The Greater Music of the Lesser Water BoatmanPosted: February 25, 2012
Pour yourself a glass of your finest Bordeaux, adorn your silkiest robe, fetch your most affectionate lap cat, and settle in for a treat, dear reader. What you are about to hear is the sumptuous song of the male Micronecta scholtzi, a small aquatic insect also known as the lesser water boatman.
Such skill, power, and grace! But especially power: The water boatman’s echemes can reach almost 100 decibels, as loud as hearing an orchestra play the first movement of Mahler’s 8th symphony from the front row. Yeah–that loud. In fact, relative to its size it is the loudest animal on earth (Sueur et al. 2011).
But the water boatman’s sheer musicianship reminds me less of Mahler and more of the nineteenth-century keyboard virtuosos: Chopin, Thalberg, and most of all Liszt. But then what is the water boatman’s instrument of choice? What noble appendage of the male could possibly produce such a dulcet and forceful sound? Why, dear reader, you must have guessed by now. The male water boatman is a master penist; he makes his song by rubbing his penis against the ridged surface of his abdomen. And like the playing of the virtuosos, the water boatman’s penis songs reveal more than mere technical prowess. They also have the power to elevate and move the soul, because beneath that shimmering kaleidoscope of sound we can hear the pulse of life itself, the dialectical movement between restatement and transformation, aporia and faith, sex and death.
Yes, dear reader, sex and death. The water boatman’s song is a mating cue and thought to be an example of runaway Fisherian sexual selection (Sueur et al. 2011). A female water boatman chooses to mate with the male that can out-sing the others so that this trait gets propagated in her sons, who will have more reproductive success until eventually the trait has spread through the population and the process starts all over again. The only limiting factors are the increased energy costs and risks of predation that accompany such a loud call.
In truth, my comparison of the water boatman to famous pianists is more specific than I am letting on. What I am referring to is a certain rumor regarding Liszt’s virtuosity that is well-known among Lisztomanics, such as myself. However, so as not to steal the spotlight from the water boatman, I will defer the tale for a later post.
Sueur, J., MacKie, D., and Windmill, J. F. C. 2011. So Small, So Loud: Extremely High Sound Pressure Level from a Pygmy Aquatic Insect (Corixidae, Micronectinae). PLoS One, 6(6): e21089.