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Fungus turns male cicadas into sex-crazed zombies that lure and infect healthy counterparts

Millions of cicadas are invading parts of the US after spending 17 years underground and some have emerged as sex-crazed zombies.

A parasitic fungi, called Massopora, has plagued these insects for years, but recently scientists found the creatures are luring healthy counterparts to transmit the disease.

Massospora manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings like females, which is a mating ritual, tempting unsuspecting male cicadas and infecting them.

The phenomenon transforms the insects into a zombie-like state and begins consuming the creature’s abdomen, genitals and buttocks, which are replaced with fungal spores.

Massopora contains similar chemicals found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, psilocybin, along with amphetamine that is also known as ‘bath salts.’

However, the recent study investigated the effects of the fungus, which takes over the cicada’s body, finding the disease flicks male’s wings in a pattern of a mating invitation.

Brian Lovett, co-author and researcher at West Virginia University, said: ‘Essentially, the cicadas are luring others into becoming infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating.’

‘The bioactive compounds may manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen for longer.’

Cicadas are invading Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina after hiding under the Earth for the past 17 years. 

Cicadas first come in contact with the fungus while underground and those infected can spread it to others once they emerge.

And the body begins to deteriorate within seven to 10 days above the ground, starting with abdomen and moving to genitalia and buttocks.

The team compared how cicadas transmit the fungus to that of rabies.

Both rabies and entomopathogenic fungi (parasites that destroy insects) enlist their living hosts for successful ‘active host transmission,’ Lovett said.

‘When you’re infected with rabies, you become aggressive, you become afraid of water and you don’t swallow,’ Lovett said.

‘The virus is passed through saliva and all of those symptoms essentially turn you into a rabies-spreading machine where you’re more likely to bite people.

‘In that sense, we’re all very familiar with active host transmission. Since we are also animals like insects, we like to think we have complete control over our decisions and we take our freewill for granted.’

‘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.’

Matthew Kasson, a colleague of Lovett, helped pinpoint the chemical mechanisms in in Massospora-infected cicada fungi last year.

‘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.’

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