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9 Reasons Cicadas Fascinate Scientists

Cicadas
Cicadas

Every spring, a buzz fills the air.
But it’s not just any buzz.
It’s the mysterious call of cicadas.
Many find their noise annoying.
Yet, there’s a world of wonder behind these creatures.
In this post, I’ll unveil 9 reasons scientists are captivated by cicadas.
Prepare to see them in a whole new light.

Cicadas, with their diverse species and unique life cycles, have long fascinated scientists and laypeople alike. Their distinctive behaviors and characteristics, notably those of the 17-year cicada or periodical cicadas, underscore a captivating narrative of survival and evolution 1. Among the nearly 3,400 cicada species, these insects are celebrated for their stout bodies, broad heads, clear-membraned wings, and the unmistakable spectacle they create upon mass emergence every two to five, and in some special cases, every 13 or 17 years 12. The cicada’s role extends beyond the marvel of their appearances; their life cycles and behaviors offer key insights into environmental health and biological mysteries, making them a subject of extensive study.

This article delves into the reasons cicadas, particularly the periodical cicadas with their prime-numbered life cycles and the intriguing phenomenon of their mass emergence, capture the scientific community’s attention. From their survival strategies that baffle predators to their significant ecosystem roles and contributions to bioacoustics research, each aspect contributes to the broader understanding of these extraordinary insects 12. Cicadas are more than just a periodical spectacle; they are a gateway to understanding complex ecological systems and evolutionary biology.

1. Long Life Cycle

Cicadas have captivated scientists and enthusiasts alike with their unique and lengthy life cycles. Understanding these cycles provides insight into their survival and evolutionary strategies. Here is a breakdown of the key stages in the life cycle of cicadas:

  • Underground Nymph Stage:
    • Cicadas spend the majority of their lives, ranging from 13 to 17 years, underground as nymphs, where they feed on the xylem tissue of trees 35911.
    • These nymphs undergo five molts before transforming into winged adults, a process that ensures their growth and development while safely hidden from predators 8.
    • The specific durations of 13 or 17 years as nymphs are not random; they are prime numbers that reduce the likelihood of different broods emerging simultaneously, thus minimizing hybridization and ensuring genetic diversity 411.
  • Emergence and Adult Stage:
    • Following their long underground development, cicadas emerge en masse, synchronizing their appearance based on the year and soil temperature 213.
    • Once above ground, the nymphs molt for the final time, transitioning into adults with wings, ready for the mating process 79.
    • Adult cicadas, living for approximately 3-5 weeks, engage in a frenzy of activity focused on reproduction. Males produce distinctive buzzing sounds to attract mates, after which they, along with the females, die shortly after mating and laying eggs 6108.
  • Egg and Renewal Stage:
    • The eggs laid by female cicadas hatch into nymphs, which then fall to the ground and burrow into the soil, starting the remarkable cycle once again 5.
    • This cyclical pattern, punctuated by the mass emergence of cicadas, plays a crucial role in their survival strategy. By emerging in such vast numbers, they overwhelm potential predators, ensuring that enough cicadas survive to mate and perpetuate the species 13.

The life cycle of cicadas, particularly the periodical cicadas with their prime-numbered durations, showcases an extraordinary example of nature’s adaptability and the intricacies of evolutionary biology. These cycles not only enable cicadas to evade predators through sheer numbers but also contribute to the genetic diversity and health of their populations 41113.

2. Survival Strategies

Cicadas have evolved several fascinating survival strategies to navigate the challenges posed by predators and environmental changes. These strategies are not only crucial for their survival but also offer scientists insights into the adaptability and resilience of these insects.

  • Adaptation to Noise and Predation:
    • To cope with a noisy environment, cicadas have developed rhythmic songs and fixed times of singing, which are crucial for communication among them 15.
    • Many species exhibit activity only during specific periods of the day, likely an adaptation to evade predators by minimizing exposure 15.
    • The concept of ‘predator satiation’ where cicadas emerge in overwhelming numbers, ensures that despite the predation by birds, skunks, raccoons, and other predators, enough cicadas survive to reproduce 118.
  • Health and Environmental Impact:
    • Post-emergence, the examination of cicadas can reveal the presence of fungal pathogens, providing data on how urbanization impacts insect health 3.
    • This is critical for understanding broader ecological changes and challenges faced by cicada populations in increasingly urbanized environments 3.
  • Behavioral and Physiological Strategies:
    • Cicadas utilize their massive numbers not just for predator satiation but also to simplify mate-finding, turning a potential vulnerability into an advantage 4.
    • The temperature-triggered emergence ensures that all nymphs surface synchronously, maximizing their survival odds by adhering to the prime number hypothesis, which prevents predators from easily synchronizing with their emergence cycles 91.
    • Interestingly, some cicadas have even domesticated their fungal parasites, living symbiotically with them, which showcases a unique evolutionary adaptation 1.

