Category Archives: worms

Friday Fellow: Bobbit Worm

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today’s Friday Fellow probably looks like a creature coming directly from hell to the poor sea animals that are its prey. Well, it looks quite scary even for humans! Its name is Eunice aphroditois, a beautiful name. Popularly it is known as the Bobbit worm and looks like a colorful nightmare.

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Anterior portion of a bobbit worm coming out of the sand. Photo by Jenny Huang.*

The Bobbit worm is a polychate worm and is one of the largest known annelids, with several records of individuals reaching up to 1 m in length, and even one record of a specimen that was almost 3 m long. It is found in warm waters all around the world, in the Atlantic, the Indian and the Pacific oceans.

Being an ambush predator, the Bobbit worm buries itself into the ocean floor, among the sediments, and waits for a delicious meal to swim over it. Once a prey is detected, the Bobbit worm projects itself forward and captures it with its sharp teeth.

The name “Bobbit worm” was coined in 1996 and refers to Lorena Bobbitt, who became publicly known in 1993 after cutting off her husband’s penis with a knife while he was asleep. The name seems to be inspired in the worm’s scissor-like jaws and has nothing to do with the female cutting off the male’s penis. In fact, those worms release the gametes in the water, so that there isn’t even a sexual intercourse.

Despite its popularity, being even raised as a “pet” sometimes, little is known about the Bobbit worm’s ecology. If you happen to have one in your fishtank, make some research and publish it!

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References:

Uchida, H.; Tanase, H.; Kubota, S. (2009) An extraordinarily large specimen of the polychaete worm Eunice aphroditois (Pallas) (Order Eunicea) from Shirahama, Wakayama, central Japan. Kuroshio Biosphere 5: 9-5.

Wikipedia. Eunice aphroditois. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eunice_aphroditois >. Access on January 31, 2017.

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You know nothing, humans! A planarian genome challenges our understanding of how life works

by Piter Kehoma Boll

We finally have a rather complete sequencing of a planarian’s genome, more precisely, of the planarian Schmidtea mediterranea, which is an important model organism for the study of stem cells and regeneration.

In case you don’t know, planarians have a remarkable ability of regeneration, so that even tiny pieces are able to regenerate into a whole organism. They are like a real-life Wolverine, but somewhat cooler! This amazing ability is possible due to the presence of a group of stem cells called neoblasts that can differentiate into any cell type found in the planarian’s body. In fact, all differentiated cell types in planarians are unable to undergo mitosis, so that neoblasts are responsible for constantly replacing cells in every tissue. But we are not here to explain the details of planarian regeneration. We are here to talk about Schmidtea mediterranea‘s genome!

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Look at its little cock eyes saying “I will destroy everything you think you know, humans!” Photo by Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado.*

A rather complete genome of S. mediterranea has been recently published and its analysis reveal some astonishing features.

First of all, 61.7% of S. mediterranea‘s genome is formed by repeated elements. Repeated elements are basically DNA strands that occur in multiple copies throught the genome of an organism. They are thought to come from the DNA of virus that was incorporated to the host’s DNA. In humans, about 46% of the genome is formed by repeated elements. Most repeated elements of S. mediterranea belong to unidentified families of retroelements, thus suggesting that they are new undescribed families. Those repeats are very long, having more than 30 thousand base pairs, which are not known to exist in other animals. The only other group of repeated elements with a similar size is found in plants and known as OGRE (Origin G-Rich Repeated Elements). The long repeat found in Schmidtea was therefore called Burro (Big, unknown repeat rivaling Ogre).

But certainly the most surprising thing about S. mediterranea‘s genome is the lack of many highly conserved genes that are found in most eukaryotes and that were thought to be essential for cells to function properly.

