When A Scientist Looked Closely At A Photo On Twitter, She Helped Discover A Strange New Species

Associate professor and biologist Ana Sofia Reboleira is perusing Twitter – as millions of us do every day. And suddenly she stops scrolling after something curious appears on her feed. She then spots a feature on a particular creature, and with that, Reboleira is about to make social-media history.

Of course, it’s not unusual for scientists to discover new species. The Natural History Museum in the British capital of London noted at least 272 new lifeforms in the 12 months leading up to December 2018. And the following year was also filled with discovery.

Researchers from the California Academy of Science found 71 new plant and animal species in the following year. They even named a number of fish discovered off the coast of Tanzania after the hit Marvel comic and movie character Black Panther. The creatures were given the Latin name Cirrhilabrus Wakanda – or the vibranium fairy wrasse.

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As we’ve seen, researchers still regularly find new species. Though there are several factors that make Reboleira’s find surprising. The professor stumbled across it while she was browsing Twitter, which is unique. Indeed, no other recorded scientist to date is believed to have spotted a new species on the social-media platform.

But just who is the scientist in question? Well, Reboleira is an associate professor who works for the Natural History Museum of Denmark at the University of Copenhagen. And there, she teaches classes on terrestrial zoology, field biology and entomology. Additionally, Reboleira has focused her career on the fields of subterranean biology and ecology.

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Reboleira wrote on her university bio page, “I am interested in understanding the diversity and evolution of life, and how it is impacted by anthropogenic activities. I lead a research group that uses multidisciplinary approaches to study biodiversity, ecology, evolution, behavior, physiology and ecotoxicology. Most of my work uses arthropods adapted to subterranean ecosystems.”

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“I am also very interested in understanding parasite-host interactions – mostly linked with arthropod-fungi associations,” Reboleira continued. Though it was during some downtime on Twitter that the professor would stumble upon something fascinating. And of course, the service is not ordinarily the center of scientific discovery.

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Twitter has grown into a social-media giant since its launch in 2006. The platform had 166 million daily active users in the first quarter of 2020, according to Statista. In addition, a huge variety of people use the platform – from the general public to businesses and celebrities.

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As many of us know, Twitter users can share short comments and photographs. It’s also a handy way for companies to keep the public informed about their products. Meanwhile, celebrities regularly use the platform to keep fans in the loop and politicians often utilize it to announce government measures.

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Twitter has also become a popular platform for photos. Users like to upload images of their art, makeup or meals. And people love animal pictures, so pets are a popular subject, too. As a result, Twitter has been host to many a meme.

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Meanwhile, professor Reboleira believes that Twitter and its counterparts have applications thus far relatively unexplored by academia. It is, after all, the very reason she came across her fascinating discovery. But what exactly was it that caught her eye?

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Well, Reboleira was perusing her news feed on the social-media platform when she saw a post from Derek Hennen – an entomology PhD student at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The latter shares Reboleira’s interests in arthropods – though his speciality is millipedes.

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Hennen explained on his university bio page, “I’m interested in showing the beauty of millipedes to the general public through foundational systematic research and science communication. My research deals with documenting and describing millipedes from North America while discovering their natural history, and using this knowledge to connect the public with the millipedes in their own backyard.”

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People often mistake millipedes for insects or bugs, but that’s inaccurate. They’re actually arthropods, which are defined by their tough exoskeleton, jointed legs and segregated bodies. These are divided into segments and supported by legs with joints, and millipedes actually have two pairs per body segment.

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Another rumor about millipedes is that the “milli” part of their name means they have 1,000 legs. But Hennen told the website HowStuffWorks in 2019 that this is actually a misnomer. He said, “I guess the people who were seeing these things and coming up with common names said, ‘Man that’s a lot of legs.’”

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“It’s a bit [confusing], and it’s the same with centipedes,” Hennen went on. “It’s just getting at the fact that they are very leggy.” But it’s these legs that give millipedes a remarkable ability to dig into the ground. The PhD student explained, “The collum [first segment] acts like a bulldozer, and having so many legs gives it power to push and burrow into the dirt.”

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Hennen is so fond of the little critters that he has a dedicated Twitter account called @DearMillipede. And it was one of his pictures of the insect which pricked the attention of Reboleira. Many people may not have noticed such a seemingly insignificant detail. But the professor’s keen eye saw something that warranted investigation.

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Reboleira then told Science Daily what happened next. She apparently showed the picture to a colleague called Henrik Enghoff, who is a professor and curator at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. Furthermore, he is also an expert on millipedes.

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“That’s when we ran down to the museum’s collections and began digging,” Reboleira told the publication in May 2020. The experts then scoured the museum’s millipede collection looking for anything similar to what she had seen in Hennen’s photograph. And the two colleagues subsequently discovered several samples to reinforce Reboleira’s suspicions.

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It turned out that Reboleira had spotted a previously unidentified species in the photo. This is believed to be a Twitter first, but it isn’t the only new species discovered on other social-media services. Indeed, these platforms are helping experts all over the world to catalogue both flora and fauna that have previously escaped classification.