These survival strategies underscore the cicadas’ complex relationship with their environment and predators. By inundating forests with their numbers, cicadas not only ensure their species’ continuation but also contribute to the ecological balance, affecting predator populations and forest dynamics.

3. Sound Production

Cicadas are renowned for their unique and powerful sound production, captivating both the scientific community and the general public. Here’s a deeper dive into how these fascinating creatures create their signature sounds:

  • Anatomy of Sound Production:
    • Tymbal Organ: Cicadas produce sound using a specialized organ called a tymbal, located at the base of their abdomen 16. The tymbal consists of a series of ribs that can rapidly buckle in and out when the cicada flexes its muscles, creating a series of clicks. When many clicks are produced quickly, they merge into the buzzing sound characteristic of cicadas 22.
    • Amplification Mechanism: The abdomen of male cicadas is almost completely hollow, acting as a resonance chamber that amplifies the sound produced by the tymbal. This unique anatomical feature, along with modified breathing tubes, contributes significantly to sound amplification, making the cicada’s call one of the loudest in the insect world 2423.
    • Variation Across Species: Different cicada species have variations in the shape of their abdomens and tymbals, leading to a diverse range of sounds. This acoustic biodiversity is especially high among tropical cicadas in Southeast Asia, where the repertoire of sound emissions presents a challenge for sound recordists due to the difficulty in seeing, identifying, or catching these elusive creatures 1524.
  • Purpose and Power of Cicada Songs:
    • Mating Calls: Only male cicadas can produce the buzzing sounds, primarily to attract females for mating. These calls can reach up to 100 decibels, equivalent to the noise level of a lawnmower or a dirt bike, making them impossible to ignore 2025.
    • Defense Mechanism: The loud sound serves not only to attract mates but also to deter predators. Cicadas sing in chorus, especially during hot summer afternoons, to increase the total volume of noise, which can overwhelm or confuse potential threats 16.
    • Environmental Influence: The intensity of cicada songs varies with temperature, getting louder on hotter days. This adaptation ensures their mating calls are most effective when conditions are optimal for their survival and reproduction 13.

Understanding the intricacies of cicada sound production offers insights into their survival strategies and their role in the ecosystem. The U.S. Navy’s interest in mimicking cicada’s ability to emit loud sounds from small bodies underscores the potential applications of studying these insects, ranging from enhancing acoustic technology to developing new methods of communication 21.

4. Role in the Ecosystem

Cicadas play a pivotal role in their ecosystems, offering a range of benefits that extend far beyond their fascinating life cycles and survival strategies. Their impact is multifaceted, affecting soil health, plant growth, and the food web. Here’s a closer look at their contributions:

  • Soil and Plant Health:
    • Aeration and Water Filtration: By burrowing into the ground, cicadas naturally aerate the soil, improving its structure and enhancing water filtration. This process is crucial for healthy plant growth and can help lawns and forests thrive 27.
    • Nutrient Cycling: As cicadas die and their bodies decompose, they contribute significantly to the nutrient cycle. Their decomposition adds essential nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil, enriching it and promoting healthier plant growth 2730.
    • Natural Pruning: When female cicadas lay their eggs in twigs, the resulting damage prunes the twigs, which can stimulate growth in the affected plants. This natural pruning process helps in the removal of weak or diseased branches, benefiting the overall health of trees 30.
  • Food Web Dynamics:
    • Abundant Food Source: Cicadas serve as a crucial food source for a wide array of predators, including birds, squirrels, turtles, snakes, spiders, and wasps. Their emergence in large numbers ensures that many animals have access to a plentiful food supply, which can influence predator populations and behaviors 427.
    • Predator Satiation: The phenomenon of predator satiation, where cicadas emerge in such overwhelming numbers that predators cannot consume them all, ensures that enough cicadas survive to reproduce. This strategy not only benefits cicadas but also provides a feast for predators, affecting the ecological balance 427.
  • Environmental Indicators:
    • Soil Health Monitoring: Cicadas can be used to gauge soil pollution levels. Since they spend a significant portion of their lives underground, absorbing nutrients and chemicals from the soil, analyzing cicada populations can provide insights into the health of an ecosystem and the impact of human pollution 28.
    • Pollination Assistance: Although not primary pollinators, cicadas contribute to the pollination process. Their movement among plants and the damage caused by laying eggs can lead to increased pollination, aiding in the reproduction of various plant species 29.