Schmidtea mediterranea lacks genes responsible for repairing double-stranded breaks (DSBs) in DNA, which would make them very likely to suffer a lot of mutations and sensitive to anything that induces DSBs. However, planarians are known to have an extraordinary resistance to gamma radiation that induces DSBs. Do they have other repairing mechanisms or is our current understanding about this process flawed?

gene_loss

Several “essential” genes and their presence (in green) or absence (in red) in several animals. Schmidtea mediterranea lacks them all. Image extracted from Grohme et al. (2018).**

Another important gene that was not found in S. mediterranea is the Fatty Acid Synthase (FASN) gene, which is essential for an organism to synthesize new fatty acids. Planarians therefore would have to rely on the lipids acquired from the diet. This gene is also absent in parasitic flatworms and was at first thought to be an adaptation to parasitism but since it is absent in free-living species as well, it does not seem to be the case. Could it be a synapomorphy of flatworms, i.e., a character that identifies this clade of animals?

That is not enough for little Schmidtea, though. More than that, this lovely planarian seems to lack the MAD1 and MAD2 genes, which are found in virtually all eukaryotes. Those genes are responsible for the Spindle Assembly Checkpoint (SAC), an important step during cell division that prevents the two copies of a chromosome to separate from each other before they are all connected to the spindle apparatus. This assures that the chromosomes will be evenly distributed in both daughter cells. Errors in this process lead to aneuploidy (the wrong number of chromosomes in each daughter cell), which is the cause of some genetic disorders such as the Down syndrome in humans. Planarians do not have any trouble in distributing their chromosomes properly, so what is going on? Have they developed a new way to prevent cellular chaos or, again, is our current understanding about this process flawed?

Let’s wait for the next chapters.

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Reference:

Grohme, M. A.; Schloissnig, S.; Rozanski, A.; Pippel, M.; Young, G. R.; Winkler, S.; Brandl, H.; Henry, I.; Dahl, A.; Powell, S.; Hiller, M.; Myers, E.; Rink, J. C. (2018). “The genome of Schmidtea mediterranea and the evolution of core cellular mechanisms”. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature25473

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Xenoturbella, a growing group of weirdoes

by Piter Kehoma Boll

You may never have heard of Xenoturbella, and I wouldn’t blame you. Despite being a fascinating feature of evolution, little is known about it and its magic has been hidden from most of us.

The first Xenoturbella was described in 1949 and named Xenoturbella bocki. At the time, it was considered a strange flatworm, hence its name, from Greek xenos, strange + turbella, from Turbellaria, free-living flatworms. Xenoturbella bocki is a marine animal measuring up to 3 cm in length and looking like a flat worm… a flatworm! Well, actually more like a folded worm, because its body has a series of folds running londitudinally that make it have a W shape in cross section.

Found in the cold waters around northern Europe, its body lacks a centralized nervous system, having only a net of neurons inside the epidermis. There are also no reproductive organs, neither anything similar to a kidney or any other organ beside a mouth and a gut and some structures on its surface.

For decades, X. bocki was the only species of Xenoturbella known to us. A second species was described in 1999 as X. westbladi, but molecular analyses revealed that it was the same species as X. bocki, so we continued having only one species. Thanks to molecular studies, we also figured out that Xenoturbella is not a flatworm at all, but belongs to a group of very primitive bilaterian animals, being closely related to another group of former flatworms, the acoelomorphs. Together, Xenoturbella and the acoelomorphs (a good name for a rock band, right?) form the group called Xenacoelomorpha.

xenoturbella_churro_rouse

Xenoturbella churro, “head” to the right. Photo by Greg Rouse.*

Forming its own phylum (or perhaps class if it is grouped in a single phylum with the acoelomorphs) named Xenoturbellida, X. bocki recently discovered that it is not alone in the world. In 2016, four new species were described from the waters of the Pacific Ocean near the coasts of Mexico and the USA, being named Xenoturbella monstrosa, X. churro, X. profunda and X. hollandorum. Considering the small size of X. bocki, some of them were monsters, especially X. monstrosa, which reaches 20 cm in length!

