Internet addicts and armchair naturalists, gather ‘round: a newly discovered mysterious structure from a South American rainforest has both the Internet community and academia astir. The bizarre animal-made web is unidentifiable by scientists, and social media sites have whipped up a storm of speculation concerning its nature. Since its original appearance on its discoverer’s Facebook, web commenters have attributed its source to everything from fungi to Martians.
The discovery was made in the remote Tambopata Research Center, deep in the rainforest of southern Peru. The centre was hosting a group of volunteer researchers with the Tambopata Macaw Project who were studying endemic parrots. Volunteer Alexander Troy discovered the web- and cocoon-like objects near and inside the centre, but local scientists and workers were unable to identify their makers. Upon his return home, Troy uploaded the photos to Facebook and the Reddit.com page “/r/whatisthisbug,” expecting a prompt response from the Internet’s limitless niche enthusiasts.
A ‘Redditor’ looking for a quick answer could never have expected what happened next. Not only were the creators of these micro-corrals unidentifiable, they were alien to scientists. Within minutes, the post had skyrocketed to the most viewed page on “/r/whatisthisbug,” attracting hundreds of commenters. Within days, leading entomologists from such academic powerhouses as the Smithsonian Institute and the California Institute of Technology examined the images, but were unable to give any definitive answers.
Entomologists are baffled, unable to compare the structures to any known web or nest. Some attribute their source to the Bucculatricidae moth family, which is known for intricate cocoons, but nothing on this scale of complexity.
While moths, butterflies, and spiders are the most well-known silk-making invertebrates, nearly all varieties of insects are capable of producing silk. In several insect families, silken structures are critical to life history and reproduction, which makes narrowing down a potential species even less likely. Though no further formal research is presently planned, ‘Redditors’ and researchers alike agree that thorough observation and genetic testing will be key in identifying the structures’ creators.
What kind of discovery will the mystery-web yield? Though most likely to be some sort of moth, butterfly, or spider, the potential for something truly unknown is exciting. Rainforests are hotbeds of biodiversity, and consistently yield new discoveries on a scale of significance. The discovery of new insect or invertebrate species closely related to known types is fairly common. But every so often, nature journals report sensational discoveries from the creepy-crawly world. It was only in April that the Tinkerbell fairyfly, one of the smallest yet-discovered insects, made the rounds through scientific media.
This is not the first time that a tantalizing hint of some truly bizarre animal is discovered before the animal itself. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the discovery of the giant squid. Nineteenth century whalers frequently noted enormous scars on the heads of sperm whales, the squids’ natural predators, hinting at the existence of a huge deep sea monster. Will these structures reveal something even more incredible hiding in the Peruvian rainforest?