Night Time Is the Right Time

As naturalists, we are all amazed by the magic of nature.  The sight of an eagle flying effortlessly overhead, the fluid locomotion of a snake as it slides away, the glimmer of dragonfly wings in the sun... these and so many more things awaken the childlike wonder we have and remind us why we continuously fall in love with Mother Nature.  Metamorphosis is probably nature's greatest magic trick.  Changing the physiology of a creature into something that is often so different than the way it once was.  A caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly and a nymph into a damselfly; nature still amazes me in all her glory.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched just such an event and, though I've seen this and other changes before, I was still dancing around like a young teenage boy trying to contain himself around his biggest crush.  Though this is a transformation we're all familiar with, I couldn't help but watch in awe.

I'd begun hearing the grinding song of the Resh Cicada (Neotibicen resh) in late May.  But, it was an uneven and surprising sound.  It was just an occasional song here or there.  June passed and the songs became more prominent and more ever-present as I'd walked my boys in the evenings. Then, July came.  And with it, the sounds of the cicadas became so loud you could hear them even inside.  One very hot afternoon, I had to turn the volume of the TV up to compete with the chorus singing in the trees outside.  Well, it was one of those July evenings that I saw a Resh Cicada emerge from a hole in the hard, dry ground beneath a Texas Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis) in the front yard.  I watched it, with dried hill country gumbo clay upon its back, as it slowly began climbing up the trunk of the tree.  

Freshly emerged Resh Cicada (Neotibicen resh) nymph preparing to molt.  The dried soil on it is what is often referred to as "black gumbo" soil by the locals in central Texas. (Click to enlarge)

I took Gus for his evening walk, but immediately searched the tree for the cicada when I returned.  It was now just a couple feet higher, working out onto a branch.  I got Anderson and took him down the block, hoping not to miss the magic.  Sure enough, the cicada was now getting near the end of the short branch and I knew it would begin soon.  Lucky for me, Sharpie, my old and trusty black lab, takes short walks.  When we returned, I put him inside and got a front row seat for the unveiling!

The diagnostic slit along the thorax had just begun to open and the show was starting!

This cicada decided to attach itself to the shed exoskeleton of another.  The process of emerging always begins with a vertical slit along the mesonotum region of the thorax.  Meso means middle and notum refers to the back... the middle of the back. (Click to enlarge)

Now, as we often do, let's discuss a little about this insect.  The name Resh comes from the perceived Hebrew letter Resh (or Reish) on the thorax of this cicada.  Not that you wanted to know, but Resh is the letter meaning "head" or "beginning".  I personally think it looks more Aramaic than Hebrew, but I'm not a graphologist.

It is a common "dog day" cicada, signaling the heat of long summer days throughout its range, which extends from here in central Texas, up to Oklahoma and eastward.  Reports of these making it into Georgia and the Carolinas are still debated.  As with other fauna with large ranges and populations, Resh Cicadas come in a few variations of color; though most look extremely similar.

They are usually associated with oaks and seem to be very much aligned with the oaks I find out here.  Though I've seen them climb up the trunks of other trees, I've only found the holes for them around Texas Live Oaks.  They live underground for about three years, going through several instars and feeding on the sap and liquids they find in the roots of oak trees.  Upon emerging from holes about the size of a nickel, they molt from the final instar stage and begin seeking a mate.  Eggs are most often laid on dead or dying twigs and bark.  The dead wood often falls to the ground and assists the nymph in reaching the soil to begin the burrowing process upon hatching.  Final emergence is almost always in the late evening, night or early morning.

Like other cicadas, their lifespan post-emergence is short and meant only for reproduction.  They are preyed upon by a number of other insects, reptiles, birds and mammals.  I watched a Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticals) work on consuming one just yesterday.

As the cicada pushes out, it is still very soft and must take care not to damage the nodes that will later unfurl to become its wings.  This is also the case with butterflies and moths.  It is very vulnerable at this time.  Take a look at the beautiful compound eye, now fully freed from the clouded old exoskeleton.  (Click to enlarge)

Almost completely free of its old shell, the wing nodes are now very easy to see.  As with other insects, vascular processes will pump hemolymph into the wings to unfurl them for drying.  Another terrific look at the fresh compound eye.  (Click to enlarge)

The wings have now become completely unfurled and are beginning to dry.  The "Resh" letter is starting to become apparent on the thorax. (Click to enlarge)

Finished product, now dry and back on the branch.  This cicada began singing very soon after drying and was broadcasting quite a high decibel rating! (Click to enlarge)

From being observed climbing from the soil until it finished drying, about three hours passed.  From the moment it began pushing from the thoracic slit until the wings completely unfurled was right at one hour.  Amazing transformation!  What came out as a rather unattractive nymph was now a lovely cicada (if I may call a cicada lovely).  I hope to never tire of nature's magic!

Allow me to also welcome my new subscribers!  Feel free to jump in the conversations and let's naturalize together!  Tell me what you're seeing and let's keep the ball rolling... Nature is for sharing.