Smartphone App Listens for Highly-Endangered Cicada

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In another great example of cell phones being used for environmentalism, scientists in Britain are developing a smartphone app to help them find a highly endangered insect that may, in fact, already be extinct.

The New Forest cicada is native to Britain, but it hasn't been seen or heard in over a decade. One reason that scientists aren't sure whether it's still around is that the mating song of the insect is at the very upper limit of the human hearing range, between 13-14 kHz. "It's so very high pitched you're never quite sure you're hearing it," Alex Rogers, a researcher at the Electronics and Computer Science group at the University of Southampton says. That has limited researchers ability to search for it.

But where human ears fail, smartphones succeed. The gadgets have no problem picking up sounds at those frequencies and even more powerful is the number of people who carry smartphones with them at all times. The app will allow researchers to essentially use smartphones as a way to crowdsource the search for these endangered insects.

The app will be able to detect the sounds of the New Forest cicada, as well as Roesel's bush crickets, wood crickets and the common grasshopper. If the cicada's song is detected, the app will immediately notify the user and then ask permission to upload the recording for the researchers to analyze. The researchers would then contact the person to get more information and revisit the site to try to gather more recordings.

The researchers want to get the app into the hands of as many of the 13 million tourists who visit the New Forest National Park each year as possible. With so many people out there listening for the cicada, the search party can cover much more ground than what the researchers can do on their own.

Though it has been more than 10 years since the insect was heard from, the researchers still have a lot of reason to think that will change. The Guardian reports, "Still, despite such a long absence there is still good reason to keep looking. One is that they can remain dormant underground for years at a time. They lay their eggs in the stems of trees and shrubs and when the larvae emerge they fall to the ground and live underground feeding on root sap for years at a time, said Mitchell. Indeed between 1941 and 1961 there were no sightings at all, so there is still hope."

Tags: Animals | Apps | Endangered Species | Insects | Technology