Four new species was quite a finding. The phylum suddenly was five times bigger than before. As someone particularly interested in obscure animal groups, especially those that once were members of the lovely phylum Plathyelminthes, I was very excited by this discovery, but I wasn’t expecting at all what happened after that.

xenoturbella_japonica

Photo of the only known specimen of Xenoturbella japonica until now. “Head” to the left. Credits to Nakano et al. (2017).*

In December 2017, one more species was found, this time on the other side of the Pacific, near Japan. Named Xenoturbella japonica, the fifth member of the Xenoturbella genus is very welcome. The new species was based on two specimens, an adult “female” specimen (are they hermaphrodites? I don’t think we can be sure about it yet…) and a juvenile specimen. One more exciting thing is that the juvenile may actually be yet another species! But we need more material to be sure.

You can read the article describing Xenoturbella japonica here.

See also: Acoelomorpha, a phylogenetic headache

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References:

Nakano, H.; MIyazawa, H.; Maeno, A.; Shiroishi, T.; Kakui, K.; Koyanagi, R.; Kanda, M.; Satoh, N.; Omori, A.; Kohtsuka, H. (2017) A new species of Xenoturbella from the western Pacific Ocean and the evolution of XenoturbellaBMC Evolutionary Biology17: 245. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12862-017-1080-2

Rouse, G.W.; Wilson N.G.; Carvajal, J.I.; Vrijenhoek, R.C. (2016) New deep-sea species of Xenoturbella and the position of Xenacoelomorpha. Nature, 530:94–7. doi:10.1038/nature16545.

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Friday Fellow: Large Roundworm of Pigs

by Piter Kehoma Boll

It’s time to go back to the roundworms and to the parasites once more. Probably one of the most famous roundwors is the large roundworm of humans, Ascaris lumbricoides, but today I’m going to talk about its closest relative, the large roundworm of pigs, Ascaris suum.

Found worlwide, the large roundworm of pigs, as its name implies, infects pigs. It is a large worm of the phylum Nematoda and is very similar to the large roundworm of humans, the main difference being simply that the former infects pigs and the latter infects humans.

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A typical male (top) and female (bottom) of Ascaris suum. Photo by Wikimedia user VlaminckJ.*

The adult worms live in the intestine of pigs and show sexual dimorphism. Males are smaller, measuring 13–31 cm in length and have a curled posterior end. Females are larger, measuring 20–49 cm and do not have the curled posterior end. They have a light pink to whitish color and may occur in large quantities inside the host.

When sexually mature, a female can lay up to 200 thousand eggs per day and have up to 27 million eggs in its uteri. The eggs are eliminated with the pig feces and remain in the environment where the embryo starts its development. As soon as the eggs are eaten by a pigg, the eggs hatch and the larvae crawl into the walls of the large intestine and reach the bloodstream, being carried to the liver and from there to the lungs. In the lungs, they reach the alveoli and start to migrate upward toward the trachaea and are coughed up and swallowed by the pig, reaching the intestine again. There, they remain in the small intestine and complete their development into adults.

The great similarity of Ascaris suum and Ascaris lumbricoides implicate that they have a recent common ancestor which may have split into the two species after humans started to raise pigs. Eventually Ascaris suum may also infect humans and Ascaris lumbricoides may infect pigs too, but they seem to have a preference and an improved development in their “traditional” host. Molecular studies indicate that the populations of both species seem to be considerable isolated, but there have been some eventual hybridizations, suggesting that they are yet in the process of become fully separate species.

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References:

Leles, D.; Gardner, S. L.; Reinhard, K.; Iñiguez, A.; Araujo, A. (2012) Are Ascaris lumbricoides and Ascaris suum a single species? Parasite and Vector5: 42. https://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1756-3305-5-42

Wikipedia. Ascaris suum. Available at: < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascaris_suum >. Access on November 6, 2017.

