Tag Archives: millipede

Before the age of dinosaurs, car-sized millipedes crawled the Earth on hundreds of legs

Reconstruction of the giant millipede Arthropleura, which lived in the Carboniferous period, 326 million years ago. Credit: Neil Davies.

After a section of a cliff next to a beach in northern England fell onto the shore, it exposed the fossils of one of the biggest, baddest, creepy crawlers the Earth has ever seen. Paleontologists believe the fossils belong to a giant millipede whose many segmented legs could extend to as much as 2.6 meters in length, about the size of a sedan. The fossils were dated to the Carboniferous period, more than 100 million years before the first dinosaurs emerged.

When this peculiar creature, known as Arthropleura, was still alive, the land we now know as England actually lay near the equator. Instead of the dreary weather, Arthropleura basked in the tropical sun and munched on the abundant plants, although it likely supplemented its diet by hunting other smaller invertebrates and maybe even vertebrates like amphibians along creeks and rivers. With plenty of food, the giant millipede easily grew to gargantuan size, weighing up to 50 kilograms.

Each of its segmented legs measured 75 centimeters (2.5 feet) in length. In fact, these were the most preserved parts of the fossil, a rare find in itself since the bodies of giant millipedes disarticulate once they died. For this reason, Neil Davies, a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the study, believes the fossils retrieved from the British beach are actually a molted carapace that the animal shed as it grew and was later filled with sand. The implication is that Arthropleura may have grown even larger.

This is only the third giant millipede fossil that scientists have found thus far. The two other known Arthropleura fossils were found in Germany, and both were much smaller than the new specimen. But no fossilized head has ever been found, which makes it challenging to imagine what these crawling arthropods really looked and behaved like. Considering how rare and fortuitous this discovery happened to be though, we can’t ask for too much.

Fossilised section of the giant millipede Arthropleura, found in a sandstone boulder in the north of England. Credit: Neil Daves.

“It was a complete fluke of a discovery,” said Dr. Davies in a statement. “The way the boulder had fallen, it had cracked open and perfectly exposed the fossil, which one of our former Ph.D. students happened to spot when walking by.”

Scientists used to think Arthropleura grew to such large sizes thanks to more oxygen present in the atmosphere during the late Carboniferous and Permian periods, but the fossils come from rocks deposited before the very peak. Oxygen cannot solely explain Arthropleura‘s hefty frame. Instead, the researchers believe the millipede must have had access to a nutrient-rich diet.

“While we can’t know for sure what they ate, there were plenty of nutritious nuts and seeds available in the leaf litter at the time, and they may even have been predators that fed off other invertebrates and even small vertebrates such as amphibians,” said Davies.

Arthropleura spent at least another 45 million years crawling around the equator until it finally went extinct during the Permian. It could have been climate change that dried up the environment too fast for them to adapt. Alternatively, the rise of reptiles may have outcompeted them. Out goes giant millipedes, in comes dinosaurs.

If you’re close to Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum after the new year, you can see the fossils on display with your own eyes.

The findings appeared in the Journal of the Geological Society.

At long last, scientists find a true millipede that has 1,000 legs (more actually)

Credit: Pixabay.

Millipedes are often called 1,000-legged worms. While it’s true that no other creature has as many legs as a millipede, the term is a misnomer since among the more than 7,000 species we know, the leggiest one only numbers about 750 appendages — until now, that is. Biologists in Australia claim they’ve now identified the first true millipede with more than 1,000 legs. Actually, that’s 1,306 tiny legs, to be more precise.

The new species, dubbed Eumillipes persephone after Persephone, the queen of the underworld in Greek mythology, was discovered crawling through the soil deep underground.

Scientists who specialize in millipedes, known as diplopodologists, had always hoped to find one that honors the name but until now they were out of luck. The previous record-holder with a leg-count of 750 had remained undefeated for a hundred years.

But then in the summer of 2020, while most of us were cooped up at home under COVID lockdown, Bruno Buzatto, principal biologist at Bennelongia Environmental Consultants in Western Australia, happened to find E. persephone inside a borehole, of all places, drilled at a mineral-mining site in Western Australia. The site is almost 60 meters (200 feet) below the surface, making the newly found species the deepest-living millipede.

