'Zombie' Cicadas Are Coming, Thanks to an STD

Periodical cicadas are also nature's strongest urinators, and they're headed to 2 parts of the US
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 7, 2024 1:30 PM CDT
'Nature's Weirdos' Have an Issue 'Stranger Than Science Fiction'
A cicada hole is visible in the soil after a heavy rain on the campus of Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. Cicadas preemptively dig tunnels to the surface before they're ready to emerge.   (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The periodical cicadas that are about to infest two parts of the US (the Southeast and the Midwest) aren't just plentiful—they're downright weird. These insects are the strongest urinators in the animal kingdom, with flows that put humans and elephants to shame. They're also rescuers of caterpillars, and they're being ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease that turns them into zombies, reports the AP. More:

  • Head pumps: Cicadas love tissue inside trees called xylem, which carries mostly water and a bit of nutrients. The insect can retrieve the fluid because its outsized head has a pump, says University of Alabama Huntsville entomologist Carrie Deans. They use their tiny proboscis—about the width of a hair—like a straw, with the pump sucking out the liquid, says Georgia Tech biophysics professor Saad Bhamla. They spend nearly their entire lives drinking, year after year.

  • Going with the flow: All that watery fluid has to come out the other end—and boy, does it. Bhamla in March published a study of the urination flow rates of animals across the world. Cicadas were clearly king, peeing two to three times stronger and faster than elephants and humans. Bhamla couldn't look at the periodical cicadas that mostly feed and pee underground, but he used video to record and measure the flow rate of their Amazon cousins, which topped out around 10 feet per second. They have a muscle that pushes the waste through a tiny hole like a jet, Bhamla said.
  • Zombie cicadas: There's also a deadly sexually transmitted disease, a fungus, that turns cicadas into zombies and causes their private parts to fall off, said University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley. It's a real problem that "is even stranger than science fiction," Cooley said. "This is a sexually transmitted zombie disease." Cooley has seen areas in the Midwest where up to 10% of the individuals were infected. The fungus is also the type that has hallucinatory effects on birds that eat them, Cooley said. This white fungus takes over the male; their gonads are torn from their body, and chalky spores are spread around to other cicadas nearby, per Cooley. The insects are sterilized, not killed. This way the fungus uses the cicadas to spread to others. "They're completely at the mercy of the fungus," Cooley said. "They're [the] walking dead."
More here, including their caterpillar-rescuing benefit. (More cicadas stories.)

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