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Friday Fellow: Duckweed Chain Flatworm

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Today we have one more flatworm in our team. It is part of the most bizarre group of flatworms, the so-called Catenulida. Our fellow is called Catenula lemnae, which I adapted as the “duckweed chain flatworm”.

The duckweed chain flatworm is a very small animal, measuring about 0.1 mm in width and about two or three times this size in length. It is found worldwide in freshwater lakes and ponds and is likely a complex of species, but more detailed studies are needed to make it clear. As other catenulids, it lives close to the substract, being considered a benthic animal, and feeds on other smaller organisms, such as small invertebrates and algae. It is usually a dominant species in the community of benthic microanimals, such as microturbellarians, in places where it is found.

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A chain of several connected individuals (zooids) of Catenula lemnae. Photo by Christopher Laumer.*

The word catenula, meaning “little chain” in Latin, was given to these animals because of their peculiar way of vegetative reproduction. The organism frequently divides transversally close to the posterior end, giving rise to new organisms that are genetically identical to the original one. However, the new animals often remain connected to each other for a long time before splitting, and as this asexual reproduction continues, it eventually turn them into a chain of connected individuals (called zooids). This chain swims elegantly using its cilia as if it were a single individual.

Most recent studies mentioning the duckeed chain flatworm are simply surveys of the species composition of a certain area or broad phylogenetic studies on the catenulids or flatworms in general. Little is known about the ecology, behavior and population structuring of this species, unfortunately.

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References:

Braccini, J. A. L.; Leal-Zanchet, A. M. (2013)  Turbellarian assemblages in freshwater lagoons in southern Brazil. Invertebrate Biology132(4): 305–314. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ivb.12032

Marcus, E. (1945) Sôbre Catenulida brasileiros. Boletim da Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras da Universidade de São Paulo, série Zoologia, 10: 3–113.

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The hammerhead flatworms: once a mess, now even messier

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Few people know that land planarians exist, but when they do, they most likely know the hammerhead flatworms, which comprise the subfamily Bipaliinae.

The hammerhead flatworms, or simply hammerhead worms, have this name because their head has lateral expansions that make them resemble a hammer, a shovel or a pickaxe. Take a look:

Bipalium_vagum

The “wandering hammerhead worm”, Bipalium vagum. Notice the peculiar head. Photo by flickr user budak.*

The Chinese knew the hammerhead worms at least since the 10th century, which is understandable, since they are distributed from Japan to Madagascar, including all southern and southeast Asia, as well as Indonesia, the Philippines and other archipelagos. The western world, however, first heard of them in 1857, when William Stimpson described the first species and put them in a genus called Bipalium, from Latin bi- (two) + pala (shovel), due to the head shape. One of them was the species Bipalium fuscatum, a Japanese species that is currently considered the type species of the genus.

800px-bipalium_fuscatum_by_head

Anterior region of Bipalium fuscatum, the “brownish hammerhead worm”. Photo by Wikimedia user 根川大橋.**

Two years later, in 1859, Ludwig K. Schmarda described one more species, this one from Sri Lanka, and, unaware of Stimpson’s paper, called the species Sphyrocephalus dendrophilus, erecting the new genus for it from Greek sphȳra (hammer) + kephalē (head).

Sphyrocephalus_dendrophilus

Drawings by Schmarda of Sphyrocephalus dendrophilus.

In the next year, 1860, Edward P. Wright did something similar and described some hammerhead worms from India and China, creating a new genus, Dunlopea, for them. The name was a homage to his friend A. Dunlop (whoever he was).

Dunlopea_grayia

Wright’s Drawing of Dunlopea grayia (now Diversibipalium grayi) from China.

Eventually those errors were perceived and all species were put in the genus Bipalium, along with several others described in the following years. All hammerhead worms were part of the genus Bipalium until 1896, when Ludwig von Graff decided to improve the classification and divided them into three genera:

1. Bipalium: With a head having long “ears”, a well developed head.
2. Placocephalus (“plate head”): With a more semicircular head.
3. Perocephalus (“mutilated head”): With a shorter, rudimentary head, almost as if it had been cut off.

