How Citizen Scientists Look for Cicadas

A few weeks ago, Michelle Watson was awakened by a deafening, oscillating squeak. “What the hell is that noise?” I wondered. She went out in her garden and saw hundreds of pearly-golden insects emerging from the ground and crawling up the trees. Watson witnessed the awakening of thousands of Prot X Zykaden. They belong to a swarm of 1 billion insects that emerged after 17 years of a nymph underground to mate for three tumultuous weeks.

Watson has lived in Las Vegas for the past 20 years and moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia last year. She’d seen social media posts about cicadas that appear once a generation in much of the eastern United States, but thought they were just the usual summer beetles she’d heard all her life. “I thought, ‘What’s the big problem with that?'” However, in the face of the onslaught of these strange creatures, she suddenly understood what the biggest part was — and did what any modern human would do: I searched Google. Within minutes, she had downloaded Cicada Safari, a cicada-tracking app (in the format of App Store and on google apps Available).

Apps like iNaturalist, PictureThis, and PlantIn are becoming popular entertainment breaks amid the pandemic. Many of these apps act as a digital resource, allowing users to submit photos and videos for scientific studies. Their success inspired Cicada Safari creator, entomologist, and professor of biology Jane Kretsky of Mount St. St. University. Joseph, to develop his own X-cicada brood monitoring service.

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Crowdsourcing has always been a great way to gather information about major events, even if they only happen once in each generation, says Kritsky. As early as 1858, researchers asked newspaper editors to urge readers to send their notes on postcards, which were very popular at the time. In the late 1980s, Kritsky used a telephone hotline, but he was often so inundated with tips that the answering machine was full. When the Brut-X animals last appeared in 2004, he again asked people to email their feedback with attached photos. He received about 1,000 messages.

Its Cicada Safari app is definitely worth a look, with nearly 180,000 downloads at press time – after all, most people are unlikely to use it beyond the bug’s three-week age, it allows users to track cicada sightings on Map as well as send pictures of insects to the application. But the app’s success made Kritsky’s original goal of 5,000 notes quickly achievable. By June 2, “we had over 400,000 photos of the cicada,” he said. “We get 16,000 photos a day, and at that rate we’re probably getting half a million notes.”

A team of 20 volunteers, including his wife, manually scan each image and verify that the images are clear to Brood X-Cicada. If the recordings are ambiguous, they are deleted. Kritsky hopes that by the time the next big cicada eruption occurs in 2024 — a brood in northern Illinois appearing in a 13-year cycle — he will have found a way to use artificial intelligence to do the hard work.

Although Cicada Safari is the only cicada tracker on the US App Store, the app benefits from some major trends. Such natural services benefit from people enjoying outdoor walks and gardens because they are guaranteed to be pandemic-friendly, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not. Citizen science apps offer a family-friendly activity that allows anyone to record and submit nature notes. Michelle Watson sees her reporting on the app as my “small opportunity to contribute to this research”.

This is reflected in the range of people involved in citizen science. Kritsky says Cicada Safari does not collect any data about who uses the service. But he did see photos of users of different races, often with children and elderly people in the background. “We wanted the user interface to be really simple,” says the researcher.

Citizen Science apps have been successful in giving many people without a scientific background insights into research. Watson, a former legal assistant, joined a Facebook group dedicated to tracking cicadas. She also has group chat with other hobbyists. The app’s top list – ranking of the top 500 senders of usable cicada images – shows that it currently ranks second in the country with 3,785 images at the time of publication, behind the top spot with nearly 7,000 images.

But perhaps what unites this community most is a feeling that has become alien to many today: the dread of nature. Janet Sun, a 23-year-old graduate student in Maryland, remembers the last time the Brut-X appeared and how she picked up discarded exoskeletons from Earth. “It was a magical memory for me,” Son said in a direct message on Twitter. “I had the impression that they were three inches tall because I was so much smaller last time.”

Watson agrees. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she says. “They roll off the ground, climb up the tree, peel off their skin and inflate their wings in a few hours. You can see their life cycle happening right before your eyes. I’m just in awe.”


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