Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cthulhu Is Real!

I have not blogged for a long time.  There are a lot of things that I want to do, including blogging, but spending most of my days at work makes me too tired to do much of anything else.  But now I have come across something that roused me from my torpor.      

I have blogged in the past about organisms being given scientific names that honor rock stars and other celebrities.  

I have also blogged about my enjoyment of the gothic horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft.  

And now the two elements have come together.  In a recent paper in the online journal PLoS ONE, a group of biologists have named a new species of parabasalid (a type of single-celled eukaryote) after Cthulhu, the otherworldly entity who is the defining character in Lovecraft's fantasy universe.  The new organism, Cthulhu macrofasciculumque, lives symbiotically in the digestive tracts of termites.  (Normally I restrict my blogging about biological nomenclature to extinct organisms, but I ventured out of the realm of paleontology for this one.)

The paper describes the derivation of the genus name as follows:

The name is based on the fictional many tentacled, cephalopod-headed demon found in the writings of H. P. Lovecraft, specifically The Call of Cthulhu. The tentacle-headed appearance given by the coordinated beat pattern of the anterior flagellar bundle of Cthulhu cells is reminiscent of this demon. The name is supposedly impossible to pronounce as it comes from an alien language, but currently it is most often pronounced “ke-thoo-loo”.

Lovecraft scholars might quibble at the description of Cthulhu as a "demon".

The scientists also named another genus of parabasalid, Cthylla, after a daughter of Cthulhu created by author Brian Lumley in a Lovecraft-inspired story.  (I was not aware that Cthulhu had any children.)  

What is most surprising to me about all this is not that it happened, but that it didn't happen a long time ago. Given the popularity of Lovecraft's fiction among smart, nerdy people, I would have thought that "Cthulhu" would have been made a genus name thirty or forty years ago.  And I also would have thought that the name would have been used for something more impressive than a protist that lives in the gut of a termite.  (What is is that they say about real estate–the three most important things are location, location, location?)

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