‘Zombie cicadas’ have returned to West Virginia

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West Virginia University researchers were part of a team that discovered how Massospora, a parasitic fungus, manipulates male cicadas into flicking their wings like females – a mating invitation – which tempts unsuspecting male cicadas and infects them. (WVU Photo/Angie Macias)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WTVQ) – As if the world needed more to deal with in 2020, researchers at West Virginia University have discovered a new population of “zombie cicadas.”

According to a new study published by PLOS Pathogens, researchers say the cicadas are being brutally infected by a parasitic fungus, known as Massospora, that controls their mind and forces them to infect other insects.

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“Essentially, the cicadas are luring others into becoming infected because their healthy counterparts are interested in mating,” said Brian Lovett, study co-author and post-doctoral researcher with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “The bioactive compounds may manipulate the insect to stay awake and continue to transmit the pathogen for longer.”

These actions persist amid a disturbing display of B-horror movie proportions: Massospora spores gnaw away at a cicada’s genitals, butt and abdomen, replacing them with fungal spores. Then they “wear away like an eraser on a pencil,” Lovett said.

Lovett compared the transmission of the behavior-modifying virus to rabies.

Both rabies and entomopathogenic fungi (parasites that destroy insects) enlist their living hosts for successful “active host transmission,” Lovett said.

“When you’re infected with rabies, you become aggressive, you become afraid of water and you don’t swallow,” Lovett said. “The virus is passed through saliva and all of those symptoms essentially turn you into a rabies-spreading machine where you’re more likely to bite people.”

Lovett added, “In that sense, we’re all very familiar with active host transmission. Since we are also animals like insects, we like to think we have complete control over our decisions and we take our freewill for granted. But when these pathogens infect cicadas, it’s very clear that the pathogen is pulling the behavioral levers of the cicada to cause it to do things which are not in the interest of the cicada but is very much in the interest of the pathogen.”

Lovett’s colleague and paper co-author, Matthew Kasson, associate professor of plant pathology and mycology, helped first discover the existence of psychoactive compounds in Massospora-infected cicada fungi last year.

“Our previous literature always mentioned the strange behaviors associated with Massospora and some closely-allied fungi but what was missing was a synthesis of all this new information that had come to light,” Kasson said. “The most interesting finding is the things we still don’t know. We realized that there were some possible scenarios for infection that we had not considered before.”

Kasson noted that it’s generally accepted that cicada nymphs encounter Massospora in their 17th year as they emerge from the ground to molt into adults. But researchers also concluded that nymphs could encounter Massospora on their way down to feed on roots for 17 years.

“The fungus could more or less lay in wait inside its host for the next 17 years until something awakens it, perhaps a hormone cue, where it possibly lays dormant and asymptomatic in its cicada host,” Kasson said.

Doctoral student Angie Macias, worked alongside Lovett and Kasson, and believes their research will lead to a better overall understanding of insects.

“These discoveries are not only super cool but also have a lot of potential in helping us understand insects better, and perhaps learn better ways to control pest species using fungi that manipulate host behaviors,” she said. “It is almost certain that there are undiscovered Massospora species, never mind the other AHT (active host transmission) fungi, and each of these will have developed its own intimate connection with its host’s biology.”

The team researched cicada broods earlier this year in southeastern West Virginia.

Lovett also explained why we’re seeing cicadas emerging again so soon, “Different broods come out at different time spans.”

“There’s our periodical cicadas that come out every 13 years and there are other periodical cicadas that come out every 17 years. The timing is staggered in different states,” said Lovett.

Lovett added that they’re generally harmless to humans and reproduce at such a rate that the fungi’s extermination of hordes of cicadas has little effect on their overall population.

“They’re very docile,” Lovett said. “You can walk right up to one, pick it up to see if it has the fungus (a white to yellowish plug on its back end) and set it back down. They’re not a major pest in any way. They’re just a really interesting quirky insect that’s developed a bizarre lifestyle.”

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Erica joins the ABC 36 family as a Co-Anchor of Good Morning Kentucky weekday mornings from 5am-7am with Cody Adams and Good Day Kentucky weekday mornings from 9am to 10am. Erica also anchors News at Midday from 12-12:30pm. She is also a Web and Social Media Content Producer. Erica graduated in three and a half years from Michigan State University with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcast Journalism and specialization in Women, Gender and Social Justice. Although she hails from Michigan, Erica has worked as a News Reporter/Sports Anchor for the CBS-affiliate in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Prior to that, she worked for a PBS-affiliate there covering all types of news – even providing live reports for The Weather Channel during her first hurricane. She then moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana and worked as the Weekend Anchor/Reporter at KPLC, the NBC/FOX/CW affiliate. Erica comes to Lexington from the Huntington area where she worked at WSAZ, an NBC/CW affiliate in West Virginia, as a weekday evening anchor covering the tri states of Ohio and Kentucky as well. In addition to her background on TV, Erica has worked in radio, served as the PA announcer for the Class A "Lansing Lugnuts" and hosted Carnival parades in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Some of her favorite hobbies include running, reading, hiking, spending time with her husband and taking pictures of their furbabies. Erica is big on community involvement, having served as a board member for Dress for Success, volunteered as a Big with Big Brothers Big Sisters, worked on the Mayor's Armed Forces Commission in Lake Charles and hosted countless events. She hopes you can connect with her on Facebook: EricaBivensTV and on Twitter: @ericabivens or Instagram: erica.bivens. You can also email her at ebivens@wtvq.com. Please send all event inquiries via email. Erica is excited to explore Lexington and the outdoors and - of course - meet all of you!