Good Vibes

(February 29th, 2016) Long distant communication is easy for humans; we just pick up a phone. Animals can’t do that; some rely on vibrational communication. What is the new research field, biotremology, about and how can it help deter pests?

Imagine being able to talk to your friend, who is miles away from you, by simply touching the ground with your feet. Baffling, isn’t it? Although this phenomenon does not occur in the human population, it is widely used by elephants to warn each other about imminent danger.

Communication, as we know, is an important component in the successful growth, survival and reproduction of an organism. Organisms can communicate in many different ways, through chemicals, words or vibrations. Although vibrational communication is the most ancient and widespread of all three, it is, surprisingly, the least studied. The few scientific groups worldwide that deal with this topic have, however, generated enough data to found a new research field: biotremology - the science of animal vibrational communication.

“By studying biotremology, we aim at detecting vibrations emitted by target animals and then understand their characteristics (in terms of spectral and temporal parameters, like frequency, intensity, rhythm, etc.) and behavioural meaning. In this way, we can associate a signal to a specific behaviour, giving us the chance to artificially manipulate it. For example, we can manipulate agricultural pests by making attracting traps or by disrupting their mating", explains Valerio Mazzoni, entomologist and world-leading biotremologist, from Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige, Italy.

In a recently published paper, Mazzoni et al. took on the American grapevine leafhopper, Scaphoideus titanus. This alien species has accidently been brought to Europe and has since been involved (as a vector) with the irremediable bacterial disease called flavescence dorée, affecting vines. The insects communicate and arrange a romantic date through leg shaking, bringing the leaves under them into vibration. By playing artificial vibrational noise to the leafhoppers, Mazzoni and colleagues have successfully prevented mate recognition and localisation. Besides agricultural applications, “there are many other topics, in which biotremology plays an important role: phylogeny, speciation, ecology and most of all ethology,” Mazzoni adds.

All exciting biotremology research, accumulated throughout the last decade, will now be presented at The 1st International Symposium on Biotremology. The symposium will take place in San Michele all’Adige, Italy, from July 5th to 7th, 2016. Primarily, it is meant to be a platform for sharing knowledge about vibrational communication in not only insects but also spiders, frogs and mammals. The organisers expect approximately 70 participants.

“There are many reasons to join the symposium: we have four relevant invited speakers, a beautiful location in the Italian Alps, and enough facilities hosted by Fondazione Edmund Mach. We have in programme a Museum Show at the MUSE (Natural History Museum of Trento), where vibrations will play a central role (but I won't say more about this because I don't want to ruin the surprise) and of course a field excursion to the mountains,” shares Valerio Mazzoni.

Nadejda Capatina

Image: Greyling

Last Changes: 03.02.2016