Molting Cicada Nymph

Beauty in Your Backyard

Most of us have heard the drumming of adult male cicadas through the day and night as they call out to their female counterpart. Before the nymph can join the social ranks of the hundreds of adults populating the trees and seek another for mating it must molt and emerge from its brown husk to begin the next stage of its life as a fully developed cicada. 

Cicada 1Credit: Sharon Rico Young

After digging its way out from its long stay underground as a grub, the nymph climbs onto a tree or nearby structure and begins the molting process by breaking through a seam along the back of its exoskeleton. We often miss this process as it takes only about 20 to 25 minutes to complete. I captured these images snapping a picture every several seconds. 

During molting the transforming insect is vulnerable to predators and can easily be eaten before it even makes it out. A young opossum perched on the fence kept an eye on me while I watched the cicada. It was a quiet night except for the rhythmic drumming in the trees and the smacking sound of me swatting the biting mosquitos. My love of science and curiosity of nature kept me determined to not miss the event of this beautifully detailed bright green creature coming forth. 

Its movements were so slow that I couldn't see a difference while watching and would look away for a moment and then return to see noticeable progress. 

Cicada 2Credit: Sharon Rico Young

Its alien-like details, colors and textures were changing by the minute. I wondered if it could see me with its big glossy black eyes and whether I was causing it stress being so close. As I watched, I felt as if he was putting on this magnificent show just for me! The delicate brown shell looked too small to have housed the plump cicada that worked its way out. Much like a seed husk breaking open and coming up through soil to release a new soft green sprout the cicada's soft folded leaf-like wings begin to open.

Cicada 3Credit: Sharon Rico Young

As the parting of the two becomes more pronounced, it looks as if they are each individual creatures. The cicada standing tall in the saddle of its former host shell. The two fine white threads are breathing tubes–the remnants of tracheae. During the separation between the cicada and its shell, the shed tracheae strands left behind are replaced by new tracheae within the cicada.

Cicada 5Credit: Sharon Rico Young Cicada 8Credit: Sharon Rico YoungCicada 7Credit: Sharon Rico Young

The cicada is almost free as it hangs gingerly by the end of its abdomen still tucked inside the shell. The wings have unfurled as fluids move through them and air begins to dry them. In a quick flick the cicada drops and lands holding tight to finish the airing and expansion of its wings. 

The cicada begins changing color within minutes of abandoning its cast skin. Trading its bright green palette for browns and blacks. Soon the cicada is fully formed with long transparent wings that drape much of its stout body. 

Cicada fully developedCredit: Sharon Rico Young

The adult cicada is now ready to join the masses of drumming males in search of love! My little friend will be lost in the trees blending his song with hundreds of others. But I was lucky enough to have witnessed his coming of age and I'm pretty sure I kept the opossum from eating him!