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15 Interesting Facts About Cicadas

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Cicadas are unique insects that capture people’s imagination with their striking appearance and unusual life cycles. Some emerge annually while others, called periodical cicadas, surface every 13 or 17 years in massive numbers. As we approach another emergence of the 17-year Brood X cicadas in parts of the eastern United States in 2023, here are 15 fascinating facts about these buzzing bugs.

1. Cicadas are not harmful to humans

Cicadas do not bite or sting. They pose no threat to people, pets, gardens, or agriculture. Their large numbers can be startling but they cause very little damage while active above ground.

2. Periodical cicadas have synchronized, prime-numbered life cycles

Interesting Facts About Cicadas
Blue eyed Cicada by Orbital Joe is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

Periodical cicadas are divided into broods that emerge on 13- or 17-year cycles. These long, prime-numbered cycles may have evolved to prevent predators from synchronizing with them as easily as if they had non-prime cycles like 12 or 14 years.

3. There can be over 1 million cicadas per acre

Cicada densities can exceed 1.5 million per acre. Their great numbers satiate predators so that enough can mate and lay eggs to perpetuate future generations. This survival strategy is called predator satiation.

4. Cicadas don’t eat solid food

Adult cicadas subsist only on tree fluids and don’t eat leaves or vegetation. Their needle-like mouthparts pierce stems and branches to access sap. Underground nymphs feed on root fluids.

5. Cicada choruses can reach 120 decibels

The collective sound of male cicada courtship songs can exceed 120 decibels, on par with a loud rock concert. Female cicadas respond to mating calls by flicking their wings.

6. They provide food for many animals

Fish, birds, snakes, turtles, squirrels, dogs, cats, and many other animals feast on nutrient-rich adult cicadas, gaining weight and energy for reproduction. Their bounty benefits the entire food chain.

7. Cicadas have 5 eyes

Cicadas have 2 large compound eyes plus 3 smaller, jewel-like ocelli on top of their heads. Ocelli detect light and darkness.

Cicada
Cicada by Syd3r is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

8. They enrich soils when they die

As dead cicadas decompose, their bodies fertilize soils and roots. Periodical cicadas can increase soil nitrogen by up to 400% in a single emergence event.

9. Some infect cicadas to spread their spores

Cicada-killing fungi such as Massospora infect periodical cicadas with spores. As the fungus kills its host, the cicada’s abdomen falls off, spreading more infectious spores to continue the fungus’s lifecycle.

10. Female cicadas damage trees when laying eggs

Female cicadas use their saw-like ovipositors to cut slits in tender twigs and lay dozens of eggs. This causes tip dieback but rarely serious harm, except to small, weak trees.

11. People eat cicadas

Cicadas are edible when harvested shortly after they molt their exoskeletons. Creative cooks have devised many recipes that describe them as delicate, nutty, and shrimp-like.

12. They build mud turrets to escape wet soil

To emerge from flooded ground, cicada nymphs build chimney-like mud turrets up to 12 inches high to keep their escape holes dry. The turrets often crack and crumble as the insects exit.

13. Climate change threatens some broods

Habitat loss from climate change could imperil some periodical cicada broods. Their need for undisturbed soil and tree roots for 13-17 years makes them vulnerable to rising temperatures, storms, droughts, and floods.

14. Citizen scientists track periodical cicadas

Volunteer citizen scientists use apps like Cicada Safari to map periodical cicada sightings, photos, and other data. This crowdsourced information helps researchers study the insects.

15. The Onondaga Nation honors cicadas

The Onondaga people of New York maintain an oral tradition of cicadas rescuing their ancestors from famine through their sudden mass emergence and availability as food.

Conclusion

Periodical cicadas offer ecologists and entomologists abundant opportunities for research into predator-prey dynamics, evolution of unusual life histories, and long-term environmental change. As these unique insects emerge after 17 years underground, citizen scientists and nature lovers alike enjoy discovering more about Brood X cicadas’ biology, behavior, environmental roles, and cultural significance. Their striking appearance, familiar loud songs, and sheer abundance never fail to fascinate us.


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