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. (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. (WVU Photo)

Study: Parasitic fungus creates zombie cicadas and uses them as agents of infection

By Theresa Braine

New York Daily News

Zombie cicadas to murder hornets: Hold my beer.

There has been a resurgence of cicadas infected with the parasitic fungus Massospora, which causes them to resort to trickery to entrap other victims.

While murder hornets cruelly decapitate bees, fungus-infused cicadas are B-horror-movie next level, researchers say.

The fungus has chemicals that include compounds similar to those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

“Massospora manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings like females — a mating invitation — which tempts unsuspecting male cicadas and infects them,” the research team from West Virginia University said in a statement.

Once they’re infected, the males go rogue — even as the fungus acts like a sort of leprosy.

“The fungus causes cicadas to lose their limbs, and eccentric behavior sets in: Males try to mate with everything they encounter, although the fungus has consumed their genitals and butts,” the researchers said last year, when they first started studying the phenomenon. “Despite the horrid physical state of infected cicadas, they continue to roam around freely as if nothing’s wrong, dousing other cicadas with a dose of their disease.”

Massospora spores replace the cicada’s genitals, butt and abdomen that then “wear away like an eraser on a pencil,” said Brian Lovett, a West Virginia University study co-author and postdoctoral researcher with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

In essence, they become “flying salt shakers of death,” said WVU doctoral student Angie Macias, who was also part of the research team.

This year, as in a horror movie, they’re baaaack.

The team has published its latest research, “Behavioral betrayal: How select fungal parasites enlist living insects to do their bidding,” in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Scientists have known about the fungus for about 100 years, according to the University of Connecticut, but the behavioral insights are much newer. Between 2% and 5% of the insects are infected as nymphs while they incubate underground, the University of Connecticut said in 2018 research.

In addition to entrapping fellow male cicadas, the infected males also go after female cicadas, UConn said.

“The diseased males will also attempt to copulate with the uninfected females, exposing them to even more spores,” UConn’s research team said in a statement. “The infection results in the insect’s abdomen becoming distended as it fills with powdery, white fungal spores eventually to the point of bursting open or falling off altogether. When the abdomen falls off, the genitalia are lost with it — but that doesn’t stop the cicadas from their eager quest to copulate.”

“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.”

As creepy and strange as the fungal-cicada dance is, it could actually have implications for pharmaceuticals as the “next frontier for novel drug discovery,” said Matt Kasson, study co-author and assistant professor of forest pathology at West Virginia.

He does not recommend experimenting with the compounds at home.

“These psychoactive compounds were just two of less than 1,000 compounds found in these cicadas,” Kasson said. “Yes, they are notable but there are other compounds that might be harmful to humans. I wouldn’t take that risk.”