Imagine a disease that, once it infects another organism, it completely takes control of their body and uses it for further infection and mutilation. This is exactly what is happening in the incredibly noisy (100 decibels to be exact) seasonal insects, named the periodical cicada (Magicicada sp.). However much you might like or absolutely hate these insects (like me), they unfortunately are suffering from a rampant parasitic fungus that is essentially taking control of these bugs and turning them into zombies. This zombie fungus is incredibly brutal to the cicadas, causing their almost-lifeless body to be driven around by this fungus, losing parts of their own body while gaining another cicadas head that becomes attached during forced copulation by the fungus to infect more cicadas. It is pretty much like “The Walking Dead” in the insect world, with cicadas being driven around by a parasite infecting others at a rapid speed with insect parts flying all over the place.
This fungus, the Massospora cicadina, typically begins its infection on the insect when the cicada nymphs come to the surface after about 17 years of feeding off of plant roots underground. When the come up, about 3-5 percent of the cicadas are infected by spores, which are conidia or asexually reproducing cells, and multiply by the thousands within the bug while hoping to spread to more and more cicadas in the trees. This is known as the stage I infection. A stage II infection by this parasite consists of sexually produced spores whose goal is to end up in the soil and wait, withstanding all environments, until the next cicada arises. After the infection takes place of either type of spore, the cicada essentially falls apart as their abdomen enlarges with white-spores, losing their reproductive segments as well as several of their limbs. But the catch is that, of course, the cicada doesn’t realize and therefore it carries on with its barely lifeless self and performs the tasks of any normal cicada. Including more copulation.
Not only do the cicadas with stage I walk around constantly with their open wound and drag along spores while the cicadas with stage II fly around spreading spores from their abdomen, but this zombie parasite also tremendously manipulates the insects sexual behaviors. As stated in the original paper in Scientific Reports, “It is relatively common to find a healthy cicada with its genitalia plunged into the abdominal spore mass of an infected partner or to see healthy cicadas attached to fragments of abdomen or terminalia that have torn free from infected partners during attempted copulation.”. But that’s not all. These parasites also cause male cicadas to take up female mating behavior and flick their wings in response to other male cicadas. One thing leads to another, and now it has been concluded that this fungus is more present in male cicadas since these infected males are now more willing to mate with both female and male cicadas, spreading the infection to both. Although many scientists and researchers (including myself) thought that maybe this parasite simply caused a feminizing effect within the insects, this practice of male wing flicking only occurs in cicadas with a stage I infection. Therefore this disproves what was previously hypothesized, since if this feminizing effect was a case, it would occur in every infection, not just the first stage.
Either way, these spores have been researched to manipulate and control a cicada’s behavior, whether it be sexual or not. But, who knows what this parasite might mean for humans as we already know how brutal and sadistic it can be. Do you think that this topic should be more heavily researched for not only cicadas wellbeing but also ours?
But next time you see a cicada, be careful it doesn’t look to you to turn you into the next real life zombie!
To read more about this new parasite affecting cicadas in the original source, click here.