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The Amazing Treehopper

A treehopper, a member of the Membracidae family.
Bernard Dupont
WikiCommons Media
A treehopper, a member of the Membracidae family.

How is an elephant like a treehopper? This isn’t a trick question, nor a corny joke.

Treehoppers are insects, related to cicadas. They feed on the sugar-rich sap that flows beneath tree bark. 

Some treehopper mothers exhibit a parental side, sitting on their eggs and nymphs to guard them, and buzzing their wings to shoo off predators. They are also the insect world’s fashionistas, sporting yellow or red spots and elaborate trimmings that cover their bodies. But it’s the way they communicate that astounds me. 

Treehoppers use seismic signals by vibrating their bodies and tapping on plant surfaces. These silent messages, detectable through touch, can signal alarm, territorial boundaries and branch locations that can be tapped for sap. 

In the 1990s, behavioral ecologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell first studied vibrational communication in treehoppers. When she took up elephant research in Africa, she noticed that they adopted distinct listening poses, just like her treehoppers. 

We now know that elephants exchange information by emitting low-frequency rumbles through their vocal cords, which travel for miles in the air AND under the ground. By triangulating the signals with both their ears and their feet, elephants can tune in to the direction, distance and content of a message. 

If you guessed seismic communication as the connection between tiny tree-dwelling insects and giant elephants in Africa, you got it right! They may seem worlds apart, but the ways they communicate converge in intriguing ways.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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