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Cicada Apocalypse: Trillions Set to Emerge, Some as ‘Zombie Cicadas’

Cicada Apocalypse: Trillions Set to Emerge, Some as 'Zombie Cicadas' | Credits: Shutterstock

Cicada Apocalypse: Trillions Set to Emerge, Some as 'Zombie Cicadas' | Credits: Shutterstock

United States: Trillions of cicadas are poised to emerge across numerous regions of the United States this spring in what an expert has termed “cicada-Seddon.” Not only is an above-average quantity of cicadas expected this year, but some of them will be “zombie cicadas,” infected by a sexually transmitted fungus that induces hyper-sexuality.

Periodical cicadas spend the majority of their lives subterranean, only emerging after periods of 13 or 17 years. This year, two swarms of cicadas will surface: Brood XIX, appearing every 13 years, will emerge in Georgia and the Southeast, while Brood XIII, emerging every 17 years, will surface in Illinois, as reported by CBS News.

With this confluence, the insects will arrive in abundance that will be unparalleled in generations.

Matthew Kasson, an associate professor of Mycology and Forest Pathology at West Virginia University, elucidates that both of these broods can fall victim to a fungal pathogen known as Massospora cicadina.

Upon emergence from the earth, the cicadas undergo molting into adults, and within a span of a week to 10 days, the fungus prompts the rupture of their abdominal region. A chalky, white plug emerges, seizing control of their bodies and causing the detachment of their genitalia.

“The cicada persists in its routine activities, as it would under normal circumstances,” Kasson relayed to CBS News. “It attempts to mate, it takes flight, it perches on foliage. However, a third of its physique has been supplanted by fungus. It’s truly extraordinary.”

Kasson posits that the reason cicadas may overlook the presence of the fungus is due to its production of an amphetamine, potentially granting them endurance.

“However, there’s an additional peculiarity,” he noted. “There’s a heightened sexual drive. Consequently, males, for instance, will persist in attempts to mate with females—unsuccessfully, given that their posterior end is overrun by fungus. Yet, they’ll also mimic females to entice males, effectively doubling the number of cicadas with which an infected individual interacts.”

Ordinarily, male cicadas emit a loud humming noise to attract female counterparts, while females signal their willingness to mate by fluttering their wings. However, the fungus induces males to mimic females’ wing movements, luring unsuspecting males and thereby infecting them, as per Kasson, CBS News noted.

“In this manner, the fungus is transmitted sexually, akin to an STD,” he asserted.

Kasson acknowledged that the fungus’s origin remains elusive. “Much of this remains shrouded in mystery because much transpires beneath our feet,” he remarked.

Massospora cicadina generates spores on cicadas, with suspicions that upon the insects’ demise, the spores infiltrate the soil, subsequently infecting other subterranean cicadas.

“In the weeks leading up to their simultaneous emergence in a spectacular spectacle, they lie in wait beneath the surface, pending the soil reaching 64 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kasson delineated. It’s hypothesized that cicadas contract the infection while awaiting underground or upon hatching, as they burrow into the earth, thereby encountering the spores of the fungus.

Typically, fungi necessitate a host, such as an insect, to propagate spores and disseminate the infection, culminating in the demise of the host.

It’s presumed that the Massospora cicadina fungus lies dormant for years before assuming the role of a “puppet master” upon the cicadas reaching maturity, Kasson expounded. “Given the peculiar life cycle of the insect, the fungus has had to recalibrate its tactics. Essentially, it prolongs the host’s lifespan sufficiently to optimize dissemination,” he elaborated.

The potential effects of the fungus on other wildlife or humans remain uncertain, although Kasson noted observing thousands of compounds in infected cicadas, some of which could be toxic, as claimed by CBS News.

“We’re aware that myriad creatures are consuming these emerging cicadas—snakes and avian species. Is it feasible that they’re exerting an influence on the creatures that ingest them? Indeed, it’s plausible,” he affirmed. Nonetheless, he underscored that fewer than 5% of cicadas exhibit signs of infection with the fungus, and researchers have yet to document any ramifications on other wildlife.

Kasson implores individuals not to consume or exterminate cicadas but rather to capture images if they detect fungus on the insects and share them with online scientific communities, such as iNaturalist, to aid researchers.

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