The Cicada Convergence A Once-in-200-Year Spectacle

The Cicada

Cicadas Resurface After Two Centuries

In a truly rare spectacle, two broods of cicadas are set to emerge simultaneously from the depths of the ground this April, marking the first occurrence in 200 years. The impending event, characterized by its expected loudness, messiness, and undeniable fascination, harks back to a time when Thomas Jefferson held the presidency, creating a symphony of nature that promises to be truly deafening.

The Cicada
The Cicada

Trillions of periodical cicadas, having spent more than a decade in subterranean solitude, are poised to make a grand appearance across the Midwest and Southeast of the United States. This year’s unique occurrence involves the simultaneous emergence of two distinct broods, a phenomenon unseen since 1803.

The Peculiar Life Cycle A Dance of Years Underground

In stark contrast to their non-periodical counterparts, periodical cicadas follow an extraordinary life cycle. After hatching, these nymphs, as the immature cicadas are known, spend either 13 or 17 years underground, nourishing themselves on roots before emerging above ground as fully-fledged adult cicadas.

The 17-year Brood XIII is anticipated to surface in Northern Illinois, while the 13-year Brood XIX will make its appearance in specific regions of the southeastern United States. Late April is earmarked for the commencement of both events, with a small potential overlap zone identified by researchers around Springfield, Illinois.

Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert and professor emeritus of biology at Mount St Joseph University in Ohio, has been enraptured by these insects for half a century. His historical data-driven maps have illuminated the distribution patterns of periodical cicadas, turning him into a self-proclaimed “frustrated historian who is also an entomologist.”

Kritsky’s passion has rippled across the nation, inspiring fellow Americans to document cicadas through Cicada Safari, a citizen science app launched in 2019. This platform has become a repository for over half a million videos and photographs, showcasing the diverse species of Magicicada and their “recklessly theatrical” emergences.

While cicada enthusiasts eagerly await the emergence, not everyone is equally thrilled. Anti-cicada outfits and planned trips away reflect a segment of Americans trying to avoid the impending insect invasion. The aftermath, characterized by tiny cicada corpses, can be messy, yet cicadas pose no threat as they neither bite, sting, nor carry diseases, defying control by pesticides.

Nature’s Orchestra The Deafening Clicks and Buzzes

As the cicadas emerge in unison, the air will be filled with the distinctive clicking sounds produced by male cicadas. This symphony is created by vibrating an organ near the base of their wings called the tympanic membrane. Brood XIX’s males were recorded producing calls reaching up to 75 decibels during the 1998 emergence, equivalent to the noise level of a vacuum cleaner or a hair dryer.

Brood XIX, also known as the “Great Southern Brood,” is a mosaic of various cicada species. While typically different species emerge in distinct areas, occasionally they come together in “contact zones.” An intriguing behavior observed is the subtle frequency adjustment by Magicicada neotredecim males when encountering another Brood XIX species, Magicicada tredecim.

Cicada 2024
Cicada 2024

The United States hosts 12 broods of 17-year cicadas and three broods of 13-year cicadas, each labeled with Roman numerals. The synchronicity of these broods, however, remains a subject of scientific debate. Some attribute it to “climate shocks,” sudden and extreme changes in weather that can disrupt the usual schedule and spawn new broods.

Earth’s Warning Fingertip-Sized Holes Herald Cicada Emergence

The impending emergence is signaled by earth riddled with fingertip-sized holes, a distinctive precursor to the grand spectacle. This year’s dual emergence marks the fifth such event since the year 2000, a rare occurrence resulting from the unique combination of broods.

In the potential overlap zone around Springfield, Illinois, the density of cicadas from both Brood XIII and Brood XIX could be immense. While these insects can be harmful to young trees when females lay eggs in new growth, the ecological benefits are substantial. Cicadas become a banquet for predators, fostering increased reproduction and survival of their offspring.

As Brood XIII and Brood XIX intersect, the opportunity the cicada species interbreeding arises. Three species of Brood XIII cicadas and four species of Brood XIX cicadas could create hybrids, unleashing genetic mysteries into the cicada population. The outcome remains uncertain, known only to the cicadas and Mother Nature.

The benefits of cicada emergence extend beyond their captivating spectacle. Nymphs aerate the soil as they tunnel, enhancing water infiltration and encouraging root growth. Furthermore, when they die and decompose, cicadas contribute essential nutrients to the soil.

Entomologists note shifts in cicada behavior, with earlier spring emergences compared to a century ago. Some broods are emerging ahead of schedule, potentially influenced by climate shocks. The destruction of forests poses a threat to cicada populations, exemplified by the extinction of Brood XI in 1954 due to extensive forest clearing.

Despite the changes and challenges, entomologists like Raupp and Kritsky find themselves drawn back to the mystery of these bugs. Nature, in all its splendor, is putting on a show that holds the promise of more noise, curiosity for bug enthusiasts, and an undeniably fascinating event that is truly unparalleled on Earth.

A Glimpse into the Future Cicadas in 2245

As we await the next simultaneous emergence of Broods XIX and XII in 2245, the question looms large: What kind of world will they be emerging into? The cicadas, custodians of their own destiny, carry with them the genetic legacy of their interbreeding, an ever-evolving testament to the intricate dance of nature.

The grand reunion of Brood XIII and Brood XIX promises a symphony of nature’s making, a spectacle that transcends the boundaries of time. As these cicadas emerge, they bring not only the buzz and excitement but also profound ecological impacts and mysteries that continue to captivate the hearts and minds of those who observe nature’s grand theater.

 

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