A Naturalist Picking Blueberries Makes First Sighting of a Rare Cicada in a Century - Observation(s) of the Week, 8/12/20

Our Observations of the Week are these Okanagana arctostaphylae cicadas, the first documented in over 100 years! Seen in the United States by @lcollingsparker and @easmeds.

[As the hoodwinker mola observations showed, one of the coolest things about iNaturalist is how it can bring people of all interests and experience levels together, and here’s another cool example. I apologize for the tardiness of this post, but it took some time to synthesize everything.]

Lucinda Collings Parker (@lcollingsparker, photo below) tells me “I spent my early life and the past 20+ years living in the country and mountains, which I love, but never really paid attention to the individual plants, animals, insects, or fungi.” After retiring two years ago, she took an iNaturalist class run by UC Davis and the American River Conservancy and credits iNat, along with nature journaling, “[as playing] a big part in learning to really look. My current aim is to get familiar with what lives in my part of California, first focusing on my own property. I’m still just a beginner.”

Last month, while out picking blueberries in her garden (a garden surrounded by many wild plants, including manzanita), Lucinda found the cicada you see above in the shade cloth draped over her blueberry bushes. She posted her photo to iNaturalist, where Will Chatfield-Taylor (@willc-t) identified it as the first documented observation of Okanagana arctostaphylae since 1915. “It was exciting to see how quickly the researchers responded and how more sightings were quickly made,” she says, “and since I mainly use iNaturalist to learn about what I’m seeing, it was fun to be able to give back, however accidentally, with a helpful observation.”

Will is collaborating with Jeff Cole of Pasadena City College (@bugsoundsjc) and Elliott Smeds (@easmeds), a Master’s student at Sonoma State University, and they’re “currently working to create a complete molecular phylogeny of the 57-species genus [Okanagana] and numerous species that will need to be described,” he tells me. 

iNaturalist has become a critical way for us to obtain specimens that we would be unlikely to ever collect. You can see the full list of contributions on the Okanagana Citizen Science Project I created on iNaturalist. It's become so important that we are actually considering writing it into a grant as a citizen science aspect to reimburse costs for shipping specimens from people.

Because no one had seen this cicada in over a century, Elliott (below) says “all of us were understandably freaking out a little bit. I live a couple of hours away from the area, so I ended up being the one to go look.

I got into cicadas largely thanks to iNaturalist. I had just received my degree in Biology and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. And meanwhile I had begun looking at local cicada observations on iNat and very quickly realized that there was a staggering diversity of species right in my backyard. At that point there were no active iNat users with expertise in Western North American cicadas, so the identifications were often either very broad or completely inaccurate. So I dug into the literature and started cleaning things up. I created a project called Cicadas of the Western US to keep track of all the observations people post. It became clear that there is precious little known about these Western taxa, and I decided I wanted to help fill that gap.  

Alas, his first day on the hunt was unsuccessful, and as not much is known about this species Elliott had no idea if he would find any at all. But while driving back from the field,he heard a call very similar to its likely closest relative, Okanagana opacipennis, and “got chills.” He returned the following day, received permission to search a stand of manzanitas from the property owner, and found them (*photo below).

“Cicada biology is not a large or glamorous field,” says Elliott. 

Collecting this species and including it in our research was going to be big news for maybe fifteen people on the entire planet. But finding that beautiful insect, camouflaged so perfectly against the smooth red bark, and knowing that I’m the first scientist in 100 years to see this creature—that’s a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Elliott heard quite a few more individuals in the area, and two more independent observations of Okanagana arctostaphylae have been posted since. So, “as for why it took so long for anyone to find it, the main answer seems to be that no one was looking particularly hard...the population is not small by any means,” he surmises. But now that they know where to look, this species can be monitored over time.

“I currently have 4 different people actively collecting cicadas for us,” says Will. “One in Utah, one in New Mexico, and two in Eugene, Oregon. @birdernaturalist (Rich Hoyer) possibly re-found a species called O. sequioae, which was last seen in 1964 when it was described.” Another quite rare cicada was found in Ontario, Canada by an iNat user and @silversea_starsong (more on him below) contacted a friend and a specimen is on its way as well.

“iNaturalist has been an invaluable research tool, but just as importantly it has made me more curious about organisms that I might have overlooked previously,” Elliott says. “It is now almost effortless to snap a few photos of a plant and have an expert tell me what it is, and going forward I will have that knowledge filed away in my head for the next time I encounter it. I am a better biologist thanks to the iNaturalist community.”


Bonus Content!

