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The Cicadas are Coming! A Return 17 Years in the Making

Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver didn’t have a new episode this weekend (they probably knew nobody was going to be able to focus on the absurd, real world of politics after that freaking Game of Thrones episode), but they did have a fun web exclusive for us on the impending return of cicadas to the Northeastern part of the United States this summer, after their long, 17-year wait in the ground. Cicadas are coming.

You can see the video above, in which Oliver tries to catch the cicadas up on everything important that they’ve missed since 1999. (“The curly-haired guy from NSYNC is one of the biggest entertainers in the world, and the lead singer of R&B group Destiny’s Child is essentially our queen now.”) But for a bug that only lives above ground for a few weeks, with the sole purpose of mating and dying, cicadas are really fascinating–a true marvel of evolution.

Cicadas-tree
While they’re coming to the Northeast this summer (that’s where I live, and I can’t wait for billions of scary looking bugs to show up and basically recreate the scene from Dumb and Dumber where Lloyd makes the most annoying sound in the world), there is more than one brood of these magicicadas (also known as periodical cicadas) in the U.S. — fifteen in total. Three of the broods have 13-year cycles, and the others all follow their own 17-year periods.

Both of these numbers are prime, and that’s no accident. In the video below we get to see just how being good at math has helped cicadas minimize crossing paths with the feeding cycles of predators, as well as with other broods of cicadas, two survival techniques just as important to their species as reproduction itself.

Not only do periodical cicadas have the longest confirmed life cycle of any insect, they show up in giant, giant numbers — another species survival technique. While plenty of them will be eaten during their short stay on the surface, there are too many of them for predators to wipe out entirely. So after seventeen years of sucking on tree roots, which also helps them mark the passage of time, they emerge from the ground when the soil hits the right temperature, climb trees, shed their skin, and take on their fully grown form.

Then they get down to business. The males make a high screeching sound to attract the females, and when you magnify that sound by the billions, those creepy but harmless little bugs produce a deafening sound. The females, on the other leg, respond with a mere clicking sound produced by their wings.

You can see the process in this video from the BBC show Life in the Undergrowth (also Sir David Attenborough “catfishing” a poor male cicada):

While cicadas might feel like nothing more than an annoying infestation you have to deal with, they are unique examples of the beautiful and creative evolutionary process. As Dr. Ian Malcolm said, “Life finds a way,” even if that way means chilling out under ground for a long time before billions of you and your friends show up for the world’s largest sex party.

The cicadas are coming. Really.

Have you ever experienced the emergence of a periodical cicada? Tell us what it was like in the comments below.

Images: It’s Okay to Be Smart

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