Discoveries
05.31.2016

Invisible Nature: Code of the Treehopper

Hiding in plain sight and deceptively still, treehoppers have evolved an ingenious way to communicate—and they're making a racket.

Treehoppers, pea-sized insects of the family Membracidae, communicate with each other in an intriguing way: using jiggles. By rapidly bouncing their abdomens, they send vibrations down through their legs and into the plant they are standing on. Nearby treehoppers pick up and interpret the vibrations, which vary in frequency and pattern depending on the message being conveyed. Now, scientists are listening in, and starting to crack the treehopper code. And it turns out, the conversations are happening nearly everywhere they eavesdrop—from tropical rainforests to urban gardens. Your own backyard may in fact be hosting a cacophony of communication that is imperceptible, until you listen in just the right way.

Annette Heist, Ruth Lichtman, and Flora Lichtman

Annette Heist is a science writer, radio producer, and a registered nurse working in behavioral health. Ruth Lichtman is a multi-disciplinary visual artist and filmmaker whose work has been featured on The New York Times, The Atlantic, Aeon, and The Huffington Post. Flora Lichtman is a science journalist who has worked for “Bill Nye Saves the World” on Netflix, The New York Times, and Science Friday. She hosts a podcast called Every Little Thing.

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