How eavesdropping on sexual signals helps young male crickets

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Washington, May 13 (ANI): Sexual signals do more than just attract mates - in the case of crickets, says a new study.

Adult male crickets produce loud song to lure females, but the song can be overheard also by unintended receivers - such as young males unable to produce song due to a mutation they carry.

So far, researchers have not understood how non-singing male crickets use the song of singing males to modify their behavior or physical attributes to their advantage. Now, researchers at the University of California, Riverside have shed light on this mystery.

As part of the research, the scientists exposed one set of juvenile male crickets to a silent environment (which mimicked a population without very many singing males) and a second set of young male crickets to a song-rich environment (mimicking a population that contained lots of singing males).

Comparing the two sets of data, they found that male crickets growing up in the presence of abundant male song tend to be larger than male crickets growing up in a silent environment, and invest nearly 10 percent more reproductive tissue mass in their testes.

The researchers also found that male crickets that do not hear song during rearing are more likely to act as 'satellites,' hanging out near singing males and intercepting females on their way for matings.

"Subtle modifications of behavior depending on the environment, not genes, means that even in insects, animals aren't 'programmed' or 'hard-wired' to do what they do," said Marlene Zuk, a professor of biology, whose lab conducted the research.

Nathan Bailey, the lead author of the research paper, said: Larger is probably better for the crickets because it allows males to better compete against other males in their environment. Being flexible according to who is around can be beneficial and help maximize the chance of reproducing."

The new research suggests that sexual signals may play a hitherto under-appreciated role in determining how an animal looks and behaves once it grows up.

"Sexual signals do more than just attract mates. They can also influence other animals' development just by virtue of being perceived. The ability to change oneself according to the prevailing social conditions might be adaptive, especially in an environment that is constantly changing," Bailey explained.

"On a more global scale, people often think of insects, especially the non-social insects, as mindless automatons, pre-programmed to carry out simple procedures throughout their lives.

"Our research shows quite the opposite, and demonstrates how even small, inconspicuous animals respond to the vagaries of their social environment by capitalizing on conspicuous signals that are intended for a different receiver," Bailey added.

The study results appeared May 11 in the journal Current Biology. (ANI)

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