Brood X Cicada Orgy Crashed By A Mind-Altering Fungus That Eats Butts

Eventually, the eating away becomes so severe the cicada’s butt actually falls off. Yikes. Image credit: superbatfish, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Periodical cicadas are so named owing to their timely appearance above ground. They don’t emerge often – but when they do, it’s certainly not done by halves. In 2020, millions were estimated to have arisen zombie-style from the ground as brood XI made its debut. In 2021, the party is even bigger with estimates for brood X’s attendees sitting in the billions.

These curious critters make the migration to above the ground for a once in their lifetime event, as they spend just a few weeks getting their reproduction on. The veritable orgy is short-lived compared to the cicada’s underground stretch of around seventeen years. You can appreciate, then, why they embark on their sexcapades with such vigor, but, as always, there’s a catch.

A fungus called Massospora cicadina is well-known among the scientific community, an opportunistic fungus that crashes the cicada orgy in spreading from insect to insect via sexual contact. Effectively an STI, the fungus can spread from an infected female to other cicadas as they attempt to copulate.

“It’s a sexually transmitted fungus,” said John Lill, a cicada expert and chair of biology at George Washington University to IndyStar. “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.”

Interestingly, the fungus has a behavior-altering influence on males. Usually, they sing to attract a female for reproduction – but when infected by M. cicadina, they’ll also flap their wings, which attracts males as well. As the fungus continues to eat away at the cicada’s reproductive organs, the insect will pass it on to every other cicada they encounter. Eventually, the eating away becomes so severe the cicada’s butt actually falls off. Yikes.

Scientists have attempted to investigate the fungus, but it’s not easy when gaining access to infected individuals so crucially hangs on being in the right place at the right time. Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University, took a stab at it in 2016 and made a curious discovery about the wing-flapping male cicadas infected with M. cicadina. Analysis of a fungal sample revealed it contained the plant amphetamine cathinone, a substance also found in the khat plant that’s chewed by humans in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Different species of fungi, affecting annual cicadas, were found to contain the psychedelic substance psilocybin, also found in magic mushrooms.

"I thought: OH CRAP. The DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers,” Kasson remarked to The Atlantic.

Kasson, who refers to the infected cicadas as “flying saltshakers of death”, suspects the presence of the mind-altering drug might be what enables the butt-less cicadas to continue their frenzied mating. “If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” said Kasson to The Atlantic. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.”

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I guess there really ain't no party like a brood X sex club party...

 


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