NEW YORK, Jan. 21 (UPI) -- You know who this leech reminds me of? Best-selling author Amy Tan.
The naming of a new leech species after the author of the best-selling 1989 novel "The Joy Luck Club" may sound random, but Tan was actually present when scientists from the American Museum of Natural History collected leech specimens in Queensland, Australia.
The new species, Chtonobdella tanae, was described in a new paper published this week in the journal Zoological Scripta.
"Amy, long a supporter of the work we do here, is someone we knew would consider it an honor, not an insult, to have a leech named for her," senior study author Mark Siddall, a curator in the Museum's Division of Invertebrate Zoology, said in a press release. "These jungle leeches are mentioned several times in her hilarious novel Saving Fish from Drowning."
The small, wrinkly leech was imaged using computed tomography scanning. It's one of the first invertebrates without a shell to have its insides detailed using a CT scan.
"I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae," Tan said. "This humble leech has looped across a new scientific threshold -- the first microscopic soft-bodied critter to be described inside and out using CT scanning."
Tan says she hopes CT scanning technology will enable the exploration of all sorts of tiny, rarely studied soft-bodied organisms.
"I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles," she added.
"Historically, to get an idea of what the internal structure of a soft-bodied invertebrate looks like, you have to dissect it by hand or painstakingly section the specimen and then reconstruct it in three dimensions," explained lead study author Michael Tessler, a student in the comparative biology doctoral program at the AMNH Richard Gilder Graduate School. "CT imaging is not only more precise than physical dissection, but it also doesn't require us to discard the specimen we're studying."
To created an image, CT scanners pass X-rays through an object. As the rays pass through different portions of the objects, they are absorbed at different wavelengths. A sensor measures the X-rays arriving on the other side of the object. As it rotates, the scanner creates a hundreds of 3-D splices of the object's internal structure.
Soft tissue isn't as easily studied because it doesn't absorb much of the X-rays. Researchers experimented with chemical fixatives, which help preserve soft tissue and enhance contrast imaging.
Experimenting with a common freshwater North American leech, researchers found that its tissue was most easily scanned when fixed with an acetic acid called AFA and then refixed with osmium tetroxide.
"We were able to resolve the external and internal anatomy at very high resolution," Siddall said. "In addition, we were able to see internal structures we might not have otherwise seen because of the disruptive influence of cutting things open."