This month, as billions of Brood X cicadas emerge from the earth in more than a dozen states for the first time in 17 years, some of the insects will suffer a horrific, sci-fi-like fate.
There’s no tricky way to do this, so here’s the gist at the same time.
A fungus containing the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms will invade their body and eat away at their insides until their abdomens crack, fall off and are replaced by a ball of white spores. Because they are being bombarded with psilocybin or under the control of the fungus in some other way, cicadas won’t even notice it. With their buttocks missing and hearts full, they will move forward with their only reason for existing: to find a mate and reproduce.
Of course, this last part will be impossible with half of their rotten bodies.
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“What they’re really doing is spreading these spores all over the place,” said John Lill, a cicada expert and president of biology at George Washington University. “It’s a sexually transmitted fungus. They exhibit naked display behavior, but their abdomen is a large fungal mass. Instead, the attempted copulation causes the fungus to spread even more. “
Called Massospora cicadina, the fungus can inflict both males and females. But it affects the former in a special way.
Usually, men sing loud songs to attract a partner. This is the UFO buzz you will hear this spring. If a woman catches a song that she likes, she responds by flapping her wings.
Massospora throws it all to waste. This causes males to sing along and wave their wings, which allows them to attract any mate. This wider playing field helps the spores to spread further and further.
“It’s that deadly zombie mushroom that flexes the sex,” said Lill.
“ Flying salt shakers of death ”
All of this obviously raises questions. Where does the fungus come from? How did we find out that it was filled with mind-altering drugs? And if you swallow a bunch of these buttless insects, can you get high?
Scientists know Massospora since the 19th century. Lill said it sort of evolved to specifically attack periodic cicadas. It stays dormant in the ground for 13 or 17 years, depending on its preferred brood, and germinates as soon as the cicadas start to wake up.
The magic mushroom connection, however, is more recent.
Researchers at the University of West Virginia were studying a herd of infected cicadas in 2016 when they discovered that some of them were filled with psilocybin from the fungus, according to a 2018 article in The Atlantic. Others were also loaded with amphetamines.
“At first I thought there was absolutely no way,” researcher Greg Boyce told The Atlantic at the time. “It seemed impossible.”
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Matt Kasson, professor and principal investigator on the project, wrote an academic article with his team and began calling the spore-secreting bugs “the flying salt shakers of death,” the Atlantic reported. There was enough psilocybin in the cicadas that Kasson told the outlet that he briefly feared he might be in trouble studying a Schedule I drug without getting a permit from the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit, the DEA is going to come over here and punch me and confiscate my flying salt shakers,'” he told The Atlantic.
Eating cicadas is definitely one thing. Lill said upscale restaurants in Washington, DC, incorporated the bugs into their menus as a seasonal treat. One of his colleagues even calls them “arboreal shrimps”.
Speaking to the Atlantic, Kasson guessed that devouring a large number of infected bugs could have some sort of mind-altering effect. But keep in mind: people daring enough to munch on cicadas usually do so right after the insects molt their exoskeletons – way before. Massospora takes control of their body.
Older cicadas would be crispy and unpleasant. Lill said even squirrels, rats and birds – who treat emergencies like ecological Golden Corrals – avoid fungus-riddled insects.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said.
Depending on its prevalence in certain areas, Massospora can sometimes have a noticeable effect on cicada populations.
This may excite some, who see the upcoming arrival as some kind of horror movie invasion. But Lill helps run an organization called Friend to Cicadas, which strives to paint Brood X’s arrival as a natural and wonderful miracle. This is not something to be feared, they argue. It is something to teach your children. After all, cicadas are not dangerous to humans or flora.
All the cicadas want to do is find a mate. They already face an array of predators, and now there is this fungus to be concerned about as well.