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Thursday, Sep. 29, 2016

A Bug in Your Ear

Posted Tuesday, July 5, 2011, at 10:12 AM

Keep it down!!
While I was recently hunkered down in my Holiday Bunker, I heard an interesting bit of science news. The news was fascinating, and it was also particularly appropriate to the holiday, because it involves loud noises.

(My Holiday Bunker is where I go on the 4th of July to escape the patriotic pyrotechnics. I don't care for loud noises, so I go down there and wait it out like a Londoner during the Blitz. Sometimes I even say, "Chin up, mate! Worse things happen at sea!" and defiantly sing "There'll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover" as the thud of shells shakes the dust from between the bricks. But I don't do that very often. It seems wrong, after all, on the day we declared independence from them. So most of the time I just sit quietly and ponder my good fortune at living in a country that enthusiastically celebrates that independence by eating watermelon, grilling hotdogs, blowing off fingers and starting grass fires.)

The science news I ran across was that biologists have determined the loudest creature on Earth relative to its size, and have recorded it. It is Micronecta scholtzi, the so-called "water boatman." It is about 2 millimeters long and makes a noise as loud as a freight train. My inclination (and yours, too, probably) when I heard this was to say to myself (out loud, like I always do, even in public), "Oh yeah, right! Sure! 2 millimeters and as loud as a freight train? I totally believe that... NOT!" Then I giggle at how clever that was. But it seems to be true. The reason the tiny critters don't deafen people and blow out windows is that they live at the bottom of rivers and other bodies of water. And yet, even as they nestle in the mud at the bottom of the river, they can be heard by people on the bank.

Because they're really, really loud.

But my "oh sure, I'll bet" surprise about anything that tiny making that much noise was absolutely nothing compared to the "get the heck out of here" moment when I found out how the little guy makes the noise. It is done by the process fairly common in insects called "stridulation," which is making a noise by rubbing one body part against another. The real "do what now?" aspect of this particular example is which particular body part the little guy snaps violently enough to make a 99 decibel racket. (As loud as a front row seat at a full symphony orchestra blasting Wagner at you as hard as they can.) Of course, the very fact that I am blathering along now without actually naming which body part I'm talking about should give you a pretty clear idea which one it is. It isn't that I'm prudish, or even worried about offending readers. I just simply can't bring myself to imagine it, much less say it.

Did I mention that it is the male of the species that does this?

This is another example of when scientists should maybe think twice before pursuing certain lines of inquiry. Like Frankenstein creating life and those guys with the atom bomb, I think this discovery falls under the category of "Things Man Was Not Meant to Know." This man sure wishes he didn't know it, anyway.

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