The Cicadas Return After 17 Years: Stunning Footage of the Brood X Cicadas

Sing, fly, mate, die.

The periodical cicadas in Brood X are emerging from underground, where they have spent the last 17 years as nymphs. They are making the final climb of their lives, intent on escaping their carapaces in order to make more cicadas. And as always they are doing it en masse.

Once free, they must quickly get the hang of their brand new wings, and make for the trees, where the males will sing (some say scream) in a bid for females with whom to mate.

The pregnant females drill cavities into narrow branches to receive their eggs.

By the time the larva emerge, some six weeks later, their mothers and fathers are long dead.

Instinct propels these babies to drop to the ground and burrow in, thus beginning another 17 year cycle, a process Samuel Orr, a time lapse photographer and filmmaker specializing in nature documentary, documents in macro close up in Return of the Cicadas, above.

His adventures with Brood X date to their last emergence in 2004, when he was a student at Indiana University, working in a lab with a professor whose area of expertise was cicadas.

While waiting around for Brood X’s next appearance, he traveled around the country and as far as Australia, gathering over 200 hours of footage of other periodical cicadas for an hour long, Kickstarter-funded film that aired on PBS in 2012.

Brood X has a way of ensuring that we humans will also observe a 17 year cycle, at least those of us who live in the states the Great Eastern Brood calls home.

Some celebrate with commemorative merch. This year, that means face masks as well as an ever burgeoning assortment of t-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia.

Also new this year, Cicada Safari, entomologist Dr. Gene Kritsky’s smartphone app for citizen scientists eager to help map the 2021 emergence with photos and location.

There are some among us who complain about the males’ lusty chorus, which can rival garbage disposals, lawn mowers, and jackhammers in terms of decibels.

Those concerned with the planet’s health can use the data from this and past emergences to discuss the impact of climate change and deforestation. Brood X is listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Some of us are moved to write poetry and songs, though we don’t always get the species right — witness Ogden Nash’s Locust-Lovers, Attention! (1936) and Bob Dylan’s Day of the Locusts (1970).

Inevitably, there will be articles about eating them. It’s true that they’re a hyperlocal source of sustainable protein, albeit one that’s rarely on the menu. (The Onondaga Nation celebrates — and ceremonially samples — Brood VII every 17 years, crediting the insects with saving their ancestors from starvation after the Continental Army destroyed their villages and food sources in 1779.)

Human nature is such that we can’t help but reflect on the twists and turns our lives have taken over the last 17 years.

A woman in Maryland planned a cicada themed wedding to coincide with Brood X’s 1987 emergence, having been born two emergences before, and graduated from Bryn Mawr during the 1970 emergence, as 50 miles away, Bob Dylan was having his fateful encounter on the campus of Princeton.

Most of us will find that our milestones have been a bit more accidental in nature.

Brood X’s emergence also serves as a lens through which to view 17 years in the life of our country. The Onion took this to the edge several years ago with an article from the point of view of Brood II, but it’ll be hard to top the 17-year chunk of recent history Brood X and the humans who have been living atop them since 2004 will have to digest.

Speaking of history, Brood X Mania has been around much longer than any of us have been alive, and probably predates a Philadelphia pastor’s description of the 1715 emergence in his journal (though we’ll give him FIRST!!! since no earlier accounts have surfaced).

Prior to the Internet, entomologist Charles L. Marlatt’s The Periodical Cicada: An Account of Cicada Septendecim, Its Natural Enemies and the Means of Preventing Its Injury (1907) was the go to source for all things cicada related, and it remains a fascinating read.

In addition to lots of nitty gritty on the insects’ anatomy, habits, diet, and habitat, he quotes liberally from other cicada experts, from both his own era and before. The anecdotal evidence suggests our obsession is far from new.

These days, anyone armed with a smartphone can make a recording of Brood X’s cacophony, but back then, experts in the field were tasked with trying to capture it in print.

