The Secret, Bizarre World of Insect Vibration Language

Apr 6, 2017

When it comes to the ways animals communicate with each other, you might think we’ve got a pretty good handle on their methods. Birds sing, cats purr, cows moo.

But new tools are allowing a group of scientists at UNH to listen in to animal conversations that we didn’t even know were happening before.

I’m inside a lab at UNH where Masters Student Mia Phillips is about to open up a little plastic container. It looks like it might be leftovers.

“So careful, it kinda smells," warns Phillips, "yeah, that’s a dead mouse rolled up in a ball by two parent beetles.”

So, turns out it is leftovers, just not for us.

It’s for a pair of American burying beetles. These bugs earn their name by working with a mate to bury small, dead critters they find lying around. Then they lay their eggs near the carcass, which then becomes baby food.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

The reason Phillips is tending a flock of hundreds of these beetles here in the lab is because she’s trying to solve a riddle about how they communicate.

When the beetles are burying a corpse, they seem to be talking. Phillips plays me a recording she made in the lab.

“So the obvious question is like, what does that mean? What are they saying?” asks Phillips.

That’s a difficult enough question already, but there’s a twist -- burying beetles are deaf. So, why would they make a noise that they can’t even hear?

In another part of the lab, Phillips shows me a contraption that she hopes will answer that question. A laser vibrometer, which can detect minute vibrations, is aimed at a small patch of pantyhose.

This laser will test Phillips’ hypothesis that the beetles aren’t so much talking with each other as they are vibrating with each other.

Phillips puts a beetle on the pantyhose – she uses a miniature leash to keep it from wandering off— then the laser converts any vibrations it detects into an audio signal that humans can hear.

It’s the first time anyone has ever done this with this species.

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(Scroll down for image and audio credits.)

“What we’ve discovered is that there’s a whole world of communication taking place that we’ve been entirely unaware of," says Dan Howard, a professor of biology at UNH who oversees this research. He says there are a lot of firsts happening in this field of vibrational animal communication right now, in large part because the lasers that are required to listen in have only recently become affordable for most labs.

But Howard says now they can eavesdrop on the insects, it’s a little like Horton Hears a Who. That’s the Dr. Seuss book where Horton the elephant is the first creature in the jungle to hear the tiny “Whos” that live on a speck of dust.

And there's plenty more for them to hear. Scientists estimate there are millions of insect species using vibrational communications and they’ve only just begun to catalog them.

“We could probably go out into college wood in the summer once all the insects are out and active and find some small leafhopper or thornhopper and record it and be the first person to have ever done that, for that particular species,” says Howard.

The insect vibrations that scientists have described suggest a truly bizarre soundscape is waiting to be discovered.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Now that scientists are clued in to this hidden world, it’s raising all sorts of questions and possible applications.

For instance, one of Phillips’ experiments is designed to figure out if vibrational noise from a wind turbine could interfere with the burying beetles’ communication.

In Italy, researchers are trying to use vibrations to deter pest insects from feeding on vineyards.

But beyond the practical applications, just knowing that the insects communicate like this might change how we feel about them.

Because once you know they can talk, they start to seem just a little more like a person. And after all, as Horton would say, "a person is a person, no matter how small."

Photo Credits Burying Beetle, Janet Graham via Flickr CC | Jumping Spider, Mark Gurney via Flickr CC | Giant Weta, Sy via Flickr CC | Treehopper (top), Robert Oelman via NPR | Treehopper (bottom), ©Mike Quinn | Leafhopper, public domain

Audio Credits Burying Beetle, Mia Phillips, UNH | Jumping Spider, Damien Elias, Berkeley | Giant Weta, Sarah Dodgin, UNH | Treehopper and Leafhopper, Jennifer Hamel, Elon University

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