Fungus Is Turning Cicadas Into Zombies Across West Virginia

Angie Macias /, John R. Cooley /

Researchers in West Virginia have discovered and are investigating a new population of cicadas that are being infected by a parasitic fungus that controls their mind and eats away at their bodies.

These grasshopper-like insects are infected by massospora, a psychedelic fungus which contains chemicals such as those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Initial infection takes place while cicada nymphs dig their way to the surface of the soil before emerging as adults. It is presumed that the emerging cicadas are infected by resting spores they encounter in the soil or while feasting on infected roots. Upon landing on a host, the 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.

Since they are inhibited by a hallucinogenic, the cicada is unaware that their body is falling apart. The infected cicadas exhibit hyper-sexual behavior and further spread the spores to other cicadas as they attempt to mate.

Researcher, Brian Lovett explained in an article on why it is difficult to study how massospora infects these species,

“Different broods come out at different time spans. There’s our periodical cicadas that come out every 13 years and there are other periodical cicadas that come out every 17 years. The timing is staggered in different states.”

While zombie cicadas may seem terrifying, according to Lovett, the 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.

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