Researchers from West Virginia University have discovered a fungus that transforms cicadas into flying zombies with severed limbs and strange behavior.
Infected cicadas aren't quite "undead" as zombies in the shows like the Walking Dead are, but the fungus have taken over these insects and they fly around spreading the disease to more and more of their brethren.
"They are only zombies in the sense that the fungus is in control of their bodies," study author and WVU assistant professor of forest pathology Matt Kasson said in a statement.
The Fungus That Turns Cicadas Into 'The Flying Dead'
In a study published in the journal Fungal Ecology, scientists revealed that the fungus known as Massopora contains chemicals that are similar to those in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Cicadas encounter the fungus underground, where these insects spend 13 to 17 years before they emerge above ground as adults. Symptoms start within seven to 10 days upon their emergence with the abdomen beginning to slough off and exposing the infection at the end of the cicada.
"Infected adults maintain or accelerate normal host activity during sporulation, enabling rapid and widespread dispersal prior to host death," Kasson said. "They also engage in hypersexual behaviors."
For instance, male cicadas attempt to mate constantly, even with the fungus already consuming their genitals and butts.
One of Kasson's students and fellow study authors Angie Macias described the infected cicadas as "flying salt shakers of death."
To study the cicadas, the team tried infecting these insects in the laboratory without success. Fortunately, the researchers were able to observe enough wild cicadas to collect enough data for their discovery.
Future Research On The Zombie Fungus
Since the zombie fungus in cicadas has the same chemicals of certain hallucinogens, there may be individuals curious about its psychedelic potential.
According to Kasson, it may be possible to get high from the infected cicadas. However, he added that the psychoactive compounds are only two of less than 1,000 compounds in these cicadas and some of these compounds could potentially be harmful to humans.
The team is ready to engage in further research to shed more light on cicadas and this fungal infection, particularly in genetics. Next, they're planning to resequence the fungus' genome and compare the gene expression of healthy and infected cicadas.
"We anticipate these discoveries will foster a renewed interest in early diverging fungi and their pharmacologically important secondary metabolites, which may serve as the next frontier for novel drug discovery," Kasson said.