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With smartphones, anyone can help track Brood X — and maybe unlock cicada mysteries

Introducing a 2021 Brood X cicada that molted in Oakton, VA (Kevin Ambrose)
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For amateur cicada mapper Kathleen Quinn-Farber, the summer of 2013 now feels “prehistoric.”

Toting a spiral-bound notebook through hot Pennsylvania fields, Quinn-Farber — along with fellow surveyors, her then 11-year-old son and 6-year-old granddaughter — scribbled down where they spotted cicadas only to go home to manually enter on a desktop computer each hot spot on a map to contribute to scientists’ efforts to chart that year’s brood.

In preparation for Brood X, an emergence of three cicada species this summer that have burrowed underground for 17 years, many admirers are reveling in a way they had not before: on their smartphones. Emerging with the mass of cicadas, the virtual fandom has swarmed, including new Facebook groups, merchandise websites, community art projects, crowdfunded books and more.

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Quinn-Farber and tens of thousands of others have signed up to take part in an unprecedented crowdsourcing effort in the coming weeks to track the largest emergence of cicadas in the country. Using Cicada Safari, an app developed by researchers at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, their contributions will potentially offer the most comprehensive look at the cicada tsunami — and help scientists better understand how urban development may contribute to cicadas’ decline and why the insects emerge in 13- and 17-year intervals, a strange mating schedule that still puzzles entomologists.

Quinn-Farber, whose day job is a pediatric nurse, and other Cicada Safari app users of any expertise level can participate in research and build a community as they share photos and videos, dotting the map with green pins to mark sightings.

The 57-year-old grandmother, her son, Nicholas Farber, and her granddaughter, Sarah Hartranft, have a road trip planned for May from Pennsylvania to Maryland, part of the epicenter of the dramatic occurrence, and will stop to map cicadas along the way.

“I feel part of a bigger thing,” Quinn-Farber said, “that is really going to help with the research to understand their life cycle and also the preservation of them.”

While the swarm of Brood X cicadas is predicted for early to mid-May, according to The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, the findings from the app have already been “a treasure trove,” said Mike Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, one of the institutions where scientists are using the data collected from the app.

Information about where cicadas are sighted in or near cities will help Raupp, who is studying how heat emitted from cities could doom cicadas that surface too soon.

“This is incredibly useful for scientists, as well as a lot of fun for getting the general public out to witness one of the most spectacular natural events on planet Earth,” Raupp said. “It’s cool in all regards.”

Cicada Safari’s creator and one of the country’s most recognized cicada experts, Gene Kritsky, said he hopes the “boots on the ground” helping track cicadas could offer scientists “a really good baseline map” to help assess the anthropogenic impacts on cicadas.

“That will tell us how endangered is Brood X,” Kritsky said. “If it doesn’t tell us that, it will give us a really solid baseline so in 2038 when I do this again — I’ll only be 84 — maybe we’ll get more information on that.”

This is not the first time scientists have asked for the public’s help tracking cicadas.

Nineteenth-century entomologist Gideon B. Smith penned newspaper articles asking readers to write to him if they saw cicadas, in an effort to document every known brood by the time he died in 1867.

Kritsky, who has mapped cicadas since 1976, first asked Midwest locals to share sightings in 1987, a request that was so popular it jammed his answering machine within a day. In 2004, he created an email address for submissions, leading to an email a minute the day after he publicized it.

Two years ago, Kritsky and a group of computer scientists from his university launched the first version of the app, which now offers more-advanced features such as the ability to upload videos. A team of students trained to verify sightings of periodical cicadas vs. annual cicadas and other insects ensures map entries are accurate.

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Although the natural phenomenon of periodical cicadas has fascinated many even before Smith’s newspaper articles, bug buffs can now swap stories and communicate with each other with greater ease than ever before. Facebook groups celebrating Brood X have surfaced faster than cicadas have tunneled out of the ground, including one page titled “A Group Where We Pretend To Be Cicadas” devoted to people mimicking the sound male cicadas make to attract a mate.

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” one member posted.

“I’ve found my peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeople,” wrote another.

Groups that discuss research related to cicadas have offered enthusiasts such as Utah resident Roger McMullan a chance to connect with experts and learn more about cicadas before the emergence begins.

The 35-year-old crowdfunded a Brood X-themed activity book for young aspiring entomologists, a feat that wouldn’t have been possible in 2004.

“It was once like a weird niche thing,” he said. “But now all these people can bond together over this weird thing that they really love because of technology and the Internet.”

Along with spending time with family, mapping expeditions has other virtues, according to those who have helped universities map cicadas since before the app’s creation.

Since 2007, Greg Holmes, 59, has charted cicadas mainly in Kansas, driving with a handheld GPS and marveling at the insects but also the sights along the way, from small towns with quaint architecture to roadside billboards advertising products that no longer exist. Along with the excitement of sightseeing, Holmes, a photographer, said he appreciates gaining a deeper understanding of cicadas. He can now discern variations in cicadas’ songs from region to region.

“The more specifics you know about something, the more fascinating the world becomes,” he said.

Like many who are either experienced in mapping or are taking a newfound interest in cicadas, Holmes said he is eager about the prospect of unearthing more about the mysterious cicadas burrowing from the earth.

“There’s a chance to make a difference,” he said. “There’s a chance to actually contribute something because it’s not all that explored of a thing, cicadas.”

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