Scientists have known about the terrible Massospora cicadina fungus that infects massive amounts of cicadas every time they emerge to mate. This fungus literally brings about a fate worse than death. The infamous fungus infects cicadas, completely hijack their behavior and finally explode out of their abdomens. This leaves the cicadas still alive and compelled to try and mate despite them no longer having any sexual organs. This fungus is somewhat infamous because of the gruesome way it bursts out from the cicada’s abdomen to scat its spores, leaving cicadas with only half a body. Because of the shocking manner in which this fungus infects and damages the cicadas, scientists have studied them since 1879. What they hadn’t been able to figure out in all that time was exactly how the fungus pulls this off and is able to infect so many cicadas. A new study finally answers this question, and reveals how the fungus is able to pull off such a feat.
John Cooley, the lead researcher on the team from the University of Connecticut, along with his fellow researchers recently revealed just exactly how this fungus works its magic on the poor cicadas. They start even before the cicadas have emerged from the ground, as the resting spores stuck to the cicadas exoskeleton are alerted by certain compounds on the cicada that they are preparing to emerge and mate, meaning it’s time to sprout and infect them.
After infecting a specific cicada’s abdomen, which can be either male or female, the fungus begins to control the male cicada’s behavior. The males begin acting strange early on, flicking their wings as only a female would do in addition to other mating behavior. This is because the fungus can be transmitted sexually, so it is in the fungus’ best interest to have the cicada mate with as many partners as it can. This strange behavior can bring in male cicadas thinking the infected one is a female, who then will try to mate with them, but will only manage to pick up the deadly fungus as well. The infected females transmit the fungus the any males not infected when they mate with them. Because of the mating frenzy cicadas are in when they emerge from the earth, this makes the fungus spread very quickly throughout the huge group, explaining how they are able to infect so many cicadas. Eventually the spores fill up the cicada’s abdomen to the point where it bursts open or falls off completely, scatting more spores of the fungus out from the whole that is now where their butt used to be. Despite their sexual organs falling off, the cicadas are still compelled to mate, continuing to behave normally, infecting other cicadas it tries to mate with as well as dropping spores everywhere they go for other unsuspecting cicadas to catch.
Do you know of any other insects that have to deal with horrifying fungus like this one? How do those cases differ from this one?
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