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The Buzz

First Murder Hornets, Now Zombie Cicadas. Luckily, Their Names Make Them Sound Worse Than They Are




(Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

First murder hornets arrived in the United States, and now, like the plot of a bad science fiction movie, we get word that zombie cicadas are out there roaming the world. 

Just like the murder hornets, the so-called "zombie cicadas" are real, although maybe not quite as sinister as their clever nickname would have you believe. Zombie cicadas are simply cicadas that have been infected by a parasitic fungus called Massospora, according to a study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Much like hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Massospora fungus has psychedelic properties. When cicadas are infected by the fungus, it controls the insects' minds and causes them to infect other insects, CNN reports.

The spores from the Massospora fungus first consume the cicadas' abdomens, genitals and butts, then replace the tissue with fungal tissue. The cicadas are not incapacitated by this fungal tissue replacing their normal body tissue, but the fungus does begin to take over the insects, keeping them alive and controlling their behavior to better disperse the fungal spores. 

"If one of our limbs were taken out or if our stomach was slashed open, we would probably be incapacitated," Matthew Kasson, the co-author of the study, told CNN. "But infected cicadas, despite the fact that a third of their body has fallen off, continue to go about their activities like mating and flying as if nothing happened. This is really, really unique for insect killing fungi."

Cicadas infected with the Massospora fungus were found by West Virginia University researchers in West Virginia in June. Because periodical cicadas have 13-year or 17-year life cycles and only emerge from underground at the end of their life cycle, studying how the fungus affects the cicadas can be difficult, CNN reports. 

The fungus can be spread by the infected cicadas through their reproductive behavior. Although the infected cicadas cannot reproduce because their reproductive organs have been replaced by fungal tissue, they still behave as though they can. This attempt to mate then spreads the fungus to other cicadas, according to CNN.

"Zombie" reputation aside, these infected cicadas are not a threat or a danger to humans. And at this point, scientists do not think the fungus poses a significant threat to the overall cicada population, Kasson told CNN.

Much like the zombie cicadas, the murder hornets shouldn't keep you up at night either. These hornets, which are native to Asia, were only first discovered in the United States this year, and nowhere near Will County or even the Midwest.

Researchers in Washington trapped a murder hornet, the common name for which is the Asian giant hornet, in July and are now working to eradicate them from North America before they devastate the native bee populations, NPR reports.

If the so-called murder hornets continue to spread across North America, they could pose a risk to our bee populations, which already are in a state of serious decline, because the hornets eat bees and destroy their colonies, according to NPR. And with their sharp, serrated jaws and stingers that can pierce denim, their sting is pretty nasty, too. Still, though, you can rest easy because they are a long way from reaching our neck of the woods. 

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