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Rex Cocroft  

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Treehoppers; Membracidae; Insect communication  

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Riverside ambi  

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Environmental Recording 22:42 - 27:35 Play 22:42 - More
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Walking through water  

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Interview 1:11:43 - 1:46:01 Play 1:11:43 - More
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Treehoppers; Membracidae; Insect communication  

Interview 1:46:07 - 1:49:18 Play 1:46:07 - More
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Chung Ping Lin  

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Treehoppers, Membracidae; Insect communication  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
1 Nov 2005

    Geography
  • Ecuador
    Orellana
    Locality
  • Tiputini Biodiversity Station
    Latitude/Longitude
  • -0.637633   -76.150389
    Recording TimeCode
  • 1:02:00 - 1:58:15
    Channels
  • Stereo
    Sampling Rate
  • 48kHz
    Bit Depth
  • 16-bit
    Recorders
    Microphones
  • Sennheiser MKH 20
    Accessories
    Equipment Note
  • Stereo=1; Spaced Omni Stereo using MKH 20

Radio Expeditions Log
Story: Tiputini/Rex Cocroft
DAT # 12
Recorded: Nov. 01, 2005, Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Ecuador
Logged by: Carolyn Jensen

RC = Rex Cocroft
Lin = Chung Ping Lin
AC = Alex Chadwick
Carolyn = Carolyn Jensen
Flawn = Flawn Williams

Tuesday Nov 1 midmorning, split track 20s

More Lago trail walk with Rex and Lin
***** Good riverside water ambi
Trail walking sounds, occasional talk
Long interview with Rex, plus a little with Lin
Room tone trailside for Rex interview
Ends 1:54:05

0:01:18 - RC: The insects like membracides and some others communicate with very different kinds of signal structures. Some of them use rhythmic patterns, but many of them use melodic patterns, where they use fairly pure frequencies where they slide up and down the frequency scale, and that's much more like what we experience in our own music, for example. So I think we respond to that very differently than we do to something that's going OOOOooooohhhhh, as opposed to something that's going shhhhhhh - shhhhhh - shhhhhhh. In the first case, it has a more haunting musical quality that we associate more with things we're used to appreciating for their beauty like bird song or whale song. 0:02:04

(LOGGING BREAK FROM HERE TO PICK UP BELOW, BUT THIS IS MOSTLY FOREST WALKING.)

0:27:33 - Flawn i.d. preceding river ambi roll.

Through 28:40 - more trail pause, nothing useful.

32:40 - RC: Oh, that is beautiful. Yeah, it's a little leaf beetle. You could hardly imagine anything more brilliantly, iridescently blue. 32:54.

Through 33:45 - more occasional trail pause, trail walk.

35:15 - FLAWN AMBIENCE REFERENCE TO DAT 11, PREVIOUS ROLL IN THIS SAME SECTION OF TRAIL.

36:18 - AC: That's beautiful.
36:30 - RC: Gorgeous. Well spotted. Small dragonfly, his body is about an inch and a half long, absolutely brilliant enamel yellow with black. 36:40

39:00 - More trail walk.

41:42 - AC: What is THAT thing?
RC: It's an insect. As an entomologist, I'll go that far. (Chuckles) I think it might be another leaf-hopper or a plant-hopper nymph. But it's extremely¿fuzzy. I've never seen one like it. 42:27 (Can shorten w/internal trims not logged here).

45:00 - Michael Caine suspension bridge stand-up - 47:38.

Through 50:00 - more chat at bridge, photo concession jokes.

50:30 - Camera trap detour.

57:27 - AC: I've been walking down the trail in the lead here - a mistake - and I just noticed this web when I was a few inches from it, and looked up the web, which is quite large, and there's this creature that built it, a spider that is, uh, it's body is more than an inch long, and the legs are a couple of inches on each side of that. It's got a kind of a dark back, a yellow speckled belly, and enormous jaws. The web is one of the most beautiful I've seen; it's a kind of spiral designs, very delicately put together. Each strand holds tiny little beads of moisture so you can see it. It's a couple of feet across, at least, that's the main part of the web. It's strung right across this trail which is probably eight feet across at this point. I've been watching the spider for a couple of minutes, and it hasn't moved¿.but it just spit something out. 59:00

59:10 - AC: The diversity of insects here is supposed to be the greatest in the world - more different kinds of insects than anywhere else. I would guess that that applies to spiders as well. I've seen many kinds of spiders.

1:03:00 - Flooded section of Lago trail crossing, w/short AC stand-up. First AC, then Flawn cross - 1:05:15.

Talk about what to do w/generator in background, decide to move on.

