Zombie Fungus Turns Cicadas Into Hypersexual, Flying Salt Shakers of Death

Image credit: PA Images

Cicadas are a rare sight – in Virgina they only surface once in their mating cycle every 17 years. But a recent paper in the PLOS pathogens journal has observed a quite gruesome development in what should be the happiest part of the noisy little bugs’ lifetime.

Dubbed as ‘Massospora Ciadina’, many of the cicadas suffer from a fungal infection that eats away their bodies without killing them. In fact, the fungus puts them into a horrific bad trip, making them unaware of the infection – or the damage that they are suffering.

A Cicada shell. Source: Pierredb, Unsplash

This type of mind-controling “zombie fungus” has been previously observed in ants, giving inspiration to the award winning post-apocalyptic video game series The Last of Us, where humanity is attacked by a similar, flesh eating, spore-spreading type of fungal disease.

Thankfully, so far it seems that it only affects bugs.

In order to spread more effectively, the parasite forces the cicada to behave differently: it triggers hypersexual behaviors even if it had already eaten the necessary organs, going so far as to forcing males to adopt female mating calls in order to attract unsuspecting victims.

The fungus replacing the cicadas abdomen. Source: wikipedia

And when it comes to mating signals, Cicadas are LOUD:

Worse, they spread the killer spores around leafs and branches as they fly around, which Matthew Kasson, co-author of the study called the “salt shaker of death”.

At this point they believe that the infection, despite how awful it sounds like, is not a threat to humans or the wider cicada population. They hope that this type of pathogen receives more attention, although this is difficult to study as it seems to be attuned and optimized to the extremely long mating cycle of the rare cicada mating season.

Sources: 1, 2


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