Eumillipes persephone. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Buzatto sent specimens to Paul Marek, an entomologist at Virginia Tech and one of the world’s foremost experts on millipedes, having discovered over 60 species in his career. At Marek’s lab, a careful examination was performed, including electron microscopy and DNA sequencing. Of course, they also counted the legs, finding a female had a record 1,306 limbs while a male had 998, frustratingly close to the threshold of 1,000. There was no help from computers here — the counting was all done by hand, one tiny appendage at a time.

The brown crawler measures nearly 10 centimeters (4 inches) and is about as thin as an USB cable. It has no eyes, which is actually unusual for this order of animals, but since it has adapted to life underground it’s not all that surprising. E. persephone‘s environment is also responsible for the creature’s lack of pigmentation, another remarkable feature which is exceedingly rare among millipedes.

The many legs of Eumillipes persephone under an electron microscope. Credit: Scientific Reports.

The only other millipede that looks similar is Illacma plenipes, an invertebrate native to California and the previous-record holder with 750 legs. As such, the entomologists believe the two creatures are an example of convergent evolution — the process whereby distantly related organisms independently evolve similar traits to adapt to similar necessities.

Based on his earlier work with other similar creatures, Marek believes that all those years of evolving underground fostered super-elongation and shorter legs that help the millipede burrow through soil efficiently. Going from one place to another is critical to E. persephone‘s survival as nutrients are in low supply in the underworld, so having more, shorter legs provides additional propulsion power.

And as amazing as the discovery of E. persephone may be, it’s worth pointing out how lucky the researchers were.

“I don’t think we would have ever known about this had it not been for the mineral exploration that’s occurring,” Dennis Black, the millipede expert from LaTrobe and a co-author on the study, told CNet.

Now the researchers are wondering whether a millipede with even more legs could be found. The likeliest place to look for one is underground, places like the site from Western Australia that E. persephone calls home. Very long millipedes are easy targets for predators, so only those living deep underground would stand a chance. But for this reason, they’re also the hardest to spot by entomologists.

The findings appeared in the journal Scientific Reports.

Fossil Friday: oldest millipede shows how quickly terrestrial life evolved

A 425-million-year-old fossil millipede found on the island of Kerrera (Scotland) is the oldest known fossil of an insect, according to researchers at The University of Texas at Austin (UT).

The millipede fossil.
Images British Geological Survey

The finding points to terrestrial insects (and the plants they ate) evolving at a much more rapid pace than previously assumed, the team explains. The age of this millipede (Kampecaris obanensis) would mean that terrestrial ecosystems evolved from humble water-hugging communities to sprawling, complex forests in just 40 million years.

Big, old bug

“It’s a big jump from these tiny guys to very complex forest communities, and in the scheme of things, it didn’t take that long,” said Michael Brookfield, a research associate at UT Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences and lead author of the paper. “It seems to be a rapid radiation of evolution from these mountain valleys, down to the lowlands, and then worldwide after that.”

Using a refined dating technique developed in the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences, the team established that the fossil is 425 million years old. This would put it at around 75 million years earlier than our previously estimated date for the first millipedes — as determined using a technique known as molecular clock dating, which is based on DNA’s mutation rate.

This finding ties in well with other research that found land-dwelling stemmed plants in Scotland were also 425 million years old and 75 million years older than molecular clock estimates.

Naturally, there could be older fossils of insects or plants out there, Brookfield notes, but they haven’t been found yet. So for now, we’ll have to use this as the earliest evidence of their presence.

Still, the fossil points to land ecosystems evolving and diversifying much more quickly than previously assumed.

The paper “Myriapod divergence times differ between molecular clock and fossil evidence: U/Pb zircon ages of the earliest fossil millipede-bearing sediments and their significance” has been published in the journal Historical Biology.

Burmanopetalum inexpectatum.

Fossil Friday: earliest known millipede found in piece of Burmese amber

Researchers have found the earliest-known millipede, tucked away in a piece of Burmese amber.

Burmanopetalum inexpectatum.

