Emergence and rebirth: the life of a cicada


Cast skin (exuviae) of a cicada, possibly Pomponia linearis. Doi Inthanon, Thailand

This striking object is the cast skin of a cicada nymph. It sits on a fern, discarded. A testament to a life spent underground; large fossorial fore-legs, adapted to digging the subterranean burrows in which it has lived for so many years, toiling away at the soil, excavating and supping – sucking hard – on weak sap in its underground chambers. On a diet of watery xylem, the cicada nymph has grown slowly, but after many long years – how long we don’t know for some species – comes a time for change. Not a complete metamorphosis – these are hemimetabolous insects – but a dramatic, earth shattering change, nonetheless. The first step is to that of the nymphoid stage; a short-lived (c. one month) period in which it prepares to become an adult. Eventually this nymphoid larva crawls up and out of the ground, into the light, its unblinking eyes searching for a stem or tree trunk to crawl up on. Then, after a few hours in this new world, the adult starts to emerge. Here is another one (below) I found in a park in Kyoto, Japan.

Cast skin (exuviae) of final instar cicada Japan
Cast skin (exuviae) from a Japanese cicada

A famous American entomologist, Robert Evans Snodgrass (1875 – 1962), produced a remarkable series of drawings illustrating the transformation of the periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) from mature nymph to adult (below). Fortunately, the illustration is in the public domain, and the book it originates from – Insects, their way and means of living – can also be accessed via the  Internet Archive.

Adult cicada emerging from last instar (from Insects, their way and means of living, R. E. Snodgrass). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=696291 
Pomponia linearis (Cicadidae) Doi Inthanon, Thailand

Slowly, over the course of a few hours, the imaginal (adult) stage emerges, breaking out of the nymphoid larva, a second birth through the thorax. A natural, cicadian caesarian – a term coined by Michel Boulard (1) – through a dorsal opening called the ecdysial cleavage line. Slowly, the adult pushes itself out – an imaginal hatching – through the hole in the thorax, leaving behind a dried husk (the exuviae).

Pomponia linearis (Cicadidae) Doi Inthanon, Thailand

Soft and vulnerable, the adult cicada remains clinging on to the residue of its former self for many more hours as it slowly hardens. This final process of stiffening is delightfully called: imagination. This process of emergence and final development has been captured in beautiful detail here (downloads), for a species called Chremistica umbrosa, in Singapore (2).

Evening Cicada (Tanna japonensis) Kyoto, Japan

Japan seems to be good place for cicadas, with many heard ‘singing’ in city parks during the summer. There are about 30 species there and they seem to have a special place in the hearts of the Japanese, appearing in literature and paintings, each with their own name. For example, the Evening cicada (above) is called Higurashi-zemi. The large brown cicada (below) is called Abura-zemi, because its song supposedly resembles the sound of frying oil! You can listen to the sound here!

Large brown cicada (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) Japan 2
Large brown cicada (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata) Japan


  1. Boulard, M. (2007). The cicadas of Thailand: general and particular characteristics. White Lotus.
  2. Tzi Ming Leong, Aminurashid and Benjamin P. Y-H. Lee (2011). Records of the cicada, Chremistica umbrosa (distant, 1904) in Singapore, with accounts of its mass emergence (Homoptera: Cicadidae: Cicadinae). Nature in Singapore 4: 163–175.


  1. Super piece Ray, i love the fact ‘that the final process of stiffening is delightfully called: imagination’. Our capacity to recreate the world in our heads is like the soft skin of a new-formed insect hardening into the reality of its adult life. Our highest achievement does no more than recapitulate the life of a lowly bug. Elemental stuff. Thank you

  2. Many thanks Mark. The words came fairly easily once I had some of these lovely technical terms for the story to accrete around. I am slowly writing a book on butterfly behaviour – ‘translating’ the academic literature – the subject is rich in evocative terms!

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