Bizarre desert fungus named after the monstrous sandworms from Dune

Years of sample collection on the Hungarian steppe recently revealed four brand new species of fungi, including one that scientists say bears a striking resemblance to an infamous science fiction monster. Its worm-like body and sandy habitat led the team to dub the new species Tulostoma shaihuludiito the Shai-Hulud sandworms found in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels and film adaptations.

All four new species belong to the genus Tulostoma, better known by their decidedly non-threatening moniker of stalked puffballs. This name comes from the spherical fruiting bodies they produce at the end of a stem, from which their spores are released when disturbed by the wind or trampled by an animal.

In case of T. shaihuludiiyou can find out why the researchers made the connection with Herbert’s monstrous worms – but you don’t have to go as far as Arrakis to find such unusual life forms.

Tulostoma shaihuludii, a fungus with a round white tip, next to an illustration of the Shai-Hulud sandworms from the Dune franchise

You can see the similarity.

Image credit: Péter Finy; illustration by Dániel G. Knapp (CC BY 4.0)

The vast Pannonian steppe in southern Hungary, close to the borders with Romania and Serbia, is known as a hotspot for stalked puffballs. The sandy soil, dotted with grassy shrubs, provides the perfect habitat for gas steroid fungi like these, but conditions can be harsh. There is little rainfall in the region, and sand temperatures can rise considerably in summer and autumn Tulostoma species have had to develop resilience.

The identifications, published in the journal MycoKeys, are based on samples collected in the area over 25 years.

“In Hungary, 19 species have been recorded so far, including the four new species proposed in this study,” the authors write, hinting that the country has not yet given up all its secrets: “our ongoing studies point to the presence of many more undescribed species. kind of Tulostoma in Central Europe.”

Together with the new finds, the team’s extensive taxonomic research is an important addition to our understanding of this group of organisms. Unfortunately, as the authors point out, Tulostoma species are rare and the majority are on the red list of the European Council for the Conservation of Fungi. Knowing the best ways to protect them starts with learning as much as you can about their diversity and habitat.

Incredible, T. shaihuludii isn’t the only Shai-Hulud doppelgänger to come to light recently – and the other one has teeth to boot.

Research fifteen years in the making has led to new insights into the anatomy of the elusive Kalahari dwarf worm lizard (Zygaspis quadrifrons). These small, worm-like creatures are a type of amphisbaenian and live their lives under the cover of sand and soil, so observing them has proven difficult.

A Zygaspis quadrifrons is photographed in the wild in Koanaka, Botswana.

So the wormy miracle Zygaspis quadrifrons.

Image credit: Johan Marais

In one of two new articles on these animals in The Anatomical Record, researcher Christopher J. Bell and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin describe the micro-CT scans they performed on 15 amphibian specimens, culminating in a model of each cranial anatomical feature of Z. quadrifrones.

‘It fits three skulls of the Zygaspis quadrifrons on the nail of my little finger. We can now view these very small vertebrate organisms with a level of detail we have never seen before,” Bell said in a statement.

The second article revealed another special feature of the amphisbaenic skull. Like many reptiles, they are born with an egg tooth that allows them to break out of their shell. These are usually temporary, but in Z. quadrifrones, they stick around.

Individual parts of the skull of a Zygaspis quadrifron specimen are highlighted on this CT scan.  What stands out in this photo are the large nasal cavities and the prominent central tooth.

The large nasal cavities and prominent central tooth stand out in this scan image.

Image credits: Scans courtesy of the Jackson School of Geosciences CT lab, colorized and rendered by Sam Houston State University

Bursts of puffball fungi and legless lizards with a penchant for hide-and-seek: who knows what other mythical monsters could be lurking just beneath the sand?

An earlier version of this article appeared in December 2023.

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