Deep Sea Fishing

Scientists who study deep-sea fish must be both patient and persistent. Most deep-sea fish have poorly-known habits and ranges, so for any expedition there is no guarantee of finding a particular species. Since deep-sea fishing is also time-consuming and expensive, many species have only ever been observed once. Here, luck is a vital part of the scientific method.

A cusk eel on the abyssal plain. Photo by Jon Moore, in public domain.

A cusk eel on the abyssal plain. Photo by Jon Moore, in public domain.

The deepest living fish ever caught was a species of cusk eel (Abyssobrotula galatheae) in the family Ophidiidae, found in the Puerto Rico Trench in 1970. This eel, a new species at the time, was caught with a trawler net at a depth of more than 27,400 feet or 5.2 miles (8.3 kilometers). That’s almost as deep as Mount Everest, at 29,000 feet, is tall. Galathea was the name of the ship whose crew hauled up the fish, and the cusk eel’s species name galatheae commemorates the expedition (Nielsen 1977). Today, two new species of cusk eel were named (Nielsen 2015), by the very same Danish scientist who described Galathea‘s deepest catch.

Despite living in complete darkness, under high pressures, the Galathea eel is able to find its invertebrate prey, which consists mostly of crustaceans and worms (Nielson 1977). The ventral fins, used for balance in most fish, are modified into a tiny, branched sensory structure on the fish’s chin. The eyes are poorly developed but functional. By comparison, the two new species are blind. Millions of years of darkness have rendered the eyes vestigial, like the hip-bones of a whale.

A blind cusk eel (Sciadonus cryptophthalmus). Illustration by Erich Zugmayer, in public domain.

A blind cusk eel (Sciadonus cryptophthalmus). Illustration by Erich Zugmayer, in public domain.

Like many deep sea fish, cusk eels cannot afford to be choosy when selecting a mate — encounters are rare in the deep sea, and missing out on an opportunity to reproduce is simply not an option. Many animals can store sperm — that is, the female can mate and then wait for months or even years before using the sperm to fertilizing her eggs. In most cases, this is so the female can:

a) time the development of her young so they are born at the right time or season,

b) mate with multiple males and then later select which one’s sperm to use, and/or

c) parse out fertilization, so that not all of a female’s young are born at the same time.

An eyed cusk eel (Chilara taylori). Photo by Chris Grossman, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

An eyed cusk eel (Chilara taylori). Photo by Chris Grossman, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Blind cusk eels do something totally different. If a male stumbles across a female who is too young to lay eggs, all is not lost. She can still mate, and simply store his sperm until she is old enough to reproduce. This way, no reproductive opportunity is squandered.

When a female cusk eel lays her eggs, she assembles them all into a gelatinous envelope, much like a frog’s egg mass. This mass then floats up into the sunlit surface waters, where the eggs develop and then hatch. Baby cusk eels feed on plankton, which is abundant at the surface, and over the course of their lives gradually make their way down to the abyss where they will live, mate, hunt, and die in total darkness.

Cited:

Nielsen J.G. 2015. Revision of the aphyonid genus Aphyonus (Teleostei, Ophidiiformes) with a new genus and two new species. Zootaxa 4039 (2): 323–344.

Nielsen J.G. 1977. The deepest living fish Abyssobrotula galatheae: a new genus and species of oviparous ophidioids (Pisces, Brotulidae). Galathea Report 14: 41–48.

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Helpful Wasps

Internal feeders are insects, from beetles to caterpillars, that live inside plant tissues. Examples are bark beetles, which eat away at the inner tissues of trees; root-boring beetle larvae that live inside plant roots; and leaf-miners, caterpillars whose thin, almost two-dimensional shape allows them to feed within a leaf, leaving a trail of empty space. Insects that live inside plants do so primarily to avoid predators. There are, however, insects that specialize in finding and preying on such hidden targets.

