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 worlds 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 theyve been here for a long time. Because they dont 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.