Here you will find a gradually growing collection of articles with general information on cicadas, significant new research findings and a regular Cicada of the Month feature, all designed to promote public awareness of Australia's loudest and most acoustically complex insects.
Cicadas are still quite noticeable in coastal subtropical and tropical climates during March, generally with only a few stragglers still remaining in more temperate areas. Notably, few species are still emerging this late in the season. Those few can include the last remnants of mature populations of Silver Knight/ Black Prince, which can persist well into autumn, the bunyips, bottle cicadas and the unusual hairy cicadas. In fact, Hairy cicadas often reach their highest levels of abundance at this time of year, but they are inconspicuous nocturnal cicadas that are restricted to cool temperate areas on the mainland and in Tasmania. In addition, sporadic, local emergences of grass cicadas occur in northern, central and western inland areas after early autumn rainfall.
[Male Alpine Hairy Cicada: at the height of its emergence in March]
On a late afternoon walk in Brisbane this past week, I was delighted to find a freshly emerged male Large Bottle Cicada calling beside a busy roadway. While I often hear them calling at dusk, they are usually widely scattered and often at height, which makes them difficult to observe at close quarters. This little guy, however, was quite obliging so I took him home for some photos before releasing him into a suitable tree outside, not far from wear I originally found him.
[Male Large Bottle Cicada: dorsal view]
Large Bottle Cicada occurs principally in association with (mainly lowland) rainforest areas in southeastern Queensland and northeastern New South Wales. Much of their habitat has been cleared for development; however they will also occur in garden plants, including exotic species that provide a similar microhabitat structure to rainforest vegetation. The individual that I found most recently was sitting in a Mock Orange, which has historically been a popular garden plant in Brisbane.
[Male Large Bottle Cicada: anterior view]
During the day, males occasionally produce a short clicking call like someone tapping on a glass bottle. As the day wanes, these call become more frequent. Then, by the onset of dusk, males burst into a continuous, kettle-like whistle. This last for about half an hour and finishes a little after the Bladder Cicada males begin calling on nightfall.
[Male Large Bottle Cicada: lateral view]
The greatly inflated abdomen of bottle cicada and bladder cicada species is a trait restricted to the male. Females look similar to females of other more typical cicadas, although they are also typically bright green. The swollen abdomen of the male enables the amplification of a loud, relatively pure tone song, which penetrates effectively through leafy rainforest habitats.
[Male Large Bottle Cicada: dorsolateral view]
More information on Large Bottle Cicada, with links to similar species can be foundhere. You can listen to its dusk calling song here and its strange, ‘bottle tapping’, clicking call here.
By February in Australia, the peak of the cicada season has passed, but
it is still summer and the cicadas still tend to hang on, particularly in coastal and tropical areas. One of those cicadas is
Yellowbelly, which is the cicada of the month for February. Yellowbelly may be one of the smaller species
in the genus Psaltoda, but it
produces quite a loud and conspicuous calling song for its size. The call of an individual male sounds very
much like a small power generator, with a definitive purring quality. Males may call continuously or in short
bursts, with a characteristic ‘sigh’ at the end of each burst. When in large numbers, the call becomes a blur
of noise, loud enough for people to take notice at times. [A male Yellowbelly cicada, calling on a tree trunk]
Each year, the first adult Yellowbelly cicadas typically
appear in late October. They can be
present in big numbers anytime between late November and late February. Numbers usually drop dramatically during
March with occasional survivors extending through to April. The species is found from north Queensland
south along the coast and ranges to the south coast of New South Wales. They can be found in association with
eucalypts in open forest, in heathland and shrubland. Populations generally require in-tact areas
of bushland to persist, but they can also occur in adjacent parkland and sometimes
in gardens. It is a prominent species in
parts of Greater Brisbane and Greater Sydney, particularly in areas with soils
derived from sandstone and granite. [A female Yellowbelly cicada, showing its golden underside (hence the name)]
Like almost all larger cicadas, Yellowbelly adults tend to
occur in localised aggregations in bushland areas. Like other species in the genus Psaltoda,calling males flex their abdomen freely to alter the tone and
pitch of their song. The abdomen also
expands quite noticeably during song production. The species has been called ‘Yellowbelly’ due
to the rich, honey-like coloration of the underside. It can be distinguished from other similar
species in the genus by the colour of the postclypeus (‘nose’) being
predominantly black, in combination with clear wings.
