Cicada calling song types and habitats

While there is no direct correlation between habitat and the type of song produced, some general trends can be found. Before these can be defined the calling song types need to be delineated in terms of duration, frequency, tone, rhythm and complexity.

Different cicada songs differ markedly in terms of duration. A single buckle of the timbals produces a very short sound. This can be described as a tick (which usually comprises a single syllable).

A single tick (Wilga Ticker Crotopsalta plexis ). Click on image to hear segment (high pitched).

Slightly longer duration sounds are sometimes referred to as a click. A click is a fraction longer than a tick, in relative terms (and comprises multiple syllables).

A single click (Mountain Acacia Cicada Cicadetta sp. nr adelaida). Click on image to hear segment.

The term that we use for these sound bursts (regardless of length) is echeme. An echeme is essentially an uninterrupted burst of sound, which can be as short as a tick or a click or it may continue for a longer period. When an echeme is viewed at an expanded time scale the separate pulses created by the buckling of the timbal ribs can be seen.

Repeated groups of echemes (of equal or different lengths) are termed phrases. The diagrams below illustrate the distinction between echemes and phrases.

In this example the phrases (repeated units) consist of a long echeme followed by a short echeme (Sprinkler Squeaker Pauropsalta sp. nr annulata). Click on image to hear segment.


Here each phrase consists of one long echeme and series of short echemes (Bark Sqeaker Pauropsalta sp. nr corticinus). Click on image to hear segment.

A phrase with a single, long echeme (Little Grass Buzzer Cicadetta sp. nov.). Click on image to hear segment.

Calls that last for some time are described as continuous (for example, the song of Tamasa tristigma is continuous).

Frequency is directly affected by the size of the insects and, more correctly, the size of the organs associated with sound production and amplification (timbals, abdomen etc.). Smaller cicadas with small timbals tend to have higher frequency songs. Most cicadas in the genus Cicadetta Group VII call with major frequency components at above 17kHz (good human ears can receive sound up to 18-20 kHz). Most medium sized cicadas produce sound in the 4-16kHz range. Large cicadas normally have most dominant frequency components between 3-12kHz. The song of the Bladder Cicada Cystosoma saundersii is incredibly low pitched and peaks below 1kHz. This is due to the incredibly large abdomen and large timbals.

Can you hear this song?

(Click on the image)

If you can, you have better than average hearing.

This song is produced by the Black Brigalow Buzzer Notopsalta sp. nr atrata with dominant frequencies in the 15-18 KHz range.

The tone of the song is related to the dominant frequency component and the harmonics that interact with it. The "whistle" of the Large Bottle Cicada Glaucopsaltria viridis is almost entirely a pure tone song, with a dominant frequency and harmonics ranging into the higher frequencies. The Marbled Bottle Cicada Chlorocysta suffusa apparently has a pure tone song that shows up as a linear sine curve when analysed (A. Ewart, pers. comm.). This means that the harmonics are distributed in a uniform fashion, creating a pure whistle.


Frequency analysis (Marbled Bottle Cicada Chlorocysta suffusa). Note linear harmonics in higher frequencies (~11000 – 22000 Hz).

A song described as a "scream" has some pure tone haromonics in the higher frequency range. In other words, one of the dominant frequency components has a set of associated harmonics that produces a pure tone as part of the song. The Small Bottle Cicada Chlorocysta sp. nr vitripennis produces a song that can be described as a scream. Some species in the genus Psaltoda produce mellow "growls" as part of the continuous component of their song. This is created by a frequency peak and some associated harmonics restricted to the lower frequency range. Most cicadas produce either simple "buzzing" songs or harsh, less aesthetically pleasing songs that do not have uniform frequency components. The Golden Twanger Diemeniana euronotiana is one of the few small Australian species that can produce a distinct frequency slur in mid-song. The acoustic effect resembles a distinctive “twang” sound. Species with indistinct "hissing" songs, such as the Black Buzzing Bullet Abricta willsi, have many high frequency components in their calls. The hiss-like tone is created by a coalescence of pulses across a broad band of frequencies - very similar to white noise.

