"Long-Lived Insects Raise Prime Riddle"

"Drivers who end up behind John Cooley this week will quickly lose their patience. Cruising around the eastern United States with his car window open, he slows down or stops every few hundred metres, cocks an ear and taps on a data-logger strapped into the passenger seat."

"Since last week, Cooley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, has been on the road mapping populations of periodical cicadas (Magicicada). These loud, red-eyed insects have spent the past 17 years maturing underground, only to emerge this month by the billions for a few weeks of singing and sex before they die. Like a handful of other cicada researchers on the prowl from North Carolina to New York, Cooley knows that he has to work quickly. “Time is the real enemy here, for both the cicadas and the researchers,” he says. “If you miss this opportunity, you have a hole in your map and you have to wait for another 17 years.”

The insect genus with the longest known life cycles, Magicicada has confounded scientists for centuries. In 1665, the first volume of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society included a report from New England concerning “swarms of strange insects, and the mischiefs done by them”. Charles Darwin also puzzled over them. Even now, entomologists are trying to understand how the insects’ peculiar life cycles evolved, how they count the years underground and how they synchronize their schedules. “They are one of the big ecological mysteries out there,” says Walt Koenig, a behavioural ecologist at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York."

Richard Monastersky reports for Nature News May 28, 2013.


"The Cicada’s Love Affair With Prime Numbers" (New Yorker)

"The 17-Year Itch: Why Cicadas Love Prime Numbers" (Atlantic)

"Why Do Cicadas Have Prime Life-Spans?" (Courant Institute)

"Cicadas' Bizarre Survival Strategy" (Washington Post: 5/4/2004)

"Mathematicians Explore Cicada's Mysterious Link with Primes" (Baltimore Sun: 5/10/2004)

Source: Nature, 05/29/2013