A new species of roundworm found on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean has five different specialized "faces" it can develop.
The worm, Pristionchus borbonicus, was discovered by scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Developmental Biology. It lives inside of fig plants, and at first the find had the researchers thinking they were looking at five different species, because the mouth parts of each were so distinct.
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It took sequencing of the animals' genomes to confirm the animals with the different mouth forms were all the same species.
What accounts for the multiple faces? The scientists say the creatures are an extreme example of evolutionary divergence, and the animals simply have the mouth they need based on available food supply within the fig's ecosystem.
"The different mouth forms of Pristionchus borbonicus that we have found now are specialized for the preferred intake of bacteria, yeasts or other roundworms. So, obviously they occupy different ecological niches within the fig," said co-research-lead Ralf Sommer in a release.
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The different mouth forms allow the species to "exploit a large food spectrum and efficiently buffer fluctuations in the availability of a certain resource," Sommer added.
The tiny worms travel to new fig flowers on pollinating fig wasps, and it was already known that Pristionchus had two different mouth forms – a short, wide, single-toothed variant that's good for predatory behavior; and a long, narrow mouth suitable for grazing on bacteria.
The researchers said they found similar worms in figs in Vietnam and South Africa, and that the creature's association with figs can be considered widespread. Next they plan to return to Reunion Island in search of new figs and worms.