Ah, the World Wide Web. Where would I be without its myriad useful tools?! Sites like BugGuide, flickr, Wikipedia, and twitter … it’s amazing that people could get things done prior to its existence! (Just as it’s amazing that I ever get anything done now because of its existence.)
I saw an opportunity to test the power of the Web today, when a video snippet from the The Daily Show came into my Twitter feed. At 2:00 Jon Stewart references an entomological factoid/stereotype in a joke about the state of gun control in the U.S. I’m a sucker for entomological references outside the world of science, especially ones that are wrong. So how did this one score?
First, the context: The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is apparently prohibited from investigating gun dealers for inventory discrepancies more than once a year, and the reality is that they only investigate dealers every 17 years. Jon Stewart then joked that he assumed this situation was the result of the ATF not having enough agents/inspectors rather than their agents being cicadas. As Jon Stewart said next: “let that insect joke just wash over you…”
Of course some periodical cicada species are famous for their synchronized 17-year life cycle—Magicicada septendecim (Linnaeus, 1758), M. septencassini (Fisher, 1851), and M. septendecula (Alexander & Moore, 1962)—but there are about 2,500 species of Cicadidae. A small minority of species take 17 years to develop. What about the species represented in the accompanying image? Doesn’t look like Magicicada to me, not that I’m an Auchenorrhyncha specialist, but at least it’s really a cicada!
Next steps: identify that species and find the science needed to bust this joke apart. It took me about 7 minutes to determine the species, and I literally know next to nothing about cicada taxonomy. A cropped screenshot, run through Google’s image search came up empty, even after I supplemented the image file with key words, like ‘cicada’ and ‘cicada tropical red yellow’. I thought for sure they must’ve grabbed that image from Wikipedia and therefore would have some useful figure legend. Nope. My quick browse revealed nothing. What about flickr? Surely a lazy image search (or less lazy CC BY 3.0 search) would reveal the image and its associated data … nope. Ok, what about just regular Google searches for ‘cicada black yellow tropical’ etc. This must be a common cicada species if people at the Daily Show found an image! No luck. Back to Wikipedia to browse up and down the classification. (several pages’ worth of browsing) Hmm … Tosena looks close. Search flickr for Tosena and find this image. Not quite there but it seems like right ball park. The image caption mentions Borneo. Back to Google image search: ‘cicada malaysia‘. Ah ha! This cicada looks right:
Tacua speciosa (Illiger 1800). Does it have a 17-year life cycle? Wikipedia doesn’t help. Google Scholar? Seems like almost nothing is known of this species, or at least very little has been published. The Encyclopedia of Life’s Tacua speciosa page doesn’t offer too much information either. This was perhaps the most useful page I could find about the species—
—which still leaves me hanging with respect to understanding this species’ natural history.
In summary, this exercise drove home two important points: 1) the Web is an increasingly useful tool. I was shocked at how little time it took me to determine this species (not sure I’m right, though!) and how many resources, both amateur and professional, I had at my disposal to get the answer. Again, I literally know next to nothing about cicada taxonomy. So, who needs keys?! (note to self: turn off comments for this post). 2) We know so little about the life histories of even the most conspicuous insects. This species is HUGE, colorful, charismatic, and frequently photographed (but not collected? Only 4 specimens listed in the Cicada Database) , yet we apparently know very little about its biology.
Not sure the Daily Show picked the best image to accompany their joke, but it’s certainly a beautiful insect (and it’s a cicada, so no taxonomic #fail). In the meantime let these beautiful images of Tacua speciosa wash over you.