Cicadas, with their unique life cycles and behaviors, are not only subjects of scientific curiosity but also key players in maintaining the health and balance of ecosystems. Their roles range from improving soil health and aiding plant growth to serving as a vital link in the food web and acting as indicators of environmental health 171930.

5. Evolutionary Insights

Cicadas offer a fascinating window into the evolutionary processes that shape life on Earth. Their diverse adaptations and survival strategies provide deep insights into the dynamics of evolution, genetics, and population biology. Here are some key evolutionary insights derived from studying cicadas:

  • Geographic and Environmental Adaptations:
    • Researchers examine how cicadas adapt over time across different geographic areas, climates, and environmental conditions, highlighting the species’ remarkable adaptability 20.
    • The interplay between cicadas and climate change suggests potential shifts in emergence patterns, possibly leading to more frequent or unexpected appearances and alterations in their life cycles 132.
  • Hybridization and Life Cycle Dynamics:
    • The offspring resulting from hybridization events between co-emerging 13- and 17-year broods inherit life cycles of 13 or 17 years, not intermediate lengths. This reinforces the importance of prime-numbered life cycles in minimizing hybridization and maintaining genetic diversity 33.
    • Such findings underscore the role of cicadas in studies on evolution, genetics, and population dynamics, offering insights into how species adapt and evolve over time 6.
  • Fossil Evidence and Evolutionary History:
    • Fossil records, including those from mid-Cretaceous (~99 Ma) Kachin amber in northern Myanmar, reveal specialized structures indicating both fossorial (burrowing) and root-feeding behaviors from an early stage in cicada evolution 26.
    • The divergence of the Cicadidae and Tettigarctidae clades by the Middle Jurassic highlights the long evolutionary history of cicadas and their ancestors, providing a more precise understanding of how spatiotemporal changes impact morphological evolution 1326.
    • These insights, derived from studying both living cicadas and their fossilized ancestors, illuminate the intricate dance of adaptation and survival that has allowed cicadas to thrive for millions of years despite changing climates and ecological challenges.

These evolutionary insights not only deepen our understanding of cicadas but also shed light on broader principles of biological change and adaptation. By studying these remarkable insects, scientists can glean valuable lessons about resilience, adaptability, and the intricate connections that bind living organisms to their environment.

6. Indicator Species

Cicadas, with their remarkable life cycles and behaviors, serve as excellent indicators of environmental health and quality. Their presence and conditions offer insights into the broader ecological impacts of human activity, making them a focal point for environmental scientists and researchers. Here’s how cicadas function as environmental indicators:

  • Environmental Quality and Human Impact:
    • Cicadas act as natural “environmental straws,” with their xylem tissue feeding behavior pulling water and nutrients from the ground into trees. This unique feeding mechanism positions them as good indicators of environmental quality 3.
    • The study of cicadas, especially in urban environments, sheds light on how human activities, such as urbanization and increased use of fertilizers, affect insect populations. Urban cicadas, for instance, tend to grow larger due to the warmer temperatures and higher nutrient availability in these areas 13.
  • Research and Education:
    • Under the mentorship of DeAnna Beasley, an assistant professor specializing in how human activity impacts insects, Hannah Hightower, an undergraduate student, is exploring the spread of fungal pathogens in cicadas. This research is crucial for understanding the health of cicada populations and, by extension, the ecosystems they inhabit 3.
    • Efforts are underway to dispel misconceptions about cicadas, emphasizing their harmlessness and their non-threatening nature to agricultural crops. By educating the public, experts aim to foster a greater appreciation for cicadas and their role as environmental indicators 32.
  • Climate Change and Ecological Health:
    • Cicadas are vulnerable to climate change, which can alter their emergence patterns and life cycles. Their sensitivity to environmental changes makes them reliable indicators of ecological health and potential environmental dangers 32.
    • The presence of cicadas and the conditions they live in can serve as a gauge for soil pollution levels. Since cicadas spend a significant portion of their lives underground, their health and population dynamics can offer valuable insights into the health of an ecosystem 28.