Further information and a distribution map for this species can
be found here and you can listen to its unique and unusual calling song here.
The cicada season in most parts of Australia typically peaks
by the end of the year. Cicadas appear
to operate best physiologically with an ambient temperature between 20 and 30 degrees
Celsius (ideally between 24 and 27°C), with some variation depending on other
climatic features, such as cloud cover and wind chill factor. In cool temperate areas and especially in the subalpine
zone, the window of occurrence of adult cicadas is generally quite narrow. This is most likely due to the high exposure
to temperature extremes that are typically experienced in these areas. At the height of summer, it can be quite hot
with maximum temperatures sometimes exceeding 40°C. However, the weather can suddenly become much
colder, with minimums still often falling below 10°C. As such, this presents a challenging
environment for cicadas. The cicada species
that occur in these environments must have specific physical and behavioural adaptations
to cope with the sudden weather changes.
There are few cicadas that occur in subalpine areas. Some notable examples include the unusual
hairy cicadas, which are distantly related to the rest of the cicadas (in a
separate family), Redeye, some hardy representatives of the genus Yoyetta, Red Scratcher and members of
the genus Diemeniana. The cicada of the month for January belongs to
the last example, and is the most widespread species in this genus: Golden
[A newly emerged male adult Golden Twanger; photograph by Melita Milner]
Golden Twanger is a small–medium sized cicada that occurs prominently
along the coasts of northern and eastern Tasmania and on the mainland from near
Tenterfield in northern New South Wales south along the ranges and coastally
south from near Wollongong, through the Australian Capital Territory into far
eastern and southern central Victoria.
It has also been found in far south-eastern South Australia. Like many cicadas, the adults are much paler immediately
after emergence and in this case exhibit attractive red colouration (pictured above). After the wings have fully developed, they attain
their true colouration (pictured below), which is mainly black above and light brown below, with
reddish-brown to olive-brown markings on the head and thorax and conspicuous
golden hairs in clusters over the abdomen.
The wings display a distinctly red costal vein and small, dark, “quotation
[A fully-coloured adult male Golden Twanger, dorsal view above, ventral view below]
The name, “Golden Twanger”, has been given to this species
because the adults exhibit a golden sheen in sunlight, which is particularly
conspicuous in the males as they move their abdomen up and down during song
production. The regular movement of the
abdomen produces the repeated “twang”-like call that is distinctive for this
species. Bryan Haywood, who discovered
the occurrence of this species in South Australia, suggested “Velvetback” as an
alternative common name for this species.
This name refers to the conspicuous covering of hairs over the thorax of
this species. Many species that occur in
cool temperate environments are similarly hairy (or tomentose), which likely
forms part of their adaptations to cold weather.
Each season, the first Golden Twanger adults appear in
mainland Australia during October (later in Tasmania). Numbers typically peak in mid-summer and in
some years individuals may persist until late February. Populations can be found in temperate and
subalpine open grassland, swampy sedgeland, low closed and open heathland and
generally in areas with low vegetation and scattered tree cover, often broadly in
the vicinity of water. You can watch a video of a calling male Golden Twanger above. Further
information and a distribution map for this species can be found here and you
can listen to its unique and unusual calling song here.
the month when most of the really loud cicadas start to make their presence
known in eastern and northern Australia. Not surprisingly, these are also some
of the largest species. As Greengrocer populations reach the climax of their
emergence and start to fade, species like Eastern Double Drummer, Cherrynose, Redeye,
Red Roarer and Darwin Whiner are building in numbers. Another species, worthy
of mention as the December feature for ‘Cicada of the month’, is Razor Grinder.
