Biologist finds possible new species in his own nose

tick in nose photo
CC BY 2.0 John Tann

Oftentimes, researchers have to travel deep into some remote corner of the globe to find organisms still unknown to science. Other times, undocumented species are found hiding in plain sight, right under the their noses.

For pathobiological science professor Tony Goldberg, his latest discovery turned out to be even closer than that.

A few days after returning home from a research expedition in Africa, Goldberg noticed a arachnid stowaway nestled in his nasal cavity. After the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine professor determined it was a tick, he was understandably horrified, but also rather intrigued.

"When you first realize you have a tick up your nose, it takes a lot of willpower not to claw your face off," Goldberg told Science Daily. "But my sense of being grossed out was balanced by my scientific curiosity."

Goldberg proceeded to carefully remove the tiny bloodsucker using forceps and a mirror. That's when he began to suspect that what he just pulled out of his nose might be a creature no one has ever documented before. So, Goldberg then sent the tick to be DNA sequenced and compared to known species at the U.S. National Tick Collection at Georgia Southern University. The results, while not conclusive, did at least further his suspicion.

“Either it’s a species of tick that is known but has never been sequenced, or it’s a new species of tick,” says Goldberg.

Interestingly, the experience has helped shape a new theory in Goldberg's area of research: how diseases are transmitted among chimpanzees. It's well-known that grooming rituals help keep parasitic pests at bay, some ticks might have actually evolved to prefer hard-to-reach places, like nostrils, to avoid detection -- allowing the pathogens they carry to spread more easily in chimp populations.

If it weren't for that first-hand experience as a fellow primate with a tick up its nose, Goldberg says such a discovery may have never been made at all:

“It’s not really practical or safe to pick ticks out of chimps’ noses."

Tags: Biodiversity | Biology | Insects