Bracing for the Swarm of “Charismatic” Cicada Bugs

In the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., there are two basic types of cicadas. One type appears every year, but in small numbers. One bug up in a tree can fill a whole block with its buzzing sound. But every seventeen years, the periodic cicadas, also (incorrectly) called “17-year locusts”, emerge and drown out every sound but their own. They can make a residential neighborhood sound like an airport. The seventeen year swarm is due to emerge any day now.

Image: https://extension.umd.edu/resource/cicadas

This mass hiding (for seventeen years), then mass emergence, seems to be part of an evolutionary strategy to first starve out, then overwhelm potential predators. This University of Maryland article has much interesting information on these little critters. They are essentially harmless, despite their ghoulish appearance. (A grown man recently confided in me that he has a deep phobia of cicadas, and is dreading this year’s hatch).

One sentence in particular in the article caught my attention:  “Cicadas are large charismatic insects in the order Hemiptera.”      “Charismatic?”, I wondered. A huge, gross bug is “charismatic”? Maybe…that is a formal but obscure entomological label for insects with certain characteristics like big red eyes or front legs longer than middle legs?

But no, it turns out that “charismatic” is a label that conservationists give to certain stand-out species that the public can easily identify. (Identify, but not hate – – mosquitoes, for instance, are easily identified but apparently have no charisma). Showcasing “charismatic” large mammal species like pandas, polar bears, and whales generates public support and funding for conservation efforts.

Apparently, folks have been using the term “charismatic species” rather loosely. Fortunately, I found a Very Serious article published by the Département de Biologie of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon to straighten us all out. There is much discussion in this monograph to disentangle the proper usage of “charismatic” species versus the very similar “flagship” species, again in the general context of garnering support for conservation campaigns. There is a handy chart showing how the usage of “charisma” for conservation species mushroomed in the late 2000s:

Evolution of the occurrence of the term “charisma”(and its derived) between 1993 and 2011 in conservation articles referenced in Web Of Knowledge database on 28/02/12. From Ducarme, et al.

This article further discussed the dire prospect that classifying animals as charisma haves or have-nots is to create:

…a sort of class struggle between “wealthy”, successful animals and poor, doomed cast-off animals: it is just like if humans could decide on the right to exist or not for the animals they like or dislike, irrespective of ecological concerns and sustainability. This dichotomy can be extended to whole landscapes, those with great biodiversity but without potential rare charismatic species being deserted by public charity and left to their fate. Studies show that this trend of idealization and virtualization of wildlife seems already active, as studies carried out among European children showed that they knew more about African animals than European ones – even if they also knew even more different Pokemons than true animals.

In the end, I got exhausted contemplating whether cicadas are “charismatic” or not. They are really ugly and really loud, and I would miss them if they weren’t there.

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