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A teeny tiny Cthulhu monster, found in a termite's gut

Science

The Cthulhu lives! Sort of. 

A recently discovered single-celled organism has been named after the Cthulhu, the massive winged monster with a head like a giant octupus conceived by H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s. 

The newly discovered Cthulhu macrofasciculumque is tiny and harmless. It lives in the hind gut of termites with no desire to dominate all of existence -- as far as we know. Rather, this little guy is part of a vast and varied symbiotic ecosystem of microbes that help termites digest wood.

Still, the two Cthulhus -- one real, and one fictional -- do share some characteristics, which is why the mini-Cthulhu got its name. 

"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," said Erick James, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who led the team that discovered the protist. "It was a mass of tentacles on a globular body."

Those "tentacles" are actually a tuft of flagella that help the microbe move around. 

That complicated and difficult to pronounce species name "macrofasciculumque" was an added joke. 

"H.P. Lovecraft created the name Cthulhu based on an alien language -- it is the closest the human aparatus can get to saying the name," James said. "So we wanted to pick a species name that was hard to pronounce, too."

Mission accomplished. 

Scientists have been finding and naming protists in the termite's hind gut since the early 1900s, but the Cthulhu, and another protist dubbed Cthylla macrofasciculumque after the Cthulhu's daughter were only recently discovered by James and his team. The two protists are smaller than other protists in the termite's gut, which may have made them more difficult to find earlier.

A paper detailing the discovery was published by the science journal PLoS ONE.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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