A Chimney Building Cicada Nymph is Seen in Brazil! - Observation of the Week, 5/24/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Fidicina cicada nymph, seen in Brazil by @siddantas!

Here in North America, we’re used to seeing cicada exuviae on tree trunks, but I’d never heard of a cicada tower until coming across Sidney Dantas’s photo. Sidnei tells me they’re very common in Amazonia, especially near the end of the rainy season, but in over twenty years of exploring the Amazon, he has never actually seen a nymph actually building one until May 9th of this year.

As a child growing in eastern Brazil, where much of the forest had already been removed, Sidnei says he learned about nature “[mostly] from tv shows and books/magazines.” But that didn’t stop him from becoming a biologist later in life, earning a masters and a PhD  in bird ecology and taxonomy, mainly in the area of Belém do Pará. “After my PhD,” he tells me, “I got some postdoc grants and continued to do research on birds in Belém, and did not focus much on other kinds of creatures for a long time.”

That changed in 2018, however, when Sidnei changed career directions and became a guide for tourists at the Cristalino Lodge in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. “Here in Cristalino, I have to speak about birds and many other things, so I got in contact with my ‘naturalist side’ again, and activated my curiosity for nature in general, especially for butterflies and frogs. Now I am...spending the quarantine [here], and taking my time to look for more amazonian wonders everyday.”

Which, of course, brings us to the very busy cicada nymph. “On that day, me and my friend Jéssica Martins, another guide in Cristalino Lodge, were walking in the forest, and in fact she saw the cicada first, after I passed by it unaware, and called me back. 

We were amazed to see it in action, and spent some minutes taking photos and observing the cicada building the tower by placing the mud with its big front legs from side to side, being annoyed by some ants, and even pulling the sides of the tower to cover itself when we did some sudden movement close to it...After some time taking photos, we decided to leave it alone.

Cicadas spend much of their lives as nymphs, tapping into the roots of plants and slurping up xylem. Many will spend years doing this (perhaps most famously the 13 and 17 year cicadas of North America) before metamorphosing into adults who will live no more than several weeks or months. The nymphs which Sidnei and Jéssica found were likely in the genus Fidicina, and their towers would perhaps more accurately be called “chimneys”, as they are believed to aid the nymphs in regulating the microclimates of their underground chambers, as well as providing a place to escape during heavy rains.

“I started using iNaturalist for uploading my butterfly and reptile photos, in order to contribute to projects cataloging the butterflies and reptiles of the Cristalino region,” says Sidnei (above, on one of the observation towers in Cristalino Lodge). “Soon I was posting observations of other taxa as well, excited by the possibility of getting them identified by specialists! I’ve learned a lot about insects, frogs, and other things...and I started to learn how poorly many of these taxa are known for this region…

I have contributed photos and sound recordings to people’s work on membracids, crickets, wasps, and I find it amazing to get in contact with people from these areas and learn so much! At this point, the iNaturalist experience stimulated me to pay more attention to and record unusual species or behaviors, to share with other people and possibly contribute to knowledge about amazonian biota.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

- iNat user @belgianbirding commented on Sidnei’s observation and linked to his own blog post about his encounters with these chimneys.

- The Animal Architecture project has some pretty sweet examples of structures created by animals.

- Of course David Attenborough did a segment on periodical cicadas.

- An emergence of 17 year cicadas is actually occurring right now in a small area of North America. 

Posted by tiwane tiwane, May 24, 2020 20:12




Posted by myelaphus 12 months ago (Flag)

Very interesting observation and a nice read! William

Posted by williamwisephoto 12 months ago (Flag)

Wow! Impressive!

Posted by jang-liaw 12 months ago (Flag)

Amazing and beautiful!

Posted by carolblaney 12 months ago (Flag)

Wow, that is so cool! Thanks for sharing @siddantas! Great article @tiwane, nicely written.

Posted by bug_girl 12 months ago (Flag)

That is amazing!

Posted by teratornis 12 months ago (Flag)

That's quite a chimney for a cicada!

Posted by googleuser6 12 months ago (Flag)

Really cool observations! Do they call from it as adults?

Posted by treecricketlady 12 months ago (Flag)


Posted by nomolosx 12 months ago (Flag)

That is really outrageously cool! I love how the nymph is all covered in mud as it works away. That is some huge tower it has built!

Posted by susanhewitt 12 months ago (Flag)

Should the tower become damaged, do they attempt to rebuild it?

Posted by papili01 12 months ago (Flag)

What a fantastic observation! I cannot imagine the amount of work that goes into making that chimney for that tiny creature. Try lifting just a few shovels of dirt sometime and you'll get an idea how much work and energy must be going into this creation.

Posted by seaheart88 12 months ago (Flag)

An incredible observation...so inspiring as to the amazing biodiversity and evolution out there.

Posted by mlefay 12 months ago (Flag)

Some North American cicada nymphs do construct "chimneys," but nothing approaching this height!

Posted by ceiseman 12 months ago (Flag)

that is amazing!!!! like something from Greek Myths or Harry Potter!

Posted by potterpine 12 months ago (Flag)

How cute!

Posted by cosmiccat 12 months ago (Flag)

Very cool. I've seen the chimneys a number of times in Peru, but never seen them being built.

Posted by earthknight 12 months ago (Flag)

Legal, Sid!

Posted by jeh_biologa 12 months ago (Flag)

@treecricketlady No, when they are ready, and usually at night, they'll crawl out the top of the chimney leaving it open-topped (so you can easily tell which ones have been vacated) and up the nearest tree trunk, where they'll emerge as winged adults (see my blog post linked at the bottom of the article). Once the wings are dry, they'll then relocate to the canopy to start making noise!
@papili01 Yes, we often encounter chimneys that have been knocked over by peccaries, tapirs or even clumsy tourists and it is quite easy to see where a new lid has been added or the chimney has been repaired by a slightly different appearance to the fresher mud.

Posted by belgianbirding 12 months ago (Flag)

That's amazing, congratulations for the great job, @siddantas ! I'm so glad I know great naturalists such as you. = )

Posted by luisalmota 12 months ago (Flag)

Thank You very much! Amazonia is always amazing us with wonders like this one!

Posted by siddantas 12 months ago (Flag)

So cool!

Posted by star3 12 months ago (Flag)

:) Thanks so much for the information! I'm always on the lookout for acoustic tools, so had to ask!

Posted by treecricketlady 12 months ago (Flag)

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