Discover the Secret of the 17-Year Cicada, But It Won t Get You Tenure

Scientific American
Discover the Secret of the 17-Year Cicada, But It Won t Get You Tenure
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Author, in a David Attenborough moment...
All the hoopla over the 17-year cicadas, set to emerge any day now in the Northeast, has so far missed one of the greatest facts about them. Sure, it's no surprise for grand gatherings of male animals to get together and sing their hearts out. Frogs do it, crickets do it, and we all know that humans do it. In animals it's called a lek, in humans it's called a rock band, and these words basically mean the same thing.

That's what we thought 17-year cicadas were up to--they emerge only in these rare prime-numbered years after slowly growing underground to live just a few weeks high in the trees to sing, fly, mate and die. The females are just attracted to all this noise and mating then happens.

That's as much of the story as we knew until seventeen years ago, when John Cooley and David Marshall discovered that in fact these remarkable insects have a three-part complex mating ritual, where the males begin with the distinctive "phaaaaarooooah" sound, but don't stop there. They are only encouraged to move on when the females make a tiny flick of their wings, which leads them on to a second sound, "phaaaroah phaaaroah phaaaroah" and then after a second wing flick, the males move on to a third sound, "te te te te te te te te te" and only after all three sounds does he climb aboard and mating begins.

Two hundred years studying periodical cicadas and no one had ever noticed this until these two young scientists figured it out seventeen years ago and wrote their dissertations revealing a mating ritual far more complicated than that engaged in by any other insect. A truly amazing discovery that happened only because of careful observation and detailed analysis. They each wrote their dissertations about this, and since then have been traveling all over the country studying every periodical cicada brood, wherever they emerge. Their activities are detailed on the website www.magicicada.org.

Perhaps even more remarkable is that even after making such a momentous discovery, seventeen years later neither Cooley or Marshall has landed a tenure track job at any university. Both of them labor as adjuncts and pick-up researchers at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, but they can't pay the bills. It is shocking that even after publishing numerous papers on this unique aspect of animal behavior, there is no permanent place in academy for either of them. This is what Cooley has to say about the situation:

"I've just about had it," shrugs Cooley. "I'm going to have to leave academia. I have a family to support, I've started business school."

I don't believe it.

"Frankly I'm shocked that you guys don't both have prestigious positions, for the remarkable cicada discoveries you've made."

"Well thank you, but the academic system is really broken today, especially in the sciences. It should be encouraging people in their own way to go out on a limb and test hypotheses and take risks. But the way it works now, you apply to NSF for funding, and you better have the project figured out before you submit the grant. If I apply for a research job and say, 'I am going to do something really risky and I don't know whether it is going to work, but it is going to be innovative and interesting,' then you can just kiss the job goodbye. It is a sad fact. It is a problem I have with academia and maybe that is why I don't have a job, because I sit here and call it like it is."

Cooley knows that exceptions in nature, like the strange life cycle of the 17-year cicada, often teach us the most important things in evolution. "Nobody in their right mind would try to develop something like a periodical cicada as a model organism. You want to use something safe like a fruit fly, because you can get funding. The fundamental drawback with this kind of cicada work is that it is cheap. It does not cost millions of dollars, and generate millions of dollars in overhead for universities. It doesn't generate that kind of excitement or buzz."

Universities might not encourage it, but it is clear that the public loves the story of the 17-year cicada. From Mother Jones to Stephen Colbert, the cicadas are everywhere in the news this season, and this is before many have even come up. It's a shame that science education doesn't reward two of its greatest pioneers. Any colleges out there looking for innovative biologists doing research that students can easily help out with? Please, do what you can to keep Cooley from disappearing into the mire of the MBA.

Adapted from Bug Music by David Rothenberg (St. Martins Press, 2013)

Images: photos by Charles Lindsay, Umru Rothenberg and David Rothenberg, used by permission.

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