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Interview with a Cicada (Expert)

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Cicada by Alex Wild

In North Carolina, this was a big year for cicadas. Our 17-year cicadas, after biding their time underground for so very long, finally emerged in the spring. This event, in turn, stimulated the emergence of a species that is extraordinarily rare: the cicada specialist.

Chris Simon is an excellent specimen of the latter. A cicada expert, that is; not a cicada.

She’s a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. And when the periodical cicadas are emerging, she leaves her lab and goes into the field to study them. She’s been studying them for nearly four decades. That’s what brought her to North Carolina in May, and she paid a visit to the NC Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with her, in which I learned quite a lot.

For instance, although there are some 3000 species of cicadas found worldwide, the periodical cicadas – the ones that only emerge every 13 or 17 years – are found exclusively in the United States. It’s an American thing.

Their emergence is synchronized such that billions of them emerge almost simultaneously, which serves as an interesting survival strategy called “predator satiation.” Basically, safety in numbers. It’s been such a successful strategy that they really don’t have any other defenses. They don’t even run – or fly – for their lives. They just take their chances. But, with billions of them, their chances are pretty good.

I wasn’t kidding when I said cicada specialists are rare. According to Chris, there are only about 30 or 40. So, to assist them in their work, they’ve made great use of social media and citizen scientists. At Magicicada.org you can learn more about cicadas and also participate in their mapping project.

I want to give a big thank you to entomologist and insect photographer extraordinaire Alex Wild for letting us use his cicada photos.  Be amazed at his images at AlexanderWild.com. He also has a wonderful SciAm blog about science photography: Compound Eye.

Lastly, about two weeks before Chris Simon visited us at the museum, she was featured in Carl Zimmer‘s New York Times article: 17 Years to Hatch an Invasion. Enjoy!

Brian Malow About the Author: Science comedian Brian Malow engages in lively conversation with scientists and writers for his own amusement and yours. Follow on Twitter @sciencecomedian.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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