Murder hornets are so 2020 — there's a new horrifying insect threat this summer.
A nasty-sounding fungal infection is turning ordinary cicadas in to sex-crazed zombie “salt shakers of death” across the eastern US.
Cicadas, a close relative of insects such as grasshoppers and locusts, are common worldwide. While they are most commonly found in warmer climates, one species – the New Forest cicada – is (as its name suggests) native to England.
Some subspecies live underground in nymph form for extended periods before emerging to mate. In the Eastern US Brood X, also known as the Great Eastern Brood, emerges in huge numbers every 17 years.
This years emergence has coincided with an outbreak of the fungus Massospora. The infection grows inside the cicadas’ bodies, forcing their hard outer shell to rant off and leaving a pulpy, fungal mess in its place.
Brian Lovett, a postdoctoral researcher at West Virginia University, told the Houston Chronicle that the infection is obvious even to non-scientists.
"That's what people can immediately recognise as, 'This is a zombie, this is no longer a normal cicada, something strange is happening here’.”
As the cicadas crawl around, they shed viral spores which infect other insects and can lay dormant in the soil to infect the next generation of nymphs.
The fungus also produces cathinone, a type of amphetamine that makes the cicadas sexually insatiable. While they are no longer able to mate, as the entire back halves of their bodies have been destroyed by the fungus, the movement again encourages shedding of spores.
But it’s when they take to the air that the cicadas really earn the nickname given to infected cicadas by scientists – “the salt shakers of death”.
As the cicadas' wings beat, Lovett explains, white powdery spores that resemble grains of salt are propelled into the hair where they can infect yet more cicadas.
And the fungus can lie dormant for 17 years until the next wave of Brood X cicadas takes to the air.
"So this fungus is not only coordinating all this manipulation," Lovett says, "but it's also keeping track of two different stages."
He adds that while some people eat cicadas as a source of protein, eating a Massospora-infected cicada probably wouldn’t harm a human.
The behaviour-altering chemicals in the fungus would be present in such tiny amounts that it probably couldn’t turn humans into sex-crazed zombies.
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