Through their life cycles, feeding behaviors, and sensitivity to environmental changes, cicadas provide a window into the health of our planet. Their role as indicator species underscores the interconnectedness of all life forms and the importance of maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems.

7. Periodical Phenomena

The phenomenon of periodical cicadas emerging en masse is a spectacle that not only captivates the public but also offers a unique opportunity for scientific study. The standardized monitoring method known as Cicada-MET plays a crucial role in understanding these events by providing reliable data on cicada populations through the counting of exuviae (shed skins of emerged nymphs) 35. This method involves:

  • Annual Exuviae Counts: Conducted along transects and fixed plots throughout the emergence season, offering a systematic approach to monitor cicada populations 35.
  • Transect Efficiency: Approximately 10% of the total number of emerged nymphs are captured across one season, demonstrating the method’s reliability in estimating emerging cicada population numbers 35.
  • Interspecific Comparisons and Monitoring: The standardized nature of Cicada-MET reduces spatial and temporal biases, facilitating the comparison between different species and monitoring interannual variations in abundances and emergence timing 35.

In 2024, a rare and fascinating event is anticipated with the co-emergence of two periodical cicada broods, 13-year Brood XIX and 17-year Brood XIII, in the Midwest and Southeast, respectively 633. This marks the first time since 2015 that a 13-year brood will emerge in the same year as a 17-year brood, and the first time since 1998 that adjacent 13- and 17-year broods will emerge simultaneously 33. Despite the potential for an overwhelming number of cicadas, with estimates suggesting over one trillion cicadas may emerge 6, the co-emergence is not expected to result in extreme or “double” densities outside the norm of any other periodical cicada emergence year 33.

The periodical phenomena of cicadas are not only a testament to their unique life cycle but also serve as a critical tool for scientific research and environmental monitoring. Researchers and enthusiasts are encouraged to use tools like the Cicada Safari app to record sightings, helping differentiate between the main emergence and stragglers 8. This, coupled with the potential impact of climate change on cicada emergence schedules, underscores the importance of ongoing monitoring and research to better understand these extraordinary insects and their role in the ecosystem 8.

8. Bioacoustics Research

In the realm of bioacoustics research, cicadas have become a focal point due to their unique sound production capabilities and the potential insights into biodiversity and communication within their natural habitats. The study led by Rakesh Khanna utilizes low-cost passive acoustic monitoring devices priced at $40, aiming to decode the complex communication patterns among cicadas and to understand better the biodiversity in their environments 37. Despite facing challenges such as a lack of funding for his research, Khanna’s work has garnered interest from individuals like Kim Hendrikse, a software developer curious about the specific model of the passive acoustic monitoring device used 37. Furthermore, Carly Batist from Rainforest Connection and ArbimonEcoacoustics has suggested utilizing Arbimon for free, no-code ecoacoustic analysis, indicating a collaborative community eager to support and advance this field of study 37.

The Global Cicada Sound Collection (GCSC) project stands as an exemplary model of making scientific data accessible and open. The GCSC, which comprises recordings made between 2006 and 2008 in South Africa and Malawi, includes 219 recordings of 133 voucher specimens, covering 42 taxa. This extensive collection has been instrumental in underpinning work on the species limits of cicadas in southern Africa, with all specimens deposited in the Albany Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa (AMGS) 38. The project not only contributes to the scientific community by providing a rich database of cicada sounds but also facilitates further research on cicada biodiversity and their evolutionary history.

In a broader context, researchers have been inspired by cicadas beyond the realm of bioacoustics. Studies on nanolithography have been conducted to mimic the nanostructured pillars found on cicada wings, leading to the creation of new materials with properties such as light-scattering, antibacterial, and water-repellant capabilities 20. This intersection of bioacoustics research and material science highlights the diverse applications and implications of studying cicadas, from understanding their communication and biodiversity to inspiring technological innovations. The integration of low-cost monitoring technologies, collaborative platforms for analysis, and the open sharing of data exemplify the multidisciplinary approach needed to unravel the mysteries of cicada bioacoustics and their broader ecological and evolutionary significance.

