We have a new world record holder. Introducing the first millipede with more than 1,000 legs
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Ladies and gentlemen, introducing a creature that could empty the wardrobe of Imelda Marcos, our new king of limbs, the princess of poda, boasting 1,306 spectacular stilts, the "true thousand foot" Eumillipes persephone.
Until now, the term "millipede" has really been a case of false advertising.
Literally translating from the Latin mille (thousand) and pes (foot), the "millipede" species with the most legs has so far only boasted 750.
But a new discovery 60 metres down an exploratory mining drill hole in the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia has finally delivered us a millipede that not only lives up to its name, but walks it out of the park.
As if the other 12,000 or so species of inadequately limbed "millipedes" didn't have enough on their plates, the discoverers of E. persephone decided to add the Greek prefix "eu" (implying "true") to its name, to underscore our new hero's singular bona fides.
And because Eumillipes persephone is too much of a mouthful, it will henceforth be referred to as the true millipede throughout this story.
"[My colleague] was the first one to lay eyes on [the true millipede in the lab], and she was like, 'look, these millipedes are amazing'," said Bruno Buzatto, who works for the environmental consultancy that made the discovery and is also an author on the paper.
Dr Buzatto, who is also affiliated with Macquarie University and the University of Western Australia, said the new species was discovered as part of an environmental impact assessment survey for a proposed mine.
Traps containing leaf litter were lowered down drill holes for differing periods of weeks to months, and then returned to the consultancy laboratory for emptying and analysis.
When he first saw the true millipede, Dr Buzatto said he was reminded of an earlier research paper he had come across.
"I looked back on that paper and realised that 750 legs was the highest number for the millipede," he said.
"I looked at our millipede and saw at least 800 [legs]."
First discovered in 2020 and described for the first time today in a paper published in Scientific Reports, the millipede's body is divided into 330 segments, has a cone-shaped head with "enormous" antennae, a beak, and has lost its eyes and much of its pigment.
It measures about 9.5 centimetres long, by about 1 millimetre across.
But most spectacular of all is its generous array of legs, which Dr Buzatto says are thought to aid in locomotion in tight crevices.
"[Millipedes] get longer and have more legs when they're adapted to living underground," he said.
"They're not living in big underground caves, they're living in small fissures — it's quite possible they have more legs to get more traction to move."
The true millipede closely resembles the previous world leg-record holder Illacme plenipes from California, in a case of convergent evolution — where species develop similar traits independently.
That so-called millipede species also lives underground, and has a thin, elongated body.
Our true thousand footer though is actually in an order called Polyzoniida, according to taxonomist Juanita Rodriguez from the CSIRO, a co-author who worked on the classification of the new species.
Species in that order are typically shorter with dome-shaped bodies and fewer legs.
To work out its pedigree, Dr Rodriguez constructed a phylogenetic tree using genetic orthologs — shared genes passed down through species from a common ancestor — to then find the most recent common ancestor of the true millipede.
"For this paper, we looked at over 300 genes in the genome," she said.
But beyond its phylogeny and morphology, Dr Rodriguez says there's not too much we can say about the ecology of the new species at this stage.
It has been caught at 60m underground, but could theoretically be found much deeper.
And like other members of the family Siphonotidae, it may feed on fungi from plant roots, but it's all speculative at the moment.
It may be some time before we get more answers, partly because there are only a handful of millipede specialists in the world, according to Dr Rodriguez.
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"There are I think 12,000 species of millipedes in the world and I think most of the people who work with millipedes are on this paper," she said.
Dr Buzatto says the other issue is that there is very little support for identifying and classifying new species at the moment, especially in Australia.
"The very first step to conserving those things is to identify and classify [them]," he said.
"The vast majority of subterranean fauna and a lot of invertebrates in Australia are still undescribed — 90 per cent of what we pull out of those holes are undescribed species."
Dr Buzatto says taxonomists in Australia are doing very important work with few resources and there are likely to be many more undescribed subterranean species in the region where this millipede was found.
"We need more funding for taxonomy, so we can preserve the amazing biodiversity of Australia."
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