Massospora, a parasitic fungus, manipulates male cicadas to flap their wings like women to infect unsuspecting male cicadas.
Angie Macias / WVU
The eagerly awaitedin the eastern US for a massive mating frenzy 17 years in the making. In order to reproduce successfully, they must avoid it However, some may also have to fight a bizarre parasitic fungus that controls their minds, forcing them to mate like crazy to infect their fellow insects.
The mushroom Massospora contains chemicals found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. This is according to a study by researchers at West Virginia University published in PLOS Pathogens in 2020.
The way Massospora fungal spores attack cicadas sounds like something straight out of a horror movie. The spores begin to infect the beetles before emerging from underground and eating their way on the cicada’s back, stomach, and even genitals. The spores deposit even more fungal spores so that the cicada can be transmitted to other cicadas like a sexually transmitted disease.
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The cicadas’ body parts “wear away like an eraser on a pencil,” study co-author Brian Lovett said in a statement. If that’s not terrible enough, George Washington University’s cicada expert John Lill called Massospora a “death zombie mushroom” in the Evansville Courier & Press last week.
Here is a closer look at the Massospora leafhopper infection cycle.
Brian Lovett / PLoS Pathogens
The National Parks Service lists Massospora as a common predator of Breed X cicadas, along with birds, raccoons, possums, frogs, and other animals.
The WVU study focused on the unusual sexual behavior of the infected leafhoppers. While infected cicadas can no longer successfully mate because their backs are taken over by the fungus, the insects are still trying to get it, which then transfers the fungus to healthy cicadas.
The study explained that the sneaky mushroom manipulates male cicadas to move their wings in such a way as to mimic the females’ mating signals.
“Essentially, the cicadas attract others to become infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” Lovett said. “The bioactive compounds can manipulate the insect in such a way that it stays awake and continues to transmit the pathogen for longer.”
“If any of our limbs were taken out or our stomach slit open, we would likely be incapacitated,” study co-author Matthew Kasson told CNN. “But infected cicadas, despite the fact that a third of their bodies have fallen off, continue to do their activities like mating and flying as if nothing had happened. This is really, really unique to insecticidal fungi.”
Other fungal parasites also control their insect hosts as if they were zombies. “”“(Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) is a parasite found primarily in tropical forests. It grows in the ant’s body until it eventually penetrates the ant’s head and releases fungal spores to infect more ants.
Cicadas may not be alone in the animal kingdom when it comes to the nature version of The Walking Dead, but at least Brood X is expected to show up in sufficient numbers to ensure his survival as a group. As the NPS says, “There are more cicadas than any combined predator can eat.”