When you think about it, even kids these days know a startling amount about the lives of creatures that lived millions of years ago. We know what dinosaurs and ancient mammals looked like and how they behaved. We know how their seas and plains and forests look. But have you ever wondered that world sounded like? We are one step closer to knowing, thanks to a scientist who has recreated the mating sound of a 165-million-year-old insect.
The story begins with the unearthing of the fossilized katydid by a group of Chinese paleontologists. Presumably because of the modern katydid’s primary association with its noisy chirpping, the paleontologists wanted to know what this ancient specimen would have sounded like. To find out, they contacted Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, a biologist at the University of Bristol (UK) who studies the ways crickets and katydids use sound to communicate.
Male katydids make sound by rubbing together their wings in order to attract mates. Modern katydids only have one wing with a toothed rib that is rubbed by the other, but the Chinese fossil had ribs on both wings. By measuring the length of the teeth and wings, Montealegre-Zapata was able to deduce that the ancient male katydid produced just a single note when it “sang”.
Listen to the sounds of this extinct insect by clicking here.
But this discovery doesn’t just tell us about the mating habits of these ancient insects. It also tells us a bit about how the world they lived in might have sounded:
“If you are in a noisy environment, when many animals are singing, and you produce a single note, you will produce a private communication channel just between you and the receiver in the middle of the noise,” [Montealegre-Zapata] said.
Montealegre-Zapata is now studying some fossils of female katydids the Chinese team recovered in order to learn how they would have received and processed the male’s calls.