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Environment & Energy

This App Takes Crowdsourcing Cicadas To The Next Level

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Gene Kritsky
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Mount St. Joseph University
Dr. Gene Kritsky created the Cicada Safari app to help scientists track the emergence of the Brood X cicadas.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now: the cicadas are coming. By the billions. Triggered by warming ground temperatures, the nymphs crawl out of their underground homes and into trees and other vegetation. Then they’ll shed their exoskeletons and spread their newly developed translucent wings. A little later, the males will start singing for a mate.

They reportedly got so loud in 1902 at Arlington National Cemetery that they drowned out President Teddy Roosevelt while he gave a speech.

Periodical cicadas that emerge in the same year are called broods; this one is Brood X. It was first reported in 1715 Philadelphia and has emerged from their underground bunkers every 17 years since. This year, they are in parts of 15 states, including Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Scientists have been mapping cicadas for over a century. Now the public can help track the emergence of Brood X thanks to an app called Cicada Safari. Dr. Gene Kritsky, dean of the School of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, is the creator of Cicada Safari.

“So to really blow our minds, last night at around 11 o’clock, our 100,000th download occurred,” he said. “It’s a simple interface. All people have to do is go out and find a cicada, take its picture and submit it.”

Kritsky says this week, as cicadas start to emerge in large numbers in northern Georgia, eastern Tennessee, and the Washington D.C. area, they’re averaging over 6,000 photographs uploaded to the app per day.

“Every one of these photographs is actually reviewed by human eyes,” explained Kritsky. “I’ve got 17 people helping me to verify that it is indeed a periodical cicada. Once verified, it goes on a live map so you can find out where they are and go look at them .”

A few hundred of those photographs came from Kathryn Reilly and her 10-year-old daughter Madeline of Crofton, Maryland.

“I take some of the photos but my mom does more of the getting-in-closer to the cicadas,” said Madeline. “When they’re molting, they aren’t the prettiest thing in the world, but otherwise, I like looking for them. They have really shimmery wings and big bulging red eyes, which I find kind of creepy.”

Kathryn and Madeline say their garden and yard have been besieged by cicadas. And they are not going to let dad mow the lawn anytime soon.

“I was out there on my lunch break today, taking a break from grading teaching and grading papers, and the grass was rustling,” said Kathryn. “It was eerie and awesome at the same time. I would have never known what grass sounded like being moved by an army of cicadas unless I had gotten out there with this app.”

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Kathryn Reilly
Kathryn Reilly and her daughter Madeline live in Crofton, Maryland where cicadas have emerged in large numbers. They are currently ranked 7th on the Cicada Safari leader board.

Crowdsourcing Cicadas since 1840
Kritksy has written several books about cicadas. The latest is called Periodic Cicadas: The Brood X Edition. He sees himself as part of a long lineage of scientists using the latest technology to track broods.

In the 1840s, a scientist named Gideon B. Smith crowdsourced cicada data by publishing letters in the newspaper saying, “Dear sir, I expect this locust to emerge in your part of the country. I would appreciate it if your readers would send me word if they see them in their vicinity.” By the time he died in 1867, Smith had documented all the known broods of periodical cicadas.

“So I feel like I’m taking this next step in the technology,” said Kritsky. “Postcards were sent out in 1902. I had an answering machine in 1987, emails in 2004, and now it’s the phone app.

New to the app is the ability to submit 10-second videos. The audio from the video means Kritsky and his helpers can listen to the calls and determine the species.

“That’s a whole new layer of technology and information we didn’t anticipate getting,” he said. ”You hear a tree that’s just screaming, we want to hear it.”

In North Georgia, where the first of the Brood X was spotted, Cicada Safari user Valerie Shadburn has recorded their distinctive singing in her woodsy backyard.

“Sometimes it’s so loud I can hear it in the house,” she said. “There was one I thought was really neat, coming out of the exoskeleton. I’ve nerded out over this, but it’s really fun.”

Shadburn has submitted hundreds of photographs and a handful of videos to the Cicada Safari app. She’s consistently been in the top 10 of the Cicada Safari leader board.

“When I saw they are keeping score, I said, ‘I can run with this,’ ” Shardburn laughed. “There’s been so much that is not fun this year. This gets your mind off of everything else. You’re helping by doing some research along the way. So why not?”

What Good Are They?
Cicadas do not sting or bite, and they don’t carry diseases. Pesticides don’t work on them. Kritsky says they shouldn’t be killed. So what good are they? He gets this question a lot.

“Periodical cicadas do a lot of good for the eastern deciduous forest,” he explained. “While they’re underground for those 17 years, they turn over soil. When they emerge from the ground as nymphs ready to shed their skin, they create these holes from their tunnels, and that’s a natural aeration to the soil.”

When the cicadas come out in big numbers, they provide food for all sorts of animals including raccoons, squirrels, and birds, according to Kritsky.

“It really is a nice pulse of food once every 17 years to help populations maybe recover if they’ve been suffering from something,” he said. “It’s not something that the forest needs every year, but every 17 years — that can have a benefit.”

When to Expect Them
Periodical cicadas emerge when the soil reaches 64 degrees and it’s been warm and rainy. We’re not going to see many in the Pittsburgh region. If you want to see them in huge numbers, you’ll have to travel to the southeastern part of the state or eastern Ohio. But Kritsky says they are worth the drive, especially if you have kids.

“Get your kids out there, get them excited, ignite that interest in natural history and science, and they may have a future doctor or a researcher in the family,” he said. “Even with adults, it can inspire a whole new interest in natural history.”

Kathryn Reilly discovered the Cicada Safari app by chance, but she says it appeals to her because it’s a way to be involved without a crazy time commitment. And, she says, it’s just fun.

“I would have never known what grass sounded like being moved by an army of cicadas unless I had gotten out there with this app,” she said. “We’re not going to have another experience like this for 17 years, so I’d rather be out there and be part of it and have those memories.”

So depending on your style – grab your earplugs or grab your phone and head out on your own cicada safari.

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.