A newly identified species of parasitic fungus has been identified by chance through a quick scroll of Twitter.
Biologist Anna Sofia Reboleira came across a photo of a North American millipede (Cambala annulate) photographed in Ohio and later shared by a colleague. It was when she noticed tiny dots located on the organism’s head that her carefully trained scientific eye went to work.
"I could see something looking like fungi on the surface of the millipede. Until then, these fungi had never been found on American millipedes. So, I went to my colleague and showed him the image. That's when we ran down to the museum's collections and began digging," said Reboleira in a statement.
To determine what these tiny dots were, an international team of researchers scoured through a collection of American millipedes at the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum of Denmark and discovered several specimens of the same fungus located on other millipedes. A deeper analysis revealed that the organism represented a previously unknown species of Laboulbeniales, an order of around 2,200 species of highly specialized fungal parasites that live on insects, millipedes, and arachnids. Not much is known about these tiny larvae-like parasites in large part because their small size has made it difficult to study and isolate DNA. Laboulbeniales spend their entire life on their host, piercing its outer shell with a special suction structure to suck nutrition from the host animal
At least 30 species are known to attach and live on the outside of their host millipedes, most of which were discovered within the last decade, and often attach to specific body parts. In this case, the newly dubbed Troglomyces twitteri attaches to the reproductive organs of millipedes. T. twitteri is described in the journal MycoKeys.
Not much else is known about Laboulbeniales fungi, though understanding their mechanisms for survival may help better understand the world of parasitism and the organisms they infect. Reboleira adds that the power of sharing information through social media can lead to important new discoveries.
"As far as we know, this is the first time that a new species has been discovered on Twitter. It highlights the importance of these platforms for sharing research – and thereby being able to achieve new results. I hope that it will motivate professional and amateur researchers to share more data via social media,” she said, adding that sharing such information is particularly relevant during pandemic-related closures that have limited field research.