stridulation." The most accomplished stridulators are, of course, the members of the order Orthoptera. Most male grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets have modifications of the body that allow them to create, amplify, and broadcast auditory signals to attract mates and/or ward-off competing males.

Male larger meadow katydid, Orchelimum sp., singing in Nebraska

Short-horned grasshoppers in the family Acrididae rub special pegs on the inside surface of the hind femur ("thigh") against raised veins on the front wings while the insects are at rest. Slant-faced grasshoppers (subfamily Gomphicerinae) are especially accomplished at this and their soft zip-zip-zip songs are easily heard during daylight hours. Below is a video of a male Psoloessa grasshopper stridulating vigorously. Unfortunately, the incessant prairie winds on the eastern Colorado plains overwhelm the 'hopper's song.

Male Psoloessa sp. grasshopper stridulating

Band-winged grasshoppers (subfamily Oedipodinae) also stridulate, but not as loudly. You are more apt to see two males sizing each other up instead of a male courting a female. In the video below, two male Carolina Grasshoppers stridulate aggressively, side-by-side, until the loser leaves the stage.

Male Carolina Grasshoppers, Dissosteira carolina, stridulating aggressively

Katydids and crickets are the most accomplished of all stridulating insects, in part because the wings of the male insect are highly modified to produce sound; and the insect often stations itself in a circumstance that enhances the projection of sound, such as the mouth of a burrow, or between leaves.

Male tree cricket, Oecanthus sp., singing, Colorado
Male tree cricket at rest

Most male katydids are "left-handed," meaning that the left forewing overlaps the right forewingwing. Contrastingly, most male crickets are "right-handed." In both cases, the edge of one wing is equipped with a "file" of fine teeth, while the other wing has a bladelike "scraper" that is drawn rapidly over the file to create the song.

Singing male field cricket, Gryllus sp., Colorado

The songs we hear most often are "calling songs" designed to attract females; but, crickets in particular produce two other types of songs: a "rivalry song" that is directed at another male during and/or after a confrontation, and a soft "courtship song" to entice a female into mating.

Male Drumming Katydid, Meconema thalassinum, Ohio

A surprising variety of insects, from treehoppers to stoneflies, to beetles actually smack body parts against a substrate such as a leaf or twig to generate vibrations that are received by potential mates. Sometimes these body-slamming signals are also audible. The Drumming Katydid, Meconema thalassinum, and "wing-tapper" cicadas in the genus Platypedia do not produce sound the way most other members of their clan do. Instead, they strike a blow against a branch, leaf, or twig to call to the opposite sex. This is still audible to us, too.

Wing-tapper cicada, Platypedia putnami, Colorado

Males of most cicada species have a pair of built-in percussion instruments. Large pits take up most of the volume of the abdomen and are covered by "lids" called opercula (singular: operculum). Inside each chamber, a strong muscle pulls and releases another organ called a tymbal. The tymbal buckles under the muscle's tug, generating a noise, then snaps back when the muscle relaxes, making another noise. The muscle twitches at such a high rate that we hear one continuous sound, and a very loud one at that.

Underside of male Tibicen sp. cicada showing operculum

How do the insects hear each other? Insects do not have ears, per se, but they do have auditory receptors called typmana located in peculiar places. Short-horned grasshoppers have an opening on each side of the abdomen, near the base. Cidadas likewise have their typana located in the front section of the abdomen. Katydids and crickets have a slit located on the front surface of the tibia ("shin") on each front leg. The tympana is usually represented as a thin, oval membrane located inside the "ear" opening.

Greater Anglewing Katydid, Microcentrum rhombifolium, showing "ear"

Many singing insects can be identified reliably only by differences in their songs, so it helps to familiarize yourself with their calls. Thankfully, a variety of resources are available to do just that. The "Singing Insects of North America" website is particularly useful. Examples of songs are available as audio files for most species.

Male conehead katydid, Neoconocephalus ensiger, singing, Massachusetts

Lisa Rainsong's superb scientific blog "Listening in Nature" covers bird songs, frog choruses, and other sounds of nature as well as insect songs.

Several books exist that address insect songs, but my two favorites are The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger (2007, Houghton Mifflin Company), and Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos, by Vincent G. Dethier (1992, Harvard University Press).

You should be hearing field crickets any time now, if you aren't already, along with the daytime calls of some acridid grasshoppers. Enjoy the symphony.

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