Periodical Cicadas

Species in the genus Magicicada

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Photo of a periodical cicada shown from the side.
Adult periodical cicadas have blackish bodies, red eyes, and 4 membranous wings with a gold, orange, or red tinge.
Julianna Schroeder
Family

Cicadidae (cicadas) in the order Hemiptera (true bugs)

Description

Adults have blackish bodies, red eyes, and 4 membranous wings with a gold, orange, or red tinge. They crawl and fly, but do not jump. The mouthparts, tucked beneath the head, are like a small, sharp straw. The antennae are short, and there are 3 ocelli (eyespots) in addition to the 2 larger, compound eyes. Compared to annual or “dog-day” cicadas, periodical cicadas are smaller. Adult males have a sound-producing organ that emits a loud, raspy call used to attract females. Adult females have a curved ovipositor at the lower end of the abdomen, used to insert eggs into slits in twigs. Nymphs are tan or brownish, wingless, stout, with the front pair of legs specialized for burrowing in the soil and for clinging onto trees as they undergo their final molt into adults. Neither nymphs nor adults are capable of harming people.

Size

Length: to 1½ inches.

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Periodical Cicadas
Periodical Cicadas
Red-eyed, black-bodied periodical cicadas emerge in large broods every 13 to 17 years, depending on the brood.

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Photo of Periodical Cicada Nymph
Periodical Cicada Nymph
After feeding underground for 13 years, nymphs emerge, climb trees and shed their exoskeletons, often leaving them attached to bark and twigs.

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Adult Periodical Cicadas
Adult Periodical Cicadas
Although the larvae feed on tree roots and adults gather in trees, these charismatic insects rarely cause significant damage to mature trees.

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Photo of a male periodical cicada, held in a hand, showing underparts.
Periodical Cicada (Male)
This view of the underside of a male periodical cicada shows several anatomical features.

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Photo of a female periodical cicada’s ovipositor.
Periodical Cicada (Female)
Underside of a female periodical cicada, showing the ovipositor at the tip of the abdomen.

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Photo of the face of a periodical cicada, showing mouthparts.
Periodical Cicada Mouthparts
Cicadas have mouthparts suited for piercing and sucking fluids from trees.

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Photo of a periodical cicada molt, showing underside.
Periodical Cicada Molt
Underside of a cicada molt.

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Photo of a periodical cicada in the process of molting.
Periodical Cicada Molting
It is easy to watch periodical cicadas undergo their molting process.

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Photo of a periodical cicada shortly after molting.
Periodical Cicada After Molt
Right after emerging from their nymphal skins, adult cicadas have pale, tender skin and wings.

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Photo of a periodical cicada molt still clinging to a piece of wood, side view.
Periodical Cicada Molt
The shed skins of periodical cicadas remain on the tree trunks and other surfaces where they clung during the molting process.

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Photo of a periodical cicada molt still clinging to a tree twig.
Periodical Cicada Molt
This picture shows the dried cuticular strands dangling from the split in a cicada molt.

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Photo of a periodical cicada shown from the front.
Periodical Cicada Face
Periodical cicadas have 2 large compound eyes. Between them on top of the head are 3 ocelli (eyespots, which are smaller).

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Photo of two periodical cicada molts on a single leaf.
Periodical Cicada Molts
Two periodical cicadas ended up molting on a single leaf.

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Photo of two periodical cicadas mating.
Periodical Cicadas Mating
Two periodical cicadas mating.

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Photo of a dead periodical cicada on a sidewalk.
Dead Periodical Cicada
Dead cicadas end up nourishing the soil that sheltered them for 13 or 17 years as nymphs.

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Photo of many periodical cicada emergence holes in bare ground.
Periodical Cicada Emergence Holes
These are some of the many emergence holes made by periodical cicadas as the tunnel of of the ground.

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Video of periodical cicadas.

Periodical Cicada

Listen to a single periodical cicada.
Habitat and conservation

Periodical cicadas make a sudden, massive appearance, usually in areas with trees, with loud raspy choruses and a multitude of shed skins left behind on tree trunks. Birds feast on the plentiful insects and are probably the reason for their odd, simultaneous, abundant appearance. By emerging in huge numbers, cicadas, like a big school of fish, overwhelm their predators’ numbers and ability to feed on them, so any individual cicada has a good chance of surviving and reproducing.

Foods

Like most true bugs (hemipterans), cicadas have mouthparts like small, sharp straws. The nymphs live underground and suck sap from the roots of trees and other plants. Adults can suck plant juices, too, but they live for only a few weeks above ground. It is rare but possible that if you let a cicada sit quietly on your hand or arm for a long time, it may jab you with its mouth, mistaking you for a plant — a painful but harmless accident, and certainly not an act of aggression or even defense.

image of Periodical Cicada Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, but different broods emerge in different regions during different years.

Status

Common throughout the state, but especially in areas where trees are abundant and soil left relatively undisturbed for 13–17 years. Because the nymphs live underground, suck juices from plant roots, and then must crawl out of the ground, large earthworks, deforestation, insecticides, enormous paved parking lots, and residential and commercial developments can decrease populations locally. Different broods in different regions each have their own schedule.

Life cycle

The different species and broods of periodical cicadas all have a life cycle similar to annual cicadas, except instead of living as nymphs for 2–5 years underground, with some adults emerging every year, the broods of periodical cicadas live underground for either 13 or 17 years, and all of the same type in an area emerge to become adults the same year — in fact, the same week. Scientists are still trying to learn how they synchronize their life cycles so exactly.

Human connections

Periodical cicadas are one of the great wonders of nature, and they make a dramatic impact on our senses. Some people dislike the incessant din of calling males, while others are impressed by it. Many human cultures have myths based on cicadas, and many people worldwide eat cicadas, too.

Ecosystem connections

Periodical cicadas provide a temporarily huge, but not a perennial food source for their many predators. The slits made in twigs by thousands of egg-laying females weaken branch tips, which often break off, providing a natural 13–17-year pruning mechanism. Young trees may be killed, however.