Biologist Tobias Pfingstl identifies new species via social media
No, it’s not a miniature bug: Ameronothrus twitter is actually a previously unknown arachnid, which was identified by University of Graz biologist Tobias Pfingstl with the help of the messaging platform. The new mite is described in a paper published on 22 March 2021 in the specialist journal Species Diversity.
“Dozens of new mite species are discovered every year, but it’s unusual to hear about one via social media,” explains Pfingstl. In fact it’s thanks to the bad luck of a hobby fisherman and photographer that the new species was found: “The fish weren’t biting, so he was strolling along the harbour wall, where he took some photos and video footage of the tiny creature and published them on Twitter,” continues the biologist. Pfingstl’s Japanese research colleague noticed the Twitter post, contacted the author and was then actually able to find several of these mites at the same spot – some hundred kilometres east of Tokyo. Pfingstl identified these as new members of a family that he himself had first discovered in Japan in 2019.
“This is an oribatid mite, less than half a millimetre long, belonging to a family that is particularly well adapted to the cold. It is pretty surprising to find this type of mite in what is an almost subtropical climate,” explains the Graz biologist. So far these arachnids have not been found in their natural habitat – only on the harbour wall. However, the researchers believe this mite would normally live on rocks.
“Ameronothrus twitter is one of just a handful of species in the world that have been discovered via social media,” says the researcher. In the last few years, experts have identified a parasitic fungus on Twitter, a flesh-eating plant on Facebook and two new flies on the photo platform Flickr and on Instagram. “Our work shows that these platforms can make a real contribution to scientific research,” says Pfingstl; he is convinced that “this kind of networking will be increasingly important in the future.”