By Paul Fattig
When Selma resident Kathy Mechling looked in an old horse trough on her property early last fall, she saw what looked like an 8-inch strand of hair moving in the water.
Although the strand looked familiar, the board president of the Siskiyou Field Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to educating the public about the rich biodiversity of the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains, was stumped. She couldn’t identify what she described as a “lovely sinuous worm” with no obvious markings.
“And I know about worms — I had studied all sorts of worms in graduate school,” said Mechling, who has a master’s degree in zoology. She also is a medical doctor with a private practice in the Illinois Valley.
After a quick Internet search, Mechling, 53, contacted the Hairworm Biodiversity Project in Albuquerque, N.M., a leading research facility whose staff invites people around the globe to submit hair worms for identification and study.
Ben Hanelt, a project scientist and research assistant professor in the University of New Mexico’s Biology Department, advised her to put the thin, tan worm in a plastic container with clean water until it could be mailed. The worm was not a human pathogen, he told her.
Mechling placed the worm in a Ziploc bag with water, sealed the bag inside a similar bag, put the package in a small box and mailed it off to Albuquerque.
“So much has been gleaned in the last 20 years since I studied (worms),” she said. “There has been a lot of DNA work about their evolution and distribution.”
Hanelt recently contacted Mechling to let her know the creature was a horsehair worm Gordius robustus, the first of its kind documented in Oregon. The name is derived from the fact males and females of the species form tight balls — Gordian knots — while mating in streams or ponds.
She dubbed the worm “Roberta” after Robert Whittaker, an ecologist known for exploring what is now the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the 1950s. However, Hanelt determined it was a male of the species, according to Mechling.
She also discovered the horsehair worm is parasitic to some insects, including grasshoppers. After a grasshopper eats a hair worm cyst, the cyst then eats the grasshopper from the inside out, leaving the jumping muscles, heart and brain, she said.
In essence, the hair worm turns the grasshopper into its zombie, causing it to jump into water, where the adult hair worm then emerges, she noted.
In this case, the worm was found in an old watering trough on property she and her husband acquired adjacent to their home in Selma, Mechling said.
“I’m sure there is a million out there but it had never been documented here before,” she said.
Mechling, who has lived in the Illinois Valley for 20 years, said the horsehair worm is indicative of the unique plants and animals in the region yet to be documented by science.
“We will be keeping our eye out for other undocumented species,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how they fit in the evolutionary tree. This region is unique in so many ways.”
She explained the mountains were not covered by glaciers during the last ice age, resulting in the survival of many species unique to the region.
“There could be medicines here we haven’t discovered,” she said.
She noted a unique insect species was discovered in the Oregon Caves in recent years.
“We live in such an amazing area of raw nature that still needs to be explored,” she said. “But we need to do it with a sensitivity to the ecosystems.”
Mechling’s blog on the horsehair worm can be read at http://siskiyoufieldinstitute.wordpress.com/.
For more information on the Hairworm Biodiversity Project, visitwww.nematomorpha.net/.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.