Self-organizing cicada choruses respond to the local sound and light environment

Lawrence W. Sheppard, Brandon Mechtley, Jonathan A. Walter, Daniel C. Reuman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Periodical cicadas exhibit an extraordinary capacity for self-organizing spatially synchronous breeding behavior. The regular emergence of periodical cicada broods across the United States is a phenomenon of longstanding public and scientific interest, as the cicadas of each brood emerge in huge numbers and briefly dominate their ecosystem. During the emergence, the 17-year periodical cicada species Magicicada cassini is found to form synchronized choruses, and we investigated their chorusing behavior from the standpoint of spatial synchrony. Cicada choruses were observed to form in trees, calling regularly every five seconds. In order to determine the limits of this self-organizing behavior, we set out to quantify the spatial synchronization between cicada call choruses in different trees, and how and why this varies in space and time. We performed 20 simultaneous recordings in Clinton State Park, Kansas, in June 2015 (Brood IV), with a team of citizen-science volunteers using consumer equipment (smartphones). We use a wavelet approach to show in detail how spatially synchronous, self-organized chorusing varies across the forest. We show how conditions that increase the strength of audio interactions between cicadas also increase the spatial synchrony of their chorusing. Higher forest canopy light levels increase cicada activity, corresponding to faster and higher-amplitude chorus cycling and to greater synchrony of cycles across space. We implemented a relaxation-oscillator-ensemble model of interacting cicadas, finding that a tendency to call more often, driven by light levels, results in all these effects. Results demonstrate how the capacity to self-organize in ecology depends sensitively on environmental conditions. Spatially correlated modulation of cycling rate by an external driver can also promote self-organization of phase synchrony.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4471-4482
Number of pages12
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • cicada
  • citizen science
  • insect chorus
  • synchrony
  • wavelet

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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