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'Magical' early 17-year cicadas
6/1/2017 Volume XLVII, No. 22

Remember 2013, when much of New Jersey was abuzz with cicadas? The large red-eyed insects were everywhere, their chorus filled the air, and they left piles of translucent shells beneath big, old trees.

Well, they’re back – four years early!

Scientists at a May 21 “Bioblitz” at the Mount Rose Preserve in Hopewell Township – an event held to inventory the preserve’s species - were amazed to find cicadas among the insect life. The next brood of 17-year cicadas – Brood 10, or as scientists prefer to call it, Brood X – isn’t due until 2021.

So what is happening? New Jersey is not the only place experiencing an early visit from Brood X, last seen in 2004.

According to the cicada-tracking websites Cicadamania.com and Magicicada.org, Brood X cicadas are emerging in several Eastern and Midwestern states, including New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York (Long Island), Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.

These cicadas are known as “periodical” cicadas, because their life cycles span 13-year or 17-year periods, as opposed to annual cicadas that show up every summer. They’re also commonly referred to as 17-year locusts.

Periodical cicadas that emerge ahead of schedule are called “stragglers.” It’s a bit confusing, since the word usually refers to those lagging behind … and these cicadas are coming out in advance of the main group. When significant numbers of cicadas emerge ahead of the main brood it’s called an acceleration, and the accelerated group sometimes reproduces and creates a whole new brood that follows its own 17-year cycle.

Why emerge early? Scientists theorize that a less predictable life cycle improves cicadas’ odds of surviving predators and parasites.

It’s too soon to tell if this year’s Brood X stragglers will emerge in large enough numbers to make a new brood – but even if they don’t, their surprise appearance gives us an opportunity to observe one of nature’s wonders. The Latin genus name for these cicadas is Magicicada, and they are indeed magical!

Cool cicada facts:

  • Native to only North America, periodical cicadas are the continent’s longest-lived insect. They’re the Rip Van Winkle of the insect world, spending most of their 13 or 17 year lifespans underground as nymphs, surviving by sucking fluid out of tree roots. They come above ground for a six-week frenzy of mating and laying eggs.
  • Upon emergence from the ground, cicada nymphs climb the nearest trees and shed their exoskeletons. Free of their old skin, their wings inflate with fluid, their new skin hardens and they’re ready to fly. The shed shells stay behind, clinging to tree trunks and falling to the ground.
  • Cicadas are best known for the shrill mating chorus of males. Small muscles pull drum-like organs known as tymbals in and out of shape, like a child's click-toy, and the sound is amplified by the insect’s mostly hollow abdomen. Female cicadas make a less distinctive sound by flicking their wings.
  • Periodical cicadas occur nowhere else in the world, so they came as a surprise to early American settlers from Europe. Colonists were familiar with the biblical story of locust plagues, so when cicadas appeared by the millions they thought a plague had come upon them. The term "locust" technically applies only to certain species of grasshoppers.
  • Cicadas don’t eat leaves, but suck the fluids out of small tree branches. When Brood II was here in 2013, many tree branches were “pruned” but few mature trees suffered permanent damage.
  • Cicadas are apparently delicious to many species, including birds, mammals and fish. Dogs will gobble them up, and even some people consider them a delicacy.
  • And, yes, you can find cicada recipes on the internet!

To find out more about periodical cicadas, go to the Cicadamania website at www.cicadamania.com. It includes maps of where they’re likely to emerge, fun facts about life cycles and habitats, videos and recordings of songs. If you’ve seen or heard cicadas near your home, you can help citizen science by reporting them to www.Magicicada.org.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

 ** Mount Rose Preserve is owned and managed by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Hopewell Township, and Mercer County.  This land was preserved by these partners along with Hopewell Valley Citizen’s Group Inc., NJ Green Acres Program, Stony-Brook Millstone Watershed Association, Hopewell Borough, Pennington Borough, Friends of Princeton Open Space, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Lawrence Township, and Princeton.

These cicadas are known as “periodical” cicadas, because their life cycles span 13-year or 17-year periods, as opposed to annual cicadas that show up every summer. They’re also commonly referred to as 17-year locusts.

Periodical cicadas that emerge ahead of schedule are called “stragglers.” It’s a bit confusing, since the word usually refers to those lagging behind … and these cicadas are coming out in advance of the main group. When significant numbers of cicadas emerge ahead of the main brood it’s called an acceleration, and the accelerated group sometimes reproduces and creates a whole new brood that follows its own 17-year cycle.

Why emerge early? Scientists theorize that a less predictable life cycle improves cicadas’ odds of surviving predators and parasites.

It’s too soon to tell if this year’s Brood X stragglers will emerge in large enough numbers to make a new brood – but even if they don’t, their surprise appearance gives us an opportunity to observe one of nature’s wonders. The Latin genus name for these cicadas is Magicicada, and they are indeed magical!

Cool cicada facts:

  • Native to only North America, periodical cicadas are the continent’s longest-lived insect. They’re the Rip Van Winkle of the insect world, spending most of their 13 or 17 year lifespans underground as nymphs, surviving by sucking fluid out of tree roots. They come above ground for a six-week frenzy of mating and laying eggs.
  • Upon emergence from the ground, cicada nymphs climb the nearest trees and shed their exoskeletons. Free of their old skin, their wings inflate with fluid, their new skin hardens and they’re ready to fly. The shed shells stay behind, clinging to tree trunks and falling to the ground.
  • Cicadas are best known for the shrill mating chorus of males. Small muscles pull drum-like organs known as tymbals in and out of shape, like a child's click-toy, and the sound is amplified by the insect’s mostly hollow abdomen. Female cicadas make a less distinctive sound by flicking their wings.
  • Periodical cicadas occur nowhere else in the world, so they came as a surprise to early American settlers from Europe. Colonists were familiar with the biblical story of locust plagues, so when cicadas appeared by the millions they thought a plague had come upon them. The term "locust" technically applies only to certain species of grasshoppers.
  • Cicadas don’t eat leaves, but suck the fluids out of small tree branches. When Brood II was here in 2013, many tree branches were “pruned” but few mature trees suffered permanent damage.
  • Cicadas are apparently delicious to many species, including birds, mammals and fish. Dogs will gobble them up, and even some people consider them a delicacy.
  • And, yes, you can find cicada recipes on the internet!

To find out more about periodical cicadas, go to the Cicadamania website at www.cicadamania.com. It includes maps of where they’re likely to emerge, fun facts about life cycles and habitats, videos and recordings of songs. If you’ve seen or heard cicadas near your home, you can help citizen science by reporting them to www.Magicicada.org.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

** Mount Rose Preserve is owned and managed by New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, Hopewell Township, and Mercer County.  This land was preserved by these partners along with Hopewell Valley Citizen’s Group Inc., NJ Green Acres Program, Stony-Brook Millstone Watershed Association, Hopewell Borough, Pennington Borough, Friends of Princeton Open Space, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Lawrence Township, and Princeton.

 

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