A few days ago, podcast Just the Zoo of Us tweeted a fairly innocuous and fun post asking their followers: "What is the most overhyped animal?"
The podcasters, who rate animals, probably expected a few half-joking, half-correct answers along the likes of "dolphins are gummy sharks" and "cats are just a shit type of dog". Which they did get at first, and a lot of them were pretty great, raised some good points and everyone kept things civil.
Then, Michael Eisen, editor of eLife – a respected peer-reviewed open access scientific journal for the biomedical and life sciences – joined in with an answer that turned science twitter into an unexpected Battle Royale: He thinks a 1-millimeter long worm is overrated.
A lot of people took it in the spirit it was meant.
However, it turns out you can call otters overrated swamp rats, but swing for Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) and you'd better not miss.
The roundworm – while it does go forwards and backwards a lot, and is one of the simplest organisms with a nervous system – is incredibly useful in scientific research. Many of their genes have functional counterparts in humans making them a useful model for human disease, for instance, and they have a short life cycle and pump out eggs like nobody's business. They can even be frozen and defrosted, as pointed out in the tweets above. They're also transparent, so you can take a glance inside them at individual cells without anything annoying like skin getting in the way.
It also has a largely humor-free fanbase, as the C. elegans community took against Eisen's comment in increasingly bizarre, disproportionately angry responses.
In several instances, people compared the disparaging of C. elegans with disparaging comments about women and people of color (POC), despite the many thousands of obvious reasons why you shouldn't do that.
Eisen at least has a sense of humor.
The C. elegans talk spilled over into non-worm Twitter, where it briefly trended and was met with quite a lot of bafflement. This was, after all, an argument about somebody smack-talking a 1mm roundworm.
Eventually, he ended up caving into Twitter demand and praised the worm. All hail C. elegans, and all who follow it.
And the Twitter account that started all this? They learned their lesson about trying to do anything fun on the Internet.