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'Cicada Safari' helps scientists track periodical cicadas across Southern Illinois
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'Cicada Safari' helps scientists track periodical cicadas across Southern Illinois


A female periodical cicada deposits eggs in a tree branch in the Chicago region earlier this month. 

What’s that sound? It may be periodical cicadas emerging years ahead of schedule across parts of Illinois.

The 13-year cicadas known as Brood XIX — or the “Great Southern Brood” — are not expected in Southern Illinois until 2024. The same is true for the 17-year Brood XIII cicadas native to northern Illinois. But different cicada species from both broods have been spotted in large numbers in different pockets of the state, according to the University of Illinois Extension.

It’s not uncommon to see a few pioneers emerge ahead of their relatively strict schedules. Yet, in some places, they’ve emerged thicker than expected, and it's not certain why, said Sarah Hughson, an entomologist with the Extension’s Illinois Pesticide Safety Education Program.

“I think folks are just a little bit surprised by it. And in some areas, they’re getting a lot of cicadas coming out, so they’re also surprised by the quantity. 2020 has been a strange one,” she said.

According to Cicada Mania, a website dedicated to “the most amazing insects in the world,” the following Southern Illinois counties may expect to see early emerging Brood XIX periodical cicadas, roughly from May to late June: Franklin, Williamson, Gallatin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Johnson, Massac, Pope, Saline, Washington and Marion. Others may be found in parts of central Illinois.

Scientists are asking citizens to help them track these off-schedule periodical cicadas so that they can learn more about them. Katie Dana, an entomology specialist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, said that northern Illinois residents have made numerous reports of sightings. But less is known about what’s happening in Southern Illinois.

“It’s kind of a weird year” with the pandemic limiting travel “because a lot of the cicada researchers can’t get out to these spots as easily,” she said. She encouraged Southern Illinoisans interested in citizen-scientist work to download a phone app called “Cicada Safari” and help fill in those gaps.

Users of the app, a product of Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Ohio, send in photographs and videos of cicadas that are used to create searchable maps. People in and around Chicago have used the app to submit hundreds of photos. A few users have also submitted cicada photos from central Illinois.

“I really want to see if people in Southern Illinois are seeing the cicadas,” Dana said. “If you look at the map of what’s been submitted, we’ve just got a gap down there. And I’m sure they’re there.”

Southern Illinoisans are no stranger to cicadas. This area sees — and most certainly hears them — annually. With mouth parts that act like a straw, cicadas spend most of their lives below ground tapping into tree roots and sucking fluid from them. 

The more common annual cicadas, or dog-day cicadas as they are sometimes called, don’t typically make an appearance until early July or early August, into the dog days of summer.

By contrast, periodical cicadas — the ones that hang out underground for 17 or 13 years, depending on the species — typically emerge around late May or early June.

In their final stage, cicadas emerge as nymphs. They climb up whatever vegetation they had been feasting on and then molt into their adult form, shedding out of their exoskeleton, leaving them pale and soft. In a matter of a few hours, they develop a new exoskeleton. And within a few days, they can fly and sing. After that, their mission becomes relatively singular. “They’re mostly going to be looking for a mate and laying eggs,” Hughson said.

Though some areas are already seeing a lot of periodical cicadas, this year is only a taste of what’s to come. “2024, the state is going to be covered,” Dana said. “We’re going to have both the 17-year cicadas in the north and the 13-year cicadas in the southern part of the state emerging at the same time.”

It’s an unusual occurrence for their schedules to line up like this, which is exciting for a researcher like Dana. She has spent years studying cicadas — though that wasn’t her original plan. She arrived for graduate school at the University of Illinois in August 2011 planning to study bees. But the cicadas wooed her away with their late summer chorus.

“The second we moved here from California, we got out of the car, and the noise was just so deafening. It was so fascinating to me,” she said.

That sound can be loud enough to drown out an outdoor conversation, and not everyone is a fan. But it signifies that love is in the air — or at least a desire for the species to carry on. As a male cicada sings, a female will move closer. As they dance around each other, she flaps her wings at the end of each part of his song, indicating interest.

“What I like to tell people is that every town in Illinois kind of has its own soundtrack because you have different species across the state,” she said.

After mating, female cicadas deposit their rice-shaped eggs into twigs and small branches. Most trees are unharmed and Hughson said spraying cicadas with pesticides is not recommended. They are a native species and an important food source for birds and snakes.

Spraying pesticides could indirectly harm other creatures that eat them, including domestic dogs that snack on cicadas. Young fruit trees or other delicate ornamental trees that could suffer damage in the egg-laying process may need to be covered with netting to protect them, she said.

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