science: on Devil’s worm

A minuscule species of SA worm that lives 1.3km underground could shed light on the mystery of life on other planets.
Called the Devil’s Worm, it featured on this year’s New Species Top 10 list along with creatures such as the Walking Cactus and the Sneezing Monkey.

The Devil’s Worm was discovered by scientists led by Professor Esta van Heerden of the University of the Free State in a mine near Welkom.
The worm, which measures about 0.5 mm in length, lives 1.3km under the surface of the Earth in the Beatrix Gold Mine.

The Devil’s Worm is special because it is the first multi-cellular organism that has been found so far beneath the surface of the Earth.
The researchers said this would help shed light on the possibility of life on other planets which were previously considered to be impossible to live on due to extreme conditions.
The worm survives temperatures of up to 37oC and the underground water, in which it lives, is said to be between 3 000 and 12 000 years old.

“These small invertebrates live in terrestrial soil subjected to stress almost for 24 hours. They live through sunshine, rain, scorching temperatures and freezing conditions. Through time they developed a means to cope with harsh conditions,” the researchers said.
The team started looking for the worms in 2007 and thereafter did a massive sampling campaign in 2008 to 2009 in a few mines.

This led to the discovery of several nematodes (worm species type) and the new nematode species Halicephalobus mephisto.
It is named after the legend of Faust in which the devil, also known as the lord of the underworld, is called Mephistopheles.
The list, in its fifth year, is |put together by the International |Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University and a committee of scientists from around the world.

The institute explained that although it was difficult to pick 10 species from around the world, they |did their best to pick those with “surprising titles and unexpected plot lines” in an order to draw attention to the them.
The list also includes the SpongeBob SquarePants mushroom which is a fungi with a fruity smell that was discovered in Malaysia and named after the cartoon character.
A giant millipede and a blue tarantula also made it onto the list.
The list of top new species from last year (2011) was published late last month. 

first published in the Cape Argus on 5 June 2012

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