Sunday, August 5, 2012

Up From Darkness

Up from darkness they will come...cicadas, that is. Their life cycle is a fascinating one. The realm of darkness is where a cicada spends most of its life. It all begins with rice-sized eggs being deposited into a small tree limb. Tiny nymphs hatch from the cluster, and fall down to the inviting earth, burrowing into the deep soil that will nourish and protect them while they mature. This unseen life stage process could take anywhere from 2-17 years, depending on the species, and could happen anywhere from 1 foot to 9 feet underground. While in their dark tunnel, cicada nymphs will feed on the roots of trees and shed their skin several times as they grow larger, completing several stages of maturity.

A cicada in one of the later nymphal stages, not yet ready to leave the ground.

Somewhere late in the maturation process, the cicada gets an "urge to emerge" and he heads upward from deep below, toward the surface of his dark hiding place, digging and tunneling with his specialized, strong front legs. A night ritual is in his near future. Now he awaits just under the surface of the earth until the temperature and conditions are just right. Nature then calls to the cicada to exit the safety of his black cavernous dwelling and beckons for him to continue onward and upward. The cicada now crawls over the soil and searches for the nearest vertical surface to begin his journey upward to complete one more amazing transformation that will completely change his life.

I was fortunate to be able to witness this incredible life change. A few cicadas had exited their underground tunnels underneath a tree directly behind a fence where I had a white sheet hung to attract moths. A couple of them climbed up and over the fence and onto the sheet where my bright light was, so I captured the process in pictures.

A cicada in his final nymph stage that just crawled up from below the ground and is ready to begin his transformation. Notice the fresh dirt and spider webs!

Closeup to show the specialized digging apparatus on his front legs! No wonder they can excavate so well!

 It is amazing enough to be able to watch the emerging cicada with the naked eye, but it is astounding to watch it through a macro lens! It was incredible to be able to watch at such a close-up range to witness the magnificence of the color unfold, just like a blooming flower. After the cicada chose just the perfect spot, he anchored himself, rested for a minute or two and began to intermittently vibrate. He then appeared to be doing "push ups" as was applying pressure toward his dorsal surface. His abdomen lengthened, his back began to slowly split, and the creature began his emergence into the world. The pictures below show the progression...
The emergence begins!

This picture is a front angle of the picture above it.

Notice in the pictures above, the gorgeous colors of the newly emerging cicada. His emergence was slow and steady almost like invisible fingers were gently pulling him. Incredibly, when the eyes were pulled free of the exoskeleton and they became dull, it almost appeared that there were now two creatures; one whose life had ended and one whose life had just begun.  After that, the real struggle was over and this new, active, fresh cicada was intent on his final escape! He accomplished a graceful back bend, then at the last minute when you might think he was going to fall, he pulls himself back up by hanging onto his exoskeleton. The shell that once protected his soft body is now a sturdy base from which to to rest, as the life force began its surge through his body and wings.

This is another cicada that had already emerged when I started photographing the one on the white sheet. Notice how his wings have fully filled out and have become clear. He is now ready for flight at the first sight of daylight!

Above-ground life lasts only a precious 5-6 weeks for the adult winged cicada. The males will sing to attract females, and reproduction will ensure that new generations continue. The life cycle will once again begin, as tiny egg clusters deposited into small limbs and branches.

Predation of this creature is very high as cicadas are commonly eaten by many birds, squirrels and other wildlife. There is a particular fungus that also kills many. Another predator that hunts the cicada in order to feed its young is the Cicada Killer. This is a very large wasp that will capture a cicada, paralyze it, spin it around and glide off with it to deposit into its ground nest, where the young will feed on it throughout the winter. I happened one afternoon to hear a raucous in the limb above my head, only to witness this very scenario. The pictures below are of the taking of a cicada by a cicada killer. It only took seconds for this whole violent scene to transpire. It was not a pretty sight, but I'm glad I had my camera!

I have a whole new respect for the cicada. What an interesting journey and example of the yin-yang of life!