Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interrupting Insects

What do you think of when I say “communicate”? Most likely, you are imagining people communicating by an auditory mode (talking and listening, making expressive sounds) or by a visual mode (observing body language, reading and writing). As a species, humans inherently rely heavily on our hearing and vision to perceive the world around us and so it makes sense that we communicate with one another using these modalities. But animal species are incredibly diverse in their means of perceiving their worlds and their modes of communication. Because we have been so focused on studying animal signals that we can perceive, we have only recently begun to more actively explore animal communication in these other modes. One of these modes is soundless surface vibrations.
The photo is of an adult Tylopelta gibbera on a host plant stem
(photo (c) Rex Cocroft).
Despite the fact that we do not perceive most animal surface vibration signals around us, vibrational communication is very common, especially among insects and spiders. Rex Cocroft at the University of Missouri at Columbia and Rafa Rodríguez at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee point out in a review of vibrational communication that over 195,000 species of insects communicate using soundless surface vibrations. We can experience many of these substrate vibration signals by broadcasting them through a speaker as an airborne vibration (which we perceive as sound).

Vibrational signals serve a number of functions in the insect worlds. Social insects, like ants, termites, and bees, often use vibrational signals to coordinate foraging. Groups of juvenile thornbug treehoppers vibrate when a predator approaches, calling in the mother to defend them. Males of many species have been found to use vibrational signals to attract females and the females often use these signals to choose a mate.

Vibrational signals are carried through a solid substrate, so they can only travel as far as the substrate is continuous and they are affected by attributes of the substrate (like changes in density). Because of these constraints, most vibrational signals can only travel about the length of a human arm. Many insects that use vibrational communication live on host plants, and it is these host plants that transmit the vibration signals. These animals face many challenges in transmitting their signals to the intended recipient. For example, wind, rain, and environmental sounds can create competing vibrations (background noise). In addition to environmental background noise, the vibrational soundscape of a given plant stem will likely include many signaling individuals, often of many species. Not only are there difficulties in getting your signal to your intended audience, but there are also risks of eavesdropping predators and competitors.

Frédéric Legendre, Peter Marting and Rex Cocroft at the University of Missouri at Columbia, demonstrate the social complexities of vibrational communication in a new study of competitive signaling in a treehopper species, Tylopelta gibbera. Tylopelta gibbera is a small treehopper in the southern United States, Mexico and Guatemala, that only lives on plants from the Desmodium genus. Males will attract and court females with vibrational signals and interested females will respond to the male with vibrational signals of their own. However, many individuals can often be found on a single plant and if two signaling males are present, the receptive female will typically respond to both of them and only mate with one (generally the first one she encounters). What is a competing male to do?

Listen to a male Tylopelta gibbera advertisement signal here.

The researchers performed a series of experiments, in which they observed treehoppers on potted host plants in the lab. With this set-up, they could control the environmental conditions, decide the number of males and females on the plant, record vibrational signals and play them back. They found that once a male signals and detects a female response, he will actively search for her along the plant, alternating signals and steps in a “Marco Polo” mating game until he finds her. Males found the females almost twice as fast if they were the only male on the plant, indicating that the presence of a second male on the plant somehow interferes with their ability to locate the female. Also, when two males were on the plant, they produced a new signal type that was never produced by a lone male on a plant. Males that had no male competition only produced signals that had a whine sound, followed by a series of pulses (and the female would then immediately respond with a harmonic sound of her own). This male signal is called the advertisement signal. Males that had a competing male on the plant would produce an additional signal that was a short tonal note. Interestingly, these males often produced this second signal at the same time that their competitor was advertising himself. Hmmm… could this be a masking signal used to interrupt the competitor? How could you figure that out?

This figure from Legendre, Marting and Cocroft's 2012 Animal Behaviour paper shows
the whine and pulses of a male advertisement signal (top) and a histogram of when the
masking signal occurs in relation to the timing of the advertisement signal (bottom).
First, the researchers asked, “When do males produce this second signal?” The researchers put two males on a plant with one female and recorded their vibrations. They found that in this situation, males typically produced this second signal while his competitor was just beginning the pulse section of his advertisement signal. Next, the researchers played back recordings of male advertisement signals followed by female responses to a lone male on a plant. All of the males tested produced the masking signal during the pulse section of the male advertisement signal on the recording.

Don't you hate it when someone does this?

Next, the researchers asked, “How do females respond to this second signal?” On plants with one female and two males, females didn’t respond as much to advertisement signals overlapped by a second signal as they did to advertisement signals alone. The researchers then played recordings of male advertisement signals to lone females on the plants. Females responded significantly more often if the advertisement signal was not overlapped by a masking signal.

So, male treehoppers get an edge up on getting the girl by interrupting the other competing males. Sneaky buggers!

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. COCROFT, R., & RODRÍGUEZ, R. (2005). The Behavioral Ecology of Insect Vibrational Communication BioScience, 55 (4) DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0323:TBEOIV]2.0.CO;2

2. Legendre, F., Marting, P., & Cocroft, R. (2012). Competitive masking of vibrational signals during mate searching in a treehopper Animal Behaviour, 83 (2), 361-368 DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.11.003

3. A Japanese research team has harnessed this phenomenon to create a remote-control that makes annoying people stop talking. Find out more at the blog Gaines on Brains!


  1. To follow up on this fantastic article, here's a blog post I've written on some of the vibrational "prospecting" I've done while working with Rex Cocroft as an undergrad.

    I've included recordings of some never-before-heard (unidentified) insects residing on blades of grass.

    1. That is a great first-hand perspective article, Micah! Thanks for the insight!