Sound studied as a weapon against agricultural pests by MSU biological sciences researcher

Brandon Barton pictured in a lab with his students
MSU assistant professor of biological sciences Brandon Barton is conducting research on using sound to control pests in an environmentally friendly way. Senior biochemistry major Jillian M. Kurts of Elberta, Alabama, and Carter L. Wolff, a doctoral student from St. Joseph, Michigan, are assisting with the research. (Photo by Megan Bean)

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A Mississippi State University faculty member is using a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to determine the effects of sound on grasshopper physiology and behavior, an implication that could be good for both farming and the environment.

Brandon Barton, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, received the one-year $113,000 USDA grant—Sonic Weaponry for Managing Rangeland Grasshoppers and Mormon Crickets—in collaboration with the USDA-APHIS-PPQ-Science and Technology Phoenix Lab Rangeland Unit.

The USDA Plant Protection Act provides funds for research to strengthen, prevent, detect and mitigate invasive pests and diseases.

 “My lab is interested in how sound and sound pollution affect ecosystems,” Barton said. “This project lets us look at how to weaponize sound to create more environmentally friendly ways of controlling pests.

“Grasshoppers can be significant pests and are usually controlled with insecticides—often applied from airplanes,” Barton said. “These chemicals don’t always just kill grasshoppers—they can kill beneficial species too. The USDA has been interested in alternative, ‘green’ control techniques. Our idea is to use sound to prevent grasshoppers from eating high-quality plants that are important to livestock.

“One goal is to find sounds that can be used to move grasshoppers away from areas we want to protect. There also is evidence that stress causes animals to eat more sugary/carbohydrate-rich foods. Most people can relate—during college finals week or other stressful times, people reach for ‘comfort foods’ like chocolate, chips, or other unhealthy food. Grasshoppers do the same—stress them out and they switch to high-carb plants. This is a good thing for managers, because high-carb is considered low-quality for cattle and other aspects of agriculture.”

Barton is collaborating with students on the research initiative, including Jillian M. Kurtts, a senior biochemistry major from Elberta, Alabama, and member of MSU’s Judy and Bobby Shackouls Honors College. Carter L. Wolff, a Ph.D. student from St. Joseph, Michigan, is conducting an experiment this summer in the field to determine if sound can change entire plant communities by changing grasshopper diet.

“It’s super cool stuff,” Barton said. “No previous studies have shown that human-generated sounds can induce a chain reaction that alters ecosystems or can be used for pest management.”

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