Bills, work, and drama can really take a toll on human existence. But compared to what cicadas are up against, our lives are pretty chill. When these flying insects emerge from the soil en masse, a parasitic predator rises with them. The mysterious fungus Massospora cicadina lies dormant among the cicada nymphs, waiting up to 17 years until the insects mature and take flight. That’s when things get really weird.

Over the course of a cicada’s extremely short adult life, M. cicadina spreads through its body, replacing its insides with spores and filaments called mycelia. Then, once the body is nearly totally consumed, it splits in half. The tissues attaching abdomen to thorax rupture, causing the abdomen to fall off and revealing a mass of spores. The dismantled cicadas can still fly, though, which is why mycologists refer to them as “flying salt-shakers of death.” With their abdomens decapitated and spores exposed, they fly around, spreading their spores to other cicadas.

But the really messed-up part of the fungus-cicada relationship is that M. cicadina also releases the psychoactive chemicals psilocybin and cathinone into the cicada’s system, dosing the dying insect with a psychedelic speedball of hallucinogen and amphetamine.

massospora cicadina
Once the abdomen falls off, all that's left there is a mass of spores.

Since the mature phase of a healthy cicada is so short, much of it is spent trying to mate. That shouldn’t be the case for a dismembered cicada, whose body is literally falling apart, but the infected insects continue to attempt to have sex. Some researchers hypothesize that the mind-altering drugs produced by the fungus hijack the cicada’s behaviors and make it keep trying to reproduce with other cicadas even while it’s basically dead — not to mention unable to actually complete the deed.

The one-two drug punch also induces some odd sexual behaviors that aren’t exactly conducive to furthering the species.

A paper published in January in Scientific Reports describes cicada males infected with M. cicadina who flick their wings in the same way that only sexually receptive females usually do to attract males. All this male wing-flicking draws other males in, and this leads them to get infected with spores from the fungus.

Some M. cicadina infections cause cicadas to die immediately, while others lie in wait, dormant, until the next generation emerges to become flying salt-shakers of death. In this way, the devious fungus completes its life cycle at the drugged-up, fungus-ridden expense of the cicadas.

Photos via Scientific Reports/ Cooley et al