February 7, 2012

Researchers generate musical call of Jurassic katydid

A University of Kansas researcher and scientists from China and the United Kingdom have again played what may be the world’s oldest love song.

Using an exquisitely preserved mid-Jurassic katydid fossil found in China, the researchers have recreated the insect’s mating call produced by “stridulation” — the rubbing together of musical wing parts. Their findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were actually able to recreate that sound,” said Michael Engel, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator of entomology at KU. “The structures used to produce sounds generally aren’t preserved in katydid fossils. There’s a scraper and file on their wings that they run together. We found a specimen where you could see these structures in great detail. You can look and tease out what these two structures will produce in terms of sound.”

The team completed a paleobioacoustical analysis of the katydid fossil and using computers recreated the mating call created by the nocturnal katydid some 165 million years ago. It turns out that the song of Archaboilus musicus, the ancient species, could sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a modern cricket or katydid on a summer’s evening.

“During that time period it would have been a warm evening and, just like in the modern-day forest, it would have been teeming with life,” Engel said. “These were nocturnal insects, and at night there were probably a lot of activity in terms of insects and their predators. The katydids want to be able to call out to the mate, to sing their love song — but at the same time they don’t want to attract a predator like a frog or lizard.”

The KU researcher collaborated with Jun-Jie Gu, Ge-Xia Qiao, and Dong Ren from the Capital Normal University and Institute of Zoology in Beijing, along with Fernando Montealegre-Zapata and Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol.