Cicadas Influenced by Fungus Show Zombie-Like Behavior

insects compelled to find, infect others

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A fungus in West Virginia is affecting cicadas, eating away at their bodies, affecting their minds, and causing the demise of other cicadas, CNN reported. The psychedelic fungus contains chemicals that are found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. Common fungal infections seldom cause such strange outcomes.

Fungus 3D rendering
An unusual parasitic fungus is causing “zombie-like” behaviors in cicadas in West Virginia. Photo By Christoph Burgstedt / Shutterstock

According to CNN, a parasitic fungus is wreaking havoc on the cicadas in West Virginia—and it isn’t pretty. “Researchers have discovered a new population of cicadas that are being brutally infected by a parasitic fungus that controls their mind and forces them to infect other insects,” the article said.

“These insects, dubbed ‘zombie cicadas,’ are under the influence of Massospora, a psychedelic fungus which contains chemicals such as those found in hallucinogenic mushrooms. First, Massospora spores eat away at the cicada’s genitals, butt, and abdomen. They are then replaced with fungal spores used to transmit the fungus to other cicadas.”

The article said these are the third cicada population found to be infected with Massospora. Often, fungal infections are unpleasant wonders of nature.

Night of the Living Bread

“Fungi are eukaryotic cells containing a nucleus and many organelles; these are more complicated life forms [that] require oxygen to live,” said Dr. Barry Fox, Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Fungi are structurally divided into yeasts—similar to the yeast used in baking bread—and molds—the green circles on moldy pieces of bread in the refrigerator, or blocks of cheese that you find in the back of the refrigerator.”

One such yeast is called Cryptococcus neoformans. While not a cause of zombie behavior, this fungus is still dangerous. Dr. Fox said it’s found in soil throughout the United States and it can cause several illnesses when inhaled by immunocompromised people. One illness is pneumonia; the other is fungal meningitis, a “serious infection around the brain or spinal cord,” Dr. Fox said.

“Cryptococcus has a very thick-walled, sugar-based capsule, which prevents white blood cells from attacking and destroying the yeast,” he said. “Hence, aggressive antifungal therapy is required to successfully treat this dangerous and often life-threatening condition.”

The Fungus among Us

There’s no reason to panic, but we can’t really escape fungal mold spores—not completely, anyway.

“In spite of the ‘clean’ air in our home, outside, there are actually thousands of fungal mold spores that are floating around, invisible in the air,” Dr. Fox said. “Normally, our immune system is sufficiently strong that occasional spores that land in our lungs do not cause infections. In patients with compromised immune systems, these spores can enter the lung, and cause an established fungal infection of the lung.”

The most frequent offender that causes fungal lung infections in immunocompromised patients is called Aspergillus. However, although lung transplant patients are the most at-risk for Aspergillus infection, it isn’t a major cause of death in the United States.

“Sometimes concerns are raised regarding mold overgrowth in buildings, producing ‘toxins’ causing ‘sick building syndrome’ or mold illness in the home environment from toxins,” Dr. Fox said. “The term ‘toxic mold’ is not really a clinical disease entity; the actual mold is usually not directly toxic and, by and large, having your household duct system routinely cleaned is probably an unnecessary expense. However, allergy sufferers may find this individually useful for them.”

Thankfully, no existing fungal infections cause zombie symptoms in humans. For now, only cicadas are affected.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Image of Professor Barry Fox, M.D.

Dr. Barry Fox contributed to this article. Dr. Fox is a Clinical Professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He currently practices in clinical infectious disease at two hospitals and a long-term care facility. He received his undergraduate degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and his medical degree from Vanderbilt University.