The new species, which pierces its host to suck out nutrients, was spotted by an eagle-eyed biologist from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. Professor Ana Sofia Reboleira made the fluke discovery while scrolling through her Twitter feed. The Portuguese entomologist was drawn to an up-close photo of a North American millipede shared by her US colleague Derek Hennen of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
The picture featured specks on the critter’s body that may have very well gone unnoticed.
Professor Reboleira said: “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.”
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Dr Hennen also said on Twitter: “To everyone (including me!), it was as normal a millipede photo as you can get.
“But if you’re @SReboleira, you have AMAZING visions and a preternatural talent for spying tiny fungi. She saw something no one else did!”
Together with her colleague Henrik Enghoff, the scientists found examples of the same parasite on American millipedes in the museum’s collection.
The fungi have never been documented before, confirming the existence of a new species of so-called Laboulbeniales.
Laboulbeniales are a family of parasitic fungi known to attack millipedes and other critters.
Owing to its discovery on Twitter, the new species was named Troglomyces twitteri.
As far as we know, his is the first time that a new species has been discovered on Twitter
Professor Ana Sofia Reboleira
Professor Reboleira said: “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.
“This is something that has been increasingly obvious during the coronavirus crisis, a time when so many are prevented from getting into the field or laboratories.”
The expert has now said platforms like Twitter are playing an increasingly bigger role in scientific research.
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The discovery was also backed up the Natural History Museum’s vast collections.
Professor Reboleira said: “Because of our vast museum collection, it was relatively easy to confirm that we were indeed looking at an entirely new species for science.
“This demonstrates how valuable museum collections are.
“There is much more hiding in these collections than we know.”
Scientists know of about 30 different species of parasitic Laboulbeniales-fungi that attack millipedes.
Most of these parasites were only discovered after 2014.
The parasites feed on their host organism by piercing through their outer shells and sucking out nutrients.
In this case, Troglomyces twitteri was found living on the millipede’s reproductive organs.
Professor Reboleira believes many more are still waiting to be found.
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