Researcher discovers bizarre new species while scrolling through Twitter

18 May 2020

The photo shared on Twitter of the millipede Cambala. The two red circles indicate the presence of the fungus. Image: Derek Hennen

A new species of parasitic fungus was discovered by a researcher scrolling through Twitter, and has been named in honour of the platform.

It can take years for researchers to uncover a significant discovery, and sometimes it can just happen by accident, as shown in a recent announcement from the University of Copenhagen’s National History Museum of Denmark.

The university said biologist and associate professor Ana Sofia Reboleira discovered a new species of parasitic fungus while scrolling through Twitter. She had stumbled on an image of a North American millipede shared by her US colleague Derek Hennen of Virginia Tech, and noticed that a few tiny dots on the creature were very peculiar.

“I could see something looking like fungi on the surface of the millipede,” she said.

“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.”

Working with her colleague Henrik Enghoff, she discovered several specimens of the same fungus on a few of the American millipedes within the museum’s collection, which had never been documented.

This confirmed the existence of a previously unknown species of Laboulbeniales, an order of tiny, bizarre and largely unknown fungal parasites that attack insects and millipedes.

Importance of social media for research

Similar in appearance to tiny larvae, this species is in an entirely different class of fungi because it lives on the outside of organisms and, in this case, on the reproductive organs of millipedes. It sucks nutrition from its host animal by piercing the host’s outer shell using a special suction structure, while the other half of the fungus protrudes.

In honour of its discovery on the social network, the species has been assigned the Latin name Troglomyces twitteri.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that a new species has been discovered on Twitter,” Reboleira said.

“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 added that this has become increasingly important as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as many researchers are currently unable to work in the field or in laboratories.

A paper on the discovery was published to the journal MycoKeys.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic