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MU Biologist Rex Cocroft studies animal communication, something he was drawn to at a very young age. Communication is crucial to life at many levels, occurring within a cell, between cells, or between organisms within social groups.
“Once we reach the level of communication between individuals, not only is there the fascinating intellectual challenge of studying communication, but there’s also this tremendous aesthetic appeal – that the signals themselves are often beautiful: the songs of whales, the flapping of butterfly wings, the scents of flowers.” Beyond its inherent beauty, communication is very important for the biology of organisms, since the evolution of the signals has much to do with the evolution of the species itself.
With the tree-hoppers Cocroft demonstrates how sexual reproduction relies on elaborate communication. The vibrational signals sent through the stems and leaves of plants are “very important in mate choice.”
If the signals of two populations of the same species diverge for some reason, individuals from one group may be less likely to recognize individuals from the other group as mating material – “and these can eventually become separate gene pools, whereas if their signals stay the same they are likely to interbreed. That’s a very strong homogenizing force that can prevent them from differentiating into different species.”
Researching insects is both fascinating and difficult. With 4-5 million different species and a corresponding diversity in communication signals, “once you get into the insect business you’ve got plenty to do.”
Tree-hoppers are intimately adapted to the host plant on which they live. “Their whole life cycle is timed to the progression of their plant,” explains Cocroft. In the fall they lay eggs in the bark; later, in the spring, the tree’s sap rising triggers the eggs to develop and hatch just as the leaves begin to emerge, providing the nymphs with new growth to eat.