Researchers in West Virginia have discovered that cicadas have been infected by a parasitic fungus that takes over their brains. The Massospora fungus contains similar chemicals to hallucinogenic mushrooms and controls the cicadas as it eats away at their bodies.
The infected insects will continue to act normal, even as the fungus eats away at their genitals, abdomen, and limbs. As they fly around, they spread the fungus, acting like "flying salt shakers of death." In some cases, male cicadas will flap their wings, mimicking the females' mating call. When an unsuspecting male flies over, it becomes infected with the parasitic fungus.
"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," said Brian Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
The fungus will eventually kill the cicada as it slowly devours the insect.
The researchers said they plan to continue to study the fungus and hope that they can use what they learn to develop new methods of pest control.
"These discoveries are not only super cool but also have a lot of potential in helping us understand insects better, and perhaps learn better ways to control pest species using fungi that manipulate host behaviors," doctoral student Angie Macias said. "It is almost certain that there are undiscovered Massospora species, never mind the other AHT (active host transmission) fungi, and each of these will have developed its own intimate connection with its host's biology."
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