Among them are the tiny Goniozus wasps, two new species of which were described today (Santhosh and Ranjith 2015). These wasps are parasitoids, insects whose larvae develop by eating the insides of another insect. When the wasp larvae are ready to turn into wasps, they emerge from the dead remains of their host, and soar off into the fields to find a place for their own larvae.

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A Goniozus wasp from Massachusetts. Photo by Tom Murray, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

Goniozus wasps (and other members of the family Bethylidae) specialize in finding and laying their eggs on internal feeders, especially caterpillars. Potential prey include wood- or stem-borers, leaf-miners and, in the case of today’s new species, gall-makers. Gall-makers are insects that tamper with the hormones of their plant hosts, causing the plant to form a protective structure, a gall, in which the insect can feed and grow.

The galls in this case were found on the leaves of ironwood (Memecylon umbellatum) and jambul (Syzygium cumini), both of which are grown commercially in India. The scientists harvested the galls and waited for the culprit to emerge, but Goniozus wasps, having eaten the gall-makers, emerged instead.

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Flowers of the ironwood tree, found in India, Sri Lanka, and nearby islands. Photo by Jayesh Patil, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Effective pest control depends on accurate knowledge of the pest’s life cycle. For the Colorado potato beetle, spraying pesticides may be enough. Potato beetles live and feed on the leaves, out in the open. Some pest insects, such as tobacco hornworm caterpillars, are large enough and occur at low enough densities to be effectively picked off their host plants by hand.

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A Goniozus wasp from Massachusetts. Photo by Tom Murray, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

Not so with internal feeders. Blindly spraying pesticides is unlikely to be effective — internal feeders are well-protected by the very plants they destroy. A more surgical approach is required, and Goniozus wasps are prime candidates to assist farmers in such delicate operations.

The navel orangeworm (Amyelois transitella) presents just such a problem. Despite its name, this is a caterpillar (not a “worm”) that feeds on almonds and other tree nuts (not oranges). The name comes from the caterpillar’s orange, pink or salmon color.

To feed, the orangeworm works its way into an almond and eats away at the inside. The almond is destroyed, and during outbreaks this pest can create serious problems for almond-growers. When the caterpillar is done developing, it pupates and then emerges as a small, brown moth.

Because orangeworms live and feed inside almonds, they are protected from many pesticides. In California, where almonds are an important crop, scientists experimented by releasing Goniozus legneri, which is a specialist orangeworm predator (Legner and Gordh 1992). Over the next few years the wasps became established, and orangeworm populations dropped. Specialist parasitoids like Goniozus wasps are not a magic bullet — they are most effective as part of a larger plan that incorporates multiple forms of control, including pesticides. Wasps are, however, a promising resource for farmers that are unable to beat internal-feeding insects with chemicals alone.

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The navel orangeworm. Photo by Peggy Greb, in public domain.

Cited:

Legner E.F. and G. Gordh. 1992. Lower navel orange worm (Lepidoptera: Phycitidae) population densities following establishment of Goniozus legneri (Hymenoptera: Bethylidae) in California. Journal of Economic Entomology 85(6): 2153-2160.

Santhosh S. and A.P. Ranjith. 2015. Descriptions of two new species of Goniozus Förster, 1856 (Hymenoptera: Bethylidae) associated with insect induced plant galls from India. Zootaxa 4039(1): 192-200.

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Millipedes and their Parasites

When we think of a parasitoid, the example is usually that of an ichneumonid wasp and its caterpillar prey. The wasp lays its egg on a caterpillar and, when the egg hatches, a wasp larva begins to eat away at the inside of its host. The wasp larva eats and grows, until finally it metamorphoses into an adult wasp, ripping apart the caterpillar as it emerges to find a mate and a host for its own young.

Myriophora, a parasitoid of millipedes. Photo from Diptera of Central America, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Myriophora, a parasitoid of millipedes. Photo from Diptera of Central America, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Caterpillars are, however, not the only victims of parasitoids. There is a parasitoid for almost every kind of insect and spider, and even a few for millipedes, centipedes, crustaceans, mollusks, and more.

