Fungus Turns Cicadas Into Sexually Aggressive “Zombies” — Details Here

The horror movie-like fungus also causes cicadas' genitalia to fall off.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

Jun. 6 2024, Updated 9:13 a.m. ET

Cicada insect stains perched on a branch
Source: iStock

No, zombie cicadas aren't creepy crawly villains coming to a movie theatre near you. Instead, they're a bit more sinister than their cinematic counterparts would be, considering they're not some silver screen bad guy, but instead, a force that began taking the U.S. by storm starting in April 2024.

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Experts say that Brood XIX and Brood XIII cicadas emerging from their respective 13- and 17-year cycles are likely to be infected with a fungal pathogen that causes all sorts of horrific side effects, including a single-minded drive to mate with every cicada they come across, whether they're males or females. This, as well as some of the other stomach-churning effects of the fungus, has scientists on alert.

Check out what else the experts say you can expect from this fungal infection.

A cicada amongst several cicada shells
Source: Getty Images
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Zombie cicadas with an STI fungus have begun emerging.

Massospora cicadina is to blame for this fungal pathogen, according to one associate professor of mycology from West Virginia University. Professor Matthew Kasson, who also teaches forest pathology, told CBS News that the fungus will cause hypersexual behavior in the insects.

Kasson went on to describe the process, explaining how the fungus will cause a white plug to erupt from within their body, causing their genitals to pop off as it slowly takes control of their brains.

Much like a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the chalk-like fungus can be passed from cicada to cicada during mating. Because of their missing genitals, no reproduction will occur, but the fungus will continue to spread across the U.S.

On June 4, 2024, NBC News Chicago reported that the first "zombie" cicadas had been spotted in the Midwest.

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BroodX Cicada in front of greenery
Source: Getty Images

"They're completely at the mercy of the fungus,” Entomologist John Cooley of the University of Connecticut said to the outlet. “They're walking dead."

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Should we worry about zombie cicadas or Massospora cicadina?

Unfortunately, Kasson told CBS News that a lot about this fungus is still unknown because so much happens out of sight and underground, where the Massospora cicadina is growing.

Additionally, there's no way to know where the fungus will go next. The spores will eventually inhabit the soil wherever their bodies have fallen, giving the experts more questions than answers as this pathogen spreads.

Unfortunately, "zombie cicadas" are also harmful to the birds that eat them, causing hallucinogenic effects, Cooley says. It is unclear how the fungus will affect larger predators that target them.

While I have to admit that it's hard not to feel bad for the cicadas who are about to have arguably the rudest awakening ever after spending more than a decade underground, I can take some comfort in knowing that, at least for now, the experts don't believe there is going to be any risk to humans who come into contact with Massospora cicadina. Let's just hope it stays that way!

This article, originally published on April 12, 2024, has been updated.

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