"And they've done it multiple times," says Simon, sounding like a proud parent of some championship Little League squad. A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UConn, Simon is understandably fascinated by these cicada critters.
In a paper recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the cicada researchers argue this bug represents "one of the most spectacular life history and population phenomena in nature."
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding these colorful (black bodies, red eyes, orange wing veins) little varmints is why they ever evolved this whole 13-year/17-year mating and egg-laying shtick.
For a long time, the best available theory was that it was designed to screw up predators. No insect eater, scientists suggested, was going to wait for such long periods for a super cicada feast, thus giving these periodic cicadas a better chance at making little cicadas.
"That was the conventional wisdom for a long time," Singer says. "But for people who study it, they weren't entirely satisfied with that explanation."
The DNA study that Simon was involved with came up with a different possible explanation.
"We think it's related to climate," she says. "If a growing season isn't long enough, they can't complete their development in 13 years." Needing some more time, the brood simply switches to the longer cycle.
These changes in the 13-year and 17-year cycles have happened at least four times in the last 10,000 years, according to Simon.
The conclusion of that published study was that these switches were "closely associated with global climatic fluctuations and shorter growing seasons in the north versus the south."
The problem for these guys is that, for a brood to make the switch successfully, a whole bunch have to do it at the same time — they apparently really like big-group sex parties. "The ones that switch don't always survive," Simon explains.
Exactly how the cicadas regulate these life-cycle switcheroos is still a puzzle needing additional study, the researchers pointed out.
There is one other phenomenon associated with these periodic explosions of cicadas: a minor media frenzy.
The other day, a television crew took one of Simon's colleagues out to a park, presumably to talk about the cicadas that hadn't yet emerged, in a place where they may or may not ever show up.
"I don't know what they thought they were going to see," shrugged Simon. "It'll be a while before [the Brood II cicadas] come out."