Millipede parasitoids usually belong to the family Phoridae, a large family of tiny, tiny flies. Among the phorids, the most specialized to feed on millipedes are those in the genus Myriophora, 57 new species of which were named today (Hash and Brown 2015). Most are native to tropical Latin America.

Millipedes possess a diverse array of toxic compounds, which they use for defense. Different millipedes have different compounds: flat-backed millipedes (Polydesmida) use hydrogen cyanide to repel predators, while giant millipedes (Spirobolida) use benzoquinones and other substances to inflict chemical burns on careless attackers.

Hydrogen cyanide has a distinctive smell, reminiscent of cherries or roasted almonds (both of which, incidentally, contain small amounts of cyanide). If you take a large flat-backed millipede and smell it, you will detect the same odor. The smell of cyanide and other toxins inspires caution in most predators, but Myriophora flies seek it out, using the millipede’s defense as a chemical target (Brown 1991).

A North American giant millipede (Narceus americanus) being attacked by Myriophora flies. Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin.

A North American giant millipede (Narceus americanus) under attack from Myriophora flies. Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin.

Myriophora flies target dying or injured millipedes (less often, centipedes too). The fly maggots eat their way through the millipede’s living body, just like other parasitoids, but they are also perfectly capable of eating already-dead millipedes. These flies have even been observed laying eggs on freshly-killed millipedes as ants are hauling them back to their nests (Brown and Feener 1998).

Flies attacking a millipede. Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin.

Flies attacking a millipede. Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin.

If you squish a millipede and wait a while, Myriophora flies may arrive to lay their eggs on the dead body. This little experiment has been conducted and met with success both in the rainforests of Thailand (Brown 1991) and in Kansas (Eldredge on Myrmecoid). The visiting flies are females, looking to lay their eggs. Wait long enough and one of these eggs will hatch, feed, and develop into a new fly.

Fifty-seven new species is a lot for a single paper, but with any luck this is just the beginning. Myriophora is an incredibly diverse genus in an incredibly diverse family. The scientists who described these species estimate there may be as many as 200 in total, most of which have yet to be named.

Cited:

Brown B.V. 1991. Region and phylogenetic classification of Phoridae, Sciadoceridae and Ironomyiidae (Diptera: Phoridea) (Doctoral dissertaion). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (NN66736).

Brown B.V. and D.H. Freener Jr. 1998. Parasitic phorid flies (Diptera: Phoridae) associated with army ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Ecitoninae, Dorylinae) and their conservation biology. Biotropica 30(3): 483-487.

Hash J.M. and B.V. Brown. 2015. Revision of the New World species of the millipede-parasitic genus Myriophora Brown (Diptera: Phoridae). Zootaxa 4035(1): 1-79.

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Madagascar’s Marvellous Mantellids

The golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca). Photo by Bernard Dupont, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The golden mantella (Mantella aurantiaca). Photo by Bernard Dupont, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Mantellidae is a family of small, often brightly colored frogs found exclusively in Madagascar and on nearby islands. The most familiar of these frogs are those in the genus Mantella, which are toxic and similar, although not closely related, to the poison dart frogs of Latin America.

Today’s new species is a mantellid, but not a Mantella in the strict sense. It is a bright-eyed frog, Boophis boppa, long confused with a similar species, Boophis ankaratra. Scientists only recently discovered the two were different species, and then only because their calls are very different — physically, the two bright-eyed frogs are almost indistinguishable (Hutter et al. 2015).

A bright-eyed frog, Boophis ankaratra ... or is it B. boppa? Photo by Franco Andreone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A bright-eyed frog, Boophis ankaratra … or is it boppa? Photo by Franco Andreone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Boophis ankaratra or boppa. Photo by Franco Andreone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Boophis ankaratra or boppa. Photo by Franco Andreone, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

These bright-eyed frogs are tree-climbers with adhesive toes, living in the cloud forests of Ranomafana National Park. Ranomafana is known for its mountainous terrain, high levels of heat and humidity, and tremendous wealth in biodiversity. Many species of lemur live there, as do a variety of chameleons. The winners, however, are the frogs.

