For Copperheads 17-Year Periodical Cicadas Are Fast-Food Buffet ACROSS AMERICA — Humans aren’t the only species who think the 17-year periodical cicadas that will be emerging in parts of 15 U.S. states this spring are culinary delicacies. Copperheads like to feast on them, too — not because they’re delicacies, but because they’re like fast food: cheap and easy.
You read that correctly: copperheads, the venomous snakes found in many of the same states where billions of 17-year cicadas will emerge later this spring. So if you plan an outing to listen to the cacophony set up by these creatures, be careful no copperheads are slithering nearby.
Billions of the 17-year periodical cicadas — Brood X, or the Great Eastern Brood this year — are due to emerge in 15 U.S. states in May, give or take a few weeks.
The synchronized emergence of periodical cicadas, which have the longest life cycle of any known insect, still baffles scientists. But one evolutionary hypothesis is that the forced developmental delay was an adaptation to climate cooling during the ice ages.
There are two species of periodical cicadas — the 17-year cicadas, found in Northern states, and the 13-year cicadas, found in the South.
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Shy and reclusive copperheads come out of their figurative shells when the cicadas literally emerge from theirs. The snakes exploit the insect emergence as a smorgasbord requiring no more effort than simply showing up.
Cicadas are a “pretty easy snack” for the normally solitary copperheads, Stephen Richter, an Eastern Kentucky University biology professor, told Tulsa World in 2019.
He and his students were working with the U.S. Forest Service in National Boone National Forest at the time, looking at what the federal agency saw as a potential conflict and threat to campers: the convergence of copperheads and emerging cicadas.
Amateur photographer Charlton McDaniel of Fort Smith, Arkansas, snapped a picture of a copperhead devouring a cicada.
“It jumped pretty good at first,” he told Tulsa World, explaining he tried to shoo the snake away with a stick, but it was persistent, and took the long way around to get the prize.
“I had no idea about the copperheads-and-cicadas thing until this happened,” he said.
Copperheads are plentiful in Texas, and so are cicadas — the annual cicadas and the periodical cicadas. With their retractable hypodermic fangs, these pit vipers are more than capable of delivering a debilitating, venomous strike to most prey.
“Why would such a well-armed predator bother to dine on cicadas?” writer Andy Gluesenkamp asked in a 2016 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. “For the same reason we eat fast food: It’s cheap and easy. Cicadas can occur in high densities, and they offer no defense of their fat-and-protein-filled bodies other than a crunchy exoskeleton.”
Copperheads, sometimes called penny snakes, know just when to strike. They ambush the newly emerged cicadas before their exoskeletons have had time to harden, Gluesenkamp explained.
Copperheads aren’t particularly aggressive, though they’ll strike defensively. Experts say most copperhead bites occur as a result of accidental encounters.
Copperhead bites are rarely deadly. Their venom isn’t the most potent of venomous snakes, and is hemolytic, which means it breaks down blood cells, according to a National Geographic species profile.
Just be careful when you’re listening to the song of the cicadas.
When they emerge, the males all tune up in a species-wide mating call that can reach up to 100 decibels. Think of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with straight pipes constantly running outside your window.
The male cicadas are the ones that make all the noise.
They do it by vibrating their tymbals.
What are tymbals? As described on the Chicago Botanic Garden website, tymbals “are two rigid, drum-like membranes on the undersides of their abdomens.”
Newly adult cicadas are in a rush to mate because they don’t live very long after that — three, maybe four, weeks. The females don’t have tymbals and can’t produce the same sounds. They wait quietly to do their job in perpetuating the species, which is to lay as many eggs as possible, up to 600 over their short lifetime.
After mating, the females split the bark on living tree trunks, branches and twigs, burrow in and lay between 24 and 48 eggs at a time. Rinse and repeat.
Of course, scientifically, it’s significantly more complicated than that.