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New Worm Species Has Five Faces, Each Used To Eat Different Foods

Jan 05, 2016 02:49 PM EST

A new species of roundworm discovered on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean boasts some interesting characteristics. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology say this nematode can develop five different specialized "faces" or mouths, based on what it is in the mood to eat.

This unique worm lives inside fig plants and at first made researchers think they had found five different species, because the mouth parts of each were so distinct. However, using genome sequencing, they concluded the worms - subsequently dubbed Pristionchus borbonicus - belong to a single species and have the mouth they need based on the surrounding food supply.

"The different mouth forms of Pristionchus borbonicus that we have found now are specialized for the preferred intake of bacteria, yeasts or other roundworms. So, obviously they occupy different ecological niches within the fig," Ralf Sommer, co-leader of the study and Director of the Department for Evolutionary Biology, explained in a news release. "With this team of specialists the species can exploit a large food spectrum and efficiently buffer fluctuations in the availability of a certain resource by changing the proportion of mouth forms."

Previously, researchers found worms of the Pristionchus species live on beetles and develop two different mouth forms - either a short, wide, single-toothed variant that's good for predatory behavior, or a long, narrow mouth suitable for grazing on bacteria - depending on food source availability and environment.

However, the recent find represents an extreme example of evolutionary divergence within one species. Similar fig-dwelling roundworms were also found in Vietnam and South Africa, suggesting the creature's association with figs is widespread. Researchers believe the newly-discovered worms ultimately travel between fig flowers on pollinating fig wasps.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

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