Look who is listening

Print edition : June 14, 2013

The greater wax moth Photo: Ian Kimber

Researchers at University of Strathclyde, United Kingdom, have discovered that the greater wax moth is capable of sensing sound frequencies of up to 300 kHz, the highest recorded frequency sensitivity of any animal in the natural world.

Humans are capable of hearing only sounds of up to a maximum of 20 kHz, which drops to around 12-15 kHz as they age. Even dolphins, known exponents of ultrasound, can go only up to around 160 kHz.

“We are extremely surprised to find that the moth is capable of hearing sound frequencies at this level and we hope to use the findings to better understand air-coupled ultrasound,” said James Windmill, who has led the research.

“The use of ultrasound in air is extremely difficult as such high frequency signals are quickly weakened in air. Other animals such as bats are known to use ultrasound to communicate and now it is clear that moths are capable of even more advanced use of sound. It’s not entirely clear how the moths have developed to be able to hear at such a high frequency, but it is possible that they have had to improve the communication between each other to avoid capture from their natural predator—the bat—which uses similar sounds.”

It is hoped that by studying the unprecedented capabilities of the moth’s ear, the team can produce new technological innovations, such as micro-scale acoustic systems and miniature microphones.

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