INDIANAPOLIS – During the last emergence of Brood X cicadas in 2004, biology professor Martin Edwards and his students strapped up their hiking boots and ventured into the trees carrying “big, fat” Garmin GPS units and “old-fashioned paper maps with pencils and notebooks.”
If they saw the red-eyed bugs or heard the cicadas’ distinctive buzzing, they would jot down their coordinates with pencil and paper. So it would come as no surprise that the maps were incomplete, said Edwards with Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.
But with tens of millions of Brood X cicadas set to reemerge this year, 17 years later, there will be something a little different: Everyday citizens can take part in recording this event in history.
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Citizen science is going to be a particular focus this year, said Elizabeth Barnes, an exotic forest pest educator at Purdue University in Indiana.
“That’s because 17 years ago, we didn’t have the same ability we do today where everyone has a smartphone and can take a picture of the cicada and log where they are,” she said. “This will let us see if there are different pockets of cicadas in areas we didn’t previously know.”
The swarms of red-eyed bugs that are soon to be buzzing through the air in parts of the U.S. have some enthralled, some intrigued, some disgusted and some terrified — but everyone can help better understand the periodical creatures.
Put on your citizen science cap
The two main apps that will be used this year are called Cicada Safari, out of Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, and iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Both apps are free and are available on both iPhone and Android devices. The first step is simple: Download either or both apps. You will need to sign up and when prompted, also enable your phone to record the date and location of where you take you cicada photographs.
You will take your photographs through the app, and can also enable your microphone to be able to record and log the cicada’s characteristic – and loud – song.
That photograph will serve as a “voucher specimen,” as the Cicada Safari app calls it. It will confirm that you saw a cicada (or many), and help researchers identify its species as well as when and where your observation occurred.
Now it’s time to go on the hunt! Whenever you spot one, make sure you take as sharp and close up of a photograph as possible so researchers can make out distinguishing features — don’t be afraid to get close, they don’t bite or sting. Then submit the photo for verification.
Citizen scientists can also check out the maps on the app to see where other sightings have been reported. Whether you’re out on a walk or hike, or just relaxing in your own backyard, it takes no more than a minute to participate in this “unprecedented biological phenomena.”
Past citizen science efforts via postcards, phone calls
Citizen science has been part of periodical cicada emergences since the very beginning, said John Cooley, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at University of Connecticut who studies cicadas.
“Previously it happened by postcards, reports to agents in extension offices, telephone calls, etc.,” Cooley said.
Edwards echoed that, describing how researchers used to send postcards to city workers in different parts of the state, asking them to send back the postcard with some information if they saw cicadas.
But that method created gaps in information about where exactly the cicadas came out, he said.
“That’s why you see these super inaccurate maps that might show the entire state of Indiana as being covered with one big wall of cicadas,” Edwards said, “because people didn’t really keep very close records and they weren’t really mapped in a way that the public could have access to.”
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Then in the 2004 emergence, researchers asked people to send email reports, Cooley said: “But that turned out to be a big mistake because we got an awful lot of emails,” but didn’t have a good way to catalog them.
Nearly a decade later, a website was developed where people could input addresses on a map for emergences of other cicada broods across the country. That worked for a period of time, until the last couple years.
“Now it’s an app,” Cooley said. “Citizen science has been there from the beginning, but more and more people get involved as the technology gets more and more convenient.”
Why citizen science is important
With more and more people getting involved, as Cooley said, the science and information keeps getting better and better.
Edwards agrees, adding that citizen science is particularly helpful in situations like this when the window for research and to gather data is so small: Just about six weeks every 17 years.
“Science is learning a ton from the public, because there’s not enough scientists to get this type of information,” the Pennsylvania professor said. “But with the help of the public, we can have super detailed maps that were completely not possible before. You know 17 years ago, we all had flip phones.”
The cicada expert recalls a time during a past emergence for a different brood that scientists actually discovered a whole new area of cicadas that they didn’t know about. That discovery was because of citizen scientists that started to notice large numbers of cicadas coming out around a city that was not previously known to be home to cicadas.
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With more detailed information, that means scientists will have a better idea of where to expect Brood X cicadas during their next emergence in 2038. Cicadas usually lay their eggs close to where they emerge.
Such better records will help researchers see, over the long-term, what is happening to cicada populations, Edwards said. That includes where they are growing, where they are shrinking, and if they’ve migrated at all.
“That’s going to be a really great kind of canary in the coal mine, long-term measure of environmental health,” Edwards said. “And this citizen science is just incredibly awesome because we can crowdsource where the cicadas are actually coming out.”
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IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
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