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The Tiny Insect That Sounds Like the Subway (VIDEO)

The Tiny Insect That Sounds Like the Subway (VIDEO)

If you were asked to name what you think what the loudest animal is, what might you guess? Something large — perhaps the sperm whale?

That would be wrong.

As Discover Magazine reports, the lesser water boatman, Micronecta scholtzi, is only two millimeters long, yet produce sa sound “as loud as whirring power tools.” You can apparently hear the insect even if it’s underwater and you are quite a few feet away on a riverbank. However, we’re spared from the true brunt of the insect’s sound because it prefers to be underwater and, as noted in CBS News, “99% of the sound level is, apparently, lost by the time it pierces the water and flies into the air.”

Jérôme Sueur from the Natural History Museum in Paris was able to measure the water boatman’s “stridulations” and, in a study in PLoS ONE, found that

On average, [the water boatman] reaches 79 decibels, about the level of a ringing phone or a cocktail party. But at its peak, it reaches 105 decibels – more like a car horn, a power tool or a passing subway train.

The above-mentioned sperm whale makes clicks of around 236 decibels underwater (that is 170 decibels on land). But this stands to reason, as sperm whales can be 16 meters long and weigh 16 tons, while the noisy water boatman “produces its phenomenal song with a body that’s no bigger than one of these letters.”

So how does it do it? According to Discover Magazine,

It’s not clear. It seems to do so by rubbing its ribbed penis against ridges on its belly, playing its genitals like a miniature fiddler. But the “bow” here is just 50 micrometres long, and there are no obvious body parts to amplify the noise.

But maybe the amplifier isn’t a body part at all. Like other water boatmen, Micronecta traps a layer of air around its body using microscopic hairs. This layer helps it to breathe, but Sueur speculates that it could also act as an echo-chamber, reflecting the sound of the penis-fiddling again and again. The details, however, are a mystery. As Sueur writes, “To observe the micro-mechanics of such a small system remains a significant challenge.”

Sueur also thinks that the little insect raises such a ruckus by the above-mentioned “penis-fiddling” to attract females. A louder song, that is,  indicates a “strong, powerful mate.” The water boatman’s very loud song is the equivalent, perhaps, to any of various mechanical devices that make notable, extremely loud sounds (motorcycles, boomboxes before there were iPods, various brass instruments and the like).

But the bug has a significant advantage as he doesn’t have to worry about hauling around “extra equipment.” He’s just doing what is, one dares say, natural.

The video swimming (while humans talk in the background).

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Photo by Eco Heathen

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49 comments

+ add your own
8:55PM PDT on Jun 10, 2013

Of course, I can always take the mute off my speakers first...but then the cat that owns me suddenly started wailing like a banshee for her snack.

2:13PM PST on Jan 22, 2012

i didn't hear a thing, so i wasted a little bit of time.... i'll get over it...

12:21PM PDT on Aug 14, 2011

Thanks for making us watch that whole video waiting to hear this thing, and nothing.

2:09PM PDT on Jul 26, 2011

Never heard of the water boatman...hmmm. Disappointing video.

8:57AM PDT on Jul 23, 2011

we obviously still have a lot to learn from the little critters around us. there is so much we don't know about even an insect. good thing these guys aren't really big or the noise would surely be deaf-ening.! great post. thanks.

6:32PM PDT on Jul 16, 2011

Very dissapointing video!!!

4:33PM PDT on Jul 10, 2011

For an article that boasts about how loud this insect is, the video is oddly quiet.

4:10AM PDT on Jul 8, 2011

Awww, I wanted to hear the bug.

9:42AM PDT on Jul 7, 2011

??????????????????????????????

5:08AM PDT on Jul 7, 2011

The assertion that a loud boom box (especially the "boom boxes on steroids" being trucked around by human males using vehicles) shares similarity to this insect holds a fair degree of accuracy. The interesting observation is that turning the volume control on the boom box requires absolutely no reflection on the actual virility or sexual capacity of the human male tweeking his dial (wishful thinking perhaps?). My suspicion is that the insect's sexual capabilities may be more accurately reflected by the survivability of its offspring (louder penis thumping may actually create stronger offspring because the most fertile female hears and responds favorably to his song? I'm not quite so sure that the most fertile female hears the dial-twister's song at all.

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