World's Loudest Animal is a Tiny Insect, Says Study

Photo: DaveHuth / cc

While normally a species measuring in at only around 2 millimeters in length might be easily overlooked, one tiny freshwater-dwelling critter has found a way to turn peoples' heads. Researchers studying 'water boatman' (Micronecta scholtzi), an aquatic insect native to Europe, say that the minuscule species takes the mantle as the world's loudest animal relative to its body size. The hard-to-see insect is capable of producing a song that reaches a whopping 99.2 decibles -- roughly the equivalent to the sound of a motorcycle. What may be more surprising, however, is just how water boatman make their 'song'.According to a report from the BBC, the team of French and Scottish scientists who made the discovery had a hard time believing that such a big sound could come from something so small. At first they thought the song must be coming from a larger species, that is, until they came upon the surprisingly tiny crooner.

"When we identified without any doubt the sound source, we spent a lot of time making absolutely sure that our recordings of the sounds were calibrated correctly," researcher Dr. James Windmill told the BBC. "The song is so loud that a person walking along the bank can actually hear these tiny creatures singing from the bottom of the river."

Upon closer examination, the team soon learned the unexpected instrument being used by the water boatman to produce what is said to be its mating song -- a method nearly unprecedented in nature.

From the BBC:

To produce the intense sound, the water boatmen "stridulate" by rubbing a ridge on their penis across the ridged surface of their abdomen.

"There is at least another one insect producing sound with its genitalia. This is a pyrallid moth, Syntonarcha iriastis, that uses highly modified genitalia to produce ultrasonic signals," explained [co-author Dr. Jerome] Sueur.

"Insects seem to be able to use any part of their body to generate sound. Some of them use their wings, others their legs, abdomen, head, wings, thorax etcetera."

Up until now, scientists had presumed that the loudest sounds in nature were only generated by the largest animals -- as is the case with whales, whose mating songs can be heard across hundreds of miles of ocean. It seems that the tiny water boatman, with his impressive song, can broaden scientists' understanding of what types of sounds can be produced, though the trick behind the insect's singing is still a secret.

"We really don't know how they make such a loud sound using such a small area," Dr. Windmill says.

The researchers say that cracking the secret behind the water boatman's sound-production could have broad implications in the world of ultrasonic systems, which has a variety of biomedical and industrial applications.

In a world where it frequently seems that only larger, more prominent species are capable of inspiring helpful new innovation in the form of bio-mimicry, it's nice to know the same could be true for an insect that's more easily heard than seen -- though that's probably for the best.

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Tags: Insects