Crepitating Cicadas

- June 6, 2012

"Hello, my tree is clicking."

A friend who works at a local plant nursery reported the sentence uttered by the confused gentleman who approached her counter.  Clicking trees?  Well, if it's Santa Fe in late spring, then the trees click and hum and whine.

Although it's not the trees, of course, but cicadas.

There are over 150 species of these odd-looking critters world-wide and one subset of 20-odd species neither buzz nor whine, but click. All are found only in the West, mostly in California, but New Mexico has at least one: Platypedia putnami (Uhler).  It is relatively small, black with golden-veined wings and remarkably shy about being approached. Males make a series of clicks sometimes compared with the sound produced by striking two dimes together.  This probably is done by snapping the wings against a spot on their body, but it's certainly not the drumhead buzzing made by most cicada species which have a specialized membrane for that purpose called a "tympanum".  The clicking is the males' way of saying "hey, baby, look at me".

By the time these guys are clicking away, they're between three and five years old.  They live underground for all but the last few weeks of their lives, burrowing as larvae and feeding on tree roots.  When the time is right, they emerge from the soil, climb up a handy tree trunk or wall, and a long split develops down the back of their old skin.  The "new" bug slowly extracts itself sporting a wrinkly set of crumpled wings.  Over the next hour, the wings unfold, dry and become crisp and sparkly-transparent.

If you're enjoying a little patio dining in Santa Fe this time of year, see if you can pick out the summer sound of the  clickers'!