Science

First discovery of a “royal” centipede, with 1306 legs

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Centipedes, or myriapods, have an elongated body made up of several segments, each of which has one or two pairs of legs. However, contrary to what the common name of this clade suggests, among the 12,000 species recorded so far, none has been described with more than 750 legs. This gap has now been filled: a centipede specialist has just discovered an entirely new species of these crawling animals, one of which has a total of 1306 legs.

The specimen in question was discovered about 200 feet underground, in the mining area of ​​Australia’s Eastern Goldfields province. It measures 0.95mm wide by 95.7mm long and has 330 segments; Its head is cone-shaped and has huge antennae, as well as a beak for feeding. Paul Marek and his colleagues in the Department of Entomology at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute named the new species Eumillipes persephone – from the Greek eu- (true), from the Latin mille (thousand) and pes (foot) -, a name that refers to the Greek goddess Persephone, originally from the surface but who was taken to hell by Hades.

Researchers say it is a distant relative of the previous record holder, Illacme plenipes, an endemic species to California, which has no more than 750 legs. E. persephone has the typical characteristics of animals that live underground, in the dark: it has no eyes or pigmentation, its body is very elongated and its legs are relatively short, which is in sharp contrast to its closest relatives. in Australia and with all other members of your order, please specify specialists.

Several characters in common with distant species.

Centipedes have lived on our planet for more than 400 million years and play an important role in nature’s “decomposers”, feeding on dead organic matter found in the soil. The order Polyzonidae, to which the newly discovered species belongs, comprises about 70 species, which are distributed on all continents except Antarctica; individuals of this order are characterized by a slightly domed dorsal surface, a flat ventral surface, and a small conical head.

(a) Female of the species Eumillipes persephone, with 330 segments and 1306 legs. (b) Ventral view of the legs of a male specimen. (c) Dorsal view of the head and ventral view of gonopods from the same male specimen. Scale bars: 0.5mm. © P. Marek et al.

Although little knowledge has been gathered about centipedes compared to other groups of animals, experts have identified some typical behavioral traits among polizinides: for example, some demonstrate parental care of eggs, others exude chemical defenses containing alkaloids, and some species are curved. in a ball of protection. But before E. persephone, polizinids had not yet been observed in depth and known Australian polizinids have a maximum of 400 legs, have eyes and a rather dark body.

On the other hand, E. persephone shares several characters with other distant species: in particular, individuals of the Illacme species, of the order Siphonophoridae, have already been observed more than ten meters below the surface; they also have many legs (up to 750), large antennae, and lack eyes and pigmentation. However, the geographically closest siphonophores are found in Madagascar and Indonesia.

A morphological evolution adapted to the habitat

The researchers unearthed eight individuals of this new species, captured in troglofauna traps, located at depths between 15 and 60 meters; five of them were collected at a depth of 60 meters.

It appears that males have fewer segments and therefore fewer legs than females: 198 segments and 778 legs for one of the males and 208 segments and 818 legs for another, while one of the females has 330 segments and 1306 legs. (the largest specimen observed), and another has 253 segments and 998 legs. Note that centipedes are not endowed with all their legs from birth: they emerge from the egg with four pairs of legs, then new segments appear continuously during their development for an indefinite period.

phylogenomic centipede tree

Phylogenomic estimation of the evolutionary history of centipedes of the clade Colobognatha. The numbers in parentheses indicate the maximum number of segments observed for each taxon. Species showing superelongation (> 180 segments) are shown in bold. This superelongation is well known in Siphonophoridae, but evolved independently in the Australian order Polyzonidae. © P. Marek et al.

The result of the genome sequencing of these animals suggests that the similarities observed between the two species, E. persephone and I. plenipes, are undoubtedly the result of a convergent evolution of superelongation (denoting a length greater than 180 segments). ). “The morphological similarity between E. persephone and I. plenipes is the result of a convergent evolution, probably for locomotion in similar soil habitats,” the researchers explain.

The large number of segments and legs can allow them to generate the thrust forces necessary to move through narrow openings in deep soil; short legs are probably advantageous in the small cavities of such a habitat and are therefore offset by an increase in their number. This super-lengthening of the trunk can also serve to lengthen the digestive tract to increase absorption surface area and assimilation efficiency in an underground habitat with limited resources, the researchers note.

This unexpected discovery is a reminder of the extent to which the earth’s soil can be rich in biodiversity; Sadly, it is threatened by human activities, such as the intensive mining operation taking place in this region of Western Australia, which could have a major impact on many unsuspected underground habitats. Unlike the climatic conditions on the surface, the subterranean conditions have probably remained relatively stable, and troglophiles may be the last remnants of surface lineages that once spread and have taken refuge underground.

P. Marek et al. Scientific reports

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