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Finally, scientists have found a true millipede

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The word millipede literally means thousand feet. And yet, for years, millipedes have been masquerading under a name that didn't quite fit, says entomologist Paul Marek of Virginia Tech.

PAUL MAREK: Yeah, it's actually an exaggeration. It's a misnomer. There are no millipedes until now that had more than 750 legs.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Until now, he says, because Marek and his team have discovered a millipede with a whopping 1,306 legs. Marek had to count them.

MAREK: Yeah. So I did that. And I put it on my computer screen and just made little marks 'cause it was tricky to kind of make sure I didn't count the same one twice or miss one.

CHANG: The record-breaking millipede is cream-colored, has no eyes and hails from Western Australia.

JUANITA RODRIGUEZ: This is the first millipede that we find that is actually strikingly different from anything else here in Australia.

SHAPIRO: Marek's colleague Juanita Rodriguez is with the Australian National Insect Collection. She says despite the number of legs, don't imagine a monster.

RODRIGUEZ: The width of the millipede is a little less than one millimeter, and then the length is a little less than one centimeter. So it's teeny tiny.

CHANG: Marek and Rodriguez describe the creature in the latest issue of the journal Scientific Reports.

SHAPIRO: They call it Eumillipes persephone, eumillipes meaning true thousand feet.

CHANG: And Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld - that's because this millipede was found living in rocky soil nearly 200 feet underground in a borehole at a mining site.

MATT KASSON: If you just take a moment to look around and dig - pun intended there - you can find remarkable things happening, you know, all around us.

SHAPIRO: That's Matt Kasson of West Virginia University. He was not involved in the work and said he was excited and surprised by the find.

KASSON: But we also wonder, what's the fate of those communities if they're going to be lost to mining activities?

CHANG: Underground animals like millipedes play a key role in filtering groundwater. Lose the millipedes, and we could lose the ecological work that they provide. Plus, we might overlook a critter with even more legs.

KASSON: I suspect they'll find a leggier animal in the not-too-distant future - maybe the same species, but maybe something else that's 60 meters below the ground. It really opens your eyes as to, you know, how far down, you know, life is occurring below our feet. And what else is down there?

SHAPIRO: To find out, we'll just have to dig.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, one of the study authors mistakenly says that the length of the millipede is "a little less than 1 centimeter." In fact, the specimen the researchers describe in the study is a little less than 10 centimeters in length.]

(SOUNDBITE OF TITUS ANDRONICUS SONG, "FUNNY FEELING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 23, 2022 at 10:00 PM MST
In this story, one of the study authors mistakenly says that the length of the millipede is "a little less than 1 centimeter." In fact, the specimen the researchers describe in the study is a little less than 10 centimeters in length.
Karen Zamora
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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