More than 120 species of frogs are known from Ranomafana, compared to Madagascar’s total of 266 known species. As this paper shows, however, many more remain to be discovered, and many of those are bright-eyed frogs.

One of the largest is the white-lipped bright-eyed tree frog. Below is a specimen photographed in Ranomafana National Park:

The white-lipped bright-eyed frog (Boophis albilabris). Photo by Axel Strauss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The white-lipped bright-eyed frog (Boophis albilabris). Photo by Axel Strauss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Many bright-eyed frogs have translucent skin. In the most extreme cases, you can see the frog’s internal organs through the skin of its belly. You might even see the heart beating. In this way, bright-eyed frogs are similar to Latin America’s so-called glass frogs.

A courting pair of translucent-skinned Boophis lilianae frogs. Photo by Axel Strauss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

A courting pair of translucent-skinned Boophis lilianae frogs. Photo by Axel Strauss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

All of these species are threatened by habitat loss. As Madagascar is stripped of its natural resources, parks like Ranomafana become the last strongholds for diversity of frogs, chameleons, lemurs, and many other animals, most of these live nowhere else on earth.

Cited:

Hutter C.R., S.M. Lambert, K.A. Cobb, Z.F. Andriampenomanana, and M. Vences. 2015. A new species of bright-eyed treefrog (Mantellidae) from Madagascar, with comments on call evolution and patterns of syntopy in the Boophis ankaratra complex. Zootaxa 4034(3): 531-555.

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Worm-lizards, Caimans, and Other Reptiles of the Gran Chaco

Worm-lizards, or amphisbaenids, are neither lizards nor worms. They are reptiles, distantly related to lizards and snakes, but not nearly as well-known as either. Most species are burrowers, tunneling after insects, earthworms, and other prey (Gomes et al. 2009). Among their many adaptations to life underground are tiny, vestigial eyes; a blunt, often shovel-like head; and leglessness (although a few species have retained a tiny pair of front legs).

A Brazilian worm-lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Photo by Laurie Vitt, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

A Brazilian worm-lizard (Amphisbaena alba). Photo by Laurie Vitt, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

Today a new species of worm-lizard was named from the Gran Chaco region of Argentina (Ribiero et al. 2015). Thus far, the species is only known from El Bagual Ecological Reserve in the Formosa province. Its conservation status is uncertain.

Typical Gran Chaco habitat. Photo by Ilosuna, licensed under CC BY 1.0.

Typical Gran Chaco habitat. Photo by Ilosuna, licensed under CC BY 1.0.

The Gran Chaco region of northern Argentina is a wildlife-rich mosaic of wetland, savanna, and dry forest. It can be divided roughly into two regions, the larger Dry Chaco and the smaller, but just as bio-diverse, Humid Chaco. The discovery of a new worm-lizard in the Humid Chaco region comes just a few months after a survey of the reptiles of the adjacent Río Pilcomayo National Park, also in Formosa.

The survey was completed over two years, between June 2009 and June 2011 (Cano et al. 2015). The Chaco region is highly seasonal, with a long rainy season and a short but intense dry season, and since reptiles are active during different seasons, scientists had to search throughout the year. In total, they found 30 species in the park — combined with previously published observations, this brought the park’s reptile species count to 40.

Among these reptiles are some truly beautiful animals including blue ameivas, black-and-white tegus, and venomous coral snakes. Like the milk snakes of North and Central America, Guibe’s false coral snake mimics the coral snakes of Río Pilcomayo.

Guide's false coral snake, a harmless mimic. Photo by H. Ball in Cano et al. (2015), licensed under CC BY-NC-ND (version not specified).