Professor Charles Valentine Riley compared the sound early in the season, when the first males were emerging to the “whistling of a train passing through a short tunnel” and also, “the croaking of certain frogs.” (For those needing help with pronunciation, he rendered it phonetically as “Pha-r-r-r-aoh.”)

Professor Asa Fitch’s described high season in New York state, when a maximum of males sing simultaneously:

tsh-e-e-E-E-E-E-e-ou, uttered continuously and prolonged to a quarter or half minute in length, the middle note deafeningly shrill, loud and piercing to the ear

Marlatt himself worried, prematurely but not without reason, that the march of civilization would bring about extinction by over-clearing the densely wooded areas that are essential to the cicadas’ reproductive rituals while offering a bit of protection from predators.

Dr. Samuel P. Hildreth of Marietta, Ohio noted in 1830 that “hogs eat them in preference to any other food” and that birds were such fans “that very few birds were seen around our gardens during their continuance and our cherries, etc, remained unmolested.”

Dr. Leland Ossian Howard was erroneously credited with conducting “the first experiments of cicada as an article of human food” in early summer 1885. Marlatt reproduces the account of an eyewitness who seemed to fancy themselves a bit of a restaurant critic:

With the aid of the Doctor’s cook, he had prepared a plain stew, a milk stew, and a broil. The Cicadae were collected just as they emerged from pupae and were thrown into cold water, in which they remained overnight. They were cooked the next morning, and served at breakfast time. They imparted a distinct and not unpleasant flavor to the stew, but they were not at all palatable themselves, as they were reduced to nothing but bits of flabby skin. The broil lacked substance. The most palatable method of cooking is to fry in batter, when they remind one of shrimps. They will never prove a delicacy.

We leave you with the thoughts of Dr Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore, whose attempt to capture a mercurial month turns bittersweet, and all too relatable:

The music or song produced by the myriads of these insects in a warm day from about the 25th of May to the middle of June is wonderful. It is not deafening, as many describe it; even at its height it does not interrupt conversation. It seems like an atmosphere of wild, monotonous sound, in which all other sounds float with perfect distinctness. After a day or two this music becomes tiresome and doleful, and to many very disagreeable. To me, it was otherwise, and when I heard the last note on the 25th of June the melancholy reflection occurred. Shall I live to hear it yet again?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Welcome back, Brood X Overlords! Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Vaccines Improved Our World In One Graphic

In 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine to fight a contagious disease–in this particular case, the smallpox virus. Since then vaccines have helped eradicate, or firmly control, a long list of diseases–everything from diphtheria and the measles, to rubella and polio. Designed by Leon Farrant in 2011, the infographic above reminds us of the miracles brought by vaccines, showing the degree to which they’ve tamed 14 crippling diseases. Before too long, we hope COVID-19 will be added to the list.

For the data used to make the graphic, visit this document online.

via @NeilGaiman

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Discover Tokyo’s Museum Dedicated to Parasites: A Unique and Disturbing Institution

Photo by Guilhem Vellut

Weary as we are of hearing about not just the coronavirus but viruses in general, shall we we turn our attention to parasites instead? The Meguro Parasitological Museum has been concentrating its intellectual and educational energies in that direction since 1953. Located in the eponymous neighborhood of Tokyo, it houses more than 60,000 species of parasite, with more than 300 on display at any given time. “On the first floor we present the ‘Diversity of Parasites’ displaying various types of parasite specimens with accompanying educational movies,” write directors Midori Kamegai and Kazuo Ogawa. “The second floor exhibits are ‘Human and Zoonotic Parasites’ showing parasite life cycles and the symptoms they cause during human infection.”

Photo by Guilhem Vellut

We’ve here included a few choice pictures from the museum, but as Culture Trip’s India Irving warns, “the real-life specimens are far worse than the photographs; some of the displays present preserved parasites actually popping out of their animal hosts.”

