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Newly-Discovered Microorganism Named After Gandalf From Lord of the Rings

A new species of microorganism amoeba has been discovered and named after Lord of the Rings’ famous wizard, Gandalf, because of its carapace resembling the character’s hat. The findings are published in the journal Acta-Protozoologica.

A Gandalf-ian amoeba! Gandalf, one of the main characters of the novel Lord of the Rings authored by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s to 1940s, has his share of fans among humans indeed, and it appears that he has also won over the microscopic realm!

Researchers from Brazil have discovered a species of thecamoebians, a type of amoeba. Thecamoebians are believed to have evolved throughout time to display a particular trait: bearing an outer carapace (shell) that varies in shape from species to species. The newly-spotted one’s is unique because of its great resemblance to Gandalf’s wizard hat.

An amoeba shell (carapace) resembling Gandalf’s hat. Photo credits: Jordana C. Féres & Alfredo L. Porfírio Sousa.

Our new Gandalf-microorganism has been named Arcella gandalfi.

“New amoeba species are very rarely discovered because they’re so tiny and not widely studied. In addition, there are very few taxonomists who specialize in this group in Brazil,” says lead researcher Daniel J. G. Lahr.

It all started a few years ago when Lahr heard of the possible existence of this species in freshwater bodies located in several regions of Brazil. However, he could not confirm whether they constituted a wholly new species because the specimens found were too few in number. Everything changed when biologist Jordana de Carvalho e Féres came across a sample of 180 specimens from Rio de Janeiro. Using microscopy techniques, the two researchers set out to identify the creature.

They isolated the microorganism from the samples, and took its pictures and measurements pertaining to biometric and morphological characterization. They, thus, found that the amoeba in question had unique traits such that it belonged to an entirely different (unknown) species altogether.

A. gandalfi makes around 81 micrometres in diameter, and 71 micrometres in height. Its colour is said to vary from brown to light yellow. Lahr explains that it is relatively large for a single-celled organism. It is also unusual because it is able to make a funnel-shaped shell in spite of consisting of only one cell. Gandalf’s little friend also stands out because of its classification as a flagship species. This is an important type of species that is used as a representation of a specific habitat or ecosystem because its morphological features allows for easy identification, and due to its restricted geographic distribution (Lahr explains that A. gandalfi can only be found in the Southern Hemisphere, and not in the Northern one).

Now, you might be wondering as to why the amoeba wears a Gandalf-hat-carapace? Sadly, researchers do not yet have an answer for this. Their best guess is it provides protection to the tiny creatures from predators—an opinion that Lahr does not, however, share.

“Thecamoebians are strongly predated, and we often find their carapaces ingested by a class of protozoans called ciliates, for example,” says Lahr. “For these microorganisms, the shell is not protective like armor plating, as it is in the case of arthropods, which are preyed on by animals of the same size.”

Lahr’s colleagues provide an alternative explanation: according to them, the carapace might be shielding the amoeba from dryness, or from ultraviolet light.

“We think they’re able to maintain a humid microenvironment inside the shell when it’s dry outside, by storing even a tiny amount of water,” Lahr said.

“Their habitats are aquatic, and they’re often exposed to sunlight, so protection against UV rays must be a very important factor.”

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