‘Zombie cicadas’: The mind-controlling fungus infecting insects like an STD – CNET

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Massospora, a parasitic fungus, manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings like females to infect unsuspecting male cicadas. 

Angie Macias/WVU

Get out your 2020 bingo card and check the box for zombie insects. Just when you thought murder hornets were the worst thing to give us nightmares this year, scientists have recently discovered a new cicada population infected by a parasitic fungus that controls their minds and forces them to infect other insects.

A fungus called Massospora infects the cicadas and ends up controlling the insects in an unusual way. The fungus has chemicals like the ones found in hallucinogenic mushrooms that can control the cicadas' behavior, according to a new study written by researchers from West Virginia University, published by PLOS Pathogens.

The way Massospora fungus spores attack cicadas sounds like a horror film. The spores eat away at the cicada's rear, abdomen, and even its genitals, where they deposit even more fungal spores for the cicada to transmit to other cicadas like an STD. 

Then the cicadas body parts "wear away like an eraser on a pencil," study co-author Brian Lovett said in a statement on July 27.

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Here's a closer look at the Massospora–cicada infection cycle.

Brian Lovett/PLoS Pathogens

The new study focuses on the unusual sexual behavior of the infected cicadas. While infected cicadas can no longer mate because their backsides are taken over by the fungus, the cicadas still try to mate to sexually transmit the fungus to healthy cicadas.

The study explains that the fungus manipulates male cicadas to move their wings so that they imitate females' mating signals so they can also infect other healthy male cicadas with the fungus.

"Essentially, the cicadas are luring others into becoming infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating," Lovett said. "The bioactive compounds may manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen for longer."

Remarkably, the fungal-infected cicadas not only try to mate but they also go about their usual insect activities even though a big part of their bodies has been removed and taken over by spores.

"If one of our limbs were taken out or if our stomach was slashed open, we would probably be incapacitated," study co-author Matthew Kasson told CNN on Monday. "But infected cicadas, despite the fact that a third of their body has fallen off, continue to go about their activities like mating and flying as if nothing happened. This is really, really unique for insect-killing fungi."

While this new study focuses on Massospora, there are other fungus parasites in existence that also control their insect hosts as if they were zombies. 

"Zombie ant fungus" called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungal parasite mostly found in tropical forests. For up to 10 days, the fungal parasite continues to grow inside the ant's body until it eventually pierces through the ant's head, and releases deadly fungal spores that will then infect more ants. 

Previously, scientists believed the zombie ant fungus used the ant's brain to guide its movements. But in a new paper, the research now indicates the parasite surrounds the ant's muscle fibers, not the brain, to control the insect's body. 

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