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Global warming poses unknown challenges to the abilities of animals to attract and find suitable mates. A wide range of reproductive traits involved in sexual communication are thermally sensitive; yet, the consequences of global warming for sexual communication and other reproductive processes have been almost entirely ignored.

Warming is likely to pose two major challenges to sexually signaling ectotherms. First, mating often occurs within a particular range of temperatures; thus, changes in thermal conditions could narrow the amount of time that temperatures fall within the reproductive window, ultimately reducing mating rates. Second, the signals that males use to attract females, and the signals that females prefer, are often sensitive to thermal conditions. When temperatures change (e.g. following global warming), males may alter the signals they produce or females may alter the signals they prefer, leading to a signal-preference mismatch (i.e. a breakdown in sexual communication).

In this study, we use Enchenopa binotata treehoppers--captured across a latitudinal gradient--to better understand the plasticity of male signals and female preferences in response to temperature changes, as well as their potential consequences for reproduction.

Watch this video to discover how treehoppers converse through vibrations and touch.

Original event info: Thursday, July 20, Cliff Cave Branch of the St. Louis Library

Treehopper Communication

Enchenopa binotata treehoppers are small (~1/2 cm), plant-feeding insects that communicate using acoustic vibrations. Male treehoppers make vibrations on the stems, petioles, and leaves of their host plants that travel throughout the plant. Vibrational signaling is the most ubiquitous form of acoustic communication in the animal kingdom (more than 90% of insects use substrate-borne vibrations to communicate within and between species).

Explore the sounds of Treehopper vibrations



To find mates, male treehoppers fly from plant to plant, searching for females and producing species-specific advertisement signals when they land. Females detect these signals with mechanosensors on their legs and, if they find the male’s signal attractive, they initiate a male-female vibrational duet that leads to mating.

Male signals and Female signal preferences are sensitive to thermal conditions

Listen to differences in both male signals and female responses at different temperatures


Preliminary Data

Figure Title   Temperature variation and mating behavior in tree hoppers - Temperature influences almost every major biological process, and mating behavior is no exception. We currently have a multi-year project investigating genetic and plastic factors influencing patterns of mating in treehoppers across temperatures and latitudes. Proin facilisis elit vitae mollis faucibus. Proin vitae massa nec mauris dictum consequat. Maecenas congue non felis a malesuada. Phasellus ullamcorper laoreet felis eu viverra. In at tincidunt tortor. Praesent tempor eros vitae elit dignissim, vitae elementum dui dapibus. Duis tristique, ligula eget lobortis accumsan, nibh enim venenatis urna, a commodo elit ex ac urna.

Left panel

Female mate preference functions

Female mate preference functions describe female response to male signals along continuous variation in signal frequency. This graph of preliminary data includes raw data (dots) and the extracted spline. The red arrow points to the frequency for female peak preference. This project focuses on “peak preference,” but other aspects of the function, like selectivity, can be extracted.

center panel

Thermal performance curves

Reproductive thermal performance curves describe likelihood of males signaling or females responding as a function of temperature. The quadratic shape can be described in terms of: Performance breadth, the temperature range at which 90% of individuals signal/respond; thermal tolerance, the range at which >10% of individuals signal/respond; thermal optimum (Topt), the temperature that maximizes signals/responses.

right panel

Thermal reaction norms

Thermal reaction norms describe male signal frequency or female peak preference as a function of temperature. Thermal reaction norms are linear with a positive slope. In this graph of preliminary data, the red line represents males, the black line females (Jocson and Fowler-Finn, unpublished).

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Broader impacts related to this work

This project will fuel an ongoing collaboration with world-renowned sound artist Stephen Vitiello by integrating sounds from the research into art exhibits and musical compositions. A prior project focusing on vibrational communication culminated in an art installation at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Arts. The 128-speaker sound system provided visitors with the experience of being an insect in the leaf litter and generated a lot of excitement and interest from folks of diverse backgrounds.

learn more about our outreach projects