One of the weirdest parts about being a human in modern times is that we know more about our planet and the universe than ever before — which also makes it abundantly clear how much more there is to know. But even in the face of a massive species extinction, we still have probably only identified 15 percent or less of all life on Earth.
Even the very animals we share our homes with — dogs and cats — are, in many ways, a mystery. We’re just now learning that dogs really can read our emotions.
When it comes to insects, we know even less. According to the Smithsonian: “Most authorities agree that there are more insect species that have not been described (named by science) than there are insect species that have been previously named. Conservative estimates suggest that this figure is 2 million, but estimates extend to 30 million.”
Which is why it’s believable that crickets — those ubiquitous evening chirpers — can sing like angels. Or, as singer and musician Tom Waits called them on NPR: “the Vienna Boys Choir.” Waits was referring to a 1992 recording of cricket song that was radically slowed down; He called it one of the strangest recordings he owned.
It’s a truly haunting, beautiful sound, and relaxing too. Many people have called the recording fake, but digging into the story, as the Internet sleuths at Snopes did, reveals that while the specifics of the recording are mysterious, it’s not a joke, and it’s not false.
But back to the recording. What you’re hearing is cricket song, radically slowed down, and possibly toyed with in other ways with audio equipment.
Plenty of others have tried the experiment: One of my favorite examples is the video below, which takes a single cricket chirp, and slows it down in increments, all of which isn’t very exciting until, that is, you get to the 800X slower version. Then there’s that sound that hits you right in the belly — and this is just a single cricket, so a few of them singing together could come close to the original cricket chorus.
After the skepticism and beyond the “wow” factor, these recordings make me think about the nature of time. We know that insects live profoundly shorter lives than we do, but what if crickets simply perceive time differently than we do? What if the cricket lifespan that feels like 3 months to us seems to be 80 years to them? When you think about it that way, each “chirp” could be a full-on song.
Maybe they’re singing beautiful choruses to find just the right partner to mate with. Maybe their lives are about music, only they make that music with their bodies. It’s not a crazy idea, just an unproven one.
Understanding animal communication is still in its infancy. For years, whale songs were not understood, and now scientists are beginning to decode them. Interspecies communication is just beginning to be examined, and now scientists are communicating with dolphins via keyboards. My favorite article of 2015 was this one in the New York Times about how birds communicate in the forest and how other animals are listening, too.
There might be entire conversations going on throughout the natural world. Just because we can’t hear them, doesn’t mean they’re not real.