Water boatman: Loudest animal per pound champ

Here's a member of the water boatman family.
CC Me'nthedogs/Flickr

If I asked you to name the loudest animal on earth relative to its body size, you might wish to point to a friend, a lover or a neighborhood cat.

I would, however, ask you to revise your view and consider the singing penis.

Please, I am not referring to any cartoons you might have watched in your youth or your lunch hour. Instead, please, if you haven't already, meet the water boatman. He's not easy to spot, as he's only 2mm long.

However, he enjoys a technique of making noise that, scientists have now discovered, can be as loud as a large orchestra sounds to the rich folks in front row. Which reportedly makes him, pound for pound, the loudest animal in the world.

The BBC tells me that a team of biologists and engineers from Scotland and France decided to measure the power of the water boatman's strumming. I use the word "strumming" because I am not a biologist nor an engineer. They would use the term "stridulation".

This appears to be a a strident attempt on the part of the little water creature to achieve elation. It is a display of courtship which consists of him rubbing his penis against his abdomen to play Vivaldi's "Four Seasons". Or at least as loud as Vivaldi's "Four Seasons".

Here's a member of the water boatman family.
CC Me'nthedogs/Flickr

The water boatman lives in freshwater, so the scientists rigged up special underwater mikes in order to accurately record his collective works.

Dr James Windmill from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow told the BBC that the only reason we humans aren't regularly driven to entire distraction by these sounds is that the water boatman just doesn't come up for air, preferring to spend his life underwater. 99% of the sound level is, apparently, lost by the time it pierces the water and flies into the air.

Which is a good thing, as even his average level of sound is equivalent to that of a freight train passing in front your garden.

Dr. Windmill reportedly wonders whether the noise is so loud because sexual selection among the water boatinsects is highly competitive and each male wants to scramble the signal sent out by his rivals.

The researchers are in no doubt, though, that this insect is the loudest in the world for its size. A vast blue whale can only manage 188 decibels, which would make it seem like a relative whisper for its size, should it ever hear the water boatman.

It seems that these little insects-- technical name "Micronecta scholtzi"-- don't have natural predators, so they feel confident to scream as loud as they can for their sexual supper.

What is odd, though, for the scientists is that they can't work out how the little things manage to use their penises to make so much noise. Indeed, they wish they could, as it might help with the future design of ultrasonic systems, which have many uses in the industrial and biomedical fields.

For now, we merely have a world champion-- one who, if only he could be truly understood, might sing his way to assist in the advancement of science.

  • Chris Matyszczyk

    Chris has been a multi award-winning executive creative director with some of the most celebrated advertising agencies in the world. His creative work has been recognized at the Cannes Advertising Festival, the New York Festivals, Clio, the One Show, as well as many other festivals around the world. His writing has appeared in such publications as the Financial Times, the European, the Sacramento Bee and The Singapore Press Holdings Group.

    He currently advises major global companies about content creation and marketing, through his company Howard Raucous LLC.

    He brings an irreverent, sarcastic, and sometimes ironic voice to the tech world.