(CBSN / WVLT) – Humans are not the only ones sensitive to psychedelic chemicals found in mushrooms. “Zombie cicadas” – under the influence of a parasitic fungus – have resurfaced in West Virginia to infect their friends, and now scientists have a better understanding of how this happens.
West Virginia University researchers have recently seen the return of these bizarre creatures, which have been infected with a fungus called Massospora. According to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the mushroom manipulates insects to unknowingly infect other cicadas, quickly transmitting the disease to create a sort of zombie army.
When a male cicada is infected with Massospora, the researchers found that it pops its wings like a female, a known mating call. This behavior attracts healthy male cicadas, facilitating the spread of the fungus, which contains chemicals including psilocybin, which are present in hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The way the disease manipulates its host and spreads is only the most recent discovery after decades of research on Massospora. The results show the parasite’s functions, in part, as a sexually transmitted infection.
“In essence, cicadas are luring others to contract the infection because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” co-author Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at the Davis College of Agriculture, wrote in a press release. , Natural Resources and Design week. “Bioactive compounds can manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen longer.”
The team studied infected cicadas that returned to southwestern Virginia earlier this year. While periodic cicadas only come out every 13 or 17 years, times are staggered in different places, making it easier for researchers to study their behaviors.
The researchers described the gruesome details of the mushroom process as a “disturbing visualization of the proportions of the B-horror film”. The spores eat away the genitalia, butts and abdominals of the cicadas until they fall, replacing them with fungal spores – a brutal process for insects, who have spent more than a decade underground.
The cicadas begin to decay, but instead of dying immediately, they fly around and infect others. Because of the infection’s mind control abilities, insects seem to behave as if nothing is wrong.
Lovett described the process as “removing like an eraser on a pencil”. Mushrooms are similar to rabies – both “recruit living insects to make their offerings,” the researchers said – in a process called active host transmission, which is a form of “biological puppet”.
“Since we are also animals like insects, we like to think that we have complete control over our decisions and take our free will for granted,” said Lovett. “But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it is very clear that the pathogen is pulling the cicada’s behavioral levers to induce it to do things that are not in the cicada’s interest but are very much in the interest of the pathogen.”
Lovett and his co-author, Matthew Kasson, associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, first discovered psychoactive compounds in cicadas infected with Massospora last year. But until now, it is unclear how the infection occurs.
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