by chelsea schuyler
Scales Are Impressive Dammit
To enjoy the following, you have to be adult enough to appreciate the “in relation to its size” statistic, which as a child was difficult for me. Hearing that a grasshopper, if it were the size of a human, could jump over the empire state building was impressive when I was 10, until the disappointing realization that despite the interesting tidbit, no one, human or otherwise, was in fact jumping over the empire state building.
So when I tell you that the loudest animal ON EARTH cannot be seen from space let alone from 5 feet away, try to be adult about it enough to be impressed. However, all 12 year old boy humor is forgiven as we continue to talk about the method of this loudness.
Singing With a Penis: a Tutorial
A 2mm long aquatic insect called the lesser water boatman attracts mates by singing with its penis, rubbing it against ridges on its abdomen (ah, washboarding still has a place in the world). The “song” reaches 78-100 decibels – the decibel equivalent of a passing freight train. (I know, still no freight trains, but still.)
An elephant, for comparison, reaches 117dB, a blue whale, 188dB.
Humans walking by can even hear it, which is amazing because 99% of the sound is lost in the water-air interface. It pretty much sounds like a bug, like any you’d hear in a field, like a one-note cricket or a truncated cicada.
The boatman’s Latin name is M. scholtzi, which I kept reading as ‘schloztsky’ which at first I thought was an unbelievably convenient euphemism for penis, until I looked it up and found the sandwich restaurant. Anyway, though I’m pretty sure I was thinking of the Yiddish term ‘schmeckel’, I don’t think it was a far cry.
Scientists attribute this volumetric craziness to the fact that the insects have no auditory predators, so as the stud scholtzis got louder and louder to drown out the competition, they weren’t attracting attention from anything that would eat them, and therefore the trait was never checked. Parisian biologist Dr. Jerome Sueur referred to this phenomenon as “runaway selection,” my new favorite term. “That selection is out of control! Out of control!!”
The female lesser water boatman no doubt asks the male, “Does that mean it’s louder?” and the male’s going “Well, it’s 1 louder, isn’t it? Regular boatman go up to 10. This goes to 11.” The study was even published originally in a journal called PLoS One.
Dr. Sueur concludes, “This water bug might be the exception that proves the rule that stipulates that the size and the intensity of a source are positively related.” That is as close as you will ever get a scientist to saying that size matters.
Quiet Penis Envy
All in all, it’s a great way to compensate when your first name is ‘lesser’. This name brought to you by the Attenborough empire of Europe, who also brought you the ‘greater’ AND the ‘lesser shag’ – a common waterbird that less harsh Americans call the Cormorant because we believe that everyone, if they work hard enough, can become a greater shag.
All images in the public domain except:
water boatman – photo by Piet Spaans, CC BY-SA 2.5
elephant – photo by Alexander Klink, CC BY 3.0
Schlotzsky’s – photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0
volume knob – from This Is Spinal Tap