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Science, art and culture: Cicadas impact our lives more than just once every 17 years

Over the next few weeks, trillions of cicadas will tunnel upward from deep underground after 17 years to live out their last days. They’ll shed their skin to become mature adults and within several weeks, mate, lay eggs and die. Brood X (Brood 10), also known as the Great Eastern Brood, has the greatest concentration and range of the 17-year cyclical cicadas and are an awesome spectacle of nature. These periodic swarms of cicadas can disrupt or enliven everyday life for humans and are a critical event for researchers to better understand everything from climate change to disaster preparedness to our cultural history.

Chris Simon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded researcher, has spent much of her career studying these magical cicadas and encourages curious minds to think big about these critters.

Here, Simon gives five surprising reasons cicadas make excellent research subjects.

By Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD
May 19, 2021

 

Cicada broods across the U.S.
The confirmed, verified observations of all periodical cicada broods across the Eastern U.S. Brood X is emerging this spring. Photo Credit: Copyright 2021 The University of Connecticut. Used with permission from www.cicadas.uconn.edu

1. Cicadas help us study geographical and environmental diversity 

Because different populations of periodical cicadas emerge in different years, they are reproductively isolated from other groups of the same species. These factors help scientists to understand how a single species can change over time in different geographic areas, climates and environmental conditions. You can be part of the citizen science research team by taking pictures of cicadas in your own backyard using the Cicada Safari app, which helps scientists track where and when cicadas emerge and how dense they are in any given area.

Wings of cicada inspire new material processes
A new fabrication technique allows researchers to replicate the nanostructures of cicada wings. Photo Credit: Credit: USGS/Wayne Boo

2. Cicadas inspire design

The wings of cicadas are lightweight water repellant and differ in reflectivity due to their nanostructured pillars. The natural design of their wings has inspired techniques to create new materials such as light-scattering, antibacterial and water-repellant fabrics. To mimic the design, researchers use a technique called nanolithography, making an impression of the wings, and transferring it to other materials like polymer, silicone or gold.

An up-close image of a tree branch with small grooves cut into it
Cicada damage on tree twig in Virginia. Photo Credit: Steve Heap/Shutterstock

3. They created opportunities to improve our disaster preparedness

Cicadas lay eggs in live or dead branches (depending on the species) a process called oviposition. This can cause major damage to agriculture like orchards, vineyards, and sugarcane. It has even disrupted the internet by cutting fiber optic cables as cicadas mistake them for withered branches. This led to engineers developing new technologies to make cicada-proof fiber optic cables. New shielding on cables is thick and smooth, making it less inviting to cicadas and keeping society online.

4. Cicadas are deafening

Cicada mating calls are extremely noisy, and can reach up to 100 decibels, or about as loud as a car horn 16 feet away. These loud calls are made possible by a special organ called a timbal, which contains a series of ribs that buckle and click as the cicada flexes its muscles. The collective buzzing of cicadas has disrupted major golf tournaments, weddings, graduations and even TV and movie productions. In New Zealand, police were using sound testing to investigate a murder, but the cicadas were disrupting their sensitive tests. To help with this, scientists recommended using firehoses to spray chorusing cicadas to reduce the noise.

Cicada-inspired artwork
Cicada-inspired art from China. Photo Credit: The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

5. Cicadas are cultural icons

There are more than 3,000 cicada species found across the world and have been significant in many cultures since ancient times. In some Asian cultures, cicadas are a symbol of re-birth, health, wealth and happiness. For many, cicadas have inspired art, music and theater. The French region of Provence proclaimed the cicada as their mascot and they are proudly displayed as good luck charms in pottery and fabrics. In New Zealand, a town is even named after the Maori -- the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand -- word for cicada, Kihikihi, and features the Cicada Motel and a statue in its town square.

About the Author

A man in a suit and tie and glasses is smiling
Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow

Vincent Tedjasaputra, PhD is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at NSF in the Office of the Director, Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. He is a science communicator and public speaking coach. Prior to coming to NSF, Dr. Tedjasaputra studied healthy aging of the lung in his Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. He is a former collegiate track athlete-turned exercise physiologist, earning his Ph.D. in Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, where he studied the pulmonary vascular response to exercise in health and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Outside of science, Vince is a professional vocalist, having sung the Canadian national anthem for collegiate and professional sporting events and performs classically as a lyrical baritone internationally.

Image Credit

Photo credit: West Virginia University