The fungus Massospora can’t live outside of cicadas. Scientists have finally found what it’s doing: taking over cicadas’ bodies and sending them on a sex-crazed rampage.
Periodical cicadas live up to 17 years underground before emerging as adults. According to the study, published in Fungal Ecology on Monday, Massospora infects them right before they emerge, causing their abdomen to start to slough off.
Infected male cicadas, no longer in control of their bodies, attempt to mate with anything they can find, flapping their wings the way that females usually do in courtship rituals.
These mating attempts don’t help the cicadas much, as the fungus has already eaten through their genitals and butt. They do, however, help to spread fungal spores and infect more cicadas.
“The fungus spreads like a sexually transmitted disease,” lead author Matthew Kasson said. “And it can be spread from male to female and male to male."
Researchers from West Virginia University analyzed infected cicadas from the wild, pinpointing two compounds that they believe are responsible for the takeover: cathinone, an amphetamine normally found in plants, and psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms.
Before you start chomping on cicadas trying to get high, though, researchers warn that psilocybin is only one of many compounds found in this fungus, including some that may be harmful.
The discovery could provide a pathway to developing new drugs for humans. Cathinone has previously found only in plants, and psilocybin only in hallucinogenic mushrooms. After sequencing the genome, researchers didn’t detect the normal pathways to produce the compounds, meaning that they could be made in a whole new way.
“This could provide some kind of breakthrough for medicine,” Kasson said. “These psychoactive compounds are medicinally important.”
Because you can’t grow this fungus in a lab, scientists will have to rely on infected cicadas to learn more.
Researchers are still unsure how exactly these compounds affect cicadas, but similar compounds have been found to affect the behavior of other insects. An amphetamine similar to cathinone has shown to increase aggressiveness in ants, while some have theorized that psilocybin could be used as predator protection. To figure out exactly how these compounds affect behavior, researchers would need to test purified forms, something they couldn’t do without DEA permits and oversight.