A mushroom turns periodical cicadas into zombies

periodic cicada

Known for over 150 years, Massospora cicadina is a pathogenic fungus. However, it infects cicadas, causing in particular completely irrational behavior in males. It must be said that the fungus emits hallucinogenic substances!

A surprising sexual frenzy

A “mental manipulation”, here is how one could qualify the power of the Massospora cicadina mushroom on periodical cicadas. This takeover was already more or less known before but was the subject of a recent study published in the journal Fungal Ecology in October 2019. Matt Kasson, of the University of Virginia (United States) and main leader of the study, evokes the term The Flying Dead in reference to the famous series The Walking Dead.

The expert explains that Massospora cicadina infects cicadas, causing the loss of male hind legs and sexual organs. Like zombies, they are completely under the control of the parasite. There follows a surprising sexual frenzy. Indeed, the male cicadas become total sex addicts, seeking to mate at any cost and above all, with anything.

The fact is that Massospora cicadina has a very short life cycle. Thus, it has no other choice than to try to spread quickly among the host population. Indeed, this is a question of survival, hence the unbridled sexual activity of males despite the destruction of the genitals.

A highly “stimulating” substance

The fungus attacks periodical cicadas, which are found everywhere on Earth. However, these cicadas spend between 13 and 17 years underground as larvae before taking flight in adulthood. In North America, cicadas often encounter the fungus as soon as they emerge from the ground. Seven to ten days later, the insect’s abdomen begins to sag, one of the symptoms of a deadly fungal infection.

The fungus contains metabolites and enterotoxins. However, the study identified the presence of cathinone (or β-keto-amphetamine). It is an alkaloid, embodying in particular the active principle of khat, a shrub whose leaves are chewed for their stimulating and euphoric effect comparable to that of amphetamine. This type of alkaloid is also found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. In male cicadas, this substance disrupts hormone production, which results in a change in their sexual behavior.

Researchers strongly advise humans not to attempt to consume Massospora cicadina. Indeed, psychoactive substances represent only a very small part of the compounds found on cicadas. The others could be harmful to humans. In contrast, the fungus could be used to biosynthesize new drugs from metabolites.