The Patter of Tiny Feet

Dear Readers, I have always been very fond of millipedes. Unlike centipedes, which are carnivorous and can have a ferocious bite, millipedes are detritivores, munching through dead wood and reprocessing all kinds of rotting plant material. I found this one, bumbling along in broad daylight when I was in Cameroon in 2011. What a very fine beast it is! And not completely unprotected from attack either – the body fluids are acrid and cause acute irritation to the mouth and eyes. Most predators have learned this, but one of our baby chimps gave one a bite, and won’t be doing that again in a hurry.

I am always reminded, when I watch a millipede in motion, of my Dad’s exhortation never to think about running downstairs when you’re doing it because you’ll almost certainly fall over.

The sound of the crickets and other insects in the background of this video really takes me back to West Africa. Ah, travel! I remember that…..

Now, ‘my’ millipede clearly has a lot of legs – typically, the animals have two pairs of legs for each body segment. I’m calculating about 50 body segments, which gives about 200 legs. But as you might have read, scientists have (finally) discovered a millipede that has more than a thousand legs, so it actually lives up to its name.

A female Eumillipes persephone with 330 segments and 1,306 legs. The millipede species was found deep underground in Western Australia. Photograph: Paul E. Marek (Taken from The Guardian)

The millipede was actually found by researchers carrying out an impact assessment in a gold mining area in Western Australia, at a depth of between 15 and 60 metres. This is unusual for millipedes; most are surface dwellers, though some do live in caves. The animal has 1306 legs and its length and slenderness is thought to help it manoeuvre underground, where it will need to wriggle through crevices and negotiate tight spaces. With all those legs, part of the creature’s body can be upside down while other parts are the right way around, according to the study’s leader, Paul Marek In fact, the millipede can probably be moving in up to eight different planes at once, which is mind-blowing to me. Like many creatures who live all their lives in the darkness, it is a pale, blind creature. I find it rather moving that it’s named after Persephone, who spent half her life in Hades with the Lord of the Underworld, and was only rescued for half of the year by her mother Demeter’s perseverance. However, I suspect that the millipede is perfectly adapted to its dark, damp home, and wouldn’t thank us for moving it!

The biodiversity of Australia is extraordinary, and there are many unique creatures there waiting to be discovered. I just hope that the habitat of this invertebrate, the first millipede worthy of the name, will be preserved – at present the mining company are not planning to target this particular area. One does wonder, though, how many species disappear before we even have a chance to find out about them.

4 thoughts on “The Patter of Tiny Feet

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      What a fabulous name! I shall remember that next time I see a millipede, though the ones in the UK are tiny tiny compared with the African ones.


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