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Stradivarius Violins Aren’t Better Than New Ones: Round Two

This June, Sotheby’s will be auctioning off the Macdonald viola, created in 1719 by the legendary Italian violin-maker Antonio Stradivari. They’re asking for a minimum bid of $45 million, which would make this viola the most expensive instrument ever sold.

This price tag may break records but Stradivari’s instruments often fetch millions of dollars, due to both the cachet of the name and their reputed quality. Many people genuinely believe that they are superior to newly made violins and many scientists have tried to work out why.

But to Claudia Fritz from Sorbonne University, the search for Stradivari’s secrets is a “perennially fruitless one”… because they don’t exist. In two studies, she has shown that professional violinists can’t tell the difference between the so-called “Old Italian” violins and newly made ones.

“Strads are amazing instruments. They have survived 300 years and are beautifully made,” says Fritz. “I don’t want to destroy the Strads but I want to show that their amazing properties aren’t unique. You can find them in new violins as well. The new makers are doing a great job and are making amazing violins. They should be able to sell them with pride and recognition.”

Here’s a 28-minute documentary about the experiment.

In her first study, Fritz recruited 21 professional violinists from the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, ushered them into a dimly lit hotel room, and asked them to play six violins. Three were new; one had been made just days before. The others had been crafted by either Stradivari or Guaneri “del Gesu” in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The violinists couldn’t tell. When they tested pairs of the violins, they were just as likely to prefer the new or old ones. When they played all six instruments together, and had to choose which they would most like to take home, 62 percent picked a new violin. And the oldest Stradivarius—an instrument that is held in an institution and loaned to only the most gifted players—was the most frequently rejected one.

“Many people were convinced that as soon as you play an old violin, you can feel that it’s old, it has been played a lot, and it has a special sound quality,” Fritz told me at the time. “People who took part in the experiment said it was the experience of a lifetime when we told them the results.”

John Soloninka was one of them, and he talked about his experiences in a comment on my write-up. “I expected to be able to tell the difference, but could not,” he wrote. “Claudia sent me my comments about the instruments that I made while I was playing them, and it was hilarious how wrong my impressions were at the time!”

The study was published in 2012, and Fritz says that the reactions ranged from delight to anger. Critics were quick to point out the experiment’s limitations—see the comments here for a sampling. The violinists only tested six instruments, and they played them for just 20 minutes in a dry hotel room. That wouldn’t do. To get the most out of the violins, the players needed hours—maybe weeks—of testing, and they needed to play in a concert hall. One distinguished violinist reportedly said, “You don’t test a Ferrari in a parking lot.”

Fair enough, thought Fritz. Let’s go to a concert hall.

“We couldn’t address all the issues in one study anyway,” she says. “We needed the first one to attract attention, so we could do a better one. This time people were really happy to loan me some instruments.”

This time, she worked with six Old Italian violins and six new ones. She recruited players of the highest calibre—10 soloists who were either internationally renowned or had won major international competitions. (Seven of them play old violins themselves.) And she assembled a seven-person team that included several scientists, a violin-maker, a soloist, an instrument dealer, and a string engineer. (Three of them own and play an Old Italian.)

The team laid all 12 violins out on a table and told the soloists to pick one that could hypothetically replace their own instrument for an upcoming tour. They had 50 minutes to play the violins as they wish, using their own bows, and they picked their top four. (The team polled several soloists before the experiment about the time they’d need to comfortably evaluate a dozen violins—the average estimate was 50 minutes.)

They ran this experiment in two Parisian venues—the home of a family of professional string players, and a 300-seat concert hall that’s well-known for its acoustics. In the hall, the soloists could ask for a piano accompaniment or for feedback from a listener of their choice. They could even ask one of the team to play the violins so they could check the sound from elsewhere in the hall.

The team gave the violins four points every time they were chosen as a top pick, three points for second place, and so on; they deducted a point every time an instrument was rejected.

Violin rankings. The six new instruments are on the top; the six old ones are on the bottom. The left bars represent the scores in the house; hte right bars are the scores in the concert hall.
Violin rankings. The six new instruments are on the top; the six old ones are on the bottom. The left bars represent the scores in the house; hte right bars are the scores in the concert hall.

Although the soloists varied in their tastes, two new violins consistently scored the most points, with an old Stradivarius tailing in third place. Overall, the new violins collectively scored 35 points and the old ones scored 4—a six-fold difference.  Fritz writes, “We can find no plausible scoring system by which the old fare any better.”

