Cicada mysteries have baffled, intrigued and inspired humans for centuries. They have also filled many people with dread. With the emergence of millions of Brood X cicadas across 15 states in 2021 scientists can deepen our understanding of these strangely wonderful insects.
The data collected today will build on what was gathered by curious people who were driven to unravel cicada mysteries throughout the 19th century. What do cicadas do underground for 13 or 17 years? What environmental clues signal them to emerge? And why do they emerge en masse?
Following are a few highlights of the groundwork done by 19th-century researchers and citizen scientists–without GPS-enabled Smartphones.
First, A Brief Note About Cicadas
More than 3,000 species of these beady-eyed insects have been identified to date. They live on all continents except Antarctica and many islands. The male courtship songs are deafening, with each species producing a distinctive serenade. Different species also vary in the length of their lifecycles, which can be annual, proto-periodical or periodical.
According to Kevin Fitzgerald of EntomologyToday.org, One of the most fascinating cicada mysteries surrounds those species with long larval stages found only in the eastern United States. These are the periodical cicadas known as the brood cicadas.
“The periodicals emerge in great hordes after 13 or 17 years, and in any given location they are synchronous.”
During the last year underground, their eyes turn red. When the ground warms, they tunnel to the surface, emerging en masse. They climb trees to find a spot to molt from their exoskeletons. Their wings expand and their white bodies turn dark with red spots in preparation for their mating dance.
Volumes have been written about cicada mysteries, both in print and online. One of the leading experts is Gene Kritsky, Ph.D., Dean of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Kritsky has authored many books, among them, Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition. His CicadaSafari.org is an excellent starting point for cicada happenings. Working with the Center for IT Engagement at Mount St. Joseph, Kritsky created the CicadaSafari app, which can be downloaded free via the site. Among its many features, users will be able to view Brood X emergence maps in real time.
Victorian Era Naturalists Used Citizen Science
Brood cicadas emerge in such enormous numbers that solo researchers must have help documenting observations and data. Even without modern tools, Citizen Science was fashionable since the 1800s.
A shining example emerged during the 1800s with people collecting information in the field, specifically fields of fern. Fern fans wrote and sketched in journals that they shared with book publishers, other fern maniacs and newspapers.
In 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman encouraged people to count birds on Christmas rather than killing them. They submitted their numbers to Bird-Lore magazine, which later became Audubon magazine. The first Victorian Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was a huge success with 27 volunteers counting birds in the United States and Canada. Chapman also encouraged people to document birds with new cameras like the easy Kodaks. While those did not have the bells and whistles of CircadaSafari, they provided valuable visual data.
In 1902, the Department of Agriculture sent out tens of thousands of postcards asking people to document their observations during the Brood X emergence.
Gideon Smith Placed Ads In For Citizen Cicada Observers, 1840s
According to Kritsky his Cicada Safari is in a long tradition of scientists recruiting laypeople to expand their efforts in tracking cicada mysteries. One of the first to do this systematically was entomologist Gideon B. Smith. Although Smith was not considered one of the big players in his field, he identified all periodical cicada broods. He is now respected as one of the highest authorities in the field.
How did he do this without the Internet or a Smartphone? Kritsky writes that in 1843, Smith did a mass letter writing campaign to news outlets and published ads in local papers encouraging people to send him information on cicada broods as they emerged. His ads were often reprinted in smaller papers, increasing his reach. As an incentive, Smith offered to pay postage on responses.
At that time cicada were often mistaken for locusts as referenced in their journals and articles.
Margaretta Morris Identified Cicada Species Without Credit, 1850
Margaretta Morris (December 3, 1797 –May 29,1867) was fascinated by the emergence of cicadas since she was a teenager. She observed her first in 1817, again in 1834 and 1846. Taking a hands-on approach, Morris dug into the soil beneath her fruit trees where she observed cicada larvae sucking at the roots, years before they were due to emerge.
Catherine McNeur, award-winning author and history professor at Portland State University writes about the Victorian Era scientists Margaretta Hare Morris and her sister Elizabeth Carrington Morris. According to McNeur, in 1846 Morris’s observation was a breakthrough. She had cracked the mystery of how cicadas survived for so many years underground.
Morris also observed that some cicadas were significantly smaller than others. They also had distinctive mating songs. By 1846 she felt confident that she had discovered new species.
Morris wrote a report of her findings and sent it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1846. Because she was not a member of the academy (they had no female members at the time) two members presented her work. They were ornithologist John Cassin and geologist James Coggswell Fisher. In 1851 they presented Morris’s findings as their own and the cicadas were named after them. Brood X remains Cicada Cassinii.
Undaunted, Morris published her research in journals, often under the Ladies’ Section. Among her many contributions to entomology, she observed how the Hessian fly was destroying wheat crops. She also studied apple moths, clothes moths and many others, often by raising them in bell jars. Eventually, scientists flocked to her home in Germantown to observe her methods of study in the field.
Benjamin Banneker Observed Cicadas
Originally a black tobacco farmer, Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 19, 1806) is a distinguished figure in history and academia. Among his many accomplishments he is recognized for crafting a wooden clock, his mathematical puzzles, ephemeris calculations, almanacs, and land surveying of the Federal Territory which is now Washington DC. He is also famous for his letter to Thomas Jefferson on human rights.
Janet E. Barber and Asamoah Nkwanta of Morgan State University write about his many accomplishments In the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics, Benjamin Banneker’s Original Handwritten Document: Observations and Study of the Cicada. Banneker’s meticulous observations contributed significantly to the study of cicada mysteries.
In the spring of 1749, Banneker witnessed Brood X emerge from the ground in rural Maryland. He wrote years later in his astronomical journal:
“The first great Locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then about Seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes, I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the Earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.”
Banneker closely observed three more emergences during his lifetime (1766, 1783 and 1800) and summarized his findings in his handwritten astronomical journal, a copy of which Barber and Nkwanta obtained from the Maryland Center for History and Culture.
“So that if I may venture So to express it,” wrote Banneker in June 1800, “their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us–The female has a Sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and fall, then the egg by some Occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the Space of Seventeen years as aforesaid.”
“I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are Short they are merry, they begin to Sing or make a noise from the first they come out of Earth till they die, the hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on Singing till they die.”
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