It was Sir David Attenborough, who first introduced me to the flabbergasting world of Cicadas, through his series – Life in the Undergrowth, on BBC. A scene still fresh in my mind, where Attenborough attempts to entice a male cicada by snapping his fingers, only to have it land on his ear. This gave me laughs at the weird wonders of nature, but largely left me intrigued.
Little did I know of a creature that spends an astonishing 17 years underground to come out, procreate and die.
After a decade of watching this series, I encountered a live cicada for the first time, during a monsoon expedition in the western ghats of India.
Lifecycle of a cicada isn’t straightforward. Beginning in an egg on a tree limb, they hatch to look like white ants (termites). Feeding on tree fluids, they gain enough grit for survival in isolation. A cicada will crawl down the grove to the ground, where it will dig until it finds roots to feed on. It will typically start with smaller grass roots and work its way deep to the roots of its host tree.
Cicadas continue their active life underground, digging tunnels and feasting on roots. They would do this for any where from two to as long as seventeen odd years. All this to re-emerge from the ground as Nymphs. How would they know when to emerge, and at which year would a particular species of cicada actually emerge, is still not accurately known.
These Nymphs would climb the nearest available tree, and begin to shed their external nymph layer (called exoskeleton).
The one in the image is presumably just off this stage. A learned friend speculates it to be less than 24 hours, since its return from the undergrowth. The colors you see here would soon turn brown, as the natural elements take charge to give it the necessary camouflage from predators.
Once their new wings and body are ready, they begin their brief adult life.
Adult cicadas, spend their time in trees looking for a mate. Males sing using their drum like organ in their abdomen, loud and continuous enough to annoy. Females respond, by flicking their wings (a sound very similar to finger snapping). Mating occurs, female deposits eggs in a groove she makes in a tree limb and the entire lifecycle repeats again.
Click here to experience this magic with Sir David Attenborough’s narration.
There are about 3,400 cicada species in the world of which 200 varieties occur in India. This number keeps growing as entomologists continue to discover newer species.
Life is wonderfully crafted and everything in nature has a purpose. Until affected by us humans, nature will continue to surprise us with many more such mysteries from the underworld.
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