Sometimes It Gets Messy

by Carl Strang

I haven’t been posting here lately, as I have been busy writing summaries and reports on the past season of my singing insects study. As 2014 was a good, productive year, this has been a time consuming process. The discovery of variegated ground crickets in October brought a new complication, as their song superficially resembles those of several other crickets, including Say’s trig and a few other ground crickets. I decided to review all of my relevant recordings and re-analyze them to discover distinguishing features. Two quantities that researchers have discovered to be significant in singing insects are dominant frequency (pitch or highness of the tone) and pulse rate (the speed at which wings open and close to produce the song). These are determined by sonographic analysis of the recordings in the computer. The plot of all the recordings looks like this:

Hence “messy” in this post’s title.

Hence “messy” in this post’s title.

The colors represent my decision as to species (usually I did not see the singer): red for Say’s trig, green for variegated ground cricket, blue for gray ground cricket, black for sphagnum ground cricket, and yellow for Cuban ground cricket. The shapes represent one of three ways in which these crickets begin their songs: square for an abrupt start (or for unknowns, cases in which the recording did not include the start of a trill), triangle for a crescendo from low volume to the extended peak of loudness, and circle for a start that often is rendered “chuwee.” The last has an abrupt beginning, but immediately has a momentary drop in pitch or volume that as quickly is followed by the continuous, full volume trill. All these crickets end their trills abruptly. Empty centered shapes are for recordings that were noisy or in which more than one individual was singing, potentially leading to a false reading. The numbers are the temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit, when known.

Ideally, there would be well defined clusters of points separating the represented species. This did not happen, and I can identify a few reasons. In some cases, the recording’s quality was compromised (the hollow-centered shapes). Temperature can affect song qualities, and there is no single established threshold for all species, below which recordings become ambiguous. Also, some features of songs are not in the graph, notably the length of trills, and the length of pauses between them.

The outlier for variegated ground crickets, the green triangle with the lower frequency and pulse rate, was the recording I made indoors. I only kept that cricket for one night, and had it in a cage with only a few leaves on its floor. I have more trust in the values for the Cuban ground cricket, which was well established in a beautifully furnished terrarium at Lisa Rainsong’s home in the Cleveland suburbs, where I stopped briefly on my way to my brother’s for Thanksgiving (thanks again, Lisa!).

Here are my tentative conclusions from this analysis:

First, I need to make a lot more recordings, with care to note habitat, temperature, and whether the singer is on the ground or height above the ground. I need to isolate one singer from all others, with the microphone as close to it as possible. Better habitat conditions are needed to get good response for indoor recordings.

So far, dominant frequency, habitat, and how the trill starts are more helpful than pulse rate in distinguishing these species.

Say’s trig songs are characterized by a chuwee start, a location above the ground, and a lower pitch (usually 7.5kHz or less). Trills may be long or short, but when short usually are in rhythmic bouts.

Variegated ground crickets consistently have crescendo starts, trills usually less than a minute long, and pauses between of at least several seconds. Field recordings had high dominant frequencies (8.6 kHz or above).

One Cuban ground cricket recorded indoors had a pattern like that of the variegated, but a lower dominant frequency (7.6 kHz). From Lisa’s description, these two species occur in very similar habitats, but the Cuban ground cricket is more likely to be found on the surface of the ground. Variegateds occupy soil cracks or other buried locations.

Gray ground crickets have abrupt starts and only brief-moment pauses, with dominant frequencies of 8.0-8.9 kHz. They occur in dry sand soils.

One recording of a sphagnum ground cricket has a high dominant frequency (8.5 kHz), plus a chuwee start. It occurs only in sphagnum bogs, but potential associates include Say’s trig and variegated ground cricket, which can be distinguished, respectively, by their lower dominant frequency and crescendo starts.

That’s enough for now. I plan to share some of these recordings in future posts.

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