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Interestingly, new life forms are discovered on social media more often than you might think. Plant photographer and retired Nepal Airlines director Saroj Kumar Kasaju met flora researcher doctor Bhaskar Adhikari via the efloraofindia website in 2016. And they identified a species of plant now called Thunbergia kasajuana – named in honor of Kasaju.

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American wildlife guide Josh Richards also found a new species of plant that a biodiversity researcher called Dr. Peter Moonlight helped identify. The pair connected through Planet Begonia – a Facebook group for plant enthusiasts. And the pair officially named the discovery Begonia, B. joshii following a field trip to collect specimens in 2018. But it’s not just small species which are found this way.

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Botany enthusiast Reginaldo Vasconcelos uploaded a picture of a plant he had discovered in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on to Facebook in 2013. And following year flora specialist Paulo Gonella saw it and realized that the specimen was an officially unclassified carnivorous sundew plant. As a result, it was subsequently named Drosera magnifica – or “magnificent sundew.”

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“I was really surprised when I first saw the picture posted on Facebook by Reginaldo Vasconcelos featuring this amazing new species,” Gonella told IFLScience in 2015. “I was especially surprised, not only because it seemed to be a completely new species, but it was a gigantic plant.”

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The Drosera magnifica, meanwhile, has two notable features. It is reportedly the second biggest carnivorous plant in the Americas. The other claim to fame is that it is the first plant believed to to have been discovered on Facebook.

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Drosera told IFLScience, “The discovery of Drosera is not an isolated event. I already got many replies from colleagues that also have spotted potential new species in photos posted on Facebook, Flickr and discussion forums and are now preparing official descriptions.”

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The photo-centric social-media platform Flickr is another place where users have made new scientific discoveries. One such find occurred in 2011 when a Malaysian photographer called Guek Hock Ping snapped an insect known as a lacewing. And it was the specimen’s wing patterns that caught the interest of Shaun Winterton – an entomologist who had been browsing Flickr. He received a specimen of the bug from Ping, and it was subsequently called Semachrysa jade in honor of the photographer’s daughter.

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Reboleira, however, found another life form entirely. Specifically, the professor noticed a series of small spots on a millipede’s body which struck her as odd. She told Science Daily, “I could see something looking like fungi on the surface of the millipede.”

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“Until then, these fungi had never been found on American millipedes,” Reboleira went on. This growth which the scientist discovered is a type of Laboulbeniales fungal organism which attacks millipedes and insects. According to the scientific journal MycoKeys, most of the 2,200 known species of Laboulbeniales live on insects and various anthropod hosts.

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EurekAlert! reports that around 30 different Laboulbeniales species take millipedes as hosts. Research on these fungal organisms is quite thin on the ground, so even experts like Reboleira have limited knowledge on them. Indeed, the website noted that most discoveries of the species occurred from 2014 onwards.

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Reboleira wrote in her official paper on the fungi, “Laboulbeniales have been long neglected both by mycologists and entomologists. The reason may be that entomologists are often unaware of their presence. [This is] in part due to their small size and the lack of collaboration between entomologists and mycologists that have less access to the hosts on which these fungi depend.”

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“In addition, the study of Laboulbeniales was hindered by technical issues due to their size and difficulty to isolate DNA until recently,” Reboleira continued. With this in mind, there’s still some debate about how to further classify the species. In the past, they’ve been classed as a parasitic life form that feeds on their hosts.

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The fungi family display a wide variety of behavior – some more sinister than others. Examples like edible mushrooms and mold can be beneficial to us. Others, however, can be poisonous and deadly to other living organisms.

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One well-known frightening fungus is the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which essentially transforms ants into zombies. The parasite apparently hijacks the insects’ muscle systems with its filaments. The fungi then forces its host to climb the stem of a plant, pushes a stalk through the ant’s head and showers further spores down on nearby colony members.

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Laboulbeniales fungi are less visually scary, but they sometimes display predatory behavior. As Reboleira noticed, they can be seen outside their hosts in the form of tiny, larva-like growths. And the specimens grow on a millipede’s reproductive organs, according to Science Daily.

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MycoKeys notes that Laboulbeniales have generally been referred to as parasites. This is partly because some forms of the species have root-like attributes which are called haustoria. These penetrate the millipede’s exoskeleton and drain nutrition like a vampire drinks blood. But the website adds that the majority of Laboulbeniales lack these roots, and this calls into question whether they really are parasitic.

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Evidently, the species remains quite elusive for now. Though hopefully Reboleira’s findings will inspire more people to learn more about them. But what name did this new life form take? Well, it was apparently called Troglomyces twitteri, in honor of the platform through which it was discovered.

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Naturally, many experts believe that social media can offer a wealth of information when it comes to scientific discovery in the future. Paulo Gonella told IFLScience, “It makes you think: what is still out there, expecting to be discovered?”

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“[The discovery of the Troglomyces twitteri] highlights the importance of these platforms for sharing research, and thereby being able to achieve new results,” Reboleira told Science Daily. But the expert acknowledges the importance of the general public, too. Reboleira continued, “I hope that it will motivate professional and amateur researchers to share more data via social media.”

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Reboleira went on, “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.”

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