The concert hall made little difference either. Some violins rose in the ranks and others fell, but the new ones maintained their lead over the old. “There is certainly no evidence here to support the belief that Old Italian violins come into their own in concert halls whereas new ones fall behind,” wrote Fritz.

In the final 12 minutes of the experiment, the team provided the soloists with three violins—their own, their top pick, and the best-rated instrument from the opposite age category. Their job was to rate each instrument according to six qualities: overall quality, articulation, timbre, playability, projection, and loudness. They rated the old and new violins similarly in terms of overall quality, but gave the new ones higher scores in all the other categories. The concert hall closed the gap slightly, but not enough to turn the tide in favour of the old.

Violin_rankingsFinally, the team asked the soloists to guess whether they were playing an old or new instrument. They were wrong half the time.

The results are very clear: Stradivarius violins, despite their reputation, inordinate price tags, and indisputable craftsmanship, are no better than the best modern ones.

Critics will undoubtedly cling to their beliefs, and reiterate that it takes ages to master an old instrument. But let us reiterate: ten violinists—among the best in the world—couldn’t tell the difference between the old and new violins, and were more likely to prefer the new violins when allowed to play the instruments in a concert hall. When they were debriefed later, they said that the experiment was more than realistic enough for choosing a violin for a tour (although not for buying one).

Fritz has also done two more studies: one assessing the listeners’ experience as the violins were played in an concert hall, and another analysing the physical properties of the instruments. Both sets of results will be published soon but—spoiler alert!—neither will support the superiority of the Old Italians.

“We should stop mentioning on the programme what soloists play because who cares?” she says. “That would allow young soloists to make a career without struggling to have a Strad on loan. If we judge players on how they play rather than what they play, that would be better.”

UPDATE: I asked John Soloninka for his thoughts on the new experiment and he kindly sent a very detailed response. Over to him: 

I was very privileged to be one of the original participants in the so-called “Indianapolis Experiment”. Here is a detailed account of my experience; I won’t repeat those details here.

During the summer of 2013, I was one of a privileged group of violin makers and acousticians who were invited to the Oberlin Violin Acoustics workshop, in Oberlin Ohio. Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, and Fan Tao shared the results of the new experiments to get confidential feedback from this group.

At one point during the week, I had the great privilege to play a Strad and a Guaneri for about an hour.    These instruments together are worth about $15M at today’s prices. I was so impressed with the sound that on seeing Claudia later in the afternoon I said, “I totally accept the double blind study… but when I pick up that Strad, it is so amazing!  What is it about the playing experience when you “know” what the instrument is, that makes it sound so great?”

She said, “You think you could tell that instrument from amongst 4 new and old other ones?”

My response: “Of course…but that is not fair…I just played it for an hour, I would be able to pick it out.”

She proceeded to arrange another test. We did the same procedure later that day and, again, under blinded conditions, I felt the “magic” but not just on the old ones but on the new ones as well. In fact, I preferred a new one!

Paraphrasing Sam Zygmuntowicz , one of the world’s leading modern luthiers, if you know an instrument is from the Golden Period, you will assume any poor sounds are attributed to your playing, rather than quirks of the instrument, and you would apply all subtlety in trying to coax nuances of sound of the instrument. If is it new instrument, you may attribute any poor sound to the instrument, and be less willing to search for the subtleties.

The new experiments will again bring up the criticisms of how this was not a perfect test (for example, optimizing bow, set up, time with the instrument etc.) and these are all true.  Laurie Niles of violinist.com (who also participated in the Indianapolis Experiment) has posted the first such analysis here.

But I chose to draw different conclusions.   These factors mentioned cannot all be biased in favour of new instruments and against old.   The bow, for example would be suboptimal in a random way…not just benefiting the new ones.

What I conclude is the following:

– Great old instruments and great new instruments are great!

– The McDonald Strad Viola on sale for $45M is a great instrument.  But NO ONE used its tone or playability when determining the price.  It is the rarity, provenance, physical state of preservation of the antique, and most importantly, what the market will bear, that led to the price.

– There is no “secret” that makes old instruments magically better, and their sound and playing qualities are certainly reproducible to the extent that soloists or audiences can notice.

– That confirmation bias in decision making is very powerful… and you can fool yourself into believing almost anything, and seeing or hearing what you want to hear.   So if it is violin, or wine, or venture capital investing or anyone one of many complex, preference-based, subjective decisions we make, we should ensure we are being objective and control for our biases.

