Brood X cicadas threatened by ‘death-zombie fungus’ that rots half their bodies away

This month, as billions of Brood X cicadas emerge from the dirt in more than a dozen states for the first time in 17 years, some of the bugs will suffer a horrific, science-fiction-like fate.

There’s no delicate way to do this, so here’s the gist all at once.

A fungus laced with the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms will invade their bodies and eat away their insides until their abdomens crack, fall off and get replaced with a ball of white spores. Because they’re either bombed on psilocybin or under the control of the fungus in some other way, the cicadas won’t even notice. With missing butts and full hearts, they’ll forge ahead with their only reason for existing: finding a mate and reproducing.

Of course, that last part will be impossible with half their body rotted away.

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“Really what they’re doing is spreading these spores all over the place,” said John Lill, a cicada expert and chair of biology at George Washington University. “It’s a sexually transmitted fungus. They engage in normal courtship behavior, yet their abdomen is a big fungal mass. Instead, the attempted copulation results in spreading the fungus even more.”

Called Massospora cicadina, the fungus can inflict both males and females. But it affects the former in a special way.

Usually, males croon loud songs to attract a mate. That’s the UFO-esque buzzing you’ll hear this spring. If a female catches a song she likes, she responds by flicking her wings.

Massospora lays all that to waste. It causes males to both sing and flick their wings, allowing them to attract any partner they can. That larger playing field helps the spores spread farther and wider.

“It’s this gender-bending, death-zombie fungus,” Lill said.

‘Flying salt shakers of death’

All this obviously raises questions. Where did the fungus come from? How did we find out it’s pumped with mind-altering drugs? And if you gobble a bunch of these butt-less insects, can you get high?

Scientists have known about Massospora since the 19th century. Lill said it’s somehow evolved to specifically attack periodical cicadas. It lays dormant in the soil for 13 or 17 years, depending on its preferred brood, and germinates as soon as the cicadas start rousting.

The magic-mushroom connection, though, is more recent.

Researchers at West Virginia University were studying a gaggle of infected cicadas in 2016 when they discovered some of them were chock-full of psilocybin garnered from the fungus, according to a 2018 article in The Atlantic. Others were loaded with amphetamines, too.  

“At first I thought, ‘there’s absolutely no way,’” researcher Greg Boyce told The Atlantic at the time. “It seemed impossible.” 

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Matt Kasson, a professor and lead researcher on the project, wrote an academic paper with his team and started calling the spore-secreting bugs “flying saltshakers of death,” the Atlantic reported. There was enough psilocybin in the cicadas that Kasson told the outlet he briefly worried he could get in trouble for studying a Schedule I drug without getting a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

“I thought, ‘Oh crap: the DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers,’” he told The Atlantic.

Eating cicadas is definitely a thing. Lill said high-end restaurants in Washington, D.C., incorporate the insects into their menus as a seasonal treat. One of his colleagues even refers to them as “tree shrimp.”

Speaking to the Atlantic, Kasson guessed devouring a large number of infected bugs could have some kind of mind-altering effect. But keep in mind: people bold enough to snack on cicadas usually do so right after the bugs molt their exoskeletons – long before Massospora takes control of their bodies.

Older cicadas would be crunchy and unpleasant. Lill said even squirrels, rats and birds – who treat emergences like ecological Golden Corrals – avoid the fungus-riddled bugs.

“I would not advise it,” he said.

Depending on how prevalent it is in certain areas, Massospora can sometimes have a noticeable effect on cicada populations.

That may excite some, who view the forthcoming arrival as some kind of horror-movie invasion. But Lill helps run an organization called Friend to Cicadas, which strives to paint Brood X’s arrival as a natural, wondrous miracle. It’s not something to dread, they argue. It’s something to teach your children about. After all, cicadas aren’t dangerous to humans or plant life.

All cicadas want to do is find a mate. They already deal with an array of predators, and now there’s this fungus to worry about, too.

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