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Zombie Cicadas

Cicada on a plant.

Written by Jake Stump
Photo provided/Illustrated by Brad Stalnaker

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Depending on where you want to take it, the only thing missing from Matt Kasson’s research is either Vincent Price or a blacklight poster. Or perhaps it’s a “Walking Dead” spinoff, but starring flying, sex-crazed insects with their butts falling off.

That’s real life (the latter half of that sentence) whenever cicadas harbor a parasitic fungus called Massopora, Kasson’s research unveiled. Massopora contains chemicals similar to those found in mind-altering recreational drugs like hallucinogenic mushrooms. 


Furthermore, the fungus gnaws away at the cicadas’ abdominal cavity — and, apparently, their minds. Males attempt to mate with everything they encounter, although the fungus has consumed their genitals and butts. Reduced to a horrid physical state, infected cicadas continue roaming freely as if nothing’s wrong, zombie-like and doped up on psychoactive drugs, infecting other cicadas with their sexually transmissible disease. 


“It has all the elements of a sci-fi horror story, right?” asked Kasson, West Virginia University assistant professor of forest pathology and jovial mycologist who geeks out on all things fungi. 


“The other thing that’s appealing is that we always see things like this in nature. We see flies die on a glass window and explode with spores. We don’t really understand what’s happening and, as scientists, we try to shed light on these phenomena. Add in the fact that some of these compounds could be medicinally important and there’s mass appeal.”


Cicadas first encounter Massopora as nymphs underground, where they spend 13 to 17 years before emerging to the surface to become adults, Kasson said. Within seven to 10 days above ground, the adult cicada’s abdomen begins to slough off revealing the fungal infection at the end of the cicada.


It’s quite a coming out party.


Pseudo-movie poster of Cicadas that says "They mate with everything they encounter!! Hypersexual behaviors. Fungus-infected zombie cicadas flying salt shakers of death.


The impetus for this study came in 2016 when billions of cicadas ascended upon the northeast United States. Two of Kasson’s graduate students loved cicadas. One, Matt Berger, convinced the professor to study the fungus. Another current PhD student, Angie Macias, coined a creative, heavy metal sounding name for the cicadas: “flying salt shakers of death.” Another former PhD student, Greg Boyce, helped him uncover the chemical secrets hidden inside the infected cicadas using various analytical approaches.


Kasson’s research was published in peer-reviewed journal Fungal Ecology in the summer of 2019. And then the media swooped in. 


From The New York Times to the Smithsonian to The Sun (United Kingdom), the eccentric appeal of the research resulted in multiple news stories across the globe. 


The attention didn’t bug Kasson. 


He figures the more eyeballs on his and his students’ work, the better. 


“To make a real difference, we must wear many hats in academia,” said Kasson, whose viral tweet of an experiment with marshmallow Peeps last year also garnered a New York Times article. 


“First and foremost, we must be objective scientists. But we also need to learn to be salespeople. We’re constantly repackaging and selling what we do to funding agencies, media and other audiences. Sometimes we must boil science down into soundbites and graphics to capture the imagination of the public. We have to do that. I’m a firm believer in making science openly accessible and fun. 


“In academia and science, it can be perceived that we exist inside a bubble. I think public feedback is great, though, because you may see your research from a totally different standpoint.”


Kasson and Macias are buzzing along on cicada research. A second academic paper was recently published, and his team is resequencing the genome of the fungus to analyze the gene expression in both healthy and infected cicadas to better understand the genetic aspects of the discovery. 


In the future, WVU will also host some students from the University of Copenhagen who will work with Kasson on studying various compounds from other fungi that infect insects. 


And beyond the discovery being downright creepy and fascinating, it may one day benefit the greater society instead of serve as nightmare fuel. 


“We anticipate these discoveries will foster a renewed interest in early diverging fungi and their pharmacologically important secondary metabolites, which may serve as the next frontier for novel drug discovery.”


Oh, and don’t even think about munching on a cicada for a high. 


“Here is the thing,” Kasson said. “These psychoactive compounds were just two of less than 1,000 compounds found in these cicadas. Yes, they are notable but there are other compounds that might be harmful to humans. I wouldn’t take that risk.”