Here is my new home:
Thanks so much everyone for all your support over the years.
I’m on the radio, talking about one of my favorite sciency words: Stridulation.
strij əˌlāt VERB.
The act of rubbing two body parts together to produce a sound. Sounds are usually made when a scraper is rubbed across a finely ridged surface. Most common in grasshoppers and crickets, but beetles, true bugs, and spiders also produce sound this way.
Example use in a sentence: “I ran across the street in corduroy pants and made a loud stridulating noise.”
It can be hard to make a hookup if you’re a small insect, so many insects use stridulation to produce sounds that travel long distances. Insects sing to tell a mate where they are, and sometimes also to tell competitors where their territory is.
A few insects use their genitals to produce “acoustic emissions”. And of course that’s what I talked about in the interview. My part of the interview starts at 35:18.
A bit more background on the insects I talked about:
Water boatmen (Corixidae) are little insects found swimming near the bottom of ponds and streams. They stridulate underwater; most species use antennal pegs they rub on their heads. One tiny water boatman species, Micronecta scholtzi, is special. It holds the record for loudest stridulation… with a penis. In fact, this minute insect—it’s entire body is only 2mm long––is the loudest animal on the planet in terms of noise produced with or without schlong stroking.
Male pygmy water boatmen rub their rod on a series of ridges on their belly, rather like a bow and a fiddle. The penis of the lesser water boatman is 50 micrometers long (0.005 mm). That’s comparable to the width of a human hair sliced in half. How loud a noise can they produce with their tiny penile whammy bar? Between 90 and 105 decibels. That’s a sound level similar to a motorcycle. (The ultimate proof that size doesn’t matter when it comes to a penis.)
This isn’t the only phallic party trick in Class Insecta, though. Waterbugs are impressively noisy, but some moths can jam sonar with their genitals. At least three different families of moths produce ultrasound with the same file and scraper system found in other insect singers, but in a rather unusual place. They use their ultrasound both for sexy signals to attract a mate and as protection from predators. How does one use naughty bits as protection from predators?
Bats use echolocation to bounce ultrasound off a potential snack, pinpointing its location. By interfering with the sound returning to a bat’s ears, ultrasonic sonar-jamming moth ‘nads confuse the bat. Check out this video of ultrasound production.
The descriptions of the moth genitals that do this are cringe inducing: “ rasping scales … against needle like spines”, for example. Generally, rasping spines and needles are not something associated with gonads unless you’re reading 50 Shades of Grey.
To produce the ultrasound, male moths rub modified “claspers”, structures normally used to grab females during mating. Female moths rub their “genital plates” together. About the closest analogy I could make with a human would be rubbing your labia together to produce ultrasound. (It’s not an accurate analogy, but I’m really hoping at least a few of you try it.)
The last of the genital stridulators I know of is a crane fly. I’m afraid I have to report that the descriptions of this fly made me snorfle like a 12-year-old:
“the male began to vibrate his genitalia in bursts, and continued to do so nearly continually for more than 10min… the male’s genitalia function to produce stridulation during copulation….the function of this behavior and of these structures is to stimulate the female.”
From this research, one can only conclude that crane flies ARE apparently ribbed for her pleasure! Also, that tantric crane fly sex lasts 10 minutes.
I’ve been focusing on the ribald aspects of genital stridulation, but all of these are as interesting for their evolutionary history as their titillating details. Thousands of insects stridulate, all in slightly different ways. A few of them have modified existing body parts to produce their symphony of science with some unusual instruments. As Charles Darwin said, “from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
Hopefully I’ve ruined “Air On A G-String” for you forever.
Gwynne D.T. & Edwards E.D. (1986). Ultrasound production by genital stridulation in Syntonarcha iriastis (Lepidoptera: Pyralidae): long-distance signalling by male moths?, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 88 (4) 363-376. DOI: 10.1111/j.1096-3642.1986.tb02253.x
Eberhard W. (2009). Genitalic stridulation during copulation in a species of crane fly,Tipula (Bellardina) sp. (Diptera: Tipulidae), Revista de Biología Tropical, 57 (1) DOI:
Conner ‘Un chant d’appel amoureux’: acoustic communication in moths, The Journal of experimental biology, PMID: 10359675
Sueur J., Mackie D., Windmill J.F.C. & Soares D. (2011). So Small, So Loud: Extremely High Sound Pressure Level from a Pygmy Aquatic Insect (Corixidae, Micronectinae), PLoS ONE, 6 (6) e21089. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021089.s005
Since I just noticed that this spider clearly has Cthulhu on it’s back. Hmm.
This actually is a harmless and common garden orb weaver, Argiope aurantia. They are large, but are not a risk to humans. When asked for comment about the decoration on her back, she said:
“Unglnu’nph k’lyeh hngilu’phth’n, l’yi? Rg’hlia k’gr ph’nglui mglw’nafh. F’nagn rg’hlia gr’rnua.”
