And why should we care? If curiosity and learning for learning’s sake aren’t enough, I found this story suggestive of the sweep of history and millipedes’—and our—places within it. Please accompany me on this creepy-crawly journey that, despite the overly ambitious topic, I’ve tried to keep mercifully brief.
It would be reasonable to assume that whoever named the millipede way back when millipede-naming occurred had counted all the “pedes” and found there were one thousand. Right?
Reasonable, but inaccurate. For the longest time, entomologists have accepted the notion that millipedes have a mere 300 legs. The naming person(s) apparently saw a whole bunch of legs and made a wild guess. Kind of a mellifluous name, if woefully imprecise.
True, a species of these arthropods found in California makes its way through life—slowly, very slowly, and underground—on 750 legs. All those appendages had been regarded as the most on any animal, anywhere on Earth.
Enter Eumillipes persephone, a newly identified genus and species whose name fuses both Greek and Latin. As the authors who discovered and named it explain in their Nature Scientific Reports, the “eu” refers to “true;” the “mille” to “thousand;” and the “pes” to “foot.”
To differentiate this find from all those less well-endowed pretenders, these proud scientists staked out the “true millipede.” The other part of its species name, persephone, is an homage to the Greek goddess whom Hades pulled to the Underworld. And that part makes sense too.
Eumillipes persephone is stirring excitement because it was pulled from the depths of the earth in Australia. And because this pale-colored being with no eyes has been found to have as many as 1306 legs.
The discovery surfaced, literally, when a Western Australian biologist named Bruno Buzatto was working as a consultant to mining companies seeking to know what impact their search for minerals was having on wildlife. (I found the knowledge that these mining companies cared enough to do this work quite encouraging.)
Buzatto was digging narrow holes about 200 feet into the earth, lowering baited traps to the bottom, and then drawing the traps back up.
He pulled up eight of these creatures. “Honestly, when I saw the animals for the first time, I was immediately excited,” Buzatto is quoted in Science Times, a section of The New York Times where I initially read about the discovery.
He assumed, because they were eyeless and many-legged, that they were related to the California crew.
Buzatto sent their carcasses to Paul Marek, an entomologist at Virginia Tech in the US, who had studied the California species. It was Marek’s team that counted those appendages.
I am awarding Annie’s first “Microscope Round-Shouldered Plodder of the Year” medal—a tiny pin with 1306 dangling pedes—to the unnamed individual who confirmed the scientific wonder of one female millipede.
Millipedes everywhere are surely crawling with a greater sense of pride since this validation.
Marek, Buzatto, and their fellow authors display something approaching parental pride when they proclaim E. persephone “the new world record holder of the animal with greatest number of legs.” By far!
Subsequent genetic testing showed that Eumillipes, though sharing certain traits with the California species and belonging to the same biological class (Diplopoda), isn’t even closely related to it.
The authors wrote: “A distant relative of the previous record holder, Illacme plenipes from California, it belongs to a different order, the Polyzonilda.”
But their similarities have fueled some useful conjectures. Both species must have begun life on the surface, possibly moving below as the land above became drier.
As they burrowed underground, they evolved to resemble cave-dwelling animals: no eyes, pale coloration, and big antennae.
“And their many, many legs may give them more power to push and corkscrew their way through the earth,” The Times quotes Marek.
They also have a longer gut that he says may help them derive more nutrients from a minimal diet.
Marek sees this discovery as a significant signal of the need for greater appreciation for the biodiversity that is as important below the earth as the metals being extracted.
In the Scientific Reports article, he and his colleagues state:
“Invertebrates that live below the Earth’s surface comprise a cryptic and diverse fauna…[Their] habitats are repositories of incredibly rich, but obscure biodiversity. These underground habitats, and their inhabitants, are critically understudied, despite their ecological importance in filtration of groundwater and screening of environmental toxins.”
This species is “threatened by encroaching surface mining,” so “documentation and conservation of its habitat are of critical importance.”
Millipedes, I learned from this paper, have existed on Earth for more than 400 million years, but we don’t know very much about them.
Apart from the underground species, lots and lots of millipedes seem to thrive on the surface of the earth—as pets, as pests, as revenue producers for a bunch of web sites I came across.
You’ve no idea! You can buy 40 of them, live, on eBay for $22.89…
But suppose the two species that burrowed beneath the earth because they found life on the surface increasingly unsustainable are harbingers of the future?
Homes built into the earth—“earth-sheltered”—have predated the existence of Home Depot by perhaps 18,000 years.
They got a boost during the 1970s and 1980s oil crisis as an effort to reduce energy, and it’s not surprising that they’re gaining popularity as we confront the ravages of climate change today.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) describes earth-sheltered homes—underground or bermed (built partially into the earth)—as “comfortable, tranquil, weather-resistant dwelling[s].” The DOE offers very detailed information about the pros and cons and how-tos of building an earth-sheltered home.
If you’re interested in the topic, I came across a detailed article, with some neat photos, in a publication titled Interesting Engineering. Its title is “Houses Built Into the Earth May Save Us From the Heat,” and the lede says:
“Earth houses built during the ’70s and ’80s in response to the gas crisis might be the perfect solution to today’s global warming.”
What could more clearly affirm our intention to reduce our carbon footprints than to dig deeply into this idea? (!)
There’s a genre of sci-fi that’s never interested me before: subterranean fiction. But man-oh-man, these wild climate swings can focus the mind in new ways.
Assuming humans don’t screw things up irretrievably within the next several decades or so, perhaps the Elon Musks of millennia hence will point their rocket ships (or equivalent) in a different direction.
And before then, maybe we need to learn a whole lot more about the beings that are already down there.
What do you think?