Eumillipes persephone is the first myriapod ever discovered to earn the title of “centipede”.
Those who had fun counting the legs of a centipede when they were children have all faced the same harsh reality: This is a huge hoax, and these little beasts are actually a long way off. ‘reach this symbolic milestone. At least that was the case until yesterday, when American and Australian researchers published the discovery of the first “real” representative of this category!
Its discoverers baptized it Eumillipes persephone; a nickname which makes it possible to mark the occasion, knowing that in ancient Greek, the prefix eu- means “true” Where “true”. And this is not a misnomer, since the body of this myriapod is indeed furnished with some 1306 legs. It is therefore a reminder that this is the only real known representative of the unofficial category of “centipedes”. Others like Illacme plenipes, who was until then the holder of the title with his 750 legs, are only vulgar usurpers.
The second term of his surname is not the result of chance either. In Greek mythology, Persephone is the goddess of the underworld; it is therefore a particularly well-found name for these specimens. Indeed, the researchers found them in the depths of an Australian mine in the Australian province of Eastern Goldfields, at a depth of more than 60 meters.
Morphologically speaking, it generally resembles other myriapods; this sub-phylum includes many other creatures sometimes unfairly qualified as insects. All of them have long, segmented bodies with numerous legs. This specimen is distinguished, however, by the number of these segments (330 in total). Her length is also quite impressive in relation to its overall size; it measures on average less than a millimeter wide for about 10 centimeters long.
A complete stranger
So far, researchers have found only four specimens. They therefore have a fairly limited amount of information. For example, they do not yet have the slightest idea of its diet, nor if it exists in other ecological niches. On the other hand, they have a fairly clear idea of the answer to the most interesting question; why on earth would natural selection favor such an exuberant morphology?
For the researchers, it would be above all a rather extreme adaptation to their habitat. Indeed, all these characteristics are tools of a formidable effectiveness in the basements. They allow them to make their way through the narrow crevices of Australia’s subsoil. “The animal presents a telescopic locomotion which allows it to propel itself in a variable and unpredictable underground microhabitat”, explain the researchers. “This increase in the number of legs probably helps give it more traction to squeeze through narrow openings and crevices”, they specify.
The underground, an unloved but precious ecosystem
The researchers took the opportunity to develop a plea for the protection of basements. Indeed, they conceal a multitude of ecological niches still largely unexplored. These are home to a phenomenal biodiversity that humans regularly abuse. Sometimes it is neglect, but it is also and above all an ecosystem that humans are often content to ignore.
And this is a point that is always very important to remember. Indeed, humans are always there when it comes to protecting very photogenic animals like pandas or lion cubs. But it’s the opposite when they crawl and they are furnished with dozens of legs. They are not entitled to any awareness campaign; they are more often found in terrifying film scenes like in King Kong. More often than not, they play the part of horrible man-eating monstrosities.
A representation very often far from reality and which contributes to their bad image with the general public. “Hide those nasty critters that I couldn’t see”, We could then summarize briefly by parodying the famous phrase of Tartuffe. A ultimately unjustified disenchantment knowing that at the end of the day, their only crime is often to be less “Instagrammable” than a bottle-fed baby koala.
And it is all the more damaging that it has consequences on the preservation of these fascinating species, but also on our direct environment ! “These subterranean habitats and their inhabitants are largely under-studied, despite their ecological importance in the filtration of water and the treatment of toxins.”, Explain the researchers. It is therefore high time to devote the attention it deserves to the less attractive side of our ecosystem.
The text of the study is available here.