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
[Trigger warning for discussions of online and IRL abuse and violence]
I recognize the irony in my first post after my big “This is my real name” announcement being about anonymity. I think it’s important, though, to make a strong statement about the importance of anonymity in light of some comments by a colleague. It was the “pseudonyms are used to bully” argument, with a little “I can’t take pseudonyms seriously” thrown in.
Some people are assholes online, and like to target others and make their lives hell. They will do this using their real names and even workplace computers; they do this with fake identities. Research about online behavior hasn’t found evidence to support that anonymity leads to trolling. If a website is full of assholes, it’s their fault for not holding people-–whatever name they go by–-accountable for their behavior.
Online discussions don’t have to be everyone agreeing with each other. Conversations just need to not be racist, hateful, or destructive. The way to make that happen is to create consequences for bad behavior, regardless of real name status.
Pseudonyms are critical to having a fully representative online community. A great list of reasons why pseudonyms are important can be found at the Geek Feminism Wiki:
The cost to people [of denying pseudonym use] can be vast, including:
- harassment, both online and offline
- discrimination in employment, provision of services, etc.
- actual physical danger of bullying, hate crime, etc.
- arrest, imprisonment, or execution in some jurisdictions
- economic harm such as job loss, loss of professional reputation, etc.
- social costs of not being able to interact with friends and colleagues
That page goes on to list, in detail, the various ways that these groups can be harmed. We know that women experience 25 TIMES the amount of harassment online that men do. We know that 50% of LGBT teens are bullied online, and many of them consider–or commit–suicide. We know that women are stalked and killed by ex-lovers. We know that LGBT folk are the victims of hate crimes.
There is a real and critical need for pseudonyms to be honored online, even if it’s a convention that you rely on the good will of others to maintain. And yet, a lot of people, especially scientists, are very dismissive of pseuds as not having meaningful things to say. I have to admit that my first reaction to the tweet I have copied at the right was RAGE.
[Edited to add: Terry says he meant to say “Once you consider the concern about physical safety and stalking, and look at other issues, then there is safety in knowing that you don’t have to triple-think everything you write.” Since you are limited to 140 characters by Twitter, I've added the clarification, but IMHO it doesn't change anything.]
People in marginalized groups triple-think and agonize over every damn word we think, say and write.
Every. Single. Day.
- Will I get hurt again?
- Will I get sued if I add my story about sexual harassment to the ones already public?
- If I talk about the time my department head introduced me as “This is Bug, she was raped”, will it get back to him?
- Will my family read this?
- I’m sure it was illegal that I was was required to post on my office door that I had epilepsy, but how do I ask without the department finding out?
- How do I get help when my boss is a bigot?
- Is talking about my LGBT relationship going to come back and bite me in my job search?
It’s not just things we write online; if you are part of an outgroup and trying to fit in, you have a lot of secrets. You make decisions every day about what you will share, who you will share it with, and how far you are willing to go to combat stereotypes.
Terry, the author of the post and the tweet that set off this rant, is a good person, and I know he cares about his students and his work deeply. He is also a white tenured dude. I’m not mentioning him as an example to shame him, but to show how easy it is even for the good guys to forget that their experiences are not representative.
If we limit the ability of people to use pseudonyms, or dismiss their words specifically because they are pseudonyms, we silence a huge part of the population. And that is why I’m still getting in people’s faces about this issue, even though now you can pin all of my words on a specific person. (Who is still looking for a full time job, BTW.)
I am not at all comfortable writing this now that everyone knows who I am, but I have a tiny bully pulpit, and by golly I’m gonna use it. I would never have been brave enough to write about my sexual assault or epilepsy without my pseudonym. It was not only healing for me to write about it, but I heard from many, many others that it helped them. That?
Totally worth it.
Worth the freak out I still have every time I see my real name online. Worth the fear that I’ll become unemployable. Worth posting this photo of me again, that I took down in the past.
Please don’t dismiss pseuds, nor limit our access to important online discussion spaces. Pseudonyms include voices of people living in fear who are reaching out to others. We have very good reasons to not want a full record of our lives online under our real name. I include here people that are not at risk of physical harm, but economic and professional harm; graduate students that don’t want to be viewed as trouble makers, and postdocs that don’t want to hurt their grant chances, for example.
Can pseuds be credible? Yes! But what makes us credible and worthwhile is our words and ACTIONS.
Do hold people who behave badly–whether it’s using their real name or a pseudonym–fully accountable for their actions. But don’t blame bad behavior on anonymity alone, and don’t dismiss or limit those using pseudonyms.
Great reads on this topic:
- If your website is full of assholes, it’s your fault
- Why pseudonyms won’t stop bullying, from an online media researcher
- In the news: using social media to harass women
- Let’s not forget that George Orwell was a pseud
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!