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]

Therapy Puppy Provides Comfort to Grieving Families at North Carolina Funeral Home

AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images
AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images

Emotional support animals have become common sights at places like airports, and now the funeral industry is embracing their therapeutic benefits. As WGAL reports, Macon Funeral Home in North Carolina now has a Bernese mountain dog puppy to provide comfort to grieving clients.

Nine-week-old Mochi isn't a fully trained therapy dog yet, but she's already winning over visitors. Tori McKay, Macon's funeral office administrator, had dreamed of bringing a grief-support dog into the business for a decade. Shortly after her 30th birthday on January 4, she and her husband "decided that Mochi would make a wonderful addition to our family and this decade of our lives," she wrote on the funeral home's website.

McKay chose a Bernese mountain dog for the breed's affectionate personality, relaxed disposition, and successful history as an emotional support animal. Between ages 6 months to 1 year, Mochi will receive therapy dog training in Asheville. The plan is to eventually make her available to families upon request and bring her to nursing homes to meet with residents. Until then, the puppy is meeting guests in a more casual setting as she gets used to socializing with strangers.

"Stop by and meet her, she loves making new friends!" a post on the funeral home's Facebook page reads.

[h/t WGAL]

One of the World’s Most Dangerous Spiders Could Invade Homes after Australia's Recent Rainfall

Ian Waldie, Getty Images
Ian Waldie, Getty Images

While recent rainfall has been a welcome change in Australia after destructive bushfires caused a widespread crisis, it hasn’t come without an asterisk. According to the Australian Reptile Park, the wet and warm conditions have made Sydney funnel web spiders highly active—and the funnel web spider happens to be one of the most venomous arachnids on the planet.

In a video the park shared on Facebook, officials warn that the weather might cause a marked increase in the spiders' activity, as males cover territory in search of a mate. They might be found in shoes, in laundry, or in yards. Fortunately, Atrax robustus is easy to identify, with its shiny body providing a helpful visual cue to immediately begin walking in the other direction.

Male funnel webs are thought to have venom up to six times more dangerous than females and also tend to move around more, making human encounters with them more likely. Because they can’t climb smooth surfaces, funnel webs are also prone to burrowing in piled-up clothing or other hiding spaces, providing an unwelcome surprise for anyone looking to retrieve their discarded shirt or socks.

The funnel web is also aggressive, quick to attack when provoked, and packs a powerful enough bite to pierce shoes. After being bitten, pain, muscle spasms, and pulmonary edema follow. Victims should use a compression bandage and limb immobilization to compress surface tissue until they receive medical attention.

Though the species is believed to have caused 13 human deaths, there haven’t been any fatalities attributable to a funnel web bite since 1981. That’s due in large part to antivenom made from milked spiders, an advancement that saved the life of a 10-year-old boy, Matthew Mitchell, bitten by the spider in 2017. The spider was loitering in his shoe and bit him on the finger. After 12 vials of antivenom, Mitchell made a complete recovery.

The Australian Reptile Park is actually encouraging citizens to trap the spiders and bring them in to drop-off sites to aid in the antivenom production effort. They advise nudging the spider into a plastic or glass container with a spoon. Extreme caution should be exercised, but you knew that.

[h/t CNET]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER