Inside N.C. Science

3-inch millipede was 'hiding in plain moonlight'

CorrespondentJuly 6, 2014 

When the FBI caught Boston gangster “Whitey” Bulger in 2011, he was not in a forest or remote jungle but in Santa Monica, Calif. For 16 years, he had been “hiding in plain sight” in metropolitan Los Angeles.

As a biologist in a developed and densely populated region, I am always amazed when things that should be obvious go unnoticed. An example in nature is the millipede genus Floridobolus, discovered in 1959 in south Florida. For decades, biologists thought that these millipedes were geographically restricted to that area. But in 2012, an amateur naturalist discovered a single individual 130 miles north, in the Ocala National Forest. Revisiting that site in 2013, he found scores of them on sandy roads between 1 and 3 a.m. Weeks later, he found more elsewhere in northern peninsular Florida, again late at night.

Occurring throughout the world’s temperate and tropical zones, millipedes are common arthropods with exoskeletons and jointed limbs. Millipedes can be easily distinguished from centipedes: Millipedes have two pairs of legs (four in all) on most body segments, whereas centipedes have one pair (two legs) on each segment. Millipedes feed on decaying leaves and are harmless to man and pets.

Floridobolus millipedes are dark gray in color and relatively big – adults can be about 3 inches long. And they’ve been here for a long time. Because they don’t fly and are relatively slow movers (despite all those legs!), millipedes are not efficient dispersers. In fact, evidence suggests that Floridobolus originated in Mexico about 300 million years ago and made its way to Florida over millions of years. Although there are many related millipedes throughout the southeastern U.S., Floridobolus seems to be restricted to peninsular Florida.

Florida has a human population of about 19.5 million and is home to many outstanding biologists and naturalists. Yet despite all these people, the large millipedes went unnoticed in north Florida until the serendipitous discovery in 2012.

How did humans there manage to miss this good-sized organism living its entire existence right near them?

Because it is nocturnal, Floridobolus had been “hiding in plain moonlight” all this time and no one had noticed.

There is much about our environment and its biodiversity that we do not yet know or fully understand. Exciting discoveries certainly await us here in North Carolina as well. So keep your eyes peeled.

Rowland Shelley is research curator of terrestrial invertebrates at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service