Parasite fills cicadas with amphetamines and mind-altering drugs


“Portrait of a periodical cicada, Magicicada cassini. Panther Creek State Conservation Area, Illinois, USA.”

Matt Kason, a fungi researcher at West Virginia University, has discovered that cicadas whose bodies have been corrupted by the fungus Massospora keep flying around, have tons of energy and get really horny, because the fungus is doping them with meth and shrooms.

Via the Atlantic:

I asked Kasson if it’s possible to get high by eating Massospora-infected cicadas. Surprisingly, he didn’t say no. “Based on the ones we looked at, it would probably take a dozen or more,” he said. But it’s possible that earlier in the infections, before the conspicuous saltshaker stage, the fungus might pump out higher concentrations of these chemicals. Why? Kasson suspects that the drugs help the fungus control its hosts.

Infected cicadas behave strangely. Despite their horrific injuries, males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They frenetically try to mate with anything they can find, including with other males. They’ll even mimic the wing-flicking signals of females to lure males toward them. None of this does them any good—their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Instead, this behavior only benefits the fungus, allowing its spores to find new hosts.

Kasson suspects that cathinone and psilocybin are responsible for at least some of these behaviors. “If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” he said. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.”

Psilocybin’s role is harder to explain. The drug might make humans hallucinate, but no one knows if cicadas would similarly trip. There is, however, a theory that magic mushrooms evolved psilocybin to reduce the appetites of insects that might compete with them for decaying wood. Perhaps by suppressing the appetites of cicadas, Massospora nudges them away from foraging and toward incessant mating.

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