Sep 29, 2019 I Paul Seaburn

‘Alien’ Worm With Three Sexes Discovered in Hostile California Lake

Before you start screaming, “How do you known it’s an alien?”, tell me what other Earth species has three sexes? And can survive 500 times the lethal human does of arsenic? And can live in a lake with only two other species in water three times as salty as the ocean? And gives birth to its young like a kangaroo? Go ahead … google away. I’ll wait.

Finished? Find anything? Then it’s an alien, right? Or at least an "alien."

“Arsenic resistance is something we can study in the lab, but maybe that’s not the most interesting part of the story. The most important thing is that there’s this diversity of life in extreme environments that we just haven’t appreciated before.”

Paul Sternberg, Bren Professor of Biology at CalTech, is so respected in the field of nemotodes that he has a lab named after him, and that’s where he led a team of researchers in a search for any type of weird tiny worms that could live in the harsh waters of California’s Mono Lake -- a salty, alkaline, arsenic-rich body of water known to be home to just two species: brine shrimp and diving alkali flies.

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Mono Lake

Mono Lake has the world’s highest concentration of alkali flies – another strange species that takes its head off to emerge from its pupal stage and then puts it back on to become a fly. This didn’t bother the native Kutzadika'a people whose name means “fly eater” and … you can figure the rest of it out.

Back to the aliens. Researchers at the Sternberg lab like to look for extremophiles -- organisms that live and thrive in conditions unsuitable for most other life forms. Since nemotodes (roundworms) are the most abundant creatures on Earth, and since those are their specialty, that’s what Paul Sternberg and his lab assistants looked for in Mono Lake. While they expected they might find one, they were surprised to find eight different species of nemotodes. And they were shocked at the unique characteristics of one of them.

“One species, Auanema sp., is new, culturable, and survives 500 times the human lethal dose of arsenic.”

As the study, published in Current Biology and described in a CalTech press release, points out, Auanema sp. has three sexes – male, female and hermaphrodite – and gives birth to its young live instead of in eggs. It’s now the most dominant species in a lake so hostile, it only has two others.

So, is it an alien?

"Understanding biodiversity is important for so many reasons: many organisms can act like canaries in a coal mine, alerting us to danger. Others can teach us how to thrive under what seem to be harsh conditions: chemicals, temperature, acidity or alkalinity, salt, radiation, you name it. Also, there are so many mysteries about life: each species has an interesting story to tell us."

Sternberg hints that we don’t yet know the whole story about Auanema sp. It sounds like the kind of tough survivor like tardigrades that can survive in outer space – making it a prime candidate for panspermia … traveling to Earth from another planet.

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Did they? Who knows? In the meantime, the researchers at Sternberg lab will certainly be watching them to see how the three sexes have sex, not to mention trying to figure out how they survive. And we should be watching them too because … if something starts killing off the toughest creatures on Earth who can have sex three ways, what does the future hold for us?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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