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‘Zombie Cicadas’ Are Under the Influence of a Psychedelic, Mind-controlling Fungus

Slashdot reader quonset shares CNN’s report on “zombie cicadas” under the influence of “a psychedelic fungus” called Massospora containing the chemicals found in hallucinogenic mushrooms (citing a new study published in PLOS Pathogens).
After infecting its host, the fungus results in “a disturbing display of B-horror movie proportions,” West Virginia University said in a press release. First Massospora spores eat away at the cicada’s genitals, butt, and abdomen. They are then replaced with fungal spores used to transmit the fungus to other cicadas. From there, this new, fungal abdomen will slowly “wear away like an eraser on a pencil,” said study co-author Brian Lovett in the release… While almost a third, if not more, of their bodies are replaced with fungal tissue, infected cicadas continue to move around oblivious of their sickness. This is because the fungus manipulates the insects’ behavior to keep the host alive rather than killing them to maximize spore dispersal…

Even though infected cicadas lose their ability to mate when their backsides become fungal plugs, they will still attempt to mate to sexually transmit the fungus to healthy cicadas. The parasitic fungus even manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings to imitate the females’ mating invitation so they can also infect unsuspecting male cicadas to rapidly transmit the disease.

While researchers believe sexual transmission of the fungus is the easiest way for Massospora to spread, cicadas can also come into contact with the pathogen in other ways. “When they fly around or walk on branches, they spread spores that way too,” Kasson said. “We call them flying saltshakers of death, because they basically spread the fungus the way salt would come out of a shaker that’s tipped upside down.”

While a zombie army of cicadas sounds terrifying, Kasson reassures that infected cicadas are not a danger to humans. At this time, researchers believe the fungus does not pose a serious risk to the overall cicada population.
“When these pathogens infect cicadas, it’s very clear that the pathogen is pulling the behavioral levers of the cicada,” says one of the study’s co-authors, “to cause it to do things which are not in the interest of the cicada but is very much in the interest of the pathogen.”

A doctoral student involved in the research even suggests these discoveries might one day be used for pest control.

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