Cicada Natural History

cicada sitting on stem
Credit: Pixabay

Walk outside on a warm summer day and you will probably hear the gentle buzz of cicadas all around. These buzzy boys are one of the most well-known insects and have some extremely interesting features and behaviors that make them an object of cultural and scientific interest.

Cicadas belong to the superfamily Cicadoidea which itself is part of the order Hemiptera. Cicadas consist of more than 3,000 known species around the world and there are an estimated thousands more that remain undescribed. Cicadas are known for their distinguishing features, including their exceptionally loud striations (chirping sounds) and their periodic life cycles.

Cicada Anatomy

Most cicadas are large, chitinous insects measuring between 2 to 5 inches with bulging compound eyes and short antennae. Cicadas are also distinguished by their prominent forelegs and membranous wings. The cicada body has 3 segments including a head, thorax and abdomen. Males of most species tend to have hollow abdomens which are used to produce their signature chirping sound.

cicada siting on green plant
Credit: WikiCommons CC-BY 2.0

Most species of cicada produce their unique cadence with a special organ called a tymbal that is located on the bottom of the abdomen. The contraction of the tymbal by muscles produces the cricket-like sound. Other species produce their chirps by striating their wings across microridges on their body.

Cicada Behavior and Lifecycle

Most cicadas are active during the day and spend their time flitting about, singing their songs and looking for food. Most species feed on sap from various species of plants with their sucking mouthparts. Despite what many people think, cicadas are not adept jumpers and indeed cannot even walk that well. Most of their motion consists of flying.

Cicada songs play an important role in their local ecology. Each species of cicada emits a distinct tone or chirp that others of the species can recognize. Cicadas use these songs as a mating call and to ward off predators with the loud noise. Some larger species of cicada can produce sounds in excess of 120 decibels at close range, which is about the same intensity as a nearby thunderclap.

cicada with red eyes
Credit: Pixabay

Cicadas are also known for their cyclical life cycles. Most species of cicada begin their lives as nymphs and quickly burrow into the ground. They spend the entirety of the nymph stage underground and unearth themselves just before molting and emerging as adult specimens. Cicada life cycles typically vary from 2 to 5 years, though some species are known for long life cycles. North American cicadas from the Magicicada genus have life cycles that vary from 13 to 17 years long. These periodic cycles are very precise and result in large spikes in cicada populations every few years, especially when species life cycles sync up.

Interesting Cicada Facts

  • Cicadas have been mentioned in human literature since at least 1,000 BCE
  • Cicadas are a common source of food in various cultures around the world
  • Cicada striations are so loud that some species can cause permanent hearing damage in humans
  • Some species of fungus can infect cicadas, hijack their bodies, and use their zombie hosts to spread spores

Check out our collection of framed cicadas.