How Scientists Are Recreating a Jurassic Mating Call


Every fossil is a time capsule with its own story to tell—or sing. Now paleontologists have listened as never before, recreating an insect song that has not been heard in 165 million years.

Working in northeastern China in a fossil-rich region called the Jiulongshan Formation, Beijing-based paleontologists discovered an exquisite set of insect wings preserved in stone. Microscopic analysis showed they were from a previously unknown species of archaic katydid, a cricket-like creature. Most exciting, the wings had survived the grind of time, so the special structures the presumably male katydid used to sing could still be seen. The researchers named it Archaboilus musicus in tribute to its acoustic talents.

Much like modern katydids, this Jurassic species had two pairs of wings, and even though the fossil insect’s legs were not found, comparisons with closely related katydids hint that it crawled on the ground rather than fly. The male called out to potential mates by rubbing a toothed vein on the edge of one forewing against a sharp-edged scraper under the opposite forewing.

Once the paleontologists and entomologists squared away the anatomy, they turned to Fernando Montealegre-Zapata, an expert on biological sounds at the University of Lincoln in England, who worked to reconstruct the katydid’s song. Studying the shape and size of the wings—including the spacing of the rasplike teeth along the wing edge—and comparing those structures with those of modern katydids, Montealegre-Zapata programmed a computer to produce the most likely sound that the four-inch-long insect could have made. The result, a landmark in paleoacoustics, is the most ancient call ever recreated.

Written By: Brian Switek
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  1. In reply to #1 by bluebird:

    Very, very cool; this was featured in BBC Nature, too.

    The “chirps” sure got my bird’s attention!

    How so?

  2. In reply to #2 by SophusE:

    In reply to #1 by bluebird:

    Very, very cool; this was featured in BBC Nature, too.

    The “chirps” sure got my bird’s attention!

    How so?

    Come to think of it. This sounds like pseudoscience.

  3. In reply to #3 by SophusE:

    Come to think of it. This sounds like pseudoscience.

    I think it unlikely that smithsonianmag would publish pseudoscience.

    Other work has been done recreating colours and patterns on fossil feathers and insect wings, from preserved textures, which have properties of diffracting light.

    New Way to Mimic the Color and Texture of Butterfly Wings

    A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania has found a way to generate this kind of “structural color” that has the added benefit of another trait of butterfly wings: super-hydrophobicity, or the ability to strongly repel water.

    The two qualities — structural color and superhydrophobicity — are related by structures. Structural color is the result of periodic patterns, while superhydrophobicity is the result of surface roughness

    When light strikes the surface of a periodic lattice, it’s scattered, interfered or diffracted at a wavelength comparable to the lattice size, producing a particularly bright and intense color that is much stronger than color obtained from pigments or dyes.

    The OP study, seems to be calculating the sound generated from the insect rubbing its textured wings together, in a similar way to that in which a cricket or grasshopper produces sound by rubbing wings or legs together.

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