Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Paul Doerder sent in some photos of a mass emergence of one species of periodical cicada. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of these swarms (you can, too, by following the first link below), which are marvels of nature and enigmas of evolution (we have no idea how this weird life cycle evolved, though there are hypotheses). His notes are indented:

In response to your recent plea, here are some photos of last year’s 17-cicada event here in Ohio.  I should have sent these last year in a more timely manner, and perhaps there are too many and the text too long.  Your judgment prevails.  The following describes the photos.

It’s more than a year after the event, but there’s still evidence in the form of dead tree branches of last year’s 17-year cicada show.  In May/June 2016 Brood V of Magicicada septendecim emerged in Ohio.  After sunset on the evenings of May 26-28 at our place in Holmes County Ohio, thousands, more correctly tens of thousands, of cicada nymphs crawled out of the ground onto tree trunks, shrubs, tall grasses, posts, benches, fences, foundation walls, even our legs as we stood to watch.  Those climbing the tree trunks resembled a reverse waterfall, the numbers were so large.  Some crawled only a few inches, others perhaps 30 feet or more onto maple and oak branches and their terminal leaves. Following 17 years of sucking sap from tree roots (maple and oak are favorites), the nymphs emerged from the ground to complete the transition into breeding adults.  By an hour after sunrise, most had molted, leaving the exoskeleton behind, but many were still shedding their “skin”, emerging as soft, white adults that gradually inflated their wings and acquired adult color.  When done, they flew clumsily to high branches and joined in a chorus. Some, of course, failed to make it, succumbing to unfortunate timing, a developmental defect or predation.  A flock of ~50 Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) had a feast, eating throughout each day. The birds picked defective cicadas from tree trunks and caught others in flight. Apparently, it’s typical of waxwings to gorge.  Squirrels ate the cicadas as did our dog; and though there are recipes on line for cooking the egg-rich females, we did not indulge.

After mating, female cicadas laid eggs in slits cut into twigs and small branches.  Sap often dripped from the wounds.  The process of cutting into twigs and branches often killed the branch, forming what are called “flags”.  Damage was quite heavy to a mature maple and one young black gum (mysteriously, the second young black gum a few feet away was spared). It’s a natural pruning mechanism.  I did not get photos of the ant-sized nymphs that after hatching drop to the ground, attach to a root and begin the cycle again. I give a brief description of each photo.

Skins and cicadas clustered on maple leaves.

Pile of skins and carcasses on ground.

Emerging from the skin.

Expanded wings, hanging onto skin.

Acquiring color.

Not everyone makes it (17 years underground and no chance to mate once above it).

Cedar Waxwing eating cicada.

Squirrel eating cicada nymphs.

Sap oozing from cicada wound.

Series of slits on branch. Such damage often kills the branch, a natural pruning mechanism.

Cicada eggs.

Dead branches on a young black gum tree.  The tree survived the winter and seems to be thriving.

Holes from which nymphs emerged; a natural method of soil aeration.  Newly hatched nymphs perhaps use these tunnels to gain access to tree roots for their 17-year cycle.

12 Comments

  1. Posted August 31, 2017 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Excellent coverage of this phenomena and implications. Thanks.

  2. Posted August 31, 2017 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Great photos and story, thanks very much!

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    The amazing cicada. Was always an event to get the attention of us kids growing up in the Midwest. We would pull the exoskeletons off the trees and take them home to look at them.

  4. Posted August 31, 2017 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Absolutely cool! I wish I have seen one of these but I have definitely noted the locations of nearby near-future emergences, so thank you for that info!
    I narrowly missed a mass emergence in my old home town many years back. The ground was still very crunchy with dead bodies, and my parents were still rather put out by this particular marvel of nature.

  5. Posted August 31, 2017 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing these photos and the story — well done! Brood VIII is due to emerge in 2019 in my neck of the woods. Hopefully I’ll see them.

  6. Posted August 31, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I especially like the picture of the newly emergent cicada, hanging onto its cast skin. I see lovely bokeh in the background.

  7. rickflick
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Excellent views of the entire life cycle. Thanks for showing these.

  8. Debbie Coplan
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for the information and the incredible photos.

  9. Mobius
    Posted August 31, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Around the time I was 6 or 7 years old I was living in Oklahoma and there was a sizable cicada event. This would have been around 1962 or ’63. I recall the lower parts of buildings being covered with the shells of cicadas and the trees being full of adults. The twittering was an almost constant background noise.

  10. Diane G.
    Posted September 1, 2017 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    Great story and pictures! Thanks, Paul!

  11. Posted September 2, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Very nice, thanks. I remember a big emergence in Bethesda, MD when I was a kid. Nymph shells on every tree.

  12. Andrea Kenner
    Posted September 4, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    We had a fairly large brood emerge this year. Nowhere as big as the big one we had a few years back, but impressive nevertheless.


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