The Sounds That Haunted U.S. Diplomats in Cuba? Lovelorn Crickets, Scientists Say

The Sounds That Haunted U.S. Diplomats in Cuba? Lovelorn Crickets, Scientists Say

In November 2016, American diplomats in Cuba complained of persistent, high-pitched sounds followed by a range of symptoms, including headaches, nausea and hearing loss.

Exams of nearly two dozen of them eventually revealed signs of concussions or other brain injuries, and speculation about the cause turned to weapons that blast sound or microwaves. Amid an international uproar, a recording of the sinister droning was widely circulated in the news media.

On Friday, two scientists presented evidence that those sounds were not so mysterious after all. They were made by crickets, the researchers concluded.

That’s not to say that the diplomats weren’t attacked, the scientists added — only that the recording is not of a sonic weapon, as had been suggested.

When the American diplomats first complained of the strange noises in Cuba, they dismissed the possibility that insects were responsible. But short-tailed crickets are exceptional: They have long been known to make a tremendous racket.

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“The song of the males of this cricket, here, is a continuous ringing z-z-z-z-z-z- of tremendous volume and penetration which practically fills a room with veritable din,” an entomologist in the Dominican Republic reported in 1957.

Mr. Stubbs recorded short-tailed crickets while in Costa Rica, and he found their songs overpowering. “They’re incredibly loud,” he said. “You can hear them from inside a diesel truck going forty miles an hour on the highway.”

The Indies short-tailed cricket is known to live in the Florida Keys, Jamaica and Grand Cayman. A closely related cricket is known to live in Cuba, and Mr. Stubbs suspects that its Indies cousin lives there, too.

Mr. Stubbs said that his conclusion does not rule out an attack on American diplomats. But the sounds linked to the initial complaints may have been a red herring.

“It’s entirely possible that they got sick with some other completely unrelated thing that was not a sonic attack, or that they were targeted in some other way,” he said.

Dr. Douglas Smith, who led the medical examination of the American diplomats, questioned how much a single recording could reveal about the experience. Some patients didn’t report hearing anything unusual, he noted, while others heard a range of sounds.

“It could be like a low-tone motor, or metal scraping, or like driving in a car with the back window open,” said Dr. Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Smith wouldn’t rule out the possibility that some diplomats might have heard crickets, but said that had no bearing on the real damage they’ve suffered.

“These patients have gone through a lot,” he added. “I would like to know what the sounds are, but for us the more important thing is really what’s going on in the patients’ brains and what we can do about it.”

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