Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Waves of insect sound

On Friday, James "Teddy" Herbert-Read will present our recent work on synchronized cicada calling at ISBE2014. This project started when Teddy's parents invited my family to stay at their house in Port Macquarie, about 4 hours drive north of Sydney. Teddy's parents are brilliant hosts, and each evening Lovisa (my wife), Teddy and myself would find ourselves sitting on their verandah, gin and tonic in hand, looking out on a beautiful sunset. Kangaroos hopped around on the lawn in front of the house.

Then the cicadas starting singing. At first they produced a low background hum, but as the evening went on the volume increased. It didn't increase steadily, but in waves. At first it was low, then it got louder and finally we could hardly hear ourselves speak. Suddenly it stopped again, and for a while the peace and tranquility was restored. But after about ten seconds or so it started up again. And on it went, loud chirping, followed by a pause and chirping again.

Lovisa, Teddy and I set off, gin and tonic in one hand iPhone in the other, to the edge of the bush and set up recording stations 100m apart. We left our phones in the forest and returned to enjoy dinner on the terrace. After dinner and night fall, we returned to look for our phones. After a bit of stumbling about with torches, and one close Kangaroo encounter for Teddy and my son Henry, we recovered them. We downloaded and looked at the sound files. The pattern was immediate and striking. First Lovisa's phone, from the top of the hill, had a peak in volume. A few seconds later, my phone from the middle of the hill peaked, and lastly Teddy's from the bottom of the hill peaked. It looked like a wave of sound was traveling down the hill.

Even for a mathematician like me, microphones placed out after a few evening drinks do not constitute an experiment. Luckily, Teddy volunteered to return to his parents and do the hard work, this time completely sober. He placed out microphones and measuring the waves of cicada sounds over different areas near his parents house. If you are in New York on Friday you can find out more. If not the video below gives a little taster. The size of the circles give the volume at different positions round the forest. Watch how the noise spreads from top to bottom.

Much of our analysis of this data will be inspired by earlier work on synchronized firefly flashing and the models by Steve Strogatz and others on coupled oscillators. You can also read more about these types of synchronization in chapter 6 of my book on Collective Animal Behavior. Teddy's talk is on  Friday at 3:20.

No comments:

Post a Comment