Scientists Discover Bursting ‘Dune Sandworm’ Fungus

Tulostoma shaihuludii

A fungus from another world: Biologists have discovered a new species of fungus in Hungary, naming it after the giant sandworms in the science fiction series “Dune.” The fruiting bodies of the fungus, named Tulostoma shaihuludii, resemble the Shai-Hulud worm in shape, rising from the sand of the fictional desert planet Arrakis and bending down towards its prey, as explained by the biologists. Appropriately, the fungus prefers sandy soils in the Hungarian steppe.

At first glance, the Pannonian Plain in central Hungary appears rather monotonous. The vast steppe landscape is characterized by sandy soils and straw-like grasses. Especially in the summer and autumn, it is hot and dry here. Yet, in the apparent desolation, there is significantly more life than one would initially assume.

A Sandworm in Hungary?

Biologists led by Péter Finy from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest have recently identified four new species of the puffball genus (Tulostoma) in the sandy steppe of Hungary. All had been collected in previous expeditions and erroneously assigned to known species. However, microscopic and genetic examinations by Finy and his colleagues have revealed that the four fungi actually belong to completely new species.

While the research team gave relatively classical names to the first three—Tulostoma dunense, Tulostoma hungaricum, and Tulostoma sacchariolens—the fourth has an unusually named counterpart: The fungus Tulostoma shaihuludii is named after the “Shai-Hulud”—the over 400-meter-long predatory sandworms from the recently filmed science fiction novel series “Dune,” written by Frank Herbert.

United by Form and Love for Sand

Tulostoma shaihuludii
Tulostoma shaihuludii seen from different perspectives and microscopically. Image:  a, b, e–h: P. Finy, c: L. Albert d K. Bóka /CC-by 4.0.

But what do a fungus less than ten centimeters in size and a giant sandworm from the fictional desert planet Arrakis have in common? Tulostoma shaihuludii does not share the sword-like teeth of the monstrous worm. The fungus does not seek out its prey by using rhythmic vibrations, in contrast to its namesake.

Instead, it is the shape of the fungus’s fruiting body that reminds Finy and his team of the colossal Shai-Hulud. In direct comparison, the brownish, curved stem of the fungus and its spherical white cap resemble a sandworm rising from the sand with its head and front body, leaning towards its prey.

Furthermore, both organisms share a preference for sand. As the biologists have observed, Tulostoma shaihuludii thrives by extending its deep roots in loose, calcareous sand and grows near the grass Festuca vaginata. Whether it also occurs outside the steppe landscape in central Hungary is still unknown.

More Fungal Species Yet to Be Discovered

In Europe, there could be other unusual puffball species waiting to be discovered, as Finy and his colleagues explain: “In addition to the four newly proposed species here, the results of previous work and our ongoing studies suggest the presence of many more undescribed species of Tulostoma in Central Europe.”

Despite their local abundance, these fungi are considered relatively rare in Europe. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) maintains a Red List of Threatened Species, which the majority of them have already made it onto.

(MycoKeys, 2023; doi: 10.3897/mycokeys.100.112458

Featured Image: Tulostoma shaihuludii, éter Finy, Illustration: Dániel G. Knapp /CC-by 4.0.