National Geographic : 1953 Jul
Rip Van Winkle of the Underground 133 North America's Much Misunderstood Insect, the Periodical Cicada, Emerges After. 17 Years in the Earth for a Fling in the Sun BY KENNETH F. WEAVER National Geographic Magazine Staff ONLY a few weeks ago, on a warm night in May, a mysterious signal crossed the land. Citizens going about their chores heard no sound and felt no apprehen sion. But an invading host, waiting under ground, heard and acted. At a multitude of spots between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River the invaders began rising by night from their hiding places, fanning out to take possession of forest, wood lot, and orchard. Startled citizens, facing millions of uninvited visitors, were roused by curiosity and alarm. A "W" Marks the Coat of Arms The woodland occupants wore uniforms of black with orange trim, and shiny cloaks em blazoned with the letter W. Their gargoyle faces and gleaming red eyes stared unblink ingly at passers-by. Discarded armor hung from every tree and fence post. From dawn to dusk drummers filled the air with a harsh and mournful din. Invaders from Mars or from some alien land? No, these creatures are as American as basketball or buffalo nickels. They are the periodical cicadas, known to almost every body but entomologists as 17-year locusts. In June these same cicadas were at their prime in many places east of the Mississippi, enjoying a brief and noisy fling in the sun shine after 17 winters of subterranean dark ness. The apprehension that recently met their appearance has given way to varying degrees of annoyance. By the middle of July the periodical cicada and his keening cry will be only a memory. Then the very air would hang in limp relief were it not for the dog-day cicada, or harvest fly, whose raso makes drowsy the late summer afternoons. But a myriad drying corpses and empty shells will continue to remind us of the summer's visitation (page 142). Life Cycle Began in 1936 When this summer's crop of periodical cicadas began its life cycle 17 years ago, the United States was recovering from depression, Edward of Windsor was sitting on England's throne, and Hitler was gaining strength in Germany. If anyone mentioned war, he likely meant the civil war in Spain. That was 1936. In that July and August tiny antlike creatures wriggled from nests in furrowed twigs. They scampered briefly on bark and leaves, then tumbled to earth. There they quickly burrowed into the protective soil, to be seen no more until 1953. A foot or so below the surface (some have been reputed to dig 10 feet) the cicadas hol lowed out tiny clay cells. There they sank beaks into tender roots and settled down in quiet darkness for almost their entire lives. Seasons passed. Depression ended and war spread around the globe. Wood lots fell to the lumberman's ax. Towns appeared; cities grew. But the hidden cicada was oblivious to all these things, except as the death of woods or orchard destroyed the nourishing roots on which he sucked. He seldom moved except to shed his clothes and enlarge his chamber as increasing size demanded. Out of the Burrows, into the Sky! But as last winter drew to a close, the soli tary earth dwellers sensed that an important change was due. During late winter and early spring they gradually tunneled upward until their excavations touched the surface. Some, caught in leaf-covered or wet areas, built mud turrets above the ground as temporary shelters - exactly why, nobody knows. There they awaited Nature's mysterious announcement that sends them scurrying aloft by the mil lions to take part in the swift cycle of court ship, propagation, and death. What strange telepathy must govern these small creatures! Each individual is isolated nearly 17 years; yet he senses instinctively and simultaneously with his fellows that his "resurrection day" has arrived. A few come out ahead of time, others straggle; but the big emergence in any locality takes place en masse on several consecutive nights. In some areas the ground may be peppered with half-inch holes, as many as 40,000 under a large tree (page 136). Small wonder if some awakening sleepers feel that an invading host has taken over during the night! Thirty years ago the New York Times re ported that no one had ever seen a periodical cicada nymph emerging; many writers have repeated the assertion. It is true that the creatures scuttle warily from their tunnels, usually under cover of darkness. Yet in more recent years observers with powerful lights and considerable patience have watched the fantastic emergence (page 137).