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This article was prepared for the July 7, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Between the Lines: Cicadas — RIP ’til 2021

I was X-cited when a few weeks ago I went to Princeton to watch the X Games. No, not the ones with Gen-Xers ridi7ng BMXs, but the ones where the Brood X Periodical Cicadas emerged in the millions after XVII years of feeding on root fluids to breed and X-pand their population.

The underground juvenile nymphs grow from the size of an ant to about one inch long before they drill upward, climb onto a tree and molt into adulthood, discarding their old skins willy-nilly like teenager’s clothes strewn around their room. The cacophony is quite loud and eerie as the males try to outdo each other with sounds to attract a female.

After mating, the females inject eggs into twigs where they hatch and fall to the ground to burrow into the earth. The whole show lasts only a few weeks as the adults bow out and the young wait 17 years for a curtain call.

Is this cyclical display, coming at prime number intervals of time, important? I mean is it really relevant to us that the cicadas’ habitat is not paved over so they have a place to re-emerge? Absolutely, and not just because biodiversity is important, or we might find they contain a chemical that cures one of our diseases, or because it’s intriguing for us to watch them. But just because they are living creatures that have as much right to live out their evolutionary destiny as we do. If, on this massive planet, we can’t make room for the species that overlap the space we occupy then one day we’ll wake up and find ourselves alone.

It’s not just that being alone is lonely, but ultimately we all depend on each other for survival. Everything is in balance and we can’t take, take, take for ourselves and not at some point upset that balance. We have to draw the line somewhere and say, “this is for us but the rest is for everything else.”

“Oh, we are nowhere near that point”, you might say. But nature is complex and we don’t know where that center of gravity is. It’s a little like a canoe; you can tip a little and everything is okay, and then you tip a little more and everything is okay, and then you tip a tad more and whoops, too late, all at once you’re in the soup.

So yes, these black and orange insects, dressed like little Princeton alumni with eyes red from the giddy celebration, are important. As we blindly push ahead and usurp habitats we should think about their survival, as well as the other cyclical inhabitants and visitors to our area like the Monarch Butterfly, Horseshoe Crab, Tundra Swan, Pine Barrens Tree Frog, and others.

James Peck

Monroe

Editor’s note: An amateur naturalist, Jim Peck leads nature tours in New Jersey that include the Pine Barrens, Hackensack Meadowlands, barrier beaches, fossil hunting, and lighthouses. His next Pine Barrens van tour is Saturday, July 24, and covers history, cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, Apple Pie Hill, a 1750s tavern, Buzby’s General Store, and Pygmy forest. For details visit www.natureaudiowalks.com.


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