Hearing the phrase “discovering new species” can conjure up images of deep caves, unknown rainforests or hidden oases in the desert.
But the truth is, every year thousands of new species are discovered by enterprising scientists all over the world. Many of these new species come from strange locations, but most surprisingly many of them come from just a short distance of the road, including the newest member of the Hokie Nation, the millipede Nannaria hokie.
Hokie’s newest game – 60 feet more than HokieBird – is discovered living under the rocks next to Duck Pond behind Grove on the campus of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. Since then, the creature has been found in the area commonly referred to as the forest of stadium and in the city of Blacksburg as well.
“We don’t find new species every day, let alone our campus, so we wanted to name the new species for the Virginia Tech community and highlight the importance of preserving the native habitats in the area,” said Paul Marek, a systematic theology scholar. He is an Associate Professor of Taxonomy in the Department of Entomology at Virginia Tech University’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Nannaria hokie (pronounced nan-aria ho-key) is about 2 cm long and has a dark red millipede with yellow-white highlights (we apologize to those who thought it would be maroon and orange). These creatures are about the size of a penny and usually find their home under rocks, leaves and other woodland debris. The common name “Hokie claw millipede” comes from having twisted claws on their feet before their genitals.
Millipede biodiversity is the primary focus of Marek’s Laboratory, which researches habitats around the world, including Vietnam, Japan and the United States. Marek, a recent entomology graduate Jackson Means, and other co-authors published a paper in the journal Insect Methodology and Diversity, Which describes 10 new species of millipedes, including the twisted-claw millipede Hokie, which was found a stone’s throw from the window of Marek’s lab.
The announcement of this new species speaks to the yet undiscovered biodiversity, not just in distant exotic locations, but in your very own backyard.
“Millipedes are surprisingly abundant and diverse but have so far avoided much interest from the scientific community and the public,” Jackson said. “I guarantee that if you just got out into the woods near your home and started looking under the foliage, you’d find several species of millipede, and some of them would likely be large and colorful.”
Millipedes are a unique group of arthropods that feature two pairs of articulated legs throughout most of their bodies. For anyone who might have turned a rock in the dirt, the shiny exoskeleton of these types of arthropods should be familiar. These creatures boast an incredible amount of biological diversity and have many wonderful and unique features; Some are brightly colored, some glow in the dark, and some can exhale cyanide in self-defense. Most millipedes are known as pests, or decomposers, and feed on decomposing plant material on forest floors.
Including the millipede hockey worm, the post details nine other millennials, all native to Appalachian forests. As the scientists who discovered these arthropods, Marek’s lab had the honor of naming these new species, including references to Virginia Tech graduate and arachnologist Jason Bond (Appalachia Bundy), Ellen Brown (Appalachiauria Brownae), and even one named after Marek’s wife Alms (Rudiloria charityae). This millennial worm is named after his wife after he found her during a quick walk with the family before their wedding on the banks of the Chagrain River where he grew up in northeastern Ohio.
Millipedes have been around for much longer than humans have found and represent some of the first land animals scientists discovered in fossil records. Their role as pit pests is crucial for forest ecosystems, and the primary role of millipedes in this environment is to break down plant matter into smaller ones, so that bacteria and other smaller organisms can continue to recycle material in the soil and make nutrients available. For future generations of life.
Despite the ancient breed and abundant food source, the threat of extinction is very real for many species of millipede. Millipedes usually remain confined to relatively small selected geographic areas, due to their limited mobility and dependence on specific habitats. As such, climate change and habitat destruction seriously threaten the survival of these organisms.
“Appalachian forests are important carbon basins, and provide a habitat for different species at many trophic levels. Deforestation and habitat loss threaten this biodiversity.” Many of the Appalachian invertebrates, which make up the most diverse component of these animals, are unknown to science, and without Immediate taxonomic interest, species may be irretrievably lost. My lab drive is to conserve biodiversity. Our intertwined goal is to educate and enhance an understanding of organism’s biology and an appreciation of nature and its immense environmental value.
Discovering and preserving these new species and their habitats is the noble goal of researchers and scientists at Virginia Tech who seek to understand the critical role these often overlooked creatures play in their environments. Investigating the different species of millipedes in the world can have a number of implications when it comes to understanding the evolution, adaptation, and interdependence within an ecosystem.
The research was supported by a National Science Foundation Advanced Grant for Revision Classification and Systematics.