Cicadas broods infected with Massospora fungus

Written by: Jaylin Hardin | Sports Editor

In late spring and early summer across the south and midwest, two broods of cicadas, XIX and XIII, will be hatching simultaneously. Cicada broods typically hatch every 13 and 17 years — for brood XIX and brood XIII, respectively — and the last time these broods hatched at the same time was 1803, making this an entomological phenomenon. All seven cicada species will be represented in both broods this year — it won’t be until 2037 that all seven are represented again.

Jason Bittel from the “Washington Post” had the opportunity to sit down with experts on cicada life cycles. 

“It’s pretty spectacular, from the standpoint of a scientist that’s interested in cicadas,” said Matt Kasson, a mycologist at West Virginia University. Mycologists focus on the study of fungi and how they are spread. 

This time around, scientists hope to investigate and uncover the mysteries around a parasitic fungus that affects adult cicadas. The fungus, called Massospora cicadina, affects only the Magicicada species, also known as periodical cicadas because of the broods’ hatching periods.

Infection of the cicadas first occurs when they emerge from their broods; spores attach themselves to their abdomens and begin to grow.  

When the fungus’ spores infect a cicada, its body is flooded with amphetamine and psilocybin, and its lower abdomen along with reproductive organs are replaced with the fungus. The fungus takes on a chalky white appearance, leading scientists to call them “saltshakers of death.” 

The presence of amphetamine and psilocybin in the cicada’s body changes the insects’ behavior. The most common behavior change in cicadas is hypersexuality. Additionally, during the mating cycle of the cicada’s life, infected male cicadas don’t only mate with female cicadas — they mimic the mating patterns of female cicadas so other males will mate with them.  

This pattern of behavior in infected male cicadas causes the fungus to be sexually transmitted, to males and females alike. However, it is less prevalent in females than it is in males. 

“Periodical cicadas have interlocking genitalia. So when they pull apart, guess what happens? Rip. And then there’s a cicada walking around with someone else’s genitals stuck to them,” said Dr. John Cooley, an associate professor in residence of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, Hartford, “…and now the cicada that’s infected is busted open.”

While also studying the habits of these infected cicadas, scientists like Kasson and Cooley are hoping to research the use of the fungus in the field of medicine. M. cicadina is used in cultures in China and among New Zealand’s Maori as a traditional medicine for inflammation.

There is a positive side to the emergence of cicada broods, however. Cicada emergences have had ecological benefits, providing an array of protein for predators, as well as boosts in phosphorus and nitrogen for plant life, thanks to trillions of decaying insect bodies.

“If you’re out during this year’s emergence and your dog or toddler happens to gulp down a cicada or three, don’t worry about it,” said Maureen Turcatel, collections manager of insects at the Field Museum in Chicago. “Cicadas can’t bite or sting, and they are perfectly edible.”

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