Bug brother is watching you

Wild crickets with tags attached

Gryllus campestris

11 July 2016 by Tom Marshall

Scientists have spent several years filming a field of crickets in Spain with more than 140 digital video cameras to find out more about what makes them tick.

Now they're looking for help from the public in dealing with all that footage. If you want to get involved with real science that will shed new light on how insects really behave on their home turf, here's your chance.

"Our aim is to understand what insects really get up to in the wild, and to use them to understand larger questions about biological variation, ageing and a host of other questions," says Professor Tom Tregenza of the University of Exeter, the Wild Crickets project's leader.

Tregenza hopes the results will be relevant to much bigger questions than those around cricket behaviour - everything from how ageing affects wild animals to exactly how males' musical talents help attract female partners.

Tagged crickets in holding container

Tagged crickets being returned to burrows

The experiment could even help answer major questions at the heart of evolutionary theory - for instance, if the most beneficial traits tend to spread through a population of organisms, how come any genetic variation continues to exist? That is, why don't all individuals just have the genes that produce the most favourable traits?

He explains that a lot of what we know about insect behaviour relies on lab experiments. This makes it far easier to control what the subjects are up to and exclude other factors that may be affecting them. But in many cases there's reason to think the lab environment itself makes them behave differently.

So if we rely only on lab studies, we may get an incomplete or even misleading idea of how insects really behave in nature, and why.

The Wild Crickets project aims to get round this problem by subjecting its subjects to round-the-clock surveillance in their natural environment - in this case, a small, secret meadow in the north of Spain.

The problem is that they now have far too much footage to go through it all in detail themselves. "We have thousands of hours of video and we need help analysing it," Tregenza adds.

Cameras in field

Cameras filming crickets in field

As well as filming what the crickets are up to, the researchers are using DNA fingerprinting technology to trace the parentage of each generation of young. This helps them work out which mating strategies are working best - for instance, is it in a male's interest to be a lover or a fighter - to engage directly in combat, or to try to mate sneakily with females while rivals battle it out?

Visit Cricket Tales - external link and you can take part in a ground-breaking citizen science project to help the team process the footage. You'll be asked to watch clips of crickets in action and put them into categories - for instance, are they mating, or fighting, or feeding? The project's suitable for anyone, young or old - you don't need any special knowledge of crickets to take part.