Researchers have solved the mystery of the “snake worm” in Alaska after discovering a new species of fungus-eating fly whose young clump together and slither like a long gray snake.
The caecilian mystery began more than 16 years ago in the summer of 2007, when Esther resident Maggie Billington spotted thousands of tiny, worm-like larvae crawling across the road in a long line.
Billington was a volunteer at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks at the time, so she documented the strange sighting and brought photos and specimens to the museum. Derek Sykescurator of insects at the museum.
“I thought it must be fly larvae, but I had never heard of this caecilian phenomenon,” Sykes said in an article. statement. “I was flabbergasted. This was a complete X-Files case for me.”
Sykes and his colleagues have now identified the larvae in a new study published December 30 in the journal Integrative Systems: Stuttgart Contributions to Natural History. The species, which they have named Sciara serpens, is one of many rarely studied flies whose larvae appear to mimic snakes.
Researchers have speculated that these caterpillars take the shape of a snake to scare away birds and other potential predators or to conserve moisture on dry ground by crawling over each other in a single line.
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The new species belongs to the Sciaridae family, which is commonly called fungus gnat because it feeds on decaying organic matter. Many flies are difficult to distinguish in their early life stage, so Sykes cared for the larvae collected from a second sighting of the snakeworm in 2007 until they metamorphosed into the dark-winged fly form.
The Alaskan fungus mosquito bred by Sykes appears to be very similar to the so-called European mosquito Ciara is amazing Instead of the species previously identified in North America that was reported in Maryland and Arkansas.
But it was not until 2021 that the team confirmed that the mosquitoes were a new species to science. Lead author Thales PereiraAn insect researcher at the University of Alaska Museum of the North examined the reproductive organs of male mosquitoes under a powerful microscope and found marked differences in shape compared to those of its European relative.
While it may seem strange that the Alaskan mosquito would have more in common with mosquitoes found in Europe than with its North American counterparts, the study authors note that this follows a pattern among other insects in Alaska, such as grasshoppers and beetles, and possibly mosquitoes. Back to Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). During that period, Alaska was connected to Europe and Asia via the Internet Bering Land BridgeAllow Insects to disperse From eastern Siberia to Alaska while giant ice sheets closed off the rest of North America.
Although Sykes and his team have been able to identify the species behind the caecilian phenomenon, scientists still have a lot of work to do to fully understand this fungus and the strange habits of its larvae.
Furthermore, Sykes and other caecilian witnesses reported seeing beetles running alongside the larvae, which could also be investigated. The beetles may feed on tiny flies, but when Sykes gathered them together in the lab, the beetles mostly ignored the larvae, according to the study.