Oscillogram showing a hissing song (0.5s segement of Abricta willsi song). Click on image to listen to a longer segment.

The rhythm (or repetition pattern) can often be the most distinctive part of the song. It can either be simple and repetitive (monotonous or alternating short phrase, long phrase etc) or syncopated (i.e. a more complex rhythm). An excellent example of a syncopated rhythm is given in the calling song of the Wallum Sedge-clicker Cicadetta stradbrokensis. Most cicada songs have simple, regular rhythms. Some large cicadas (especially the in genus Psaltoda) produce strongly accented, repeated phrases as part of their calling song. This is termed "pulsing" or "revving". The individual pulses may be distinctly separated or produced in a "rolling" fashion with a low frequency undertone emitted between each pulse. Species that pulse with pure tone components produce a "yodelling" sound. Cicadas that have "rattling songs" or harsh buzzing calls actually create this sound by running together long series of individual pulses in rapid succession.

Some cicada species produce particularly complex songs that have a number of distinct sections. To define the different parts of a song the term "component" has been adopted. A component consists of one or a group of repeated phrases. Many cicadas have two components of song. This normally consists of a continuous component (i.e. a continuous phrase) and a broken component (separate phrases). The broken component may be divided into a set of repeated phrases Other species have different broken components in their song (as in the example below).

Two different components of calling song in the Surat Scrub-buzzer Cicadetta sp. nr mixta.

Click on each image to play the different components of song.

Many habitats within Australia have cicada communities with a wide variety of different calling song types. Other habitats are more predictable. Few cicadas occur in rainforests and associated wet riparian habitats in Australia. Small and medium-sized cicadas in this habitat produce pure tone whistles and screams; these may be either continuous or broken. One species in northern Queensland produce loud, rapid, machine-gun like chatter. Larger cicadas produce shrieks or loud continuous songs (some also have a pulsing component) in this environment. Dry vine scrubs have a much greater diversity of species. Large cicadas perform mellow growling songs and smaller species mostly produce repetitive phrases or short screams or simple ticking songs.

Dry vine scrub on Mt French, south-east Queensland

In wet sclerophyll forest there are a number of medium-sized species that sing repetitive phrases whilst in flight. Other species are stationary and produce erratic or syncopated songs. Groups of large cicadas produce bursts of song in a wave–like fashion throughout the forest. Dry sclerophyll forests, open forests and heath environments have all of the song types found in the previous habitat, as well as an additional variety. Large cicadas produce most song types in this habitat (whines, modulated whistle, continuous and pulsing songs). Smaller cicadas produce continuous buzzing and middle frequency ticking, as well as the characteristic march of the Bark Squeakers, genus Pauropsalta.

Coastal wallum heathland on North Stradbroke Island, south-east Queensland

The mixed woodland and acacia scrubland environments are somewhat different to other habitats. Many of the smaller species have complex songs that involve wing clapping. This is probably an adaptation to increase the range of the calling song. It also adds a ventriloquial effect to the call. The call of the Broad-wing Scrub-clicker (Cicadetta Group VI) provides a good example of wing clapping. Medium-sized to large cicadas produce continuous buzzing and rattling calls, with a few species creating especially loud and grating whines. Many of the smallest cicadas in Australia (Genera Crotopsalta and Cicadetta Group VI) occur in this habitat. Most have either monotonous or musical, high frequency, ticking songs.

Arid acacia scrubland, Mariala National Park, south-west Queensland

A wide diversity of species also occur in open grassland and low shrubland. The smaller species (Urabunana Group I and Group II) mostly produce simple ticking songs. Small/medium sized species (Genera Notopsalta and Cicadetta Group VI) produce low to moderately pitched, repetitive buzzing phrases.

Open grassland, near Charleville, southern central Queensland

Only a small number of cicada species occur in mangroves. All are large cicadas that produce loud, far carrying songs. Continuous rattling songs are characteristic of the genus Arunta. Other species produce continuous and pulsing calls.

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