x

Science

Cicadas Are Nature’s Weirdos. They Pee Stronger Than Us and an STD Can Turn Them into Zombies

The periodical cicadas that are about to infest two parts of the United States 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 have pumps in their heads that pull moisture from the roots of trees, allowing them to feed for more than a decade underground. They are rescuers of caterpillars.

And they are being ravaged by a sexually transmitted disease that turns them into zombies.

PUMPS IN THE HEAD

Inside trees are sugary, nutrient-heavy saps that flow through tissue called phloem. Most insects love the sap. But not cicadas — they go for tissue called xylem, which carries mostly water and a bit of nutrients.

Georgia Institute of Technology biophysicist Saad Bhamla holds a periodical cicada nymph on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on Thursday, March 28, 2024. “We’ve got trillions of these amazing living organisms come out of the Earth, climb up on trees and it’s just a unique experience, a sight to behold,” Bhamla said. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

And it’s not easy to get into the xylem, which doesn’t just flow out when a bug taps into it because it’s under negative pressure. The cicada can get the fluid because its outsized head has a pump, said University of Alabama Huntsville entomologist Carrie Deans.

They use their proboscis like a tiny straw — about the width of a hair — with the pump sucking out the liquid, said Georgia Tech biophysics professor Saad Bhamla. They spend nearly their entire lives drinking, year after year.

“It’s a hard way to make a living,” Deans said.

GOING WITH THE FLOW

All that watery fluid has to come out the other end. And boy does it.

A periodical cicada nymph wiggles its forelimbs on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on Thursday, March 28, 2024. Trillions of cicadas are about to emerge in numbers not seen in decades and possibly centuries. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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. He 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 (3 meters per second).

They have a muscle that pushes the waste through a tiny hole like a jet, Bhamla said. He said he learned this when in the Amazon he happened on a tree the locals called a “weeping tree” because liquid was flowing down, like the plant was crying. It was cicada pee.

“You walk around in a forest where they’re actively chorusing on a hot sunny day. It feels like it’s raining,” said University of Connecticut entomologist John Cooley. That’s their honeydew or waste product coming out the back end … It’s called cicada rain.”

GOOD FOR CATERPILLARS

In the years and areas where cicadas come out, caterpillars enjoy a cicada reprieve.

A cicada hole is visible in the soil after a heavy rain on the campus of Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Cicadas preemptively dig tunnels to the surface before they are ready to emerge. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

University of Maryland entomologist Dan Gruner studied caterpillars after the 2021 cicada emergence in the mid-Atlantic. He found that the bugs that turn into moths survived the spring in bigger numbers because the birds that usually eat them were too busy getting cicadas.

Periodical cicadas are “lazy, fat and slow,” Gruner said. “They’re extraordinarily easy to capture for us and for their predators.”

ZOMBIE CICADAS

There’s a deadly sexually transmitted disease, a fungus, that turns cicadas into zombies and causes their private parts to fall off, Cooley said.

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.

A periodical cicada nymph wiggles in the dirt in Macon, Ga., on Thursday, March 28, 2024, after being found while digging holes for rosebushes. Trillions of cicadas are about to emerge in numbers not seen in decades and possibly centuries. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The fungus is also the type that has hallucinatory effects on birds that would 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 nearby other cicadas, he said. 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 walking dead.”

___
By SETH BORENSTEIN AP Science Writer

Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/climate-and-environment

A periodical cicada nymph extends a limb in Macon, Ga., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, after being found while digging holes for rosebushes. Trillions of cicadas are about to emerge in numbers not seen in decades and possibly centuries. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

RELATED

DENVER (AP) — On a brisk day at a restaurant outside Chicago, Deb Robertson sat with her teenage grandson to talk about her death.

Top Stories

Columnists

A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.

Video

Scientists Are Grasping at Straws While Trying to Protect Infant Corals from Hungry Fish

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — South Florida researchers trying to prevent predatory fish from devouring laboratory-grown coral are grasping at biodegradable straws in an effort to restore what some call the rainforest of the sea.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A top Chinese official arrived in North Korea and held talks on how to boost their cooperation, North Korea’s state media reported Friday, in the counties’ highest-level meeting in about five years.

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — International migrants were attracted to some of the largest urban counties in the U.

ROME (AP) — Divers in northern Italy have recovered the last two bodies of workers killed by an explosion that collapsed and flooded several levels of an underground hydroelectric plant, bringing to seven the number of confirmed dead, officials said Friday.

Almost a quarter of people who were dropped from Medicaid during the post-pandemic eligibility reviews are still uninsured and high costs are preventing them from getting on another plan, a new survey showed Friday.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. [email protected]

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.