By Brent "Scoop" Stauffer
Scientists now know that the loudest animal on earth, relative to its body size, is not Henry Rollins, but a tiny aquatic bug called the "water boatman." At 99.2 decibels, it's like sitting in the front row while the Berlin Philharmonic furiously blasts Richard Wagner at his most apocalyptic. And this is from an animal around 3/8 of an inch long.
The frequency of the boatman's shanty is within human hearing range but that's not the remarkable part. Almost all of the insect's come-hither melodies are absorbed when that sound is transferred from water to air. "Remarkably," Dr. James Windmill of the University of Strathclyde explains, "even though 99% of sound is lost [in the water] 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."
The song, used by males to attract mates, is produced by rubbing two body parts together, in a process called stridulation. The area used for this most unusual "fiddling" is only about 50 micrometers across. All that noise is produced from a natural studio not even 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.
Dr. Windmill's confusion might be explained by the following hypothesis of desperation. Imagine; you're the male of a species. You are very, very tiny and stuck at the bottom of a river teeming with animals and bubbling and frogs grunting. The females of your species literally don't even know you exist. The water of the river surrounding you is going to absorb so much of your mating song that only one percent will get through to the air. One percent!
So you reach deep, deep inside. You find that inner bug, the one with a Telecaster and a Marshall amp that goes all the way to eleven. And then, well, then, with an extraordinary amount of effort you pull off a massive, record-breaking feat, a biological victory over the physics of acoustics, a barbaric yawp proclaiming across aquatic rooftops, "Over here, ladies!"
Sounds like "stridulation," if that's what the kids are calling it these days, might be a cross-species phenomena resembling sophomore year at college.