Imagine you’re on a first date, but your date isn’t paying attention to anything you’re saying. They keep looking around, distracted by a couple arguing, the clatter of dishes, waiters yelling. You probably should have chosen a quieter restaurant.
Crickets are finding themselves in a similar predicament. Male crickets rub their forewings together to produce a courtship song that communicates their qualities to a female. The better the song, the more likely a female is to pick that male as a mate. But scientists are learning that human-created noise can throw a wrench into this scenario.
Researchers paired female crickets with males that couldn’t produce a courtship song, but could still rub their forewings together. While the males performed this courting behavior, the researchers played a high-quality song, a low-quality song, or no courtship song. In the background, the crickets heard either a recording of traffic, a recording of white noise, or the ambient noise of the observation room.
Scientists found that, under the control conditions of ambient noise, the females mounted males paired with high-quality songs sooner and more frequently than males paired with low-quality or no song, but under conditions of traffic or white noise, the high-quality song had no benefit. This suggests that human-made noise affects the quality of mates females choose, which could have negative effects on the future of the species.
Traffic noise and cricket song don’t share acoustic frequencies, so the researchers think the human-made noise is distracting the females, rather than masking the males’ song. They can hear the males, it’s just harder for them to pay attention— maybe not the explanation the males want to hear.