Humans are not the only ones susceptible to the psychedelic chemicals found in magic mushrooms. “Cicada zombies” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – have relocated to West Virginia to infect their friends, and now scientists understand better how it happens.
Researchers at the University of West Virginia recently saw the return of these bizarre creatures, which are infected with a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the fungus manipulates insects to unknowingly infect other cicadas, quickly transmitting the disease to create a kind of army of zombies.
When a male cicada was infected with Masospora, researchers found that it fluttered its wings like a female, known as mating. This behavior attracts healthy male cicadas, facilitating the spread of the fungus, which contains chemicals, including psilocybin, found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
How the disease manipulates its host and spreads is just the latest discovery after decades of research on Masospora. The findings show in part the functions of parasites as a sexually transmitted infection.
“Cicadas essentially entice others to become infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” co-author Brian Lowt, a doctoral student at the College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design in Davis, said 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 studied infected cicadas that returned to southeastern West Virginia earlier this year. While periodic cicadas appear only every 13 or 17 years, time is distributed in different places, which makes it easier for researchers to study their behavior.
Researchers have described the appalling details of the fungal process as “a disturbing display of the proportions of B-horror movies.” Spores eat the genitals, buttocks and bellies of cicadas, until they eventually fall off, replacing them with fungal spores – a brutal process for insects that has just spent more than a decade underground.
Cicadas begin to decompose, but instead of dying immediately, they fly around and infect others. Due to the mind’s ability to control the infection, insects seem to behave as if nothing is wrong.
Lovett describes the process as “far away like an elastic band on a pencil.” The fungus is rabies-like – both “attract live insects to make their bids,” researchers said, in a process called active host transmission, a form of “biological puppetry.”
“Because we are also animals like insects, we like to think we have complete control over our decisions and take our free will for granted,” Louth said. “But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it’s very clear that the pathogen is pulling the levers of cicada behavior to make it do things that are not in the interest of the cicada, but very much in the interest of the pathogen.”
Lowe and co-author Matthew Casson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered psychoactive compounds in Massospora-infected cicadas last year. But so far it remains unclear how the infection occurs.
Researchers are not sure when they encounter the fungus in their life cycle. It is possible for cicada nymphs to encounter Masospora before emerging from the ground after 17 years to melt into adults or on the way underground before feeding on roots for 17 years.
“The fungus can more or less wait inside its host for the next 17 years until something wakes it up, maybe a hormonal stick, where a sleepy and asymptomatic host may possibly lie in its cicada,” Casson said.
But, you don’t have to worry about being infected by zombies. Unlikeor , these zombie cicadas are generally harmless to humans, researchers say.
“They’re very obedient,” Louth said. “You can go to one, pick it up to see if there’s a fungus (white to yellowish plug on its back end) and put it back down. They’re not a major pest in any way. They’re just a really interesting weird insect. which has developed a bizarre lifestyle. ”
Due to their relatively slow reproduction rate, the fungus does not pose a major threat to the cicada population as a whole. But scientists are still hoping to find out how the pathogen developed and how it could develop to further terrorize other insect species.