Code of the Treehopper: Inside an insect’s secret code


A Treehopper egg, nestled with it’s siblings
in the bark of a Calliandra tree begins it’s insect life. This is my current obsession here. They have such an intensive interaction
with one another. Females will lay a clutch of eggs, and they’ll
sit on their clutch of eggs and they click at them. They make little clicking vibrations. Are they talking to their babies before they
hatch? What are they doing? Just one of the mysteries in this hidden world
of the Treehopper communication. Treehoppers live on plants, sucking sap with
their piercing mouth parts. This diverse group of insects known for their
elaborate head ornaments includes more than 3,000 known species. Some of them look like little bits of
dried plant debris. But others are just alien structures that
could come from Mars. They’re just weird and fascinating and
beautiful to look at. And that’d how I started to become interested
in them. Treehoppes live in tropical habitats,
as well as temperate ones. Right here in Wisconsin- that’s Treehopper country. Look for tiny little Brontosauruses. They can be deceptively still. That’s the weird thing, you don’t hear anything
and you think they’re doing nothing- they’re boring. But this seemingly peaceful world, where insects
scuttle across plant leaves, is far from tranquil. Out of range of human ears, Treehoppers are
making a racket. This is not sound we can’t hear it. Yet, the animals are busy communicating with
one another. Treehoppers communicate by using vibrations
they make with their bodies. They kinda hitch up their abdomens and they
lock their legs and then they vibrate their abdomen up and down. The vibrations travel through the plant and
are picked up by sensory nerves in the legs of other Treehoppers. They’re known to use vibrations while foraging
to find mates and warn others about predators. We can’t hear these vibrations but researchers
can translate them for us. By bouncing a laser beam off the vibrating
surface of a stem, they can measure the frequency and amplitude of the movement. And then you play back that signal. Here a male searches for a mate. The male produces his courtship signal. It sounds like this: mmbrrhh! The signal travels throughout the pant and
reaches an interested female. She responds back to him: hmmmm. They’ll duet this way. Until he finds her. Alas, this is not a private affair, competitor
males are also tuning in. They start jamming each other. This time however, the signal jamming is not
successful, the male and female find each other and mate. From hatching to laying eggs, a Treehopper
can spend her whole short life living and communicating through the same tig. Treehoppers arent the only ones to use vibrations. There’s a lot of insects and a lot of spiders
that have this form of communication. The latest number is something like 190,000
species of insects communicate this way. It’s really common and we know very little
about it. These vibrations, it seems, are happening
all around us. When we listen in a new way, a whole world
is opened up. A world that’s been there all along.

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