FA C U LT Y W O R K S
B E T H A N Y B I O L O G Y P R O F E S S O R J O H N B U R N S T R AV E L E D T O T H E S O U T H PAC I F I C T O S T U D Y T H E R O L E C I C A D A S P L AY I N T H E E C O S Y S T E M O F A P O LY N E S I A N P A R A D I S E .
In the northern panhandle of West Virginia, they come along every 17 years. Marked by a deafening chirp that can overwhelm human conversation, cicadas emerge almost on cue in a remarkable rhythm of nature to stake their claim on our outdoor barbecues. Cicada carcasses litter the roads, lawns, patios, sidewalks, and driveways. For about ten days every 17 years, they seem to be everywhere. And we can’t wait to get rid of them.
here are about 4,000, species of cicadas around the world, a small percentage of which emerge on a periodic schedule. But unlike those that wiggle out of the ground on Bethany’s campus every 17 years, the species in Fiji pop out once every eight years. So Bethany biology professor John Burns flew to Fiji this summer to study the local cicada brood, Raiatanea knowlesi. Until 2009, most Fijians didn’t even know their cicadas existed. But biodiversity and environmental conservation are growing issues in Fiji. To help raise awareness of the special place the cicada plays in the island’s ecosystem, its image now adorns the Fijian $100 bill. These days, their arrival every eight years brings a wave of excitement to this island archipelago. They are, after all… delicious. A cicada feast on Fiji can only be described as a cross between “Fear Factor” and “Iron Chef.” Villagers young and old forage late into the night through the rainforest, using pieces of green bamboo to hold the fresh adult cicadas as they emerge from their last nymph stage, usually within 30 minutes after they crawl from holes in the ground. The green bamboo containers packed with crushed cicadas and spices are roasted in a bonfire. Then, a machete is used to split open the smoking bamboo and the hot roasted cicadas are ready to be eaten, paired with late vintage coconut milk, presumably to arouse the palette. “They have an oily or fatty taste,” says Burns. “Somewhat like shrimp with Grape Nuts roasted together with salt, peppers, and lemon for seasoning.” Burns recently hiked the mountainous rainforests of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. During the emergence of Brood V of the 17-year periodical cicadas in West Virginia last year, Burns was intrigued with references in the scientific literature to the rare eight-year periodical cicadas of Fiji. “It’s spring in the Southern Hemisphere and the eight-year periodical cicada lives in scattered patches on this remote island,” he said.
Yet despite how many species of cicadas exist around the world, only a few specimens of the Fijian variety can be found in the world’s greatest museums. Not even the Smithsonian has one. In fact, little is known of the natural history of these insects, and, according to Burns, it is important to learn more about their amazing timing abilities. “The 8-year periodical cicadas are not currently a protected species and baseline data is needed to determine whether they need this designation,” he says. Burns integrated his field work with that of Fijian scientists Ms. Nunia Moko, Melania Segaidina, and staff members at Nature Fiji-Mareqeti Viti, a local organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of Fiji’s natural biodiversity. He was joined by Robin Yarrow, a distinguished advocate for biodiversity protection and conservation in Fiji. This field research was supported by the Bethany College Faculty Development Fund and the Edward R. Dewey Research Fund. Faculty and student cicada research is also supported by the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium (NASA) administered by Bethany professor Lisa M. Reilly. — Bethany Magazine
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