- Nature, we love you, but please tone it down a bit with the freakiness.
Fascinating or terrifying times are approaching in several U.S. states, depending on how much you like bugs. Brood X cicadas are about to emerge from the ground.
In case you don’t know what we’re talking about, Brood X is a brood of periodical cicadas in America. These bugs spend 17 years in the ground as nymphs before they emerge as adults to mate.
There are a total of 15 cicada broods in eastern U.S. Out of all of them, Brood X is by far the largest.
That means that billions upon billions of cicadas are about to take flight and blacken the skies. But what these insects don’t realize is that their butts – and they themselves – are in mortal danger.
Allow us to introduce Massospora cicadina. It’s a funky little fungus that parasitizes with gruesome results.
Namely, it makes their butts fall off. And then the fungus replaces it with its own fungal mass.
Or should we say fungal ass? No, we probably shouldn’t.
Butts and Drugs
The Massospora infection in a cicada begins innocently enough. The spores make their way into the cicada’s body, either through food or air.
The horror begins soon after, though. The fungus starts eating away at the cicada’s insides, munching on its tissues until its abdomen cracks.
That’s when its butt falls clean off. This is the fungus’ golden opportunity – it grows a white chunk of spores and deposits it in place of the missing badonkadonk.
Don’t feel too sorry for the cicada, though. It hasn’t even noticed that any of this has happened, because it’s high out of its skull.
You see, the Massospora produces the same chemical that magic mushrooms do, called psilocybin. In humans, psilocybin causes a distorted sense of time and reality, hallucinations, an intense sense of unity with the universe, and increased suggestibility.
So, you can only imagine how the chemical affects cicadas. On top of psilocybin, researchers have even found infected cicadas that had amphetamines in their system.
This cocktail of mind-bending drugs essentially allows the fungus to take full control of the cicada. It becomes a willing, zombified puppet of its new fungal overlord.
‘Gender-bending Zombie Fungus’
But why would the fungus do all this, you ask? For the same reason that the cicadas emerged from the ground – reproduction.
Since the cicada doesn’t understand that it’s infected, it will go on about its usual mating behavior. Of course, without genitals, it can’t carry on its lineage – but the fungus can.
Basically, it’s a fungal STD. Yuck.
“Really what they’re doing is spreading these spores all over the place. It’s a sexually transmitted fungus,” said John Lill, chair of biology and a cicada specialist at George Washington University.
“They engage in normal courtship behavior, yet their abdomen is a big fungal mass. Instead, the attempted copulation results in spreading the fungus even more,” he explained.
Lill says normal courtship behavior, but that’s the case only with female cicadas. The males actually start behaving altogether differently.
Before we get to that, a quick 101 on cicada flirting. The male cicada produces its famous buzzing noise to attract females, who – if receptive to mating – will flick their wings in a specific pattern.
But fungus-infected males don’t only buzz. They also start moving their wings like the females do, which makes them attract both the hottest chicks and the hunkiest dudes of the cicada world.
It’s great for the fungus, because now it can spread to twice as many bugs.
“It’s this gender-bending, death-zombie fungus,” Lill summarized.
All Hail the Worm… All Hail the Worm…
The Massospora infestation in cicadas is nothing new, though. It happens with every cicada emergence, because just like the cicadas, the fungal spores lie dormant before it’s time to get busy.
Neither is Massospora the only parasite that takes over the minds and bodies of bugs. There’s a whole slew of them out there, and all of them are equally creepy.
For example, the kamikaze horsehair worm. This cooked spaghetti-looking thing infests crickets and grasshoppers that have acquired it through infected mayfly or mosquito larvae.
Once the worm is ready to breed, it takes over the cricket’s central nervous system. It forces the insect to find the nearest body of water and hop in – condemning it to drown.
That’s if it has time to drown. As soon as the cricket is in the water, the worm bursts out of its host and squirts its eggs into the water.
Then there’s the green-banded broodsac, another kind of worm with a particularly disgusting name. This little guy, however, takes over snails.
When a snail comes into contact with infected bird poop, the worm enters it and crawls into its eyestalks. This causes a horrific effect.
The eyestalks swell to a grotesque size, become bright green in color, and begin to pulsate and squirm like yummy, yummy caterpillars. The broodsac steers its now-mindless host to a sunny spot high up on a rock or a branch.
It’s just the kind of place any snail in its senses would avoid, because there they will inevitably get eaten by birds. Once inside the bird, the worm reproduces, and the cycle of terror begins anew.
Luckily, there aren’t any mind-altering horrors bothering humans. Now, anyone reading this, go to an open field during the next full moon and stand perfectly still.
It’ll all be fine.