Fungus-ridden Cicadas Dubbed ‘Flying Salt Shakers of Death’ Coming to an Airspace Near You

by Jon D. B.

Can a cicada become a flying, psychedelic fungus-wielding zombie? Yes. Yes they can. And thanks to 2021’s 17-year-brood… They’re back.

By the incredible work of West Virginia University researchers, we now know that cicada-bound fungus Massopora contains chemicals not unlike those in hallucinogenic mushrooms. The fungus infects the insects as they hibernate underground. Some broods, like the 13-to-17 year monsters we’re experiencing in 2021, are particularly susceptible.

This same fungal infection causes cicadas to lose limbs and their minds, essentially, as well. Males of the species will begin “mating” with everything they can get their bodies on – even though, like their limbs, their genitals are (in most cases) long gone.

Sound like a horror film yet? It isn’t yet, but certainly will be in the future. The cicadas are certainly up for it. The fungus takes their bodies and minds, sure, but the insects continue to fly freely as if they’re not grotesque psychedelic insect zombies. And why not… After 2020, it’s all fair game at this point.

Speaking to this fascinating aspect (see: mushroom-laden abomination) of nature, Matt Kasson says the cicadas “are only zombies in the sense that the fungus is in control of their bodies.”

Kasson, assistant professor of forest pathology, is also one of the WVU study’s authors.

“Infected adults maintain or accelerate normal host activity during sporulation, enabling rapid and widespread dispersal prior to host death,” he adds. “They also engage in hypersexual behaviors.”

Now there’s an aspect we can leave out of any and all zombie movies, please and thank you.

Cicada Zombies? Or ‘Flying Salt Shakers of Death’? Both? It’s Both.

One of Kasson’s students, Angie Macias, however, has already named said zombie cicada film. Her title for the fungus-flyers? “Flying salt shakers of death.”

Macias coined the term upon the team’s initial findings in 2019, when a similar brood to 2021’s wreaked havoc on New England.

As for us humans, we all know that one person who is curious as to “how high” they can get off eating a Massospora-infected cicada. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on if you are said friend or not), Kasson indulges this question for Science Daily.

Kasson’s answer? “Maybe, if you’re motivated enough.”

“Here is the thing,” he adds for the scientific research trade. “These psychoactive compounds were just two of less than 1,000 compounds found in these cicadas. Yes, they are notable but there are other compounds that might be harmful to humans. I wouldn’t take that risk.”

Instead of cicada-junkies, Assistant Professor Kasson is hoping their discoveries “will foster a renewed interest in early diverging fungi and their pharmacologically important secondary metabolites, which may serve as the next frontier for novel drug discovery.”

Either way, Kasson says he absolutely “loves” the insects. “They still scare me when they fall down my shirt or walk up my neck,” he adds, “but I can appreciate something that spends almost two decades underground for six weeks of bliss, with or without the fungus.”