The word "millipede" means "a thousand feet,” but the name is a bit of an exaggeration. Until recently, scientists had only found a millipede with around 750 legs. With the discovery of a new species in Australia, scientists have finally assigned the millipede name to an insect worthy of the title: Meet Eumillipes persephone, a critter with a whooping 1,306 legs—the most of any known animal.
E. persephone stretches around three-and-a-half inches long and around a millimeter wide. The pale bug has a cone-shaped head, beaked mouth, and large antennae used for sensing its environment, Charles Q. Choi reports for Inside Science. The findings were published last week in Scientific Reports.
"In my opinion, this is a stunning animal, a marvel of evolution," study co-author Bruno Buzatto, a biologist at Bennelongia Environmental Consultants in Perth, Australia, tells Reuter’s Will Dunham. “This species, in particular, managed to adapt to living tens of meters deep in the soil, in an arid and harsh landscape where it is very hard to find any millipedes surviving in the surface.”
Buzatto, who was hired as an environmental consultant by mining companies, found E. persephone while surveying the area for local wildlife in August 2020. Buzatto baited traps with damp leaf litter, dropped them down 200 feet into boreholes, and later reeled up eight pale millipedes, reports Elizabeth Preston for the New York Times. He then sent the millipedes to Virginia Tech entomologist Paul Marek, who studies the previous record-holding millipedes found in California. After they looked at the critters under the microscopes and sequenced their DNA, they knew they had the first “true” millepede.
“It was mind-boggling because it’s almost double the previous number of legs in millipedes,” Marek tells the Times. “Seven hundred and fifty seems like a lot of legs for an animal. One thousand, three hundred and six is pretty astounding.”
Buzatto and Marek also noted that the female millipedes they collected averaged more legs than males. The two adult males described in the study had 778 and 818 legs, while the two adult females had 998 and 1,306 legs. As millipedes grow and molt their exoskeletons, they can add additional legs. The researchers think all those extra appendages might be a boon to the critters, who need to scuttle through tight underground spaces.
"We believe that the large number of legs provides an advantage in terms of traction/force to push their bodies forward through small gaps and fractures in the soil where they live," says Buzatto.
The researchers conclude that the ancestors of E. persephone may have originated above ground hundreds of millions of years ago before fleeing underground when conditions became hotter and drier. Because the team was able to examine only a handful of specimens, they’re eager to see if other, even-leggier millipedes exist.
“There could be one with more legs out there,” Marek says to the Times.