Shazam for cicadas: an app that helps scientists pick up the tune of a rare bug

If you haven’t noticed, it’s a major cicada season. Hundreds of the little creatures have sprouted up all over the world, looking for their mates before meeting their deaths — if they don’t get stepped on in the process.

But while they may make their presence known very strongly in the U.S., it can be a very different story across the pond. To find them , researchers at the University of Southampton are betting on  iPhone and Android app to help solve the mystery of the (still missing) cicadas.

The New Forest cicada is the only known species native to England, and they live in their namesake, the New Forest — a large and relatively unspoiled swath of pastureland in the southeast of England. While many cicadas have a loud (and some would say annoying) song, the New Forest cicada actually sings in a tone that’s right at the top of human hearing. That is, even if you were looking for one, you would still have trouble hearing the song.

Evidence of the bugs have been around for nearly 200 years, but the last unconfirmed sighting happened only in 2000. To figure out where all of the cicadas went, the New Forest Cicada Project developed their app, Cicada Hunt, to target instances of the high pitch song.

Anyone familiar with the popular music listening service Shazam would see a similar interface, only when tapped, Cicada Hunt scans for frequencies and sounds to indicate that a cicada is nearby. When a cicada has been detected, the app will turn red, but both sets of data will go back to the New Forest Cicada Project to become a part of a greater map about the bug.

The app found its first real cicada earlier this month, detecting the song of a Slovenian cousin to the New Forest cicada that arrived later than expected. The elusive species has yet to be detected, but there’s still hope that the little bugs will make an appearance.

The app itself is a perfect example of how much power crowdsourcing can wield in the world of research and conservation. Regardless of how the cicada season ends up, the long-term benefits of charting a species’ patterns based on a steady stream of information will make charting and forecasting the behavior of elusive creatures like the cicada an easier task. It’s only a matter of time before we use the same information to solve the existence of new species, or to save disappearing ones before its too late.