Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Interrupting Insects

A reposting of an original article from The Scorpion and the Frog.

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!

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Reduce Stress with this Animal Behavior Meditation

A reposting of an original article from The Scorpion and the Frog.

In a search for the promised inner peace and tranquility of meditation, I attended a meditation class at a local yoga studio. In a room with dim fluorescent lights and an artificial wood floor I laid on my back on my yoga mat, sandwiched between a fidgety woman who kept her smartphone on the edge of her mat and a man whose stress had apparently resulted in a flatulence problem. I was told to close my eyes, breathe deeply, and think about nothing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and thought: “How do I think about nothing?” I thought about black. “Does black count as nothing? Wondering if I’m thinking about nothing is definitely not nothing. Am I doing this wrong? Is this going to work? If this isn’t going to work, I’m just wasting my time. I could be working through my to-do list right now. Oh! I forgot to put laundry on my to-do list. Oh, right… think about nothing. Black?

This ring-tailed lemur has found her inner peace - Can you find yours?
Photo by Margaret at Wikimedia Commons

It was years later that I realized that meditation doesn’t have to be so painfully contrived. I do it all the time naturally. Maybe you do too. We just have to nurture those moments. Here’s one way to do it:

1) Go to a place where you have seen at least one animal in the recent past. Maybe you saw a squirrel or a songbird in that tree in your yard. Maybe you saw fish in the creek you pass over on your way to school. Maybe there’s an occupied spider web in the corner. Maybe you have a favorite spot at the local zoo or aquarium. Go there. Don’t worry if there is an animal there now or not.

2) Sit down in a comfortable position and take a deep breath. Look around and take in your surroundings. Feel the environmental conditions. Listen to the sounds around you. Wait and observe. If you’re quiet, they will come.

3) When an animal shows up, focus on it. If multiple animals show up, pick one to be your focal animal. Observe every possible detail of your focal animal: What does it look like? Does it have any markings? What is it doing? How does it position itself with respect to its surroundings? What is its posture? How does it respond to changes in its surroundings?

4) Allow your mind to wander into your focal animal’s world (or umwelt). How do you think your focal animal perceives its surroundings?

5) Allow your mind to ponder explanations and consequences of your focal animal’s behavior.

6) Continue for as long as you can keep your mind focused on your animal, or until you have somewhere else you are supposed to be.

Try this out for yourself, and then let us know what you experienced!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Hey Hey! We’re The Monkeys!

 Updated and reposted from March 6, 2013.

A tamarin rock star
(photographed by Ltshears at Wikimedia)
Our moods change when we hear music, but not all music affects us the same way. Slow, soft, higher-pitched, melodic songs soothe us; upbeat classical music makes us more alert and active; and fast, harsh, lower-pitched, dissonant music can rev us up and stress us out. Why would certain sounds affect us in specific emotional ways? One possibility is because of an overlap between how we perceive music and how we perceive human voice. Across human languages, people talk to their babies in slower, softer, higher-pitched voices than they speak to adults. And when we’re angry, we belt out low-pitched growly tones. The specific vocal attributes that we use in different emotional contexts are specific to our species… So what makes us so egocentric to think that other species might respond to our music in the same ways that we do?

A serene tamarin ponders where he placed
his smoking jacket (photographed by
Michael Gäbler at Wikimedia)
Chuck Snowdon, a psychologist and animal behaviorist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and David Teie, a musician at the University of Maryland in College Park, teamed up to ask whether animals might respond more strongly to music if it were made specifically for them.

Cotton-top tamarins are squirrel-sized monkeys from northern Colombia that are highly social and vocal. As in humans (and pretty much every other vocalizing species studied), they tend to make higher-pitched tonal sounds when in friendly states and lower-pitched growly sounds when in aggressive states. But tamarin vocalizations have different tempos and pitch ranges than our tempos and pitch ranges.

Chuck and David musically analyzed recorded tamarin calls to determine the common attributes of the sounds they make when they are feeling friendly or when they are aggressive or fearful. Then they composed music based on these attributes, essentially creating tamarin happy-music and tamarin death metal. They also composed original music based on human vocal attributes. They played 30-second clips of these different music types to pairs of tamarins and measured their behavior while the song was being played and for the first 5 minutes after it had finished. They compared these behavioral measures to the tamarins’ behavior during baseline periods (time periods not associated with the music sessions).

As the researchers had predicted, tamarins were much more affected by tamarin music than by human music. Happy tamarin music seemed to calm them, causing the tamarins to move less and eat and drink more in the 5 minutes after the music stopped. Compared to the happy tamarin music, the aggressive tamarin music seemed to stress them out, causing the tamarins to move more and show more anxious behaviors (like bristling their fur and peeing) after the music stopped.

The tamarins also showed lesser reactions to the human music. They showed less anxious behavior after the happy human music played and moved less after the aggressive human music played. So, human voice-based music also affected the tamarins to some degree, but not as strongly. This may be because there are some aspects of how we communicate emotions with our voice that are the same in tamarins.

Can you imagine what we could do with this idea of species-specific music? Well, David and Chuck did! They have since developed music for cats using similar techniques.

We often think of vocal signals conveying messages in particular sounds, like words and sentences. But calls seem to do much more than that, making the emotions and behaviors of those listening resemble the emotions of those calling.

Want to know more? Check these out:

Snowdon, C., & Teie, D. (2009). Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music Biology Letters, 6 (1), 30-32 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0593

Snowdon, C., Teie, D. and Savage, M. (2015). Cats prefer species-appropriate music. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 166, 106-111.