She names as “the most repulsive item on view” a tapeworm “roughly the size of a London bus — it is the longest tapeworm in world and is exhibited alongside a rope of the same length so visitors can get a physical feel for just how enormous it actually was.” What other parasitological museum could hope to compete with that? Not that any have tried: the Meguro Parasitological Museum proudly describes itself as the only such institution in the world.

Photo by Guilhem Vellut

“Some of the displays are merely disturbing, while others are slightly more ghastly,” writes Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen. “If you’ve ever wanted to see a photo of a tropical bug prompting a human testicle to swell to the size of a gym bag, this is the place for you.” Like many other museums, it did shut down for a time earlier in the pandemic, but has been open again since June. (If you happen not to be a Japanese speaker, guides in English and other languages are available in both text and app form.) If current conditions have nevertheless kept Japan itself out of your reach, you can have a look at the Meguro Parasitological Museum’s unique offerings through this Flickr gallery — which gets many of us as close to these organisms as we care to be.

Photo by Steven L. Johnson 

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants: Discover the 1977 Illustrated Guide Created by Harvard’s Groundbreaking Ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes

I mean, the idea that you would give a psychedelic—in this case, magic mushrooms or the chemical called psilocybin that’s derived from magic mushrooms—to people dying of cancer, people with terminal diagnoses, to help them deal with their – what’s called existential distress. And this seemed like such a crazy idea that I began looking into it. Why should a drug from a mushroom help people deal with their mortality?

–Michael Pollan in an interview with Terry Gross, “’Reluctant Psychonaut’ Michael Pollan Embraces ‘New Science’ Of Psychedelics”

Around the same time Albert Hoffman synthesized LSD in the early 1940s, a pioneering ethnobotanist, writer, and photographer named Richard Evan Schultes set out “on a mission to study how indigenous peoples” in the Amazon rainforest “used plants for medicinal, ritual and practical purposes,” as an extensive history of Schultes’ travels notes. “He went on to spend over a decade immersed in near-continuous fieldwork, collecting more than 24,000 species of plants including some 300 species new to science.”

Described by Jonathan Kandell as “swashbuckling” in a 2001 New York Times obituary, Schultes was “the last of the great plant explorers in the Victorian tradition.” Or so his student Wade Davis called him in his 1995 bestseller The Serpent and the Rainbow. He was also “a pioneering conservationist,” writes Kandell, “who raised alarms in the 1960’s—long before environmentalism became a worldwide concern.” Schultes defied the stereotype of the colonial adventurer, once saying, “I do not believe in hostile Indians. All that is required to bring out their gentlemanliness is reciprocal gentlemanliness.”

Schultes returned to teach at Harvard, where he reminded his students “that more than 90 tribes had become extinct in Brazil alone over the first three-quarters of the 20th century.” While his research would have significant influence on figures like Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs, and Carlos Castaneda, “writers who considered hallucinogens as the gateways to self-discovery,” Schultes was dismissive of the counterculture and “disdained these self-appointed prophets of an inner reality.”

Rather than promoting recreational use, Schultes became known as “the father of a new branch of science called ‘ethnobotany,’ the field that explores the relationship between indigenous people and their use of plants,” writes Luis Sequeira in a biographical note. One of Schultes’ publications, the Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants, has sadly fallen out of print, but you can find it online, in full, at the Vaults of Erowid. Pricey out-of-print copies can still be purchased.

Described on Amazon as “a nontechnical examination of the physiological effects and cultural significance of hallucinogenic plants used in ancient and modern societies,” the book covers peyote, ayahuasca, cannabis, various psychoactive mushrooms and other fungi, and much more. In his introduction, Schultes is careful to separate his research from its appropriation, dismissing the term “psychedelic” as etymologically incorrect and “biologically unsound.” Furthermore, he writes, it “has acquired popular meanings beyond the drugs or their effects.”

Schultes’ interests are scientificand anthropological. “In the history of mankind,” he writes, “hallucinogens have probably been the most important of all the narcotics. Their fantastic effects made them sacred to primitive man and may even have been responsible for suggesting to him the idea of deity.” He does not exaggerate. Schultes’ research into the religious and medicinal uses of natural hallucinogens led him to dub them “plants of the gods” in a book he wrote with Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD.