– I think Laurie Niles was right when she said:  The Golden Period was a peak in of violin making, and we are in a second one right now… and that is a great thing for professional musicians!


Reference: Fritz, Curtin, Poitevineau, Borsarello, Wollman, Tao & Ghasarossian. 2014. Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1323367111

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Tunes without composers: music naturally evolves on DarwinTunes

The tunes embedded above weren’t written by a composer, but fashioned through natural selection. They are the offspring of DarwinTunes, a program which creates bursts of noise that gradually evolve based on the preferences of thousands of human listeners. After hundreds of generations, tracks that are boring and grating soon morph into tunes that are really quite rhythmic and pleasant (even if they won’t be topping charts any time soon).

DarwinTunes is the brainchild of Robert MacCallum and Armand Leroi from Imperial College London. “We suspected that musical styles evolve through Darwinian natural selection,” says MacCallum. “They are copied and modified from artist to artist and generation to generation, with popular styles more likely to be copied as they get more exposure. “ The duo created DarwinTunes to see if music could actually evolve in this way.

The DarwinTunes tracks are all 8-second-long loops, each encoded by a ‘digital genome’ – a program that determines which notes are used, where they’re placed, the instruments, the tempo, and so on. The genomes of two parent loops can shuffle together in random ways to produce daughter loops, which also develop small random mutations. This mimics the way in which living things mate and mutate. It also mimics the way in which composers merge musical styles together, while inventing new motifs.

The experiment began with 100 randomly generated loops. On the DarwinTunes website, listeners could listen to these and rate them on a five-point scale, from “I can’t stand it” to “I love it”. Every time 20 loops were rated, the top 10 pair off, mate with each other to produce two daughters, and die. At any time, there are only 100 loops in the total population.

To date the loops have been evolving for 3,060 generations, and over 50,000 of them have been born. By taking loops from DarwinTunes’ entire history and asking volunteers to rate them, MacCallum and Leroi showed that they became more appealing with time. For example, they were more likely to contain chords found in Western music and they contained more complex rhythms. “We hoped for slightly more “advanced” music, but were very happy with the results,” says MacCallum.

This upward rise in appeal only lasted for 500 or 600 generations. After that, the loops hit a plateau and apparently stopped evolving. MacCallum and Leroi think that this is because the loops become so complex that their intertwining melodies and rhythms don’t merge very well. The act of mating, rather than combining the best of both parents, ends up splitting up elements that work well together.

Alternatively, it may be that as the loops become well adapted to the tastes of their listeners, it becomes harder to change them without messing something up – they become trapped in an adaptive peak, unable to reach a new peak without first crossing into a valley. Both of these processes have their counterparts in the world of real genetics. MacCallum and Leroi argue that this might explain why many old musical styles tend to be very conservative, changing little over thousands of years.

DarwinTunes is the latest in a line of digital evolution programs, where computer code copies itself, mutates, evolves and adapts. For example, in The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins describes a programme of the same name that can evolve complex shapes from initially simple collections of lines. These programs never fully reflect the reality of evolution, but they allow scientists to ask basic questions about evolution in a controlled way. They can set up controlled experiments, repeat them, replay evolution from specific points, and analyse how specifically their artificial creations have changed. It’s incredibly hard (but not impossible) to do that with actual living things.

But Michael Scott Cuthbert, who works on computer-aided musical analysis at MIT, is sceptical that the approach tells us anything about the evolution of music. “They have shown that people can sense a glimmer of the things they like about music even when most of it consists of sounds they hate,” he says.  “But it doesn’t give any information about why music sounded differently in the past, why people like different things today, or how music might evolve in the future.”

“Suppose you randomly threw car parts into piles and asked people to rate those they’d most like to buy,” he says. “Then you took parts from the highest-rated heaps, and rearranged them into new heaps.  People might hate all of them at first, but they’d probably rate the ones with four tires or a trunk in the back or a steering wheel in the drivers’ seat higher than the rest. Do that long enough and I wouldn’t be surprised that you’d eventually get something that looked like a 2011 Honda Civic.  But that doesn’t mean that that’s how a car is made.”

MacCallum and Leroi acknowledge that real music changes in a more complex way than DarwinTunes currently captures. Composers write music with their own intentions, while listeners choose music based not just on what it sounds like, but on whether other people like it too. DarwinTunes could be changed to include these dynamics – volunteers could combine the loops themselves, and listeners could see earlier ratings.

