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Cicadas star in award-winning movie

[ Click here to download the web version of the movie ]

"Look at the weird goo sloshing around their eye things!" exclaimed a young viewer of a short film about the massive U.S. cicada invasion of summer 2004.

This movie has just won first prize in the Non-Interactive Media category of the 2005 Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge.

The film, "Return of the 17-Year Cicadas," captures the life cycle of the "Brood X" cicadas that emerged simultaneously in several parts of the United States in the summer of 2004. Some of the most intense invasions occurred in southern Indiana and southern Ohio, areas around Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.

The backyard of one of the film's creators, plant biologist Roger Hangarter from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, serves as the setting for most of the movie. It begins on a dark, warm Indiana night with cicadas clawing their way out of the dirt that has been their home for the last 17 years. The insects climb up the bark of trees and shrubs and dig their tiny legs into the bark.

Here, on the trunks of trees and shrubs, the brown cicada armor splits and mostly white, "gooey" looking creatures break through the back of their shells. As the cicadas free themselves from their armor, they arch themselves into backbends that draw their restless legs up toward the night sky.

Once free from their armor, fluid from within the cicadas inflates their wings, according to Samuel Orr who helped make the movie. Orr is working on a longer documentary that will air early in 2006 on WFYI, a PBS station in Indianapolis, Indiana.

The loud and mesmerizing buzz of the mature cicadas takes over the film's soundtrack as the cicadas themselves take over the filmmaker's backyard. Summer wears on, and the cicada life cycle continues. The cicadas mate, the females lay eggs, the adults die. Weeks after being deposited deep within slender twigs, a new generation of cicadas hatches from their eggs, drops to the ground and burrows into the earth. They will suck nectar from tree roots for the next 17 years.

The filmmakers used time-lapse photography and real-time digital video to record the entire life cycle of the cicadas throughout the summer. Thanks to the time-lapse technique, the cicadas appear to emerge from their shells, inflate their wings and change color in a few seconds. This process normally takes three or four hours, explained Roger Hangarter who films plants in a similar manner.

"You get to learn about how cicadas live without realizing you're learning," said Hangarter. "Kids love cicadas, they're cool little organisms."

The filmmakers shot most of the footage at night, when the cicadas were most active and seemed to overwhelm the garden.

"Anytime you stood still, cicadas were crawling up your feet and your legs," said Hangarter.

The film captures the feeling of that summer, when cicadas were literally everywhere. When two or more cicadas picked the same spot on a tree to emerge from their armor, their wings often didn't have space to fully expand with fluid. This led to lots of deformed cicada wings, Orr explained.

While you have to look carefully to see any deformed wings in the video, another challenge the cicadas faced during the summer of 2004 is featured prominently -- a hungry squirrel feasting on an all-you-can-eat cicada buffet. The Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge is annual competition, jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science. The competition recognizes outstanding achievement in use of graphics media to illustrate research processes and results. The winning entries are featured in the 23 September, 2005 issue of the journal Science.