Translation: ”I consume insect souls for a living, okay? It’s my job. Just shut up and let me do my job.”
Hat tip to FB for finding this!
From The Bug Chicks:
“Follow us as we film the incredible insects and spiders of America! This coast-to-coast journey will take place with a vintage sofa that will be placed in different ecosystems across the country. At each stop we will inspire you to “get off the couch” to explore America’s backyard wilderness and the most diverse animals on the planet….
We specialize in fun, quirky educational videos. Nature programming has been leaning toward fear and myth lately, which we find alarmingly sad. The natural world is mind-blowing; we don’t really need to embellish it.”
PREACH IT SISTERS. I am so tired of Fear TV. Or, completely made up TV.
And! This series contains actual science education content!
“For this show, we’re partnering with Project Noah, an app supported by National Geographic. It makes this expedition truly interactive; people can upload pictures of insects and other arthropods found along the route. We will live-blog and tweet related behind-the-scenes clips, how-to videos, and additional content through Project Noah and NPR’s Science Friday website during the five week expedition.”
One of the questions they ask in their campaign is: “Where are all the women on television/web who are smart, funny and kind to each other?” I would edit that to read “Where are all the women on nature television?” For some reason science TV is a sausage fest. You can help fix that, and you can help change the perception that all the “cool” animals are deep in the ocean or away in a rainforest, where most US kids can’t see them.
By the way, for the really modest price of $500 you can get your favorite school teacher a Bug Workshop!!
$500 Level Perk: Skype/in-person Bug Chicks workshop for a school of your choice. We’ll spend an hour teaching about the awesome bugs of America and what it’s like to be an entomologist! Plus, we’ll add a DVD set of the show after post-production concludes! Workshop type dependent on school location. Please contact us directly to schedule. This makes a great gift for a school/program for kids in need!
I am still in-between jobs so I can’t contribute as much as I want, but I hope all of you can pitch in at least a little.
I became an unwilling expert on pubic lice a couple years ago when I bought “crabs” online at the request of a reporter. Really. It’s a long story, and you can listen to a version of it here; the abridged version is someone calling himself “Lice Lice Baby” claimed he would sell you “Giant Japanese Pubic Lice” as pets. He re-branded his crab lice as “Seamonkeys in your Pants.”
The French call pubic lice “papillon d’amour”, but for all the happy euphemistic talk about “the ultimate sharing of your love,” crab lice are blood-sucking parasites. At the time, my primary concern was pointing out that deliberately infesting yourself with pubic lice was probably not a very good idea, and a public health risk.
This somehow made me the go-to person online for pubic lice, which is not, frankly, an expertise I particularly aspired to. I was talking to someone recently about public lice (now a regular occurrence) and I realized that I didn’t know the specific mechanism by which pubic lice suck (aside from the fairly obvious suckage of being infested). I did a little research, and what I found out actually made pubic lice creepier. I did not think that was possible.
One of my primary resources was a paper with this wonderful title:
BURNS D.A. & SIMS T.A. (1988). A closer look at Pthirus pubis, British Journal of Dermatology, 118 (4) 497-503. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.1988.tb02458.x
A closer look, indeed! This is a scanning electron micrograph of the sucking end of a crab louse, magnified about 1000 times.
Pthirus pubis is a member of the Order Anoplura or ‘sucking lice’. It is a solenophage (vessel feeder—from the Greek ‘pipe’ + ‘eating’), introducing its mouthparts directly into a blood vessel to withdraw blood. The components of the mouthparts responsible for probing the skin and piercing a blood vessel are kept withdrawn within the head unless the insect is feeding… In the front of the head is a small, snout-like tube, the haustellum, which is soft, eversible, and armed with teeth. Figure 5 shows the haustellum retracted, and the buccal teeth are clearly visible.
But wait! There’s more!
When the louse is about to feed… the buccal teeth rotate outwards. The teeth cut into the epidermis [skin] with a movement compared to that of a rotary saw, and the haustellum is gradually driven into the dermis. It eventually comes to rest with the buccal teeth fully everted, anchoring the mouthparts in the skin….The stylets are advanced into the dermis as a single bundle and probe for a small blood vessel. Once the stylet bundle has pierced a blood vessel feeding begins. [emphasis mine]
If you haven’t already unconsciously crossed your legs while reading this, this next bit should do the trick. One of the characteristic signs of pubic lice feeding is little blue spots on the skin. It’s a combination of blood leaking out after that mouth-needle is withdrawn and a reaction to the saliva of the louse. Another symptom of a crab louse infestation is described as “black powder in your underwear.” That powder is your dried up blood, after the louse has digested it and pooped it out.
I’m not sure that anyone besides me really needed to know this information, but it is a fascinating example of how insect mouth parts have evolved to make them highly successful external parasites!