Have you ever been in a forested area of eastern Australia where the sound of cicadas
is so loud that you can't hear yourself think? A place from which
the birds have just fled from the cacophony and the trees are festooned with big,
lumbering insects? If so, you may well have been witness to a Razor Grinder
emergence. With the call of one individual male at close quarters approaching 120db
(as loud as a jet engine), the chorus of these cicadas certainly goes beyond
the pain threshold of human hearing and at the same time is quite a spectacle
[Male Razor Grinder (Henicopsaltria eydouxii)]
emerges between mid-November and January and populations persist until
February–March, with stragglers occasionally remaining until April–May. It
occurs from Narooma on the south coast of New South Wales north to Gladstone
and also near Mackay in central Queensland. It can be an exceptionally common
species from the Greater Brisbane region south to the mid-north coast of New
South Wales. Populations can be found in most intact forest types, from
rainforest through to dry open eucalypt forest. In some years (like in the
2013–2014 summer, for example), emergences are widespread and adult
aggregations become a conspicuous feature in areas of suitable habitat, whereas,
in other years, they may be quite uncommon or localised. The duration of the
life cycle and the precise cues that lead to emergence remain unknown. When
conditions are suitably warm, male Razor Grinder cicadas begin calling around
sunrise. Males (and presumably females) are attracted to the call of conspecifics
(their own species) and form localised aggregations. Initially, they call in
waves through the forest, with one group commencing calling, followed by
another nearby group, and another and so on. When populations are large and microclimate
conditions are suitable, males will often call continuously for an extended
period. They call prominently in the morning and again in the late afternoon
and dusk, as well as during other parts of the day when conditions are partly
[Aggregation of adult Razor Grinder cicadas on a eucalypt]
actually a different population of Razor Grinder in eastern Australia known as
Laughing Razor Grinder. It occurs in association with rainforest and wet
sclerophyll forest between Main Range in Queensland and the Greater Sydney
region in central New South Wales. It has a rather abrupt call with strongly-defined
pulses. This lies in contrast with the gradual reverberating crescendo and
decrescendo of the typical Razor Grinder call. Sometimes both Razor Grinder and
Laughing Razor Grinder can be found at the same location. You can listen to the
calls of Razor Grinder and Laughing Razor Grinder by following the embedded links.
Some excellent preliminary research on the calling behaviour of Razor Grinder cicadas has been
conducted by James Herbert-Read and colleagues in New South Wales. You can read
about this research here, here and here. Their research is ongoing and will be
reliant on finding suitably large populations of Razor Grinder this summer. If
you encounter this species on your travels, please contact me by leaving a
comment on this post, via the contact form or via Twitter so that I can pass on
the sightings to the research team. Every observation helps.
Where is that ‘tack, tack, tack’ sound
of male cicadas make their sound while in a stationary position, but have you
ever noticed one flying around while calling? If so, you are probably hearing
an ambertail or tree-ticker. Or, if you are in southern Western Australia, you
may well be hearing the legendary Duke, a species that can be notoriously
difficult to observe. Apart from these particular cicadas, not many insects
make sounds on the wing. Whistling Moth (Hecatesia
fenestrata) is one other example. These moths fly in high circles, making a
strange, high-pitched, rattling or grinding sound.
