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The Siren Song of the Spotted Katydid

Learn how female katydids deceptively lure male cicadas to their death, on this Moment of Science.

A close-up of a katydid.

Photo: Eric Begin (Flickr)

Katydids can mimic the female calls of many different species of cicadas.

A lonely male cicada scrambles through the top of a tree in eastern Australia. He chirps and then pauses–listening. He’s hunting for a mate.

He chirps again and he hears it–the tell‑tale click of a receptive female. He moves towards the sound and chirps again. Right on cue, she clicks back. He moves closer and closer. CHIRPS. Listens.

He follows the female clicks, which get louder as he draws nearer and nearer to the source. Surely she must be close by. But just then a lightning‑fast flash of long green legs and the lovelorn male cicada unfortunately finds himself the dinner of a predatory spotted katydid.

The Lure Of The Katydid…

It was the katydid all along making those clicks. Like the mythological sirens, who lured mortal men to their doom with their enchanting songs, the katydids lure male cicadas to their doom by singing an irresistible song.

To human ears, the clicks of a female cicada may not sound like the sweetest of love songs. But for a male cicada, the katydid’s clicks perfectly mimic the mating calls of the female cicada. The males are irresistibly drawn towards the source of the clicks.

The spotted katydids are even more amazing in that they can mimic the female calls of many different species of cicadas. Katydids were able to fool male cicadas of twenty-two out of twenty-six different species tested!

Predator Mimicry

The katydids’ deceptive behavior was discovered by entomologists from the University of Connecticut, Storrs. The discovery is remarkable because it’s the first documented case of acoustic mimicry used in an aggressive manner.

There are many known examples of predators mimicking the odors or visual displays of prey species to lure victims, but this is the first example of a predator mimicking sounds to attract victims.

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