Cicadas Illinois

Fungus that turns cicadas into ‘zombies' detected in Midwest: Report

It's a real problem that “is even stranger than science fiction,” University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley said

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There's a deadly sexually transmitted disease that turns cicadas into "zombies" -- and it's already been detected in parts of the Midwest, experts said.

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.”

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.

The fungal parasite is called Massospora cicadina and it targets periodical cicadas in particular.

"It turns infected cicadas into “zombie insects” that disperse more fungus by causing males infected with Stage I to produce wing-flick signals as if they were females– making them highly attractive to cicadas of both sexes," according to the University of Connecticut.

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.”

A periodical cicada nymph wiggles in the dirt in Macon, Ga., on Thursday, March 28, 2024, after being found while digging holes for rosebushes. Trillions of cicadas are about to emerge in numbers not seen in decades and possibly centuries. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The fungus is also the type that has hallucinatory effects on birds that would eat them, Cooley said.

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