Earth Notes: Insects and Gas Compressor Noise

Aug 23, 2017

Many insects and spiders rely on sounds and vibrations to find food, meet mates and detect predators. So it’s likely they’d be sensitive to the roar of heavy machinery. 

Insect traps with gas compressors
Credit Jesse Barber

And there’s no shortage of industrial noise in the San Juan Basin in northwest New Mexico, the second largest natural gas field in the U.S. The Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area has legions of compressors—ranging from minivan to warehouse size—that produce a relentless racket to move the gas along pipelines.

Scientists have found it an ideal proving ground to test exactly how compressor noise affects insects.

Researchers from Boise State University and the Florida Museum of Natural History have looked at sites with and without compressors, surveying spiders and other non-flying bugs.

Some families of crickets and grasshoppers are negatively affected by the din, their numbers dropping by up to 95 percent near the machines. Velvet ant and wolf spider populations also decline—by almost half with every 10-decibel increase in compressor noise. Curiously, jumping spiders and leaf beetles aren’t affected—and leafhopper numbers surge as the decibels rise.

The current theory is that insects that rely on subtle sounds and vibrations to detect prey can’t hear them amid the industrial cacophony. But, prey species like leafhoppers use the noise as a kind of sonic cloaking device to mask their sounds—cleverly shielding themselves from their enemies.