1:12:05 - AC: Why is it that these little, tiny insects use frequencies that are appealing in some way to us? Why is it that¿why don't they sound like¿telephones, or ping, ping, ping, ping? Why is it they have these harmonics that we like?
RC: Well, some of them actually do sound like telephones, or go ping, ping, ping. Part of the appeal, I think, and what makes that vibrational world so strange to us, is that when we are in this world of airborne sound, we get used to a certain relationship between the size of the animal and how deep its voice is. And just because of the bio-physical constraints of communicating in the atmosphere, very small insects or other animals are not very efficient at radiating a low-pitched sound. So we get this relationship where very small creatures produce very high-pitched sounds, and large creatures like bears produce lower pitch sounds. But when we move into the vibrational world, that particular constraint is gone. And although there seem to be some others, on the whole, they use much lower frequency sounds. So a very small insect that might be the size of a sunflower seed can use frequencies like those used by a large bullfrog, or a large mammal. And that's part of what makes them eerie, and gets out attention.
The other is that they seem to use not only rhythm to communicate information - so a different number of pulses, or a different rate, but they use pitch. And part of that may have to do with the way signals transmit through plants. Maybe particular frequencies that transmit quite well, and so some of it may have to do with a signal that transmits well in this plant being in some cases one that is a very pure tone. And so just by coincidence they happen to produce in many cases signals that converge on what for us are very melodious, very attractive signals. And I won't say that the

signals of all these insects are exactly beautiful. Some of them are more raucous; they produce surprising combinations of different acoustical elements. But some of them are, and that is something of an unanswerable question, I suppose, or at least hard to answer now - why we find so many natural sounds, bird song or whale song, to be beautiful. And in some of those cases you might say, well, they've evolved in response to the aesthetic sense of females of that species. So a male bird song needs to impress a female bird, and they have their own aesthetic sense. And there's actually people trying to launch a field called bio-musicology...whether there are rules in bird song that correspond to some of the rules of music.
1:16:15 So if you go and analyze music - I'm more familiar with classical, but this applies to other forms as well - analyze what composers do, you can find certain rules. Staring w/Gregorian chant, drop down a step¿all sorts of rules in our music, and so people are interested to see if there are similar rules for birds, and so some of that may go a long way toward answering your question about why we find these beautiful.

1:16:50 - AC: Well, maybe there's a universal aesthetic. You can certainly find plenty of examples of sounds in the natural world that are not appealing to us, that we don't like. But that these creatures that we never even heard until very, very recently, can produce sounds that evoke an emotional response in us, that we would describe as mournful, or plaintive, or beautiful in some way¿there's something very surprising about that, isn't there?
1:17:40 - RC: Well, it is surprising. But there are some of these signals that aren't very pleasing to us aesthetically, and some bird songs are beautiful, and some are not. But if it can be explained as an evo response between signalers communicating with receivers that have some kind of aesthetic sense, some of them must have a very different aesthetic sense than ours if they find those sounds beautiful. But there are many things we find beautiful just as a side effect. Flowers, meant for insects, scent, for insects. So maybe it's explained in our own evolution. Never-neverland.
1:18:55 - AC: When you say that you and Lin are studying a previously unknown evo-radiation, what do you mean?
RC: Maybe there's another way to put this. Like most biologists, we're interested in diversity of species. In Tiputini , plants dominate and create the environment for all the organisms, especially for what we're studying. 40% are plant eating. Membracids 3,00 plus named species. To understand diversity, not just lists, we need to understand their traits, unique adaptations that enable them to survive and do well. In this group of insects, one important thing is way they can be social. (some group exceptions and examples.)
1:21:44 - RC: So all of that diversity behavior seems to be related to ability to exploit a different group of plants, and what I found is that within those social groups, individuals within those groups are communicating. And I studied a few species in detail and this seems to be very important in their lives (examples).


