Noise Pollution Interrupts Crickets’ Sex Lives

Anthropogenic noise is affecting the female cricket’s ability to hear the male’s courting song

A close up image of two crickets next to each other. One is male and the other is female.
Female Mediterranean field crickets (Gryllus bimaculatus) crickets can tell male cricket qualities and fitness through their courtship songs. Schönitzer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From rock concerts to construction noise, humans are a noisy bunch. Studies have shown that noise pollution can cause health problems in humans, such as hearing loss, stress, and high blood pressure. In wildlife, traffic noise affects bats’ and owls’ abilities to hunt for prey—and now, researchers have found that all that racket interrupts the cricket’s mating rituals.

A study published this week in Behavioral Ecology detailed how female Mediterranean field crickets (Gryllus bimaculatus) are more likely to choose a lower quality male to mate with when distracted by traffic noise, reports Sara Rigby for BBC Science Focus.

Female crickets can tell male cricket qualities and fitness through their courtship songs and decide their mate based on this intel, reports BBC Science Focus. Previous cricket studies have shown that female crickets are less likely to mate with a male cricket that has a mediocre courtship song, reports Tara Yarlagadda for Inverse.

"In this species, specifically, we know that the male courting song is linked to immune-competence, so they [the females] know if they have a particular high-quality song they are better at surviving diseases," lead author Adam Bent, who carried out the study as part of his Ph.D. at Anglia Ruskin University, tells Natalie Grover for the Guardian.

To see how anthropogenic noise affects the female's mating decisions, researchers clipped the male cricket's wings to silence their natural courtship songs. Once placed in a plastic terrarium with a potential female mate, artificial "high quality" and "low quality" courtship songs played through speakers in various background noise conditions, reports Inverse.

When researchers played the "high quality" song with ambient background noise, the female cricket mated with the males more frequently, reports BBC Science Focus. When the background noise changed from ambient noise to traffic noise, female crickets were distracted and unable to distinguish a winning courtship song from a lousy one. The researchers found no difference in the males' mating success when they played, a low- or high-quality song with background traffic noise, reports Inverse. Scientists say this difference could lead to weaker offspring and possibly affect cricket populations overall.

“At the same time, female crickets may choose to mate with a lower-quality male as they are unable to detect differences in mate quality due to the man-made noise, and this may lead to a reduction or complete loss of offspring viability," says Bent to BBC Science Focus.

Robin M. Tinghitella, a behavioral ecology at the University of Denver who was not involved in the study, tells Inverse that the research "adds to our growing understanding of what seem to be negative compounding effects of anthropogenic noise on the fitness of singing insects.”

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