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Parasitic fungus drugs cicadas with psychedelic chemicals

The Massospora fungus doses cicadas with mind-altering drugs.

The American cicada is the well-known insect that spends its youth underground feeding on roots, only to emerge after 13 or 17 years to live and mate on the surface for a few weeks. Now scientists are revealing that some cicadas encounter a mind-altering drug on the way out, reports Ed Yong for The Atlantic.

Some cicadas encounter the spores of a fungus called Massospora, where a week after exposure the panels of their abdomens slough off and reveal a white “plug.” This is because the fungus has grown throughout the insect and consumed its organs, converting the rear third of its body into spores. Strangely enough, the insects go about their business unbothered, and while flying around, they disperse the spores among their companions. Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University, believes that Massospora doses its victims with mind-altering drugs, which allows the insects to behave as if a part of their body isn’t missing. “We call them flying saltshakers of death,” says Kasson, describing the way infected insects disperse the spores among themselves.  Greg Boyce, a member of Kasson’s team, discovered an additional surprise—he found that the chemicals in the white fungal plugs of various cicadas were loaded with psilocybin, the potent hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms. The team found that the substances are only in the infected cicadas and not in the uninfected ones.

The drugs explain infected cicadas odd behavior. Despite their injuries, the males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They try to mate with anything they can find, including other males, Yong writes. Sadly, all of their efforts go to waste, because their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus, or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Of course, because psilocybin is a Schedule I drug, the researchers believed they needed a permit from the DEA to continue—however, the DEA determined that the amounts weren’t big enough to warrant a permit. Still, Kasson believes that it’s possible to get high by eating Massospora-infected cicadas. “Based on the ones we looked at, it would probably take a dozen or more.”

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