The cicadas are here! Why US researchers are swarming to study them

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The emergence is in full swing. Periodical cicadas (Magicicada) are crawling out of the ground in vast numbers — in their trillions, maybe — across swathes of the southeastern and midwestern United States. And researchers, many of whom usually study other insects, are dropping everything to race to sites where they’ve popped up, eager to collect samples and observe the ecological spectacle.

“There’s an awful lot that we don’t know” about these insects that spend most of their lives about 60 centimetres underground “in a little mud hole in the dirt”, says Martha Weiss, an entomologist at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

This year’s emergence also ups the ante for researchers. Two particular broods — groups of multiple cicada species with the same life cycle appearing above ground in the same year — will sync up for the first time in 221 years. That means the last time they saw daylight together was when the United States was being led by its third president, Thomas Jefferson. Brood XIX, also known as the Great Southern Brood, has been emerging for the past few weeks after 13 years underground, and the more northerly brood XIII has just started popping up after 17 years.

Separate territories

Geographically, the two broods don’t overlap much, although “they come really close together” in central Illinois, near the city of Springfield, says Chris Simon, an evolutionary biologist and entomologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Brood XIX spans the largest area of any known cicada brood, from Maryland to Georgia in the southeast and from Iowa to Oklahoma in the Midwest. Brood XIII, meanwhile, covers northern Illinois, including Chicago.

But there is a possible contact zone, and some scientists are flocking to it. Katie Dana, an entomologist affiliated with the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is hoping to investigate how the two broods might interact and how their mating songs differ. Normally, the pitch of these songs is one way to distinguish between the multiple, visually similar, cicada species that make up a single brood.

One way to distinguish between species of cicada is to collect specimens, freeze them and later sequence their DNA.Credit: AJ Mast for Nature

It could also be a way to distinguish between broods XIX and XIII. They, too, are closely related and look the same, Dana says, making interbreeding possible but really challenging to study in the field.

So Dana is now observing their interactions and collecting as many samples as possible, then flash-freezing them for storage. This will allow her and her colleagues to sequence the insects’ DNA later, to help them to distinguish between the broods.

“There are gonna be so many graduate-student projects that we’ll have in our freezer after this year,” says Dana, who enthusiastically signs her e-mails “Dr. Ci-Katie-Dae”.

Telling the time underground

One of the big questions that researchers will seek to answer during this emergence is, how do cicadas keep track of time?

When they are above ground, periodical cicadas have a loud and frenzied mating season, after which the females lay eggs in small slits in tree branches. Once the eggs hatch weeks later, the white nymphs fall to the ground like snowflakes, burrow down into the soil and stay there, sucking sap from tree roots for nutrition. They survive and grow like this for a long time — usually prime-numbered stretches of years. The cicadas somehow know to emerge in a particular year once the soil warms up to a balmy 18°C.

Periodical cicadas typically have red eyes, black bodies and orange-tinted wings.Credit: AJ Mast for Nature

Researchers think that having prime-numbered reproduction cycles puts the cicadas conveniently out of sync with the life cycles of various predators that might stalk them. Emerging all at once, in vast numbers, also means that at least some members of a particular brood will survive to have offspring for the next reproduction cycle.

But how exactly the insects work out whether 13 or 17 years have passed underground is a mystery. Certainly, they can clock seasonal changes in the trees they feed on, but that can’t be the whole story, Simon says. She suspects that epigenetics — chemical modifications of DNA that control how various genes are expressed — wind the insects’ internal clocks. Specifically, she thinks methyl groups (carbon atoms with three hydrogens attached) are involved. Like Dana, Simon will be collecting samples this year to test her hypothesis.

A terrifying fungus

Although the prime-number trick seems to help cicadas evade predators, it hasn’t fooled a certain parasite. Massospora cicadina fungus infects 13- and 17-year cicadas as they crawl out of the ground, eating through their abdomens and replacing their tissue with plugs of spores. Psychoactive chemicals released by the spores turn the infected cicadas into ‘zombies’, driving them to mate manically to pass spores on to others.

The spores remain dormant in soil for periods matching the prime-numbered cicada cycles, and become activated during an emergence year. But researchers have questions about how this works.

Has the fungus evolved its own internal way of tracking 13- and 17-year cycles to keep up with the cicadas? Or is it simply activated by chemical cues released by cicada nymphs as they are about to emerge? To find out, Sierra Raglin, a soil microbial ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, will locate and collect infected cicadas this year, as well as look for spores in the nearby soil. The soil and its microbiome haven’t been studied much in this context, Raglin says.

Cicada emergences are a bolt out of the blue for people and wildlife alike. “Swarms of shrimp-like nymphs crawl out of the ground and cover the trees and the car tyres and the mailboxes,” says Weiss, along with “the legs of passers-by”. Weiss studied her first cicada emergence in 2004; she is now in Illinois to record how brood XIII affects the surrounding ecosystem, including animals such as birds and ants. Piles of cicada carcasses, left behind after the mating is over, offer a feast. This time around, Weiss plans to use ant colonies as an indicator of how nature reacts to this bounty, by studying their foraging patterns and interspecies relationships before, during and after the emergence.

“It’s a new experiment every single time,” she says.

Source: Ecology -

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