NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — “Zombie Cicadas” may sound like something from a bad science fiction movie, but a parasitic fungus is infecting periodical cicadas. The infection looks gruesome, with large portions of the cicada’s abdomen replaced with fungal spores. However, the cicadas continue on as usual, seemingly not noticing that a part of their body is missing.
Researchers from West Virginia University are learning more about the bizarre ways that the fungus Massaspora affects cicada behavior. We spoke to Brian Lovett, a Post Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at WVU.
According to Lovett, cicadas can be infected early on or during adulthood. “So there are two ways they can become infected. One is coming up and that is something that the nymphs have waited a really long time for their day to shine and suddenly they get infected. And then the ones that miss that infection, they can get infected later by being tricked into mating with infected individuals.”
But, how do these cicadas still live with a large part of their bodies missing? The answer may surprise you.
“Part of the manipulation to speak to your earlier question is the production of bio-active compounds, and another word for a bio-active compound is a drug. So these drugs that the cicada produces, or that this fungus produces inside of cicadas, we believe would manipulate the behavior of these cicadas.”
Some of these compounds are only found in other plants or fungi.
“In one species they are producing psilocybin, which is the magic mushroom compounds. And in the periodical cicadas, it’s producing amphetamines.”
But, for anyone who may be tempted to try to get high by eating zombie cicadas… you’d have to eat a very large amount.
“What we try to stress is that the amount of drugs that are produced are very large for a cicada, for a human it’s a very small amount. So you can’t just eat one and think you’re going to have a good time.”
And there are a few other reasons why you may not want a big plate of “zombie cicadas”.
“These are not the only drugs that they are producing. So fungi produce all kinds of antibiotics and other bio-active compounds and we haven’t characterized every one that’s being produced. Certainly some of the ones you wouldn’t want to eat anyway. We don’t recommend it.”
Middle Tennessee will see two large broods of cicadas re-emerging in 2021 and 2024, and yes, a few of them will be zombified. But, right now, the fungus Massaspora is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the cicada population.
“So this fungus and the cicada, they’ve been engaged in this evolutionary arms race for some time. So we’re just kind of recognizing it now. But they’ve been infecting cicadas for so long in cicada populations because they have that huge boom and then they wait for a while and then they have a huge boom. They don’t seem to be really dramatically impacted by the pathogen. It can’t impact a large number of individuals but they still manage to reproduce to the next generation. And they both have reached this equilibrium.”