Study: Mysterious Sound Recorded By Sickened Cuba Embassy Staff Was Just Crickets

The U.S. embassy in Cuba. (Photo: Desmond Boylan, AP)

Since 2017, the baffling case of U.S. diplomatic staff in Cuba and elsewhere who developed symptoms resembling brain trauma after allegedly hearing strange noises (sometimes called “Havana syndrome”) have spawned plenty of theories of varying plausibility: A “covert sonic device,” malfunctioning spy gear, weaponised microwave radiation, poisoning, and even psychogenic illness.

In the latest twist, the New York Times reported on Friday, a pair of researchers is pretty sure that one of the recordings of the strange noises captured nothing more nefarious than a particularly loud breed of cricket.

Per the Times report, Alexander Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley, and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the University of Lincoln in England have analysed one recording and concluded it seems to match up with the infamously loud Indies short-tailed cricket (Anurogryllus celerinictus). Their research has been presented at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, according to the Times, and has been released in a preliminary version (that has not yet gone through peer review, and is planned for submission to a journal shortly).

The Times wrote:

When [Mr. Stubbs] and Dr. Montealegre-Z downloaded the sound file, they found that its acoustic patterns—such as the rate of pulses and the strongest frequencies—were very similar to the songs of certain kinds of insects... To search for a match, the researchers analysed field recordings of North American insects stored in an online database at the University of Florida. They found a striking resemblance to one species in particular: the Indies short-tailed cricket.

The recording did not match up with the cricket exactly, the Times wrote—the noise reported by the diplomats was “erratic, while the insects make high-pitched, rapid-fire pulses.” But when Stubbs played the recording indoors, the noise bouncing off the walls matched “in nuanced detail, the A.P. recording in duration, pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse,” the researchers concluded.

Though the species’ native range is only known to extend to the Florida Keys, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman, the Times added, a close relative lives in Cuba and the researchers suspect it might have made the jump there regardless.

However, a study released in the Journal of American Medicine in March 2018 noted that diplomatic staff afflicted by the condition reported both high-pitched sounds (76 per cent) and low-pitched sound (10 per cent), using words as varied as “buzzing,” “grinding metal,” “piercing squeals,” and “humming.” Some also reported “pressurelike” or “vibratory” sensory stimuli, and many in the study also reported that the source of the sound and sensory stimuli appeared to both be coming from a specific direction and “localised to a precise area.”

Others who still developed symptoms reported hearing nothing strange at all.

In other words, even if the recording released by the AP is a cricket, it could be a red herring.

“There’s plenty of debate in the medical community over what, if any, physical damage there is to these individuals,” Stubbs told the Times in a phone interview. “All I can say fairly definitively is that the A.P.-released recording is of a cricket, and we think we know what species it is.”

[New York Times]

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