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Manatees May Carry Half a Million Microscopic Hitchhikers

Unexpected species of nematodes, some of them new to science, were found living on the skin of the marine mammals.

The study reports that three nematode species — two previously unknown — were found in skin samples from Florida manatees. The authors estimated that the skin of an average adult manatee could potentially carry over half a million nematodes.

“It’s like elephant skin,” said Cathy Beck, a scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the study. “There’s lots of little nooks and crannies and pores, and they have very small fine hairs about an inch apart, so there’s lots of little places for minute organisms to live, to attach, and for algae to grow.”

“For us, that was sort of strange, to be finding these things that we’re used to finding in little tiny bugs on the back of a sea elephant, basically,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who completed the research while working as a nematode biologist at the University of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center.

With this research, “we learn more about the ecology of these nematodes, we learn more about how specialized they are,” said Karin Kiontke, a biologist at New York University who was not involved in the study. “And it also tells us how much we don’t know.”

The team found what was probably C. manati — and two other nematodes.

Though more work is needed for formal species descriptions of the two new nematodes, “I think you could comfortably say these are new species,” said Adler Dillman, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside, who was not involved in the study.

The nematodes, the study suggests, are specially adapted to flourish in this decaying micro-landscape, where structures on the skin would be as tall to them as trees are to people. All three manatee nematodes were found on all of the manatees sampled in 2018 and 2019, but no skin lesions were found; the authors concluded that it was unlikely that the nematodes were hurting their hosts. Perhaps, they suggested, they’re passed between manatees like human skin mites.

For now, the researchers hope to generate more enthusiasm for nematodes as well as their gentle manatee hosts.

“We get so focused in the big world that we don’t realize how interconnected everything is,” Dr. Giblin-Davis said. “And how reliant we are on so many things that we don’t see.”

Category: Science

Source: New York Times

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