What do the ‘60s summer of love and the adult life span of cicadas have in common? Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Brood X, a large crop of cicadas that matures to adulthood in synchrony every 17 years, has finally neared the end of its long life cycle, and is emerging from the ground in numbers substantial enough to appear on weather radar. The brood will spend several weeks invading the eastern and midwestern United States, searching for mates in a psychedelic haze of sex and song. And for some, drugs.
As the nymphs of Brood X burrow out of the soil on their way to adulthood, some will inadvertently ingest the spores of a fungus known as Massospora, which doses them with mind-altering chemicals. While it’s unclear if the cicadas are having psychedelic visions or transformative healing experiences, the fungus does alter their biology in trippy ways, making them sex-crazed while ironically causing their genitals to fall off.
“This is stranger than fiction,” Matt Kasson, an associate professor of forest pathology and mycology at West Virginia University, told NPR. Like the infamous Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungi, which infects and takes over ant bodies, forcing them to climb to the tops of plants before releasing a ball of spores out of their heads, Massospora parasitizes cicadas. Over the course of a week, the fungus grows throughout the cicada’s abdomen, consuming its body until its butt and genitals fall away, revealing a “white plug of fungus” growing outward in their place. The fungus then releases chemicals which make the cicadas hypersexual and hyperactive, helping to spread its spores.
Kasson was part of the research team that first discovered the mind-altering substances in Massospora, which include psilocybin and cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found in the khat plant. When Kasson first realized he was working with Schedule I substances, he told the Atlantic, “I thought, ‘Oh crap. The DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my [cicadas].’” Fortunately, Kasson was allowed to continue research after the DEA informed him that the amount of drugs produced by the fungus was too insubstantial to require a permit.
“There’s a lot of curiosity about how these fungi might actually manipulate behavior, and this is the first time that anyone has identified chemical compounds that could play that role,” Kathryn Bushley from the University of Minnesota told the Atlantic about the discovery.
Kasson and his team found that different Massospora species targeted different cicada species. Periodical cicadas, like those in Brood X, were stimulated by the cathinone in M. cicadina, while annual cicadas that emerge every two to five years tripped on the psilocybin in M. levispora. Brian Lovett, a researcher at West Virginia University, told USA Today that scientists believe the cathinone keeps Brood X insects awake, more active, and more interested in mating. The neurochemicals also cause male cicadas to mimic female mating behaviors, enticing other males to mate with them and sexually transmit the fungus.
“Now the cicada is not acting in the interest of the cicada, but in the interest of the fungus,” Lovett told the Washington Post.
But the cicadas aren’t alone. In his new book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Out Futures, Merlin Sheldrake writes, “A growing number of studies have made a link between animal behavior and the trillions of bacteria and fungi that live in their guts, many of which produce chemicals that influence animal nervous systems.” And in his TED Talk on parasites, writer Ed Yong mused that humans may be controlled by things we believe are far less intelligent than we are.
Could Psilocybe, like Massospora, be enticing humans into summers of love, music, and mushroom cultivation? Both Sheldrake and Yong imply such fungal manipulations upset traditional beliefs on hierarchy and consciousness, which points to an idea that magic mushrooms often instill in humans after a psychedelic trip: We are more connected than we realize.
So how is Brood X’s summer of love going? After delaying a White House airplane and singing loudly enough to cause 911 calls, the brood’s emergence is finally slowing down. Although it’s estimated that only 5% of the cicada population becomes infected with Massospora, according to Kasson, “Everybody’s having a good time while they’re infected, so I don’t imagine there’s much pain — maybe a desire to listen to the Grateful Dead or something like that, but no pain.”
Image: Nicki Adams using modified photo by Andy Melton