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Health & Science

These ‘Zombie Cicadas’ Will Be On Your Doorstep This Summer

Zombie cicadas
Angie Macias
/
WVU Photo
West Virginia University researchers were part of a team that discovered how Massospora, a parasitic fungus, manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings like females – a mating invitation – which tempts unsuspecting male cicadas and infects them.

Early this summer, Eastern Panhandle residents should expect to hear billions of loud, humming cicadas.

“Oh, it’s deafening,” said Matt Kasson, an associate professor of plant pathology and mycology at West Virginia University.

Matt Kasson
Angie Macias
Matt Kasson, associate professor of plant pathology and mycology at West Virginia University.

An annual brood of periodical cicadas emerges every year in different parts of the county after 17 years underground. But Brood X or the Great Eastern Brood is the most widespread of them all.

“You'll get 10s of millions emerging per acre,” Kasson said. “And that's true of other broods, it's just that their footprint on the landscape is smaller.

Recently, Kasson and his colleagues have been studying a fungus called Massospara that is infecting the cicadas after they emerge from the ground.

Over the next couple of weeks, the fungus essentially eats away the entire back half of the cicada and grows in its place. Kasson compares this fungal growth to a “chalky gumdrop” on the back of the cicada.

“If you were to take that infected cicada and actually use it on a chalkboard, you can write your name in spores,” he said.

Even though half of their body is missing, fungus-infected cicadas don’t die and actually stay alive.

“That process where the fungus replaces the back half of the body is really why we call these zombie cicadas,” said Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at WVU.

Researchers have found cathinone, an amphetamine, in the cicadas. Cathinone is the active ingredient in khat leaves, chewed for a euphoric sensation in the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Lovett said cathinone could be producing a similar euphoric effect in cicadas as humans and insects have similar brain pathways.

Lovett said the fungus manipulates and takes advantage of the cicada’s mating cycle to spread to new hosts.

“It starts to do what's in the interest of the fungus, which is to transmit those fungus spores,” Lovett said. “It goes from being a normal cicada to a cicada that is under the control of this pathogen.”

Female cicadas will typically flick their wings to attract a male, said Lovett.

brian Lovett
Angie Macias
Brian Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher at West Virginia University.

“If you see a male secured on a branch, you can snap your fingers and the males will walk toward that snap,” he said.

Researchers have found that infected male cicadas will begin to emulate this female behavior, snap their wings and seduce other male cicadas to mate and spread the virus.

“The fact that Massospara infected males are snapping their wings like that suggests that the fungus is manipulating them to result in more mating, and thus, more infection,” Lovett said.

But Lovett said cicadas — even zombie ones — aren’t something to be scared of and this summer will provide an opportunity for people to engage with nature in a new way.

“In the summer, when the cicadas emerge, a couple weeks later, the zombie cicadas are going to be outside of your door,” Lovett said

He encourages people to walk outside, pick up a cicada and look for that chalky gumdrop on the back. If you find one, take a picture and send it to the researchers.

“Particularly with this really big emergence, I think it's a great opportunity for people to really be amazed by the system, the way that we get to be every day," he said.


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