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ECU students rediscovers rare millpede

GREENVILLE, NC   (June 15, 2006)   —   For nearly 80 years, the world’s leggiest millipede has remained elusive, hidden in the secluded forests of San Benito County in California.

But Paul Marek, an East Carolina University PhD biology student, rediscovered the 600-legged species Illacme plenipes with his brother Rob last November.

“I had heard about the millipede when I was living in California. There was a suspicion it was extinct, because there has been a lot of development in the area,” said Marek, whose findings were published in the June 2006 edition of the journal, Nature.

“When I went back there for Thanksgiving, I thought I would try to find it again. I thought I’d go out and take a quick look. I found it pretty quickly.”

Marek, who works closely with ECU biology professor Jason Bond, has a graduate fellowship through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2005, Bond received $750,000 from the NSF to document, study and catalogue millipede species. Marek, who usually studies mimicry in the Brachoria millipede species, is one of several graduate students assisting Bond with his research. Bond co-authored the Nature paper.

The millipede I. plenipes, last seen in 1926, is considered to be the leggiest of all creatures. A millipede seen in 1928 had 750 legs, but the millipedes Marek found weren’t as leggy. One of the female specimens had 666 legs; the others had approximately 500. Marek said it is not known why millipedes have so many legs, although the species has existed for 400 million years.

“There is a tendency toward having a large number of legs to help them burrow in soil,” he said. “However, with 600 legs it seems like overkill; we don’t really know why they have such a large number of legs. It has something to do with an ability to cling and could also have to do with the burrowing.”

An important aspect of the discovery is the awareness it brings to the need to continue efforts in documenting biodiversity, Marek said. The millipede I. plenipes, for example, was believed to be extinct. However it has persisted, like the many other unique creatures it shares its home with, as a key element of its delicate ecosystem.

“Preserving the habitat of this ancient species will help maintain a completely biodiverse and hence healthy ecosystem for other plant and animal species, including ourselves.” Marek said.


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