Guide’s false coral snake (Oxyrhopus guibei), a harmless mimic. Photo by H. Ball in Cano et al. (2015), licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Of the 30 species found in this survey, none were worm lizards, even though previous researchers had documented four species living there.

A common ground snake (Lygophis melanogenys). Photo by M. Carpinetto in

A common Chaco ground snake (Lygophis melanogenys). Photo by M. Carpinetto in Cano et al. (2015), licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Four nationally threatened species are present in the park: two species of caiman, an anaconda, and a bush anole lizard. Even though these reptiles are abundant in Río Pilcomayo, all four are threatened by habitat loss as surrounding wetland and savanna is destroyed to make way for more profitable cattle ranching operations. The caimans and anaconda are also subject to hunting for their skins. As for the worm-lizards, we know almost nothing about their status. The new species hasn’t even been found in Río Pilcomayo, although it very likely occurs there.

Formosa province is a great place to be a herpetologist, with 74 native reptiles. Since 40 of those are found in Río Pilcomayo, the park can be said to protect 54% of Formosa’s reptile species. Just because reptiles are “doing well” in the park, however, does not mean many species won’t suffer as habitat loss and climate change work their way across the Gran Chaco. Even though the Río Pilcomayo survey is a reminder of how much beauty is still out there, more natural spaces need to be protected if caimans, anacondas, and the occasional worm-lizard are to remain a part of the beautiful Gran Chaco landscape.

The Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), one of the Humid Chaco's threatened reptiles. Photo by Francisco Severo Neto, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

The Yacare caiman (Caiman yacare), one of the Chaco’s threatened reptiles. Photo by Francisco Severo Neto, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

Cited:

Cano P.D., H.A. Ball, M.F. Carpinetto, and G. Darío Peña. 2015. Reptile checklist of Río Pilcomayo National Park, Formosa, Argentina. Check List 11(3): doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15560/11.3.1658

Gomes J.O., A.O. Maciel, J.C.L. Costa, and G.V. Andrade. 2009. Diet composition in two sympatric amphisbaenian species (Amphisbaena ibijara and Leposternon polystegum) from the Brazilian Cerrado. Journal of Herpetology 43(3): 377-384.

Ribiero S., A.P. Santos-Jr., and H. Zaher. 2015. A new species of Leposternon Wagler, 1824 (Squamata, Amphisbaenia) from northeastern Argentina. Zootaxa 4034(2): 309-324.

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The Slug

Flower or hover flies (family Syrphidae) are widely toted as beneficial insects. They can be pollinators, just like bees, but their larvae or maggots can also be predators of pest insects such as aphids.  Hover flies can also be quite beautiful: many are colored with yellow and black stripes in an effort to mimic bees and wasps. In a family of around 6,000 species, however, there are bound to be a few oddballs.

An adult Microdon hover fly. Photo by Tom Murray, used with permission.

An adult Microdon hover fly. Photo by Tom Murray, used with permission.

Today, six new species were named in the genus Microdon (Reemer and Bot 2015). As adults these look like typical hover flies, but traded their stripes for drabber shades of green, brown, or black. Instead of hovering over flowers, they spend their time inspecting ant nests. If a female fly finds one she likes, she dives in and quickly lays her eggs inside the nest, before the ants can figure out what’s going on.

From this egg emerges a creature that baffled scientists for centuries. It is a maggot, but instead of worm-shaped, it looks like a slug, with a flattened belly. The Microdon larva moves very slowly, creeping through the tunnels of the ant nest, but what’s the rush. Thanks to its mother’s bravery, the larva is surrounded by all the food it will ever need.

Microdon lives by eating the ants’ eggs and larvae. Normally, ants are quick to attack intruders. To avoid being stung to death, Microdon must trick its ant hosts into treating it like one of their own young, moving it around the nest and even defending their parasite against predators. How Microdon accomplishes this is not clear, but ants communicate using chemical pheromones, so it probably involves a complex scheme of chemical mimicry. Because each ant species has its own unique set of pheromones, some species of Microdon can only survive in the nests of one ant species.

