Magazine article Natural History

The Sundown Cicada

Magazine article Natural History

The Sundown Cicada

Article excerpt

La Tirimbina, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica-

Up and down it goes, first loud and strong, then subdued and faint, but nonetheless a notable pulsating scream coming from the bowels of the forest below. It is the call of the sundown cicada (Fidicina mannifera). At first, there is only one calling. Within a few moments, several others start up, scattered across the valley. The forest now buzzes with a rhythm of life at dusk. Not long before, these hills had rattled with the late afternoon clatter of toucans, parrots, and oropendolas.

I have stood on this hill at Tirimbina many times over the past forty years, relishing the fading tropical sun, the inevitable arrival of rain and the sundown cicada. I am humbled and awed by this comparatively large, elusive creature, always starting its call within a minute or so of 5:45 p.m. and ending when darkness descends around 6:00 p.m.

Juvenile cicadas live in the ground, where they feed on juices tapped from the root crowns of various trees. We know virtually nothing about their habits. And, unlike most cicadas, the adult sundown cicada haunts only the lower areas of tree trunks rather than high canopy branches. It's one of the largest cicadas, with a body length of just under two inches, and it is a very strong flier. Its scream is deafening from only a few meters away. But in less than fifteen seconds, it's gone. Once the cicada makes a call from one tree trunk, it immediately flies off, zigzagging away to avoid capture by insectivorous bats that are also active at dusk. Unlike several other species of Sarapiqui cicadas in which males chorus in large groups at one spot in order to assemble females, the sundown cicada exhibits a different strategy, in which highly skittish males spread out at low density over sizeable areas and thereby optimize each individual's ability to attract a mate. …

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