A Psychotropic Fungus Is Eating Away Cicadas' Genitalia and Boosting Their Sex Drive

WerksMedia, iStock / Getty Images Plus
WerksMedia, iStock / Getty Images Plus

A droning sound that fills your backyard at volumes exceeding 100 decibels is a sign that the cicadas have emerged for the summer. The noisy bugs have one of the most fascinating lifecycles of any insect species—spending up to 17 years of their lives underground as nymphs before finally crawling to the surface, molting their exoskeleton on the first elevated surface they can find, and mating as mature adults for a few weeks before expiring. As The New York Times reports, a recent phenomenon observed by scientists is making this process even stranger. Many cicadas have fallen victim to a psychotropic fungus that invades their bodies and compels them to keep mating even after their genitals have been replaced with fungal spores.

A study recently published in the journal Fungal Ecology explores how exactly the fungus is able to prey upon its hosts. Massospora is a genus of fungi that lives in the soil where young cicadas spend the first part of their lives. A cicada that digs through dirt containing Massospora emerges contaminated with fungal spores. The spores proliferate as the insect matures, eventually eating through its abdomen and destroying its reproductive system.

But the goal of the fungus isn't to kill its host immediately. Even when two thirds of a cicada's body is made up of Massospora, it continues to fly around, committed to its purpose at the end of its life—reproducing—seemingly more than ever. And when it tries to mate, the white clump of spores where its genitals should be can potentially infect a new victim.

The researchers could see how Massospora spread from cicada to cicada, but why the cicadas were driven to keep mating in such poor condition was more of a mystery. Their paper points to psychotropic substances found in the fungus—including the same compound that makes magic mushrooms a Schedule 1 drug.

The spore plugs of infected cicadas contain psilocybin, the hallucinogen in magic mushrooms; and cathinone, an amphetamine found in the East African khat plant. When the researchers sequenced the genomes of Massospora, they found that the fungus didn't contain either the genes used by magic mushrooms or khat to produce their mind-altering substance. This could mean that the cathinone and psilocybin found in the spore plugs are the products of a chemical reaction between the fungus and something in its cicada host, possibly the bacteria in the insect's gut. The two compounds also appeared independently in different types of cicadas: annual cicadas were effected by psilocybin, and periodical cicadas, which include 17-year and 13-year cicadas, contained cathinone.

In people, psilocybin has been shown to combat symptoms of depression and anxiety, while cathinone can improve focus in people with ADHD. It's possible that some version of these effects are amping up the infected cicada's sex drive. In their drugged-out stupor, the host insects seem hyper-focused on mating, even though they're unable to reproduce. It's easy to see how this benefits Massospora: The more cicadas its host tries to copulate with, the more insects are exposed to its spores. Why cicadas would have evolved to synthesize the narcotics in the first place is less clear.

[h/t The New York Times]

A Stranger Things Fan Is Selling Epic Demogorgon Dog Costumes on Etsy

Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Stranger Things is great at placing the truly terrifying alongside the absolutely adorable. One minute we are gushing over Eleven and Mike’s teen romance, and the next we’re jumping off the couch at the sight of those possessed by the Mind Flayer.

No matter how seamless the Duffer Brothers' Netflix series is in weaving together these moments, it seems like it would be impossible to make the Demogorgon cute. But somehow, one crafty fan has done just that.

Etsy shop ThatCraftyFriendShop has created Demogorgon headpieces that fit perfectly on your dog’s head.

People reports that the headpieces range in size from extra small (for 5- to 10-pound dogs) all the way to extra large (for dogs over 75 pounds). Prices range from $25 to $75, depending on the size of your four-legged friend.

These wool and felt doggy costumes are perfect for Halloween, or even a Stranger Things watch party while you continue to binge and re-binge the third seasonwith a decked-out doggy by your side.

[h/t People]

Georgia Beachgoers Saved a Pod of Pilot Whales That Washed Ashore

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A day at the shore quickly turned into a rescue situation for beachgoers on St. Simons Island, Georgia this week when a pod of pilot whales washed ashore. Beaching can be disastrous for whales, but thanks to a group of first responders and volunteers, most of the stranded marine mammals were returned to safety, USA Today reports.

Spotting whales off the coast of Georgia isn't unusual, but what occurred at St. Simons Island the afternoon of Tuesday, July 16 was out of the ordinary. The pilot whales had swum so close to the shore that they had become stuck on the sand—and there were dozens of them. The animals could have died from dehydration at low tide or possibly drowned if the tide covered their blowholes.

Fortunately, the beachgoers watching the situation unfold acted fast. They waded into the sea and manually pushed the small whales back into deeper waters where they could swim freely. First responders from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also aided in the rescue effort.

The heroic volunteers weren't able to save every whale. Two of the mammals became incapacitated and had to be euthanized. But according to the Glynn County Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency, the majority of the whales swam away unharmed. "This has been an unusual occurrence, but events like these can really show the level of care and support from our community," the agency wrote on its Facebook page. "Thank you to everyone that helped those that couldn’t help themselves today."

Beaching is a rare event that still isn't fully understood by scientists. In the case of these pilot whales, which travel in pods, one sick whale may have swum too close to land and led the rest of the whales to danger. The DNR plans to conduct autopsies on the two whales who perished.

[h/t USA Today]

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