Climate Change and Periodical Cicadas

Do land use changes affect periodical cicadas?

Periodical cicadas require eastern deciduous forests, so any land use changes that remove or alter those forests will affect periodical cicadas. Periodical cicadas seem to require a minimum habitat patch size of approximately 52 ha (Strang 2013). Patches may be part of larger habitat mosaics, and alterations to either the patches themselves or the mosaic of patches may affect periodical cicada populations. For example, Dybas and Davis (1962) conducted a population census of Brood XIII in Raccoon Grove IL in 1956 (the source of the estimate that densities can exceed several million per acre). The censused patch remains a forest preserve and has not been developed.  However, the surrounding areas have been converted to suburban and exurban housing developments, thus the mosaic of patches is no more, and cicadas have gone extinct or nearly extinct in Raccoon Grove (Cooley et al. 2016; Karban 2014). The long life cycles of periodical cicadas may also affect how cicadas respond to habitat changes; eastern CT was home to Brood XI even when heavily deforested into the middle of the 20th Century; following agricultural abandonment and reforestation, the brood became extinct (Cooley et al. 2013), possibly because improvement in the habitat (from the cicadas’ perspective) was too little, too late.

Will climate change affect periodical cicadas?

Climate represents long-term changes in day-to-day conditions (weather).  A number of excellent public datasources illustrate how Earth’s climate has changed in the past, it is changing now, and it will change in the future. For example, the NOAA site has a number of excellent dashboards for exploring climate change, and the US Forest Service Climate Change Atlas has tools for exploring the effects of climate change on particular species.

Periodical cicada species formed millions of years ago (Sota et al. 2013), but they live in landscapes—the eastern United States—that are much younger, due to glacial cycles.  Thus, periodical cicadas have clearly persisted through substantial periods of climate change, and indeed, several authors have directly invoked glaciation to explain the evolution of periodical cicadas (e.g., Yoshimura 1997, Marshall and Cooley 2000).  Leading hypotheses also posit that brood formation is driven by deviations from well-established climate patterns (Cooley et al. 2018).

All available evidence indicates that periodical cicadas have been strongly affected by past climate change; thus there is no reason to expect they would not be affected by future climate change.  Moreover, Magicicada life cycles are cued by the annual cycles of their host plants (Karban et al. 2000) and by soil temperatures in the spring of their emergence years (Heath 1968).  To the extent that climate change affects these annual cycles and soil temperatures, it stands to reason that it will affect periodical cicadas.

Questions about climate change and periodical cicadas are usually directed at understanding how anthropogenic, 19th and 20th Century climate change will affect these insects.  Richard Primack’s excellent book Walden Warming documents how the climate at Walden Pond has warmed since Thoreau wrote about it, and how warming is reflected in earlier flowering times for plants and changed migration patterns for birds. Ellwood et al. (2012) found that the emergence timing of some Japanese cicada species was influenced by changes in temperataure and precipitation. All available evidence indicates that the climate is warming and precipitation patterns are changing, and because some parts of the periodical cicada life cycle seem sensitive to these factors, it follows that these insects will be affected by climate change.

How will warming affect periodical cicadas?

  • We predict that warming climates will cause periodical cicada emergences to start earlier in the year, since spring will arrive earlier as the climate warms.
  • We predict that any climate-related disruption of the cues periodical cicadas use to pick their year of emergence will lead to an increase in unexpected, oddly-timed emergences, and, in the extreme, a breakdown of periodicity in these insects.
  • We predict that if extreme climatic conditions reliably and consistently induce straggler emergences of sufficient density to satiate predators, then permanent life cycle switches could occur (see Marshall and Cooley 2000, Cooley et al. 2001).

Do the data support these predictions?

One the one hand, Magicicada are the most wonderful research animals imaginable, because they are accessible, they are easy to find and collect, and they lend themselves to simple playback experiments.  On the other hand, Magicicada are the most frustratingly impractical research organisms in the world, because their long life cycles make longitudinal studies nearly impossible.  The periodical cicada mapping project is intended to gather exactly the kinds of data that will allow us to test these hypotheses with confidence… but it will take a while to collect the data, and the project involves multiple generations… of cicadas and researchers alike.  Even so, already during the course of this project, notable “straggling” or off-cycle emergences have occurred, such as the unexpected emergence of Brood X cicadas in 2017, although we do not fully understand their significance.  Are they harbingers of a breakdown in the periodicity of these remarkable insects?  By keeping careful records, we hope to address that possibility…