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article imageVideo: Scientists find Cthulhu, Cthylla 'monsters' in termite gut

By JohnThomas Didymus     Apr 6, 2013 in Science
Scientists have discovered two new species of "parabasalian symbionts," members of thriving microbial communities in the prolific viscous hindgut of Prorhinotermes simplex and Reticulitermes virginicus, better known as termites.
The newly discovered microbes were named for two Lovecraftian monsters, Cthulhu (Khlûl'-hloo/"Ke-thoo-loo") and Cthylla ("ke-thil-a").
According to researcher Erick James of the University of British Colombia, in a study published in the March 18 edition of the journal PLOS ONE, entitled "Cthulhu Macrofasciculumque and Cthylla Microfasciculumque, a Newly Identified Lineage of Parabasalian Termite Symbionts," the first of the newly discovered microbes, Cthulhu macrofasciculumque, is named after H.P. Lovecrafts indescribable monster introduced to readers in his 1926 short story "The Call of Cthulhu."
Cthulhu, an indescribable entity (see sketch below), the source of "constant anxiety for mankind at a subconscious level," spots a vaguely anthropomorphic form, captured in a description that ascribes to it an octopus head, vestigial dragon wings and a face-full of feelers.
 A sketch of the fictional character Cthulhu  drawn by his creator  H. P. Lovecraft.
"A sketch of the fictional character Cthulhu, drawn by his creator, H. P. Lovecraft."
H.P. Lovecraft
According to the creator of this uniquely malignant entity, it is "a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind, along with a large jugular vein."
But unlike the unholy spawn of the womb-sewers of Lovecraftian imagination hibernating within an underwater city in the South Pacific called R'lyeh, the microbe Cthulhu macrofasciculumque, is an easy going fellow domiciled in the richly populated gut of Prorhinotermes simplex and Reticulitermes virginicus (termites for short) where it assists its hosts in the performance of an activity that have earned them much-deserved infamy among home builders, digesting wood by converting it into sugar.
Cthulhu and Cthylla in the guts of termites
Cthulhu and Cthylla in the guts of termites
Erick James, University of British Colombia
And like the Lovecraftian Cthulhu for which it is named, the gut-dwelling Cthulhu macrofasciculumque has a face-full of feelers, a tuft of 20 flagella, tentacle-like structures that beat in sync for locomotion (see video).
The other newly discovered microbe, Cthylla microfasciculumque, is smaller than Cthulhu microfasciculumque and has five flagella. It is named after Cthylla, the secret daughter of Cthulhu, yet another horror-spawn character in the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos. Cthylla was created by Brian Lumley and portrayed by Tina L. Jens in her short story "In His Daughter's Darkling Womb" (1997) as a giant winged octopus.
Live Science reports that researcher Erick James, said: "When we first saw them under the microscope they had this unique motion, it looked almost like an octopus swimming."
The Los Angeles Times reports Eric James explains the inspiration behind the christening of his discoveries: "I've read Lovecraft's 'Call of the Cthulhu' and the Cthulhu's body plan reminded me of what we were seeing under the microscope. It was a mass of tentacles on a globular body."
But why "microfasciculumque"? James' explanation reveals that scientists are not always the drearily humorless savants we tend to imagine them to be. He explains: "H.P. Lovecraft created the name Cthulhu based on an alien language -- it is the closest the human apparatus can get to saying the name. So we wanted to pick a species name that was hard to pronounce, too."
According to the Los Angeles Times, scientists scouring the fetid depths of termites' prolific hind gut have been discovering "protist" microbes for decades, but Cthulhu and Cthylla macrofasciculumque have evaded previous researchers because they are smaller than other protists in the termite's gut.
However, James explains in the abstract of his seminal study that microbes Cthulhu and Cthylla closely resemble other microbes of the parabasalian genera. According to the learned scientist: "Molecular phylogenies based on small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) show both genera are related to previously unidentified environmental sequences from other termites (possibly from members of the Tricercomitidae), which all branch as sisters to the Hexamastigitae."
Live Science reports James said: "The huge diversity of microbial organisms is a completely untapped resource. Studying protists can tell us about the evolution of organisms. Some protists cause diseases, but others live in symbiotic relationships, like these flagellates in the intestines of termites."
According to the Christian Science Moniitor, Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque are not the only products of natural evolution named after the misbegotten offspring of Lovecraftian imagination. "First described in 1994, the Pimoa cthulhu spider is native to redwood forests in Mendocino and Sonoma counties in California."
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