As billions of Brood X cicadas emerge from the dirt for the first time in 17 years, a fungus is making these bugs want to mate more than usual.
The Massospora cicadina, laced with the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms, infects a small number of the periodical cicadas and takes over their bodies. Besides making the bugs eat away their insides, the fungus also increases their sex drives.
“The fungus lies dormant in the soil until the cicada comes up,” Matt Kasson, an associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University, said. “It recognizes a hormonal signal from the cicada itself.”
The male Brood X cicadas usually attract a mate by singing loud songs, which is the buzzing sound usually heard in the spring. Meanwhile, the female cicadas flick their wings as a response to these songs.
However, if the Massospora is ingested, the male cicadas will both sing and flick his wings, pretending to be a female, making it easier to attract more partners and spread the fungus. Since the fungus causes castration in male cicadas and replaces their abdomen with fungal mass, there’s no successful mating.
These periodical cicadas, unique to North America, are surfacing in 15 states. It takes the cicadas 13 to 17 years to complete their life cycle, which takes place mostly underground. Since 2004, nymphs have been growing underground and, now adults, the cicadas are emerging to reach the end of their life cycle usually spent mating and laying eggs. Within the next few weeks, the region is expected to home millions of cicadas above ground.
Kasson said it’s not uncommon for people to eat these cicadas for mind-altering experiences, since they contain amphetamines. Although it’s expected for less than 5% of cicadas to be infected from the fungus, Kasson recommends avoiding the ingestion of cicadas.
“There’s always a risk in eating cicadas pump-filled with amphetamines,” Kasson said. “That was just one of a thousand compounds we found in the cicadas, and we don’t know what those other compounds are capable of doing to humans.”