Neither scientist sought to start a psychedelic revolution, but it happened nonetheless. Now, another revolution is underwayone that is finally revisiting the science of ethnobotany and taking seriously the healing powers of hallucinogenic plants. It is hardly a new science among scholars in the West, but the renewed legitimacy of research into hallucinogens has given Schultes’ research new authority. Learn from him in his Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants online here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Biostatistician Uses Crochet to Visualize the Frightening Infection Rates of the Coronavirus

Chances are you’ve looked at more graphs this past year than you did over the previous decade — not just while working at home, but while scrolling through cascades of often-troubling quantitative information during your “off” hours as well. This phenomenon has hardly been limited to the Americans who obsessed over the predictions of and returns from their presidential election last month, an event turned practically into a sideshow by the ongoing pandemic. Around the world, we’ve all wanted to know: Where did the coronavirus come from? What is it? Where is it going?

Apologies to Paul Gauguin, who didn’t even live to see the Spanish flu of 1918, a time when nobody could have imagined instantaneously and widely sharing visual renderings of data about that disease. The world of a century ago may not have had dynamic animated maps and charts, updated in real time, but it did have crochet. Whether or not it had then occurred to anyone as a viable medium for visualizing the spread of disease, it can be convincing today. This is demonstrated by Norwegian biostatistician Kathrine Frey Frøslie, who in the video above shows us her crocheted representations of various “R numbers.”

This now much-heard term, Frøslie’s explains, “denotes reproduction. If the R number is one, this means that each infected person will on average infect one new person during the course of the disease. If R equals two, each infected person will infect two persons,” and so on. Her crocheted version of R=1, with a population of ten, is small and narrow — it looks, in other words, entirely manageable. Such a disease “will always be always present, but the number of infected persons will be constant.” Her R=0.9, which steadily narrows in a way that resembles an unfinished Christmas stocking, looks even less threatening.

Alas, “for the coronavirus, the R is mostly larger than one.” In crocheted form, even R=1.1 is pretty formidable; when she brings out her R=1.5, “it is evident that we have a problem. Even the crochet patch kind of crumbles.” Then out comes R=2, which must have been quite a project: its ten original infections bloom into 2,560 new cases, all represented in almost organically dense folds of yarn. As for R=2.5, when Frøslie eventually gets it hoisted onto her lap, you’ll have to see it to believe it. Throughout 2020, of course, many of our at-home hobbies have grown to monstrous proportions — even those taken up by medical scientists.

via Metafilter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats

A house cat is not really a fur baby, but it is something rather more remarkable: a tiny conquistador with the whole planet at its feet —Abigail Tucker

As part of its Annals of Obsession video series, The New Yorker invited science journalist Abigail Tucker, author of The Lion in the Living Room, to reflect on “how felines took over the Internet, our homes, and our lives.”

It goes without saying that cats and humans have co-existed for a very long time.

Most of us are acquainted with the high regard in which Ancient Egyptians held Felis catus.

And we may know something of their seafaring history, beginning with the Vikings and continuing on through Unsinkable Sam and other celebrated ship’s cats.

An overwhelming majority of us have spent the last decade or so glued to online examples of their antics—riding robot vacuumsreacting with terror to cucumbers, and pouncing on humans, some of whom have had the temerity to write and record voiceovers that suggest they have insight as to what goes on inside a cat’s hat. (As if!)

It’s gratifying to hear Tucker echo what cat lovers have long suspected (and emblazoned on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and decorative pillows)—the cats, not the owners, are the ones running the show.

Forgive us. Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.

Cats took a commensal path to domestication, motivated, then as now, by the food they knew to be stored in our settlements.

