Wild Side: The cicada that sang in the morning

We have a new Island resident.


On Thursday, August 25, I met with high school science teacher Anna Cotton to discuss a natural history classroom project she’s developing. We briefly toured a likely site for the fieldwork portion of that project: a section of the broad firebreak on the northern edge of Correllus State Forest, just south of the regional high school.

While we were meeting, I snapped a few insect photos — I just can’t help myself! — and then, as our meeting wound down, I used the voice recorder in my phone to record a loud cicada song that I didn’t recognize. Later I tried unsuccessfully to identify the call using internet resources. But when I put the recording up in the community science platform iNaturalist, I rapidly got an ID: Megatibicen auletes, the Northern dusk-singing cicada.

Never mind that I made the recording around 9:30 in the morning! I think the point is really that the species sings at the end of the day. Perhaps a better common name would be giant oak cicada, or Southern oak cicada, both of which are used regionally; the species is huge, and it does associate closely with oaks. Its song is loud and harsh, with a pulsing quality that gradually slows down as the song nears its end. You can hear the one I recorded here: bit.ly/WScicadasong.

The next day, as I was hunting bugs along the fire lane that marks the eastern edge of Correllus State Forest, a massive insect dropped out of a nearby oak, nearly beaned me as it flew past, and landed at about my eye level in a small pitch pine. I snapped some photos of what was clearly a very large cicada, and then, since the insect showed no sign of agitation, I carefully grabbed its wings, peeled it from the pitch pine, and took a series of photos as I held it and then let it perch on my hand.

While I’m pretty relaxed about handling arthropods, I have to admit that this cicada creeped me out a little! About three inches long, including its wings, it was a very powerful insect, first struggling against my grip as I held it, and then clinging to my hand when I released it. Clearly visible as I held it was a pipelike proboscis that the insect would use to pierce and sip juices from plants. While I knew that cicadas are considered harmless, I couldn’t quite suppress the fear that this one would express its outrage at being handled by jabbing me with its drinking straw! But no such thing happened; the cicada quickly calmed down as I held it, and once released, sat unconstrained on my hand for more than a minute before launching into its rattling flight.

This cicada, too, was Megatibicen auletes, recognizable by its very large size, its relatively muted pattern of markings, and especially by the waxy pruinosity that nearly covered its body. Puzzled why I had never encountered this magnificent species before, I did a little research, and what I found surprised me.

There proved to be a total of six M. auletes records from the Vineyard: four (so far) from this year, one from 2021, and one from 2020. There is only one other Massachusetts record for the species in iNaturalist, an unconfirmed observation of an immature cicada from Plymouth County. And bugguide.net, another important web-based natural history platform, has no Massachusetts records at all. (I’ll have to add one.)

Indeed, iNaturalist records for this largest U.S. cicada suggest that the species occurs mainly along the East Coast, from New Jersey to Florida, and in the south-central U.S. There are few records from the Appalachians, and increasingly sparse records as you move north through the eastern Midwest up into southernmost Canada. Records are also sparse on Long Island and in coastal southern New England. So this appears to be primarily a southern, low-elevation species, and my guess is that it’s advancing northward slowly, likely as a response to climate change.

It appears, in short, that Megatibicen auletes is a new arrival on Martha’s Vineyard, one that already appears to be expanding its foothold here. The Dodger’s Hole area has produced half of the Island’s records, suggesting that as a possible introduction site. Other records come from Felix Neck and along State Road in Vineyard Haven, where the species was first observed on Martha’s Vineyard.

How Megatibicen got here is a good question. Perhaps a gravid female was transported here on a vehicle; perhaps some nymphs arrived in the soil of imported potted plants. Given how strongly the species seems to fly, perhaps M. auletes got here under its own steam. The Vineyard’s oak-rich habitats should be congenial to this cicada. And since annual cicadas don’t often reach levels of abundance that make them harmful, this new arrival will likely expand its distribution here and settle in as an innocuous, if very noisy, new neighbor.