Watch: “Zombie” cicadas imitate opposite sex to spread disease

Brian Lovett, study co-author and postdoctoral researcher with the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. Credit: Angie Macias

Male cicadas infected with fungal parasites are manipulated into exhibiting behaviors of females, so they can pass the disease onto other males that attempt to mate with them. Massospora fungus usually infect cicada nymphs that spend 17 years underground right as they emerge to molt into adults. Cicadas may also encounter the fungus as they go back underground, and the fungus may lay dormant until the cicada emerges once again. Once the adults emerge, the spores eat away the cicada’s genitals, abdomen and bottom. But chemicals inside the fungus, which include some of those found in psychedelic mushrooms, induce infected male insects to flick their wings like the females do when signaling their mating availability. Tricked males swoop in to try to mate with the infected male and contract the fungal disease themselves, according to new research published in PLOS Pathogens. “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,” said study co-author Angie Macias, a doctoral student at West Virginia University.

Read more at West Virginia University Today or check out the study in PLOS Pathogens.