This is not the only manzanita-loving cicada in California that has recently been photographed on iNaturalist. @silversea_starsong and @ronvanderhoff posted the first known photographs of living Okanagana opacipennis last year. Unlike most members of the genus, these two species do not have transparent wings. And as Elliott mentioned above, the two have a similar call. James explains, 

I've been hearing the song of "opacipennis" in that part of the state, and when I was out with Jeff and Will, we also heard this song and were puzzled by it. It's fitting that this song turned out to be arctostaphylae -- the two manzanita species are closely related in habits, appearance, and genetically, so the shared song makes sense. That song type is quite distinct to all the other Okanagana.

James, who has currently observed the most species of anyone on iNat, visited the Bay Area last summer and was kind enough to talk with me on camera about the cicada find, as well as iNat in general. Here’s the cicada part of our discussion, I’ll post a longer video soon (hopefully!).


* This photo is taken from another observation made later on the same day, to give a clearer view of the bug. :-)

Posted by tiwane tiwane, August 12, 2020 21:07

Comments

Great story! Such beautiful cicadas adapted to maybe my favorite Western tree species.

Posted by tadamcochran about 2 years ago (Flag)

Amazing and beautiful!

Posted by susanhewitt about 2 years ago (Flag)

Great find and beautiful red colors on this cicada!!

Posted by t7iguy about 2 years ago (Flag)

Very cool story!

Posted by geographerdave about 2 years ago (Flag)

Awesome

Posted by mmulqueen about 2 years ago (Flag)

Excellent!

Posted by jasonrgrant about 2 years ago (Flag)

In the continual tidal wave of bad news, it's a story and discovery like this that provides me with so much happiness. Seriously, way cool.

Posted by sambiology about 2 years ago (Flag)

Fantastic find!

Posted by spinyurchin about 2 years ago (Flag)

Incredible! I was checking out this species' description a few weeks ago, hoping I could visit the locality on a later trip west to try to find some. Now I'm too late to the party :-)

Posted by calebcam about 2 years ago (Flag)

Great story and amazing find! Congrats to all involved :-)

Posted by joemdo about 2 years ago (Flag)

This is why I LOVE iNaturalist!!

Posted by bennypoo about 2 years ago (Flag)

Brilliant!

Posted by dustaway about 2 years ago (Flag)

Wow. Nicely done!

Posted by bug_eric about 2 years ago (Flag)

Wow, now I'm going to have to record every cicada I hear in case they are something rare!

Posted by arboretum_amy about 2 years ago (Flag)

Love it, thanks for the write-up.

Posted by alecc about 2 years ago (Flag)

So awesome to hear about discoveries.

Posted by chrisleearm about 2 years ago (Flag)

Great story....thanks for sharing!

Posted by birdgal5 about 2 years ago (Flag)

I just love this! So brilliant! Well done to everyone involved, especially @lcollingsparker for the initial observation.

Posted by lisa_bennett about 2 years ago (Flag)

Very cool! Thank you for sharing the story!

Posted by sunnetchan about 2 years ago (Flag)

It is really a lucky and great observation!

Posted by gaborz about 2 years ago (Flag)

Awesome!

Posted by star3 about 2 years ago (Flag)

What a cool story! It's great to see iNat's cicada community getting some well-deserved attention :)

Posted by weecorbie about 2 years ago (Flag)

Brilliant news

Posted by johncraig63 about 2 years ago (Flag)

Fantastic...what inaturalist and citizen science is all about.

Posted by mmarchiano about 2 years ago (Flag)

What an exciting find! Another great benefit of being on iNaturalist!

Posted by katharinab about 2 years ago (Flag)

What an exciting observation, and identification - well done. Such an exciting story!

Posted by susanmf about 2 years ago (Flag)

Wow! Congrats!

Posted by grodz about 2 years ago (Flag)

This find and story is a great! I enjoyed reading all about this discovery.

Posted by krechmer about 2 years ago (Flag)

@easmeds Is it possible to tell the species of a Cicadas from an exoskeleton?

Posted by kellyem about 2 years ago (Flag)

Great story !

Posted by patrickkopko about 2 years ago (Flag)

awesome

Posted by catenatus about 2 years ago (Flag)

@kellyem You can often tell the genus of cicada from the exoskeleton, at least the North American taxa. Species-level ID is generally not possible unless you have the emerged adults associated with it.

Posted by easmeds about 2 years ago (Flag)

One of my favourite creatures, so happy to read about this!

Posted by ninastavlund about 2 years ago (Flag)

So exciting! Hooray for scientists working with citizen scientists, and for the way iNat can bring us all together!

Posted by dbarber about 2 years ago (Flag)

exciting stuff, I have a similar feeling we have salamanders here that are yet undiscovered or subspecies that can be only found in our little watershed. I can feel it. My students and I plan to prove it one day.

Posted by rabungapmiddleschool about 2 years ago (Flag)

Very cool story!

Posted by markmcknight about 2 years ago (Flag)

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