#462 Maybe crickets care

Cricket behaviour is more complicated than scientists previously thought. In the October 6, 2011 issue of Current Biology, University of Exeter scientists made a claim that turned earlier thinking on its head. They said male crickets protect their females.

That is not quite the chivalrous behaviour a lot of headline writers touted, but the scientists did describe a behaviour that fits the definition. (The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “Characterized by consideration and courtesy, especially toward women.”)

The researchers (Rolando Rodriguez-Muñoz, Amanda Bretman and Tom Tregenza) wrote this in the summary of “Guarding Males Protect Females from Predation in a Wild Insect”:

Lone females or males suffer similar rates of predation, but when a pair is attacked, the male allows the female priority access to their burrow, and in doing so dramatically increases his probability of being killed. In compensation for this increased predation risk, paired males mate more frequently and father more of the female’s offspring. By staying with a male, females increase the sperm contribution of preferred males as well as reducing their predation risk. In contrast to conclusions based on previous lab studies, our field study suggests that mate guarding can evolve in a context of cooperation rather than conflict between the sexes.

Cricket communication is far removed from human speech. It is unlikely we will ever be able to ask a male cricket what his guarding behaviour means to him. We will not be able to chat with a female about her relationship with her mate.

We just have to keep observing, questioning and speculating. The University of Exeter research shows us that crickets have more complex and interesting lives than we thought.

It is easy to dismiss the interactions of other species as being merely instinctual, something genetically programmed that bears no resemblance to the complex emotional lives of humans. But it is likely short-sighted and dismissive. After all, Richard Dawkins’ identification of “the selfish gene” in 1976 did not make human life any less complex or fascinating.

Reviewing the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene, Tim Radford wrote:

In the hurly-burly of life and death, altruism becomes not just desirable but inevitable, even in vampire bats; hawks and doves have no choice but to coexist; there become good reasons why populations always more or less seem to keep in step with resources; and male and female sexual behaviour naturally proceeds towards the spendthrift and cautious strategies we observe today.

Maybe, just maybe, we underestimate the smallest of our fellow creatures.

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