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The cicada summer is here. Millions of periodic cicadas are emerging across Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina after hibernating underground for 17 years. They’ve missed everything from the creation of YouTube to Trump being elected.
The cicadas’ unique life cycle comes as a means of “predator avoidance.” Scientists theorize cicadas spend a prime number of years underground, 13 or 17 years, depending on the species, to avoid synching up with predators. Then by descending in unison, the millions of clumsy, defenseless cicadas can overwhelm predators and stand a chance of survival.
But this year's cicadas have an even bigger thing to worry about above surface: a hallucinogenic fungus that turns them into sex-crazed zombies. This fungus, called Massospora cicadina, invades the cicada and causes its abdomen to slide off. The cicadas enter a zombie-like state, driven to mate with anything they can find. But their efforts are fruitless, because the fungus has eaten away their butts and genitals.
The fungus acts much like an STD, where spores scatter as cicadas wiggle their infected bodies during their sex rampage. One West Virginia University researcher describes them as “flying saltshakers of death.”
This phenomenon has been going on for generations, but only last year did researchers from West Virginia University discover the chemical mechanisms driving the zombie takeover: cathinone, an amphetamine referred to as “bath salts,” and psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms.
This was a breakthrough discovery of psilocybin in any fungi other than mushrooms.
Understanding how these compounds, only found commonly in plants, are able to exist in an insect could provide a pathway for developing drugs for humans. Psilocybin in particular is pivotal in research to treat mental health conditions including PTSD and depression.
Fortunately, there have not been any reports of zombie cicadas yet. But if you are so tempted to inspect the bums of cicadas and happen to be in the Mid-Atlantic over the next month, just follow the sound of a lawnmower.
Edited by Gabriel Connelly and Ben Melbourne. Animations by Gabriel Connelly.