Humans are not the only ones prone to psychedelic chemicals found in magic mushrooms. “Zombie cicadas” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – was re-formed in West Virginia to infect their friends, and now scientists have a better understanding of how it happens.
Researchers from West Virginia University recently saw the return of these exotic creatures, infected with a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the fungus manipulates insects that inadvertently infect other cicadas, quickly transmitting disease to create a zombie army.
When a male cicada is infected with Massospora, researchers found that its wings slipped like a female, a well-known name for marriage. This behavior attracts healthy male cicadas, facilitates the spread of the fungus, which contains chemicals including psilocybin, found in hallucinogenous mushrooms.
How this manipulation manipulated its host and spread is the latest discovery following decades of research in Massospora. The findings show parasitic functions, in part, as sexually transmitted infections.
“Importantly, cicadas attract others who are infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in marriage,” co-author Brian Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher with Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Wealth and Design, was told in a press release this week. “Bioactive compounds can manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen longer.”
The team researched infected cicadas that returned to southeast West Virginia earlier this year. While seasonal cicadas only appear every 13 or 17 years, time is staggered to different locations, making it easier for researchers to analyze their behaviors.
The researchers described the surprising detail of the fungus’ process as a “disturbing display of B-horror film proportions.” Spores feed on the genitalia, butts and stomachs of cicadas until they eventually collapse, replacing them with fungal spores – a brutal process for insects, which spend more than a decade underground.
The cicadas begin to rot, but instead of dying instantly, they fly around and infect others. Due to the mental suppression abilities of the infection, insects appear to act as if nothing was wrong.
Lovett described the process as wearing “far like an eraser with a pencil.” Fungi are similar to rabies – both “enlisting living insects to do their bidding,” the researchers said – in a process called active host delivery, which is a form of “biological puppetry.”
“Since we are animals just like insects, we like to think that we have complete control over our decisions and we exercise our free will,” Lovett said. “But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it is very clear that the pathogen attracts cicada behavioral behaviors to make it to do things that are not of cicada interest but very much of interest to pathogen. “
Lovett and his co-author Matthew Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered psychoactive compounds in cicadas infected with Massospora last year. But until now, it has remained unclear how the infection occurs.
Researchers are not sure when in their life cycle they encountered fungi. It is possible that cicada nymphs may encounter Massospora before emerging from the ground after 17 years to dissolve in adults, or in their underground pathway, before feeding on roots for 17 years.
“The fungus may more or less wait inside its host for the next 17 years until something awakens it, perhaps a hormone cue, where it is possible to put unconditional and asymptomatic in the host of the cicada of it, “Kasson said.
But, there is no need to worry about being infected by zombies. Not likeo , these zombie cicadas are generally harmless to humans, the researchers said.
“They’re too much of a document,” Lovett said. “You can walk up to one, pick it up to see if it has a fungus (a white to yellow plug on the back end of it) and set it back. They’re not a major pest in any way. A really interesting quirky insects that have developed a strange lifestyle. ”
Due to their relatively slow breeding rate, the fungus does not present a major threat to the cicada population. But scientists are still hoping to discover how the pathogen is formed, and how it is evolving to make other species of insects even more frightening.