The Loudest Animal

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Dr. James Windmill of the University of Strathclyde. Credit: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

The evolution of life on Earth can sometimes produce unique and suprising traits to help animals adapt and compete. Scientists have shown for the first time that the loudest animal on earth, relative to its body size, is the tiny water boatman, Micronecta scholtzi. At 99.2 decibels, this represents the equivalent of listening to an orchestra play loudly while sitting in the front row.

The frequency of the sound (around 10 kHz) is within human hearing range and Dr. James Windmill of the University of Strathclyde, explains one clue as to how loud the animals are: "Remarkably, even though 99% of sound is lost when transferring from water to air, 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."

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Image of a water boatman. Image Credit: NC State, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

The song, used by males to attract mates, is produced by rubbing two body parts together, in a process called stridulation. In water boatmen the area used for stridulation is only about 50 micrometres across, roughly the width of a human hair. "We really don’t know how they make such a loud sound using such a small area," says Dr. Windmill.

The researchers, who presented their work at the Society for Experimental Biology Annual Conference in Glasgow on Saturday the 2nd of July, are now keen to bring together aspects of biology and engineering to clarify how and why such a small animal makes such a loud noise, and to explore the practical applications.

Dr. Windmill explains: "Biologically this work could be helpful in conservation as recordings of insect sounds could be used to monitor biodiversity. From the engineering side it could be used to inform our work in acoustics, such as in sonar systems"