Got Cicadas? Take a Picture and Help Entomologists Map Their Arrival
When periodical cicadas emerge from the ground in 15 states in the eastern U.S. this spring, anyone with a smartphone has the opportunity to participate in a potentially unprecedented citizen-science effort.
And yet, while cicada researchers are hoping to collect a huge number of observations with the help of modern technology, the effort is just the latest chapter in a long, storied tradition.
“Using citizen science to help map periodical cicadas goes back to the 1840s, when Gideon B. Smith wrote newspaper articles asking readers to send him details of where they saw cicadas,” says Gene Kritsky, Ph.D., dean of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio. “By the time of his death in 1867, he had documented all the known broods of cicadas.”
Such efforts have evolved in their methods over the past century-and-a-half from letters to the telephone to email and now, with the advent of GPS-enabled smartphones, to mobile apps. Kritsky and a cadre of fellow researchers are urging the public to share their cicada sightings in 2021 via Cicada Safari, an app (iOS and Android) developed in conjunction with Mount St. Joseph’s Center for IT Engagement.
This is the year entomologists like Kritsky—who has studied, tracked, and written about cicadas throughout his career—have been waiting for. Seventeen years, to be exact. Brood X of the periodical cicadas is largest cohort of those that spend 17 years underground before rising, en masse, to molt, mate, and make a lot of noise.
Kritsky and colleagues rolled out the app a couple years early, to try it out during some smaller brood emergences, and the results were promising. App users submitted 5,721 photos and videos in 2019 and nearly 8,000 in 2020. This year, with the size and range of Brood X, they’re hoping to go really big—50,000 observations.
“This is the big one, a generational event,” says Kritsky. “For those who weren’t alive 17 years ago or who were too young at the time and can’t remember, they are in for quite an experience.”
Users of the free Cicada Safari app can snap a photo or capture a video of cicadas in their yard or at a park or wherever they might be. The date, time, and geographical coordinates of each observation are automatically captured and also uploaded into the app, which then maps all of the observations for both real-time examination and future research. App users can see the map as well.
The photos allow researchers to confirm the observations are indeed periodical cicadas. “Cicada Safari also accepts 10-second videos, and the included audio documents chorusing, which can be identified to species,” says Kritsky.
The size and scope of the 50,000-observation goal could give Kritsky and colleagues a level of detail never before seen in periodical cicada research. The 2020 data offered an exciting preview, as app users helped capture both the expected emergence of Brood IX cicadas as well as off-cycle emergences of cicadas belonging to four other broods. Capturing and verifying such off-cycle emergences was much more difficult without the app, the researchers say.
Last year’s data was also useful because pandemic conditions limited researchers’ ability to travel and observe cicadas in person, Kritsky says. They hope to be back out on the road in 2021, but the Cicada Safari app will help cover far more ground than the scientists could hope to reach on their own.
Kritsky, who authored a new book out this spring, Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition, calls cicadas “bugs of history” that continue to surprise even those who have seen many of their emergences.
“I have been mining historical emergence records for 45 years, and in the process we have discovered new populations of broods that had been missed for over a century,” he says. “It’s amazing t hat an insect that has been studied for so long and by so many still has secrets to reveal.”