‘Zombie cicadas’ try to mate after losing body parts, WVU researchers say
West Virginia University researchers discovered traces of amphetamines and hallucinogens fueling the hyperactive sexual behavior of cicadas that were infected with a deadly fungus and trying to mate even after their abdomens had fallen off.
The cicadas with their impaired bodies spread the disease to others, hence, the researcher dubbed the insects “zombies” and “flying salt shakers of death.”
Besides the macabre details, the finding could prove beneficial to medical research, according to Matt Kasson, assistant professor of forest pathology and one of the study’s authors. Kasson credits former Ph.D. student Greg Boyce for conducting much of the research.
The fatal Massospora fungus, occurring only in cicadas, has been known since the 1860s. However, the WVU researchers analyzed the biochemistry of the infected cicada populations.
The study found previously known compounds, such as an amphetamine, in a new setting, raising new avenues for research.
“Often times, researchers went to far-away places and looked at plants, but we realize these interactions between pathogens and insects are yielding interesting chemistry and these things are in our backyards,” Kesson said.
Science Alert did warn its readers: “Now, this really shouldn’t need to be said. But we feel obligated to say it anyway. This is in no way to suggest cicada fungal pox should be considered for your next high.”
Researcher took advantage of the cicadas emerging on WVU’s campus in 2016, Brood V, where the fungus infected only about 1% to 5% of the insects.
Kesson still is conducting the research and collected cicadas at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector this year, Brood VIII, where well over 20% were infected, he said.
Cicadas first encounter the fungus when they are underground for 13 to 17 years before they emerge, according to Kasson.
But, once they are above ground, the fungal infection becomes visible and the insects begin to lose sections of their abdomens, he said.
An infected male cicada will continue trying to mate even after it loses its genitalia. They will even make the wing tap noise, imitating the female, and try to have sex with another male, which they never do unless they are infected with fungus, Kasson said.
“One cicada could infect 40 other cicadas,” he said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .