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Crickets dance differently with an audience

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Humans love their victory displays. You only have to watch a game of football (or soccer to US-readers) to see some victory displays of the most ridiculous kind.

Why do people do such things? If there was no crowd there, it is unlikely that they would perform such displays. But is it for the sake of the sex they are wishing to attract, or perhaps to put people they are competing with in no doubt of their accomplishment?

Other animals, of course, also compete with each other, for food, resources and mates. And, like humans, how they behave once they win or lose a competition may depend on who’s around to see it.

Male spring crickets fight with each other for territories and females

Male spring field crickets fight with other males. The winners tend to do a lot better with the lady crickets, as the winners may gain the best territory, and because females of this species prefer dominant males.  Now for the part that may surprise you: the males that win these fights will perform a victory display just like humans – after beating another male, the male winner performs an aggressive song and jerks his body in a particular way to show off that he’s won this fight.

But, like with humans, the question arises: why do males do these victory displays? Is it to show the loser male that he has lost, or to show other males and females that he’s won?

In a recent study, Lauren Fitzsimmons and Susan Bertram from Carleton University addressed these questions by looking at what males’ victory displays looked like when they had an audience or not, and whether the sex of their audience affected their victory display. The scientists used crickets both caught in the wild, and ones reared in the lab to see whether this affected what they did: the prediction being that crickets caught in the wild would be a bit more ‘socially aware’ and more likely to respond to whether they had an audience or not. On the other hand, lab-reared males, with little experience of other crickets, might respond less to whether they have an audience or not. This is kind of like the equivalent of comparing a footballer who has played with the England team for a few years to someone who has kicked a ball against a wall by themselves their whole life in how they might respond to a crowd.

Wild-caught male field crickets performed more vigorous victory displays when others were watching

The researchers got each male cricket they tested to fight another male when there were no other crickets watching, when there was another male watching, and when there was a female watching. Each fight each male had was with a different male. In 78% of the ‘contests’ set up by the experimenters, the males were aggressive towards one another, and in 98% of these contests, the winning male performed a victory display (an even higher rate than England footballers).

What they found was that the wild-caught crickets were very responsive to having an audience: when these males were watched by a male or female they were more aggressive during fighting and displayed more after winning. However, the lab-reared crickets did not respond to having an audience: they did just as much displaying with or without others watching. This difference between the field- and lab-reared individuals is interesting, because it shows that the experience the cricket has in its social environment affects this important behaviour. Many experiments with various animals are conducted with lab-reared individuals without the same natural social experience, and this experiment shows that this can have notable effects on individual behaviour. The reason for the difference between the wild and lab crickets isn’t known, but the researchers suggest that perhaps the wild males had already had a few fights and worked out that it’s better to display when others are watching, whereas the lab reared males just hadn’t had the experience to respond in this way to the social environment. An interesting question to know the answer to now is how it is that the wild males learn how to tailor their victory displays to who’s around them watching.

 

Photo and video credits

Cricket photos: Louis Gagnon, Bertram Lab

Cricket video: Lauren Fitzsimmons

 

Reference

Fitzsimmons, L. P., & Bertram, S. M. (2013). Playing to an audience: the social environment influences aggression and victory displays. Biology letters,9(4).

 

Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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