[The male Black Tree-ticker starts calling while stationary, then launches into flight, calling vigorously and scouting for females]
feature for ‘Cicada of the Month’ is Southern Ticking Ambertail. So far, this
species has been found in inland southern New South Wales, the Australian Capital
Territory and around Adelaide in South Australia. Populations occur in open
forest and woodland in association with eucalypts. In this species, the males
fly actively, making a sharp ticking sound, similar to an electrical pulse
passing through an electrified fence (which may be audible when earthed). They
call once the temperature warms to above 20°C in the morning, again at intervals throughout the day provided that the temperature does
not become too hot (i.e. >30°C), and again from late afternoon. The males are also often active in the
summer twilight when the weather is balmy and are often attracted to artificial
[Southern Ticking Ambertail cicada (male) ]
You may be
wondering why males of these cicadas fly around so actively when calling, while
others sit still? Cicada calling songs are produced for the sole purpose of
mate attraction. With almost no exceptions, the males produce the call. Each
species essentially has unique call signature, which allows females to
recognise the call of their species amongst background sounds, including the
calls of other cicada species. In larger cicadas, the males often occur in big
aggregations and the females fly in once they recognise the call of their
species. By contrast, in the majority of smaller cicadas (including the ones
that fly like Southern Ticking Ambertail), the males are more actively involved
in mate localisation then the females. To facilitate this, the males have brief
pauses encoded into calling songs. This allows them to listen for the
precisely-timed response (a soft wing-click) of a nearby female. Males of many
small cicada species tend to move singing stations fairly frequently in order to
position themselves in an area where they might have a reasonable chance of
elucidating and detecting a response from a female. This brings us back to the
original question, which was: why do some species fly around when calling? In
effect, this is just a behaviourally extreme version of moving between singing
stations frequently, whereby the males instead move constantly while listening
for a female response. This has the advantage of allowing males to cover much
more territory when looking for females. At the same time, it uses a lot more
energy than being stationary, so males tend to fly and sing in short bursts,
particularly in hot or unusually cool weather. Once a female is detected, a
calling male will stop scouting, swoop in and move quickly to locate the female,
before mating takes place. [Wave plot of the calling song of Southern Ticking Ambertail showing the characteristic sharp ticking pattern. Listen to a sample from this species here]
of Southern Ticking Ambertail between the eastern half of southern New South
Wales and Adelaide is not well understood. Julianne Vincent of Adelaide has
kindly shared some photographs of this species from Adelaide here and here. If
you encounter this species or any other fascinating small cicada in your area,
please take a recording on your smartphone and contact me by leaving a comment
on this post, via the contact form or via Twitter. Specimen samples and
photographs will also be very welcome. Keep listening and tell me about your
encounters with the sounds of summer!
In some years, between October and December, the temperate
grasslands spring to life with the sound of Smoky Buzzer cicadas. These are small insects, just over 15 mm
long, black above, with a pale straw colour on the underside of the abdomen and
with conspicuously smoky fore wings.
Populations occur in local aggregations in both native and mixed native/
exotic open grasslands. This species
currently known from around Warwick in Queensland, the New England and Southern
Tablelands regions of New South Wales, the Canberra area in the Australian
Capital Territory, the Craigieburn Grasslands north of Melbourne in Victoria
and also historically from around Adelaide in South Australia.
A closely similar species, Lesser Smoky Buzzer, occurs in
drier grassland habitats in the Central West, Southern Tablelands, South-West
Slopes and Riverina districts of New South Wales, the north-western third of
Victoria and south-eastern South Australia.
It sometimes occurs together with Smoky Buzzer in New South Wales, where
the two species can be very hard to differentiate due to their near identical
appearance. However, they do differ markedly
in the structure of their calling songs.
Smoky Buzzer makes a low metallic growl that modulates into a modest
roar in each phrase, whilst Lesser Smoky Buzzer makes an alien, metallic,
wavering buzz in each phrase.
The distributions of Smoky Buzzer and Lesser Smoky Buzzer
have been pieced together based on a scattering of records that been obtained
so far. If you encounter either of these
species or any other interesting cicadas in your area or on your travels,
please send in your record by leaving a comment on this post, via the contact form or via Twitter. Remember to take a note of the song, or a
recording is even better. Photographs
and/or specimen samples will also be very welcome. All observation records are invaluable to
improving our understanding of the geographical occurrence of these species and
their seasonality. Please keep your eyes
and especially your ears open!
Lindsay Popple is a dedicated cicada researcher who has been studying cicadas for more than 16 years. He maintains a fully databased collection of Australian cicadas and created 'A Web Guide to the Cicadas of Australia', a resource that provides the most up-to-date information on Australian cicadas for the broader public.