The newly described millipede (Burmanopetalum inexpectatum) seen in amber.
Image credits Leif Moritz.

Measuring a full 8.2 millimeters, the fossil millipede is the earliest discovered member of the entire order, a new paper reports. The new species, despite having lived alongside the Cretaceous megafauna, is smaller than any of the extant members of its group. Because of its extraordinary morphology, it is described as a new suborder.

Humble origins

“We were so lucky to find this specimen so well preserved in amber,” says lead author Prof. Pavel Stoev of the National Museum of Natural History (Bulgaria). “With the next-generation micro-computer tomography (micro-CT) and the associated image rendering and processing software, we are now able to reconstruct the whole animal and observe the tiniest morphological traits which are rarely preserved in fossils.”

“It came as a great surprise to us that this animal cannot be placed in the current millipede classification. Even though their general appearance have remained unchanged in the last 100 million years, as our planet underwent dramatic changes several times in this period, some morphological traits in Callipodida lineage have evolved significantly.”

The diminutive critter was recently found in a piece of 99-million-year-old amber in Myanmar. 3D X-ray microscopy revealed that it is the first fossil millipede of the order Callipodida to ever have been discovered, as well as the smallest among its relatives today. The team used this approach to generate cross-section ‘slices’ through the specimen and record every detail of its anatomy — which would normally not be preserved in fossils. A 3D model of the animal, christened Burmanopetalum inexpectatum, is also available in the research article.

This specimen provides the earliest evidence about the age of the order Callipodida, suggesting that this millipede group evolved at least some 100 million years ago. However, its morphology is drastically different from contemporary millipedes. As a result, Prof. Stoev together with his colleagues Dr. Thomas Wesener and Leif Moritz of the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig (Germany) had to revise the current millipede classification and introduce a new suborder — one of only a handful of such cases in the last 50 years.

The anthropod was found amongst roughly 529 millipede specimens, but it was the only one of its order — its name reflects that. The generic epithet (Burmanopetalum) refers to the country of discovery (Myanmar, formerly Burma) and “inexpectatum” means “unexpected” in Latin.

C adds:

“We are grateful to Patrick Müller, who let us study his private collection of animals found in Burmese amber and dated from the Age of Dinosaurs,” says co-author Dr. Thomas Wesener. “His is the largest European and the third largest in the world collection of the kind. We had the opportunity to examine over 400 amber stones that contain millipedes.”

” Many of them are now deposited at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, so that scientists from all over the world can study them. Additionally, in our paper, we provide a high-resolution computer-tomography images of the newly described millipede. They are made public through MorphBank, which means anyone can now freely access and re-use our data without even leaving the desk.”

The paper “Dwarfs under dinosaur legs: a new millipede of the order Callipodida (Diplopoda) from Cretaceous amber of Burma” has been published in the journal ZooKeys.

World’s leggiest creature found

The elusive millipede species has 750 legs and was thought to be extinct.

The leggiest creature lives in California – no big surprise there, is smaller than the average pinky and has a really strange anatomy. Aside for the 750 legs sported by females (about 550 by males), they spin silk from long hairs that cover their body, practically creating their own clothing.

“It’s the coolest millipede I’ve ever heard about,” Marek added.

Illacme plenipes has a mythical status in the biological kingdom. It was first observed in 1928, but kept a really low profile throughout the 20th century, which made researchers believe it was extinct. So in 2005, an intrigued Marek, who was then a doctoral student, began searching for the invertebrate, in a foggy small area around San Francisco. He and his team, since then, discovered 17 specimens, each clinging to sandstone boulders; they eventually stopped gathering specimens, afraid that it could endanger the species.

Because this creature has adapted to living underground, it’s not just a set of legs: each leg features claws, used probably for digging or clinging to subterranean rocks. Other surprising features included huge antennae (compared to the rest of the body), which it uses to find its way in the dark, a translucent exoskeleton, and, of course, the body hairs that produce a sort of silk. This is not a fashion statement, but it’s likely something which allows Illacme plenipes to adhere to boulders.

But things are not looking good for them; judging by the ever increasing human development in the area, and their certainly small numbers, they should be considered endangered – and it would be a shame to lose such a bizarre creature.