Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


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Exuviae on Leaf 6422

Entomologists (biologists who study insects) use the Latin plural exuviae to designate the cast-off exoskeleton of an insect that has molted. While I was photographing in a shaded area along Bull Creek on July 7th I came across the exuviae of what I take to be a cicada (genus Tibicen). Sloughed-off “skins” can be as dirty as the one you see here, but then if you hung out on a leaf for weeks on end you might get pretty dirty too (or should I say ugly dirty rather than pretty dirty?).

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 22, 2014 at 5:56 AM

40 Responses

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  1. If some of that dirt came off, the exoskeleton would probably look very pretty.


    July 22, 2014 at 6:07 AM

    • I’ve seen some exuviae that are a lot cleaner than others, and I’ve heard that some species get dirtier than others in the process of molting.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 6:34 AM

  2. Awesomely cool photo but ewwwwwww!


    July 22, 2014 at 6:14 AM

  3. This is such a terrific photo. I wonder if you happened to catch the first shedding after the cicada emerged from underground. That might explain the dirt. I’ve never seen one that had such a coating – it’s a nice “plus” for the photo.

    I do love the sound of cicadas: so much so that I once wrote a little haiku for them.

    cicadas thrumming
    summer’s white noise droning on
    silence of the trees


    July 22, 2014 at 6:40 AM

    • I like your hypothesis: what starts out dirtier ends up dirtier.

      I seem to recall that when I was wandering along the creek that day I heard only the silence of the trees and no thrumming, although it’s possible I was so caught up in the visual world that I tuned out the acoustic one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 6:59 AM

  4. Well, you certainly got up close and personal. Remember: beauty is only “shell” deep.


    July 22, 2014 at 6:44 AM

    • The closer and personaler the better, Sally; that’s my usual attitude. Beyond exuviae and the occasional snail, I wish there were some real shells here to photograph, but Austin is about 4 hours from the nearest ocean.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 7:04 AM

      • You’ve reminded me that the other day I found a box of shells from various excursions. I want to do a photo collage of small shell forms that I keep, and there are lots. Shells are such marvels of nature. You’ll have to take some trips to the nearest or farthest beaches to admire these gems.


        July 22, 2014 at 7:20 AM

        • We’ll see what you “shell out” on the subject in future posts, Sally.

          Yes, I ought to get over to the coast.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 22, 2014 at 7:42 AM

  5. Very cool Steve!! Certainly has a cicada look about it.

  6. I have seen these too – but not one quite as well preserved as this one – great find


    July 22, 2014 at 7:09 AM

    • I wish I could take more credit for rarity, Nora, but exuviae of the sort you see here aren’t all that rare in Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 7:21 AM

  7. This year we heard and saw the emergence of a brood of the 17 yr variety. If you stayed under ground that long, your clothes would be very dirty, too. They are even strange looking when they emerge from their exuviae. http://n.pr/1rGsxHZ

    Jim in IA

    July 22, 2014 at 7:19 AM

    • I like the word cicadapocalypse in the linked article. My curiosity got the better of me and I followed the link at the bottom of that article to the story entitled “Making The Best Out Of Invasion, Missouri Shop Makes Cicada Ice Cream.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 7:25 AM

  8. I’m no entomologist but do remember that the nymphs spend their (17 year) lives in the soil and, at the appointed highly-synchronized time, burrow out to climb the nearest tree to molt … that is why this exuvium is covered in soil … it has recently emerged from the soils beneath. More words … the act of molting is ecdysis and is under the control (in insects) of a hormone called ecdysone (how original) … which goes by the fancy chemical name of (2S,3R,5R,9R,10R,13R,14S,17R)-17- [(2S,3R)-3,6-dihydroxy-6-methylheptan- 2-yl]-2,3,14-trihydroxy-10,13-dimethyl- 2,3,4,5,9,11,12,15,16,17-decahydro- 1H-cyclopenta[a]phenanthren-6-one … sheesh … say THAT three times fast! Sorry Steve … just a bit punchy this morning … had a long day driving back from Massachusetts yesterday. A long day of mowing lawns today and a good night’s rest and I’ll be back to my regular self tomorrow! D

    Pairodox Farm

    July 22, 2014 at 7:31 AM

    • I can’t process the chemistry in your comment, but your mention of ecdysis and ecdysone reminds me that H.L. Mencken turned to the same Greek root to create ecdysiast as a fancy term for a stripper (or ‘striptease artist,’ as the American Heritage Dictionary more loftily puts it).

      I wish you a happy return to your regular self.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 7:53 AM

      • Love learning that little tidbit about an ecdysiast! Now I’ve got to use it somehow, so that I’ll remember it…..

        • Maybe instead of referring to trees that shed their leaves in the fall as deciduous, which is the normal term, you can start calling them ecdysiasts.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 23, 2014 at 11:04 PM

  9. What an exquisite close shot, it is “pretty ugly” but fascinating to look the bug in the eye!


    July 22, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    • And what big eyes it has. I think your “pretty ugly” summarizes most people’s feelings, Eva.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 2:24 PM

  10. I carried this exuviae of a Tibicen dorsatus home with me from the Flint Hills. I found it near the Tallgrass Prairie bottomlands. Its wings have lost just a bit at their tips, but he’s holding up pretty well.

    I was wondering if each species has its own song. I think the answer must be yes. Here’s a neat clip of two species having a little duet, also in Kansas.


    July 22, 2014 at 6:24 PM

    • That’s a neat souvenir from Kansas. I know so little about insects, but I have the impression that your specimen, with its colors and features and wing details, is the remains of a whole cicada, as opposed to a cast-off exoskeleton. What do you think?

      It makes sense to me that each species of cicada would have a distinctive song, the better to attract mates of the same kind.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 22, 2014 at 6:50 PM

      • I think you’re exactly right. I just browsed some images of exoskeletons. They have feet and legs, just as mine does, but they certainly don’t have wings. I have an example of Tibicen dessicatus!

        On the other hand, if I hadn’t been wrong, I wouldn’t have browsed all those photos and seen some really detailed closeups of cicadas splitting their exoskeleton and crawling out. I think I know where some of the horror movie folks are getting their ideas.


        July 22, 2014 at 7:38 PM

        • Right here on earth we have some pretty weird life forms (with plenty of new ones found every year), so I think you’re right that some creators of horror stories and movies probably drew their inspiration from at least some of those creatures. If not, then there’s wealth of weirdness just waiting to be exploited.

          I’ve found plenty of exuviae but I’ve never been fortunate enough to see a cicada molting. Maybe one of these days…

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 22, 2014 at 7:54 PM

          • To find cicadas molting into adult form or having just molted (they’ll be very pale), I’ve had pretty good luck looking on tree trunks and lower branches early in the morning at this time of year. They seem to time their ecdysis for the nighttime hours… which makes sense.

  11. Exuvious exquisitous.

    Steve Gingold

    July 23, 2014 at 5:12 PM

  12. Cool. I like finding these too. Previously used vessels!


    July 24, 2014 at 9:33 AM

  13. Yep, I’m starting to see these delightful critter-leavings around again, too. 🙂


    July 27, 2014 at 9:49 PM

  14. […] long [she was correct] — the small species are less than half as big). This bag is empty and the exuviae is sticking out the bottom, indicating a male eclosed and flew off. The females never leave their […]

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