Cicadas Illinois

Illinois researchers crush, grind dead cicadas into powder to study and collect data

"Maybe 17 years down the line now we might even see a shift in cicadas."

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The big cicada emergence is over, but the study is just beginning in Chicago's western suburbs for researchers at the Morton Arboretum.

"We just got a bunch of bags ... and, what you can see, all these are essentially dried out into little cicada parts," explained Marvin Lo, the research program manager in the Root Biology Laboratory at the Morton Arboretum.

Lo and his team have been collecting dead cicadas and preparing samples for their study.

"It might take, you know, five to 10 years to get some of these data because we’re trying to tie a lot of these processes to the cicadas in with other things that are happening," he said.

The program manager gave us a glimpse into their research in the lab to better understand our forest ecosystem and cicadas.

"Maybe they like certain species more, certain tree species than others, and we might be able to see that in some of our data," he said. "We won't know until we analyze it, but that's one thing we're looking at."

Over the next couple of months, Lo said volunteers will help with the process of drying the samples and measuring the biomass of the cicadas before grinding and crushing them into powder form for further analysis.

"The other thing we're looking at is how much nitrogen and carbon nutrients are these cicadas providing back to the forest soils," he said.

He added, "These cicadas have been feeding underground for 17 years. They've been feeding on the trees and the plants and what happens — there's a big pulse of nutrients all of a sudden all at once and how does that affect the growth of our trees in the forest."

Lo said the study is fascinating, saying there's so much more to learn about the insects now that they're gone.  

"Maybe 17 years down the line now we might even see a shift in cicadas," he said. "If we happen to just all of a sudden lose all of the cicadas to like disease or something, what would happen to our forest? We don’t know."

He's hoping the data in the end will provide a clearer picture of the role of cicadas in our environment as they wait for the next emergence.

"Even though it may seem like these cicadas might be a nuisance this year, it's just loud, they're smelly," Lo said. "Everything they do, they have their role and they may play a very important role in how everything functions in this ecosystem."

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