Researchers at North Carolina State University have launched a search for crooked cicadas. And by crooked they mean with one wing slightly shorter, or with a wing containing an odd number of veins, or a little leg segment that's not quite right length.
Scientists name these quirks as "fluctuating asymmetry." Researchers believe that the lack of symmetry or "crookedness," for simplicity, might be a symptom of environmental stress.
"But there's this other notion about how the lack of symmetry may be an indication of environmental stress, that environmental stress may somehow in subtle ways affect the process of development, particularly of insects," said Holly Menninger, director of public science for the university's citizen-science Your Wild Life Program.
"We don't know exactly what the mechanism is that causes those differences of symmetry. We just know that that's how the body plan responds to stress."
If the cicadas coming up on the East Coast from Brood II show some of these peculiarities, that may tell researchers something about the role of urbanization in cicada habitats.
"We don't really know enough about what those stressors are," Menninger says. "This measure of asymmetry is the first step to determining that something might be going wrong."
As part of the project, the researchers are gathering dead cicadas and ask for anyone interested in help to send samples wherever they may find them.
The scientists are looking to compare the exact locations of the found cicadas with local measures of urbanization such as land cover data from satellites. In the end, they'd like to learn if this degree of "crookedness" correlates with the degree of urbanization.
Now, if you happen to have dead cicadas in your backyard, Menninger asks, to mail it in a take-out container lined with tissue paper.
"We've been very specific that we want dead ones," she said, "because we want to give these creatures an opportunity to fulfill their reproductive potential. It would be pretty mean if they came up from the ground and we immediately popped them in the freezer and didn't give them a chance to mate."
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