A parasitic fungus that creates “zombie cicadas” has reemerged in West Virginia, according to new research from the University of West Virginia.
The fungus, Massospora, drives male cicadas to imitate female mating calls. When the call attracts other males, the fungus, which contains similar chemicals to those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, transmits to them.
The fungus eats away at cicadas and replaces what it eats with fungal spores, according to the outlet. As a result, the insects continue to fly and infect others while decaying, with the fungus conducting “biological puppetry,” according to researchers.
“Since we are also animals like insects, we like to think we have complete control over our decisions and we take our free will for granted,” said Brian Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
“But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it’s very clear that the pathogen is pulling the behavioral levers of the cicada 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,” he added.
“Essentially, the cicadas are luring others into becoming infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” he said.
The fungus and its associated phenomena were already known to researchers, but the new research is the best look yet at how it spreads, according to Lovett’s colleague and paper co-author, Matthew Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology.
“Our previous literature always mentioned the strange behaviors associated with Massospora and some closely-allied fungi but what was missing was a synthesis of all this new information that had come to light,” Kasson said. “The most interesting finding is the things we still don't know. We realized that there were some possible scenarios for infection that we had not considered before.”