Humans are not the only ones who are sensitive to psychedelic chemicals found in magic mushrooms. “Zombie Cicadas” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – have returned to West Virginia to infect their friends, and now scientists have a better understanding of how it happens.
Researchers from the University of West Virginia recently saw the return of these strange creatures, which are infected by a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, fungi manipulate insects to unknowingly infect other cicadas, rapidly transmitting the disease to create a kind of zombie army.
When a male cicada is infected with Massospora, the researchers found that it tramples its wings like a female, a familiar call for mating. This behavior attracts healthy male cicadas, facilitating the spread of fungi, which contain chemicals including psilocybin, found in hallucinogenic fungi.
Just how the disease manipulates its host and spreads is just the latest discovery after decades of research in Massospora. The findings show the parasite functions, in part, as a sexually transmitted infection.
“Essentially, cicadas are attracting others to become infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” said co-author Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher with Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, in a press release this week. “Bioactive compounds can manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen for longer.”
The team researched infected cicadas that returned to Northeast West Virginia earlier this year. While periodic cycles occur only every 13 or 17 years, time is stacked in different places, making it easier for researchers to study their behaviors.
Researchers describe the horrific details of the mushroom process as a “disturbing display of the size of the horror film B”. Spores eat away at the genitals, knees, and abdomen of cicadas until they eventually fall off, replacing them with fungal spores – a brutal process for insects that only spent more than a decade on the ground.
The cicada begins to rot, but instead of dying immediately, they fly around and infect others. Because of the mind control capabilities from infection, insects seem to behave as if nothing is right.
Lovett described the process as wearing “like a tire in a pencil”. Fungi are similar to rabies – both “record live insects to make their offerings,” the researchers said – in a process called active host transmission, which is a form of “biological doll.”
“Since we are also animals like insects, we like to think we have complete control over our decisions and get our free will as well,” Lovett said. “But when these pathogens infect the cicada, it is very clear that the pathogen is pulling the levers of the cicada behavior to make it do things that are not in the interest of the cicada, but are very much in the interest of the pathogen.”
Lovett and his co-author, Matthew Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered psychoactive compounds in masses infected with Massospora last year. But so far, it remains unclear how the infection occurs.
Researchers are not sure when in their life cycle they encounter fungi. It is possible that cicada nymphs could encounter Massospora before emerging from the ground after 17 years to molest in adults, or on their way underground, before feeding on roots for 17 years.
“The fungus can more or less stay on hold inside his host for the next 17 years until something wakes him up, perhaps a hormonal suggestion, where he possibly stays asleep and asymptomatic in his cicada host,” Kasson said.
But, there is no need to worry about infection by zombies. different fromor , these zombie cicadas are generally harmless to humans, the researchers said.
“They are very agile,” Lovett said. “You can walk up to one, catch it to see if there is fungus (a white to yellow plug at its back end) and put it back down. They are not a major pest in any way. They “They are just a really interesting insect that developed a strange lifestyle.”
Due to their relatively slow rate of reproduction, the fungus does not pose a major threat to the cicada population in general. But scientists are still hoping to discover how the pathogen evolved and how it could evolve to further terrorize other insect species.