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20Nov 2012

Hey, New York Times! A Grasshopper is Not a Cricket. Just Saying.

Bow-winged grasshopper (Wikipedia)

Maybe it's because I'm the daughter of an entomologist, but when I start reading a story that begins - Crickets that live near highways change their tune to overcome roadside noise, a new study reports - I do not expect the very next sentence to be: Male bow-winged grasshoppers produce their song, which serves as a mating call, by rubbing a toothed file on their hind legs against a protruding vein on their front wings.

For a moment, I thought - or even hoped for the newspaper's sake - that I'd missed a startling new reclassification of grasshoppers in which they were now considered chirpy little crickets. But no. When I typed a search question - "Are grasshoppers crickets?" even Ask.com was quick to tell me that, no, they weren't. Ask.com titles its entry "How to Tell the Difference Between A Grasshopper and a Cricket" and I can't help feeling that it's too bad that New York Times writer Sindya N. Bhanoo or perhaps an editor had taken a look at it or any other such source before publishing this piece on Monday.

Because when you write in a story about grasshoppers that "crickets are not an endangered species" you aren't actually offering up a useful environmental context regarding the insect in question. Nor are you doing justice to a rather nice nice study (paywall) published in the British journal, Functional Ecology, by a team of German scientists. The study starts with a question raiseded by researcher Ulrike Lampe and her colleagues at the University of Bielesfeld: Do urban grasshappers need to communicate more loudly to be heard over city noise?

As it turns out, yes. The researchers made nearly 1,000 recordings of bow-winged grasshoppers who lived either near busy city streets or in quieter rural settings. They found that consistently the courting songs produced by the male grasshoppers differed. The urban dwellers pitched theirs higher in order to be heard above the background noise. The scientists wrote:  "To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that insects from noisy habitats produce different acoustic signals than conspecifics from quiet habitats."

Or as Douglas Main of LiveScience  put it in a story posted at NBC News, "City-dwelling male grasshoppers sing louder and at a higher pitch than their country kin so that their females can hear them over the din of traffic," which was pretty much the theme of all the other coverage, including:

"Town Grasshoppers Have to Sing Louder," by Louise Gray at The Telegraph.

"Urban grasshoppers change their tunes for females", at BBC News.

"Grasshoppers Change Mating Calls to Overcome Urban Noise", Breanna Draxler, 80beats blog, Discover Magazine.

"City Grasshoppers have louder mating calls", in a roundup by David Wagner at The Atlantic.

And I'm happy to tell you there's not a single cricket chirping in any of those stories.

UPDATE: On November 21, the New York Times corrected the story. There's no longer a cricket in it (except in the correction at the bottom of the story). Thanks for the fix!

                                                                                                                                                                             -- Deborah Blum

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