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Trillions of cicadas set to emerge in historic U.S. invasion

In the coming weeks, the United States is set to witness a natural phenomenon of almost mythical proportions as trillions of cicadas emerge from beneath the ground. 

Periodical cicadas, known for their 13 or 17-year life cycles, will make a brief but overwhelming appearance across parts of the Southeast and Midwest. 

The spectacle of periodical cicadas

Periodical cicadas are among nature’s most meticulously timed creatures. They spend the majority of their lives underground only to surface in vast numbers, creating a chorus as loud as jet engines. 

These insects, distinguishable by their black bodies and bulging red eyes, differ from annual cicadas not only in appearance but also in their rare and synchronized life events.

This year, the U.S. will experience a rare phenomenon dubbed “cicada-geddon” by University of Connecticut cicada expert John Cooley. The event marks the simultaneous emergence of two broods, a spectacle last witnessed in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson was president. 

The dual emergence

This year’s dual emergence of Broods XIX and XIII will take place across various parts of the United States. Soon after the insects emerge in large numbers across the Southeast, the second group of cicadas will inundate Illinois. The overall projected numbers are in the hundreds of trillions.

“You’ve got one very widely distributed brood in Brood XIX, but you have a very dense historically abundant brood in the Midwest, your Brood XIII,” explained Mike Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland

Fat, slow and tasty, periodical cicadas make ideal meals for birds, said Raupp, who eats them himself. “Birds everywhere will feast. Their bellies will be full and once again the cicadas will emerge triumphant.”

Aliens living beneath our feet 

If you’re fascinated by the upcoming solar eclipse, the cicadas are weirder and bigger, noted Georgia Tech biophysicist Saad Bhamla.

“We’ve got trillions of these amazing living organisms come out of the Earth, climb up on trees and it’s just a unique experience, a sight to behold,” said Bhamla. “It’s like an entire alien species living underneath our feet and then some prime number years they come out to say hello.”

An evolutionary marvel 

Misconceptions about cicadas often associate them with locusts, creatures known for their destructive swarms. Cicadas – while potentially annoying – mainly pose risks to young trees and certain crops. These effects are localized and manageable. 

The survival strategy of cicadas is nothing short of extraordinary. Their emergence in staggering numbers – a defense mechanism against predation – ensures the survival of the species, overwhelming potential predators with their sheer volume.

Furthermore, the selection of prime numbers for their cyclical emergence baffles and intrigues scientists, pointing to a sophisticated evolutionary strategy to evade synchronized predation.

Cicadas take the stage

The mating rituals of cicadas are as fascinating as their survival strategies. The chorus that fills the air is a mating call, with each species of cicada contributing its unique song to attract a mate.

This cacophony, reaching levels as loud as 110 decibels, is a vital part of their reproductive process, culminating in the laying of eggs and the continuation of the cicada legacy.

A wonder of biology

Cicadas are not just a marvel of numbers and noise but also of biology. Their ability to feed on the nutrient-scarce part of trees, thanks to specialized pumps in their heads, sets them apart from other insects. 

Furthermore, their excretion process, propelled by jet-like muscles, marks them as some of the animal kingdom’s most powerful urinators.

Pumps in the head

One of the cicadas’ most extraordinary adaptations is their method of hydration. Unlike most insects that crave the sugary sap found in the phloem of trees, cicadas opt for the xylem tissue. This part of the tree primarily carries water with a scarce amount of nutrients. 

The challenge of accessing fluid under negative pressure from the xylem is overcome by the cicada’s remarkable anatomy. “The cicada can get the fluid because its outsized head has a pump,” explained University of Alabama Huntsville entomologist Carrie Deans. This allows them to utilize their proboscis, akin to a tiny straw, to suck out the liquid, essentially spending their lives in a continuous cycle of drinking. 

A phenomenon of urination

The consequence of their constant hydration is an unparalleled ability to urinate, eclipsing that of elephants and humans. Bhamla’s research revealed that cicadas possess a muscle that expels waste at an astonishing rate.

The discovery was made amidst the Amazon’s “weeping trees,” which, as it turns out, were not crying but were showered in cicada urine. This phenomenon, often experienced as a light rain in forests populated by active cicadas, is humorously termed “cicada rain.”

Zombie cicadas

Cicadas are subject to a sexually transmitted disease caused by a fungus, rendering them into what can be described as “zombies.” This affliction leads to the loss of their reproductive parts and ultimately sterilizes the insects. 

John Cooley, an entomologist from the University of Connecticut, has observed up to 10% infection rates in some areas. The fungus not only manipulates the cicadas for its proliferation but also has hallucinatory effects on potential avian predators, further aiding in its spread.

The life cycle and biology of cicadas, marked by such unique and bizarre characteristics, underscore the complexity of ecological systems and the ongoing fascination with these periodic visitors. 


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