Bipaliids

Compare the heads of typical species of Bipalium (left), Placocephalus (center) and Perocephalus (right), according to Graff.

This system, however, was soon abandoned and everything went back to be simply Bipalium and continued that way for almost a century, changing again only in 1998, when Kawakatsu and his friends started to mess with the penises of the hammerhead worms.

First, in 1998, they erected the genus Novibipalium (“new Bipalium“) for species with a reduced or absent penis papilla, and retained in Bipalium those with a “well”-developed penis papilla. It is worth noticing though that this well-developed papilla is not much bigger than a reduced papilla in Novibipalium. In both genera the actual, functional penis is formed by a set of folds in the male atrium and not by the penis papilla itself as in other land planarians that have a penis papilla.

Later, in 2001, Ogren & Sluys separated some more species of Bipalium in a new genus called Humbertium (after Aloïs Humbert, who described most species of this new genus). They were separated from Bipalium because the ovovitelloducts (the ducts that conduct the eggs and vitellocites) enter the female atrium from ahead, and not from behind as in the typical Bipalium. This separation is, in my opinion, more reasonable than the previous one.

Now we had three genera of hammerhead worms based on their internal anatomy, but several species were described without any knowledge of their sexual organs. Thus, in 2002, Kawakatsu and his friends created one more genus, Diversibipalium (the “diverse Bipalium“) to include all species whose anatomy of the sexual organs was unknown. In other words, it is a “wastebasket” genus to place them until they are better studied.

Are these three genera, Bipalium, Novibipalium and Humbertium, as now defined, natural? We still don’t know, but I bet they are not. A good way to check it would be by using molecular phylogeny, but we don’t have people working with these animals in their natural habitats, so we do not have available material for that. Another thing that can give us a hint is to look at their geographical distribution. We can assume that genetically similar species, especially of organisms with such a low dispersal ability as land planarians, all occur in the same geographical region, right? So where do we find species of each genus? Let’s see:

Bipalium: Indonesia, Japan, China, Korea, India.

Novibipalium: Japan.

Humbertium: Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Southern India, Indonesia.

Weird, right? They are completely mixed and covering a huge area of the planet, especially when we consider Humbertium. We can see a tendency, but nothing very clear.

Fortunately, some molecular analyses were published (see Mazza et al. (2016) in the references). One, which included the species Bipalium kewense, B. nobile, B. adventitium, Novibipalium venosum and Diversibipalium multilineatum placed Diversibipalium multilineatum very close to Bipalium nobile, and they are in fact very similar, so I guess that we can transfer it from Diversibipalium to Bipalium, right? Similary, Novibipalium venosum appears mixed with the species of Bipalium. I guess this is kind of messing things up one more time.

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Head of some species of Bipalium, including the ones used in the study cited above. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a photo or drawing of Novibipalium venosum. Image by myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.**

Interestingly, among the analyzed species, the most divergent was Bipalium adventitium, whose head is “blunter” than that of the other ones. Could the head be the answer, afterall? Let’s hope that someone with the necessary resources is willing to solve this mess soon.

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See also:

Once found and then forgotten: the not-so-bright side of taxonomy.

The lack of taxonomists and its consequences on ecology.

They only care if you are cute. How charisma harms biodiversity.

The faboulous taxonomic adventure of the genus Geoplana.

Darwin’s Planaria elegans: hidden, extinct or misidentified?

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References:

Graff, L. v. (1896) Über das System und die geographische Verbreitung der Landplanarien. Verhandlungen der Deutschen Zoologischen Gesellschaft6: 61–75.

Graff, L. v. (1899) Monographie der Turbellarien. II. Tricladida Terricola (Landplanarien). Engelmann, Leipzig.

