Tiny Amazonian Bird's Record-Breaking Mating Call Is Louder Than a Plane Taking Off

A tiny Amazonian bird has become a world-record breaker thanks to its "ridiculously loud" mating call.

The white bellbird, which lives in a remote mountainous rainforest in the northern Brazil's Amazon, has the loudest recorded bird call, according to scientists. Its mating song is noisier than a plane taking off, even though the creature weighs a quarter of a kilogram.

By heading deep into the mountainous forest, researchers were able to record the mating songs of two species of contingas birds: the white bellbird and the screaming piha. The latter previously held the record for the loudest bird call.

When the pihas sang, they hit up to 116.1 decibels (dB), while the white bellbirds reached 124.5dB. That is louder than the sound of a plane taking off.

The researchers also learned about the song styles. While the piha performed one type of song, white bellbirds had two, with one more common than the other.

Researchers watched the birds singing in a range of scenarios, including when they were approached by females.

Unexpectedly for the researchers, the male bellbirds sang loudest when they were joined by females on their display perches. Usually, animals are loudest when communicating across long distances.

Halfway through the song, the male would "dramatically" swivel his body to face his potential mate head on, the authors wrote in Current Biology. The females would move away when or just before their potential mate sang, but still within around 4 meters of the racket.

Study co-author professor Jeff Podos, an expert in vertebrate behaviour at University of Massachusetts, told Newsweek: "The songs seem to startle the females, which seems like the opposite of what the males would want to do."

No other species on the planet is thought to have such a loud song which is performed so closely to its receiver, the researchers wrote. The females likely have to balance the need to hear the different songs with that of protecting their hearing, the team said.

Past research has showcased the complex courtship displays of the cotinga birds, and their relatives the manakins.

Podos said the study offers "a glimpse into unusual social interactions in birds, and how sexual selection [when males compete to mate with females] can drive the evolution of bizarre mating traits such as ridiculously loud songs."

This noisy bird is ripe for further study, said Podos.

"There's still so much we don't know. Such as, how do the birds sing so loudly? How much do they change how they sing depending on context? How do these birds' songs compare to those of other types of birds?"

Measuring the call wasn't without its obstacles, Podos said. Study co-author Mario Cohn-Haft of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia, Brazil, suggested to Podos they should investigate the white bellbird following a trip to the field site in 2017.

His interest was piqued by the bird's thick and developed ribs and abdominal muscles, which he believed might help it sing. But there was little existing literature on the small but mighty bird and its song.

"One of the most challenging parts of the research was to gain access to the top of the mountain where the bellbirds live," said Podos. "We needed to hire a large crew of local guys to help cut a trail through the forest up the mountain."

With the help of local workers who carried their equipment and materials up and down the mountain, the team walked for two days, camping once halfway and again at the top, Podos recalled.

"Another main challenge was figuring out how to measure amplitude from singing birds," he said.

"One key requirement is that we needed to measure the distance between us and the birds, because amplitude will be softer the farther away you are from the singing bird. We ended up using a laser range finder, the type made for golf players," he said.

But, Podos suggested, the effort was worth it.

"It's very useful to learn more about the social lives and biology of animals in remote forests," he said. "As we learn more about these animals, it makes us more likely to want to protect them and the habitats in which they live."

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A still from a video showing the male whitebird screaming its mating call. Anselmo d'Affonseca
Tiny Amazonian Bird's Record-Breaking Mating Call Is Louder Than a Plane Taking Off | Tech & Science