“Notes from Underground” – cicadas as living rain gauges

Given recent discussions between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un about whose button is bigger, many of us with entomological leanings have revisited the question of what insects are most likely to dominate a post-nuclear world. Cicadas have a developmental life history that predisposes them to survival in the long term because some species in the eastern United States spend many subterranean years as juveniles (nymphs), feeding on the xylem sap within plants’ root systems. Magicicada nymphs live underground for 13 or 17 years, depending on the species, before digging out en masse, undergoing one final molt, and then going about the adult business of reproduction. This life history of spending many years underground followed by a mass emergence has not evolved to avoid nuclear holocausts while underground, but rather to synchronize emergence of billions of animals. Mass emergence causes predator satiation, an anti-predator adaptation in which predators are gastronomically overwhelmed by the number of prey items, so even if they eat only cicadas and nothing else, they still are able to consume only a small fraction of the cicada population.


Mass Magicicada emergence picturing recently-emerged winged adults, and the smaller lighter-colored exuviae (exoskeletons) that are shed during emergence. Credit: Arthur D. Guilani.

Less well-known are the protoperiodical cicadas (subfamily Tettigadinae) of the western United States that are abundant in some years, and may be entirely absent in others. Jeffrey Cole has studied cicada courtship songs for many years, and during his 2003 field season noted that localities that had previously been devoid of cicadas now (in 2003) hosted huge numbers of six or seven different species. He returned to those sites every year and high diversity and abundance reappeared in 2008 and 2014. This flexible periodicity contrasted with their eastern Magicicada cousins, and he wanted to know what stimulated mass emergence.



Protoperiodical cicadas studied by Chatfield-Taylor and Cole.  Okanagana cruentifera (top) and Clidophleps wrighti (bottom). Credit Jeffrey A. Cole.

Cole and his graduate student, Will Chatfield-Taylor, considered two hypotheses that might explain protoperiodicity in southern California (where they focused their efforts). The first hypothesis is that cicada emergence is triggered by heavy rains generated by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a large-scale atmospheric system characterized by high sea temperature and low barometric pressure over the eastern Pacific Ocean. ENSO has a variable periodicity of 4.9 years, which roughly corresponds to the timing Cole observed while doing fieldwork. The second hypothesis recognized that nymphs must accumulate a set amount of xylem sap from their host plants to complete development. Sap availability depends on precipitation, and this accumulation takes several years in arid habitats. So while ENSO may hasten the process, the key to emergence is a threshold amount of precipitation over a several year timespan.

Working together, the researchers were able to identify seven protoperiodical species by downloading museum specimen data (including where and when each individual was collected) from two databases (iDigBio and SCAN). They also used data from several large museum collections, which gave them evidence of protoperiodical cicada emergences back to 1909. Based on these data, Chatfield-Taylor and Cole constructed a map of where these protoperiodical cicadas emerge.


Maps of five emergence localities discussed in this study.

The researchers tested the hypothesis that protoperiodical cicada emergences follow heavy rains triggered by ENSO by going through their dataset to see if there was a correlation between ENSO years and mass cicada emergences. Of 20 mass cicada emergences since 1918, only five coincided with ENSO events, which is approximately what would be expected with a random association between mass emergences and ENSO. Scratch hypothesis 1.

Let’s look at the second hypothesis. The researchers needed reliable precipitation data between years for which they had good evidence that there were mass emergences of their seven species. Using a statistical model, they discovered that 1181 mm was a threshold for mass emergences, and that three years was the minimum emergence interval regardless of precipitation. Only after 1181 mm of rain fell since the last mass emergence, summed over at least three years, would a new mass emergence be triggered.


Cumulative precipitation over seven time periods preceding cicada emergence.

The nice feature of this model is that it makes predictions about the future. For example, the last emergence occurred in the Devil’s punchbowl vicinity in 2014. Since then that area has averaged 182.2 mm of precipitation per year. If those drought conditions continue, the next mass emergence will occur in 2021 at that locality, which is longer than its historical average. Only time will tell. Hopefully Mr. Trump and Mr. Jong-un will be able to keep their fingers off of their respective buttons until then.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Chatfield-Taylor, W. and Cole, J. A. (2017), Living rain gauges: cumulative precipitation explains the emergence schedules of California protoperiodical cicadas. Ecology, 98: 2521–2527. doi:10.1002/ecy.1980. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


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