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article imageCicadas begin to emerge en masse along US east coast

By Jordan Howell     May 16, 2013 in Environment
The world’s biggest orgy is almost underway. After living underground for 17 years, cicadas from North Carolina to Massachusetts have started tunneling to the surface to begin their noisy mating ritual.
The cicadas’ sojourn above ground will not last long. They will spend the next several weeks shedding their baby skin, maturing into adults, and beating their wings until they find a suitable partner. By mid-July, the adult cicadas will all have died and the newly born nymphs will not emerge until 2030.
Northern Virginia appears to be the epicenter of the emergence so far, with multiple reported sightings of adult cicadas swarming by the hundreds.
Cicadas are classified according to their broods, or groups that emerge in a similar geographical area during the same calendar year. The 17-year cicadas that emerge along the US east coast, primarily in the Mid-Atlantic States, are known as brood II. Scientists expect around 30 billion cicadas from brood II to emerge this year.
Cicadas, properly known as magicicadas or periodical cicadas, mature in either 13 or 17-year cycles, spending the majority of their lives underground feeding on fluids from the roots of deciduous trees. They begin to emerge only after the soil temperature has reached 64 degrees Fahrenheit.
When cicadas first appear they are still nymphs. They will crawl onto nearby vegetation where they will remain for a matter of days, shedding their nymph skin until their exoskeleton hardens allowing them fly and begin mating.
Transformation of the periodical cicada from the mature nymph to the adult.
Transformation of the periodical cicada from the mature nymph to the adult.
Fig. 118. from Insects, their way and means of living, R. E. Snodgrass.
Once mature, cicadas live only for a few weeks. According to National Geographic, the males lure potential mates by singing: beating their wings together to create a distinctive sound known as a chorus. “The females are lured to the sound and fly nearer. A female responds to a male with a flick of her wings. The two gradually draw close to one another until they meet for mating.”
After procreation the females cut small notches in tree branches where they lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the nymphs fall to the ground and the cycle starts all over again.
According to Live Science, periodical cicadas are unique to the United States, and the geographical locations of the different broods can be attributed to southern progress of glaciers during the last ice age. “These species moved there after the last glaciers began leaving the area some 18,000 years ago. The ice would have been inhospitable to the cicadas beforehand.”
This time around, the human response to the cicadas is almost as interesting as the bugs themselves. The last time the 17-year cicadas emerged was during the Clinton presidency in 1996. Since then, a small internet infrastructure has been erected for the sole purpose of tracking the cicadas and documenting their life cycle above ground.
NPR’s Radio Lab has launched the Cicada Tracker, which crowd sources information on soil temperatures and cicada sightings and illustrates the data on an interactive map, potentially offering a real-time view of the entire 2013 emergence. The website is filled with cicada facts and even includes schematics for a homemade soil thermometer that can detect temperatures 8 inches underground. Price: $80.
Other sites, like Magicicada, offer more detailed information and, like the Cicada Tracker, crowd-sources cicada sightings in an effort to better understand the evolution of the species and the relationships among the different broods.
If you are not a citizen scientists and have no interest in documenting the cicadas, keep in mind that they are a great source of protein and are entirely safe to eat. Entomologist Isa Betancourt from the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University told NBC Philadelphia that cicadas are “the shrimp of the land.”
View this map to see if cicadas are predicted to emerge in an area near you.
More about Cicadas, cicada, 17year cicada, Brood, brood II
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