Fungus-infected ‘Zombie Cicadas’ with hypersexuality to emerge in the US this year: Expert - Hindustan Times
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Fungus-infected ‘Zombie Cicadas’ with hypersexuality to emerge in the US this year: Expert

ByAditi Srivastava
Apr 12, 2024 10:31 AM IST

Experts issue warnings about 'zombie cicadas' emerging in the US, infected with a fungus causing hypersexual behavior.

As the cicada emergence cycle approaches, experts are issuing warnings about a strange phenomenon involving "zombie cicadas.” This year, the United States is set to be bombarded by trillions of these insects emerging from their 17-year slumber. But that's not all. According to an expert at West Virginia University, a large portion of these cicadas will be infected with a bizarre fungus that shockingly alters their behaviour: it makes them hypersexual.

Magicicada periodical cicada nymph clings to the empty shell of a previously molted cicada on May 21 in Takoma Park, Maryland. Billions of periodical cicadas, members of the Brood X emergence, are coming out of the ground in the eastern United States and Midwest to molt, mate, lay eggs and die after living underground since 2004 -- all against the backdrop of the deafening noise that males make to attract females..(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Magicicada periodical cicada nymph clings to the empty shell of a previously molted cicada on May 21 in Takoma Park, Maryland. Billions of periodical cicadas, members of the Brood X emergence, are coming out of the ground in the eastern United States and Midwest to molt, mate, lay eggs and die after living underground since 2004 -- all against the backdrop of the deafening noise that males make to attract females..(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Fungus-infected ‘Zombie Cicadas’ to emerge in US

Brood XIX (every 13 years) is expected to appear in Georgia and the southeast, and Brood XIII (every 17 years) will appear in Illinois, says Matthew Kasson, associate professor of mycology and forest pathology, at West Virginia University.

According to Prof. Kasson speaking to CBS News, both broods can be infected by a fungal pathogen named Massospora cicadina. This fungus causes the insects to show hypersexual behaviour, with a chalky, white plug erupting from their bodies and taking over their brains, causing their genitals to fall off in parts of the Southeast and Midwest.

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How will fungus-infected 'Zombie Cicadas' spread?

The chalky substance that comes out of their bodies will then act as a "puppet master" by releasing a surge of adrenaline that will allow the males to pass the infection on to the females through sex. Experts are concerned about this hypersexualized behaviour. “males will continue to try and mate with females — unsuccessfully because again, their back end is a fungus. But they'll also pretend to be females to get males to come to them. And that doubles the number of cicadas that an infected individual comes in contact with."

“It spreads like an STD”

Matthew Kasson detailed, "In that way, the fungus is sexually transmissible. So, it spreads like an STD." Regarding where the fungus will emerge, he explained, "A lot of this is still unclear because there's a lot that happens below our feet." What's more alarming is that the infection won’t stop there; when a cicada dies, Massospora cicadina's spores on its body will enter the soil and infect other cicadas underground.

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Impact on wildlife or humans

It is not yet known if these fungal species will affect wildlife or humans, but Kasson reported in his research that he has detected thousands of chemical compounds in cicadas that have been infected, some of which may be toxic. "We know that a lot of animals are gobbling these cicadas up as they're emerging — snakes and birds. Is it possible they're having an effect on the animals that eat them? Yes, it is possible."

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