Fungus Turns Cicadas Into Sex-Crazed 'Salt Shakers Of Death'

By Jason Hall

May 21, 2021

A yellow-white fungus growing inside Brood X cicadas is reportedly leading to incredibly strange habits.

The chemical compound in the fungus called 'Massospora' is driving the bugs -- which have recently returned in 15 states after 17 years underground -- to attempt to mate like crazy despite losing the bottom half of their bodies, leading to some researchers calling the infected cicadas "flying salt shakers of death," the Washington Post reports.

Unlike other fungal pathogens, Massospora doesn't kill the cicadas, but instead causes actions that lead to more spreading to through a heightened sex drive.

"That's what people can immediately recognize as, 'This is a zombie, this is no longer a normal cicada, something strange is happening here,'" said Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at West Virginia University, who co-wrote study about the fungus in 2020.

Scientists have been aware of Massospora's effects on cicadas since the mid-19th century, but the fungus recently became a public concern again amid the resurgence of the Brood X generation.

Lovett said he expects less than 10% infection rate among the billions of cicadas that recently appeared through the soil for the first time since 2004. Cicadas that appear on a fixed schedule typically contact the fungus prior to emerging from underground.

Lovett said the fungus germinates and infects the cicadas while they climb the tree roots to the soil's surface and wait for the necessary temperature to reemerge. The bugs then begin to show signs of the fungus about a week after emerging.

Lovett said the spores force the back half of the insects' bodies to fall off about a week after emerging, including the buttocks and genital areas, while the cicadas continue to walk and fly, apparently unaware of the situation, and infect other insects.

The cicadas then act as cathinone, a behavior-altering amphetamine in the fungus, which encourages them to ignore that half their bodies are missing and instead make desperate attempts to mate. Since the bugs' genitals are gone, this can only serve as a way of spreading Massospora.

"Now the cicada is not acting in the interest of the cicada, but in the interest of the fungus," Lovett said.

Infected female cicadas typically maintain their usual mating behavior, while infected males are reported to attract more uninfected partners, usually by calling to females as part of mating. The infected male cicadas also flick their wings like females to trick other male cicadas into attempting sex, resulting in more coming into contact with the fungus.

In the second generation of infection, spores grow in thicker and heavier for long-term underground survival once the cicadas die, according to Lovett. This is part of a stage in which the bugs are nicknamed "flying salt shakers of death" where their wings propel into the air spores that look like salt is raining down from the bugs.

The fungus cutting off the cicadas' ability to reproduce leads to a sort of "death" of the bugs and a new generation emerges 17 years later.

"So this fungus is not only coordinating all this manipulation, but it's also keeping track of two different stages," Lovett said.

Massospora doesn't appear to kill off the entire cicada population, rather the specific portion of insects infected, who don't die at a younger age and broods continue to be sustained over generations.

Photo: Getty Images

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