After 13-Year Underground Adolescence, Billions of Cicadas Will Soon Burst Forth

By Veronique Greenwood | May 5, 2011 6:00 pm

cicada

What’s the News: In another glorious reminder of how weird nature really is, it’s time to get ready for the swarm: This May, after spending 13 years underground, huge populations of cicadas will emerge in the southern U.S. to molt, sing their riotous mating tunes, and breed. It’s a brief coda to their long adolescence in burrows 30 cm beneath the soil—by July, they will be dead, and their children will be beginning their years of exile from the surface.

What’s the Context:

  • While there are plenty of cicada species that send a generation to the surface every year, cyclical cicadas (of the genus Magicicada) come out en masse after 13 or 17 years. Scientists believe that this strategy evolved as a way to overwhelm predators—when there are so many cicadas around at one time, a good many of them will probably survive.
  • cicadaCyclical cicadas live in tribes called broods that occupy certain geographic areas (see map)—the brood that’s swarming this year, called brood XIX or the Great Southern Brood. It was last seen in 1998. (Go ahead, check the math.)
  • Scientists have puzzled for decades over the fact that some cyclical cicadas live for 13 years and others for 17. One model built to study cicada evolution assumes that a single gene could determine whether a brood is a 17-er or a 13-er, with the 13-year gene being dominant over the 17-year gene—see that paper here. But the real-life genetics are still unclear.
  • Cicadas have been known to deviate occasionally from their routine. In 2009, brood II burst out four years early, surprising scientists (and folks living in the Atlantic states, where brood II is located). They are very sensitive to soil temperatures, and scientists think that mild winters might accelerate cicadas’ development and trigger early swarms.
  • Like solar eclipses and planetary transits of the sun, overlaps between 17-year and 13-year cicada broods are easily calculated: brood XIX and 17-year brood IV should next emerge simultaneously in Missouri, where their territories overlap, in 2219.

The Future Holds: The first cicadas have been spotted in Georgia already—keep your eyes peeled for more in the coming weeks.

Image credit: tlindenbaum/flickr. Map credit: College of Mount Joseph

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World
  • Ryan

    Gee, I can’t wait…

  • Eric

    hey can you guys please fix that little featured article window that cycles through photos of selected articles. whenever i click one i want to read, it just cycles to the next photo!
    iv tried it in 3 different browsers just to make sure it wasnt messed up on my end.

    – and i seem to be too retarded to find the articles by searching.

  • Tom Hanna

    I was driving thru Pennsylvania in ’99, which Cicadas was that? I had to use my ice scraper to get those little bastards off my grill and windshield, heh!

    I’ve always claimed that the weather runs in an 11 year cycle and well known meteorologist, up here, claims a 22 year cycle. Neither one of these numbers jive with these pesky little critters!

    Another numbered cycle to throw out there is the sun, I believe the average guesstimate on that one is 10.5 years!

  • Jumblepudding

    Thanks for the disturbingly humanizing photo of a cicada. I look forward to watching my dog temporarily become an insectivore.

  • fintin

    Wow, just what I needed- a swarm of noisy, big beetles. Gonna be one heck of a summer in the south!

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @Tom, I think that would have been Brood V, which surfaced in 1999 in MD, OH, PA, VA, and WV according this cicada watch site: http://www.magicicada.org/about/brood_pages/broods.php

    @Eric, we fixed it!! Sorry about that, and try clicking through now. Big thanks for letting us know.

  • Ben

    Just saw our first adults drying their wings on some dogwoods, just out of the brown larval shell this week here in central NC. Blood red eyes. Gonna be a LOUD summer.

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    What’s the big deal? They obviously evolved in a pattern that favored the 13 or 19 year cycle. Why, could always remain a mystery as we are so egocentric that we think there is a reason for everything, just because we want it to be so. Maybe it was just a silly little ‘go’ gene that got an extra layer or two of ‘hold up’ proteins, or whatever.

  • bug_guy

    @fintin – cicadas are true bugs, not beetles.

    @Iain – cicadas emerge all at once to oversaturate predators; they can’t eat them all.

  • Pascal

    Nature is pretty smart: They might just check every 13 or 17 years if human species are still there, and when not, they will just change their cycle to 1 year.

  • Squeegie

    There’s here. There’s no quiet anywhere in the country in upstate SC. I can’t stand it!! How long before we get our quiet back?

  • Joe

    I’d read that the significance of the cycle is that it’s always a prime number, so less likely to overlap with another brood’s cycle.

  • LeoCatGirl

    I live in Colbert County North West Alabama..i have been hearing them in the distance for a few days..and they are now here..they sure are LOUD!!! and the are shedding everywhere Yuck…shu go away….BUZZZZZZZ…

  • Stacy

    Pascal: Thanks for the humor. I needed the chuckle!!

  • Luca

    Ha ha ha!!!! Pascal: very well said! :-)

  • Cicada Lady

    If you’re looking for a way to explain the cicadas to kids, check out the book Cecily Cicada: http://amzn.to/lX4t4w

  • Tim

    We live just south and west of St. Louis and our back patio has been filled with these little critters every morning for a week now.

  • Kat

    These things are sooooooooo loud i just recorded a video of them earlier we live in small rural town they must love it all the backwoods

  • june bug joe

    makes u wish for the good ‘ol days of DDT!

  • Rie Workman

    I live in central Illinois and just got back from vacation in Texas on 6/4 and they’re here. They are filling up my pool skimmer basket quite quickly but didn’t seem to stop the jr high boys travel baseball team from getting in the pool.:) The cats think they are quite fun to play with, and the fish in the pond think they are quite yummy. I’ll be glad when they’re gone and not in my pool.

  • John

    We broke out the shotguns last weekend and it was a hoot ! I’ve never had my 12 ga. so hot in all my life . Like shooting skeet with no need to holler ” pull ” …. they were everywhere …. almost like snowfall . Between me & my buddy Doug , we burned through 8 boxes ( 200 rounds ) in less than 2 hours . I haven’t had so much fun since I found my Dad’s stash of Playboy’s back when I was 13 ….

  • Heather

    I figured there was a cicada inflation being I’ve been avoiding going outside it’s that bad..in fact there was one actually under my car’s trunk holding on still alive..he rode with me everywhere and everytime I shut the trunk he’d vibrate and make other noises..haha I thought I was hearing things untill after I got home and noticed him

  • tammy

    they are in lexington nc alot of them they are loud and annoying and ugggggly!!! how long do they stick around???

  • Sam Cicada

    Hi my name is Sam Cicada and I just emerged from a 13 year sleep.

    Wow, what’s with all the human beings all over the place with their motor cars, making all kinds of noise? This is really getting out of hand. I sure hope they are not still here when we come back in 2024.

  • natureL

    If you find a live one in an enclosed space like a porch, touch it with your hand or a stick or something. They get extra loud when threatened like that. bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!!!

  • Jessica

    Ugh, I am going to have to begin my seclusion. I have the worst fear of bugs.

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