Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Drummers get all the chicks. Photo by Daiju Kitamura/Aflo/Corbis

Messing With Their Rhythm

Ocean warming is quickening the pace of the painted goby’s drumming.

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by Joshua Rapp Learn

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The painted goby, a tiny fish that lives in parts of the Mediterranean Sea, is among nature’s premier percussionists. Like a gorilla beating its chest, male painted gobies use a drumming rhythm—a rumbly bum bum bum—to communicate. Yet where a gorilla uses drumming as a display of dominance, a goby drums to find a mate. If a male goby hits the beat just right, he might entice a female to share his nest.

Unfortunately for the painted goby, climate change might disrupt this percussive persuasion.

In laboratory experiments, researchers recently found that increases in water temperature cause male gobies to speed up the tempo of their drumming. This results in a courtship overture that is shorter, and potentially less attractive, than normal, says Carla Amorim, a biologist who led the new study. She says that if females choose suitable mates based on the length of their drumming display, male gobies with shorter performances may not be as alluring.

The change could also lead to some unexpected encounters.

There are a number of species of goby that drum, and each one beats with a slightly different rhythm. Subtle differences in tempo and note duration, otherwise known as the pulse period, can mean the difference between finding a mate or attracting a confused female from a different species.

Amorim says that male painted gobies may start to accidentally charm females of closely related species if climate change tweaks the beat of their drum. Pulse period is a key feature that allows gobies to recognize their species, she says, so shorter rhythms may confuse the mating process.

Climate change isn’t only disrupting the mating strategies of painted gobies. Previous research shows that warmer temperatures could also affect species like Arno gobies and Padanian gobies. And though it’s tough to draw strong conclusions from the current data, some other species of fish and even some insects, frogs, and toads could be similarly affected.