Five years ago, the first stories broke about a mysterious syndrome affecting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba. Each case began with the victim hearing inexplicable grating sounds that people around them couldn’t detect, which then developed into headaches, hearing loss, vertigo, and even brain damage. New cases began to appear in embassies all around the world, with the most recent reports occurring just last year, and the phenomenon came to be known as Havana syndrome.
To this day, we still don’t know what might be causing it. Theories range from secret government weapons to the power of mass suggestion, from exposure to harmful pesticides to the sounds of noisy tropical crickets. One of the earliest speculations was that it might be a sonic weapon, since we know that sound can be directed to a single listener without anyone else noticing, and that sound can do just as much harm as it can good. The secret behind Havana syndrome, whether it’s an acoustic attack or something else, is still waiting to be uncovered, but sound’s potential as a weapon is nothing new. Animals have been shaping soundscapes to their advantage for millions of years and we’ve used sound as a wartime strategy for just about as long as we’ve had wartime strategies.
This episode’s the first of a three-part series where I’ll be taking a look at how sonic tactics are used by everything from sperm whales to tiger moths, from Bronze Age battles to the now-famous “Ghost Army” of World War II, and just what the future of sonic warfare might hold.
We’re all familiar with the roar of a tiger, the howl of a wolf, or the hiss of a snake: animals use sound to not only communicate with each other but with their natural enemies, to warn them away and hopefully avoid a fight. But can animals use sound itself in a fight? The answer turns out to be yes, especially underwater where sound waves can be louder and more destructive than in the air. One such animal is the pistol or snapping shrimp, and I’ve talked about them before. Despite being barely an inch long, the pistol shrimp can create the loudest sound on Earth by snapping its claw to throw a literal bubble of sound at its prey, a bubble that’s as hot as the Sun and louder than a blue whale.
The title for the world’s loudest animal arguably goes to the sperm whale, and it might also use sound as a weapon. Its clicks, which it uses for echolocation, are 230 decibels, so loud that they can be fatal to a diver who gets too close. Check out my blog for a short video from author James Nestor about a diving team’s awe-inspiring encounter with a pod of sperm whales, and how one diver found his left hand paralyzed for several hours after reaching too close to one of the clicking whales.
Being around a sperm whale who’s blasting away at full volume can be deadly for humans, but are their sounds also a weapon that they can aim and fire to stun giant squid? Biologists still aren’t sure. For a long time, the answer seemed to be yes, but some more recent studies suggest that might not be the case: perhaps sperm whales are just loud because they’re so big. Regardless, as one of the biggest and loudest animals to have ever lived, keeping our distance is probably a good idea.
Another cetacean (seh-tay-shan) that definitely uses sound to attack its prey is the killer whale, which hunts just about everything it can eat, from sharks to seals to other whales. When it comes to feeding on large schools of fish, a pod of orcas will often surround them and use slaps of their flukes, and the shock wave the sound makes, to stun the fish and keep them from swimming away. While the fish are left reeling from the blasts, the whales are free to eat as many as they like.
You can find a video link on my blog to a rare underwater recording of such a feeding event, called “carousel feeding,” so you can see – and hear – their tail slaps for yourself.
On the land, animals use colors and shapes to camouflage themselves: leaf insects look like leaves at a glance, and owl butterflies have wings that look like owl eyes. It turns out that some animals also use sound to disguise themselves. Certain palp-footed spider species don’t just look like velvet ants at a glance, they actually mimic the sounds of a velvet ant to trick geckos that’d normally prey on them into letting them go. A recent study also found that some species of clearwing moths not only look like stingless honey bees, but they buzz exactly the same way as a buzzing bee.
But the most dramatic use of sonic tactics among insects might be the tiger moth. They’re eaten by bats who hunt them using echolocation, and many moths use their own clicking sounds to warn each other that they’ve heard a bat so they can scatter. One species in particular, though, takes it further. Their clicks disrupt the bat’s sonar so that it essentially goes blind when it gets too close to the moth, letting the moth fly safely away while the bat tries to regain its bearings. There’s a link to a short video clip on my blog so you can see a tiger moth using that trick to escape from a hungry bat.
Some of those inventive uses of sound in the animal kingdom bear a striking resemblance to the audio tactics we’ve also come up with over the years, whether it’s using sound to trick an enemy army or loud music and noise to disperse a crowd. Next time we’ll explore some fascinating examples of how sonic warfare has changed the course of history, and where its future might lead us.
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