Zombie fungus might help manage invasive fly species

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Spotted Lanternfly in Pennsylvania

Things are getting spooky in the Northeast, like fly invasion and zombie fungus spooky. For the past five years, an invasive insect species commonly called the spotted lanternfly has ravaged crops and property across portions of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia, as Popular Science reports.

Thankfully, Cornell University scientists conducted a recent study that may have found a weapon in the fight against the polka-dotted planthopper: a native fungus called Batkoa, which projects zombie-like traits upon its victims.

Fly vs. Fungus

Spotted lanternflies are native to China, India, and Vietnam, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In the U.S. they were first discovered in Pennsylvania’s Berks County and have wreaked havoc in the southeast corner of the Commonwealth, spreading to multiple states. Batkoa may help stop the outbreak by turning the flies into zombies.

As the Cornell researchers discovered, Batkoa infects the lanternfly and acts as a mind-controlling parasite. The fungus then forces the infected insect to climb high into a tree. Fungal fibers then snake their way out of the fly and secure it to its pithy grave. Finally, spores burst out of the fly’s body and rain down to contaminate other lanternflies.

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Pennsylvania agricultural officials first came across Batkoa in 2017 when they discovered dead lanternflies covered in white fuzz. They sent samples to Cornell, where the team cultured spores and extracted DNA. This process allowed them to identify the fungal species and continue to research how it can help combat lanternflies. But one thing seems clear; Batkoa does a number on the unsuspecting flies.

“We were shocked to see this level of mortality,” Eric Clifton, co-author of the study and a post-doc at Cornell told Popular Science. “These naturally occurring infections could move through them like a tidal wave.” But another type of fungus may help defend against the pesky lanternfly, as well.

Fungus to the Rescue

The Cornell team flagged another fungus called Beauveria as a possible control on the lanternfly front lines.

Beauveria has already been used in some EPA-approved bioinsecticides. Armed with both fungi, agricultural officials and farmers alike have some hope of staving off the unwanted insects.

Furthermore, most invasive species have no natural predators in their new habitats. However, the lanternflies seem particularly vulnerable to the fungus considering they haven’t had the millions of years to build up defenses as their native brethren have. Cliffton likens both fungi to a new flu strain which unvaccinated lanternflies contract.

Clifton goes on to say that the fungi aren’t a wonder cure for the lanternfly scourge. He is optimistic, however, that populations will subside due in part to the heroics of Batkoa and Beauveria.