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The truth about 'zombie cicadas': 'The fungus can do some nefarious things'

A fungal infection is causing male cicadas to mimic the behavior of females

This year, two "broods" of cicadas are emerging at the same time – and with them, reports of a mysterious fungus that is causing cicadas to become "zombies" who display abnormal sexual behaviors. 

But is there anything to worry about? Is this really happening? Is "Dawn of the Dead: Cicadas" on the horizon? 

Fox News Digital spoke to several experts on cicadas who helped separate fact from fiction regarding cicadas — "zombie" and otherwise. 

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"What's really going on is even weirder," representatives from Chicago's Field Museum told Fox News Digital in an emailed statement. 

A fungus, Massospora cicadina, infects cicadas — and it turns the back part of their bodies into "a chalky mess of spores," said the Field Museum, which becomes a "fungal plug." 

cicada infected by Massospora cicadina

Cicadas that are infected with Massospora cicadina, like the one pictured, grow a "chalky mess of spores" where their reproductive organs are located.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

That plug can get ripped open during the mating process, and the cicada will "fly around raining down spores, further spreading the fungus," said the Field Museum. 

P.J. Liesch, director of UW Insect Diagnostic Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that the fungus does "really interesting things" to the cicadas it infects.

"The fungus can do some nefarious things," he told Fox News Digital in a phone interview. "It can produce some amphetamine-like compounds, which end up affecting the behavior of these infected cicadas." 

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That altered behavior, he said, is why the infected bugs are referred to as "zombie" cicadas — although unlike Hollywood zombies, the cicadas themselves are very much alive. 

"[The infection] really makes them try to mate like crazy," said Liesch.  

infected cicada

The fungus makes the cicadas "try to mate like crazy," said the director of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Infected cicadas also display unusual sexual behavior — namely, the male cicadas mimic females. 

Male cicadas, Liesch said, "sing" to attract a mate, but female cicadas do not sing back. Instead, a cicada that is open to mating will "snap" or "flick" her wings. 

"It turns out that male cicadas that are infected with this fungus can start snapping their wings," he said, which attracts the attention of other male cicadas — who then become infected with the fungus themselves. 

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And while the existence of a fungus that can alter the sexual behavior of a cicada may be concerning, "humans don't have anything to be afraid of when it comes to these insects," said Liesch. 

The fungus is naturally occurring in the environment, and "it happens to be associated with these periodical cicadas that are out in many parts of the U.S. at the moment," he said. 

"They are harmless. They don’t eat brains like other zombies."

The Field Museum's scientists concurred, saying that although some scientists refer to infected cicadas as "flying salt shakers of death," there is nothing to worry about. 

"The fungus is specialized to cicadas, so other animals and people can't get infected by it," said the Field Museum. Infected cicadas are safe to handle, the museum said — though "you might want to wash your hands afterward." 

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Chris Simon, senior research scientist in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Connecticut, had a much more humorous take. 

"They are harmless," she said to Fox News Digital. "They don’t eat brains like other zombies." 

Also, the number of infected cicadas remains quite small, said both the Field Museum and Liesch. 

A Brood XIX cicada crosses a brick path

Shown here, a healthy cicada that is not infected with the "zombie" fungus.  (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

"When the Field Museum’s scientists went to central Illinois last week to collect cicadas, they examined hundreds of cicadas and found seven with Massosporathey also found some [on Thursday] in Cook County forest preserves," the museum said.

Liesch had a similar experience in Wisconsin, he said. He spent this Wednesday in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which he described as "probably our best cicada hotspot in the state of Wisconsin." 

"I saw probably tens of thousands of cicadas," he said. "I ended up finding three that had the fungus plug." 

Although cicadas may be considered a nuisance, Liesch underscored their importance to the ecosystem as a whole, as well as the special nature of this year's emergence. 

"Birds, fish, mammals, for example, will be gorging on these things."

"I liken it to the solar eclipse we had earlier this spring," he said. "How many times do you have in your lifetime to be able to witness that?" 

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The periodical cicadas currently in Wisconsin, appear every 17 years, something Liesch said was "really special" — both for scientists like himself and for the environment.  

"Birds, fish, mammals, for example, will be gorging on these things," he said. "It's essentially a free buffet for about a month or a month and a half while they're active."

Brains, meanwhile, will remain off the menu. 

Christine Rousselle is a lifestyle reporter with Fox News Digital.

via June 6th 2024