And Now, a Fungus That Turns Cicadas Into Sex Zombies

Buzz buzz Photo: EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

As you have likely heard by now, cicadas are coming, trillions of them, creeping from their 17-year soil sleep, ready to mate. From Tennessee to New York, Brood X — a.k.a. the Great Eastern Brood — will soon begin to surface where it hasn’t already, and will spend the next five to six weeks mating in a frenzy before collapsing in exhaustion. But, plot twist, this brood will reportedly also bring with it a fungus that turns the bugs into “flying salt shakers of death”–slash–sex zombies, the Washington Post reports. Okay, sure!

The fungus in question is called Massospora, and the first thing to know about it is that it hijacks a cicada’s natural horny impulses to ensure maximum spread. Cicadas become infected with Massospora underground, when the rising temperatures that coax the insects out of their burrows cause the fungus to germinate. Roughly a week after infection, their butts fall off, and! They don’t even notice because the fungus is flooding their bug brains with an amphetamine called cathinone, which sends their libidos into overdrive. All these freaky little freaks can think about is sex, despite the fact that the back halves of their bodies, including their genitals, have been replaced by fungal plugs.

“Now the cicada is not acting in the interest of the cicada,” West Virginia University postdoctoral researcher Brian Lovett, who’s been studying Massospora, told the Post, “but in the interest of the fungus.” It causes male cicadas to flick their wings in the alluring manner of female cicadas, who — for their part — continue to mechanically move through their regular mating motions. Either way, the goal is to ensnare unsuspecting targets who then become infected, too, only with heavier spores. When these new groups of infected cicadas fly around (again, I cannot emphasize this enough, without their butts) they sort of crop-dust the terrain below with fungus. In so doing, the fungus ensures that Brood X offspring will rise from the ground in 2038 and go through the cycle all over again. Insidious!

As to the number of Massospora-infected cicadas poised to emerge this season, the approximations range from about 5 percent of the population or less, to 10 percent at most. According to Lovett, the fungus does not appear to shorten the afflicted cicadas’ lifespans, it just makes them severely and single-mindedly hornt up for their remaining time in action. It does, however, interfere with their ability to reproduce, which is the only thing they are here to do anyway. Hm, well. Buzz buzz!

If You Please: A Fungus That Turns Cicadas Into Sex Zombies