1:22:52 - And in process of studying those species, I've also been making observations and recordings I've found there's a surprising diversity in communication signals in different social groups. So what we're trying to do, we're very much in discovery phase, like linguist or anthropologist studying languages to describe diversity of languages in an area. Doesn't tell you big picture of area, or details of languages or why so many, but that's a first step. And then ultimately we're interested in understanding why there is such a diversity of communication systems in this group. So on a trip like this we can record signal and make observation about kinds of social groups. But ultimately we want to see what kind of patterns emerge. Are there different species that are communicating about food. Do they use similar signals or different? If different, just equivalent ways, or different things in group that might explain differences. Every time I go in the field, I find surprising more aspects of diversity, so we've been here at Tip for three days, and already I found kinds of communication signals very different from any of the ones that I've recorded before.
1:24:35 - AC: You mean they sound different?
RC: They sound very different. So they're all communicating in social groups, but using surprisingly different signals.
1:24:50 - AC: How know intent of that signal is different?
RC: Takes a lot longer. Either get a lot of understanding about one thing, or a little about many.
AC: Like trying to understand a language.
RC: Like trying to understand, vocabulary. Years. Context. In some of these cases in the last days, no idea. But in others, fairly clear. Bump a tree, you disturb them, many signals. Predators.
1:26:50 - AC: How have your ideas evolved?
RC: Learned a lot about vibrational signaling in general. More known about natural selection imposed by the plants. More on complex environments, competing signals, predators hone in on signals. Got a much clearer idea of tremendous diversity of communication systems.
1:28:15 - RC: *****That's why we can refer to this as an evo radiation. Starting off with one ancestral species of membracid, it has a set of descendants that have moved into new habitats. They've evolved different social behavior, and very different kinds of communication signals that I'm convinced, from the ones that we have studied, are very important for understanding why these insects are so successful as herbivores. So I think their communication systems are key to understanding their biology.
1:29:00 - AC: They're very successful?
RC: Yes. Like frogs.
AC: How long people study treehoppers?
RC: Long time, so pretty.
AC: Hundreds of years, but just figuring out communication?
RC: Yes. A few researchers suggested social behavior among them.

**** (Good Rex tone here explaining his original interest) 1:31:35 - RC: When I started to look at this group, I was interested in them because of what was known about their social behavior that seemed like it would provide an interesting context potentially for communication, but I had no idea whether they were communicating socially. And I started looking at these as a grad student, and as someone interested in animal communication, I didn't have an inkling of how fascinating these animals would turn out to be, and their communication systems and how rich and diverse a phenomenon it would be.
1:32:15 - AC: Other evo scientists interested in this for evo reasons?
RC: I think so. Similarities in communication w/bees and ants. Seem less socially advanced, but doing a lot. Socially competing.
1:35:35 - RC: I think we're finding out some very interesting things about social behavior and cooperation and communication in these organisms, and I think at the same time we're just barely on the ground floor. So to understand the communication of just one species, really, we answer some questions and raise a lot more. So it can take a long time, so I think it's a very promising group for looking at evo questions, but we're just at the beginning. 1:36:07

(Carolyn Q about what else)
*****1:36:58 - RC: Very soon after I decided to follow biology as a career, I became fascinated with animal communication, initially I think because of what studying communication reveals about the animals world. To understand what it's communicating about and why, you need to understand how it senses the world, what its major problems are, what's important to it in its environment. I was also fascinated by the diversity of forms of signaling, and function, and especially the many fascinating aspects of how communication systems and this interaction between signalers and receivers evolve. The reason why I ended up focusing on and probably will continue to study this group of organisms is because they are creatures in which communication plays such a very special role ion their lives. 1:38:07 (Good, but better if trimmed and intercut w/sound/tracks)

*****1:39:00 - RC: It can seem very strange to people I think, and very ludicrous. And I can see the humor in it, too. I can see some grown person who's spending his time chasing around tiny, strange bugs in the woods. But I think of it like somebody who's a musician. You're not just a pure musician in the abstract, you play something, a particular style of music, or an instrument, or a set of instruments. And then once you pick up an instrument, all the principles of music are there - of musical structure and expression and phrasing. And if you're studying biology, you're studyi8ng life, then any individual living thing that you could study has all the principles of biology wrapped up in it. And it has a long evo history; it has solved a very impressive set of problems and challenges, and it has a beautiful set of adaptations. So really it depends on

what kinds of questions you're interested in that can determine what sorts of organisms you end up studying, and they become not only a lot of fascination in themselves, but also can provide a lot of opportunity for answering the kinds of questions you're asking.
1:40:33 - AC: You don't think of treehoppers as primitive communicators.
*****RC: They have exactly as long a communication history as we do. People often do think of insects as simple, or primitive, or like robots. But they're not; they're very complex¿they're just very different from us. But they have just as many challenges in their lives, and fabulous, very finely tuned adaptations for dealing with them. So they're not at all primitive or simple. They're actually very complex and advanced if you will. 1:41:35.
*****1:41:45 - RC: If you come to a tropical rainforest, most people's first priority is above all, avoid any contact with insects.
AC: Yeah (chortle).
RC: And with some insects that may be true, but this is a particular group of insects that are very engaging. Even people that don't like insects say, 'oh, well that's kind of cute.'
They're harmless to people, fascinating behavior, and well worth going out of your way to see.
AC: And beautiful, when you look at them up close, very beautiful.
RC: Yeah. 1:42:16.

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