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It Sings!

Sultana Gulbeyez (played by Jo Champa): “Undress!”

Don Juan (played by Johnny Depp): “Kill me if you must! I am prepared to die, for I cannot go on living, knowing that I defiled the memory of the woman who brought my manhood alive, and made it sing.”

Sultana Gulbeyez (breathlessly): “It SINGS?”

– from the movie “Don Juan DeMarco” (1994)


“So is your blog going to be only about sex?”

The lady quizzing me — and no, it wasn’t Sultana Gulbeyez — had noticed that every single article on The Astonished Tamale! was at that point about sex. No argument there.

But as I gently reminded her: (1) She was generalizing from a sample of one, only a single article having thus far been posted. (2) The essay in question is a Valentine’s Day joy-ride in which sexuality plays only a small and tasteful role. (3) The web site’s header menu promises notes on health, technology, books, language, interfaith issues, and so much more. The Astonished Tamale! is a sober, wide-ranging journal that aspires to take itself seriously.

Someday. Just not today.

But let’s at least lay to rest any thought that Ye Olde Editor has a one-track mind. Let’s do this by turning instead to technology. In case you missed it, one of 2011′s top science discoveries involves acoustic entomology and underwater communication.

We begin by asking: “What is the loudest creature on earth, relative to its size?”

The answer, it turns out, is a male insect called the lesser water boatman. Size-wise, “lesser” is right: The boatman is about 2 millimeters long — smaller than the head of a match. But the noise it makes is roughly 80 decibels on average, and can go higher than 99 decibels! That’s loud. Imagine standing right next to a passing freight train, a large symphony orchestra, or a rackety lawnmower, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the volume.

In absolute terms, the world’s loudest creature is a blue whale at about 188 decibels. But adjust for proportional size and weight, and the water boatman blows away the whale. The whale-song by comparison is barely a whisper.

And how does this diminutive bug drown out its competition? That’s right: with its mating call, which it issues using … a singing penis.

This finding was reported on 15 June 2011 by the nature journal PLoS One. Read about it here or here.

Using its abdomen as a fiddle and its penis as a bow, the water boatman raises a ruckus underwater that a human passerby can easily hear while walking along a riverbank. Be thankful water attenuates the sound; if it did this right in your ear, its thunder would shatter your eardrum. The fiddling process is called stridulation.

Experts are baffled: How (they ask) does a critter so tiny, simply by scraping its own belly with something the width of a human hair, roar like a locomotive? Even ignoring relative size, the water boatman boasts what may be the loudest genital member in the whole universe. Certainly louder than any whale’s, and possibly louder even than Johnny Depp’s.

No one has asked the female boatperson whether she enjoys hearing the serenade. Probably she does, or the species would have died out — but who really knows?

Audio engineers promise that if they ever figure out how the bug does it, they’ll use their new insight to build more efficient sonar devices, sharper ultrasonic video cameras, and the like. But isn’t it Catch-22? Won’t they need these very devices (plus yet-to-be-invented nanotechnology) before they can watch closely enough to penetrate the secret?

This recent discovery certainly gives new meaning to the term “organ music”. What do you think? Please be among the first to comment using the link below.

5 comments to It Sings!

  • Elda Di Lorenzo

    Please do let me know when you intend to take yourself seriously, and I may stop visiting. I enjoy this way too much to have to settle for seriousness. On a serious note, did they catch a rhythm to the mating call?
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist!) Thanks!

    • Gary L. Matthews

      Here’s hoping I didn’t break the spell with the note about Heart to Heart HD. Regarding your question: “did they catch a rhythm to the mating call?” Judge for yourself: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/13958630. That BBC article includes an actual sound recording of the lesser water boatman love song. Don’t worry; it was recorded at a safe distance and muffled by water, so it shouldn’t melt your speakers. Sure sounds rhythmic to me!

  • Janelle

    OK, I am going to believe you without any further investigation (which is against my religion), but what does the lesser water boatman sound like when he is angry?

    • Gary L. Matthews

      To your question, Janelle, I have no answer. But yours brings to mind a further question: Has anyone else noticed that Johnny Depps’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” character is, literally enough, a kind of water boatman? Different species, of course, but still… Do they really expect us to accept this as mere coincidence?

  • Janelle

    The whole question is solved if we know how tall Johnny Depp is and how many different hats he owns. These facts can reveal warning signs. You’re welcome, Gary.

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