A new millipede species is crawling under LA. It’s blind, glassy and has 486 legs

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Unveiling a fascinating discovery, the sprawling urban expanse of Los Angeles, often synonymous with freeways and congestion, has now lent its name to a newfound species: the Los Angeles Thread Millipede.

This diminutive arthropod was recently unearthed just beneath the surface by naturalists in a Southern California hiking area, nestled in close proximity to a freeway, a Starbucks outlet, and an Oakley sunglasses store.

Slightly longer than a paperclip yet as slender as a pencil lead, it boasts a translucent, sinuous form reminiscent of a jellyfish tentacle. Inhabitants of the subterranean world, these creatures burrow approximately four inches beneath the earth’s surface. They secrete peculiar chemicals, and in an intriguing twist, they are blind, relying on horn-like antennae jutting from their heads to navigate their surroundings.

When viewed under a microscope, this millipede, adorned with 486 legs and a helmet-like head, almost appears like a creature borrowed from a Hollywood monster film.

In a recent publication in the journal ZooKeys, the findings about this species, scientifically known as Illacme socal, were shared by a research team that included scientists from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, West Virginia University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Entomologist Paul Marek, from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, expressed his amazement, saying, “It’s incredible to think that these millipedes are crawling within the inner crevices between small rocks beneath our feet in Los Angeles. This discovery underscores the fact that there’s an uncharted subterranean world.”

The newly discovered species joins the ranks of other millipedes found in the region. Among them is one that once held the record for the highest number of legs ever documented — a staggering 750 limbs. Appropriately named Illacme plenipes, its Latin translation means “in the highest fulfillment of feet.” This record was held until 2021 when a millipede with a remarkable 1,306 legs was discovered in Australia.

Millipedes play a crucial role in the ecosystem by consuming deceased organic material. Paul Marek emphasized, “Without them, we’d be neck-deep in organic matter.”

Marek highlighted the significance of understanding species that fulfill crucial ecological functions, stating, “By gaining insights into these species, we can protect not only them but also the environment that safeguards us.”

The revelation of the Los Angeles Thread Millipede’s existence was facilitated by iNaturalist, a citizen naturalist app. The critter was first documented by naturalists Cedric Lee and James Bailey during their slug-collecting excursion at Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park in Orange County four years ago. Utilizing DNA sequencing and analysis, the research team confirmed the discovery of a new species.

Cedric Lee, a UC Berkeley doctoral student and a member of the team, expressed how citizen science serves as a bridge between the natural world and scientific research. He remarked, “We often overlook microorganisms in our search for new species, but modern tools have enabled citizen science to connect the dots between the field and the lab.”

Lee highlighted the potential for countless undiscovered species lurking underfoot, stating, “We have only scratched the surface of what’s out there. There are literally undescribed species right beneath our feet.”

  • While scientists estimate that around 10 million animal species inhabit Earth, only about a million have been formally identified.
  • Brian Brown, the entomology curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, shed light on the vast uncharted territory, stating, “Our knowledge of insect species and small creatures worldwide is dwarfed by what we don’t know.”
  • Drawing from his extensive research through a project named BioSCAN, which deployed insect traps across residential backyards in the city, Brown estimated that Los Angeles alone is home to around 20,000 species of insects, both known and yet to be discovered.
  • However, Brown voiced concerns about potential threats to native species such as climate change and the introduction of invasive species. He emphasized the urgency of conservation efforts, stating, “Preserving and documenting species before they face extinction will require intensive efforts and dedication.”
  • Daniel Gluesenkamp, President of the California Institute for Biodiversity, highlighted the Los Angeles Thread Millipede as a prime example of the uncharted territories awaiting discovery.

Gluesenkamp emphasized the need for proactive measures, stating, “Investing in local parks and conserving even small patches of wilderness, surrounded by urban development, is imperative. By understanding what resides in these spaces, we can protect them and utilize them as solutions for the challenges that lie ahead.”

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