Cicadas Illinois

Are you seeing this on cicadas in your area? It could be a fungus that turns them into ‘zombies'

National Geographic's Matt Kasson referred to infected cicadas as “flying saltshakers of death"

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Have you noticed something strange appearing on cicadas in your area?

It could be the sign of a deadly sexually transmitted disease that turns cicadas into "zombies."

It's a real problem that “is even stranger than science fiction,” University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley said. “This is a sexually transmitted zombie disease.”

The fungal parasite known as Massospora has already been detected in parts of the Midwest, experts said, and some residents in the Chicago area believe they have seen it on cicadas near them.

Here's what to know and what to look for:

What is Massospora Cicadina and what does it do to cicadas?

According to the University of Connecticut, the fungal parasite infects cicadas in particular.

Once infected, cicadas begin producing "conidia," which makes them capable of infecting other adult cicadas.

In this stage, the cicadas will "produce wing-flick signals as if they were females– making them highly attractive to cicadas of both sexes," allowing them to spread the fungus to their mates.

In stage two of the infection, cicadas then become infected by "conidiospores," which allow them to infect the next generation of cicada nymphs, which won't emerge for another 13 or 17 years, the university reported.

National Geographic's Matt Kasson referred to infected cicadas as “flying saltshakers of death.”

The white fungus takes over the male, their gonads are torn from their body and chalky spores are spread around to nearby other cicadas, Cooley said.

The insects are sterilized, not killed. This way the fungus uses the cicadas to spread to others.

“They're completely at the mercy of the fungus,” Cooley said. “They're walking dead.”

As the fungus destroys the lower half of infected cicadas, National Geographic editor Peter Gwin said it also turns them into "over-caffeinated flying machines," spreading spores into the soil as they fly with the fungus protruding from their backside. This allows the fungus to potentially spread to young cicadas burrowing into the ground.

There's also evidence that the fungus produces psychoactive chemicals, though it's not clear what their purpose is. The fungus is also the type that has hallucinatory effects on birds that would eat them, Cooley said.

What does it look like?

According to experts, the fungus leaves a distinct sign on the cicadas it infects.

“It's chalky white,” Kasson said. “It's either like a middle school eraser or like a math teacher’s chalk, so it's definitely noticeable that something's wrong with the backside of the cicada.”

According to Riverside, Illinois, which released information on cicadas to residents, "infected insects (mostly males) lose the tail end of their abdomens which is replaced by a white ball of spores."

Where is the fungus found?

Cooley has seen areas in the Midwest where up to 10% of the insects were infected before. While exact numbers aren't clear just yet with the historic 2024 emergence now underway, Missouri officials said the fungus behind the disease has already been detected there.

Butterfly House Entomologist Tad Yankoski told NBC affiliate 5 On Your Side that he found one of the infected specimens as the fungus was confirmed in an area south of St. Louis.

Some residents in the Chicago area have noted seeing the white marks on cicadas in the area.

Can it infect humans?

The fungus currently does not pose a risk to humans, according to the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

In fact, it may even be helpful.

"While this is all pretty horrifying, Massospora cicadina may play an important role in controlling cicada populations and preventing cicadas from causing too much damage to tree roots while they're in the nymph stage. Nature always finds a way, even if it is fairly disgusting," the museum stated.

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