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Mosquito Whine Could Be the Sound of Love


Does the following sound make you feel romantic?

(Soundbite of mosquito)

ELLIOTT: If not, that's probably because you're not one of the world's most common blood-sucking insects. Scientists in England say they found that for at least one kind of mosquito, that's the kind of whiney buzz that puts them in the mood for love. NPR's John Neilson has more.

JOHN NEILSON reporting:

Most of hear mosquitoes buzz and think, ughh, yuck, get away from me you little monsters. But not Ian Russell, and acoustic entomologist at the University of Sussex. He hears that sound and says, hmm, I wonder why mosquitoes make such risky noises. After all, bats and other skeeter eaters find their meals by homing in on the buzz that mosquitoes make with their wings. So why don't these insects just wear big red targets on their backs?

Mr. IAN RUSSELL (Entomologist, University of Sussex): So why go around making such an incredibly irritating noise unless it's serving some sort of purpose?

NEILSON: Russell started looking for the purpose of that noise several years ago. First he caught mosquitoes and attached small tethers to their backs with drops of beeswax. Then he put them into special tanks and turned on his tape recorder. His hunch was that the buzzing of the bugs would turn out to be a form of communication.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

NEILSON: The first thing he noticed was that male mosquitoes seemed to listen to each other and to change their buzzing sounds in response for no good reason.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. RUSSELL: They go up in frequency, down in frequency, up in frequency; they go all over the place.

NEILSON: Russell says pairs of female mosquitoes took no notice of each other's buzz tones. But when he put males and females in together, the sonic action started getting heavy.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

NEILSON: That, for instance, is the sound of a female taking off and whining for all she's worth. Not long afterwards the male joined in. At first he was way off key, but as the courtship continued, Russell noticed an amazing thing.

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. RUSSELL: The two wing beats just merged in sort of perfect synchrony and all you could hear was this wonderful single frequency, and we thought gosh, this is unusual. This is something we hadn't expected to happen.

NEILSON: Russell says he repeated that experiment over and over and every time the same thing happened. Also, after the sounds converged, the synchronized skeeters always mated. In other words, Russell says mosquitoes are using their buzz tones to find love.

That explains why they'd risk death by buzzing so distinctively. Russell published his findings in the journal Cell Biology and immediately the phones in his office started ringing. Many calls came from public health officials who were looking for a way to control mosquito borne diseases like malaria and West Nile.

Could there be a way, for instance, to keep malarial mosquitoes from breeding by messing with their love buzz? Or could we go the other way and make it easier for so-called good mosquitoes to meet and mate? As it happens, Russell's study species loves to feed on the larvae of malarial mosquitoes. Now all he's got to do is figure out a way to make their horrid buzzing tones much more common. John Neilsen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Neilsen