Thirteen years ago…

May 14, 2011 | Greg Dodge

…a tiny white, newly hatched insect crawled from its nest in a twig of an oak tree and dropped to the ground. The nymph burrowed underground and found a rootlet of the mighty oak that stood above it to feed upon. It stayed underground growing and feeding on the roots of the tree, molting four times in the years that followed.

In the dark of night, during this very week in May (2011), the now amber colored nymph dug its way to the surface and crawled up the trunk of the same oak tree that it had dropped out of thirteen years earlier. Three feet above the ground the nymph stopped its ascent and held on to the bark of the tree with a vise-like grip. A short time later the nymph’s skin began to crack open along the back and a nearly all white, red-eyed creature emerged.

The soft-bodied insect crawled off to the side to dry. Its stubby wings began to unfold and lengthen and soon its white exoskeleton hardened into a satiny black finish. The veins of its transparent wings and its legs now had an orange tinge to them. It’s eyes were bright red-orange.

This creature wasn’t alone, millions of others of its kind where doing the same thing that night. This insect was, and is, part of what is known as Brood XIX, the Great Southern Brood, of Periodical Cicadas.

These cicadas are different from the green and coppery colored Annual Cicada that we see and hear each year here in North Carolina during the dog days of summer. They are smaller (the body is about 20-28 mm), sound different, and they are only seen above ground every thirteen years.

There are 15 different broods of Periodical Cicadas throughout the country. Twelve broods are 17 year cicadas and three broods, like the Great Southern Brood, are 13 year cicadas. The different broods may emerge at different times, in different years, but members of each particular brood all emerge within weeks of one another during the same year. There are exceptions, but generally that’s how it works.

There is much written about these cicadas. Three good resources which do a good job of explaining nearly everything you might want to know about periodical cicadas are listed here:

Magicicada Central

The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology


An exuvia (cast off skin) of a periodical cicada, one of hundreds on every manner of leaf, twig, or stalk on the perimeter of the parking lot at Eno River SP.

If our cicada (above) was lucky, it emerged intact, mated, deposited eggs in a twig fifty feet or so from where it had emerged from the ground and expired beneath that tree having completed its life cycle. Many cicadas don’t make it to reproduce, succumbing to fungus infections, being eaten by a bird, squirrel or chipmunk, or for one reason or other may not completely emerge from their nymphal skin or do not dry out properly resulting in deformed wings or incomplete body parts necessary for reproduction.

In the dark of night this cicada had crawled out of the ground and up a vine to safely go through the process of morphing into a sexually mature adult.

However, most do survive the ordeal of emergence and live to create a new group of cicadas to start the cycle anew. They will emerge again in the spring of 2024 here in North Carolina.

If you’re looking for cicadas in Durham, there seems to be more of them along the Eno River corridor, perhaps testament to the Eno River Association’s efforts to create a buffer from development along that very special river that flows through Orange and Durham Counties. If the land is disturbed due to development during the thirteen years that the cicadas are underground, they may be unearthed in the process.

Ranger Kristin spotted an exuvia here at the Museum about a week ago, but I’ve neither seen or heard adult cicadas to date. I’ve heard some at my home in Orange County but nothing like the numbers I saw and heard at Few’s Ford, Eno River State Park. Hundreds of exuviae and many adults were both seen and heard on May 11, just in the parking lot alone!

Below are more photos.

This nymph saw fit to climb on the back of another in order to emerge into adulthood.

An adult on the macadam of the parking lot.

Another adult in a more natural setting.

This individual’s wings appear to have not fully developed. It’s difficult to see, but its abdomen may be stunted as well.

For some reason this cicada did not fully emerge, it’s covered with ants and will not reproduce. The ants, however, will do well.

Peeking over a Sweetgum leaf.

and one more…

One of the holes in which the nymphs had made their way to the surface (an exuvia is on the right).

Happy hunting!

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