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Health, Science, Environment

Can climate change affect how insects serenade each other?

This treehopper in a greenhouse at Saint Louis University would not normally have a purple horn or "pronotum." It was painted that color for identification purposes.
File photo | Véronique LaCapra | St. Louis Public Radio
This treehopper in a greenhouse at Saint Louis University would not normally have a purple horn or "pronotum." It was painted that color for identification purposes.

Researchers are studying countless plants and animals to understand how climate change could threaten populations. At Saint Louis University, scientists want to know if changes in temperature could affect the mating songs of insects.  

Biologists at SLU have received $480,000 from the National Science Foundation to study how temperature affects treehopper mating songs, which could provide clues as to how climate change could affect insect survival. The loss of insect species could adversely affect agriculture and many ecosystems that depend on them.

In particular, they're studying the treehopper, a tiny, black, flying insect that's found in many parts of the world. Male treehoppers will send vibrations or "songs" to females through plant stems. If the females favor certain signals, they'll call back to the males. Previous research has indicated that temperatures play a role in a male's ability to sing to females.
"If temperature is changing how males sing, what happens to females? Can they still find a mate?" Kasey Fowler-Finn, a SLU biology professor asked. 

Treehopper songs can't be heard by humans, so Fowler-Finn uses lasers that measure vibrations in the plant step, inputs them into a computer and amplifies the signals. She also uses guitar clips that she attaches to plants where treehoppers are clinging to and connects it to a mini amp.

So far, one of Fowler-Finn's students has learned that 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit is an ideal temperature range for male treehoppers to sing.  

"They will still mate up to about 95 degrees, but what happens after 95 is they actually start dying," Fowler-Finn said. 

Fowler-Finn is studying different treehopper populations to understand how they might adapt to climate change. She thinks that populations that have more genetic variation, or have varied ways of responding to temperature change, will be more resilient. 

The grant from the National Science Foundation will also fund projects to engage the public about insect science. Fowler-Finn plans to work with a sound artist to build an installation using treehopper songs that will take place at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art. She will also contribute her work to the insect exhibits at the Saint Louis Zoo. 

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