Last summer during a collecting trip through the western Great Plains, field partner Jeff Huether and I made a quick stop in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just a few miles north of the Colorado/New Mexico state line. Most of the woody vegetation turned out to be New Mexico locust (Robinia neomexicana), which can be a good host for certain species of jewel beetles and longhorned beetles, and since it was mid-late June the timing was also right (assuming there had been good rains in the area). We began beating branches, picking up regular numbers of small longhorned beetles in the genus Sternidius and jewel beetles in the genus Agrilus—nothing unexpected. As I was beating I happened to notice a cicada sitting in a branch in a nearby tree. Usually I don’t see cicadas until they take flight after I unknowingly approach them—more often than not also letting out a metallic screech as they take flight if they are male, and even if I do see them beforehand I rarely am able to get close enough to attempt capture, much less photography. Perhaps the morning temps still had not risen to a point sufficient for the more active behaviors with which cicadas are usually associated.
The slender, hairy, black body, orange highlights and pronotal collar, and black eyes identify this as a member of the genus Platypedia, and while the genus is large—21 species and four subspecies in western North America (Sanborn & Phillips 2013), its gestalt and occurrence in south-central Colorado make P. putnami the likely choice. Cicadas, of course, are famous for their singing abilities, which is most commonly accomplished through the use of structures at the base of the male abdomen called timbals (or ‘tymbals’). These paired, ribbed membranes make a loud click when buckled, and the male uses musculature to rapidly and rhythmically buckle/unbuckle the timbals to produce their characteristic song (Young & Bennet-Clark 1995). Cicadas of the genus Platypedia, however, belong to a group of genera that have lost the ability to produce sound through timbal organs, instead communicating through an alternate mechanism of sound production called crepitation where the wings are snapped together above the body or banged against the body or on vegetation (Sanborn and Phillips 1999). (Think of the snapping sound that some grasshoppers make as they fly, which is produced by the same mechanism.) You can hear the sound (I can’t really call it a ‘song’) and see a collection of videos of these cicadas at Cicada Mania.
Of course, replacement of one sound production mechanism by another begs the question—is there a selective advantage to sound production by crepitation over timbals? The fact that females also produce sound by crepitation hints at one possible advantage—2-way communication between males and females may provide another mechanism for minimizing the chance of interspecies mate selection, in contrast to the one-way communication (from males to females) that occurs in species that use timbal organs. It is also possible that crepitation is metabolically more efficient than timbal singing, although experimental comparisons of the energetic cost of crepitation versus timbal singing in cicadas are lacking (Sanborn & Phillips 1999).
Sanborn, A. F. & P. K. Phillips. 1999. Analysis of acoustic signals produced by the cicada Platypedia putnami variety lutea (Homoptera: Tibicinidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America 92:451–455 [pdf].
Young, D. & H. C. Bennet-Clark. 1995. The role of the tymbal in cicada sound production. The Journal of Experimental Biology 198:1001–1019 [pdf].
© Ted C. MacRae 2015