What are zombie cicadas?
Yes, zombie cicadas are toppling the murder hornet off of the '2020 Year of Weirdness Pedestal'. So, if you're keeping a remote working, virtual office pool for all of the things that can go wrong this year, you can mark zombies off the list now and award points to the lucky winners. Murder hornets only decapitate honeybees and pose no danger to each other. The zombie cicadas seek out their brothers and sisters and while under the influence of a mind and body altering fungus, infect them while attempting to mate. Attempting is the operative word here, since the fungus replaces the reproductive organs and abdomen with its own brand of horror. The cicada slowly turns into a living, flying host with its body parts replaced by the fungal growth. The insect is totally unaware of the transformation because the psychedelic properties of the fungus trick its mind into thinking that all body parts are intact and in working order. This is the insect version of The Walking Dead. The body parts deteriorate and ultimately fall off, while the personality of the insect is changed, just like a cinematic zombie.
How is the zombie cicada fungus transmitted and is it harmful to humans?
The fungus sends the cicada into a hyperactive mating cycle and the male cicadas that are infected, frantically mimic the mating display of females, drawing their amorous brothers in by the dozens for a quick fling. The fungus rubs off on the would-be suitors and they become infected as well, so the zombification is transferable via a fungal STD. This fungus, called Massospora cicadina, only affects periodical cicadas and it is only contracted via AHT, (active host transmission) much like how the the rabies virus is transmitted. Like rabies, it takes control of the body and alters the brain, compelling the insect to do things that it wouldn't normally do. It isn't harmful to humans or other insects, so there is no fear in contracting any disease if you happen upon one of these cicadas.
There are zombie ants as well
Fungal and viral infections aren't all that rare in the animal world and this isn't even the first zombie recorded. There's actually a zombie ant that hails from the Amazon basin. Like the cicada fungus, the ant fungus invades the insect and causes it to act in an unconventional manner. The fungal growth explodes out of the head and the ant looks like some weird Hollywood alien. It compels the insect to climb a tree and clamp its jaws on a leaf, where it eventually dies. The fungal spores now have a nice, high vantage point when they ultimately explode and disperse to scatter on the forest floor. This is a convenient way to spread the spores and infect more ants. So, while zombies in the insect world aren't all that common, they do happen.
The zombie fungus has agricultural potential
Scientists are studying this phenomenon to see if there is any benefit to humans in controlling these fungal infections. Humans have used bacteria in agriculture for quite some time now. Almost every gardener is familiar with the bacteria Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that we use to control caterpillars. It has been used since the 1920's and is considered an organic insecticide since it poses no harm to humans or or fragile pollinator population. In a short explanation, the bacteria paralyzes the gut of the caterpillar and it simply starves to death. Many gardeners safely use this product on their edible and ornamental gardens every day. While there have been no strides made in controlling the zombie fungi, it seems that there could be some benefit in learning how it works. We may be able to harness it to safely eliminate agricultural pests instead of using a chemical means of control. The possibilities definitely make for a closer look at the fungus and its zombie cicada host.
Where are the zombie cicadas found?
As of now, the zombie cicadas have been documented in West Virginia. That is probably because they are experiencing the hatching of a brood this year. The magicicadas emerge every 13 or 17 years in various areas of the country. The regional hatchings are called broods. The fungus works through the high numbers that emerge in close proximity to each other and spreads quite quickly. It isn't unusual to see these already creepy-looking insects crowded on the stems of plants and perching on twigs and branches. There's thousands of them just waiting for a mate and the zombies mindlessly flit from one area to another, infecting as they go. However, there's no danger in the fungus causing the extinction of the magicicada either. The zombie cicadas have been documented since the late 19th Century, so don't worry, they'll still be around for some time to come. In a year that is already in the record book as strange, this is just one more thing to add to it.