Humming in tune: Sex and species recognition by mosquitoes on the wing

Gabriella Gibson, Ben Warren, Ian J. Russell

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Mosquitoes are more sensitive to sound than any other insect due to the remarkable properties of their antennae and Johnston's organ at the base of each antenna. Male mosquitoes detect and locate female mosquitoes by hearing the female's flight tone, but until recently we had no idea that females also respond to male flight tones. Our investigation of a novel mechanism of sex recognition in Toxorhynchites brevipalpis revealed that male and female mosquitoes actively respond to the flight tones of other flying mosquitoes by altering their own wing-beat frequencies. Male-female pairs converge on a shared harmonic of their respective fundamental flight tones, whereas same sex pairs diverge. Most frequency matching occurs at frequencies beyond the detection range of the Johnston's organ but within the range of mechanical responsiveness of the antennae. We have shown that this is possible because the Johnston's organ is tuned to, and able to detect difference tones in, the harmonics of antennal vibrations which are generated by the combined input of flight tones from both mosquitoes. Acoustic distortion in hearing organs exists usually as an interesting epiphenomenon. Mosquitoes, however, appear to use it as a sensory cue that enables male-female pairs to communicate through a signal that depends on auditory interactions between them. Frequency matching may also provide a means of species recognition. Morphologically identical but reproductively isolated molecular forms of Anopheles gambiae fly in the same mating swarms, but rarely hybridize. Extended frequency matching occurs almost exclusively between males and females of the same molecular form, suggesting that this behavior is associated with observed assortative mating.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)527-540
    Number of pages14
    JournalJARO - Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2010


    • difference tones
    • distortion products
    • frequency matching
    • frequency tuning
    • hearing
    • Johnston's organ
    • mosquito
    • sexual recognition
    • species recognition


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