“The big question for me is can we bring the quality up a level where you don’t have to be curious about the science to take part?” says MacCallum. “We can do that if we had millions of users, and segregated them based on musical genre preferences.  It’s a chicken and egg problem though!”

Reference: MacCallum, Mauch, Burt & Leroi. 2012. Evolution of music by public choice. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1203182109

Image by Pedro Sanchez

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Violinists can’t tell the difference between Stradivarius violins and new ones

Antique Italian violins, such as those crafted by Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri “del Gesu”, can fetch millions of dollars.  Many violinists truly believe that these instruments are better than newly made violins, and several scientists have tried to work out why. Some suspected at the unusually dense wood, harvested from Alpine spruces that grew during an Ice Age. Others pointed the finger at the varnish, or the chemicals that Stradivari used to treat the wood.

But Claudia Fritz (a scientist who studies instrument acoustics) and Joseph Curtin (a violin-maker) may have discovered the real secret to a Stradivarius’s sound: nothing at all.

The duo asked professional violinists to play new violins, and old ones by Stradivari and Guarneri. They couldn’t tell the difference between the two groups. One of the new violins even emerged as the most commonly preferred instrument.


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Treating tinnitus with an individually tailored piece of music

Many of us have just spent the Christmas season with a persistent and irritating ringing noise in our ears. But now that the relatives have gone home for the year, it’s worth remembering that a large proportion of the population suffers from a more persistent ringing sensation – tinnitus. It happens in the absence of noise, it’s one of the most common symptoms of hearing disorders, and it’s loud enough to affect the quality of life of around 1-3% of the population. 

There have been many suggested treatments but none of them have become firmly established and most simply try to help people manage or cope with their symptom. Now, Hidehiko Okamoto from Westfalian Wilhelms University has developed a simple, cheap and enjoyable way of reducing the severity of the ringing sound. The treatment has showed some promise in early trials and even better, it is personally tailored to individual patients. 

The method is simple. Find out the main frequency of the ringing sound that the patient hears – this becomes the target. Ask the patient to select their favourite piece of music and digitally cut out the frequencies one octave on either side of this target. Get the patient to listen to this “notched” piece of music every day. Lather, rinse and repeat for a year.

Okamoto tried this technique in a small double-blind trial of 23 people, eight of whom were randomly selected to receive the right treatment. Another eight listened to a piece of music that had a random set of frequencies cut out of it, while seven were just monitored. The treatment seemed to work. After a year, the treatment group felt that their ringing sensation was around 30% quieter, while the other two groups showed no improvements.


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35,000-year-old German flutes display excellent kraftwerk

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThirty-five thousands years before the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, the lands of Germany were resounding to a very different sort of musical sound – tunes emanating from flutes made of bird bones and ivory. These thin tubes have recently been uncovered by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen and they’re some of the oldest musical instruments ever discovered. 

The ancient flutes hail from the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany’s Ach Valley, a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric finds that have also yielded the oldest known figurative art. The flutes were found less than a metre away. Together, these finds show that Europeans had a rich artistic and musical culture as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 35,000 years ago.

Conard unearthed the new finds last year, including several flutes of ivory and bone. One of these was found in 12 separate pieces, but once they were recovered and united, the insturment proved to be remarkably complete. It was so beautifully preserved that we can even work out its source – its maker fashioned it from the arm bone of a griffon vulture, a large species with long bones that make for good wind instruments.

The flute is just 8mm in diameter and has five finger holes along its 22cm length. Around each hole, there are up to four precisely carved notches, which Conard thinks were measurement markers that told the tool-maker where to chip an opening. Two deep, V-shaped notches were also carved into one end, which was presumably where its maker blew into to make sweet, prehistoric music.


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Alex the parrot and Snowball the cockatoo show that birds can dance

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchSnowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, is an internet superstar. He’s known for his penchant for grooving to music, notably Everybody by the Backstreet Boys. As the music plays, Snowball bobs his head and taps his feet in perfect time with it. If it speeds up or slows down, his rhythm does too. He is one of two parrots that are leading a dance dance revolution, by showing that the human behaviour of moving in time to music (even really, really bad music) is one that’s shared by other animals.

People who’ve attended parties at scientific events may question the ability of humans to move to a beat, but it’s a fairly universal skill and one that many people thought was unique to our species. After all, domesticated animals like dogs and cats don’t do it, and they spend their time with humans and have been exposed to our music for thousands of years. Other animals may produce periodic sounds or perform complex dances, but sensing and moving in time to complex rhythms is a different matter.