Tucker describes it as a series of cat controlled takeovers—a process of artificial selection, undertaken on the cats’ own initiative:

House cats are supremely adaptable. They can live anywhere and, while they must have plenty of protein, they eat practically anything that moves, from pelicans to crickets, and many things that don’t, like hot dogs. (Some of their imperiled feline relatives, by contrast, are adapted to hunt only a rare species of chinchilla.) House cats can tweak their sleeping schedules and social lives. They can breed like crazy.

In certain ways the house cat’s rise is tragic, for the same forces that favor them have destroyed many other creatures. House cats are carpetbaggers, arrivistes, and they’re among the most transformative invaders the world has ever seen—except for Homo sapiens, of course. It’s no coincidence that when they show up in ecosystems, lions and other megafauna are usually on their way out.

Aloof as many of their number may be, cats have engineered things in such a way as to be physically irresistible to most humans:

Their big heads and big eyes are so cute!

Their fur is so soft!

We can carry them around!

Dress them in doll clothes (sometimes)!

Their cries mimic the cries of hungry human babies, and elicit a similar response from their human caregivers.

We may not love litter box duty, but with 1 in 3 humans infected by Toxoplasma gondii, we’ll likely be tethered to them for all eternity.

For better or worse, we love them. And so do dog lovers. They just don’t know it yet.

But do not ever imagine that the feeling is reciprocal.

They’re archcarnivores who cannot open their own cans. As Tucker wryly observes:

I think it’s fair to say that we are obsessed and they are not.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She loves cats, but most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dr. Fauci’s Lecture from MIT’s Free Course on COVID-19: It’s Now Online

Back in September, we gave you a heads up on MIT’s free course on COVID-19. As we mentioned, “COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and the Pandemic” runs from September 1, 2020 through December 8, 2020. And it features a combination of MIT faculty and guest speakers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, covering the science of the pandemic. Since our original post, Dr. Fauci’s presentation, “Insights from the COVID-19 pandemic,” has gone online. You can watch it above. Then find all of the other lectures here.

MIT’s course has been added to the Biology section of our meta collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Elegant Studies of the Human Heart Were 500 Years Ahead of Their Time

Leonardo da Vinci didn’t really have hobbies; he had passionate, unpaid obsessions that filled whole notebooks with puzzles scientists are still trying to solve. Many of the problems to which he applied himself were those none of his contemporaries understood, because he was the only person to have noticed them at all. The amateur anatomist was the first, for example, “to sketch trabeculae,” notes, “and their snowflake-like fractal patterns in the 16th century.”

These geometric patterns of muscle fibers on the inner surface of the heart have remained a mystery for over 500 years since Leonardo’s anatomical investigations, carried out first on pig and oxen hearts, then later, in hasty dissections in the winter cold, on human specimens. He speculated they might have warmed the blood, but scientists have recently found they enhance blood flow “just like the dimples on a golf ball reduce air resistance.”

Leonardo may have been wide of the mark in his trabeculae theory, not having access to genetic testing, AI, or MRI. But he was the first to describe coronary artery disease, which would become one of the leading causes of death 500 years later. Many of his medical conclusions have turned out to be startingly correct, in fact. He detailed and elegantly sketched the heart’s anatomy from 1507 until his death in 1519, working out the flow of the blood through the body.

As the Medlife Crisis video above explains, Leonardo’s studies on the heart elegantly brought together his interests in art, anatomy, and engineering. Because of this multi-dimensional approach, he was able to explain a fact about the heart’s operation that even many cardiologists today get wrong, the movement of the aortic valve. In order to visualize the “flow dynamics” of the heart’s machinery, without imaging machinery of his own, he built a glass model, and drew several sketches of what he saw. “Incredibly, it took 450 years to prove him right.”

The mind of this extraordinary figure continues to divulge its secrets, and scholars and doctors across multiple fields continue to engage with his work, in the pages, for example, of the Netherlands Heart Journal. His studies on the heart particularly show how his astonishing breadth of knowledge and skill paradoxically made him such a focused, determined, and creative thinker.


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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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