Research Finds Cicadas are Tripping on Psilocybin

A fungus containing psilocybin infects cicadas as a tool for survival.

Research Finds Cicadas are Tripping on Psilocybin

Photo by Studio Omg / EyeEm via Getty Images

Scientists discovered Massospora over 100 years ago. It’s a fungus that infects cicada bugs, eating away at their insides and, um, turning their butts into a large mass of fungi spores that kind of shakes off and infects other cicadas. Nature is wild, yo.

Also wild is the fact that the fungus, while actively consuming cicadas from the inside out, still causes them to try to mate like crazy, despite their genitals being replaced by the spores, reproductive units created by the fungi which can ultimately develop into more fungi. Males will even exhibit typical female mating behavior, luring other males in and exposing them to the fungi. Infected cicadas will also fly around raining down spores on their brethren, earning them the moniker, “flying salt shakers of death.” Again, wild. But this too is not new news to researchers.

However, a team led by Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University, recently discovered something even more insane about this already very bonkers fungus. It’s dosing its victims with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and cathinone, an amphetamine produced by the khat plant. Khat is chewed for the buzzy energy it bestows by people in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where it grows. Kasson suspects these chemicals are responsible for the frenzied mating and erratic behavior exhibited by infected cicadas.

“If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” he told The Atlantic. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.” While psilocybin has definitely caused an inordinate number of college students to sync up Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz, it’s less clear what it does to the cicadas.

Scientists Discover That Killer Fungus Doses Its Victims With Psilocybin4 Research Finds Cicadas are Tripping on Psilocybin
Cicadas are infected by the spores of the fungi. When the cicadas shake, they then spread the spores, helping it to propagate. (Photo courtesy of John R. Cooley, David C. Marshall & Kathy B. R. Hill via Nature.com)

As The Atlantic notes, there is separate research that suggests psilocybin evolved in magic mushrooms as a way to suppress appetite in insects that might compete for the decaying wood on which the mushrooms grow. Additionally, if the cicadas are all hopped up on speed and have no appetite, they’ll probably do nothing but jet around mating indiscriminately, thereby spreading the spores even further.

Their discovery is also bizarre because there’s no explanation of how the two substances would end up in the Massospora fungus. “This discovery represents the first evidence of amphetamine production in any fungus,” he wrote on Twitter. In a subsequent tweet, he noted that psilocybin has never been found outside of magic mushrooms and that its presence in Massospora also “likely represents an independent evolution of psilocybin.”

So now, if you’re a sane, well-adjusted human, you’re probably asking yourself the question that any sane, well-adjusted person would ask in this scenario: Can you eat the infected cicadas and get high?

Yes, yes you can!

“Based on the ones we looked at, it would probably take a dozen or more,” he told The Atlantic. And before the bugs are obviously infected, he suspects the fungus might be pumping them full of even more psilocybin. To, y’know, distract from the whole being eaten alive thing. That said, he’s not exactly recommending it.

To make things even weirder, Kasson realized that, as an upstanding academic researcher, he was now handling a Schedule I controlled substance and he needed to run it by the DEA. Working with psilocybin requires a permit, and he says he was legitimately worried that, once the DEA got wind of his trippy cicadas, they’d “come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers.” Thankfully, that was not to be.

They ultimately decided that, because he wasn’t concentrating the substances—or wolfing down twelve infected specimens at a time—it was fine. I would say that that is probably the first and last time the DEA will ever have to issue an opinion on whether or not you can get high off bugs, but if we’ve learned anything from this story, it’s that nature never ceases to amaze. Who knows what else is out there?