As if the threat of murder hornets and mosquito-borne illnesses weren’t enough, now “zombie cicadas” have arrived in the United States and we’ve never been more excited to use our canopy chairs with bug guard and hide from this savage insect community.
According to CBS News, “zombie cicadas” have been spotted in West Virginia. Fortunately, these mutant critters appear harmless to humans, yet the process in which “zombie cicadas” infect others is quite bizarre. Unlike your average noisy chirping cicadas, these “zombie cicadas” are infected with a fungus called Massospora that basically eats away at their mind and body.
A study recently published in PLOS Pathogens compares the transmission of Massospora, known as active host transmission (AHT), to that of rabies. “AHT is a form of biological puppetry in which the pathogen manipulates the behavior of its powerless host,” the study writes. It explains that when a male cicada becomes infected with this fungus, it will start mimicking the wing-flicking behavior that is typically exclusive to female cicadas. Other male cicadas will be lured in, thinking it’s a female cicada wanting to mate. Since cicadas are not sexually dimorphic, it is hard to distinguish between a male and female.
Once the interested cicada flocks to the infected cicada to mate, the infected cicada will attempt to transfer the fungus over to its peer. Then, the Massosopora will begin to eat away at the cicada’s abdomen from the inside, filling it up with yellow fungal spores. Not only will the now zombie-like cicada lose half its body to this ferocious fungus, but it will be brainwashed and tricked into performing female mating rituals in order to continue spreading the virus. Think of it as a living death—the cicada will continue to exist, but in a mutated life form. The spores that form in each cicada’s abdomen can be dropped onto other cicadas to further transmit the disease.
Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of research on this bizarre fungal infection yet, as it’s extremely challenging for scientists since certain cicadas live underground for periods of 13 to 17 years. In fact, it’s still unknown how Massopora originated. All I know is I’m running the other way when I hear their rackety chirps. These bugs are buggin’.
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