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Our Eyes Deceive
Their physiognomy, at first glance, may provoke disgust. They appear to be a housefly on steroids with large, beady red eyes. That, and their ubiquity, may explain why so many are seen smooshed on sidewalks here in Bloomington. But they are among the most docile and curious creatures. And they neither sting, nor bite. What then, is not to like?
As you may have heard, Brood X, a 17-year cicada species, has arrived in select parts of the United States. They are the longest-lived of insects, and were last seen here in Indiana in 2004. Their parents, at that time, did what parents do. Mama cicada then deposited her eggs in a tree branch. Those eggs soon hatched, and the larvae fell to the ground, burrowing deep under the soil to spend the next 17 years sucking on tree sap. (Here’s a brief 2-minute video describing the survival benefits of this 17-year cycle.) How do they fathom when 17 years have passed? Scientists still don’t know much about periodical cicadas, given how infrequently they appear, but surmise that the animals must pick up cues from the tree sap they suck. When they finally rise from the ground, they appear in such numbers that predators have no chance of keeping up!
If their unique survival strategy alone doesn’t fill you with admiration, consider their temperament. They are floundering flyers known sometimes for awkward landings, not infrequently tumbling to a stop upside down, with their legs kicking frantically to right themselves. When given a hand (or in this case, a finger), the animals are quick to calm down, latching on lightly. They will then remain, for as long as you let them be. In fact, once there, they seem to prefer this to proffered shrubs or tree limbs!
Standing near them, it is also not uncommon for a cicada to gravitate towards you. They enjoy climbing, and are not hesitant in the least to ascend your pantleg with an admirable determination. Wherever they may stop, they lack the flightiness so often found in other creatures of that size. In that respect, they remind me of the animals Charles Darwin saw on the Galápagos Islands.
However, these animals too have their own unique personalities. Some, when you approach, exude an indifference, walking away slowly. Others remain still, either dead to this world, or nonplussed by your appearance. One such cicada stood in the middle of a paved pedestrian trail not far from my house the other day. As I approached, I first questioned whether it was still alive. Then, I noticed its unusual shape. “My, what a long cicada!” It took a while, however, to see that this cicada had four red eyes, two on each end. It then dawned on me… this cicada was not one, but two!
My initial perplexity at this mating couple mirrored the repugnance I felt upon seeing cicadas for the first time. First impressions do often deceive, and in this case, cicadas’ docile nature, approachability, and determination to live are all things to marvel at. They too wish to be happy, so the next time you’re out for a walk, please watch your step!
All images taken by the author, except where indicated.