Washington, Feb 12 Scientists have discovered a new species of amoeba and named it after Gandalf - a character from The Lord of the Rings franchise - due to the microorganism's resemblance to the popular wizard's hat.
Thecamoebians are among the 30-45 lineages of amoebae known to exist worldwide. During their evolution, they have developed the ability to produce a varyingly shaped outer carapace or shell in which to protect themselves.
Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo and University of Maringa (UEM) in Brazil have identified a species of thecamoeba, named Arcella gandalfi, with a carapace that resembles the wizard's hat worn by Gandalf, one of the most important characters in The Lord of the Rings, a series of novels by J R R Tolkien.
"New amoeba species are very rarely discovered because they're so tiny and not widely studied," said Daniel J G Lahr, professor at University of Sao Paulo.
"We succeeded in isolating the organism from the samples, performed all the necessary measurements and produced images to make sure it really was a new species," Lahr said.
The researchers' analysis was based on biometric and morphological characterisation. They concluded that the characteristic funnel shape of A gandalfi was unique among species belonging to the genus Arcella, one of the largest genera of testate amoebae.
The colour of A gandalfi ranges from light yellow to brown, and the diameter and height of its conical shell average 81 and 71 micrometres, respectively. A micrometre is one-tenth of a millimetre.
Although A gandalfi is microscopic, it is considered large for a single-celled organism.
"It's just one cell, and yet it's capable of building this funnel-shaped carapace," Lahr said.
Since it is easily identified based on its morphological features and because its geographic distribution appears to be confined to South America, the researchers suggest its use as a new flagship species.
A flagship species is a key species for a specific ecosystem or habitat, and it can serve as an icon or emblem of an environmental cause.
According to Lahr, there are no records of any species resembling A gandalfi from any other part of the world.
"The identification of a new species of microorganism in the Southern Hemisphere, as in the case of this amoeba, is very strong evidence that its geographic distribution is restricted to the region because Northern Hemisphere environments have been studied in far more depth," he said.
"This is especially so for such a conspicuous species with a shape unlike any other," he added.
Most amoebae in the genus Arcella are less than half the size of A gandalfi and vary considerably in morphology, typically being hemispherical or disk-shaped.
Some resemble an Asian rice hat, while others are crown-like with denticulations - small ridges resembling bristles or spines around the edges.
The study was published in the journal Acta Protozoologica.