Dismembered and sex-crazed, so-called “zombie cicadas” could soon be spotted in your backyard.
Massospora cicadina is a fungal pathogen that infects only 13- and 17-year periodical cicadas, such as this year’s Brood X.
The disease takes over their bodies, causing many to lose their lower abdomen and genitals.
It’s a strange phenomena that has been going on for hundreds of years, causing creepy dismembered — but alive — insects crawling across the area.
“Later in the emergence, we’re going to see this fungal disease that cicadas can get. In 2004, it was estimated that maybe 30 percent of the cicadas – in June – will be infected,” said Gene Kritsky, the dean of behavioral and natural sciences for the College of Mount St. Joseph University.
He’s also a renowned cicada researcher.
He says the fungal disease takes a while to manifest and grow inside of cicadas, who typically have a six-week lifespan above ground. Typically, cicadas will see the effect of this fungal infection in mid-June — the effect typically meaning dismemberment.
“This fungus manifests itself in the abdomen, sort of filling with a chalk-like structure. As it fills, the very tip of the abdomen tips off. It looks like someone stuck a piece of tan chalk up in the abdominal cavity of the insect.”
The result is typically the loss of the rear half of the insect’s body.
Even with limbs and abdomens missing, these little cicadas are still mobile. They can still fly, Kritsky said, and are still very much alive.
“They have a ventral nerve cord, so the brain and the ganglionic mass at the base of the head control the mouthparts, and the legs are being controlled in part by the thoracic ganglia. So it will still be able to move around.”
Cicadas emerge for the sole purpose of mating. They shed their exoskeletons, attach themselves to branches, mate and lay eggs before dying off in about six weeks.
But the fungal disease actually hinders them from reproducing, in many cases. But even if they’re missing their abdomen and genitals, mating is still on the forefront of their above-ground mission.
“The fungus itself creates an amphetamine that changes a cicada’s behavior. So if a male gets infected with this fungus, he stops calling for females,” Kritsky said. “But when he hears another male call, he’ll flick his wings like a female, luring that male close to him. When that male comes in contact with him — that spreads the fungal spores to the other male.”
The unnerving result is zombie-like looking cicadas, which limp across the Earth in an eerie sort of way. The phenomena is nothing new, with researchers noting the bizarre behavior as early as the 1800s.
Don’t worry: This fungal pathogen has no effect on humans.