Insect songs are ‘complex acts of communication,’ entomologist says

Yuan-Chi Lee, Research Communications

Songs produced by crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and other orthopteran insects are hundreds of millions of years in the making, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist’s research published in Nature Communications.

Hojun Song, AgriLife Research entomologist and associate professor in the Department of Entomology at Texas A&M University, said there have been many changes to the way insects within the Orthoptera order hear and create sounds, but the lineage of these songs dates back around 350 million years.

“We may take it for granted when we hear crickets and katydids, but these insects are involved in very complex acts of communication,” he said. “Just like we use vocal cords and ears to relay messages in acoustic communication, these insects are engaged in a communication that is some of the oldest on Earth.”

The research publication “Phylogenomic analysis sheds light on the evolutionary pathways towards acoustic communication in Orthoptera” shows that the lineages of Orthoptera were communicating to find mates, avoid predators and navigate throughout 350 million years of diversification. By investigating these ancient communication methods, humans can better understand how we ourselves communicate, Song said.

The research was a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation and the 1KITE, 1K Insect Transcriptome Evolution project, a large international consortium aiming to study the transcriptomes, or the entirety of expressed genes, of more than 1,000 insect species from all recognized insect orders. The publication included work from 12 other scientists from around the globe and is accessible to anyone.

“We discovered a great deal, but there is a great deal that is yet to be discovered about acoustic communication in Orthoptera,” Song said. “But the practical applications of our study are also exciting because it is possible to develop novel tools, such as hearing aid devices, modeled after these ancient mechanisms used for acoustic communication.”

In terms of animal sounds, insects are the most diverse communicators on the planet, Song said. There are thousands of mammalian and avian species that communicate acoustically for mating, defense and navigation, but there are tens of thousands of insect species that make and hear sounds.  

Song and the other researchers approached the project by poring over extensive literature and by using phylogeny, which refers to the evolutionary relationships among organisms. They also collected DNA- and RNA-quality samples of a wide range of Orthoptera species from around the globe and viewed curated species collections and fossil records.

The researchers deduced relationships and built a phylogeny based on DNA sampling and gene sequencing methods, including transcriptome analysis, which have improved exponentially over the past decade.

“A few data points can give a glimpse of the evolutionary relationships, but the amount of data we can generate now can give us a very clear view of the relationships among those species we sampled,” he said. “The transcriptome analysis helped us build a reliable family tree.”

The Orthoptera order encompasses about 28,000 known species, and around 16,000 of them communicate acoustically, Song said. These insects use various specialized mechanisms on their wings or legs and abdomens to create and hear sounds.

Some crickets’ wings have microscopic teeth on the underside that look like a file. When rubbed by a scraping mechanism on the other wing, the “teeth” emit the tell-tale chirp. Some grasshoppers scrape their legs with their wings. Some species of katydids communicate at frequencies at the ultrasound level, which is too high for the human ear to perceive.

Hearing mechanisms also vary from species to species, Song said. Crickets and katydids have ears on their legs. Grasshoppers have ears on their abdomen.

The authors sampled 239 species of Orthoptera for the analyses. The specimens exhibited a wide range of characteristics representing the diversity of acoustic communication within the Orthoptera order.

“There are 16,000 species that communicate acoustically, so we had to select species that covered a wide enough range of characteristics to build a robust evolutionary relationship phylogeny that investigated the use of hearing and sound producing mechanisms,” he said.

After scientists established relationships among the species, they used fossil data to calibrate the phylogeny and determine how old the lineages were, Song said. A paleontologist reviewed millions-year-old fossils of grasshoppers, katydids and crickets to create a “time tree” representing how and when the different insect lineages diverged within the Orthoptera order.  

Some of the fossils that the paleontologist reviewed included a cricket’s wing from the Triassic Period, 251 million-199 million years ago. The wing displays the same scraper and teeth that crickets currently use to create sound, Song said.

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