As billions of cicadas were expected to emerge across 15 states in spring 2021, online reports claimed that a “death-zombie fungus” could infect the species and cause their body to rot away.
The news first went viral when the IndyStar interviewed John Lill, a cicada expert and chair of biology. In the May 14, 2021, Lill referred to a fungus called Massospora cicadina, a sexually transmitted fungus that can spread from males to females whose abdomen has been infected and turned into a “big fungal mass.” But it’s not the first time this virus has made headlines. M. cicadina has been seen during nearly every annual hatch of cicadas, and is well-known to the scientific community.
M. cicadina is a specialized fungal parasite that hijacks the sexual signals of periodical cicadas like Brood X. Male cicadas become infected with the fungal virus, “turning them into vehicles for fungus transmission,” according to a 2018 study published in the journal Nature. It is what is known as an “entomopathogenic fungi,” and contains the psychedelic chemical psilocybin found in “magic” mushrooms.
Typically, males will sing to attract a mate, but when infected with the fungus, males will flick their wings instead of singing — attempting to mate with other males and spread the virus. The fungus targets the abdomen and ultimately destroys the reproductive organs, causing his butts to come off.