Something other than floodwaters is creeping up out of Oklahoma’s river bottoms this week, and it’s entirely unexpected. A periodical cicada is emerging, and it’s the first time this group has been recorded for the state.
Most wouldn’t know it, but Oklahoma is a pretty big cicada state in numbers of species, according to Robert Sanders, a 38-year-old Oklahoma City accountant who turned cicada fanatic in 2013.
He has since published peer-reviewed papers and is creating a field guide to help Oklahomans identify the state’s 35 different annual cicadas and its six periodical species.
“Oklahoma is No. 4 in the United States for the number of species, 35 annuals and six periodicals,” he said.
Most Oklahomans recognize the pulsing Zweee-Zweee-Zweee sound that comes from the treetops in mid-summer as that of clumsily flying “locusts” — a lasting misnomer for cicadas penned by early North American explorers who had never seen a cicada.
The husks of their larval shells, usually left on the bark of a tree, look like some kind of tiny alien that has landed and emerged. Their noise-making, winged mating phase is a two- or three-week period of a life spent mostly underground.
Some cicadas emerge annually and others, called “periodicals,” don’t show up again for 13 or 17 years.
Sanders offered a point of clarification that individual “annual cicadas” might also spend several years underground, but enough members of the species emerge every year that they are considered “annual.”
The cicadas out for the next week or two are called “brood eight” of Magicicada Cassinii, Sanders said. It’s related to a group that came out in 2015.
“They come out at 13 years or 17 years so it’s not unusual for them to emerge four years apart,” he said. “Each one is given a brood number that is tracked.
“Until this year, (this brood was) thought to be only in northwest Virginia and eastern Ohio, but we found them in Oklahoma.”
A bunch of the periodicals can be heard on sunny days at Oxley Nature Center and in areas immediately to the northwest along Bird Creek into Osage County, he said. There could be other pockets in places no one has reported, however.
“Another other group is close to Lawton, and they’re really out in full force down there if someone wanted to make the drive down toward Medicine Creek,” Sanders said.
Brood eight is the only cicada singing now, so there is no chance of confusing it with a different species, he said. They are black with orange highlights and reddish-orange eyes — and they are harmless, he said.
If people hear them, they should report it or, even better, go into the area and see if they can see them and get a photo. Periodicals fly every time they call, so it’s usually easy to spot them flying from branch to branch, tree to tree, Sanders said.
Often those just emerging or near the end of their mating cycle can be found closer to the ground.
“You should be able to hear them in the trees in the middle of a warm, sunny day,” he said. “Birds love them, too, so look for things like lots of Mississippi Kites in one area, that’s how they spotted them at Oxley. Kites love to eat cicadas.”
Sanders got hooked on cicadas during a big hatch of 17-year cicadas in 2013.
“I grew up knowing about them and called them locusts like everyone else and always thought there was the green one, big brown and black and white ones,” he said. “When I saw the periodicals with the black body and orange wings and red eyes, it was totally different from anything else I’d seen.”
Among those who track cicada populations — and there aren’t many — Oklahoma wasn’t even on the map for having cicadas that year, Sanders said.
Sanders did some studying and ended up contacting the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut, which is in the midst of a long-term project on periodical cicadas and is mapping genes to determine species likenesses and splits going back through time.
“I mapped those and thought that was pretty cool, so I started paying attention to others, and every so often I would find one with no records in the state,” Sanders said. “Which basically just means, cicadas are under-studied.”
The university is interested in cicada sightings and samples, and so they set up Sanders with a sampling kit, GPS and reporting tools calibrated so he could drive down remote roads, and if he heard a batch, he could essentially send all the information by pushing a few buttons.
After Oxley reported its sighting, Sanders drove to Tulsa to officially record the sighting and collect samples to send to the University of Connecticut. Another group was spotted in the Medicine Creek area near Lawton, and he traveled there as well.
People can do essentially the same thing (minus the sample collections) with a mobile phone and an app called iNaturalist, or they can report their sightings (or even report that they covered an area and didn’t hear any) online at magicicada.org.