July 24, 2013
Jiminy Cricket… Crickets Love To Be Watched
Crickets have just changed the thinking about insects and learning. According to the National Geographic website, a new study shows that crickets react to an audience because they know they are being watched. The cricket’s behavioral changes showed the researchers that insects can learn and adapt to their surroundings.
Here’s what the researchers under study leader Lauren Fitzsimmons, a biologist at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada, did:
“For their experiments, Fitzsimmons—then a Ph.D. student at Carleton University—and advisor Sue Bertram caught male and female crickets from local fields and reared their offspring in isolation in the laboratory. The team then put pairs of either wild-caught males or laboratory-raised males in a small arena at separate times, which always led to fights.
In a glass-separated viewing area adjacent to the arena, the scientists set up experiments with three audience situations: a male watching and listening to a fight, a female watching and listening to a fight, or no audience. The lab-raised male fighters had a lab-raised audience, and the wild crickets had a wild-caught audience.”
After watching the videotapes of each fight in slow motion, the researchers were able to identify that all the males fought more aggressively, even violently, and danced in a more showy manner with great aplomb when they had an audience, and it did not matter whether a male or female cricket was watching or listening. All that mattered was that another cricket was watching.
And, as if that was not interesting enough, the wild males responded more to other crickets watching than did the lab-reared crickets. This could suggest that the lab-reared crickets just did not have enough social exposure to other crickets, which would hamper their ability to know what was going on.
The study discusses some of the behaviors the male fighter crickets exhibit. “When males battle, they touch antennae, push each other with their jaws, bite, and grapple. The winner then shakes his body vigorously and rubs his wings together to make a distinctive song, similar to “a touchdown dance with football players.”
Though the study did not prove why crickets do this absolutely, Fitzsimmons has some suspicions. First of all, and likely most weighing, female crickets prefer dominant males. If a male cricket wins and is aggressive, it likely proves its dominance. Secondly, she thinks that fighters may show their strength to male audience members as if “advertising their strength to tell other males they don’t want to mess with them.”
This study differs from others by placing an audience watching and listening to the fighters. Previously, research focused on just the fighters themselves not on how a social atmosphere would affect their behaviors and violence. Crickets are social, so it only made sense to study how the social aspect played into cricket fights.
Since we considered insects as incapable of learning, this study greatly impacts that thought. To some extent, bugs can and do learn. As Fitzsimmons says, “they have capacity for memory or adapting behavior over time.” Next she wants “to find out whether the female or male observers are influenced by watching the fight-for example, in choosing a mate.”
The next time I hear a cricket’s song, I will wonder if he has just won a fight.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com