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Two Microdon larvae, found in an ant nest. Photo by Tom Murray, used with permission.

Microdon larvae look so much like slugs that the first scientists who ever examined them considered them to be mollusks. Later, entomologists realized this was clearly ridiculous, and renamed them as scale insects. Scale insects are plant-eating bugs that attach themselves to a plant stem and suck out the sap. The females are immobile once they reach this stage, so they do have a rather globular, flat, Microdon-like appearance.

A Microdon larva. Photo by Tom Murray, licensed under CC BY-ND-NC 1.0.

A Microdon larva. Photo by Tom Murray, used with permission.

All six of the new species were found in Madagascar. The greatest diversity of Microdon species is in the tropics, since that is where the greatest number of ant species is found.

Cited:

Reemer M. and S. Bot. 2015. Six new species of Microdon Meigen from Madagascar (Diptera: Syrphidae). Zootaxa 4034(1): 127-147.

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The Smallest Whirlpool Ever

Many amazing new species were named today — several moths, an Andean tarantula, and ten Arctic Ocean sponges, to name a few. Choosing one to feature on this site was a challenge, but finally I settled on Metacystis similis, a new species of single-celled protist (Zhang et al. 2015). I probably could have gotten more people to read this article if I had featured moths or tarantulas, but that isn’t the point of this blog. Every living thing, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, has an amazing story to tell. Metacystis it is.

Metacystis recurva, with cilia-covered "mouth" facing the top right corner. Photo by William Bourland, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

Metacystis recurva, with cilia-covered “mouth” facing the top right corner. Photo by William Bourland, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

First, what is a protist? Animals, plants and fungi evolved from single-celled ancestors hundreds of millions of years ago. These ancestors are survived by an astounding diversity of single-celled relatives, which we collectively call protists. Algae are protists, as are amoebas. Many protists are parasitic, and Plasmodium, the one that causes malaria, kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.

Metacystis is far more benign. It is a filter feeder, engulfing smaller cells (such as bacteria) and other particles that drift through the water. The new species was found in the East China Sea, near Shanghai. Others have been discovered in freshwater habitats, and at least one is known to live in waste-water treatment plants (Arregui et al. 2010). That might sound like a less-than-ideal place to live, but at least bacterial prey are easy to find.

The Metacystis cell is roughly bottle-shaped, with a large, rounded “base” narrowing to a neck at the top. The neck is topped by an opening, the mouth, where food is drawn in.

The beating cilia around a Metacystis mouth. Photo by William Bourland, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

The beating cilia around a Metacystis mouth. Photo by William Bourland, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.

All of the important cell parts — the nucleus, DNA, mitochondria, and so on — are kept safely tucked away in the base of the cell. Metacystis can attach itself by the base to a rock, seaweed, or the inner wall of a sewer. Here it lives as a filter feeder or, for the more dramatic, an ambush predator.

While it waits, the neck extends out into the water. The mouth is surrounded by a ring of tiny hair-like appendages called cilia. When Metacystis senses food, it beats the cilia in a wave-like pattern. This creates a water current — or, if you like, a swirling vortex of death — which pulls the hapless prey to its doom in the cell.

Once inside, anything Metacystis captures is quickly digested. If food is abundant, the protist sticks around, but if not, it can simple detach from its substrate and find a new place to live.

Cited:

Arregui L., B. Perez-Uz, A. Zornoza, and S. Serrano. 2010. A new species of the genus Metacystis (Ciliophora, Prostomatida, Metacystidae) from a wastewater treatment plant. Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology 57(4): 362-368.

Zhang X., D. Ji, Q. Zhang, and C. Li. 2015. Description and phylogeny of a new prostomatid, Metacystis similis nov. spec. (Protista, Ciliophora) from the East China Sea. Zootaxa 4033(4): 584-592.

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