Snowball and his feathered friend Alex (the late, famous African grey parrot) could change all of that. Aniruddh Patel from San Diego’s Neurosciences Institute found evidence of Snowball’s excellent rhythm under laboratory conditions. Before Alex’s recent death, Adena Schachner from Harvard University (working with Alex’s keeper, the renowned parrot psychologist Irene Pepperberg) found that he could also match Snowball’s bopping.

Both groups of researchers believe that the parrots’ dancing skills depend on a talent for “vocal learning” – the ability to mimic the sounds of other individuals. To do this, animals need to have excellent coordination between their sense of hearing and their motor functions. Indeed, after searching YouTube for videos of dancing animals, Schachner only found evidence of moving to beats (a talent known as “entrainment”) among 15 species that practice vocal learning – 14 parrots and the Asian elephant.


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Ballet postures have become more extreme over time

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchClassical ballet is one of the more conservative of art forms. Dancers express emotion and character through the same vocabulary of postures that was originally set in 1760, and often with entire choreographies that have been handed down for centuries.

But even amid this rigorous cascade of tradition, there is room for change. Over the years, successive generations of ballet dancers have subtly tinkered with positions that are ostensibly fixed and limited by the physical constraints of a dancer’s body. The only changes ought to be a result of the dancers’ varying abilities. But that’s not the case – over the last 60 years, the position of a dancer’s has become increasingly vertical, with the moving leg in particular being lifted ever higher.

Elena Daprati from the University of Rome thinks that these tweaks have been driven by social pressures from audiences. When she reduced pictures of dancers to stick-figure drawings, she found that even people who have never seen a ballet prefer the postures of modern dancers to those of dancers 60 years ago. The results suggest that art can change very gradually because of constant interactions between performers and their audiences.

Almost more importantly, they show that the usually unquantifiable world of artistic expression can be studied with a scientific lens. In this case, the formal nature of classical ballet gave Daprati a rare opportunity to do so. Body postures could be objectively analysed, movements are standardised enough to allow for easy comparisons, and most of all, performances have been carefully archived for decades. That provided Daprati’s group with more than enough raw material for studying the evolution of ballet postures over time.


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How Kenny Rogers and Frank Sinatra could help stroke patients

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWe’re used to thinking of neglect as a lack of appropriate care, but to a neuroscientist, it has a very different meaning. “Spatial neglect” is a neurological condition caused by damage to one half of the brain (usually the right), where patients find it difficult to pay attention to one half of their visual space (usually the left).

This bias can affect their mental images too. If neglect patients are asked to draw clocks, many only include the numbers from 12 to 6, while some shunt all the numbers to the right side. When two famous neglect patients were asked to describe a familiar square in Milan, the city they grew up in, the landmarks they reported shifted depending on where they pictured themselves standing in the square. They would only report buildings to the right of their imagined position – swap the location and new buildings would suddenly come into mental view.

Patients tend to be particularly unaware of things on the left if other objects on the right are vying for their attention – this phenomenon, where only one of two simultaneously presented objects is seen, is called “visual extinction“.

Neglect is clearly a fascinating condition but also a debilitating and underappreciated one. It affects up to 60% of patients who suffer strokes on the right side of their brain, and it can hamper recovery and deny patients their independence. As such, there are plenty of researchers interested in finding ways of improving its symptoms. David Soto from Imperial College London is one of them, and he has discovered a deceptively simple way of helping neglect patients to regain their lost awareness – listen to their favourite music.

Soto was encouraged by a recent study, which found that stroke victims showed greater improvements in both memory and attention when they tuned into music than when they listened to audiobooks or worked in silence. And other studies have suggested that emotional faces are less likely to fall prey to visual extinction than less compelling images. But Soto wanted to see if the patient’s own emotional state had anything to do with their awareness. Would it be possible to reduce the symptoms of neglect simply by making patients feel happier through the medium of pleasant melodies?


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Why music sounds right – the hidden tones in our own speech


Have you ever looked at a piano keyboard and wondered why the notes of an octave were divided up into seven white keys and five black ones? After all, the sounds that lie between one C and another form a continuous range of frequencies. And yet, throughout history and across different cultures, we have consistently divided them into these set of twelve semi-tones.

