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]

This Automatic Fetch Machine Will Keep Your Dog Occupied When You Don't Have Time to Play

iFetch
iFetch

Every dog owner knows that it's impossible to keep up with a pooch that's always looking to play. But if you want to keep them active while still having time for yourself, there's the iFetch, a toy that will automatically throw tennis balls, allowing your canine to play fetch whenever they please.

You can find the iFetch Original, which is ideal for small or medium dogs, on Amazon for $115. The Original can either be charged with an AC adapter or run on six C batteries, both of which are included. You can adjust the settings on the iFetch to throw the ball 10, 20, or 30 feet, making it perfect for indoor or outdoor play. Once it's charged and the distance is set, let your canine drop a tennis ball into the machine and it will take care of the rest.

If you have a large dog, look for the iFetch Too, which is available on Amazon for $200. This model has a rechargeable battery that can last up to 300 throws. This model can launch the ball 10, 24, or 40 feet, and it also comes with a custom option, so you’ll find room for your dog to play no matter how much space is available.

If your dog loves their new toy, but you don't love finding slobbery tennis balls around the house, check out the company’s medium- and small-size slobber-proof balls.

It may take time for your canine to learn how to use the toy, but the company has some training tips from Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer. To start, it's recommended that your dog knows the “drop it” command. If they don’t, check out their training tips here. After your dog has mastered that command, the company has plenty of tricks, such as keeping training sessions short and ending them on a positive note. For more ideas, check out their page.

Once you set up your iFetch and watch your furry friend run back and forth, you may start to wonder why they like fetch so much. According to research on the subject, when dogs exercise, neurotransmitters stimulate reward regions in their brain, which is much like when humans experience a "runner's high."

If you happen to notice your canine seems particularly athletic while they are chasing the ball back and forth, check out these other sports they can play.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Ryrkaypiy, Russia, Is Being Overrun By Hungry Polar Bears

Mario_Hoppmann/iStock via Getty Images
Mario_Hoppmann/iStock via Getty Images

Polar bears are becoming a common sight near the village of Ryrkaypiy in northeastern Russia. As CNN reports, nearly 60 bears were spotted looking for food in the area, and experts say climate change is to blame.

Normally around this time of year, Arctic sea ice is thick enough for polar bears to use it as a platform for hunting seals. Temperatures have been warmer than average this year, and without the ice to support them, hungry polar bears are being pushed south into human-occupied territories on land.

According to a statement released by World Wildlife Fund Russia, the bears gathering in Ryrkaypiy are thin-looking and include cubs and adults of various ages. So far, they've been subsisting on walrus carcasses that have been lain on the village's shore since autumn.

No incidents between bears and villagers have been reported yet, but the 500 residents are on guard. Volunteers are now patrolling the town limits and school buses have started picking up children who would normally walk to class.

Prior to this decade, it was unusual to see more than three or five polar bears near Ryrkaypiy at a time. But as climate change drives global warming and melts Arctic sea ice, seeing large groups of polar bears at lower latitudes is no longer an anomaly. Earlier this year, Novaya Zemlya, Russia, declared a state of emergency after more than 50 bears invaded the region. As sea ice becomes more scarce, the circumstances forcing hungry polar bears to share space with people will only get worse.

[h/t CNN]

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