‘Flying salt shakers of death’: Fungus that creates so-called ‘zombie cicadas’ poses challenge as emergence continues

With the emergence at the halfway point and peaking, a condition more striking than their prominent red eyes has been detected in some periodical cicadas.

You may have heard reports of “zombie cicadas” or “cicada STDs,” but what’s happening is even weirder, scientists say.

A fungus — Massospora cicadina — is infecting and replacing the back end of their bodies, including their genitals, with a chalky mass of spores and revving up their sex drives.

In a National Geographic TikTok video, Matt Kasson, a mycologist and forest pathologist at West Virginia University, describes the infection as “a gumdrop that’s been dropped in chalk dust.”

Luckily, the fungus is specific to cicadas so other animals don’t get infected by it and there’s no risk to pets or people — although you may want to wash your hands after handling an infected cicada, experts advise.

The fungus has been seen in cicadas throughout the area.

“The fungus is a natural part of the cicada’s life cycle and appears with every emergence,” said Jennifer Rydzewski, insect ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.

Scientists don’t know how widespread the fungus is or how many cicadas are infected, and although considered uncommon, it’s possible to find in most areas.

Infected cicadas still try to mate spreading the fungus. Infected females flick their wings to attract male partners, and infected males try to mate with females and also flick their wings to draw other males, according to scientists at the Field Museum.

‘We think it’s a big deal’: Rare dual emergence of cicadas has some people buzzing

“It increases the cicadas’ mating drive. That’s a good thing for the fungus, right?” said Brett Peto, environmental communications specialist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

Eventually, the fungal plug rips open but the cicadas continue flying. The spores rain down with cicadas spreading the fungus like “flying salt shakers of death,” Kasson said.

They are zombielike in the sense they should be dead because they are missing the back of their bodies but remain alive and are infecting other cicadas.

“I’ve seen this myself,” Peto said. “It does not kill them immediately.”

Once the infection gets big enough, it destroys the cicadas’ genitals, he added.

According to the Field Museum, scientists analyzing fungal plugs found traces of natural amphetamines, which may affect the cicadas or bigger animals that prey on them. But the amount is so tiny, there is no risk to people or pets.

Last week in central Illinois, Field Museum scientists found seven infected cicadas out of hundreds examined. On Thursday, they found several infected cicadas in two forest preserves in northwest Cook County.

“It’s not anything to be concerned about,” Peto said. “It’s one more thing that might reduce the numbers but their (periodical cicadas) whole strategy is to come out by the billions.”

Peto said we’re right in the middle of the emergence. Most nymphs have come out of the ground, molted and climbed into trees and the mating call of males in “chorusing centers” is getting louder.

“They're increasing their volume,” he said. “It’s almost like a low whir — like there’s a machine running in the background.”

The Lake County forest preserves’ “Celebrating Cicadas” continues with CicadaFest from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods.

“We are in the peak of the cicada emergence,” Rydzewski said. “The males are buzzing loudly, mating pairs are all over, and there is adult die off of the first few waves of individuals that emerged.”

The stage of nymphs emerging is about over and cicadas should be around another two weeks or so, tapering off in July.

A fungus affecting some periodical cicadas replaces the back end of their bodies with a chalky mass of spores. Courtesy of Kate Golembiewski/Field Museum
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