Sci and Tech writer, Gwydion Elliott, discusses the UK’s only native cicada
Cicadas are a group of large, round-bodied flying insects known for their exceptionally loud songs. Though more than 3,000 different species have been recorded around the world, the New Forest cicada, or Cicadetta montana, is the only one native to the UK. Many worry that this insect might be extinct since it has not been seen or heard since the year 2000.
The females of this species are much larger than the males, their bodies extending to 3 centimetres in length. After mating, the female lays its eggs in the stem of one of its preferred plants which include beech, oak, and birch trees. These young emerge as nymphs and burrow beneath the ground, where they stay for 6 to 10 years, suckling sap from plant roots as food. Once it is time for the nymph to emerge and take flight, it first constructs a small turret from the surrounding soil. It is thought that this turret allows the nymph to test the air temperature, ensuring that the weather is warm enough.
Cicadas eat very little once they emerge from the soil, instead rushing to mate before they die within the next few weeks. In order to attract a partner, the male cicada sings using specialised structures called tymbals. These act like drums, producing a sound by tensing and relaxing the surrounding muscles. To the human ear the call of the New Forest cicada sounds like the hiss of TV static – presumably, the hearing of these insects is tuned differently to ours so that this sound carries far, attracting females in the area. Some other cicada species sing in a pitch too high for humans to hear at all, while others can cause permanent hearing damage if singing at close range.
Since its disappearance from British forests at the turn of the millennium, a growing number of people have been on the hunt for this cicada. In 2013, an app became available on smartphones allowing visitors to New Forest to search for the insect by listening to sound frequencies beyond the normal human hearing range. Though being missing this long might seem catastrophic, experts are not yet ready to rule out the return of this species: the New Forest cicada was also missing between 1941 and 1961 before re-emerging from beneath the soil’s surface. As such, their current absence might only be part of their life cycle, with countless nymphs lying beneath the soil, ready to emerge.
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