A mind-controlling, sexually-transmitted fungus turns this year's cicada population into "zombies."

You've heard their shrill buzzing, reminding you that it's a sweltering summer outside. Cicadas are seasonal, but this year the West Virginia cicada population is being infected with a parasitic fungus called Massospora. The fungus, which contains psychedelic chemicals like psilocybin, eats away at the abdomen of an infected cicada. The cicada continues to fly about as the fungus manipulates its wings to simulate a mating call to draw in and infect other cicadas.

In their study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, researchers compared the infected cicadas to "zombies" and described the new discovery that the disease is spread, at least in part, as a sexually-transmitted disease.

cicada

Image courtesy WVU Photo/Angie Macias.

Zombie cicadas aren't a danger to humans.

These aren't murder hornets or mosquitoes. The fungus and its cicada slaves are generally harmless to humans, the researchers affirm.

Brian Lovett, a post-doctoral researcher with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and first author on the study, explains:

"They're very docile. 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." 

The infection experience seems terrible, though. In a press release, the cicada's last moments are described as "a disturbing display of B-horror movie proportions: Massospora spores gnaw away at a cicada‚Äôs genitals, butt, and abdomen, replacing them with fungal spores. Then they "wear away like an eraser on a pencil," Lovett said.

Mercifully for cicadas, the fungus has a relatively slow rate of reproduction and does not pose a major threat to the cicada population overall.

Angie Macias, a WVU doctoral candidate and co-author of the study, points out how this information might be helpful:

"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."

Does the screeching of cicadas annoy you? Is a butt-eating zombie parasite a deserved curse, or is it horrific? Leave a comment!