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updated: 6/8/2013 9:52 AM

Tech makes tracking cicada spawn easier

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  • After 17 years of living underground, millions of cicadas are emerging on the U.S. East Coast.

    After 17 years of living underground, millions of cicadas are emerging on the U.S. East Coast.
    Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News

The last time cicadas took over the eastern U.S., researchers used pencils, postcards and paper maps to track the insects, which spawn every 17 years. Now, the tools are iPads, smartphones and Twitter.

Starting in May and continuing into this month, states from North Carolina to New York have been inundated with the red-eyed buzzing bugs at a density of more than a million per acre. The insects, adorned with orange wings, won't be seen again until 2030. It's a fleeting chance to gather data on their population and mating habits and better estimate their total number, which scientists calculate to be in the billions.

Web-connected smartphones and tablets equipped with global positioning, along with websites and software to compile and analyze data, are transforming industries from music to medicine. It's also making the study of insects more efficient and less cumbersome for John Cooley, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut.

"Any bit of information in tracking or mapping that helps us understand how species are distributed helps us understand a bit more about our environment," said Cooley, who was driving through rural Virginia, seeking the edge of the brood.

The last time Brood II cicadas appeared, in 1996, Cooley's team gathered data on magicicada septendecim by mailing out postcards, which people would return if swarms emerged in their neighborhoods. The bugs live most of their lives underground, gaining nourishment from tree roots, until they emerge to mate and die. The academics used the mailed data to plot swarms on maps, working out latitude and longitude with rulers.

Crunchy exoskeleton

Cooley now rallies Web communities to mark GPS points on a digital map. While that's old news for the researchers who have been relying on crowdsourced data to track yearly migrations of birds or Monarch butterflies, it's the first chance for Cooley to get an accurate map of the brood.

Supporting his effort is public interest in the resurfacing of the cicadas, which will be molting, mating and dying in people's backyards over the course of a few weeks. Internet tools have brought the winged insects up close and personal in ways that weren't possible last time they emerged.

"They're weird space-alien looking things and a lot of people are excited because it's such a rare phenomenon, while others are annoyed," said Brian Regal, who teaches science history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

Their exoskeletons are so numerous in some towns that it's difficult to avoid stepping on them, said Regal, who has been sharing sightings via Twitter Inc.'s microblogging service.

Cicada app

On Twitter's website and apps, the swarmageddon hashtag lets people track the latest cicada postings and images. Online, there are live-streamed videos of hordes and even recipes, for those who like their cicadas candied or sautéed.

Every bit of hype helps, Cooley said, because it isn't easy to build a fan base around something that happens every 17 years. While cicadas emerge at other times in other regions, the current brood hits metropolitan areas such as Washington and New York, making them more visible.

"It's pretty loose-knit, if you want to call it a community," Cooley said. While Monarch butterflies migrate to and from Mexico each year, making it easy for elementary-school teachers to incorporate the insects into a science curriculum, Cooley's team is more dependent on the media and Web volunteers.

In the U.K. there's a smartphone application being developed to listen for the sounds of a local cicada that's facing extinction.

Survival tools

The first time Cooley's researchers tried Web-based crowdsourced mapping was in 2004 with Brood X cicadas. They asked people to e-mail locations of sightings to Gene Kritsky, author of "Periodical Cicadas: The Plague and the Puzzle." Kritsky, chair of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, got a lot of e-mail and the deluge of information was "very difficult to digest," Cooley said.

Cooley has worked with other cicada scientists in the U.S. since 1996, when they looked at female wing-flapping mating rituals. After enlisting his brother Jamie, a programmer, Cooley was able to enhance tracking on his website, At the University of Connecticut lab, academics have also worked with Radiolab and Sutron Corp. to map soil temperatures, since the bugs emerge when the ground 8 inches deep rises to 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celcius).

Cicadas are easy to track because they're large and disruptive insects that don't cause any physical harm, said Gary Hevel, an entomologist recently retired from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

By emerging in such large numbers at once, the insects are able to avoid being decimated by predators by overwhelming them, according to scientists.

Documentary film

"They certainly are important in ecology," Hevel said. "They have a certain amount of nitrogen and protein -- nitrogen especially -- that goes back into the soil with the death of a cicada."

Scientists aren't the only ones benefiting from hype and new technology. Samuel Orr, a natural-history filmmaker, turned to crowdfunding website Kickstarter Inc., seeking at least $20,000 to complete a documentary on cicadas that's been in the works since 2007. Thanks to the site, used by entrepreneurs and creators to gather funds for projects, Orr is close to his goal.

"Colleagues told me I was foolish if I didn't take advantage in the interest around the cicadas coming out this year," Orr said.

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