Kawakatsu, M.; Ogren, R. E.; Froehlich, E. M. (1998) The taxonomic revision of several homonyms in the genus Bipalium, family Bipaliidae (Turbellaria, Seriata, Tricladida, Terricola). The Bulletin of Fuji Women’s College Series 236: 83–93.

Kawakatsu, M.; Ogren, R. E.; Froehlich, E. M., Sasaki, G.-Y. (2002) Additions and corrections of the previous land planarians indices of the world (Turbellaria, Seriata, Tricladida, Terricola). The bulletin of Fuji Women’s University. Ser. II40: 162–177.

Mazza, G.; Menchetti, M.; Sluys, R.; Solà, E.; Riutort, M.; Tricarico, E.; Justine, J.-L.; Cavigioli, L.; Mori, E. (2016) First report of the land planarian Diversibipalium multilineatum (Makino & Shirasawa, 1983) (Platyhelminthes, Tricladida, Continenticola) in Europe. Zootaxa4067(5): 577–580.

Ogren, R. E.; Sluys, R. (2001) The genus Humbertium gen. nov., a new taxon of the land planarian family Bipaliidae (Tricladida, Terricola). Belgian Journal of Zoology131: 201–204.

Schmarda, L. K. (1859) Neue Wirbellose Thiere beobachtet und gesammelt auf einer Reise um die Erde 1853 bis 1857 1. Turbellarien, Rotatorien und Anneliden. Erste Hälfte. Wilhelm Engelmann, Leipzig.

Stimpson, W. (1857) Prodromus descriptionis animalium evertebratorum quæ in Expeditione ad Oceanum, Pacificum Septentrionalem a Republica Federata missa, Johanne Rodgers Duce, observavit er descripsit. Pars I. Turbellaria Dendrocœla. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia9: 19–31.

Wright, E. P. (1860) Notes on Dunlopea. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 3rd ser.6: 54–56.

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Friday Fellow: Scaly Lepidodermella

by Piter Kehoma Boll

From the longest animal seen last week, today we will see one of the shortest. Measuring only 190 µm in length, our fellow is called Lepidodermella squamata, which I turned into a “common” name as scaly lepidodermella.

797px-lepidodermella_squamatum

A specimen of Lepidodermella squamata. Photo by Giuseppe Vago.*

The scaly lepidodermella belongs to the phylum Gastrotricha, commonly known as hairybacks, which are all microscopic and distributed worldwide in aquatic environments. Found in freshwater environments worlwide, the scaly lepidodermella has the trunk covered in scales, hence its name. It feeds on other small organisms, such as algae, bacteria and yeast, as well as on detritus.

One of the most interesting aspects of the biology of the scaly lepidodermella is its reproduction. Although being hermaphrodite, this species usually produces only four eggs during its lifetime and those develop without fertilization. This means that the reproduction is parthenogenetic. However, strangely enough, the individuals become sexually mature after laying those four eggs, producing sperm and sometimes laying additional eggs, but most of those never hatch or, when they do, they produce offspring that rarely manage to become adults. Sexual reproduction, therefore, would be theoretically possible, but it has never been observed and there is no known means by which sperm could be transferred from one individual to the other.

This late sexual development may therefore be nothing but a vestige of its sexual past. Perhaps in future generations these traits will disappear and nothing but the perthenogenetic reproduction will last.

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References:

Hummon, M. R. (1984) Reproduction and sexual development in a freshwater gastrotrich 1. Oogenesis of parthenogenetic eggs (Gastrotricha). Zoomorphology 104(1): 33–41. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF00312169

Hummon, M. R. (1986) Reproduction and sexual development in a freshwater gastrotrich 4. Life history traits and the possibility of sexual reproduction. Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 105(1): 97–109. https://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3226382

Wikipedia. Lepidodermella squamata. Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lepidodermella_squamata&gt; Access on September 3, 2017.

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