9. Medical and Scientific Applications

Cicadas have transcended their role in the natural world to influence various scientific and medical fields. Their unique biological features and behaviors have inspired innovations and applications that significantly impact human health, technology, and research methodologies. Here are some notable examples:

  • Medical and Health Applications:
    • Traditional Medicine: Cicada slough, the shed exoskeleton of cicadas, is utilized in traditional Chinese medicine for various clinical purposes, demonstrating the insect’s potential in natural health products and medicine 39.
    • Antibacterial Properties: The wings of cicadas possess unique nanopillars that not only repel water but also have the ability to puncture bacterial cells, presenting a natural model for developing antibacterial coatings and materials 41.
  • Scientific and Technological Innovations:
    • Species Identification: Advances in genetic research have led to the use of the COI gene sequence and leg morphology for precise cicada species identification, aiding in biodiversity studies and ecological monitoring 40. A SCAR assay based on the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI) gene further enables the detection of adulteration in market samples, ensuring the authenticity of cicada-based products 40.
    • Material Science: Inspired by the nanostructure of cicada wings, researchers have developed new materials with light-scattering, antibacterial, and water-repellant properties. These innovations have applications ranging from self-cleaning surfaces to biomedical devices, showcasing the potential of bioinspiration in material design 2041.
    • Bioinspired Engineering: Cicada wings have influenced the creation of new types of water-resistant coatings for clear surfaces like computer screens, windows, and solar cells. Additionally, engineers have developed cicada-proof fiber optic cables, highlighting the impact of cicadas on improving technology resilience and functionality 2120.
  • Dietary and Nutritional Insights:
    • Humans have consumed cicadas for centuries, with their taste likened to shrimp, asparagus, and peanut butter. Cicadas have been part of Native American diets and are considered a sustainable food source, albeit with considerations for mercury levels and potential allergic reactions 8.
    • The exploration of cicadas as insect food underscores the growing interest in alternative protein sources, with cicadas being eaten shortly after they morph into their adult form and cooked in various ways, including blanched in salads or used in dishes like cicada rhubarb pie 198.

Cicadas, through their biological characteristics and behaviors, offer a rich source of inspiration and knowledge for medical, scientific, and technological advancements. From contributing to traditional medicine and antibacterial material design to aiding in species identification and inspiring new technologies, cicadas exemplify the profound influence of nature on human innovation and health.

Conclusion

Throughout this exploration, we’ve delved into the multifaceted world of cicadas, unraveling aspects from their intricate life cycles and survival strategies to their pivotal role in ecosystems and beyond. These remarkable insects, with their prime-numbered emergence intervals and unique sound production abilities, have not only captured the curiosity of scientists but have also provided crucial insights into evolutionary biology, environmental health, and bioacoustics research. The convergence of these diverse phenomena underlines the cicadas’ significant contribution to our understanding of nature’s complexities, ecological balance, and the subtle interplay between different life forms.

Moreover, cicadas transcend the boundaries of scientific interest, inspiring advancements in medical, technological, and material sciences, while also serving as a sustainable food source and an essential part of traditional medicinal practices. Their existence challenges us to look deeper into the natural world for solutions to contemporary problems, encouraging a multidisciplinary approach to research and innovation. As we continue to uncover the secrets of cicadas, we are reminded of the intricate connections that sustain life on Earth and the importance of preserving these delicate systems for future generations to explore and marvel at.

FAQs

What Makes Cicadas Fascinating to Many?

Cicadas are intriguing because of their exceptionally long lifespans, which are among the longest for insects. Despite spending a minimal portion of their lives above ground, their unique life cycle, which spans 13 to 17 years including their time underground, is particularly notable.

How Do Cicadas Begin Their Life Cycle?

The life cycle of cicadas begins when females lay between 200 and 400 eggs in small holes they create in the branches of trees and shrubs. Within six to ten weeks, the eggs hatch into nymphs, which then drop to the ground, burrow into the soil, and attach themselves to tree roots, marking the start of their underground phase.

What Environmental Benefits Do Cicadas Offer?

Cicadas contribute positively to the environment in several ways. They serve as a significant food source for birds and other predators. Additionally, their burrowing activities help aerate the soil and enhance water filtration into the ground. As they decompose, they also return valuable nutrients to the soil.

Why Do Periodical Cicadas Emerge Every 13 to 17 Years?

Scientists hypothesize that the distinctive 13 to 17-year emergence cycle of periodical cicadas has evolved as a survival strategy to evade predators. This timing allows cicadas to emerge synchronously in massive numbers, potentially reducing the risk of predation and increasing their chances of a successful mating season. This strategy helps them avoid many of the dangers that could decimate their populations if they emerged more frequently or less synchronously.

References

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