Meet The Real-Life Cthulhu


Cthulhu is dreaming. Art by Richard Falla

"A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful." - H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu"

You know Cthulhu. Maybe you've never read a single piece of Lovecraft's fiction, but you know his most famous creation: that green, winged and tentacled monstrosity known as Cthulhu -- an alien creature so old and deathless that humans have no choice but to behold it as a god.

It is, of course, a work of fiction. But fictional monstrosities often worm their way into our understanding of real-life biology -- especially when it comes to naming them. Monster-loving researchers have already given us Cyclops bicuspidatus and Godzillius robustus. Now we have Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque.

In 2013, a team of University of British Columbia researchers discovered two new symbiotic organisms living in the gut of termites. These tiny creatures -- no more than 10 to 20 microns in length -- help the termite digest wood. The Cthulhu moniker comes into play because the organism boasts a head of tentacle-like flagella and moves in a manner reminiscent of an octopus.

Their findings were published in the science journal PLOS ONE.

All right, let's take a look at this little elder thing...

Cthulhu macrofasciculumque.
University of British Columbia

It doesn't exactly fill me with cosmic dread, but it's still a pretty nifty little symbiote.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.