The keys on a piano are a physical representation of the sounds of our speech.Now, Deborah Ross and colleagues from DukeUniversity have found the answer. These musical intervals actually reflect the sounds of our own speech, and are hidden in the vowels we use. Musical scales just sound right because they match the frequency ratios that our brains are primed to detect.

When you talk, your larynx produces sound waves which resonate through your throats. The rest of your vocal tract -your lips, tongue, mouth and more – act as a living, flexible organ pipe, that shifts in shape to change the characteristics of these waves.

What eventually escapes from our mouths is a combination of sound waves travelling at different frequencies, some louder than others. The loudest frequencies are called formants, and different vowels have different ‘formant signature’. Our brains use these to distinguish between different vowel sounds.


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Female antbirds jam their partners’ songs when other females approach

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThe songs of birds certainly sound beautiful to our ears but listen closely and you’ll hear a world of conflict and subterfuge. Take the Preuvian warbling antbird (Hypocnemis peruviana). Males and females live in pairs and they will defend their territories from other duos by singing beautifully coordinated duets.

Theirs is a most melodious partnership but throw another female into the mix and the harmony breaks down. The duet turns into an acoustic battle – the female tries to jam the song of her partner with her own, so that the  notes of his amorous solo fail to reach the ears of the intruder. The male in turn adjusts his song to avoid his mate’s interference.

Joseph Tobias and Nathalie Sneddon uncovered this complicated sonic rivalry by recording 27 pairs of wild warbling antbirds in their natural environment in Peru. Males and females sing different tunes and their duets consist of a regular series of couplets – the male always leads and the female chimes in immediately after. These couplets require split-second timing. If she comes in any earlier, the female interferes with the male’s song.

But she often does. The quicker she responds to his song, the greater the interference, and the more likely the male is to take counter-measures. If he’s being sung over, the male abandons his current son and just begins a new one after the female finishes. In very rare situations, she jams him again, and the cycle continues.


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Butterflies scrounge off ants by mimicking the music of queens

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAnts are among the most successful of living things. Their nests are well-defended fortresses, coordinated through complex communication systems involving touch and chemical signals. These strongholds are stocked with food and secure from the outside world, so they make a tempting prospect for any burglars that manage to break in.

One species of butterfly – the mountain alcon blue (Maculinea rebeli) – is just one such master felon. Somehow, it manipulates the workers into carrying it inside the nest, feeding it and caring for it. The caterpillar does so little for itself that it packs on 98% of its eventual adult weight in the company of ants. How does it do it?

Partly, the caterpillar secretes chemicals that imitate those found on ant larvae, and it mimics their actions too. But that can’t be the only explanation for ant workers will actually rescue alcon blue caterpillars over their colony’s genuine larvae. And if food is short, they will even kill their own young to feed the parasitic impostors. In the entire colony, only one individual is treated with as much respect as the caterpillars – the queen.

Now, Francesca Barbero from the University of Torino has found out how the alcon blues manage to get the royal treatment – they “sing” in the style of queens, producing uncanny cover versions using instruments built into their bodies.


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Eland antelopes click their knees to prove their dominance

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou are the alpha male, the top dog, the grand kahuna. A young upstart is trying to muscle his way onto your turf and compete for your women. Your solution – click your knees loudly at him. It seems like a strange strategy. For humans, a clicking knee would hardly be a sign of strength but it’s all part of the bizarre communications of the world’s largest antelope – the eland.

Eland.jpgElands bulls have a strict pecking order that determines their access to females in the herd. On the few occasions when they fight, they hardly ever use their dangerous horns and hooves, preferring instead to prove their strength through neck-wrestling. Even these grapples are a rarity; most eland conflicts are settled without violence through a series of ritual signals.

These signals include the bizarre knee-clicks which the bulls make with their front legs while walking. They sound like castanets and can be heard hundreds of metres away (listen to a WAV file). Predators could obviously use these distinctive noises to home in on eland males, so what purpose could they serve that compensates for this risk?

According to Jakob Bro-Jorgensen from the University of Jyvaskyla and Torben Dabelsteen from the University of Copenhagen, the clicks are a message to other males and their frequencies provide an honest and accurate measure of the individual’s size and fighting ability.

Bro-Jorgenson and Dabelsteen spent several months in Kenya studying the signals used by elands. Armed with little more than a microphone and a camera, they meticulously recorded information on 48 males and followed up on 14 of these a year later to see if they had changed at all. They found that the frequency of an eland’s knee-clicks reflects its size. The bigger the animal, the lower the frequency of its clicks and the deeper the resulting sound.