Vibration-guided mate searching in treehoppers : directional accuracy and sampling strategies in a complex sensory environment

Gibson, Jeremy S. and Cocroft, Reginald B. (2018) Vibration-guided mate searching in treehoppers : directional accuracy and sampling strategies in a complex sensory environment. Journal of Experimental Biology, 221 (6). jeb175083. ISSN 0022-0949 (

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Animal movement decisions involve an action-perception cycle in which sensory flow influences motor output. Key aspects of the action-perception cycle involved in movement decisions can be identified by integrating path information with measurement of environmental cues. We studied mate searching in insects for which the primary sensory cues are mechanical vibrations traveling through the tissues of living plants. We mapped search paths of male thornbug treehoppers locating stationary females through an exchange of vibrational signals. At each of the males' sampling locations, we used two-dimensional laser vibrometry to measure stem motion produced by female vibrational signals. We related properties of the vibrational signals to the males’ movement direction, inter-sample distance, and accuracy. Males experienced gradients in signal amplitude and in the whirling motion of the plant stem, and these gradients were influenced to varying degrees by source distance and local stem properties. Males changed their sampling behavior during the search, making longer inter-sample movements farther from the source where uncertainty is higher. The primary directional cue used by searching males was the direction of wave propagation, and males made more accurate decisions when signal amplitude was higher, when time delays were longer between front and back legs, and when female responses were short in duration. The whirling motion of plant stems, including both the eccentricity and the major axes of motion, is a fundamental feature of vibrational environments on living plants, and we show for the first time that it has important influences on the decisions of vibrationally-homing insects.