Ask any longtime floating home resident and they’ll tell you about the toadfish, or more likely, they’ll tell you about its mating call. A steady drone that lasts all summer long, the song of the toadfish (aka the “plainfin midshipman”) has triggered many unlikely conspiracy stories over the years, on matters ranging from aliens to secret experiments by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Then, in the mid-’80s, scientists realized that the sound, which is actually muscles vibrating 6,000 times a minute, came from the toadfish. A festival was created in their honor, but the biology behind their call remained a mystery until 2004.
Joseph Sisneros, a University of Washington researcher, and Andrew Bass, a neuroscientist at Cornell, discovered that female fish who responded most eagerly to the sound were full of estrogen in its natural form, called estradiol, and that males whose humming was strongest were full of testosterone. Some of the most virile males could call for up to an hour, effectively acting as loudspeakers and attracting females who had sufficient hormone levels. Annoyance aside, there is another downside to the call — it attracts sharks.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine as “Call of the Wild”.